Mastery Summary and Review

by George Leonard

Has Mastery by George Leonard been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.

In a world constantly offering us quick fixes and easy, step-by-step programs to achieve goals in no time with little effort, it can be easy to forget that to become not just good, but truly great at something takes time. This is where the concept of mastery becomes especially relevant.

True mastery isn’t just about reaching goals; it’s just as much about internalizing a philosophy that will keep you learning even after you’ve reached your goals. In short, true mastery is a lifelong journey.

But what constitutes true mastery? How can you find it in yourself and what can you do to make sure you stay on your path, even when the going gets tough? That’s what this book summary are all about.

In this summary of Mastery by George Leonard, you’ll learn

  • why goals, prizes and recognition are overrated;
  • what made John Wooden such a great basketball coach; and
  • which ritual surgeons perform before every operation.

Mastery Key Idea #1: Mastery is not a state to achieve, but a journey to live by.

Most of the time, we take on new activities with a singular aim – to master them. Be it tennis, chess or a new job, new pursuits can go from exciting to frustrating once we reach the point where our lack of talent seems to be staring us in the face. It’s tempting to give up, but you shouldn’t; you might still have a shot at mastery if you change the way you think.

The first step here is to rethink your motivations for learning a new skill. Many of us are seeking simple recognition from others and the gratification that comes with it. But if you practice tennis until you can do a handful of impressive shots, beat a few of your friends and be congratulated by spectators, you’ll only have the motivation to improve up to a point.

Once you’ve reached a level of skill that’s sufficient to earn you a bit of recognition, you’ll find yourself stuck in your comfort zone. Attempting new shots or competing against more challenging opponents becomes daunting, as you fear you won’t look as good while playing. A true master develops her talents by pushing forward for the sake of it, rather than chasing praise and encouragement.

Another key to mastery is your approach to learning itself, namely by cultivating a certain respect for the process. If you want to master tennis, you’ve got to accept that it’ll take time, patience and perseverance to perfect your forehand. Learning isn’t something you do for a while until you’re good enough – it’s an ongoing journey.

By shifting your mindset, you’ll find that you’re capable of mastering whatever you set your mind to. After all, you were a baby once! Babies enter the world incredibly vulnerable, with very few of the skills adults need to survive.

And yet, they learn at their own pace to crawl, walk, communicate, understand and think for themselves. Some infants learn to walk between nine and ten months of age, while others don’t master it until much later. Children are capable of learning motor skills despite their lack of physique and often slow learning speed.

In this way, learning isn’t about how fast you acquire new skills or how talented or fit you are when you start out; rather, it has much more to do with the journey you take along the way. So, the student who shows the most promise during the first few tennis lessons might not be the one who excels, while an initially clumsier player with a mastery mindset is far more likely to go on to be a pro.

But while a mastery mindset offers us a clear path to excellence, our society seems to reject it at every turn. Find out more in the next book summary.

Mastery Key Idea #2: Marketing in the modern Western world tries hard to make us abandon mastery in favor of quick fixes.

American society, like most Western societies, seems to be waging war upon mindful mastery. We’re bombarded with slogans like “Get fit in two weeks!” or “Hit the jackpot!” as advertisers try to convince us that buying their products will allow us to “master” something instantly. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Mastery is built on long periods of practice without tangible results, which lead to bursts of improvement, which then give way to steady, deliberate practice once again. The journey toward mastery isn’t shaped like a steep incline, but rather a series of plateaus punctuated by spurts of progress. Learning to love these plateaus is essential to achieving mastery.

When the author first began attending an Aikido school, he soon began to enjoy the ritual of classes and the seemingly endless repetition of exercises. While his classmates dropped out, he stuck around through the plateaus and worked his way toward mastery.

Why do many of us find these plateaus so hard to bear? Well, typically because we’re one of three personality types that struggle with mastery – dabblers, obsessives and hackers. Which one are you?

Dabblers tend to approach new hobbies with a lot of enthusiasm. They might pick up an expensive tennis racket, dress like their favorite pro and pat themselves on the back after their first improvements. But they aren’t able to handle the plateaus and end up dropping out, justifying their decision with excuses along the lines of “It just wasn’t the right sport for me . . .”

