To excel at something, you must become exceptional at it.
It doesn’t matter your art, craft, or discipline – there is no rising to the peak of capability at the level of good enough. If you desire to be great at something, only mastery will get you there.
But what does it mean to strive towards greatness and mastery? These are broad, abstract terms. How can you actively pursue them, and make sure that your practice progressively brings you closer to them?
It starts with two realizations.
The Two Foundational Epiphanies
The first realization comes when you become proficient with the basics. It’s in this moment you find yourself capable with the skill you’re developing, and where you’re able to begin cultivating fruitful results from your application of it.
The second (often more profound) realization occurs when you understand that every advanced technique, every iteration and variation, and every way in which to perform a certain action within the practice, is always an extension of the basics. You realize that there is no “advanced technique”, there is only better and better application of the basics.
The moment I realized this went deeper than intellectual understanding – it was a visceral, physical epiphany. I awakened to the fact that the basics and fundamentals of a skill are not the beginning of the path, they are the path in its entirety.
It seems so simple, but you’d be amazed at how many practitioners of any worthwhile pursuit never fully grasp this and continuously struggle as a result.
They’ve come to the first realization, but they continue to believe that there’s something “beyond” the basics – tactics, techniques, strategies – that transcend them and will give them an edge.
But they’re seeking something that doesn’t exist.
There is only one way to get to those more advanced levels of application, and it’s to continuously deepen your understanding and application of the fundamentals. You don’t transcend the basics, you improve your ability of wielding them to the point of being so capable at doing so, it only appears as if you’ve transcended them.
That is what it means to be a master.
The Way To Mastery
The way to mastery is to first understand that the idea of mastery is an illusion – at least, in a sense.
Mastery implies total understanding and capability of something. You know everything there is to know about it and can do anything there is to do within it.
Hopefully, I don’t need to tell you this never occurs.
A true master at anything, the absolute undisputed best of the best, will never tell you their knowledge and ability is complete. They will say there is always more to learn, always ways to improve, always ways to progress.
They never lose sight of what got them to the heights of their craft in the first place:
- An awareness that their craft is expansive
- Understanding that the process of learning about it will never end
- A willingness to learn as much about it as they possibly can
When most think of achieving mastery, they think of achieving perfection – and this keeps them from mastery.
Those who understand the joy of the craft is found in the fact that you can never become perfect at it, meaning you can always improve it, are the only ones who become true masters.
Next is ensuring you never lose sight of the basics, and understanding what this means.
It isn’t about continuous, mindless, monotonous repetition of fundamental skills.
Rather, it’s about a continuous process of revisiting, studying, and refining those skills with a deeper understanding and more expansive awareness.
Every revisit brings new insights, every study session uncovers previously unnoticed levels, and every refinement takes your skill to a new level.
The basics are a language that continues to reveal more to you the more you understand it, and just when you think you’ve understood it in its entirety – new and previously invisible layers appear.
This approach to mastery is not one that perceives the basics as a ladder to be climbed and then discarded.
It’s an approach where the basics are perceived as what they are – a wellspring of endless knowledge and skill to be continuously tapped into.
Finally, it’s understanding that the heart of advancement is refinement.
The best in a field inevitably reinvent it to some degree – they set new precedents for what’s possible, reveal unexplored ways in which to approach the field, and change the way others act within it.
But this reinvention doesn’t come from developing new basics, it comes from finding ways in which to combine and apply them that have yet to be thought of – or simply making the ways in which they’ve been applied up until that point more efficient.
Beginners learn the rules of the game, practitioners play the game, masters change the way the game is played.
Embrace The Unfolding
It’s easy to get caught up when you feel like you’re not progressing.
You feel like you’re on a plateau, not breaking through in the way you’d like, and can just feel the “next level” is right outside your grasp.
In those moments, you start to look in all the wrong places – new tactics, techniques, and strategies – when the answer you’re seeking is found in the basics.
If you’re a writer and feel like you’ve hit a wall with your writing – go back to the basics. Revisit and review how to craft enticing hooks, structures and frameworks, active voice vs passive voice, etc.
Apply this to any and all skills you may be working to master, because the answer is always the same.
If you want to reach the next level, fortify your foundational abilities and the’ll improve to the degree needed to get you there.
Much love and, as always, thank you for reading.