We All Long for Mastery

Yesterday, my husband and I were talking about the human will to mastery.  The conversation started as a discussion of the attraction people have toward precision tools as they advance in a craft.  For instance, I was noting how, as I get deeper and deeper into my knitting hobby, I get pickier about the needles I use, and I find I’m accumulating a variety of little tools (row counters, cable needles, stitch holders, needle sizers) that I didn’t even know about – and wouldn’t have understood the use of – when I was starting out.

Sometimes we gather tools in the absence of expertise: I think of all the guys who have expensive and complex garage workshops they never use and probably couldn’t, or the people who have a huge variety of unused cooking implements in every drawer.  Perhaps we think if we have the apparatus, we’ll become experts by osmosis (or perhaps we just want to convince others).

But then we went on to talk about how most people really do love to get good at something. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, cites research that shows the opportunity to build mastery is one of the three most motivating things for most people, professionally. (The other two are autonomy and purpose.)

I can completely relate to this – I love getting better and better at things.  The process of finding out how an endeavor works, and then working through limitation and frustration to build skills and knowledge, and then being able to operate at ever more challenging levels – I love that. For example, over the past few years, I’ve learned to do Sudoku.  When my step-daughter Kate first showed me some simple techniques, 3 years ago, it was the first step.  I started with easy puzzles, realized that the core of solving was logic (which I’m good at) and patience (which I’m not, but am always trying to get better at). A few months later, she gave me a book called Absolutely Nasty Sudoku.  I confidently began the first puzzle – and I was unable to get even partway through it.

So I got serious. Over the next few years I did a tons of Sudoku. I discovered lots of approaches, learned some from books and online, created my own little system of notation. I worked gradually harder and harder puzzles, and every few months I’d try my ‘absolutely nasty’ book again.  Still couldn’t finish any, but I was getting further and further in the puzzles I tried before my expertise ran out. And I was having a lot of fun.

Then finally, last month, I picked up the ‘absolutely nasty’ book and made it through a puzzle.  Then another, and another after that.  It was wonderfully gratifying.

I think sometimes we resist the process of mastery because it can be so uncomfortable along the way.  I was pretty embarrassed that first time I tried (and failed completely) to work that ‘absolutely nasty’ puzzle.  And it was frustrating to pick it up along the way and still not be able to complete them.

But the the benefit far outweighs the cost.  I have a hobby now that’s really good for my brain (I can almost feel the synapses firing when I do a tough puzzle), that’s a lot of fun, and that I feel proud of having mastered.  And I know I can keep getting better and better at it.

And the results, when we are willing to put our minds to becoming truly good at something, can be much more than fun and entertaining – they can be gorgeous and powerful.  As witness this video.

Romancing the Wind – Ray Bethell

About Erika Andersen

Over the past 30 years, Erika has developed a reputation for creating approaches to learning and business-building that are custom tailored to her clients’ challenges, goals, and culture.

Visit Erika's Forbes.com Blog

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