The obsessive is determined to master his forehand in just one tennis lesson. The learning journey doesn’t matter to him, it’s results that matter. Most of the time, the plateaus after the first small spurts of progress will discourage obsessives enough for them to quit.

Finally, hackers are perfectly comfortable spending the rest of their time in the plateau. They’re happy just to hit the tennis ball over the net a few times when playing against a superior opponent, and aren’t particularly motivated to push themselves to improve any further.

If, to your dismay, you’ve identified yourself as a dabbler, obsessive or hacker, don’t fret! Recognizing the behaviors that prevent you from mastering the skills you’ve always wanted to have is the first step to overcoming them. So what’s the next step?

We read dozens of other great books like Mastery, and summarised their ideas in this article called Life purpose
Check it out here!

Mastery Key Idea #3: Finding the right instructor and seeing practice as a path, not just a task, are crucial steps toward achieving mastery.

Instruction and practice are two of the five key elements of achieving mastery. In this book summary, we’ll find out just how important they both are.

Of course, there are many skills you can teach yourself without too much help. But on the road to mastery, finding great instruction is a must. Instruction can come in many forms, from video tutorials, computer programs, real-life experiences or even a good old-fashioned book. They’re all valid, but social contact is particularly crucial to great learning experiences. For this reason, one-on-one or group instruction is definitely worth pursuing.

But how can you know if your instructor is worth sticking with? The best way is to observe how they treat their students. Take UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, otherwise known as the “Wizard of Westwood” and one of the best basketball mentors in history.

Wooden’s respect for his players is what made his coaching stand out, as did his balanced focus on the team’s strengths and weaknesses. He would split training sessions fifty-fifty between correcting problems and reinforcing what the team already did well.

Practice, like instruction, is vital in your journey to mastery – but not practice as you know it. While most of us think of practice as repeating a task until we’re good at it, mastery requires us to think of practice as more than a simple action. Instead, think of practice as a noun, as a synonym for “path” or “journey.”

To illustrate this, consider why a martial arts master would continue to train even after receiving his black belt, the highest qualification. The answer is simple: the black belt is just another milestone along the journey, and a license to continue practicing for as long as you wish. Here, the black belt doesn’t represent practice as the act of repetition, but the notion of practice as a noun that captures the joy of ongoing learning.

Mastery Key Idea #4: Surrendering to your teacher, visualizing with intention and confronting your limits are the final three pillars of mastery.

Now that we’ve explored the roles of instruction and practice in mastery, let’s explore three more key elements that’ll help you on your way to excellence: surrender, intentionality and edge control. These terms are a little less familiar than instruction and practice, so let’s take a closer look.

What does surrender have to do with mastery? Well, it refers to the need to surrender to your teacher and the demands of your discipline. Sometimes this means sacrificing your pride, too.

Say your top-notch tennis instructor, who you respect and trust, asks you to stand on one foot and hold the other foot against your back with one hand, while your other hand rotates in the air above your head. You’ll have to do this for five minutes at the start of every class for your entire first month.

You could, of course, refuse and complain that you’d look ridiculous. But by doing so, you’ll miss out on what the exercise teaches you – improved balance, for instance. Though your instructor might sometimes ask you to do things that you don’t understand, if you trust their wisdom and want to benefit from it, you’ll need to put your pride aside and surrender to them.

Let’s turn now to intentionality. This element focuses on the power of the mind in mastery. Intentionality is the ability to visualize yourself succeeding, and is a technique that golf professionals, for example, rely on heavily. Take international golf legend Jack Nicklaus; he believes that a successful shot consists of 50 percent visualization, 40 percent set-up and just 10 percent swing!

Finally, edges are those moments when you’re confronted with a challenge and, therefore, the opportunity to exceed your own expectations. Masters recognize an edge as a chance to grow, and they’ll concentrate their efforts to make sure they make the most of it.

How do you know when you’re facing an edge? It’s a pretty familiar feeling. For dabblers, the plateau is an edge. For the obsessive, it’s their inability to understand their own limits, while hackers rarely stay on a path long enough to reach an edge in the first place.

