on the art of mastery and soul-making

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“I play a Gibson Les Paul through a 65amp half-stack. Love that amp. It’s so huge-sounding. I’m all about big, nasty, sleazy dirty riffs, and that amp with the Les Paul make my sound. I also play around with some pedals. One of my favorites that I used on the record is a Death By Audio pedal called the Supersonic Fuzz Gun. It’s so messed up and dirty sounding. I love it.” — Siouxsie Medley

The other night I went to see a band in downtown LA.

My friend Marc and I developed a fascination with the guitarist.

The band played hard rock, thrashing and soulful, and she was this waif in a sweatshirt torn off one shoulder and long brown hair whipping around as if the music was punishing it (in a good way) and she stalked her end of the stage, body rocking and rocking it out, hands a blur in every photograph I took, and let me tell you boys and girls she owned that instrument. She was ruling it and working it, which let the music work magic through her.

She didn’t look like she was that many years out of high school. She must have found her way to guitar in her teens if not sooner. Holed in her room, the bite of steel in her fingers, as she leveled up from suck to nonsuck to halfway decent to decently average to hey, that’s not so bad to hey, that’s pretty good to damn, girl, play that shit again.

My guess was that she didn’t have many friends. To log all those hours of solitary practice, she must have been some kind of geek. One reason why geeks are the way they are is because of how obsession defines them. They’d rather spend time deepening their knowledge and acquiring mad skills instead of, say, social savvy. (Which isn’t to say that social skills don’t eventually come, at least to some of us.)

The world outside that obsession? Often bores them. It isn’t as rich or vivid or visceral, it doesn’t get them where they live in quite the same way. The obsession is always in the background, waiting, and some part of them waits to return to it.

It’s kind of a cliché now to evoke Malcolm Gladwell’s Ten Thousand Hour Rule (it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become excellent at whatever it is that you’re practicing) so I’m hesitant to do it (even though I just did). Also, Gladwell’s rule is only part of the picture. It’s not enough that those hours have to number ten thousand (at least, and more often fifteen or twenty) but they have to be a specific kind of practice.

It’s called deliberate practice, and it keeps you at your ragged edge, attempting a specific task that you keep failing at and failing at until finally you get it and your teacher moves you on to something new that you keep failing at and failing at and on and on it goes. Continue like this long enough – for years – and eventually you arrive at a point where, as Stephen Cope explains

“….The capacity to know a certain domain of the world in such depth appears to us ordinary mortals as a kind of supernormal power. It seems like magic. It is not magic at all, of course, but simply the inevitable result of sustained concentration on an object of intense interest.”

As Frans Johansson points out in his book THE CLICK MOMENT, racking up ten thousand hours of sustained concentration on a particular interest is necessary to excel in some fields – but not so much in others. Some areas are so new and/or volatile and/or rapidly changing that excellence relies not on skill so much as a deep game-changing creative insight. Meanwhile Tim Ferriss and Josh Kaufman have come out with books (THE 4-HOUR CHEF and THE FIRST 20 HOURS, respectively) that show how you can hack the process of mastery by approaching your study in specific, strategic ways.

But here’s the thing. Ferriss and Kaufman are assuming that the end point of this process is the product itself: the skill you’ve acquired, the cool thing you can now do for your own enjoyment or to impress your friends and lover(s).

Which is awesome.

But I think this is overlooking a central aspect of what mastery is – and it’s something that might not naturally occur to us Westerners, who want what we want when we want it because we’re very busy and it’s time to go home and watch MAD MEN.

Mastery is about learning something right down through the bones of it. click to tweet

Cope describes mastery as “heightened pattern recognition” and explains how

“The process.. continues to deepen throughout the career of a master, until the more obvious surface patterns dissolve to reveal even more subtle patterns underneath….The pleasures of mastery are not what we usually assume them to be. They do not center around the control of one’s particular domain…They center, rather, around knowing. It is the profound pleasure in knowing the world more deeply that creates authentic fulfillment.”

