If I’d only known this secret to mastery earlier

secret to mastery - guitar

One secret to mastery is to break everything into small steps.

For example, small steps like practicing 15 minutes every day turns out to be more effective than say, slogging through five hours of practice once a week. This applies to learning a musical instrument, acquiring a second language or improving your jump shot. Break anything into daily baby steps and you’ll go further faster.

These small steps toward mastery work. But here’s the secret to mastery I wish I’d realized years ago: These small steps add up and work only if you master each one as you go. Don’t move to the next step until you’ve perfected this one.

For many forms of learning, if you want to achieve mastery, you simply can’t take short cuts. As a client once commented after realizing a large project required a number of steps that couldn’t be done concurrently, “I guess you can’t have nine women pregnant for one month each and deliver a baby.” Uh, yeah.

I’ve come to appreciate this recently as I’ve started taking guitar lessons with an instructor. By setting up a specific pathway to follow with certain drills to learn each week, my teacher has made it much easier to stick to a step-by-step method. It forces me to master each step before moving to the next. A few years ago, when I tried to learn the guitar on my own, I would practice to a level of semi-proficiency and count it good. So what if the middle section of “Here Comes The Sun” always slowed down. I only played for my own enjoyment so it didn’t matter.

Secret to mastery - guitar stringsOnly it did. And does. Here’s why. When it comes to mastery, we shortchange ourselves when we accept “adequate” as acceptable. We think we’re being efficient and moving on to the next level faster. But if we don’t truly master the current level — e.g. nailing the chord progression for “…sun, sun, sun, here it comes…” — then we end up eventually plateauing and being unable to progress. And then what happens? We either go in search of a simpler Beatles song or give up altogether and start looking for a new hobby or interest.

Sound familiar? There’s likely nothing new here. So why am I just realizing this secret to mastery myself? Because first of all, like most of us, I forget or don’t apply what I once knew. Second, not everything we do requires mastery. I enjoy surfing, fly fishing, mountain biking and a host of other activities in which I am, in many cases, barely proficient. And that’s OK. I don’t have to be an expert at each to derive pleasure from them. Being good enough is good enough for some activities.

The key is knowing which ones you care enough about to master. Dabble in some, but for those where you want to do more than just get by, build the habit of mastering each step along the way. And to do that, consider getting help in the form of a teacher or coach.

This reminds me of the old African proverb: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Instructors can help. But even more important is that when we master each step before moving to the next, we find that the journey itself becomes so enjoyable that speed or distance don’t seem as important. We’re content just to experience the wonderful satisfaction of doing each step well.