Achieving Mastery

Skill development is one of the primary ways that we can feel personal achievement. But, there is a big difference between simply dabbling from hobby to another and achieving a high level of mastery. Is it really worth it to focus strictly on one set of skills for an entire lifetime? This is a question that is very personal but very important for anybody who takes their development seriously.

Achieving Mastery

World class performance in any skill - from science to gymnastics - requires years of focused effort which has a very direct impact on a person's state of awareness and overall lifestyle. My Olympic weightlifting coach Nick Horton made an interesting comment to a lifter in our gym who has been trying to maintain her bodybuilding practice and improve her skills in Olympic weightlifting. He made the analogy between weightlifting and learning a new language: You can't just learn a new language by spending an hour with it twice a week. You have to really spend a substantial amount of time on focused learning activities in a routine way for months or even years before you will achieve mastery. Nick's argument was that a sport like weightlifting works the same way - you won't see any meaningful results until you have executed focused practice over a long period of time.

My experience has shown me that I need to spend about 15 hours per week of focused time on a skill in order to push myself into higher levels of achievement. In my college math classes, I needed at least three hours per day to do homework - on top of the hour long class session. As an advanced modern drum set player, even retaining my ability to play at my peak requires 15-20 hours of focused practice per week.

One interesting not is that this time requirement is a bit less during the novice phase when I pick up a new skill. For example, I'm seeing great results by training about 10-12 hours per week as a weightifter. Although, I will admit that I am spending at least an additional hour per night sleeping, too. But, I've only been training for 5 months.Soon, I know that I'll reach a plateau and have to dedicate more time in order to transcend that barrier.

The Pros and Cons of Mastery

Given these time requirements, there is a direct trade off that we face. First of all, an individual must reduce the variety of interests that they have in order to dedicate time in such a focused way. There is simply no way that you can learn more than two or three skills simultaneously. I have a very hard time balancing three skills simultaneously. Usually, I end up fatigued and frustrated unless other aspects of my life are extremely supportive of the progress of my skill.

Furthermore, I have personally seen and experienced very negative consequences to retaining such high levels of dedication. These unspoken side effects include things like:

  • Neglecting friends and family
  • Accumulating debt
  • Physical injury (especially in sports)
  • Long term health problems arising from lack of rest
  • Hyper-specialization (losing touch with reality)
  • Complete burnout and inability to continue
  • Psychological turmoil associated with the above problems

In the short term, it's easy to forget your mom's birthday while you study and only feel a little guilty. Over the long term, you start to question where your values really lie and if you can even comprehend the consequences of your obsession. I once worked with a brilliant neuroscientist who had been extremely focused on his skill since his late undergraduate years. By the time I met him - in his late 40s - he had done irreversable damage to his social life. He had never married and never spoke of his family. In fact, he never mentioned any friends, either. But, he was a true master of his niche science. He would wake up energetically to arrive early in the lab to work on his experiments (and hated being interrupted to teach class). He worked Saturdays. On Sundays, he was usually in before 11AM. The only thing that brought him out of the lab at night was his dogs, who needed to be walked before it was too dark to wander alone safely in the trails outside town.

On the flip side, he was publishing papers regularly and pushing the limits of what was possible within the scope of his field. He was actively contributing to understanding the dynamics of the human nervous system. That's pretty cool.

But, let's look at a more extreme example. When I was a young undergraduate, I wanted to be a surgeon. This is a profession which requires absolute focus and dedication. First of all, you're looking at sacrificing your late teens and twenties to study in a way which is - honestly - unrespectable. Not only is there no hope for your social life, but you have no hope for learning any social sciences or art with any kind of depth, since you are so engulfed in physical science courses. Then, you face an average of $120,000 of debt to leverage your way through medical school. At that point, you pick up a series of residencies, and it could take as long as 10 years to truly specialize in your field of expertise. Of course, you'll be making great money by then, but you'll also be forcing a lot of innocent people into obscene amounts of debt - people who might not have the physical capacity to handle that kind of situation. You'll also probably be divorced and out of touch with the people who could have been your life-long friends.

