ALSO BY GEORGE LEONARD The Way of Aikido The Decline of the American Male(with William Attwood and J. Robert Moskin) Shoulder the Sky Education and Ecstasy The Man & Woman Thing and Other Provocations The Transformation The Ultimate Athlete The Silent Pulse Adventures in Monogamy (originally published as The End of Sex) Walking on the Edge of the World
MASTERY The Keys to Successand Long-Term Fulfillment George Leonard A PLUME BOOK
CONTENTSIntroduction xiPART ONE: THE MASTERS JOURNEY 1Introduction 3 1. What Is Mastery? 5 2. Meet the Dabbler, the Obsessive, and the Hacker 19 3. Americas War Against Mastery 27 4. Loving the Plateau 39PART TWO: THE FIVE MASTER KEYS 51Introduction 53 5. Key 1: Instruction 55 6. Key 2: Practice 73 7. Key 3: Surrender 81 8. Key 4: Intentionality 89 9. Key 5: The Edge 97 vii
viii ContentsPART THREE: TOOLS FOR MASTERY 103Introduction 10510. Why Resolutions Fail— and What to Do About It 10711. Getting Energy for Mastery 11912. Pitfalls Along the Path 13313. Mastering the Commonplace 14114. Packing for the Journey 151Epilogue: The Master and the Fool 169
ACKNOWLEDGMENTSHeartfelt appreciation goes to Esquires editor emer-itus Phillip Moffitt for his wise counsel and generoussupport, and for his empassioned and enduring ad-vocacy of this book; he speaks with the authority ofone who is himself on the path of mastery. I owe a great deal to my aikido teachers, FrankDoran, Robert Nadeau, and Bill Witt, and especiallyto Nadeau, who introduced me to the idea of pre-senting exercises based on aikido principles to awider, non-martial arts constituency. Richard StrozziHeckler, Wendy Palmer, and I have been doing ai-kido together for eighteen years—first as students,then as teachers and co-owners of Aikido of Tamal-pais: But we are more than fellow martial artists, forour lives touch in many ways; Richard and Wendyare part of this book. Annie Styron Leonard has onceagain been a loving critic and a perceptive editor. Thanks to master tennis teacher Pat Blaskower for ix
x Acknowledgmentsher eloquence on the particulars of the mastery pro-cess, as presented in Chapter One, and to Joe Flower,who conducted interviews on the subject of masterywith leading sports figures. Im grateful, as always, toSterling Lord, an intrepid pathfinder for twenty-fiveyears. A special word of thanks goes to John and JuliaPoppy, to whom this book is dedicated. John and Ihave been colleagues and friends for twenty-eightyears—at Look magazine, at Esquire, and actually inall things. He has contributed immeasurably to eachof the Ultimate Fitness features, bringing a rare intel-ligence, elegance, and clarity to the most difficultsubjects. The light that is Julia Poppy, my sister, hasilluminated my path for a lifetime, and her spirit hastouched everything Ive done. This book would notbe possible without them both.
INTRODUCTIONIn 1987, for the fourth straight year, the May issue ofEsquire magazine featured a special section on whatit called Ultimate Fitness. These special sectionsclaimed a broader charter than is usual for such asubject. "Ultimately," I wrote in the first of the se-ries, "fitness and health are related to everything wedo, think and feel. Thus . . . what we are calling Ul-timate Fitness has less to do with running a 2:30 mar-athon than with living a good life." The previous Ultimate Fitness specials had enjoyedexceptionally high reader interest, but the May 1987number was something else again. The subject thistime was mastery, "the mysterious process duringwhich what is at first difficult becomes progressivelyeasier and more pleasurable through practice." Thepurpose of the feature was to describe the path thatbest led to mastery, not just in sports but in all oflife, and to warn against the prevailing bottom-line xi
xii Introductionmentality that puts quick, easy results ahead of long-term dedication to the journey itself. The response was immediate and extravagant. Re-quests for extra copies, tearsheets, and reprintspoured in. Management newsletters requested per-mission to reprint portions of the Esquire feature.Corporate CEOs gave photocopies to their officers.Training groups of a wide variety spent hours dis-cussing the mastery principles. Letters to the editorwere numerous and eloquent. A navy carrier pilot,for instance, wrote that he had been having troublelanding the F-14 Tomcat on an aircraft carrier. "I . . .was in the process of making a second and perhapsfinal attempt when I bought the May issue. Insightsthat I gained from Mr. Leonards outline of the mas-ters journey gave me the extra 10 percent of mentaldiscipline that I needed to make the trek down thisportion of my path a relatively easy one." I knew a book was needed to provide a full un-derstanding of how to get on and stay on the path ofmastery, but at the time, I was working on a memoirof the 1960s. I thought interest in the subject mightwane, but it hasnt. The many comments and inqui-ries that I continue to receive have convinced memore than ever that the quick-fix, fast-temporary-relief, bottom-line mentality doesnt work in the longrun, and is eventually destructive to the individualand the society. If there is any sure route to success
Introduction xiiiand fulfillment in life, it is to be found in the long-term, essentially goalless process of mastery. This istrue, it appears, in personal as well as professionallife, in economics as well as ice skating, in medicineas well as martial arts. It was the martial arts, in fact, that gave me theoriginal idea for the Esquire feature and for this book.I have practiced aikido since 1970, and have taughtit regularly since 1976. With its sophisticated blend-ing moves and full repertory of rolls and falls, aikidois generally known as the most difficult of the martialarts to master. On the training mat, every attempt atcircumvention or overreaching is revealed; flaws aremade manifest; the quick fix is impossible. At thesame time, the pleasures of practice are intensified.The mat, I often tell my students, is the world, but itis the world under a magnifying glass. An aikido school is therefore an ideal laboratoryfor studying the factors that work for and againstlong-term learning. As hundreds of students passedthrough our school, I began to recognize distinctivepatterns in the way they approached the art. Thetypes of learners I would later characterize as thedabbler, the obsessive, and the hacker (see ChapterTwo) revealed themselves, in most cases, after onlya few classes. I was surprised to discover that itwasnt necessarily the most talented who would per-severe on the long road to black belt and beyond. I
xiv Introductionbegan to realize that although different people mighttake different paths to mastery, all of the paths led inthe same general direction—one that could be clearlymapped. But would my findings at the aikido school applyto other skills? Interviews conducted at the time ofthe Esquire special and since then, along with theextraordinary response to the magazine feature itself,have shown me that what is true for aikidoists is alsotrue for learners in any nontrivial skill: managers, art-ists, pilots, schoolchildren, college students, carpen-ters, athletes, parents, religious devotees, and evenentire cultures in the process of change. Bottom-line thinking might now prevail, but themasters journey has deep roots. It also has deep res-onance. One might say, in fact, that its not so muchan idea whose time has come as an idea that has al-ways been with us—its just that we need to be re-minded. Im pleased that so many peoples lives havealready been changed for the better through this re-minder, and I hope the book will add to the numberof those who are on the path.
IntroductionStart with something simple. Try touching your fore-head with your hand. Ah, thats easy, automatic. Nothing to it. But therewas a time when you were as far removed from themastery of that simple skill as a nonpianist is fromplaying a Beethoven sonata. First, you had to learn to control the movements ofyour hands (you were just a baby then) and somehowget them to move where you wanted them to. You hadto develop some sort of kinesthetic "image" of yourbody so that you could know the relationship betweenyour forehead and other parts of your body. You hadto learn to match this image with the visual image ofan adults body. You had to learn how to mimic yourmothers actions. Momentous stuff, make no mistakeabout it. And we havent yet considered the matter oflanguage—learning to decode sounds shaped as wordsand to match them to our own actions. 3
4 MASTERY Only after all this could you play the learning game that parents everywhere play with their children: "Wheres your nose? Where are your ears? Wheresyour forehead?" As with all significant learning, this learning was measured not in a straight line but in stages: brief spurts of progress separated by periods during which you seemed to be getting nowhere. Still, you learned an essential skill. Whats more im-portant, you learned about learning. You started with something difficult and made it easy and pleasurable through instruction and practice. You took a mastersjourney. And if you could learn to touch your fore- head, you can learn to play a Beethoven sonata or fly a jet plane, to be a better manager or improve your relationships. Our current society works in many ways to lead us astray, but the path of mastery is always there, waiting for us.
