Mastery requires endurance. Mastery, a word we don't use often, is not the equivalent of what we might consider its cognate--perfectionism--an inhuman aim motivated by a concern with how others view us. Mastery is also not the same as success--an event-based victory based on a peak point, a punctuated moment in time. Mastery is not merely a commitment to a goal, but to a curved-line, constant pursuit.
We thrive when we stay on our own leading edge. It is a wisdom understood by Duke Ellington, whose favorite song out of his repertoire was always the next one, always the one that he had yet to compose. Like trying to find the end of a sound wave, the endeavor is never complete. The pursuit of mastery is an ever onward almost. "Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish," Michelangelo implored, like a perpetual Adam with his finger outstretched but not quite touching the Old Testament God's hand in the Sistine Chapel.
There is an inevitable incompletion that comes with mastery. It occurs because the greater our proficiency, the more smooth our current path, the more clearly we may spot the mountain that hovers in our gaze. "What would you say increases with knowledge?" Jordan Elgrably once asked James Baldwin. "You learn how little you know," Baldwin said. The technical term for this, if you like, is the Dunning–Kruger effect--the greater our proficiency, the more clearly we recognize the possibilities of our limitations. The converse is also true--ignorance protects us from the knowledge required to perceive just how unskilled we may actually be.
The Near Win
The near win--the constant auto-correct of a curved-line path--can propel us in an ongoing quest. We see it whenever we aim, climb, or create with mastery as our aim, when the outcome is determined by what happens at the margins.
Winning athletes find ways to eat "humble pie," "to manufacture failure, manufacture weakness just so it can be further motivation.
The mental discipline and flexibility required to sustain excellence is different, and often harder, than the exertion it took to get there in the first place.
Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They are masters because they realize that there isn't one. On utterly smooth ground, the path from aim to attainment is in the permanent future.
Trying to bridge the gap between work and vision can be like hearing the notes to a song without being able to finish hearing the complete tune. As with earworms, snippets of songs that we hear and then repeat in our minds, the unfinished scenario often crops up in our thoughts over and over again until we discern how to complete it. Ruminating on the incomplete snatch of a song or an overdue task is the unconscious posing a repeated question to the conscious mind: Can you please "make a plan" to resolve this incomplete endeavor? "The unconscious mind apparently can't do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.
Head to a retreat, give yourself a deadline, make it nearly impossible to get something done, and a new reservoir can often open up. As composer Leonard Bernstein said, "To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time." Author and neurologist Oliver Sacks, in a fit of desperation, once made a lethal dare with himself: He would write his book in ten days or else commit suicide. The hypothetically mortal threat terrorized him, he said. He had gone for months without writing anything. After the dare, he began to stitch together ideas in unexpected ways, and to take a sort of inner dictation as if he was just the "bridge," just "the transmitter," finishing the book a day early. Handling such limitations can result in breakthroughs, as it can create a sense of uncertainty that often leads to more creative solutions. Under pressure, we can see creativity when we expect to see regression. Steve Jobs put this productive constraint on himself his whole life. He told his colleague John Sculley, "None of us has any idea how long we're going to be here, nor do I, but my feeling is I've got to accomplish a lot of these things while I'm young."
It is a bit like living out Hooke's law--the force of an extended spring is equivalent to how far it is stretched. To convert our own energy and operate at full force, often we must first surrender. When feelings of failure come with their own form of pain, empowerment through accepting it--surrender--and pivoting out of it can be more powerful than fighting. This kind of surrender is more akin to Nietzsche's idea of amor fati, to love your fate. "The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life's pain, the greater life's reply."
Aikido embodies the idea that when we stop resisting something, we stop giving it power. Some who have studied its physics consider it the hardest of all the martial arts to learn, in part because it gets the body to do what thousands of years of conditioning has trained us not to do--relax when we feel threatened, so as to maintain access to our internal resources. Our primitive survival reflex is to tighten up in the face of stress. It is a focused, fluid way of being that is akin to "being out in the world and being in the zone of the ‘flow' state."
Surrender heightens perceptions. "When we are stressed, we lose access to information," she explained, "and when people are out there on the edge, they need to have access to all the information they can." When you surrender enough, you feel the heft of a situation or an environment and can better judge how to move with it.
Beauty, Error, and Justice
An encounter with pictures that moves us, those in the world and the ones it creates in the mind, has a double-barreled power to convey humanity as it is, and, through the power of the imagination, to ignite an inner vision of life as it could be. It helps us deal with the opposite of failure, which may not be success--that momentary label affixed to us by others--but reconciliation, aligning our past with an expanded vision that has just come into view.
