Monday, 12 November 2012

27 Platitudes For Mastering Anything - And The Truth About Achieving

I ran across this list of suggestions on Business Insider about how to achieve "mastery" of something or other. Quite apart from the fact that not a few are about how to make money and get famous once you have achieved mastery, most of them are egregious examples of question-begging and playing to your vanity. Plus, there should be a rule that any self-help guide or suggestion illustrated by an episode in the life of a Very Famous Person is either a) a mis-understanding of the episode or b) of no use to us regular mortals at all, and c) isn't to be taken seriously. 

No ordinary person (that would be me and you) can learn a damn thing from the lives and practices of Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Mozart, Martha Graham, Karl Jung, Glenn Gould or John Coltrane, to mention a few of the people he cites. If you need to ask why, you are suffering some severe delusions about your abilities, energy levels and creative ability, just as a mid-level bureaucrat in a giant corporation is severely deluded if they think they can learn how to be a better manager by reading about Steve Jobs. Anyway, here's the new age stuff, then I'll lay the truth on you.

Rather than compete in a crowded field, find a niche where you can dominate.
Rebel against the wrong path, and use that anger as motivation.
Love your subject at a very basic level.
Engage in deep observation, practice incessantly, and experiment.
Value learning over money so you're not a slave to everyone's opinion.
Revert to a feeling of inferiority in order to truly learn.
Engage in intense practice and lean toward resistance and pain.
Rely on trial and error more than anything.
Choose a mentor who will intensely challenge you.
Absorb your master's knowledge completely and then transform it.
Accept criticism and adapt to power structures and society.
Meticulously craft your persona.
Suffer fools, and learn to exploit them.
Absorb everything and then let your brain make connections for you.
Avoid putting things into familiar categories.
Don't let impatience derail your plans.
Value mechanical and abstract intelligence equally.
Avoid 'technical lock,' or getting wrapped up in technical artistry instead of the real problem.
Shape your world around your strengths.
Know that practice is just as important as innate skill.

This is great advice because (irony alert)...

There's a niche just waiting for you to dominate it, and you have the ability to do so
You're lucky enough to care about anything that lets you make money to live on
You're in an environment where there are useful lessons to be learned
You have a private income
You have the self-discipline, time and family support to practice that hard
You have a manager who's prepared to let you try and fail
There's anyone you know who would make a decent mentor
You are smart enough to understand even half what your "master" is telling you
You have enough taste and nous to craft a persona in the first place
You have strengths (I just avoid my weaknesses)

Anyway, here's what no-one says about being good at anything.

It has nothing to do with goals, motivation, commitment or any of that feel-good, positive new-age nonsense. Sure, achievers do have goals, but only in the way that the rest of us have shopping-lists. Achievers can have off-days, and may describe themselves as "un-motivated", but that doesn't mean there is a "motivated" state which makes their training or competing something they want to do. They don't need to feel enthusiastic to train, or to learn, they just do it. What makes them different from us, is that they train whether they want to or not. They are driven.

Driven comes from inside, and it comes from places people don't want to talk about. Ego, pride, neurosis, obsession, fear, vanity, addiction, chasing the high. It comes from genetics, or a dysfunctional family, neighbourhood, school, peer group, and in some places, church. It doesn't really matter where it comes from, or what it is. What matters is what it makes them do.

It makes them self-harmers (Victoria Pendleton to name but one), amphetamine users (Paul Erdos and other mathematicians), steroid abusers (Lance Armstrong, Flo-Jo and hundreds of athletes in the '80's and '90's), depressed, hand-washers and pencil-straighteners, and for all I know it makes some of them promiscuous. It separates them from most of the human race and from each other. It makes them focused on what can seem like an unbelievably narrow, or weirdly off-centre, range of experience. 

The weirdness does not come from the excellence: the excellence and the weirdness comes from an initial seed of driven, and the driven comes from some neurosis, disorder or flaw. It means they don't fit in with the rest of the kids at school, they don't get why people would just hang out, talk about fictitious characters as if they were real, or follow a football team. They don't feel comfortable with the Normals, and when the sports teacher tells them to show up after school for running practice, and at weekends, that's what they do because then they don't have to feel bad about not behaving like a Normal. 

If you're driven, you can't not - once you've discovered it. Athletes retire and stop training, but usually they no more stop exercising than they stop breathing. I have to learn new stuff: it's what I do. You might say that learning is associated with youth, so I am trying to deny my ageing and inevitable death, and that may be true for some people, but if you were inside my soul, you would experience it as a natural urge, like turning your face to the sun on a cool day.

"Driven" is why most people never get beyond the advanced beginner stage, why they never learn to troubleshoot, nor acquire second-order problem solving skills. Why they zig, and never zag (Hegarty); and why the audience for any kind of even remotely challenging art, music, literature, science or mathematics, is so small. To get those things needs work, study, tolerating a certain amount of irritation and puzzlement until one day you just get it. The mass-market demand is for stuff that can be "got" more or less immediately.

Normals look at driven and recoil. Real achievers are coached to talk about themselves in the positive, new-age-y way because that's good PR. They are not going to tell the truth.

This is why the champion or genius who is angry because of everything they "sacrificed" to get where they were is a cliche character of cheap drama. It's nonsense. There was no sacrifice, just an exchange of one misfit agony for another. 

And why self-help gurus can make fortunes from books telling normals that excellence and achievement are about good teachers, hard work and playing along with the system. You too can be Normal and compose a piece of music as timeless as A Love Supreme or win a boxing championship.


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