Chapter 1 What Is Mastery?It resists definition yet can be instantly recognized.It comes in many varieties, yet follows certain un-changing laws. It brings rich rewards, yet is not reallya goal or a destination but rather a process, a journey.We call this journey mastery, and tend to assumethat it requires a special ticket available only to thoseborn with exceptional abilities. But mastery isnt re-served for the supertalented or even for those whoare fortunate enough to have gotten an early start.Its available to anyone who is willing to get on thepath and stay on it—regardless of age, sex, or previ-ous experience. The trouble is that we have few, if any, maps toguide us on the journey or even to show us how tofind the path. The modern world, in fact, can beviewed as a prodigious conspiracy against mastery.Were continually bombarded with promises of im- 5
6 MASTERYmediate gratification, instant success, and fast, tem-porary relief, all of which lead in exactly the wrongdirection. Later, well take a look at the quick-fix,antimastery mentality that pervades our society, andsee how it not only prevents us from developing ourpotential skills but threatens our health, education,career, relationships, and perhaps even our nationaleconomic viability. But first lets examine mastery it-self. The masters journey can begin whenever you de-cide to learn any new skill—how to touch-type, howto cook, how to become a lawyer or doctor or ac-countant. But it achieves a special poignancy, a qual-ity akin to poetry or drama, in the field of sports,where muscles, mind, and spirit come together ingraceful and purposive movements through time andspace. Sports provide a good starting point for thisexploration, in that results of training in the physicalrealm are rather quickly and clearly visible. So letstake a familiar sport, tennis, as a hypothetical casethrough which we can derive the principles under-lying the mastery of all skills, physical or otherwise. Say youre in fairly good physical shape but by nomeans a highly conditioned, skilled athlete. Youveplayed around with movement sports such as volley-ball and softball, which involve hand-eye coordina-tion, and youve played a little tennis, but notmuch—which might be a good thing. If youre going
The Masters Journey 7to go for mastery, its better to start with a clean slaterather than have to unlearn bad habits you picked upwhile hacking around. Now youve found a teacher,a pro with a reputation for grounding players in thefundamentals, and youve committed yourself to atleast three visits a week to the tennis court. Youreon the path to mastery. It starts with baby steps. The teacher shows youhow to hold the racket so that it will hit the ball atthe correct moment in time. She has you bring theracket forward in a forehand swing until you find theposition of maximum strength of the wrist. Shestands in front of you on the same side of the netand tosses balls to your forehand, and after each hit,she asks you to tell her if you hit it early or late. Sheshows you how to move your shoulders and hipstogether with the motion of the arm, and to strideinto the ball. She makes corrections, gives encour-agement. You feel terribly clumsy and disjointed.You have to think to keep the parts of your bodysynchronized, and thinking gets in the way of grace-ful, spontaneous movement. You find yourself becoming impatient. You werehoping to get exercise, but this practice doesnt giveyou enough even to break a sweat. You like to seethe ball go across the net and into the dark green partof the court, but your teacher says you shouldnteven be thinking about that at this stage. Youre the
8 MASTERYtype of person who cares a lot about results, and youseem to be getting hardly any results at all. The prac-tice just goes on and on: hold the racket correctly;know where the racket makes contact with the ball;move shoulders, hips, and arm together; stride intothe ball—you seem to be getting exactly nowhere. Then, after about five weeks of frustration, a lightgoes on. The various components of the tennis strokebegin to come together, almost as if your musclesknow what they should do; you dont have to thinkabout every little thing. In your conscious awareness,theres more room to see the ball, to meet it cleanlyin a stroke that starts low and ends high. You feel theitch to hit the ball harder, to start playing competi-tively. No chance. Until now your teacher has been feed-ing balls to you. You havent had to move. But nowyoure going to have to learn to move side to side,back and forth, and on the diagonal, and then set upand swing. Again, you feel clumsy, disjointed. Youredismayed to find that youre losing some of whatyoud gained. Just before youre ready to call it quits,you stop getting worse. But youre not getting anybetter, either. Days and weeks pass with no apparentprogress. There you are on that damned plateau. For most people brought up in this society, theplateau can be a form of purgatory. It triggers dis-owned emotions. It flushes out hidden motivations.
The Masters Journey 9You realize you came to tennis not only to get ex-ercise but also to look good, to play with yourfriends, to beat your friends. You decide to have atalk with your teacher. How long, you ask, will ittake you to master this thing? Your instructor responds, "Do you mean how longwould it take for you to automatically get into posi-tion and hit a forehand effectively to a target?" "Yes." She pauses. Its a question she always dreads."Well, for someone like you, who starts tennis as anadult, if you practice an hour three times a week, itwould take, on average, five years." Five years! Your heart sinks. "Ideally, about half of that would be instruction.Of course, if youre particularly motivated, it couldbe less than that." You decide to try another question. "How longwill it be before I can play competitively?" "Competitively? Thats a loaded term." "I mean playing to try to beat a friend." "I would say you could probably start playing afterabout six months. But you shouldnt start playingwith winning as a major consideration until you havereasonable control of forehand, backhand, and serve.And that would be about a year or a year and a half. Another bitter dose of reality. The teacher goes on to explain. The problem with
10 MASTERYtennis isnt just that the ball moves and the racketmoves, and you have to master all of that, but alsothat you have to move. In addition, unless yourehitting with a pro who can put the ball in the correctplace, a lot of practice time on the court is spentpicking up balls. Backboards are helpful. Ball ma-chines are helpful. But playing for points, trying tobeat a friend, really comes down to who gets theserve in the court and who misses the ball first. Pointslast only about three hits over the net. You dont getmuch practice. What you really need is to hit thou-sands of balls under fairly controlled circumstancesat every step along the way: forehand, backhand,footwork, serve, spin, net play, placement, strategy.And the process is generally incremental. You cantskip stages. You cant really work on strategy, forexample, until youve got placement pretty well un-der control. With the introduction of each new stage,youre going to have to start thinking again, whichmeans things will temporarily fall apart. The truth begins to sink in. Going for mastery inthis sport isnt going to bring you the quick rewardsyou had hoped for. Theres a seemingly endless roadahead of you with numerous setbacks along the wayand—most important—plenty of time on the plateau,where long hours of diligent practice gain you noapparent progress at all. Not a happy situation forone who is highly goal-oriented.
The Masters Journey 11 You realize that you have a decision to make atsome point along the journey, if not now. Youretempted to drop tennis and go out looking for an-other, easier sport. Or you might try twice as hard,insist on extra lessons, practice day and night. Oryou could quit your lessons and take whateveryouve learned out on the court; you could forgetabout improving your game and just have fun withfriends who dont play much better than you. Ofcourse, you could also do what your teachers sug-gests, and stay on the long road to mastery. Whatwill you choose? This question, this moment of choice, comes upcountless times in each of our lives, not just abouttennis or some other sport, but about everything thathas to do with learning, development, change. Some-times we choose after careful deliberation, but fre-quently the choice is careless—a barely consciousone. Seduced by the siren song of a consumerist,quick-fix society, we sometimes choose a course ofaction that brings only the illusion of accomplish-ment, the shadow of satisfaction. And sometimes,knowing little or nothing about the process that leadsto mastery, we dont even realize a choice is beingoffered. Yet even our failures to choose consciouslyoperate as choices, adding to or subtracting from theamount of our potential that we will eventually re-alize.
12 MASTERY The evidence is clear: all of us who are born with-out serious genetic defects are born geniuses. With-out an iota of formal instruction, we can master theoverarching symbolic system of spoken language—and not just one language but several. We can deci-pher the complex code of facial expressions—a featto paralyze the circuitry of even the most powerfulcomputer. We can decode and in one way or anotherexpress the subtleties of emotional nuance. Evenwithout formal schooling, we can make associations,create abstract categories, and construct meaningfulhierarchies. Whats more, we can invent things neverbefore seen, ask questions never before asked, andseek answers from out beyond the stars. Unlike com-puters, we can fall in love. What we call intelligence comes in many varieties.Howard Gardner of Harvard University and the Bos-ton University School of Medicine has identifiedseven of them: linguistic, musical, logical/mathemat-ical, spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, and two types of per-sonal intelligences that might be described asintrapersonal and interpersonal. We vary in our gift-edness in these seven at least. Still, each of us comesequipped with enough raw ability across the boardto achieve that seemingly rare and mysterious statewe call mastery in some mode of thought and ex-pression, some interpersonal and entrepreneurial en-terprise, some art or craft.
