Working Towards Mastery

Aug 29, 2016 by Reen Rose

I live across from a little park that has a basketball court. It amazes me how often it gets used by people of all ages and I enjoy the fact that so many teenagers and young adults are spending their time in a healthy, energetic past-time. Some days I see individuals shooting baskets all by themselves for what seems like hours. They don’t seem to tire of working to improve their skill level.

In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell introduced us to the idea that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery. I don’t disagree that practice makes us better and that after 10,000 hours of practice we are likely to be pretty good, but I want to consider the possibility that we are prepared to spend 10,000 hours doing something we have the ability to do rather than something we really struggle with.

In the early 1990’s German psychologists studied violinists. They were interested in the number of hours they spent practicing the violin as a child, adolescent and adult. Most of them were about 5 when they started playing and at this stage they practised for very similar lengths of time. By the time they were 8, the amount of time each person practiced for started to vary and by the time they were 20 the best of the violinists had on average practiced for over 10,000 hours while the less able violinists averaged about 4,000 hours of practice.

This might mean that the hours of practice made the musicians better, or is it possible that the less able ones didn’t practise as much because they weren’t as good at it and therefore didn’t enjoy practising?

In my experience as a teacher, a mom, and just being me, I have observed that often we spend time doing things we are already pretty good at or at least feel we have a chance of getting good at.

I am terrible at any sport and spent my school life trying to avoid PE. I should have been out practicing throwing a ball and shooting hoops, but instead I spent my time creating music and reading. These were things I enjoyed because I believed I could do them successfully. My father once told me that as a student who loved math, he decided to learn the times tables and practised them relentlessly until he was better than anyone else. I couldn’t imagine my mother, who has always felt that she sucked at math, doing that. Instead, as a talented English student, she spent hours and hours reading.

Regardless of whether or not we practice things we are good at, working towards mastery in a chosen activity makes us happy.

Did you notice that I used the phrase ‘working towards mastery’ rather than ‘attaining mastery?’ Mastery can never really be attained. Regardless of how good we are at something, there is always room for improvement, no matter how small. That is the type of mastery Olympians work toward. They spend weeks, months, years trying to eek out just a few more tenths of a second.

How can we use this information in our business and personal lives?

  1. Mastery has a focus on learning and improvement, rather than comparing how good we are to how good others are in order to appear smart or avoid looking stupid.
  2. Create an attitude and environment that views failure as an opportunity to learn something new, rather than an occurrence that must be avoided at all costs.
  3. Allow yourself and others to choose what they want to practice rather than being tasked with something that they aren’t interested in.
  4. Allow time to work towards mastery. Don’t see practice time as a waste of productive time.

Watching aspiring basketball players who regularly show up by themselves to practice, is a constant reminder to me of the drive we have to work towards mastery in our lives. One hundred and fifty hours of blog writing down, only 9,850 hours to go.