A Roadmap to Mastery

I want to share some fantastic advice from a book by my father George Leonard called Mastery, The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment. Mastery draws on Zen philosophy and the Japanese martial art of aikido to come up with effective ways to learn any worthwhile skill, whether it be tennis, playing the guitar, or being a great lover.

Mastery was published in 1992, the same year I opened my first exercise studio, so it happened that I read the book just as I was struggling to develop my teaching skills. Its insights made an enormous impact on me, and I adapted them as the basis of the Bar Method's teaching technique that hundreds of our instructors around the country use today.

The premise of Mastery is that to learn to be good at anything, you have to accept a daunting reality for which most people are not prepared: Your progress will come in "relatively brief spurts," and that each spurt "will be followed by a slight decline to a 'plateau' or skill level just a little better than the last level." In other words, to be on the path to mastery, you need to accept that most of your learning time will be spent on a "plateau" of no apparent improvement.

How true! In my experience, learning never proceeds in a straight ascending line. You have to resign yourself to sticking with it even though most of the time you usually don't seem to be making progress. Most people want something in return for their trouble, namely the feeling that they're better every day. How do you motivate yourself to keep going in the face of this apparent lack of progress?

To illustrate how frustrated people can get when confronted by "the plateau," Mastery conjures up four imaginary people, each representing a different learning style and only one of whom is truly on the path of mastery. Do any of these types resemble you?

  1. "The Dabbler," says Mastery, "approaches each new sport, career opportunity, or relationship with enormous enthusiasm. He or she loves the rituals involved in getting started, the spiffy equipment, the lingo, the shine of newness." In the end, the Dabbler doesn't stay with it because to do so would mean, according to my father, "changing himself. How much easier it is to jump into another bed and start the process all over again."

  2. "The Obsessive," the second type, "is a bottom-line type of person, not one to settle for second best. He or she knows results are what count, and it doesn't matter how to get them, just so you get them fast."

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