The Masters Journey 13 This is also true in the physical realm. It was oncebelieved that our primitive ancestors were rather piti-able creatures compared with the other animals ofthe jungles and savannahs. Lacking the fangs, claws,and specialized physical abilities of the predators, ourforefathers supposedly prevailed only because oftheir large brains and their ability to use tools. Thissupposition has downplayed the prodigious humanability to create complex, well-knit social groupings,a challenge which, more than toolmaking, accountsfor the development of the large brain. It also downplays the human body. Much has been made of the blazing sprint-speed ofthe cheetah, the prodigious leaps of the kangaroo,the underwater skills of the dolphin, and the gym-nastic prowess of the chimpanzee. But the fact of thematter is that no animal can match the human animalin all-around athletic ability. If we were to hold amammal decathlon with events in sprinting, endur-ance running, long jumping, high jumping, swim-ming, deep diving, gymnastics, striking, kicking, andburrowing, other animals would win most of the in-dividual events. But a well-trained human wouldcome up with the best overall score. And in oneevent—endurance running—the human would out-perform all other animals of comparable size, as wellas some quite a bit larger. If we are born geniuses ofthought and feeling, we are also geniuses in potentia
14 MASTERYof the body, and there is undoubtedly some sport,some physical pursuit in which each of us can excel. But genius, no matter how bright, will come tonaught or swiftly burn out if you dont choose themasters journey. This journey will take you along apath that is both arduous and exhilarating. It willbring you unexpected heartaches and unexpected re-wards, and you will never reach a final destination.(It would be a paltry skill indeed that could be fi-nally, completely mastered.) Youll probably end uplearning as much about yourself as about the skillyoure pursuing. And although youll often be sur-prised at what and how you learn, your progress to-wards mastery will almost always take on acharacteristic rhythm that looks something like this:The Mastery Curve Theres really no way around it. Learning any newskill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, eachof which is followed by a slight decline to a plateausomewhat higher in most cases than that which pre-ceded it. The curve above is necessarily idealized. Inthe actual learning experience, progress is less regu-
The Masters Journey 15lar; the upward spurts vary; the plateaus have theirown dips and rises along the way. But the generalprogression is almost always the same. To take themasters journey, you have to practice diligently,striving to hone your skills, to attain new levels ofcompetence. But while doing so—and this is the in-exorable fact of the journey—you also have to bewilling to spend most of your time on a plateau, tokeep practicing even when you seem to be gettingnowhere. Why does learning take place in spurts? Why cantwe make steady upward progress on our way towardmastery? As we saw in the case of tennis, we have tokeep practicing an unfamiliar movement again andagain until we "get it in the muscle memory" or"program it into the autopilot." The specific mech-anism through which this takes place is not com-pletely known, but it probably matches up fairly wellwith these informal descriptions. Karl Pribram, pro-fessor of neuroscience and a pioneering brain re-searcher at Stanford University, explains it in termsof hypothetical brain-body systems. He starts with a"habitual behavior system" that operates at a leveldeeper than conscious thought. This system involvesthe reflex circuit in the spinal cord as well as in var-ious parts of the brain to which it is connected. Thishabitual system makes it possible for you to dothings—return a scorching tennis serve, play a guitar
16 MASTERYchord, ask directions in a new language—withoutworrying just how you do them. When you start tolearn a new skill, however, you do have to thinkabout it, and you have to make an effort to replaceold patterns of sensing, movement, and cognitionwith new. This brings into play what might be called a cog-nitive system, associated with the habitual system,and an effort system, associated with the hippocam-pus (situated at the base of the brain). The cognitiveand effort systems become subsets of the habitualsystem long enough to modify it, to teach it a newbehavior. To put it another way, the cognitive andeffort systems "click into" the habitual system andreprogram it. When the job is done, both systemswithdraw. Then you dont have to stop and thinkabout, say, the right grip every time you shift yourracket. In this light, you can see that those upward surgeson the mastery curve are by no means the only timeanything significant or exciting is happening. Learn-ing generally occurs in stages. A stage ends when thehabitual system has been programmed to the newtask, and the cognitive and effort systems have with-drawn. This means you can perform the task withoutmaking a special effort to think of its separate parts.At this point, theres an apparent spurt of learning.But this learning has been going on all along.
The Masters Journey 17 How do you best move toward mastery? To put itsimply, you practice diligently, but you practice pri-marily for the sake of the practice itself. Rather thanbeing frustrated while on the plateau, you learn toappreciate and enjoy it just as much as you do theupward surges. But learning to love the plateau is getting ahead ofour story. First, lets meet three characters—the Dab-bler, the Obsessive, and the Hacker—who go throughlife, each in his or her own way, choosing not to takethe masters journey. Who knows?—we might bemeeting ourselves.
Chapter 2 Meet the Dabbler, the Obsessive, and the hackerWe all aspire to mastery, but the path is always longand sometimes rocky, and it promises no quick andeasy payoffs. So we look for other paths, each ofwhich attracts a certain type of person. Can you rec-ognize yourself in any of the following three graphs?The Dabbler The Dabbler approaches each new sport, careeropportunity, or relationship with enormous enthusi-asm. He or she loves the rituals involved in getting 19
20 MASTERYstarted, the spiffy equipment, the lingo, the shine ofnewness. When he makes his first spurt of progress in a newsport, for example, the Dabbler is overjoyed. Hedemonstrates his form to family, friends, and peoplehe meets on the street. He cant wait for the nextlesson. The falloff from his first peak comes as ashock. The plateau that follows is unacceptable if notincomprehensible. His enthusiasm quickly wanes. Hestarts missing lessons. His mind fills up with ration-alizations. This really isnt the right sport for him. Itstoo competitive, noncompetitive, aggressive, non-aggressive, boring, dangerous, whatever. He tells ev-eryone that it just doesnt fulfill his unique needs.Starting another sport gives the Dabbler a chance toreplay the scenario of starting up. Maybe hell makeit to the second plateau this time, maybe not. Thenits on to something else. The same thing applies to a career. The Dabblerloves new jobs, new offices, new colleagues. He seesopportunities at every turn. He salivates over pro-jected earnings. He delights in signs of progress, eachof which he reports to his family and friends. Uh oh,theres that plateau again. Maybe this job isnt rightfor him after all. Its time to start looking around. TheDabbler has a long resume. In love relationships (perhaps an unexpected placeto look for the signs of mastery, but a good one), the
The Masters Journey 21Dabbler specializes in honeymoons. He revels in se-duction and surrender, the telling of life stories, thedisplay of loves tricks and trappings: the ego on pa-rade. When the initial ardor starts to cool, he startslooking around. To stay on the path of masterywould mean changing himself. How much easier it isto jump into another bed and start the process allover again. The Dabbler might think of himself as anadventurer, a connoisseur of novelty, but hes prob-ably closer to being what Carl Jung calls the pueraeternus, the eternal kid. Though partners change,he or she stays just the same.The Obsessive The Obsessive is a bottom-line type of person, notone to settle for second best. He or she knows resultsare what count, and it doesnt matter how you getthem, just so you get them fast. In fact, he wants toget the stroke just right during the very first lesson.He stays after class talking to the instructor. He askswhat books and tapes he can buy to help him make
22 MASTERYprogress faster. (He leans toward the listener whenhe talks. His energy is up front when he walks.) The Obsessive starts out by making robust prog-ress. His first spurt is just what he expected. Butwhen he inevitably regresses and finds himself on aplateau, he simply wont accept it. He redoubles hiseffort. He pushes himself mercilessly. He refuses toaccept his bosss and colleagues counsel of moder-ation. He works all night at the office, hes temptedto take shortcuts for the sake of quick results. American corporate managers by and large havejoined the cult of the bottom line; their profile isoften that of the Obsessive. They strive mightily tokeep the profit curve angled upward, even if thatmeans sacrificing research and development, long-term planning, patient product development, andplant investment. In relationships, the Obsessive lives for the upwardsurge, the swelling background music, the trip to thestars. Hes not like the Dabbler. When ardor cools,he doesnt look elsewhere. He tries to keep the star-ship going by every means at his command: extrav-agant gifts, erotic escalation, melodramaticrendezvous. He doesnt understand the necessity forperiods of development on the plateau. The relation-ship becomes a rollercoaster ride, with stormy sepa-rations and passionate reconciliations. The inevitablebreakup involves a great deal of pain for both part-
The Masters Journey 23ners, with very little in the way of learning or self-development to show for it. Somehow, in whatever he is doing, the Obsessivemanages for a while to keep making brief spurts ofupward progress, followed by sharp declines—a jag-ged ride toward a sure fall. When the fall occurs, theObsessive is likely to get hurt. And so are friends,colleagues, stockholders, and lovers.The Hacker The Hacker has a different attitude. After sort ofgetting the hang of a thing, he or she is willing tostay on the plateau indefinitely. He doesnt mindskipping stages essential to the development of mas-tery if he can just go out and hack around with fellowhackers. Hes the physician or teacher who doesntbother going to professional meetings, the tennisplayer who develops a solid forehand and figures hecan make do with a ragged backhand. At work, hedoes only enough to get by, leaves on time or early,takes every break, talks instead of doing his job, andwonders why he doesnt get promoted. The Hacker looks at marriage or living together not
24 MASTERYas an opportunity for learning and development, butas a comfortable refuge from the uncertainties of theoutside world. He or she is willing to settle for staticmonogamy, an arrangement in which both partnershave clearly defined and unchanging roles, and inwhich marriage is primarily an economic and domes-tic institution. This traditional arrangement some-times works well enough, but in todays world twopartners are rarely willing to live indefinitely on anunchanging plateau. When your tennis partner startsimproving his or her game and you dont, the gameeventually breaks up. The same thing applies to re-lationships. The categories are obviously not quite this neat.You can be a Dabbler in love and a master in art.You can be on the path of mastery on your job anda Hacker on the golf course—or vice versa. Even inthe same field, you can be sometimes on the path ofmastery, sometimes an Obsessive, and so on. But thebasic patterns tend to prevail, both reflecting andshaping your performance, your character, your des-tiny. At some of my lectures and workshop sessions, Idescribe the Master, the Dabbler, the Obsessive, andthe Hacker. I then ask the people in the audience toindicate by a show of hands (leaving the Master out)which of the other three would best describe them-
The Masters Journey 25selves. In almost every case, the response breaksdown into nearly even thirds, and the discussion thatfollows shows how easily most people can identifywith the three types who are the subject of this chap-ter. These characters, then, have proven useful in help-ing us see why were not on the path of mastery. Butthe real point is to get on that path and start moving.The first challenge well meet, as well see in the nextchapter, is posed by our society.
