Updated: Aug 24
I’ve come to believe that the ecstatic feeling of mastery is not reserved for the few talented people in the world that receive three-star ratings, or win global competitions, or set world records. Mastery is available to everyone.
Last week, a 14-year-old girl from Harvey, Louisiana made history. Zaila Avant-garde became the first Black American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in almost 100 years of competition. For those who didn’t see or read about the contest, the final winning word was “Murraya,” a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves with imbricated petals. It turns out that her spelling bee victory isn’t the first of her incredible accomplishments (and likely won’t be her last). She is a talented basketball player and holds three Guinness World Records for the most basketballs dribbled simultaneously (6 basketballs for thirty seconds), the most basketball bounces (307 bounces in 30 seconds), and the most bounce juggles in one minute (255 using four basketballs). Watch her in action here.
What is it about people who perform at such extraordinary levels? Innate talent is essential to be sure. But mastery requires something else. I have been obsessed with understanding the ingredients for mastery for some time. Here’s how I have come to explain it. Mastery requires three things: practice, focus, and surrender.
Practice. That mastery demands practice is, of course, not new. But it is not just any type of practice. Mastery requires deliberate practice, a concept first described by the psychologist Anders Ericsonn. Deliberate practice consists of three things. First, you must be extremely motivated. Second, you must constantly be practicing something that is just beyond your reach. This is what the author George Leonard referred to as “playing the edge” in his seminal book on the subject, appropriately titled Mastery. And finally, practice must not be seen as separate from mastery, but rather as the path of mastery itself.
Focus. In order to sustain the type of deliberate practice above, the master must have the discipline to stay focused. It is essential to say no to the constant demands that conflict with what is being mastered. As the author Greg McKeown writes in his bestselling book Essentialism, “Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.”
Surrender. The master realizes that there is no end destination. There is no resting place. The path to mastery is mastery. It is like climbing a mountain with no top. All masters find peace in and surrender to the reality of this truth.
Whenever I’m asked about the subject of mastery, I usually tell people to watch the extraordinary Japanese-language American documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It is the account of the 85-year-old Jiro Ono, the proprietor of the ten-seat sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, located in a Tokyo subway station. It was the first sushi restaurant in the world to receive a Michelin three-star rating. About thirty minutes into the film, Jiro recounts his love for his art in a way that perfectly captures the essence of mastery:
All I want to do is make better sushi. I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is. Even at my age, after decades of work, I don’t think I’ve achieved perfection. But I feel ecstatic all day. I love making sushi.
I’ve come to believe that the ecstatic feeling of mastery described by Jiro Ono is not reserved for the few talented people in the world that receive three-star ratings, or win global competitions, or set world records. Mastery is available to everyone. It requires an understanding of what you’re good at and a commitment to the three elements of mastery. A desire and work ethic to practice over and over again. A yearning to get incrementally better at your craft each and every day. And the maturity to recognize that there is no end game and to enjoy the path itself.
Adam Grant has written another great piece on the post-Covid return of collective effervescence, a term coined in the early 20th century to describe the sense of energy and harmony people feel when they come together in a group around a shared purpose.
The recent Atlantic article “The Internet is Rotting,” is one of the best long-form essays I’ve read all year.
This is simply too sweet (and instructive) not to read – the New York Times essay on Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter's reflections on celebrating 75 years of marriage.