One Mountain To Climb

Let’s call it Mount Mastery. That’s where you need to go to reach the summit of all experience and expertise in your field of choice. That’s where you need to make your mark. If you’re not well on your way to climb that mountain, you’re definitely lost.

I wish someone had told me that 30 years ago. Alas, no one I knew had actually learned that lesson. And if you don’t really know that this is what you need to do and where you need to be, you’re still lost.

Mastery is your only redeemer in life.

It takes a lot of time and effort to be able to climb your way up that mountain. The sooner you begin the sooner you’ll be able to make all the possible mistakes that you must learn from if you’re ever going to make it.

On your way, you’ll have to understand the differences between experience and expertise. Experience encompasses everything you’ve been through in life in every aspect, throughout all fields. As you grow older, your experience in life increases by default. It’s much like the meter of a taxi that keeps running even if you’re not going anywhere, stuck in traffic, or even waiting somewhere along the way.

You can increase experience, run up the taxi meter, by going places near and far, here and there, old and new. Your experience is calculated by adding up your movements in life as well as your periods of being idle. Lucky for you to know that traveling with your mind through education and reading books is also considered being in motion and it definitely adds up on your fare meter. The ones with the biggest ‘taxi fares’ basically have more experience and inherently more wisdom.

Expertise is not the same thing. It works much like a car’s odometer, that small horizontal counter in your dashboard that counts how many miles or kilometers your car has traveled. Note that it only works with forward motion. If your car is at a full stop it doesn’t do anything. Getting started on your journey to becoming an expert in a specific field requires you to choose the ‘car’ you want to ride.

Once you’ve chosen the vehicle you’re going to ride on your road to mastery you can start by accumulating those numbers on the odometer in your car. Obviously, the higher the number, the better of an expert you’ll be. You might have noticed that pilots are rated by their flying hours. That’s their gage for expertise in flying.

A few years back there was a lot of hype about the Anders Erricson book “Peak” and the follow up book by Malcolm Gladwell “Outliers.” Both about the 10,000-hour Rule.

The argument goes that deliberate practice in any field towards the attainment of mastery gets you there after achieving 10,000 hours. This is about 60 weeks of accumulated continuous uninterrupted and focused practice of any specific skill. Though many have tried to “debunk” the 10,000-hour Rule, I’m not convinced at all that it’s false. Yes, it might take you less than that if you’re “talented” or lucky to be placed in the perfect environment to nourish your natural inclinations faster than other people, or, it might take you way longer. It doesn’t really matter and we shouldn’t get hung up on the figure and miss the Forrest for the Trees.

In another wonderful book by Cal Newport “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” the author tried to make the case for how skill trumps passion, something that used to make sense to me when I first read it, but not so much now. The book is fantastic and valuable and calls for me to reread it soon, but I mention it because of the title. Being “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” is basically a call to mastery.

Becoming a master of your craft will eventually force itself upon any scene because no one will be able to deny your expertise beyond a certain level. Be it after 10,000 hours, 20,000 hours, 70,000 or whatever, nobody cares how long it takes you to get there, but everyone notices and pays very close attention once you’ve arrived.

I don’t think there’s a conflict between following your “passion” and practicing a skill with focus and determination for 10,000 hours or beyond. The reason is that when you practice anything long enough—even if you don’t like it—you will become an expert, no doubt about it whatsoever. But, if you’re really into it, if you really love it, you’ll be able to absorb everything about it much more easily, you’ll attain mastery faster. Eventually, you’ll become a significantly better master of the craft than the other guy who only got there because he had to.

I love the Paul Bettany movie about Tennis, aptly called “Wimbledon.” I can’t really get enough of that film, and Paul Bettany is one of my favorite actors in the world. I mention this wonderful movie that you must watch if you haven’t already, and watch again if you’ve seen it before to make you understand a very simple fact. The 100 top Tennis players in the world are all masters. All of them! If you, the casual fan of the game, were to go head to head with the ranked 200th in the world he or she will humiliate you on the court. Why? Because they’re truly masters of the game.

The differences between the top 500 top players in the world gets more subtle and more nuanced the higher you go up the list. If you really pay attention you’d see that the top 10 are just trading places for a number of years until one calls it quits or an injury takes one of them out and a new name gets up there.

Even when you have attained mastery of your craft or discipline, there is plenty of room for improvement and distinction. So, is passion really not a factor? I beg to differ.

The comedian Steve Martin is the original source of the quote: be so good they can’t ignore you. He’s a master of the creative craft of comedy, which requires some intellectual heavy-lifting and plenty of practice perhaps to even dwarf the 10,000-hour rule. It also requires quite a bit of thick skin and tolerance for criticism and adversity. It’s one of those professions where all progress is happening on a very steep slippery hill. People can’t really stick with something difficult and straining despite all criticism, all obstacles, all headwinds, unless they really love what they do, and that it’s the one thing that makes them feel alive.

So, if you really feel lost out there in the world, you have a choice to make.

Either choose to attain mastery in something that you don’t really care about, but for which you can muster the necessary discipline and commitment, and pay your dues until you reach the top of that mountain. Rest assured that if you stayed the course, if you were headstrong enough about it, with enough motivation, you definitely can get there. Or, you can go for the alternative, to dig deep within yourself until you find that one thing that lights your soul on fire, and then get after it with everything you’ve got.

Know Thyself, that’s the ancient wisdom that holds the key to getting on the top 100th top players in the world. If you tackle this one issue first, you’ll find that you’re gaining faster on your competitors, you’re learning more, more quickly, that you’re making all the possible mistakes and picking yourself up without even caring about dusting yourself off because you’re that much in a hurry to be back on your way again.

That’s the sort of thing greatness is made out of, and that’s the thing your soul aches for.

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