Chapter 3 Americas War Against MasteryIf youre planning to embark on a masters journey,you might find yourself bucking current trends inAmerican life. Our hyped-up consumerist society isengaged, in fact, in an all-out war on mastery. We seethis most plainly in our value system. Values wereonce inculcated through the extended family, tribalor village elders, sports and games, the apprentice-ship system or traditional schooling, religious train-ing and practice, and spiritual and secular ceremony.With the weakening or withering away of most ofthese agencies, value-giving in America has taken astrange new turn. Our society is now organized around an economicsystem that seemingly demands a continuing highlevel of consumer spending. We are offered an un-precedented number of choices as to how we spendour money. We have to have food, clothing, hous- 27
28 MASTERYing, transportation, and medical care, but within cer-tain limits we can choose among many alternatives.We are also enticed by a dazzling array of appealingnonnecessities—VCRs, vacation cruises, speedboats,microwave ovens. Every time we spend money, wemake a statement about what we value; theres noclearer or more direct indication. Thus, all induce-ments to spend money—print advertisements, radioand television commercials, mailers, and the like—are primarily concerned with the inculcation of val-ues. They have become, in fact, the chief value-giversof this age. Try paying close attention to television commer-cials. What values do they espouse? Some appeal tofear (buy our travelers checks because youre likelyto be robbed on your next trip), some to logic, evento thrift (our car compares favorably to its chief com-petitors in the following ways, and is cheaper), someto snobbery (at an elegant country house, fashion-ably dressed people are drinking a certain brand ofsparkling water), some to pure hedonism (on a mis-erable winter day in the city a young couple chancesupon a travel agency; their eyes focus on a replica ofa credit card on the window and they are instantlytransported to a dreamy tropical paradise). Keep watching, and an underlying pattern willemerge. About half of the commercials, whatever thesubject matter, are based on a climactic moment: The
The Masters Journey 29cake has already been baked; the family and guests,their faces all aglow, are gathered around to watchan adorable three-year-old blow out the candles. Therace is run and won; beautiful young people jump upand down in ecstasy as they reach for frosted cans ofdiet cola. Men are shown working at their jobs forall of a second and a half, then its Miller time. Lifeat its best, these commercials teach, is an endless se-ries of climactic moments. And the sitcoms and soaps, the crime shows, andMTV all run on the same hyped-up schedule: (1) Ifyou make smart-assed one-liners for a half hour,everything will work out fine in time for the closingcommercials. (2) People are quite nasty, dont workhard, and get rich quickly. (3) No problem is so se-rious that it cant be resolved in the wink of an eyeas soon as the gleaming barrel of a handgun appears.(4) The weirdest fantasy you can think of can be re-alized instantly and without effort. In all of this, the specific content isnt nearly asdestructive to mastery as is the rhythm. One epiph-any follows another. One fantasy is crowded out bythe next. Climax is piled upon climax. Theres noplateau.
30 MASTERYThe Path of Endless Climax Two generations of Americans have grown up inthe television age, during which consumerism hasachieved unprecedented dominance over our valuesystem. It should come as no great surprise that manyof us have the idea that our lives by all rights shouldconsist of one climax after another. So what do wedo when our own day-to-day existence doesnt matchup? How do we keep those climactic moments com-ing without instruction or discipline or practice? Itseasy. Take a drug. Of course, it doesnt work. In the long run it de-stroys you. But who in the popular and commercialculture has much to say about the long run? Whowould be willing to warn in their commercial mes-sages that every attempt to achieve an endless seriesof climactic moments, whether drug-powered or not,ends like this?
The Masters Journey 31 The epidemic of gambling currently sweepingacross the nation shows how explicit and blatant thecampaign against any long-term effort has become.An ad for the Illinois lottery pictured a man scoffingat people buying savings bonds, and insisting that theonly way an ordinary person could become a mil-lionaire was by playing the lottery. The very firstcommercial seen during an ABC special on the crisisin our high schools showed a bull session among agroup of attractive young people. The models for thiscommercial were probably over twenty-one, butcould easily have passed for high schoolers. "Im go-ing for the Trans-Am," one of them said. Anotherinformed her friends that she would take the Hawai-ian vacation, and a third said he was going to win thecash prize of $50,000. While there seemed no doubtin these happy youths minds, that they were goingto win the sweepstakes in question, they were statis-
32 MASTERYtically more likely to die by drowning in a cistern,cesspool, or well. A radio commercial for another sweepstakes dra-matized the story of a young man who was ashamedto be seen by his brother while cooking hamburgersin a fast food restaurant. He explains that hes work-ing to buy tickets to a pro football game. The brotherasks why hes doing that when he could try for thetickets in a sweepstakes. The young man is immedi-ately convinced. He then burns the hamburger hescooking and serves the french fries still frozen. "Idont care," he says happily. "I can win tickets. Idont need this job." If you could impute some type of central intelli-gence to all of these commercial messages, you wouldhave to conclude that the nation is bent on self-destruction. In any case, you might suspect that thedisproportionate incidence of drug abuse in theUnited States, especially of drugs that give you aquick high, springs not so much from immoral orcriminal impulses as from a perfectly understandableimpulse to replicate the most visible, most compel-ling American vision of the good life—an endless se-ries of climactic moments. This vision isnt just aninvention of television. It resonates in the rhetoricabout scoring ("I dont care how you win, just win"),about effortless learning, instant celebrities, instantmillionaires, and the "number one" finger raised in
The Masters Journey 33the air when you score just once. It is the ruling en-trepreneurial vision of America, even among youngghetto drug dealers. "Based on my experience,"writes anthropologist Philippe Bourgois, who spentfive years of living in and studying the culture of EastHarlem, "I believe the assertion of the culture-of-poverty theorists that the poor have been badly so-cialized and do not share mainstream values is wrong.On the contrary, ambitious, energetic, inner-cityyouths are attracted to the underground economyprecisely because they believe in the rags-to-richesAmerican dream. Like many in the mainstream, theyare frantically trying to get their piece of the pie asfast as possible." The quick-fix, antimastery mentality touches al-most everything in our lives. Look at modern medi-cine and pharmacology. "Fast, temporary relief" isthe battle cry. Symptoms receive immediate atten-tion; underlying causes remain in the shadows. Moreand more research studies show that most illnessesare caused by environmental factors or way of life.The typical twelve-minute office visit doesnt give thedoctor time to get to know the patients face, muchless his or her way of life. It does give time for writ-ing a prescription. A pioneering study by Dr. Dean Ornish and hisassociates in San Francisco has proven conclusivelythat coronary artery disease, our number one cause
34 MASTERYof death, can be reversed by a long-term regimen ofdiet, moderate exercise, yoga, meditation, and groupsupport. No drugs, no operations. This program hasbeen criticized by some doctors as "too radical." Ifthis is radical, then what do these doctors consider"conservative"? Is it a bypass operation that will splityour chest wide open, that has a 5-percent chance ofcausing death, a 30-percent chance of causing neu-rological damage, a 50-percent chance of being un-necessary; an operation which might have to berepeated after a few years and which costs $30,000.But all that doesnt seem to matter. At least its a quickfix. Business and industry? Perhaps no other area ofAmerican life is more in need of the principles ofmastery. "Gone is talk of balanced, long-termgrowth," writes Ralph E. Winter in a Wall StreetJournal article on the current fad of streamlining. "Impatient shareholders and well-heeled corporateraiders have seen to that. Now anxious executives,fearing for their jobs or their companies, are focusingtheir efforts on trimming operations and shuffling as-sets to improve near-term profits, often at the ex-pense of both balance and growth." The leveragedbuyout sums it all up. Theres an enormous climax.Certain people make a lot of money in a short time.Very little if any real value is added to the corpora-
The Masters Journey 35tion, or to the national economy. And the corporateraider becomes a culture hero. But todays hero can become tomorrows pariah.Already there are signs of a massive and growing dis-illusionment with our instant billionaires, and alsowith crash diets, miracle drugs both legal and illegal,lotteries, sweepstakes, and all the flash and clutterthat accrues from the worship of quick, effortlesssuccess and fulfillment. If we need a reminder of justhow disastrous the war against mastery can be, wehave the S&L crisis, which brought quick rewards toa few and is bringing prolonged hardship to many.Make no mistake; its all connected. The same climateof thought that would lead some people to the prom-ise that they can learn a new skill or lose weight with-out patient, long-term effort leads others to thepromise of great riches without the production ofvalue in return.A War That Cant Be Won Im aware that this critique of certain American val-ues comes at a moment of great triumph for Americaand the West. Throughout the world, even in nationswhose leaders revile us, theres a rising desire for theAmerican way of life. Totalitarian governments arestanding on very shaky ground these days. The hun-ger for free democratic governance has never been
36 MASTERYstronger. Communism, with its centralized economicplanning and control, is in full retreat. Freedom isdoubtless the way to go. And throughout most of theworld its growing clear that nations need the systemof feedback and individual incentive that obtains ina free market economy. The victory is real and celebration is in order. Butso is some cautious self-examination, for theres per-haps no more dangerous time for any society than itsmoment of greatest triumph. It would be truly fool-ish to let the decline of communism blind us to thelong-term contradictions in a free market economyunrestrained by considerations of the environmentand social justice, and driven by heedless consum-erism, instant gratification, and the quick fix. Ourdedication to growth at all costs puts us on a collisioncourse with the environment. Our dedication to theillusion of endless climaxes puts us on a collisioncourse with the human psyche. Mastery applies to nations as well as to individuals.Our present national prosperity is built on a hugedeficit and trillions of dollars worth of overdue ex-penditures on environmental cleanup, infrastructurerepair, education, and social services—the quick-fixmentality. The failure to deal with the deficit goesalong with easy credit and the continuing encourage-ment of individual consumption at the expense ofsaving and longer term gain. The celebration of re-
The Masters Journey 37suits over process is reflected in shoddy workman-ship and the ascendency of imported products. Theurgent commercial appeals that paint life as a seriesof climactic moments are not unrelated to the cur-rent epidemics of drug abuse and gambling. Fullshelves in the supermarkets and full lanes on the su-perhighways dont make up for the pitiful cries ofcrack babies, the breakdown of learning in and outof the schools, and the growing disparity betweenthe rich and the poor. America is still the most exciting of nations. Itsfreedom, its energy, its talent for innovation still in-spire the world. But our time of grace might be run-ning out. In the long run, the war against mastery,the path of patient, dedicated effort without attach-ment to immediate results, is a war that cant be won.