A true master, Cope says, isn’t motivated by extrinsic factors like money and fame but the pleasure of following her dharma, her path, her way of being in the world that serves the world through the expression of her deepest gifts. This enables

“…a much, much deeper pleasure: the pleasure in knowing the world.”

So perhaps the larger point of a practice has to do with the practice itself, and the result it throws off is almost a happy byproduct. You need all those hours not just for the learning but for how that learning transforms you. You take it first into your mind and then into your body, where it lives on such a cellular level that skills you once struggled to perform become second nature. You can perform them on autopilot. But more importantly, you can go beyond them to find what’s deeper, what’s greater, and where that can take you.

Practice isn’t about making something perfect; it’s about making something possible.”

As writer and writing teacher Peggy Tabor Millin explains:

“Practice – of sport, writing, art-making, meditation, music – has no goal but revelation. Practice discovers, uncovers, reveals, surprises, astonishes, and awes. Practice provides the road through new terrain, tests our resolve, and develops our skill. We take the attitude of the adventurer, not rushing but moving slowly enough to notice details. The unexpected occurs.”

Not everything we do has to be in pursuit of mastery. There are things we can learn to do well, and leave it at that. That’s fine. That’s what hobbies are for: to relax, not to push and prod you to new heights of selfhood through some deep mystical knowing of the world.

Cope equates true mastery with dharma: the great work of your life that brings your soul alive.

When you’re in the presence of mastery, you know it. It’s a shock-and-awe kind of feeling. It resonates in your body as well as your mind. It inspires you to pursue some shock-and-awe of your own. The skill itself might fade – the athlete gets too old, the pianist injures a hand – but that way of knowing lives on, and the kind of person it made you can never be taken away from you. And if this sounds a bit woo, I can only suggest that they don’t call a spiritual practice a spiritual practice for nothing. So there might be some soul-making involved.

“A yoga practice,” my yoga teacher told me, after she’d been keeping me on my ragged edge for an hour and I was entertaining murderous thoughts toward her, “is the practice of showing up. No matter how you’re feeling or whatever else is on your plate, you show up on the mat, day after day after day.” You learn a lot about your moods, your thoughts, your body that way. You learn a lot about yourself – in that same deepening way through which you also learn the world, via coding or writing or photography or gymnastics or entrepreneurialism or carpentry or Balinese puppet-making or whatever.

When my yoga teacher told me that, something clicked. There are mornings now when I am tempted to cancel my session, and I realize that part of my practice is to practice showing up. I might be edgy from an argument or seriously sleep-deprived or suffering from too much wine the night before (or all of the above), I might be worrying about one of my kids, but somehow it’s enough to let her know, and then let go of it. “I’m showing up,” I tell her, and we take it from there.

May 22, 2013
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6 comments · Add Yours

As an actual nerd (tm?), I was like that in school and still am. Holed up, alone, for hours on end, working on stuff. I’d much rather pursue my passions (design, writing, music) than hang out with others. Thankfully my wife understands this! I like people (and they’re the ultimate consumers of everything I create), I just get more amp’ed up about what I’m working on.

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Great article. I’m still wondering, though; who was the girl who “owned that instrument” and what was the name of the band? (apologies if I missed it).

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This reminds me so much of surfing and how I’ve learned. There are definitely days when Im thinking if the hour drive to San Clemente is really worth it. And sometimes I get there and the conditions are terrible. But getting the water on the days when the conditions suck, allow you to develop the skill that allows you to take advantage of the days that you are good. The reward of being a better surfer, is not the cool pictures or bragging rights, but the fact that you get to surf bigger and better waves.

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Love that band! \m/

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“From the age of 6 I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50 I had attained some reputation, but nothing before the age of 70 is worth bothering with. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will enter into the secret of things. At 100, I may well have understanding. At 110, everything–every dot, every dash–will live.” — Hokusai

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