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How to think about mastery
A hierarchy for approaching mastery of your craft
“Perhaps we'll never know how far the path can go, how much a human being can truly achieve, until we realize that the ultimate reward is not a gold medal but the path itself.”
— George Leonard
That word inspires me. At the very mention of mastery, my back straightens, my loins heat up, and my ambition is awakened. I’m reminded not of fame and fortune but of the knowing fraternity of those who have shaped their identity by mastering our craft. I want to learn from masters before and inspire masters of tomorrow, in an unbroken lineage of greatness.
If, like me, you’re seduced by the opportunity presented to you, how do we walk the path to mastering our craft?
This path never ends. Mastery requires 9,999 hours of shit work to get to that 10,000th hour of beauty. That dedication to your craft comes to define you, so that your friends and loved ones would never dare to interrupt your work. There’s one point that often gets missed.
Not every hour of work is equal. And you want every hour to count.
I’ve developed a hierarchy of effort for trying to master my craft. The base level of the hierarchy is habit building, where you build your identity by building your habit. The next level up is dedicated learning. At the top of the hierarchy is expansion.
In the habit building phase, I spend hours teaching my ego and my fingertips that I am a writer
The habit building phase is the bulk of the path. Here you’re spending hours working on your craft so that you start to recognize yourself as a craftsman. The point here is to put in hours. Every day, every week, every month, and every year. You’re working at your craft while you’re playing at your craft.
At this point, we’re not worried about quality. 90% of what you create should never see the light of day. We spend hours learning how to tell our inner critic to shut the hell up long enough to let our thoughts escape through our fingertips and onto the screen. We’re teaching our body that hard work can be joyous.
The habit building phase never ends. We’ll return to it time and again as we spend 75% of our time on the path in this phase of the hierarchy.
In dedicated learning sprints, focus on developing the smallest possible skill
Dedicated learning sprints are where we develop a single specific skill. The smaller and more constrained, the better. For example, I wouldn’t focus on creating fear in my reader. Instead, I’d focus on making my reader fear for the main character within the first three paragraphs of a chapter without dialogue. 20% of our path will be spent in dedicated learning sprints.
There’s a 3 part plan for these sprints.
Read for information and inspiration.
You’ll read two different ways during the sprint: reading for information and reading for inspiration.
When you read for information, look for the best teachings on your specific need. Read the best books and articles you can find. Listen to interviews with experts, especially obscure interviews from before the expert was famous. Reading this way takes work.
On Writing, Metaphors We Live By, Elements of Fiction, and Sentence are all resting on my nightstand, covered in pen marks and sticky notes with ideas I want to try.
When you read for inspiration, dissect the best works you can find that speak to you in the skills you’re looking to acquire. Here’s a hint, they’re probably old, and they’re probably obscure. Look to people you admire and find out what inspired them. Go devour everything you can that inspires you and other people like you.
I’m dissecting the openings to All The Light We Cannot See, How To Change Your Mind, The Alchemist, and The Old Man and the Sea. My notebook holds sketches of these openings with notes, ideas, reactions, and thoughts about how I could try them.
Imitate to learn what great feels like
As you’re developing a solid body of knowledge and inspiration, you’re ready to try imitating. You want to feel what great work feels like flowing through you. Pick only one master to imitate. When you study them, practice using their craft in your own work. Show the intensity in your work, even if it feels like an itchy shirt that’s just a little too big. You’ll grow into it. I’ve spent days writing scenes in the style of Paulo Coelho to feel how simple words can set a scene in my mind.
Practice imprinting the skill in everything you do.
Next up is the practicing phase. You’ve imitated someone whose work you admire. Now you’re ready to practice on your own. Even though you’re not yet out of the dedicated learning sprint, you’re no longer constraining yourself to one specific style. Practice your craft like you would at the habit building phase, but spend far more time focused on this skill. The main difference between this and habit building is a focus on developing quality in this one specific skill.
Dedicated learning sprints are exhausting. The best trick I’ve found to be successful is to use personal challenges. They trick my lizard brain into feeling excited at the start, and they provide a defined endpoint for when I’m tired of it. Afterward, I’ll return to the habit building phase. I need to rebuild my energy before jumping back into dedicated learning of another skill in my craft. I also need to see how my craft has changed from the last sprint.
Expansion challenges are for stretching our craft
The last level of the hierarchy is expansion. Here we’re using specific challenges designed to stretch us beyond our current level. We can’t skip right to expansion until we have the habit and the skills to successfully embark on this challenge. These challenges make up 5% of our total time spent honing our craft.
When we embark on an expansion challenge, we’re setting a hard-to-achieve goal. A good expansion challenge is an order of magnitude harder. It should stretch your skills while it makes your palm sweat and your inner critic bubble up again. You don’t want to jump right into an expansion challenge until you have the confidence and skills to know you can achieve it, even as you’re doubting whether you will.
Mastery is possible. If your back is still straight and your ambition still perked, then there is hope we join that unbroken lineage of masters. It’s not going to be easy, but it will be worth it. Let’s get on with it together.
Thanks to, Leslie Kim, and Tobi Emonts Holley for help on this essay. I wouldn't have published this without your support