In our society, we spend much of our time watching and admiring others who are masters. From master athletes to master musicians, master actors to master chefs, we are captivated by other human beings who can accomplish more than ourselves, and seemingly with pefection and without effort. I have observed many acquaintances admire a master, while holding back their own talent. The excuses are many, many I have used myself: I won't look good, I'm not coordinated, I feel stupid, or, the worst of them all, I just can't. How do we overcome these negativities and allow ourselves to get on a path? Where does the hobby end and the lifestyle begin? When does a new path morph from "trying something new" to an endless journey one cannot leave for an entire lifetime? These are all things that were floating through my mind this evening while attempting to do the T'ai Chi solo form at the studio (as a side note, I kept making mistakes because of these thoughts and how far they were from the immediate task at hand).
George Leonard has a fabulous book called Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment that elaborates on the mastery path itself. Leonard discusses the shape of mastery's journey in that there is always progress, the inevitable plateau, backward movement in progress, and a return to the first step. The difference between the first and the last step being that the subsequent bursts of progress, or "breakthroughs" result in a higher level of mastery than the earlier breakthroughs. The theory is sound and when I first encountered it the world made sense. And it got me thinking: what are the things I love enough to tolerate a plateau and backwards progress, in order to master? For myself, as I'd imagine the case for most of us, these things are far and few between.
The problem is patience. According to Leonard, Western culture is poisoning us against the plateau by showing us image after image after image of masters pursuing their craft perfectly. Commercials, advertisements, and virtually everything we take in via the media hones in on the perfect shot or the perfect note. Furthermore, in my observation, when there is imperfection it is something to be made fun of and not something to admire at all. There is a reason why we enjoy watching the bad singers on American Idol: they are not perfect and we get a good kick out of watching them fall on their faces. Never mind admiring their courage for attempting to follow a dream, or going before judges who are brutal, or risking having a reality show make a spectacle of them when they fail. I know there are some who simply don't know on what level they truly are, but for each one who is arrogant of their own skill I wager there are several more who earnestly pursue music as a dream. And for those, I applaud their courage and willingness to stick out the audition and reality show process.
But I digress. We need to be willing to recognize that becoming a master at anything requires we love the plateau stage, as Leonard says that is where anyone on the journey will spend the most time. This is why a person cannot become a master at something they hate doing. It's possible to spend years in the plateau phase, so if you plan on being a master bed-maker you'd best enjoy the process of putting on the sheets and straightening the pillows, not just the end result. Sometimes that means practicing when you don't want to, or sticking out a tough phase. But in the end, patience with the process, along with a love for the process, will lead to fulfillment. Mastery may be a pleasant side effect.
As Leonard writes in Mastery: "The achievement of goals is important. But the real juice of life, whether it be sweet or bitter, is to be found not nearly so much in the products of our efforts as in the process of living itself, in how it feels to be alive."
So, how does it feel?