If being ‘ready, willing and able’ are the hallmarks of capability, what does it take to achieve mastery? For that matter, what exactly is mastery?
In our 21st century world of work, the term mastery has been used in two distinct ways:
As the pinnacle of performance, mastery describes the level of attainment we achieve when we consistently apply focused attention to a field of endeavor. That could be physical, as in the case of athletic sports, or mental, as in the case of a neurosurgery. Best-selling author of Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell, presents a compelling case that when we pursue a task or activity for 10,000 hours (approximately 5 years of full-time focus and application), we achieve mastery.
It is easy to see technical competence through this lens: an accountant, a doctor, scientist, engineer or computer programmer will refine and perfect their skills through unrelenting commitment to achieve a level of aptitude that cannot be challenged by someone that takes only a cursory interest in that field.
Less concrete but arguably comparable are the social skills we develop over time through continuous interactions and leadership experiences. Mastery represents highly advanced competence.
Another angle on mastery is that its pursuit is the goal itself. That is, we are motivated to achieve mastery for its own sake. Achieving mastery puts us in a state of flow, so aptly described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
In his best-selling book Drive, author Daniel Pink cites mastery as one of the three elements of motivation in the knowledge economy, the other two being autonomy and purpose. We are motivated to build expertise in areas of passionate interest, and mastery is our reward.
Combining these two perspectives, mastery is both a goal and a reward, which makes it so deliciously appealing, since either of these alone would normally suffice to motivate our behavior. Further, evidence from the field of neuroscience supports the biological effects of mastery: deep neurological pathways forged by continuous reinforcement via attention and dopamine chemical rewards.
Hence, attaining mastery represents one of life’s great highs.