How to Master Any Skill: A Practical Guide

by Corey Pemberton 8 Minutes

What does it take to become a master?

Being born a genius? Hiding away from the world and meditating for years in a mountain temple?

Not exactly, according to George Leonard’s excellent book Mastery. His book lays out a practical road map we can follow to take our businesses (or any other aspect of our lives) to the next level. Leonard himself followed this path to become a best-selling author and Aikido black belt.

No matter where you’re starting right now or which skill you’d like to improve, the path of mastery is accessible to you – and an important tool in reaching your full potential.

What Separates the Good from the Great?

The difference between a good business and a great one is unmistakable:

Good businesses get by and make nice money from time to time.

But great businesses? They design revolutionary products and services, change lives, and write a unique legacy.

I’ve wondered a long time about what exactly separates these groups. Maybe you have too. Are the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of the world just a special breed of human? Or is it the way they approach their work and lives that makes all the difference?

While there’s no denying those founders’ talents, I think it’s a combination of both. What truly separates game-changing businesses from the others: a commitment to (and relentless pursuit of) mastery.

Many of us feel we aren’t living up to our full potential. But we struggle to understand why – or doing something about it. Fortunately, George Leonard’s excellent book Mastery is packed with key insights about understanding this process and what it takes to become truly great.

Modern Culture Is Aligned Against Mastery

Becoming masters of our craft – whether it’s marketing, writing, web design, or anything else – gets us access to the coolest business deals, networks, and massive financial success.

Before we get started, it helps to understand exactly what we’re up against. And that’s this: most of our modern culture is at war with the mindset and actions it takes to achieve mastery.

So much of the media and marketing messages we see today rely on promises of quick fixes and instant gratification. Want to get in shape and build muscle? There are magic pills for that! Same if you want to learn a new language, build wealth, or anything else.

You even see it in movies and TV shows. “Life” is depicted as an endless series of exciting moments. Our hero gets beat up, closes a huge deal at work, then gets the girl – all in a matter of minutes. After a cool training montage, Rocky emerges as a world-class boxer. It’s just climax after climax.

We don’t see what happens behind the scenes – the countless hours of work and sweat that goes into making those big moments possible. No one wants to watch the boring parts!

Key Insights from George Leonard’s Book Mastery

Okay, so our life hacking, quick fix culture is at odds with what it takes to become truly great.

What can we do about it?

It takes motivation and hard work no matter what you’re trying to master. But the payoff – financial success, making a huge impact on the world, becoming a leader in your field – is more than worth it.

Here’s what you need to know to get started on your path to mastery:

1. Prepare for a Messy, Non-Linear Journey

george leonard masteryPhoto credit: Jeremy Bolwell

The first step to becoming a master is understanding what to expect along the way. Namely, the journey won’t look anything like how it does in the movies!

So many “magic bullets” promise quick, linear results. Take this pill, get that result.

The true path to mastery, however, is much messier than that. Everything is confusing when we dive into a new skill, but it doesn’t take long before we start seeing results. Things get tougher when we’ve been at it for a while, when progress seems to slow to a standstill.

According to Leonard, most of the path to mastery is spent on these plateaus. We might spend months working away without noticing any progress or getting feedback that we’re headed in the right direction. Then, often when we least expect it, we jump to the next level.

These jumps are awesome, but they’re often followed by temporary backslides before we get comfortable with our new level of performance. Then it’s off to another plateau again, working away and climbing ever closer to mastery.

It’s understandable to get frustrated when we find ourselves are on one of these long plateaus. But Leonard argues that, because we’ll spend most of our time their anyway, we might as well fall in love with the plateaus and make the most of them.

Problems crop up when we try to escape those (inevitable) plateaus or short-circuit the journey. We make poor decisions or give in to self-destructive behavior. What if, instead of banging your head against the wall whenever progress slows, you focused on savoring every moment you spend there?

2. Dabblers, Obsessives, and Hackers (and What to Do about Them)

mastery plateauImage credit: Clker-Free-Vector-Images

We just laid out the long, messy path to mastery. Progress, backslide, and plateau. Rinse and repeat.

Resisting those plateaus (or trying to skip them altogether) keeps you from breaking through and reaching your full potential. According to Leonard, this resistance is so common that it breaks down into three common personas:

  1. The dabbler. The dabbler is someone who discovers something and falls in love with it immediately. He or she starts out strong, spending countless hours learning a new skill. Everything is fine and dandy until they reach that first plateau. As soon as their sense of progress fades, they abandon the skill and chase another one. They become a jack-of-all-trades (and master of none!)
  2. The obsessive. This is your stereotypical type A person. They work hard to reach their goals, and their happiness hinges on the results. Everything is great when they can track their hours and see results. But they find themselves incredibly frustrated during plateaus. They can’t justify putting in more hours when they don’t see the payoff (or linear progress) they’re looking for. Obsessives struggle to trust the process.
  3. The hacker. The hacker is kind of like the dabbler, except that they’re never really “all in” about mastering a skill in the first place. They go through the motions and put some work in. But deep down they’re actually satisfied that “good” is good enough. Without ever really committing to mastery, they never break through.

