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Some thoughts on Mastery

A few years ago I decided to take a writing class at City College of San Francisco. The class was creative non-fiction, memoir writing. I went into it expecting that it would be fun, but not difficult. When it came time to write my first assignment, I found that it actually was in fact more challenging than I expected. But I told myself to keep my butt in the chair, and keep writing. I completed the assignment and turned it in on a Thursday. The instructor handed our graded assignments back face down at the end of class on Tuesday. I kept mine face down as I walked out of the building, looking at it when I finally got to the street. “A”, followed by glowing and positive comments. I called my best friend and left him voicemail: “I just got my first assignment back, and I got an A!” I reported breathlessly. He later told me, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you giggle before listening to that message.” In my mind I was already a writer. No, a Writer: capital “W”. I was going to go forward from that assignment and only get better, only have success, unleashing my heretofore undiscovered talent on the world. But that wasn’t the case. When I sat down to write the second assignment the next evening (“oh, I’ll just sit down and this will flow out of me; I know what I want to write about, how long can it take to just type it?”), nothing came out. Well, some words came out, but it was pretty clear they weren’t what I imagined. The words on the page were a pale reflection of the idea in my head. I struggled for a couple of hours before calling it a night. And I did not get an “A” on the second assignment.

I was reminded of this incident recently, thinking about why sometimes things feel like they flow and I stay with it, and sometimes they don’t and I put it down. I had a long flight and had brought a book with me: “Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-term Fulfillment”, by George Leonard. A colleague had recommended it to me as we talked about what it means to have mastery of something (in the case of our conversation, software engineering). It’s a short book, about 150 pages, and easy to read. The core thing I took away from it was that mastery is about pursuing a path for its own sake, not for the sake of a grade or a title. The path to mastery involves seeking instruction, practice, surrendering your ego, being intentional about what you want, and pushing yourself just past the edge of what’s comfortable or obvious. I think the most interesting thing about reading Mastery was how it crystallized other things I’ve been thinking about or reading since taking that writing class.

Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, talks about “morning pages”: getting up and writing three pages, even if all you write is “I don’t know what to write”. Surrendering the idea of a polished product, practicing putting pen to paper, pushing yourself.

Annie Lamott, in “Bird by Bird”, talks about “shitty first drafts”: again, surrendering the idea of a polished product, of genius, and committing yourself to work.

And my print-making mentor, Katie Gilmartin, reminding me gently that Picasso didn’t make just one bull: he created the image again and again, practicing, improving his technique. In telling me that she reminds me that it’s not only acceptable to repeat yourself, it’s desirable.

Finally, when we interview engineering candidates, one of the things we look for is what they’re doing outside of their job. Some members of the team look for outside technical projects: are they interested in the field and in learning more about new things. That’s great, but I tend to look for “what are they making”. It might be software, it might be paintings, it might be improv. After reading “Mastery”, I think that I’m looking for a practice. Looking for something they’re doing just because they love it, not because they’re going to get paid, recognized, etc.

I think the path to mastery is the path of having a practice. What do I do again and again, not because I’m going to get an “A”, but because I love it and it feeds me.