Are You Pursuing Mastery?

Are you taking karate to learn a few tricks or are you out to master a skill or technique that will save your life? I recently finished reading Daniel Pink’s book Drive, and he challenged me to think about my karate. Am I pursuing mastery?  And if so, what should I be doing to achieve that goal? And, what does it mean to become a master at anything?

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Am I pursuing mastery? And if so, what should I be doing to achieve that goal?

To answer the question what is a master, the dictionary has multiple definitions of master for us to ponder.  If you click the link above, one of the definitions in the dictionary is “an artist, performer, or player of consummate skill.” This is the definition that I believe Daniel Pink is discussing in his book.  As a martial artist, I would like to have that consummate skill.

Okay Sensei Glen, so I want to master the back fist. What are the steps to achieve mastery and how will I know when I have arrived?

Great questions. As a practicing martial artist, I have learned that mastery is not something we ever fully achieve. What I mean is we can learn to spell and add numbers. I have mastered “2 + 2 = 4” and I imagine you have as well. In his book Daniel Pink writes that “Mastery is an asymptote”. He says that we learned the word asymptote in algebra.  While that may be true, I did not readily recall the definition and had to look it up to confirm what he wrote. Here is what I found on the website math is fun: “An asymptote is a line that a curve approaches, as it heads towards infinity.”

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An asymptote is a line that a curve approaches, as it heads towards infinity.

So, if you are still following along, we are pursuing becoming a master in karate.   It always eludes our grasp as we get closer and never quite reach the line of mastery. In a prior blog post I wrote that you are not art. As we think about our last roundhouse kick in our last fight we cannot duplicate that like we can “2+2 = 4” and have the same result, even with the same opponent at the same dojo. That is what we mean by pursing becoming a master. We get close to the point of perfection and never attain that point of perfection.

Does this mean we should not practice? Of course not! When we practice we should be deliberate in our practice toward mastering our technique. We discussed practicing in depth in prior posts learn, practice, and apply and then how do you learn that new skill?

This week our focus on practice moves to mastery. We have discussed learning the back fist, applying and using it in a fight or drill. The main focus today is deliberate practice. Our practice works best when we are challenged to learn a technique that is matched with our abilities. Daniel Pink refers to this as “flow”; it works well. He indicates that when we are in flow, we are so in the moment we can lose track of time. That is one stop on the journey to mastery.

The second area from the book Drive in the discussion of mastery is the concept of hard work or grit. He tells the story of what separated the students that finish the first year at West Point from those who dropped out. It was not academics or physical abilities, it was grit. Daniel Pink defined grit as “perseverance and passion for long term goals.” The determination to see the task through to the end, like moving from white belt to black, requires grit.

The final area from Drive for mastery is the concept of a growth mindset. At the dojo, we believe that you can learn new techniques and memorize forms. We do not just take students who show an aptitude for karate. We do not require our white belts to pass a coordination test. We have the mindset that the abilities can be learned and the skill level improved through the concepts on practice we have discussed.

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Our practice works best when we are challenged to learn a technique that is matched with our abilities.

The Harvard Business Review published this in July, 2007 from the article The Making of an Expert by K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely: “When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.”

Did you catch that? Deliberate practice works on the uncomfortable aspects. The article goes on to explain how when you learn to play golf, you improve a lot. Once you learn the game, just playing the same course does nothing to improve your golf game as you are at the same skill level. No growth is happening.

The article related this story of Ben Hogan, a golf master who worked to improve his shots and his powers of concentration. He sounds like he could have been a karate sensei. The authors make the point our Sensei makes about practicing. Physical practice is just one aspect. We also need the mental practice that comes with concentration.  And of course this article articulates that it takes time. The authors pick the 10,000 hours in ten years with intense training to become an international champion.

Just showing up for class for ten years and not deliberately practicing will not get you on the path to master. It is the deliberate practice that sets apart the individual on the path to mastery. The Harvard article ends with a nod to our culture in thinking about genius. Many know some of the story of the talented Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. What we forget was his teaching (learn, practice and apply) began before the age of 4 from his father who was a composer and music teacher. Mozart had deliberate, supervised practice.

I am looking now to pursue mastery in my practice. I know our students look to the senseis as masters of technique. How about you? Are you on the road to mastery?

See you in class soon.

3 thoughts on “Are You Pursuing Mastery?

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