How to Become Much Better Than Just Very Good

I’ve been working on the documentary project, which bring me to recall pivotal points in my history…and sometimes contemplating them. So, we’re going to hop into the wayback machine again for a moment for this blog.

I’ve just graduated college. I’ve signed up for a master class performance with Edgar Meyer. Ok…no pressure on myself. Plus, I’m trying to come up with some amazing interview questions to ask him for an article. I’m reviewing videos of my playing to see where I can improve. And I’m looking at videos of his playing. (Talk about getting yourself into a head space). And the question does pop into my young adult head…how the hell do I get to where guys like that reside? That level of playing and mastery? Obviously, the answer is to practice, practice, practice…but there really must be more to it. Tons of people practice and they don’t get the same results that the 1% does.

Little did I realize it, but I had inadvertently stumbled into the realm of mastery studies, well before the popular surge of mastery studies began in the 2000’s. But I had no references around me. My teachers just hadn’t been the sort to tell me to read “The Inner Game of Tennis”, or anything like that…I think they were teaching to pay the bills and the mortgage. And they were very tied up with academia or just…well…getting on in their own lives. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But…as a result…they weren’t looking to be masters.

In an OCD moment of studying video of Edgar’s playing, I discovered a part of myself that I didn’t know existed. The yearning to be much better than just very good. And how to get there. And could I actually get there? (I’m still working on that, by the way.) I found myself asking others, “Do you see that?” (pointing to something on the video) “Now look at how I do it…and how this person does it.” My friends would watch, but often had little to offer other than sympathetic acknowledgements that they could see what I was seeing. They just knew I was hungry, and wondering how to bridge the gap between where I was and where I wanted to be.

Of course, in the weird but oddly reliable way that the universe tends to practice synchronicity at certain key moments…an answer arrived in my mailbox shortly thereafter. I was subscribing to a newsletter that was about personal improvement; finances, raising kids, health, mental wellness. The next issue arrived with “HOW TO BECOME MUCH BETTER THAN VERY GOOD” in dark print against an orange background, strange little drawing of a guru-like guy gazing out over blue mountains from his high mountaintop.

And there it was. I sat down and devoured it, and re-read it. It was short…but it was the doorway into an area of study I didn’t even know existed. Mastery. And it appeared many years before the mastery trends in the late 2000’s blew up.

I found that article recently while cleaning out. Figured it would make for a good blog post today. It may seem like old hat to folks who have been following this stuff. It may serve as good reminders even if you have. And, maybe it will help some of the players who haven’t seen this material yet.

October 15th, 1996
Bottom Line Personal, vol. 17, number 20
Esalen’s George Leonard tells HOW TO BECOME MUCH BETTER THAN JUST VERY GOOD

Among the richest of rewards that life has to offer is mastery. People who are willing to put in the time and energy can achieve a superior level of skill and excellence in any area they choose.

BECOMING GREAT

True mastery isn’t a matter of attending weekend seminars, getting a promotion, or becoming a bit better at what you do. Whether you want to be a skilled pianist, a more effective manager, or more loving spouse and parent, the secret is a lifelong commitment to practice…practice…practice.

Once you view mastery as a journey- and acknowledge that the trip may be difficult and slow at times- you’ll have the stamina and good sense to go beyond the setbacks that emerge along the way.

Throughout history, most people have assumed that life’s superstars were “gifted” people – that they were born with talents that cannot be developed. Only in the last few years has scientific evidence documented the enormous difference practice can make.

A 1994 article in American Psychologist reported that capacities that had long been considered innate can actually be developed.

Example 1: For years, everyone assumed that people who had perfect pitch – the unusual ability to identify a musical note just by hearing it- inherited this gift. And indeed, only one in 10,000 people have that ability. As a result of that belief, no one ever bothered to teach perfect pitch. Several recent studies, however, have shown that most children between the ages of three and six could learn perfect pitch.