Chapter 4 Loving the PlateauEarly in life, we are urged to study hard, so that wellget good grades. We are told to get good grades sothat well graduate from high school and get into col-lege. We are told to graduate from high school andget into college so that well get a good job. We aretold to get a good job so that we can buy a houseand a car. Again and again we are told to do one thingonly so that we can get something else. We spendour lives stretched on an iron rack of contingencies. Contingencies, no question about it, are important.The achievement of goals is important. But the realjuice of life, whether it be sweet or bitter, is to befound not nearly so much in the products of our ef-forts as in the process of living itself, in how it feelsto be alive. We are taught in countless ways to valuethe product, the prize, the climactic moment. Buteven after weve just caught the winning pass in the 39
40 MASTERYSuperbowl, theres always tomorrow and tomorrowand tomorrow. If our life is a good one, a life ofmastery, most of it will be spent on the plateau. Ifnot, a large part of it may well be spent in restless,distracted, ultimately self-destructive attempts to es-cape the plateau. The question remains: Where in ourupbringing, our schooling, our career are we explic-itly taught to value, to enjoy, even to love the pla-teau, the long stretch of diligent effort with noseeming progress? I was fortunate in my middle years to have foundaikido, a discipline so difficult and resistant to thequick fix that it showed me the plateau in sharp, boldrelief. When I first started, I simply assumed that Iwould steadily improve. My first plateaus were rela-tively short and I could ignore them. After about ayear and a half, however, I was forced to recognizethat I was on a plateau of formidable proportions.This recognition brought a certain shock and disap-pointment, but somehow I persevered and finally ex-perienced an apparent spurt of learning. The nexttime my outward progress stopped, I said to myself,"Oh damn. Another plateau." After a few moremonths there was another spurt of progress, andthen, of course, the inevitable plateau. This time,something marvelous happened. I found myselfthinking, "Oh boy. Another plateau. Good. I can juststay on it and keep practicing. Sooner or later, therell
The Masters Journey 41be another spurt." It was one of the warmest mo-ments on my journey.The Joy of Regular Practice At that time, the aikido school I attended was onlyeighteen months old, and there were no regular stu-dents above blue belt. Our teachers, the only blackbelts around, seemed to exist in an entirely differentplane from the one on which we moved. I never evenconsidered the possibility that I would rise to thatrarefied plane. So there I was—an impatient, ratherdriven person who had always gone for the quickest,most direct route to a given goal—practicing regu-larly and hard for no particular goal at all, just for itsown sake. Months would pass with no break in thesteady rhythm of my practice. It was something newin my life, a revelation. The endless succession ofclasses was rewarding precisely because it was, in theZen sense, "nothing special." I went to class three or four times a week, fromseven to nine P.M. When it was time to drive to thedojo (practice hall) in the city, the problems and dis-tractions of the day began falling away. Just foldingthe quilted white cotton gi practice uniform softenedmy breathing and brought me a feeling of peace. Thedrive took about a half hour, across the bridge intothe city, over a long hill that taxed my cars lowest
42 MASTERYgear, then finally down to a broad and noisy avenuenoted for row upon row of car dealerships. Despitethe noise outside, climbing the stairs to the second-story dojo was like entering a sanctuary, a place bothalien to my customary existence and altogether fa-miliar. I loved everything about it, the ritual that wasalways the same yet always new: bowing upon en-tering, pulling my membership card from the rack onthe front desk, changing to my gi in the dressingroom. I loved the comforting smell of sweat, the sub-dued talk. I loved coming out of the dressing roomand checking to see which other students were al-ready warming up. I loved bowing again as I steppedon the mat, feeling the cool firm surface on the solesof my feet. I loved taking my place in the long rowof aikidoists all sitting in seiza, the Japanese medita-tion position. I loved the entry of our teacher, theritual bows, the warm-up techniques, and then myheart pounding, my breath rushing as the training in-creased in speed and power. It wasnt always like that. Sometimes, when themoment came to go to class, I would be feeling par-ticularly lazy. On those occasions I would be temptedto do almost anything rather than face myself onceagain on the mat. And sometimes I would give in tothat inevitable human resistance against doing whatsbest for us, and waste an evening distracting myself.
The Masters Journey 43I knew quite well, however, that when I did over-come my lethargy, I would be rewarded with a littlemiracle: I knew that, no matter how I felt on climb-ing the dojo stairs, two hours later—after hundredsof throws and falls—I would walk out tingling andfully alive, feeling so good, in fact, that the night it-self would seem to sparkle and gleam. This joy, I repeat, had little to do with progress orthe achievement of goals. I was taken totally by sur-prise, in fact, when one of my teachers called a fel-low student and me into his office after a weekendof marathon training and handed us brown belts, therank next to black belt. One night about a year later,the four most advanced brown belts in the schoolhappened to have a conversation during which weobliquely touched upon the possibility that we our-selves might someday achieve the rank of black belt.The idea was both exciting and troubling, and whenI next came to class I was aware of something new:the worm of ambition was eating stealthily away atthe center of my belly. Maybe it was coincidence, but within three weeksof that conversation all four of us suffered seriousinjuries—a broken toe, torn ligaments in the elbow,a dislocated shoulder (mine), and an arm broken inthree places. These injuries were effective teachers.After recovering, we settled back into steady, goal-
44 MASTERYless practice. Another year and a half was to pass be-fore the four of us made black belt. This isnt to say that we didnt practice hard. TheHacker gets on a plateau and doesnt keep working.As I think back on that period, I realize that in spiteof our many flaws we were definitely on the pathof mastery. Unlike the Hacker, we were workinghard, doing the best we could to improve our skills.But we had learned the perils of getting ahead ofourselves, and now were willing to stay on the pla-teau for as long as was necessary. Ambition still wasthere, but it was tamed. Once again we enjoyed ourtraining. We loved the plateau. And we made prog-ress. This essential paradox becomes especially clear ina martial art that is exceptionally demanding, unfor-giving, and rewarding. But it holds true, I think, inevery human activity that involves significant learn-ing—mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual. Anddespite our societys urgent and effective war againstmastery, there are still millions of people who, whileachieving great things in their work, are dedicated tothe process as well as to the product—people wholove the plateau. Life for these people is especiallyvivid and satisfying. "Its my truest happiness," a writer friend told me."Its the time when all the crap goes away. As soonas I walk into my study, I start getting cues of plea-
The Masters Journey 45sure—my books on the shelves, the particular odorof the room. These cues begin to tie into what Ivewritten and what Im going to write. Even if Ivestayed up all night, my fatigue disappears, just likethat. Theres a whole range of pleasure waiting forme, from making one sentence work to getting a newinsight." "A lot of people go for things only because ateacher told them they should, or their parents," saidOlympic gymnast Peter Vidmar. "People who getinto something for the money, the fame, or the medalcant be effective. When you discover you own de-sire, youre not going to wait for other people to findsolutions to your problems. Youre going to find yourown. I set goals for myself, but underlying all thegoals and the work was the fact that I enjoyed it. Ithought gymnastics was fun. And I had no idea thatI might someday be an Olympian." "The routine is important to me," said a successfulpainter who works in her studio for four hours fivetimes a week. "When I get started, theres a wonder-ful sense of well-being. I like to feel myself ploddingalong. I specifically choose that word, plod. Whenits going good, I feel this is the essential me. Itsthe routine itself that feeds me. If I didnt do it, Idbe betraying the essential me." When I was a boy, my father would let me go tohis office with him on Saturday mornings. I dont
46 MASTERYthink he had to go. He was simply drawn there; itwas his place of practice. He was in the fire insurancebusiness, and while he went through his mail, hewould let me wander through the office, free to playwith the marvelous mechanical contrivances of thosedays—the stately upright typewriters, the hand-operated adding machines, the staplers and paperpunches, and the old dictaphone on which I couldrecord a thin facsimile of my voice. I loved the Saturday morning silence and the smellsof glue and ink, rubber erasers and well-worn wood.I would play with the machines and make paper air-planes for a while but then, more likely than not, Iwould go into my fathers office and just sit therewatching him, fascinated by the depth of his concen-tration. He was in a world of his own, entirely re-laxed and at the same time entirely focused as heopened the envelopes of various sizes and shapes,sorted the contents into piles, and made notes to hissecretary. And all the time he worked, his lips wereslightly parted, his breath steady and calm, his eyessoft, and his hands moving steadily, almost hypnoti-cally. I remember wondering even then, when I wasnot more than ten years old, if I would ever havesuch a power of concentration or take such pleasurein my work. Certainly not at school, certainly notduring my scattered, abortive attempts to do home-work. I knew even then that he was an ambitious
The Masters Journey 47man with a burning desire for the extrinsic rewardsof his work, including public recognition and evenfame. But I also knew that he loved his work—thefeel, the rhythm, the texture of it. My fathers col-leagues later told me that he was among the best inhis field. Still, the public recognition he might havewished for never materialized, nor did the fame. Butrecognition is often unsatisfying and fame is like sea-water for the thirsty. Love of your work, willingnessto stay with it even in the absence of extrinsic re-ward, is good food and good drink.The Face of Mastery The look of deep concentration on my fathers faceas he did the work he loved is not unlike the expres-sion that can be seen on the face of almost anyoneon the path of mastery—even in the throes of phys-ical exertion. Sports photography as we know it hasbeen captured by the "thrill of victory/agony of de-feat" school. Again and again were shown climacticmoments (prodigious exertion, faces contorted withpain or triumph), almost to the exclusion of anythingelse. But it seems to me that masterys true face isrelaxed and serene, sometimes faintly smiling. In fact,those we most admire in sports seem at times to en-ter another dimension. Besieged by opposing play-ers, battered by the screams of the crowd, they make
48 MASTERYthe difficult, even the supernatural, seem easy, andmanage somehow to create harmony where chaosmight otherwise prevail. In preparing the Esquire special on mastery, I de-cided to see if I could find a series of pictures thatwould illustrate The Face of Mastery. I went throughhundreds of prints and transparencies from the majorphoto agencies, and there, scattered among the "thrillof victory/agony of defeat" shots, was just what Iwas looking for: Steven Scott making the last turn ina mile race, his face serene, his body relaxed; GregLouganis at the edge of the diving board, his face astudy in calm concentration; Peter Vidmar doingfloor exercises, his body in an impossibly strenuousposition, his face reflective and composed; KareemAbdul-Jabbar launching his "sky-hook" basketballshot over the hand of an opposing player, his face arevelation of inner delight. Abdul-Jabbar is not a manof small ego. Im sure he loved the money, the fame,the privileges his career brought him. But he lovedthe sky-hook more. Goals and contingencies, as Ive said, are impor-tant. But they exist in the future and the past, be-yond the pale of the sensory realm. Practice, thepath of mastery, exists only in the present. You cansee it, hear it, smell it, feel it. To love the plateau isto love the eternal now, to enjoy the inevitablespurts of progress and the fruits of accomplish-
The Masters Journey 49ment, then serenely to accept the new plateau thatwaits just beyond them. To love the plateau is tolove what is most essential and enduring in yourlife.
