Book Recommendation: “Mastery,” by George Leonard

My thoughts on 

Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment

by George Leonard

I recently finished reading George Leonard’s 1992 book Mastery. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to improve their quality of life through the learning of new skills. Whether you want to be a great (or even good) athlete, computer programmer, parent, cook, author, musician, or entrepreneur, you’ll almost certainly find Leonard’s experience and perspective to be both inspiring and practical on your journey.

I was turned on to this trim little book by Owen Cook of Real Social Dynamics, a man who has certainly become a master in his own fields. I was intrigued both because Owen knows what he’s talking about in my experience and because I generally love books that help me learn new ways to improve my life. I went in knowing next to nothing about the book or its author, other than that the book was about the pursuit of learning and mastery for its own sake, rather than a “goals over process” approach that many today follow.

The author, the late George Burr Leonard (1923-2010) certainly speaks from well-earned experience on the topic of mastery. Leonard was a U.S. Army Air Forces pilot and flight instructor during the Second World War, who trained new pilots on the B-25 bomber and flew numerous combat missions in the Pacific. He went on to write thirteen books (mostly on the topics of human potential, and sexual relations,) and earn his fifth-degree black belt in Aikido, and open his own dojo of that martial art.

Leonard’s book focuses on the concept of Mastery, as in mastery of skills technical, intrapersonal, and interpersonal. When he talks about this concept, he means not so much “Being among the best 1% (or 5%, or 10%,)” of practitioners, but rather the never-ending practice of the the particular skill. The path, rather than the summit. Leonard bemoans modern society’s focus on climactic moments, quick-fixes, (“hacks,” as many today would say,) and easy wins, claiming convincingly that such a focus does much to help sell soft drinks, credit cards, and sneakers, but is anathema to the deep joys that come from truly developing oneself within a skillset.

In Mastery, Leonard challenges us to focus on the path, rather than the goal: he uses the analogy of a mountain climber who can see the summit in the distance, and who knows he’s headed in the right direction to reach it, but who keeps his eyes focused on the path immediately ahead.

Start with the fundamentals of a sport, say, tennis. Really master and know deep in your sinews and bones the way to properly hold a racket, how to perform a forehand swing, then a backswing, then a serve, then how to move and return an opponent’s serves, and so on. During such a process of proper learning, the student is sure to experience frustration, and feel multiple times that they are “stuck” on a plateau of no discernable improvement, before their brain can internalize the newest step of the path, and the journey again proceeds excitingly upward, until the student hits another slow, flat spot, and so on …

Leonard explains many of the dynamics behind people’s frustrations when they attempt to start a new hobby or other skill, including three broad types of people who experience those frustrations. He also helpfully offers advice on how to maintain focus on the path. At the foundations, the day to day, nitty-gritty, fundamental activity of doing the Thing at one’s present level of ability, and pushing a bit further every day, is the way through those frustrations and to the true joys of getting good at something. The author offers, coming from the Zen tradition, mindsets and physical methods of staying on the path of mastery for the long-haul, no matter what obstacles life throws in the way.

In short, Mastery is a solid, quick read that helps focus the mind and inspire positive action on one’s hobbies, professional skills, habits, and relationships. I took away a renewed commitment to take the steps every day on my writing, my fitness, my harmonica, and my other skills, to practice the fundamentals, and to push myself a bit more each day. The point isn’t to go all out for WINNING, (though vision and strong desire for a better future are also important,) but to be present and engrossed in the daily activity as an end in itself, with quiet confidence that the bigger external wins (money, women, fame, etc) will come in time anyway.

I can dig it. Check it out.

-Geoff

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