Which of these personas sounds most like you?

One of them might spring to mind right away. Maybe you’re a combination of a few.

Understanding how you react during plateaus is priceless. If you know how you’ll likely respond to challenges along the way, you can better prepare for them beforehand.

  • For dabblers, it’s mostly a matter of developing more discipline and structure. Just sticking to a consistent schedule can see you through a plateau when enthusiasm wanes.
  • Obsessives might need to change the way they think about their goals. Instead of focusing on making $X or finding Y customers (which are ultimately outside their control), they can take heart in hitting metrics they can control (like how many hours they spend on their skill each day).
  • Hackers can also benefit from more discipline and structure. But they might need to go deeper and really consider their priorities and vision of success. Sometimes mastering certain skills won’t have a place in that.

3. Understand Homeostasis

homeostasisPhoto credit: Gadini

Leonard also urges us to be mindful of homeostasis. This is the process in which a system maintains a sense of equilibrium or balance – like how the human body regulates its temperature to stay around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

In terms of mastery, homeostasis is all about your comfort zone.

You might be frustrated with your results right now, but they’re comfortable. You’re used to them. And you probably have a familiar mindset, habits, and work strategy that creates them.

As we push through plateaus on our path to mastery, we’re forced to step outside that comfort zone. There are temporary setbacks and failures. Maybe we risk looking foolish when we try something new. Some of the most unexpected changes come in how our friends and family might react to our commitment to mastery. They know us as one thing, and when we decide to push harder, sometimes they can become less supportive or even critical.

Leonard encourages us to expect these things. Temporary backsliding is inevitable because our body is just used to performing at the level it’s performing on now. It’s nothing to get upset about.

A key concept: our resistance to changes is proportional to the scope and speed of those changes.

If you decide to revamp your life and try to master several different things at once, don’t be surprised if you run into a lot of resistance. It might be more sustainable to master one thing at a time. Consistency and gradual progress will take you a lot farther than a hectic start, followed by burn out and frustration.

4. Play on the Edge of Your Current Skills

mountain edgePhoto credit: Unsplash

Leonard also describes how masters like to “play on the edge” of their current skills. Time and time again they test their limits, as that’s often the best way to get through plateaus.

This reminds me a lot of an article I wrote about deliberate practice. Practicing your skills mindfully is great, but it might not be enough to reach the next level. To do that, you must be willing to challenge yourself and try new things – even if that means slipping back for a short while.

Think of Tiger Woods. Back in the early 2000’s, he was winning golf tournaments left and right and at the top of his game. But he knew his swing was unsustainable. So he reworked it, which cost him a few months of success but paid off (making him much more accurate on the course) for years to come.

What’s one way you can test your skills on your next project?

How can you exceed your newest customer’s wildest expectations?

These are exactly the kinds of questions masters ask themselves every day. They make even mundane work more exciting, improve your skills faster, and prove that you’re a lot more capable than you might think.

5. Master the Commonplace

dishesPhoto credit: chefkeem

According to Leonard, mastery isn’t just limited to working hours. It’s a way of life.

Getting familiar with the journey, putting in the practice, and pushing yourself in one area of your life translates into a better ability to master other areas. If you learn how to master your fitness, for example, it’s a bit easier to take up a foreign language or improve your business. You know what it takes; you know what to expect.

Just the act of mastering something makes it a bit easier to master anything else.

With that in mind, Leonard recommends we take full advantage of all the “commonplace” activities during our days. Things like doing the dishes or driving home from work are usually mundane. We don’t think about them as we do them. Our minds go on autopilot.

Leonard urges us to take that love of practice needed for mastery and apply it to every aspect of our lives. Instead of zoning out on your drive home, for instance, you pay full attention to the way your car accelerates and how your grip on the wheel changes with every turn. Even the most mundane tasks offer opportunities to engage mindfully and improve.

Embracing this philosophy doesn’t just make chores and other boring tasks more enjoyable. When it comes time to work on mastering your professional skills, you’re better off because you’ve built up your ability to pay attention and focus.

A Path for Long-Term Fulfillment

While your competitors stress about making $X this year or finding Y new customers, you can focus on something much more important. You can become a master.

The path is long, and not without its share of challenges. But it’s also a source of immense satisfaction. The tips from Leonard’s book help you enjoy every step along the way and engage your work mindfully, falling in love with the long, inevitable plateaus as your skills improve.

In a world of magic pills and false promises, George Leonard’s call to mastery couldn’t be sweeter medicine.

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by Corey Pemberton
Corey Pemberton is a freelance copywriter and blogger who helps small businesses and software startups get more traffic and conversions online. You can find him on his website or follow him on Twitter.