Introduction The human individual is equipped to learn and go on learning prodigiously from birth to death, and this isprecisely what sets him or her apart from all otherknown forms of life. Man has at various times beendefined as a building animal, a working animal, and a fighting animal, but all of these definitions are in- complete and finally false. Man is a learning animal,and the essence of the species is encoded in that simple term. In this light, the mastery of skills that are not genet- ically programmed is the most characteristically hu- man of all activities. The first and best of this learning involves no formal arrangements whatever; the world itself is school enough. We all participate in a mastersjourney in early childhood when we learn to talk or to walk. Every adult or older child around us is a teacher of language—the type of teacher who smiles at success,permits approximations, and isn t likely to indulge in 53
54 MASTERY lectures (i.e., the best type). We achieve an upright stance and bipedal locomotion with the help of the same encouraging, permissive instructors, along with the immediate and decisive assistance of gravity—a master teacher if ever there was one. Then, too, hu- mans are genetically predisposed toward language and bipedal locomotion. Later, however, we face the task of learning skillsfor which theres no cooperative surrounding environ- ment, skills for which we aren t as genetically predis-posed to develop. (Neither jet planes nor grand pianos were involved in the early evolution of homo sapiens.) More and more as we emerge into the teen and adultyears, we must find our own doors to mastery. Chap- ters Five through Nine present five keys to opening those doors.
Chapter 5 Key 1: InstructionThere are some skills you can learn on your own,and some you can try to learn, but if you intend totake the journey of mastery, the best thing you cando is to arrange for first-rate instruction. The self-taught person is on a chancy path. There are advan-tages: you enjoy the license of not knowing whatcant be done; you might wander into fertile terri-tory previously ruled out by mainline explorers.Some of those who have taught themselves—Edisonfor one, Buckminster Fuller for another—have madeit work. Most, however, have spent their lives rein-venting the wheel, then refusing to concede that itsout of round. Even those who will some day over-throw conventional ways of thinking or doing needto know what it is they are overthrowing. Instruction comes in many forms. For masteringmost skills, theres nothing better than being in the 55
56 MASTERYhands of a master teacher, either one-to-one or in asmall group. But there are also books, films, tapes,computer learning programs, computerized simula-tors (flight simulators, for example), group instruc-tion, the classroom, knowledgeable friends,counselors, business associates, even "the street."Still, the individual teacher or coach can serve as astandard for all forms of instruction, the first andbrightest beacon on the journey of mastery. The search for good instruction starts with a lookat credentials and lineage. Who was your teachersteacher? Who was that teachers teacher? And so onback to the timeless time when individual identitydisappears in the myth of first beginnings. These areperhaps quaint questions in an age that has let thecord of lineage come almost completely unravelled,but good questions nonetheless. (Even tapes andbooks and computer learning programs have an an-cestry.) Respect for credentials, however, shouldnt blindyou to other considerations. The instructor who ad-vertises as an eighth-degree black belt in one martialart, ninth-degree in another, and light-middleweightchampion of the world in both could be a lousyteacher. John McEnroe might turn up in later yearsas a superb tennis coach—but he might not. Theteaching tactics of a Nobel laureate could turn out tobe poison for the mind of a neophyte physicist. Its
The Five Master Keys 57particularly challenging, in fact, for a top performerto become a first-rate teacher. Instruction demands acertain humility; at best, the teacher takes delight inbeing surpassed by his or her students. Gymnasticscoach Bela Karole would have a very hard time per-forming the moves he has taught to both Nadia Com-aneci of Romania and Mary Lou Retton of the USA. To see the teacher clearly, look at the students.They are his work of art. If at all possible, attend aninstructional session before choosing your teacher.Focus your attention on the students. Even more, onthe interaction. Does the instructor proceed throughpraise or through damnation? There is the brand ofteacher, often celebrated in myth if not in reality,who is famous for giving an absolute minimum ofpraise. When this teaching tactic works, its throughan economic principle, praise becoming so scarce acommodity that even a curt nod of grudging ap-proval is taken to be highly rewarding. What doesntwork, despite a certain macho attitude to the con-trary, is scorn, excoriation, humiliation—anythingthat destroys the students confidence and self-esteem. Even the praise-stingy teacher must in someway show respect for the student in order to get long-term positive results. The best teacher generallystrives to point out what the student is doing right atleast as frequently as what she or he is doing wrong,which is just what UCLA coach John Wooden, per-
58 MASTERYhaps the greatest basketball mentor of all time, man-aged to do all through his long, winning career.Wooden was observed to maintain approximately afifty-fifty ratio between reinforcement and correc-tion, with exceptional enthusiasm on both sides ofthe equation. Look again at the students, the interaction. Do themore talented, more advanced students get all thegoodies? How about the klutzes, the beginners?Maybe youre looking for the type of instructor whoscomfortable only with the best, only with potentialchampions. There are such teachers, and they servea useful function, but for me the essence of the in-structors art lies in the ability to work effectivelyand enthusiastically with beginners and to serve as aguide on the path of mastery for those who are nei-ther as fast nor as talented as the norm. This servicecan be listed under altruism, but its more than that.For to participate with a beginner in the first falteringmental and physical moves involved in learning anew skill is to penetrate the inner structure not onlyof that skill but also of the process of mastery itself.Knowledge, expertise, technical skill, and credentialsare important, but without the patience and empathythat go with teaching beginners, these merits are asnothing.
