What does it mean to talk about a mastery mindset? For me, it’s about truly understanding something. Because learning is a mindset, and a lifelong process, we need to focus on that understanding, rather than rote learning, or committing facts to memory. Ultimately, learning is not information, but this process of understanding.
In my case, my subject, and my passion, was billiards. I needed to understand how the ball behaved on the table, and that was the root of my understanding. For someone else it could be education, or cookery, or anything else you can think of.
It’s often said that mastery comes from passion. I’d go one step further, and say that passion is not good enough for mastery, and that you need obsession. Obsession almost to the point of madness, where you forget about everything else. You might start with a superficial understanding, but as you persevere and unravel your subject layer by layer, eventually you’ll get to the core. That’s when glimpses of mastery appear.
The root of my understanding was my sport, but this idea is applicable to every field of human endeavour. Focused concentration and the ability to understand a subject matter will stand you in good stead no matter what your chosen life or career path. At the simplest level, if you hone your concentration levels, and focus on something that you are passionate about, then it follows that you will improve. Over time you’ll achieve ‘success’, in the way that society might define it, but more importantly you’ll achieve joy.
I’ve been asked how I reconcile this with work-life balance, and the idea of multitasking. I don’t believe in either. With true mastery, there is no balance. And as for multitasking, it can be misleading. Yes, you might be able to do six things in four minutes, but if you are really doing each thing well, then what you are in fact doing is very quickly shifting focus from one thing to another. I see that as a function of being able to build your own capabilities.
That’s ever more relevant now, as so much has changed over the last few generations. Technology has impacted all of us — young and old. One knock-on effect is having extra distractions, and finding it harder to focus. It’s a function of the environment that we now live in, and we can’t do much about that environment. What we can control though, are our own minds, and our determination to achieve mastery in a particular area.
Finding what it is you are passionate about — and therefore where to focus your energy and hone your understanding — is really the crux of the issue. To that end, we need to design our education system so that we understand Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory. Only then can we keep offering and exposing children to their own different intelligences, so that they are more likely to find what really suits them.
I was extremely fortunate to find my kinesthetic intelligence very early on, but I know that it can be tough. The good thing is that there are so many choices for today’s youth. There are far more professions which reward both financially and in terms of satisfaction than there were 20 years ago. And society has evolved positively, in recognizing that you can be ‘successful’ across a range of professions and fields.
In terms of discovering your path, my experience is that ultimately you must follow your heart. That sounds easy, but it requires a lot of introspection. To figure out what you want to do in life is difficult, and it’s not only something that you do once. In my case, it’s been four years since I stopped my sport, and I’m still trying to figure out what my role is now. But that’s not a problem. Some people get it fast, some people get it slow, some people take a lifetime. But as long as you take time to introspect on a regular basis, you’ll begin to understand yourself. And if you follow what you know has a connection with your core, then you will be happier in the long run.
That’s not to say that we are not influenced by the people around us. We all get swayed by others, and this is especially true when we are young. In those formative years it’s our parents, teachers and coaches who wield the most influence. If when I was a teenager my coach had constantly said to me: ‘you have to win your match tomorrow’ I would only have thought about winning. But if your parents and coaches keep asking you about whether you are enjoying yourself, or are genuinely interested in whatever it is you are passionate about, then you will start focusing on that. I feel that I have to be very grateful for my ‘zone of influencers’ in my youth, as they encouraged me to stay focused on what I was passionate about.
Without a Map
Once you’ve found your passion, and have the concentration levels to truly understand that subject, what is the next step? I think that many people would then expect you to form some sort of road map, or ‘plan’ for your career, or life more broadly. I’m not a believer in plans. Yes, they may be alright in the short term, but this idea of wanting to be at a certain point in five years is not something that I subscribe to. Your mind gets diverted with what can be, and this takes you away from your main purpose. There are so many variables in existence in the universe, that in some ways it is arrogant to go so far ahead.
Take my own example — when I started playing billiards I was thirteen years old. My only goal at that stage was to pot that one ball. Then maybe to pot it five times, or even ten times. It never struck me that I wanted to be a national champion after four years, or that I should aim to be a world champion after seven years. I think it would have limited me to have these kinds of thoughts, as I would have been restricted by my performance levels at that time. And once I’d won that world championship, I would have fulfilled all my goals. It could be argued that you can keep redefining your goals, but then what’s the point of the goals in the first place?
Education may not be my field, but I can speak about lifelong learning from my own experience. What I have found is that understanding oneself is at the root of any kind of learning, or even any kind of joy. Once we understand ourselves, and our own strengths and weaknesses, we can think about where our passion is. And once we know where our passion is, we can commit ourselves to fully understanding it. I’m more and more convinced that the purpose of our existence is to really understand something, and that happiness, and purpose, follows.
Co-Founder, Olympic Gold Quest
This article was originally published in The Learner 2017