What makes you think that will ever change?
I think a lot about the path of mastery.
I have since I was a kid - ever since the first Shaolin Kung Fu movie masterpiece graced my path with it’s classic tale of the old, beloved mentor... killed by the evil, rebellious outcast who teamed up with the no-good, competing bad-guy monastery...
“Teacher Noooo!!!” Says the good and loyal student (the star pupil with such a bright future... and the cute and honest brewer’s daughter has a shine for him too...) holding the broken, dying master in his arms.
The evil (pronounced EEE-ville) rebellious outcast and his thugs swarm on our hero! They beat him terribly and humiliate him with noodles, a bad cut, soap or a large vat of something.
He hides away to a mountain retreat, where he trains ferociously, beating up clay pots and wooden dummies.
He loses hope!
He regains hope!!
He finds his secret strength - the thing only he can do. He beats up more clay pots and wooden dummies. With each blow we zoom in on his grimacing victorious yell. With his secret strength, his unique blow, he shatters the wooden sparring dummy to splinters!
He is ready!!
“You killed my Teacher!” He says to the skulking, ill-favored rebel goon, who is now the boss of everything and surrounded by hordes of bad guys.
Minions swarm to attack him. He repels them all with grace, style and even a little wit. Flailing villains fly everywhere. Windows break. Tables smash. Cooking pots land on heads. A fish knocks someone senseless. A chopstick is used cleverly in an unforeseen way that surprises, then incapacitates the dopiest bad guy.
Finally only the boss goon is left. There is only one remaining minion on his feet, swaying unsteadily between himself and the good pupil. He swats him aside and approaches the good student, jabbing an accusing finger.
“You think you’re so smart?!!” He says, his mouth moving inexplicably independent from the sound of his voice.
“I’ll teach you something!!”
They fight. The boss goon lands several devastating blows! Our hero abbsorbs them all. Finally, swaying with the exhaustion of having defeated half the known world of Kung Fu and the rain of blows from the iron fists and feet of his opponent (...literally iron - his hands and feet are made of solid iron. It’s incredible that he can feed himself), our hero stands breathing heavily...
“You killed Teacher! You killed (brewer, sister, innkeeper, pet, what have you...) you dog! You have no honor! Now... you will pay!”
He breathes in a funny way and gesticulates elaborately, swirling his body like he must make invisible taffy.
The goon charges!
Our hero begins to move! He moves incredibly slowly! The whole word moves incredibly slowly! He yells in a prolonged, yawning release of outrage, of hardship, of suffering, of injustice, of vengeance, of just being pissed off at having to be the good boy all the time dammit, why can’t he just cut loose sometimes??
They meet in mid-air!! He strikes! It’s the secret blow!!
The goon’s head flies off, tumbling to the earth where it rolls to a stop in a pig sty, staring up at the pitiless firmament in amazement, that anything so just, so strong, so right could happen in this sick and depraved world where he had it all and everyone was under his thumb just a few short scenes ago.
Our hero stands with closed eyes and lowered head, breathing deeply and calmly. He was the student - now he is The Master. He slowly lifts his head, opening his eyes on a new world, where Spring has sprung and all the peasants are happy - and here comes the brewer’s daughter with a gift to thank him - and she calls him... Teacher!
...so ...yeah, I’ve thought a lot about the path of mastery.
It’s always seemed like that’s how it’s supposed to go. You work really hard and you master something (hopefully kung fu and the secret blow) and then you’re the best and you beat everyone and it’s all easy for you after that.
I used to get really mad at myself for not getting this experience and never felt like I mastered anything. It never got easier, and with some things, like cycling or piano, or even kung fu, that was so frustrating that I actually stopped.
I never learned the secret blow.
I was supposed to be the best at something.
Talk about a crappy message for a culture to give to its young! A message that can only be right for a handful of us and even then, only for a little while.
Your ambition should be to become the very best there is and you should settle for nothing short of that. You’re supposed to be Wayne Gretzky, or Michael Jordan, (or for me Vladimir Horowitz). If you’re not the best, you’re just not trying hard enough.
(Yes, yes you’re supposed to be the best “you” you can be - I know that one, please don’t wave the New Age revisionist sage bundle in my face.)
‘The Best’ is a rarefied place. And in a large world it is a very small mountaintop. It only has value and meaning in relationship to, and in the view of others. It is the ultimate expression of being confined by, and defined by, other people.
And what’s more, it is not the goal of a master.
A master is not trying to be The Best at anything.
A master is trying to improve.
There is a wonderful little book on why we stop making art, called Art and Fear. One of its two authors is a pianist and he recounts many incidents with the maestro he was studying with - a man of enormous reputation and skill that he felt incredibly fortunate to work with.
Maestro means ‘Master’ by the way.
On one occasion he stopped playing in frustration and said to the maestro “But I can hear the music so much better in my head than I can get out of my fingers.”
The maestro looked at him. “What makes you think that will ever change?” he said.
As our capability improves, what we are able to imagine and desire leaps ahead, and the tension between ambition and achievement remains the same.
It’s never over. It’s never achieved. It’s never any easier - though to others it may appear so.
Mastery is not an end. It is not an accomplishment. It is loving what you do enough to always want and try to do it better. It is setting ego aside in that pursuit, and humbly submitting yourself to the test of each moment.
Mastery is a path.
Think for a moment of one of the skills you most value in yourself - a thing you love that you are able to do - whether that is playing a musical instrument, being a parent, a technical skill, a ‘soft’ skill, an artistic skill... go ahead...
For the moment, let go of every thought about what level of skill you SHOULD have, and acknowledge and appreciate the level you DO have.
Look back to when you first became enthralled with the idea of doing this well... what it was like for you then. Your level of ability then. Think of the times you realized that you were a little better at it, and your ability had improved, even a little bit.
How did it feel? - when you knew you had grown and gotten better? (If you’re like me you glowed with a quiet pride that was truly yours, that no one else gave to you or had anything to do with.)
That is what mastery is. It is the love affair with small improvements.
It is humble.
The irony is, most of us have no real idea of how to become The Best at the thing we most love - though our arrogance and fear will try to puff us up with declarations and mottos and affirmations and yada yada yada...
But we all know exactly what to do, to get a little bit better.
I want to acknowledge you for all the work, all the effort, the time, the frustration, the persistence you put in on your path of mastery - to be able to do now, that which you love so much.
But more than that, I want YOU to acknowledge it. To realize how much more important that love is than anything your standing among peers or opinions of others, or any judgement of how good you are supposed to be may hold.
What we love is ours, because it is the love itself that belongs to us.
And if you still feel, as I do, that residual niggling frustration that says “Yes, but I so want to play with my fingers the music I hear in my head!”
Of course you do. That is the grain that creates the pearl. Be thankful for it, let it drive you forward - and pray it never changes.