How do I begin a discussion about a book that I read halfway through before I saw any connection to my life and then realized as I finished that it had profound implications?
Mastery by George Leonard is that book. I read it a number of years ago, and since then, I have recommended it to friends, coaching clients and people in my workshops. I whole-heartily recommend it to anyone else who would like to master any skill—physical, mental or social.
Because I believe the meaning is so personal to every individual, I am reluctant to describe the content, because I want each reader to create his own meaning. However, I will consider some of the less profound ideas and let individuals wrestle with personal implications.
On the surface, George Leonard writes about his years-long practice of aikido, a martial art that requires years of study and practice. He talks about his own experiences and some of his observations about people in his classes on his steep and winding road to mastery. Along the way, he introduces characteristics of different types of learners who begin and often give up on new endeavors.
He describes the Dabbler, who is enthusiastic, loves new things and often quits when the newness ends, the Obsessive, who pushes himself mercilessly and is likely to be hurt or run out of steam, and the Hacker who does only enough in his practice to get by. The implication is that these characteristics do not lead to mastery, only to frustration, physical or emotional injury, added expense and apparent waste of time.
Leonard then presents in a very thought-provoking way his conclusions on the topic of what constitutes mastery and how one gains it if he is willing.
Maybe the most important idea is that a master loves the practice; she is not simply interested in the outcome. That is not what those of us who hated piano practice or tennis drills want to hear, but Leonard insists that loving the practice and the inevitable plateaus before reaching higher levels of skill are required before one can achieve mastery of the activities he describes.
Leonard suggests some very practical ideas to gain mastery such as finding a master to teach you, surrendering to that teacher and to that practice, and playing to the edge of one’s proficiency. He also suggests working in community to enhance one’s skills. Leonard also describes how to deal with change and inertia and some of the pitfalls one will inevitably experience along the path.
I cannot guarantee that the book will have the profound effect on every reader that it had on me, but I believe the subtitle, “the keys to success and long-term fulfillment,” summarize the intent of the book. That is why I consider this book one our our most valued resources and why I often recommend it. Reading with curiosity and the desire to understand go a long way toward the personal fulfillment that it can support.
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