The Five Master Keys 59The Best of Instructors, the Worst of Instructors It was at the high-water mark of a war that hadsurged all the way around the globe that I first foundmyself in the instructors role. The top six graduatesof Class 44-C of the advanced flight school at TurnerField in Albany, Georgia—brand new second lieuten-ants with silver pilots wings—were kept back andmade flight instructors while the other 304 graduateswere sent on to combat. Far from being pleased withour assignments, the six of us professed a burningdesire for immediate combat duty, a sentiment thatbecame maudlin after a few drinks at the officers clubon our nights off. I was twenty years old. The otherfive new instructors were about the same age. In March of 1944, despite our lack of experience,we were assigned students, and, without a word ofadvice, sent up to teach them to fly the B-25, a high-performance medium bomber of the time. The in-vasion of Fortress Europe was imminent. The Pacificcampaign, it was predicted, would last for years. Pi-lots, like the planes they would fly, had to be pro-duced by the tens of thousands, never mind suchniceties as stringent safety procedures. Flying conditions would have caused a major scan-dal in peacetime. Even on the darkest nights, withgiant thunderstorms closing in, some hundred B-25swould jockey for position in the landing pattern at
60 MASTERYthe end of each instructional period. There was noth-ing like a radar traffic control system; our lives hungon visual acuity, flying skill, and fast reflexes. Duringthe summer of 1944, two spectacular midair colli-sions at Turner Field resulted in the destruction offour planes and the tragic loss of the instructors andcadets flying them. The crashes never made thenewspapers. There was no time for sympathy or sec-ond chances. Student pilots who didnt measure upwere washed out, discarded like defective compo-nents coming off a production line. The six months I spent at Turner Field proved tobe more challenging, and actually more dangerous,than the combat tour in the South Pacific that fol-lowed. After logging 600 hours as a flight instructorunder the most demanding of conditions, I hadgained a sure sense of the mastery of flight that hasnever left me. And what about my students? Ah, thats anotherstory. Time provides no replays. But I am left, after all ofthese years, with crystalline memories of preternat-urally white clouds soaring over deep green fields ofcotton and corn, of the insistent engine sound thatfinally became no sound at all, of smoking enginesand failed hydraulic systems, of illegal flights out overthe Atlantic to play vertiginous games of follow-the-leader with other planes while our students held their
The Five Master Keys 61breaths. But more than anything, I am left with a mo-rality tale on the subject of instructing, in which Iplay the leading role. Theres nothing 1 can do tochange it. I was the best of instructors. I was theworst of instructors. The first does not justify thesecond. Each of us was given four students to guidethrough the entire two months of advanced training.I quickly discovered that two of my students—cadetsby the name of Stull and Thatcher—were quite tal-ented. The other two—call them Brewster and Ed-mundson—were, at best, mediocre. This discrepancysuggested a plan: I would keep Stull and Thatchertogether. Id never let them fly with anyone else; theywould be safe from contamination by lesser talents.This would allow me to initiate the two of them intoa mode of flying a fellow instructor and I had devel-oped while still cadets. We called it maximum per-formance, and it simply meant that we would fly asclose as possible to perfection at all times, even whenregulations didnt call for it, even when no one waswatching. And so, without mentioning the words maximumperformance, I set standards for Stull and Thatcherapproximately ten times more stringent than whatwas called for. Normally, while flying on instru-ments, pilots were given a leeway of 200 feet aboveor below the prescribed altitude, but I led Stull and
62 MASTERYThatcher to believe they had only a 20-foot marginof error. I insisted they hold their gyro compassheading right on the money at all times. I taughtthem, even when landing on a 10,000-foot runway,to touch down on the first hundred feet. I gave Stull and Thatcher my very best, and theyresponded just as I had hoped they would. Eventhough I never let them fly with other cadets, theymust have compared notes and figured out what Iwas up to. Sometimes, when I described a particu-larly unreasonable standard of performance with astraight face, they were unable to keep from smiling.After the first few weeks, I too couldnt keep a smileoff my face. We were joined in a delicious conspiracyof excellence. On the days I was scheduled to flywith them, I awakened with a feeling of excitementand anticipation. I can still see Stull and Thatcher with incredibleclarity, one of them in the pilots seat, the otherstanding in back and leaning down between thepilots and copilots seats to watch yet another per-fect approach and landing. The pure, prophetic lightof another time still pours in through the Plexiglascanopy—the towering clouds, the impossible blue ofthe sky—and the two cadets faces still glow with theincomparable happiness that comes when you firstembark on the journey of mastery. Now for the hard part of the story.
The Five Master Keys 63 After my first few flights with the cadets Im callingBrewster and Edmundson, I simply lost interest. I wastoo young, too impatient, too arrogant in my es-pousal of maximum performance to endure theirrather inept efforts at flying the B-25. Brewster wasslim, patrician, and shy. Edmundson was heavy-setand confident, the squadron jokester. On one flightI thought he made a snide remark at my expense. Itook the controls, climbed to 10,000 feet, and rackedthe plane around in maneuvers it was never meant toperform, leaving Edmundson and Brewster pale andshaken. I went through the motions. Now and then I madean effort to bring them along, to discover what wasblocking their progress, to develop their potential toits fullest extent. But my enthusiasms were short-lived. Some particularly blatant display of crudity onthe controls by Edmundson or tentativeness on thepart of Brewster would cause me to shake my headin despair and disgust, and either turn away andslump in my seat or take the controls and show themexactly how the maneuver should be done. As it turned out, Brewster and Edmundson gradu-ated along with Stull and Thatcher, but just barely.After the war, I happened to run into Brewster at adance in Atlanta. He took the opportunity (the forceof his resentment overcoming any shyness he mighthave felt) to let me know exactly what he thought
64 MASTERYabout his experiences with me at Turner Field. I hadno adequate reply. Long before that time, I had be-gun to feel guilty about the way I had handled myfirst assignment as an instructor. In fact, I never againsegregated my students as I had done the first time.I graduated two more groups of pilots before leavingfor combat, experiencing neither the exhilaration Ihad felt with Stull and Thatcher nor the despair I hadfelt with Brewster and Edmundson. I worked to con-trol my impatience, to do the best I could with theslower students. Still, a continuing preoccupationwith maximum performance, along with an extrem-ity of youth, tended to frustrate my own perfor-mance as a teacher of the less talented.The Magic of Teaching Beginners Many years later, I found myself once again in theinstructors role, engaged this time in an art far moresubtle and complex and difficult to learn than flying.I was forty-seven when a friend invited me to jointhe aikido class he was organizing. I had never heardof aikido, nor had I ever dreamed of becoming a mar-tial artist. That was twenty years ago, and I can nowsay that practicing aikido has been the second mostprofound learning experience of my life. Teachingaikido has been the most profound. Even before getting my first-degree black belt, I
The Five Master Keys 65was enlisted by my teacher as an assistant instructor.My job: teaching the basics of the art to beginners.Six years later, in October 1976, shortly after gettingour black belts, two of my fellow aikidoists and Istarted our own dojo. From rather questionable be-ginnings fourteen years ago (its not customary forfirst-degree black belts to start their own school), Ai-kido of Tamalpais has become a respected and happydojo. We three founders have continued developingour skills, and have advanced to higher ranks. Fromthe thousands of students who have practiced at ourschool for varying lengths of time have come twenty-eight black belts—not an insignificant number in adifficult art that offers no cheap degrees. At this point, Id like to be able to tell you that bynow Ive mastered the art of teaching slow studentsand beginners. But that wouldnt be true; I still haveto work at it. I listen carefully when Wendy Palmer,one of my partners, tells me that teaching beginnersand slow students is not only fascinating but pleasur-able. The talented student, she believes, is likely tolearn so fast that small stages in the learning processare glossed over, creating an opaque surface thathides the secrets of the art from view. With the slowstudent, though, the teacher is forced to deal withsmall, incremental steps that penetrate like X rays thevery essence of the art, and clearly reveal the process
66 MASTERYthrough which the art becomes manifest in move-ment. Gradually the mystery has unfolded. My experi-ence as an instructor has shown me, for one thing,that the most talented students dont necessarilymake the best martial artists. Sometimes, strangelyenough, those with exceptional talent have troublestaying on the path of mastery. In 1987, my col-leagues at Esquire and I conducted a series of inter-views with athletes known as masters of their sports,which tended to confirm this paradoxical finding.Most of the athletes we interviewed stressed hardwork and experience over raw talent. "I have seenso many baseball players with God-given ability whojust didnt want to work," Rod Carew said. "Theywere soon gone. Ive seen others with no ability tospeak of who stayed in the big leagues for fourteenor fifteen years."Good Horse, Bad Horse In his book Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, Zen mas-ter Shunryu Suzuki approaches the question of fastand slow learners in terms of horses. "In our scrip-tures, it is said that there are four kinds of horses:excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones.The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left,at the drivers will, before it sees the shadow of the
The Five Master Keys 67whip; the second best will run as well as the first one,just before the whip reaches its skin; the third onewill run when it feels pain on its body; the fourthwill run after the pain penetrates to the marrow ofits bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for thefourth one to learn to run. "When we hear this story, almost all of us want tobe the best horse. If it is impossible to be the bestone, we want to be the second best." But this is amistake, Master Suzuki says. When you learn too eas-ily, youre tempted not to work hard, not to pene-trate to the marrow of a practice. "If you study calligraphy, you will find that thosewho are not so clever usually become the best callig-raphers. Those who are very clever with their handsoften encounter great difficulty after they havereached a certain stage. This is also true in art, andin life." The best horse, according to Suzuki, may bethe worst horse. And the worst horse can be the best,for if it perseveres, it will have learned whatever it ispracticing all the way to the marrow of its bones. Suzukis parable of the four horses has haunted meever since I first heard it. For one thing, it poses aclear challenge for the person with exceptional tal-ent: to achieve his or her full potential, this personwill have to work just as diligently as those with lessinnate ability. The parable has made me realize thatif Im the first or second horse as an instructor of fast
