Here is a wonderful story, told by Ken Robinson in his book The Element, about an 8 year old girl, Gillian Lynne, who everyone sees as a problem child.
Gillian and her mother went to a psychiatrist and the mother describes her daughter's difficulties with concentrating, sitting, and doing her homework.
The doctor listened to the mother and then he told Gillian that he wanted to talk to her mother alone. When they left the room, the doctor turned on some music on the radio. Outside the room, the doctor said to the mother "Just stand her and watch her!" As they watched, the girl started moving to the music with a grace that anyone would have been impressed by.
After watching for a few minutes, the doctor turned to the mother and said: "There is nothing wrong with your daughter, she's a dancer, take her to a dance school!"
Gillan grew up to become one of the most accomplished choreographers of our time.
This is a story about how people shine when they are allowed to do what they are meant to do, when they are in their element. But, what it does not take into account is work, hard work!
Thomas Jefferson put it nicely:
I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have!
This post is not about talent, it is about mastery, the hard work of mastery!
Talent is not a requirement for Mastery, in fact talent can get in your way on the path of mastery, if it is too easy in the beginning we may not be able to put in the hours needed for true mastery when it get hard or boring.
Many of the ideas for this post come from the book called Mastery by George Leonard and he describes it well.
We fail to realize that mastery is not about perfection. It's about a process, a journey. The master is the one who stays on the path day after day, year after year. The master is the one who is willing to try, and fail, and try again, for as long as he or she lives.
Leonard identifies five keys to mastery. They are instruction, practice, surrender, intentionality, and the Edge.
Instruction is vital. How do we know that what we are doing is the right thing. As a programmer I am always confronted with new things. How do I tell the good from the bad? After you reach a certain level of experience it gets easier to make an educated guess, but it is still just a guess. And before we have a lot of experience, we are liable to fall into traps all the time, (EJB anyone?).
My way of dealing with new things is to read books, papers, and blogs, listen to podcasts, watch screencasts, and if I can find the time, attend workshops at conferences. But, it is important to listen to critique as well as praise of a new technique. If it seems reasonable to you, by all means, give it a shot. And then, not until you have actually used a system for quite a while, can you tell if it is good or not for you. Because that is another aspect of mastery, we are all on our own path, what is right for me may not be right for someone else!
Practice is the true essence of Mastery. Without it, everything else falls to pieces. Practice is the path that build the foundation for mastery. Another quote from Leonard:
How do you best move toward mastery? To put it simply, you practice diligently, but you practice primarily for the sake of the practice itself.
An interesting fact about practice is how the normal learning curve looks.
Do you recognize it? Long periods where you practice and practice but you don't seem to get any better. Then suddenly there is a small improvement and you feel like you finally get it, and then after a little while you are back to normal again.
The more I know, the more I know that I don't know. --Socrates (misquoted:)
What Leonard calls surrender I would call humility. A Zen Master would probably call it Beginners Mind.
Beginner's Mind. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.
It can be very hard to give up your hard earned skills in order to grasp a new concept. But, sometimes, the only way to improve is to start over with a completely different approach.
How do we expect to learn something new if we are not willing to look like an idiot for awhile?
You gotta be careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there. -- Yogi Berra
Intentionality means a lot of things. It means character, discipline, stamina or willpower. But it also means knowing what you want.
Do you know what you want? Unless you do, it is very hard to stay on the path. In my mind intentionality is not necessarily goals, it is more a direction. If I stop for a while and look around, I can tell if I am on the path, because if I am, I will, slowly, be moving in the direction I intend to go.
When you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing. -- Chinese proverb
Here's another quote that I like, from the book, Zorba:
No you're not free! The string that you are tied to is perhaps longer than others'. You're on a long piece of string boss, but you never cut the string in two, you need a touch of folly to do that... A man's head is like a grocer, it keeps accounts. It never risks all it has, always keeps something in reserve. It never breaks the string. But if a man never breaks the string, tell me what flavor is left in life? Nothing, but the flavor of weak camomile tea. Nothing like rum that makes you see life inside out!
In order to make the really big leaps like, for example, Einstein's Relativity Theory, we need to be a bit crazy. It is impossible to analytically reach certain conclusions. They can only be reached by thinking so far outside the box, that most people would consider us insane.
I will conclude with another quote from Leonard:
It is easy to get on the path of mastery. The real challenge lies in staying on it.