The next time you feel you’re facing a task that you simply can’t complete, you’ll need to choose between giving up or focusing hard to overcoming the obstacle. The master will always choose the latter.

Mastery Key Idea #5: Surround yourself with other masters, focus on the joy of practice and create rituals to bounce back from pitfalls.

Say you decide to follow the path of the master. You’ve told your friends, have gotten into the rhythm of practice and feel great. But then, all of a sudden, it happens: a backslide.

Let’s imagine, for instance, that you’ve decided to run five kilometers every morning as part of your practice routine. But after a little while, beyond the first successful mornings, breathing becomes difficult and your heart races like never before.

This is your body sending you a clear signal – you’ve pushed yourself too far out of your regular state and your body can no longer keep homeostasis going. Homeostasis is a process by which organisms regulate their internal systems, ensuring they function in balanced conditions and avoid drastic changes.

Despite all the well-intentioned resolutions you made, your body wins and interrupts your practice. This will happen for almost anyone learning a new physical skill. So how can you prevent your resolutions from falling apart?

Well, there are three steps you can take. The first is to surround yourself with people who have already made it through the same challenges you are currently facing. They’ll understand exactly what’s going on when you push up against your body’s natural limits, and can offer advice on how to overcome these limits in your practice sessions.

The next step to take is to ensure you have the right approach to your goals. Remember how our desire for instant success and recognition is counterproductive to mastery? The master finds joy in practice itself, and that should be your focus too. In other words, if you reach the top of the mountain, keep on climbing!

Finally, work hard to stay consistent in your practice and learning. You can even make routines more engaging by turning them into rituals that give you time to reflect on the task at hand. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observed that this is what master surgeons do when they wash their hands the exact same way prior to every operation – they create a ritual for themselves to focus their minds more deeply.

Mastery Key Idea #6: Move your body, set priorities and accept commitment to give yourself fuel for the journey ahead.

The last thing you’ll need to ensure a successful journey toward mastery is energy to sustain yourself. The author considers humans to be rather like machines full of energy. Unfortunately, troublesome behavior and social mores prevent us from using this energy to its full potential.

This inhibition of natural human energy begins when we’re kids. Think of how curious young children are – they won’t rest until they’ve explored and experienced everything for themselves. But parents, keen to ensure their children’s safety, quickly limit this exploration with rules; from “Don’t touch that!” to “Be quiet!” to “Not until you eat your vegetables”, we grow up listening to negative commands that curtail our natural curiosity and drain our energy.

Luckily, we’re all capable of reclaiming this childlike energy through a few simple practices.

One of these is maintaining physical fitness. By making sure we walk or cycle instead of driving, for instance, we can remind ourselves of the strength our bodies possess and put it to good use.

Another step is to set your priorities well. Focusing our energy toward one main goal means we may have to let go of other goals, but this is by no means a disadvantage; rather, prioritization gives us a better understanding of our energy levels and helps us learn to work within our limits. And priorities can always be shifted according to how you perceive your needs.

Finally, learning to accept your commitment to a goal, rather than fighting it, can give you an unparalleled energy boost. By diving into a new endeavor wholeheartedly, and by recognizing and welcoming the work that comes along with mastery, you’ll give yourself plenty of fuel for the entire journey.

Final summary

The key message in this book

Mastering a new skill isn’t about the results you achieve, the recognition you get from your peers or  even repetitive practice that helps you get there. Instead, mastery is a path that you can follow to ensure your new endeavors are shaped by ongoing learning, passionate and patient practice and a rediscovery of your own human potential.

Actionable advice:

Turn your dishwashing into mastery practice.

Next time you’re doing the dishes, don’t just try to finish them as quickly as possible. Instead, take a moment before you start and consider how you could do them in the most effective way. Then, once you begin, be mindful of every movement you make, taking care to do things well, rather than forcing yourself to rush. Though doing the dishes will feel slower this way at first, you’ll soon find that a more considered approach is faster and cleaner!

Suggested further reading: Find more great ideas like those contained in this summary in this article we wrote on Life purpose