68 MASTERYlearners, Im the third or fourth horse as an instructorof slow learners. But there is hope. If I persevere anddedicate my efforts to bringing along every Brewsterand Edmundson who shows up at our aikido school,Ill someday know this aspect of instructing all theway to the marrow of my bones. So when you look for your instructor, in whateverskill or art, spend a moment celebrating it when youdiscover one who pursues maximum performance.But also make sure that he or she is paying exquisiteattention to the slowest student on the mat.Comparing Various Modes of Instruction How about the other modes of instruction? In mostcases, audio and video tapes have only limited effec-tiveness. Learning eventually involves interaction be-tween the learner and the learning environment, andits effectiveness relates to the frequency, quality, va-riety, and intensity of the interaction. With tapes,theres no real interaction at all; information flows inone direction only. A videotape can show you anideal golf swing to copy, and thats certainly betterthan nothing, but the tape has no way of observingyour swing and telling you how well youre replicat-ing the ideal. With remote control, the tape can beeasily stopped, reversed, repeated, and in some casesplayed in slow motion—all of which makes it much
The Five Master Keys 69better than instructional films or television programs,which march along at a steady rate, regardless of thelearners progress or understanding. A book is also self-paced, and its portable andhandy. Like tape, its suffers from lack of feedbackcapability. Still, in spite of the marvels of the com-puter age, the book remains a major tool for learningespecially in skills that are primarily cognitive. If apicture is sometimes worth a thousand words, thenperhaps a moving picture is worth 10,000 words. Butits also true that one good paragraph sometimes hasmore power to change the individual and the worldthan any number of pictures. The typical school or college classroom, unhap-pily, is not a very good place to learn. "Frontal teach-ing," with one instructor sitting or standing in frontof twenty to thirty-five students who are sitting atfixed desks, is primarily an administrative expedi-ency, a way of parceling out and keeping track of theflood of students in mass education. Its sad that overthe past hundred years almost every aspect of ournational life—industry, transportation, communica-tion, computation, entertainment—has changed al-most beyond recognition, while our schools remainessentially the same. Take a look. There it is: one teacher giving out thesame information at the same rate to a group ofmostly passive students regardless of their individual
70 MASTERYabilities, cultural backgrounds, or learning styles. Ivewritten at some length on this subject and on thetype of reform that could remedy the situationthrough the self-pacing and individualizing capabili-ties of the computer and other new instructionalmodes. I believe that within ten or fifteen years atthe most some sort of school reform along these linesis inevitable. Meanwhile, there are still good teachers and badteachers. Visits to hundreds of schools have con-vinced me that the teacher who can make the presentsystem work is undoubtedly a master. He or she isnot necessarily the one who gives the most polishedlectures, but rather the one who has discovered howto involve each student actively in the process oflearning. One award-winning mathematician at a ma-jor university was famous for intentionally makingsmall mistakes when he wrote formulas on the chalk-board. Students sat on the edge of their chairs vyingto be the first to catch the mistake and rush up tocorrect their professor—truly a master of the instruc-tors art.Knowing When to Say Good-bye Fortunate is the person who can find such ateacher, especially at the beginning of the learningprocess. Students at school up to and including col-
The Five Master Keys 71lege often dont have much choice. Even those of uswho do have a choice sometimes make a bad one. Ifyou should end up with a teacher who doesnt seemright for you, first look inside. You might well beexpecting more than any teacher can give. But teach-ers as well as students can be lazy, excessively goaloriented, indifferent, psychologically seductive, orjust plain inept. Its important to keep the properpsychological distance. If youre too far removed,theres no chance for the surrender thats part of themasters journey (see Chapter Seven); if you cometoo close, you lose all perspective and become a dis-ciple rather than a student. The responsibility forgood balance lies with student as well as teacher.When irreconcilable differences do occur, rememberthat the better part of wisdom is knowing when tosay good-bye. Bear in mind that on the path of mastery learningnever ends. In the words of the great Japaneseswordmaster Yamaoka Tesshu: Do not think that This is all there is. More and more Wonderful teachings exist— The sword is unfathomable.
Chapter 6 Key 2: PracticeIts an old joke that appears in many versions butalways sends the same message. In one version, acouple of Texans in a Cadillac on their way to a con-cert are lost in New Yorks Lower East Side. Theystop to question a bearded elder. "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" they ask. "Practice!" he tells them. That usage of the word—practice as a verb—is clearto all of us. You practice your trumpet, your danceroutine, your multiplication tables, your combat mis-sion. To practice in this sense implies something sep-arate from the rest of your life. You practice in orderto learn a skill, in order to improve yourself, in orderto get ahead, achieve goals, make money. This wayof thinking about practice is useful in our society;you obviously have to practice to get to CarnegieHall. 73
74 MASTERY For one who is on the masters journey, however,the word is best conceived of as a noun, not as some-thing you do, but as something you have, somethingyou are. In this sense, the word is akin to the Chi-nese word tao and the Japanese word do, both ofwhich mean, literally, road or path. Practice is thepath upon which you travel, just that. A practice (as a noun) can be anything you practiceon a regular basis as an integral part of your life—notin order to gain something else, but for its own sake.It might be a sport or a martial art. It might be gar-dening or bridge or yoga or meditation or commu-nity service. A doctor practices medicine and anattorney practices law, and each of them also has apractice. But if that practice is only a collection ofpatients or clients, a way of making a living, it isnta masters practice. For a master, the rewards gainedalong the way are fine, but they are not the mainreason for the journey. Ultimately, the master andthe masters path are one. And if the traveler is for-tunate—that is, if the path is complex and profoundenough—the destination is two miles farther awayfor every mile he or she travels. A woman in one of our workshops asked my wife,Annie, why she was still going to aikido classes. "Ithought youd already gotten your black belt," shesaid. It took Annie a few minutes to explain that ablack belt is only one more step along an endless
The Five Master Keys 75path, a license to go on learning for as long as youlive. In a nation obsessed with the achievement of goals("It doesnt matter how you score; the score is allthat counts." "Dont tell me how you are going tosell the ad, just sell it." "Winning isnt everything;its the only thing."), devotion to the goalless jour-ney might seem incomprehensible if not bizarre. Butbehind the slogans you read on the sports page andin the business section theres a deeper reality: themaster goes along with the rhetoric about scoring andwinning (in todays media climate, who would listento anything else?), but secretly cherishes those gamesfilled with delicious twists and turns of fortune, greatplays, close calls, and magical finishes—regardless ofwho wins. Theres another secret: The people we know asmasters dont devote themselves to their particularskill just to get better at it. The truth is, they love topractice—and because of this they do get better. Andthen, to complete the circle, the better they get themore they enjoy performing the basic moves overand over again. Beginners at the basics classes at our aikido schoolwill do a simple blending move about eight or tentimes, then start looking around restlessly for some-thing new to distract them. Black belts at the basicsclasses have the knowledge and experience—the
76 MASTERYfeel—necessary to appreciate the subtleties and end- less possibilities contained within even the most ru- dimentary technique. I remember an aikido class years ago when I was a brown belt, the rank just below black belt. Our teacher started us doing a tech- nique called shiho-nage (four-way throw), then con- tinued with the same variation of the same technique for the entire two-hour class. After the first half hour, I began wondering what was coming next. (Our school rarely practiced the same technique for so long a time.) By the end of the first hour, however, I had settled into a steady, trancelike rhythm that obliterated all considerations of time or repetition. My perceptions expanded. The barely noticeable variations from one throw to the next became signif- icant and revealing. By the end of the second hour, I was hoping that the class would go on until mid- night, that it would never end.Staying on the Mat "The master," an old martial arts saying goes, "isthe one who stays on the mat five minutes longerevery day than anybody else." And not just in aikido.In August 1988, I visited the Seattle Seahawks train-ing camp as a guest of the teams offensive coordi-nator. When the morning practice session was over,the players shambled off the field to the dressing
The Five Master Keys 77room—all of the players except two, that is. One ofthe two kept running out, then wheeling suddenly totake a pass from the other. Again and again, he ranthe same pattern, caught the same pass. The field wasempty; the other players were inside taking theirshowers, getting dressed. The coaches, too, weregone and the spectators had drifted away. I remainedthere on the sidelines, fascinated. Who was this eagerpass receiver? Surely, it was some brand new rookie,someone trying to get good enough to make theteam. No, it was Steve Largent, not only the premierpass receiver of the Seattle Seahawks but the leadingreceiver in the history of the National FootballLeague. The master of any game is generally a master ofpractice. In his prime, Larry Bird of the Boston Celt-ics was perhaps the most complete basketball playerof all time. Unable to jump as high or run as fast asmany other players, he was named National Basket-ball Association Rookie of the Year for 1980, MostValuable Player in two championship series, and theleague MVP for three years in a row. Bird began de-veloping his basketball practice at age four, and neverstopped practicing. After the Celtics won the NBAchampionship in June 1986, reporters asked Birdwhat he planned to do next. "Ive still got somethings I want to work on," he was quoted as saying."Ill start my off-season training next week. Two
78 MASTERYhours a day, with at least a hundred free throws."Many professionals take some of the summer off, butnot Larry Bird. He runs for conditioning, up anddown the steepest hills he can find. On the blacktopcourt with glass backboard at home in French Lick,Indiana, he practices. During the season, in the Hel-lenic College gym in Brookline, he practices. On roadtrips, in arenas all around the country, before everygame, he practices. During his years with the Celtics, Bird was knownfor getting on the court an hour or two before ev-eryone else to practice his shots—foul shots, fall-awayshots, three-pointers, shots from all sorts of angles.Sometimes, just for fun, he would sit on the sidelineand pop them in, or find a seat in the first row andfloat them in. No question, Bird likes to win. Still,according to his agent Bob Woolf, thats not the mainreason he practices so diligently and plays so whole-heartedly. "He does it just to enjoy himself. Not tomake money, to get acclaim, to gain stature. He justloves to play basketball." Explicit skills such as those found in martial arts,sports, dance, music, and the like provide explicitexamples of practice. But this second key to masteryundergirds a wide variety of human endeavors. Goodbusiness practice demands that managers keep themechanics of their operations current at all times, be-ing especially diligent and disciplined in such basic