Still, a surgeon CANNOT afford to be under-educated. The level of expertise required and the high stakes of the work simply mandate a lifestyle of complete, shameless dedication.

Privilege and Peak Performance

I opted out of the surgeon lifestyle not because of the sacrifices outlined above, but because I honestly couldn't dedicate the time required to pass the science courses and still be able to make things work financially as a student. In fact, I was eventually forced out of school completely just as I was starting to really hone in on a research specialty within computer science, which was my second choice.

The restrictions go beyond finances. A world class gymnast or weightlifter must be trained from childhood, since the peak of their physical capacity happens in early adulthood. The skills need to be honed in before the child can even evaluate what is good for them. Therefore, the parent must take the initiative to discipline and encourage the child to practice, practice, practice. This isn't an easy decision, since this means restricting the child's realm of experience before they really have the capacity to say 'no.'

The Risk of Specialization

Chad Fowler makes an excellent point in his book The Passionate Programmer. He points out that focusing on a cutting edge technology puts the professional at risk. The technology might never catch on, and the time invested in specialization could be wasted. Or, it could be outdated and replaced by something new very quickly.

This isn't a challenge unique to programmers. An athlete could suffer an injury - even in a car accident - which forces them out of the sport. A musician could lose their hearing. Sure, everybody faces these risks, but when you've failed to diversify your skill sets because you've dedicated yourself to specialization to achieve mastery, the risks are higher.


Balance is a possibility only for those who are willing to accept the fact that they will not progress as quickly as they possibly could. There is always a trade off between honing skills and developing other aspects of your life. In most cases, there is overlap - you can maintain a healthy social life with your co-workers or team mates, for example.

But, if you choose to to push 100% - and I'm NOT necessarily encouraging this - there will always be a tendency to choose practicing and learning over more reasonable activities like watching movies, spending time with friends, or building a family. All of these things require time - and for a person who is high ability, time is the only meaningful restriction in skill development.

In Olympic weightlifting, you will not make your heaviest lifts unless you are both absolutely technically precise and giving 100% effort. Practicing this kind of performance brings a lot of joy to my life. It's sort of a microcosm of how I aim to live my entire life - making the correct decisions with accuracy and pushing myself as far as possible within each space I venture into. Not surprisingly, I hit my best lifts when I retain an inner silence and blissful joy as I step up to the platform and grab the bar. Then, I rapidly shift my awareness into 100% unified effort to move and catch the bar.

Rest and Activity

One thing that distinguishes me from other obsessed maniacs is my decision to prioritize rest. In nearly every instance that I face fatigue, I will take time to expel it by napping or practicing Transcendental Meditation. This keeps my mind sharp and allows me to work more effectively. It also prevents me from making mistakes which inevitably consume more time than they are worth. Furthermore, I am avoiding long term health problems which have the potential to end my career early.

While most of my fellow students and co-workers choose to "push" through massive amounts of studying or working, I plan strategically to accomplish more with less work. For me, one hour of alert, attentive studying is worth three hours of stressed, fatigued study. The side effect is that I feel awesome and am generally very happy. David R Hawkins makes a great point about the differences between power and force which shed light on this issue.

Sheldon's Relationship to Mastery

Personally, I have deliberately created a lifestyle which allows me to hone my skills as quickly as possible. When I compromise this momentum, I feel self hatred and guilt. I see great results from maintaining a regular routine, working in a focused way, prioritizing inner silence and clarity, and maintaining an unwavering relationship of compassion towards everything around me. When I break from this state of awareness, I know that something is wrong and that I need to prioritize restoring that inner dynamic above everything else. It is in this state that I pursue mastery at the highest rate possible.

Currently, my primary struggle is finding a rhythm to optimize development of three skills simultaneously. I have had great success working on two skills at once, but in the past I have had to set aside any additional goals in order to focus on only two at a time. Using power rather than force, I am slowly learning to optimize my progress in more than two areas simultaneously.

How do you relate to mastery? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

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