The Lifestyle

A Roadmap to Mastery: Wisdom From My Father

September 29, 2010

Last week I talked about using The Bar Method as a personal path to mastery. This week I want to share some fantastic advice on this subject from a book by my father George Leonard called Mastery, The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment. Mastery draws on Zen philosophy and the Japanese martial art of aikido to come up with effective ways to learn any worthwhile skill, whether it be tennis, playing the guitar, or being a great lover.
Mastery coverMastery was published in 1992, the same year I opened my first exercise studio, so it happened that I read the book just as I was struggling to develop my teaching skills. Its insights made an enormous impact on me, and I adapted them as the basis of the Bar Method’s teaching technique that hundreds of our instructors around the country use today.

The premise of Mastery is that to learn to be good at anything, you have to accept a daunting reality for which most people are not prepared: Your progress will come in “relatively brief spurts,” and that each spurt “will be followed by a slight decline to a ‘plateau’ or skill level just a little better than the last level.” In other words, to be on the path to mastery, you need to accept that most of your learning time will be spent on a “plateau” of no apparent improvement.

How true! In my experience, learning never proceeds in a straight ascending line. You have to resign yourself to sticking with it even though most of the time you usually don’t seem to be making progress. Most people want something in return for their trouble, namely the feeling that they’re better every day. How do you motivate yourself to keep going in the face of this apparent lack of progress?

To illustrate how frustrated people can get when confronted by “the plateau,” Mastery conjures up four imaginary people, each representing a different learning style and only one of whom is truly on the path of mastery. Do any of these types resemble you?

Dabbler curve1. “The Dabbler,” says Mastery, “approaches each new sport, career opportunity, or relationship with enormous enthusiasm. He or she loves the rituals involved in getting started, the spiffy equipment, the lingo, the shine of newness.” In the end, the Dabbler doesn’t stay with it because to do so would mean, according to my father, “changing himself. How much easier it is to jump into another bed and start the process all over again.”

Obsessive curve2. “The Obsessive,” the second type, “is a bottom-line type of person, not one to settle for second best. He or she knows results are what count, and it doesn’t matter how to get them, just so you get them fast.” The Obsessive hires coaches and makes every conceivable effort to get results. “When he inevitably€¦ finds himself on the plateau, he simply won’t accept it.” The Obsessive’s story ends dramatically when he flames out. “When the fall occurs,” my father writes,” the Obsessive is likely to get hurt. And so are friends colleagues, stockholders, and lovers.”

Hacker curve3. “The Hacker,” the third character, is happy just learning to do something in a mediocre way and never improving. “He’s the physician or teacher who doesn’t bother going to professional meetings, the tennis player who developed a solid forehand and figures he can make do with a ragged backhand€¦The Hacker looks at marriage or living together as primarily an economic and domestic institution.” The problem with being a hacker is that “when your tennis partner starts improving his or her game and you don’t, the game eventually breaks up. The same thing applies to relationships.”

Mastery curve4. The Master is different from the Dabbler, the Obsessive and the Hacker because she or he has learned to love “practice primarily for the sake of the practice itself. Rather than being frustrated while on the plateau, you learn to appreciate and enjoy [the plateaus] just as much as you do the upward surges.”

You don’t have to be a master at everything, of course. A master can be a hacker at something – let’s say you like to strum your guitar every once an awhile – a dabbler at something else – you paint your bathroom, don’t like the color but leave it, then you try a rock garden in your front yard and it’s not great but you leave it, etc. – an obsessive at something else – you collected 600 friends on facebook, got overwhelmed and closed your account – and a master at a few things that are really important to you – you are a wonderful, caring spouse/partner, and for the past 20 years you’ve gotten up at four in the morning four days a week to go surfing and are dedicated to your practice of the sport.

Mastery includes a deep appreciation of being in the moment while practicing a skill. Being present while completely one with your actions produces tremendous life-enhancing benefits, no matter what the activity you are engaging in and no matter what stage of excellence you have obtained. The Bar Method in my view is one discipline that can serve as a guidepost to mastery itself.

Read more about Bar Method as a Path to Mastery.

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