Staying on the Path of Mastery
Mastery is a word that gets thrown around all the time but is rarely explained. So here's our best shot: It is a path of progress in a given endeavor that knows no end. The goal is quite literally to stay on the path. This runs counter to so much of the current ethos that is obsessed with outcomes. But the problem with outcomes is that they end. If you come up short you may be sad or anxious. If you achieve your goal then you'll always want more. When the goal becomes the path, however, these highs and lows are smoothed out just a bit, and the cycle of craving and striving cools down. The result of all this is better and more lasting performance and wellbeing.
In researching and writing The Passion Paradox, it became clear that there are a few key principles that help people walk this path.
Drive from Within
Individuals on the path of mastery are driven from within. Their primary motivation isn’t external measures of success or fear, and it’s certainly not satisfying others or conforming to a certain peer group or social norms. Rather, their motivation originates from an internal desire to improve and engage in an activity for its own sake. This doesn’t mean that each day of their pursuit will be exciting or pleasurable. But it does mean that they will show steadfast enthusiasm about the totality of their journey. They keep coming back to the work—after highs and lows—to remind themselves that it's the work itself, and not the result, that gives their life meaning.
Focus on the Process
Goals are like steering mechanisms, North Stars to shoot for. When used in this manner they are very productive. But too much focus on a specific goal, and especially one that is outside your full control, almost always does more harm than good. Mastery involves shifting your focus from achieving any one goal itself to executing on the process that gives you the best chance of more general improvement over time. Someone who embodies mastery judges herself based not on whether she accomplishes her specific goal but rather on how well she executes her process.
Don’t Worry About Being Best; Worry About Being Best at Getting Better
When your utmost goal is simply to get better, all failures and successes are temporary because you will forever improve, given more time and more practice. You don’t define yourself by any single moment in time; you define yourself by an entire body of work in service of ongoing growth and development. Your pursuit ceases to be something you are aiming for and becomes a part of who you are. Do you write to sell books, or are you a writer? Do you run to win marathons, or are you a runner? Do you paint to sell portraits, or are you a painter? When you make this shift—your pursuit transitioning from a verb, something you do, to a noun, someone you are—you’re more apt to harmoniously walk your path for life. This isn’t to say there won’t be rough patches, disappointments, and triumphs along the way. But rather than serving as endpoints, concrete achievements and failures become more like information—markers of progress and exposures of weakness—that you can use to improve yourself and your process on a longer path.
Embrace Acute Failure for Chronic Gains
A well-known principle of physical training is this: If you want a muscle to grow, you must push it beyond its normal bounds, until it is hard, if not impossible, to perform additional repetitions. In exercise science, this is called training to fatigue. Training to fatigue is so effective because muscle fatigue, or, in some cases, failure, serves as a critical signal, telling your body it must grow and adapt in order to withstand future challenges. When you fail, your body learns, on an innate biological level, what it needs to do differently. Failure sets off a cascade of changes that help you evolve so you can meet a greater challenge next time. In other words, your body can’t really grow unless it fails. This principle holds true far beyond your muscles. It’s true for everything. Along any lasting and meaningful journey, you are bound to fail. So long as you use those failures as informative opportunities to grow, that’s fine.
The path of mastery is almost always very hard and requires lots of time and unyielding commitment. Any long-term progression contains inevitable periods of boredom. We are hardwired to seek novelty and stimulation, which is why “quick fixes” and “hacks” can be so appealing—even though they rarely, if ever, work. Advancing on the path of mastery, getting the most out of yourself and sustaining passion for a lifetime, requires patience. Ignore the hacks. Be prepared for ups and downs. Ride the waves, over and over again. Be patient with yourself and be patient with your process. Small steps taken consistently over a long period of time lead to big gains. Keep reflecting on your core values and surround yourself with supportive community. Life is a nine-inning game.
Be Here Now
When we are fully present for whatever it is we are doing, we gain a new appreciation for our respective pursuits and our own unique role in them. Yet the majority of the time, we walk around on autopilot, not deliberately choosing where or how sharply we direct our attention. To sustain mastery, however, we must remove distractions that prey on our attention and break from the mundane and automatic thoughts that normally fill our minds. It seems simple and obvious, yet step back and think about just how little receives your full attention. Even activities that once forced us to be present—such as a walk or run in the woods, holding a newborn baby, or a physician’s encounter with a patient—are now frequently hijacked by the beeping and buzzing of our digital devices. These modern inventions continuously pull our attention to the next external diversion, creating the illusion that we are busy and present, all the while keeping us on autopilot and at the whim of whatever distracts us next. Way too often, we may appear to be here, but we are really there. Keep coming back to here. Mastery requires you be here—really here—with that is in front of you.
Don't walk the path alone. Surround yourself wisely. A 2017 study out of Northwestern University found that sitting within 25 feet of a high performer at work improved an employee’s performance by 15 percent. But sitting within 25 feet of a low performer hurt their performance by 30 percent. That’s an enormous effect!
We are mirrors reflecting onto each other. The people we surround ourselves with shape us, and we shape those around us, too.
If you like this newsletter and want to learn more and support our work, please share it with your friends and consider buying our book, The Passion Paradox: A Guide to Going All In, Finding Success, and Discovering the Benefits of an Unbalanced Life. You can get a copy from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your neighborhood bookstore.
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