Example 2: During a 1993 study, teachers at a conservatory were asked to rate which violin students were likely to become world-class musicians….which were likely to become good professional musicians…and which would just be average. Those who were classified as potential greats had practiced 10,000 hours…those in the middle range had practiced 7,500 hours…and the mediocre had practiced 5,000 hours.

HOW TO ACHIEVE MASTERY

Practice your skill correctly from the start. If you set out on the wrong track, you’ll never achieve your full potential.

Example: Many people start playing tennis with poor form- holding their shoulders high and their wrists stiff, without stepping through the swing. Over time, they will get better at the game, but they’ll never become as good as they could be unless they use the right technique.

Find the right teacher. Without a master to guide you along your path, you’ll waste time and energy.

The ideal guide is someone who has achieved what you want to achieve and who is willing and able to share what he/she has learned, one-on-one. This is a master teacher or mentor.

Choosing a teacher of mastery can be tricky, since it requires replying on someone else’s word. One of the the best ways to find a master is to ask people you admire for the names of the people helping them along.

Before committing yourself, attend an instructional session or observe one of these masters as he interacts with his staff or students.

The best teachers spend as least as much time making their students feel comfortable and praising them for what they do right as they spend criticizing what they do wrong.

Books, videotapes, and lectures can also provide valuable instruction…but their power is limited by the lack of feedback. They can’t see and correct your technique.

Learn to love practice. You can’t excel if you think of practice as a chore. Mastering any skill takes regular, dedicated practice. People who are continuously developing their abilities learn to love the day-to-day, hour-by-hour practice. They recognize that mastery isn’t a goal, but a lifelong process.

Abandon your desire for instant satisfaction. Dedication to the art or skill you want to master means surrendering your ego-driven need for quick results and embracing the regular study that discipline demands. Once you have found a teacher or mentor, you must suspend enough of your pride to accept his instruction humbly while still maintaining your own integrity.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the journey is the halting, often frustrating, learning curve of mastery. Getting better is never a smooth upward slope. The very nature of the process means that after every gratifying leap in proficiency, you’ll remain on a plateau – possibly for weeks or months.

Nothing is really happening, many people say at this point. Why can’t I learn? Why can’t I become better? And they quit. The student of mastery knows that the opposite is true. It is when you are on the plateau that you’re most actively learning, consolidating the fruits of your practice, letting it slowly reprogram your mind and body for the next spurt upward.

In order to become more competent, you must avoid dwelling on the competence that you have achieved. Be willing to make mistakes, be clumsy, or seem like a fool.

Use your imagination to remain dedicated. Mind and body are never seperate. What you think greatly influences how you perform. On one level, mastery means transforming the dream of proficiency into reality. Make the dream as real as you can.

A key to superior athletes’ success, say many of them, is their ability to hold a vivid image of the play…the shot…the right move in their minds at the moment of truth.

Example:Golfer Jack Nicklaus imagines the ball’s perfect flight before every swing. Half of a great shot, he has found, is visualizing its success.

It is a delicate balance. You want to be fully present and attentive to what you are doing as you practice. But you also need a clear vision of the ideal toward which you are striving.

Helpful: Spend time rehearsing in your mind the perfect tennis swing, the finest violin bowing technique, or the ideal interpersonal situation you wish to master.

Go beyond the territory with which you are familiar. Although mastery requires dedication to fundamentals and surrender to the hard work of practice, it’s also driven by a daring spirit to push beyond limits.

Examples: For a marathon runner, it means reaching deep down for that final surge of energy and determination even when the body is totally spent. For the writer, it’s mastering that last ounce of concentration to realize a new image that glimmers just out of reach.

At this moment, the master must throw caution, prudence, and all thoughts of comfort aside, and pour every fiber of his being into the effort. He may fall flat on his face…or he may experience the incomparable rapture of personal triumph.

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To see the published version of the interview with Edgar Meyer, click here.

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