The words to describe aesthetic force suggest that it leaves us changed--stunned, dazzled, knocked out. It can quicken the pulse, make us gape, even gasp with astonishment. Its importance is its animating trait--not what it is, but what it does to those who behold it in all its forms. Its seeming lightness can make us forget that it has weight, force enough to bring about a self-correction, the acknowledgment of failure at the heart of justice--the moment when we reconcile our past with our intended future selves. Few experiences get us to this place more powerfully, with a tender push past the praetorian-guarded doors of reason and logic, than the emotive power of aesthetic force.
Argument alone is not enough to make men good, Aristotle said. Reason does not govern completely, as the example of Odysseus lured by the Sirens' song shows us. The Einstellung effect: the cost of success is that it can block our ability to see when what has worked well in the past might not any longer. In the face of entrenched failure, there are limits to reason's ability to offer us a way out. Play helps us to see things anew, as do safe havens. Yet the imagination inspired by an aesthetic encounter can get us to the point of surrender, making way for a new version of ourselves. Our reaction to aesthetic force, more easily than logic, is often how we accept with grace that the ground has shifted beneath our feet. "Art is a journey into the most unknown thing of all--oneself," architect Louis Kahn stated. "Nobody knows his own frontiers."
When we're overcome by aesthetic force, a propulsion comes from the sense that, until that moment, we have been somehow incomplete. It can make us realize that our views and judgments need correction.
The Deliberate Amateur
A paradox of innovation and mastery is that breakthroughs often occur when you start down a road, but wander off for a ways and pretend as if you have just begun.
"The biggest adventure is to move into an area in which you are not an expert," Geim believes. "Sometimes I joke that I am not interested in doing re-search, only search," he has said about the "unusual" overall career philosophy both men use to "graze shallow." They stay in a field for five years, do some good work, and then get out. The inventiveness and sheer fun of it all can make it look like they're not "doing science in the eyes of other people." Shelving experience to remain open to new possibilities can make an expert look elementary. Yet the gifts from assuming this posture on the unfinished path of mastery can come no other way.
An ever-onward almost is part of mastery, on the field, in the studio, and in the lab. The wisdom of the deliberate amateur is part of how we endure. Maintaining proficiency is best kept by finding ways to periodically give it up. The amateur's "useful wonder" is what the expert may not realize she has left behind. Psychologists call the unintended routine that comes with expertise the Einstellung effect. It is the cost of success: The bias that creeps in without our notice and can block us from seeing how to do things any other way. Deliberate amateurs are not trying to follow an apprentice's schedule--learn the trade, climb the guild's rungs, train another. An amateur is unlike the novice bound by lack of experience and the expert trapped by having too much. Driven by impulse and desire, the amateur stays in the place of a "constant now," seeing possibilities to which the expert is blind and which the apprentice may not yet discern.
An amateur's adventure is an embodied feeling of being rapt, utterly absorbed. We sense it after reaching a state of exhaustion, switching tasks to something that has our interest, and feeling refueled, our endurance enhanced by authentic passion. For a moment, we are out of time.
The research is becoming more and more clear about this counterintuitive fact: directed teaching is important, but learning that comes from play and spontaneous discovery is critical. Endurance is best sustained through periodic play.
When someone thinks they understand something, the mind edits reality so efficiently that errors can be hard to perceive, but when someone observes a scenario that they are unfamiliar with, a part of the brain operates inefficiently, giving us time to see outliers and consider their significance.
The Grit of the Arts
Grit is not positively correlated with IQ. Grit is connected to how we respond to so-called failure, about whether we see it as a comment on our identity or merely as information that may help us improve. Grit is not just a simple elbow-grease term for rugged persistence. It is an often invisible display of endurance that lets you stay in an uncomfortable place, work hard to improve upon a given interest, and do it again and again. It is not just about resisting the "hourly temptations," as Francis Galton would call them, but toiling "over years, even decades," as Duckworth argues, and even without positive reinforcement. Unlike dysfunctional persistence, a flat-footed posture we ease into through the comfort of success, grit is focused moxie, aided by a sustained response in the face of adversity.
In one of our conversations, she told me about Finland's development of sisu, a rough cognate for grit. Etymologically, sisu denotes a person's viscera, their "intestines (sisucunda)." It is defined as "having guts," intentional, stoic, constant bravery in the face of adversity. For Finns, sisu is a part of national culture, forged through their history of war with Russia and required by the harsh climate. In this Nordic country, pride is equated with endurance.
Grit gives the impression that it is a straight line, as if we just drill down in ways that may feel uncomfortable, and then improve. "Gritty people have a pattern of staying with one path," Duckworth has said. "Grit is choosing to show up again and again." Yet, she clarified: "Whatever you're doing, you have to figure out when to give out effort and when to withdraw it. The really high-functioning people are able to do both; somehow have an eye [for] asking whether they are in the game too long. They have to be willing to commit to higher-level goals by shifting lower-level tactics. The higher level it is, the more you should be tenacious. The lower level it is, the more concrete or particular it is, the more you should be willing to give it up. I think it's a good rule of thumb."