The Importance of Mastery

Mastery is a complete and utter waste of time for most things.  Mastery takes enormous amounts of time and produces only marginal benefit over mere competence in an area.  When I was a kid, it took me a few hours to beat Donkey Kong, but it took me dozens of hours to find every secret, every glitch, every shortcut, and the fastest way to beat every level.  Did spending all those hours mastering Donkey Kong really benefit me?

I’ve talked about this Seth Godin post before, but I refer to it again for its relevant graphic:

Seth Godin's Skill v. Time GraphWe’d be better off if we only became minimally competent at the things we don’t do that often or aren’t that important to us, and poured that extra time into our core skills, that next skill or project that will make you more valuable, or something you really enjoy.

For example, I wanted to build a blog.  I know basic HTML, but I needed to learn some CSS, PHP and javascript to build what I wanted.  I spent about 10 hours doing so, and this blog now looks and functions reasonably well.  I thought about really diving into web coding stuff, but I stopped myself: I have no need to master this.  I’m not gonna be a web designer/developer/coder.  I’m not supervising one, and I’m not looking to hire one.  I think it’s interesting stuff, and I’d like to be an expert, but the time I’d have to invest just to get into the middle of the “Novice” area of Seth’s chart just doesn’t make any sense for me.  If I really needed a website, I could go hire a real expert to do it.  So instead of pursuing mastery, I spent the minimum amount of time to get minimally competent to do what I wanted to do.

Why Mastery Matters

The first reason mastery matters is obvious: people pay for it.  If you’ve truly mastered something, you’re the one the can solve all the problems.  You understand things so well, you know how to handle situations novices haven’t even encountered or thought about.  When people are in a jam, this expertise commands a huge premium over the competition’s mere proficiency.

There are a slew of other good reasons too.  Many people have changed the world because they took something from the area or discipline they had mastered and applied it to an area nobody had ever thought to apply that thing before.  Mastery makes you more interesting.  Mastery, even in totally unrelated or seemingly unimportant fields, makes you more valuable to have around.

But, I have a more fundamental reason mastery is important: it makes you a better learner.

E. Glenn Schellenberg’s study about music lessons and IQ improvement in Kindergartners is extremely interesting.  He showed that 6 year olds who were given either keyboard, voice, or drama lessons scored significantly higher on IQ tests than those who didn’t take lessons.  Schellenberg further concluded that comparable nonmusical activities did not produce similar IQ increases.


Well, we don’t really know.  Some scientists theorize that something about music helps to restructure neural pathways in the brain.  This might be totally right.  But, I have my own theory: the way music is taught, with repetition and deliberate practice followed by immediate feedback, teaches kids the best way to learn.  I would bet if you did a study of 25 year olds who learned to play music at an early age you would find they not only have higher IQs, but more importantly, they are significantly more successful than kids who didn’t learn to play music.

Learning music is pretty simple: practice, encounter failure, tweak, practice, encounter failure, tweak . . . practice, attain perfection.

If you see the results this deliberate practice produces, which you can see almost immediately when you’re learning a new piece of music, you would naturally apply that practice elsewhere: chemistry, tennis, business, whatever.  The habits you learn when you study music are the same ones that would benefit you in every other area of study.

What does this have to do with mastery?

In addition to all the other benefits that come along with mastery, simply putting in the time to master a subject will teach you a lot about the art of mastering something.  It will teach you patience, discipline, how to handle failure, perseverance, and a whole lot about yourself.  After you master a few things, you’ll figure out how you learn best, and how to learn faster.  Once you manage to master one thing, mastering the second will be much easier, the third easier still, and so on, until pursuing mastery becomes habitual.

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2 Responses to The Importance of Mastery

  1. Pingback: Games > Music | The Blog of A.J. Kessler

  2. Pingback: Learning to Learn | Sophrosynergy

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