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Mastery and How to Attain It

March 13th, 2009 by Forum Corporation

By Kerry Johnson, Executive Consultant

While thinking about the idea I discussed in a recent blog post—that it takes 10,000 hours to attain a level of mastery—I recalled a tiny, yet profound book I’d read more than 15 years ago entitled Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment by George Leonard. I was fascinated by how articulate Leonard was in laying out a path to achieving mastery in almost any area of endeavor—sports, music, cooking, whatever—and it struck me that you could talk about achieving some form of leadership mastery by following his process.

The keys Leonard focuses on are self-awareness and self-discipline, neither of which is easy to develop or practice.

More specifically, Leonard’s advice is “learn to love the plateau.” Think back to a time when you were determined to learn a new skill. Let’s take skiing as an example. How did you go about it? If you were truly serious about learning to ski, you probably got some basic equipment (rented first, then purchased), took some basic lessons, and you practiced. The practice was slow at first and probably hard. Only little kids like to fall down, after all. But you kept at it. Eventually you improved and could now “master” the beginner’s slopes with some confidence. You went back home feeling pretty good about your newfound skiing ability.

After that initial excitement you planned another trip to snow country before the winter was over. You got a rush from the feeling of accomplishment. This time you picked up almost where you left off. Since you’d made such excellent progress in learning to ski the first time, you were pretty sure that you’d see some real improvement this time too. Did it happen? Probably not! In fact, you had hit your first plateau—which lasted the whole weekend and left you feeling a little daunted.

You’re no quitter, though, so, after mulling over the dreaded plateau for a couple of weeks at home, you decided to attack that mountain again. This time you figured you’d better take another lesson. At first, the results were not too reassuring. In fact, you seemed to be getting worse, not better, until, after some really concerted practice, you made some visible progress to the next level. You had the usual dip in performance that accompanies learning a new technique to improve your overall skill, and—now comes the worst part—you were now back on another plateau, and you probably didn’t even know it yet.

Leonard talks about how to learn to love the plateau, because if you don’t, you’re doomed to become a dabbler. You’re doomed to be the person who gets just good enough to get by. You get to that point because you never push beyond the level of the original lesson and the plateau that follows. The plateau (when you love it) is the place where your new skills get integrated into your repertoire. The plateau, even though it feels like no progress is being made, is actually the place where you fine-tune your progress to date and prepare to press on. It’s also the place that can bring the most frustration and disappointment, and, for that reason, it is on the plateau that most people stop stretching for mastery and learn to live with the level they’re on.

In terms of learning to lead this may be the core contributor to Murphy’s Law. Our level of incompetence is really just a plateau. The challenge is to recognize that and find a path to the next plateau, learning to love that one for what it can teach you.