Monday, January 5, 2009

George Leonard - Mastery - The keys to success and long-term fulfillment

I never get the time to do all I want. Instead I make future plans - I will study Spanish and dance tango in South America, I will study gong-fu in China and massage in New York, go horse-back riding in Mongolia and god knows all I've been planning lately. So I asked my sifu where I could go and concentrate on gong-fu for a few months. He obviously thought I was a bit dumb and said I have to integrate gong-fu into my life, that is the only way to ever become a master. At first I thought he's lacking a lot of knowledge being a sifu and all, but as his words sunk in I realized he's right. All these grand plans I was making was only a way to avoid action in the present. If I really want to learn gong-fu or Spanish or anything I have to do it now. I have to live in the present.

Despite the pathetic sub-title, this book is great and has been an inspiration on my search for the path of mastery. I will try to catch the most important advice here.

First of all you have to forget the bottom-line mentality that has become so dominant. It's claimed that the result is the only thing that counts, and this fits well into the short-sighted thinking of neoliberal capitalism, but on the path to mastery, the journey itself is the goal.

Chapter 1 (p14): "There's really no way around it. Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it."

In chapter 2 three types of behaviour is described, behaviours that are not paths to mastery. You can behave according to different patterns in different matters.
The Dabbler approaches each new thing with enormous enthusiasm, but as he reaches the first plateau he finds excuses to stop. "When the initial ardor starts to cool, he starts looking around. To stay on the path of mastery would mean changing himself. How much easier it is to jump into another bed and start the process all over again. The Dabbler might think of himself as an adventurer, a connoisseur of novelty, but he's probably closer to being what Carl Jung calls the puer aeternus, the eternal kid."
The Obsessive is a bottom-line type, he knows the result is what counts and will not settle for second best. "American corporate managers by and large have joined the cult of the bottom line... They strive mightily to keep the profit curve angled upward, even if that means sacrificing research and development, long-term planning, patient product development, and plant investment." "Somehow, in whatever he is doing, the Obsessive manages for a while to keep making brief spurts of upward progress, followed by sharp declines - a jagged ride toward a sure fall. When the fall occurs, the Obsessive is likely to get hurt. And so are friends, colleagues, stockholders, and lovers."
The Hacker is content to get by, he doesn't mind staying on the plateau indefinately.

Chapter 3 - America's war against mastery - is about how the constant strive for easy fixes gets you nowhere; the path of endless climax. "Our [USA] present national prosperity is built on a huge deficit and trillions of dollars worth of overdue expenditures on environmental cleanup, infrastructure repair, education, and social services - the quick-fix mentality." "...our time of grace might be running out. In the long run, the war against mastery, the path of patient, dedicated effort without attachment to immediate results, is a war that can't be won."

Chapter 4 ends with "To love the plateau is to love what is most essential and enduring in your life." This chapter is about living in the present, on the plateau (mostly) and enjoy it.

In part 2 of the book, the five master keys are presented:

1. Instruction: You must look for a good instructor and a good instructor is one that has the patience and empathy to teach also the untalented. In fact a slow student can be the better one in the end, because "the talented student... is likely to learn so fast that small stages in the learning process are glossed over, creating an opaque surface that hides the secrets of the art from view." It is emphasized that you must keep the proper psychological distance to your teacher (p71). Too close and you loose all perspective and too far you can't surrender (see below).
2. Practice: "The master is the one who stays on the mat five minutes longer every day than anybody else" an old saying goes. You must practice until you have the skill in your body, until you no longer have to think. "What is mastery? At the heart of it, mastery is practice. Mastery is staying on the path."
3. Surrender: "The courage of a master is measured by his or her willingness to surrender. This means surrendering to your teacher and to the demands of your discipline. It also means surrendering your own hard-won proficiency from time to time in order to reach a higher or different level of proficiency." "...the essence of boredom is to be found in the obsessive search of novelty. Satisfaction lies in mindful repetition, the discovery of endless richness in subtle variations on familiar themes." "For the master, surrender means there are no experts. There are only learners."
4. Intentionality: It's about creating a mental picture of the goal, a vision. "Intentionality fuels the master's journey. Every master is a master of vision."
5. The edge: To ever become a master you must explore the limits. "But before you can even consider playing this edge, there must be many years of instruction, practice, surrender, and intentionality. And afterwards? More training, more time on the plateau: the never-ending path again." "Almost without exception, those we know as masters are dedicated to the fundemantals of their calling."

In part 3 tools for the path of mastery are presented and some dangers along the way.

Chapter 10 deals with homeostasis, the condition of equilibrium, the resitance to change, that keeps our bodies working and societies stable. This is normally a good function, but the bad thing is it resists all change, also good change. So that's why our body screams when we suddenly start doing sports, why people stay conservative and the USA still haven't grasped the metric system. It can also explain (p111) why if the drinking father stops drinking the son might get crazy - just to keep the normal chaos going. Maybe this is the reason it feels so good to come home, to keep that old apartment even though I'm never there? "Ultimately, you'll have to decide if you really do want to spend the time and effort it takes to get on and stay on the path." Some tools are presented, if you decide to do so:
1. Be aware of how homeostasis works.
2. Be willing to negotiate with your resistance to change. Keep pushing, but not without awareness. Be prepared to take a step or two back if necessary.
3. Develop a support system. Friends, family, people who have done or are doing the same thing. (Johan Huizinga's book Study of the play elements in culture is about sport's and games' tendency to bring people together.)
4. Follow a regular practice. "Practice is a habit, and any regular practice provides a sort of underlying homeostasis, a stable base during the instability of change."
5. Dedicate yourself to lifelong learning. "...the best learning of all involves learning how to learn - that is, to change. The lifelong learner is essentially one who has learned to deal with homeostasis, simply because he or she is doing it all the time."

Chapter 11 is about energy, how to get enough of it. "A human being is the kind of machine that wears out from lack of use." But why do we then often feel so drained? As kids we are full of energy, exploring everything. But then parents say "Shut up!" and school says sit down and listen. "Peer groups at every stage of life exerts a leveling influence. Conformity is valued. High energy is feared as a threat to conformity." (p122) This is understandable as extreme amounts of energy is often used in bad ways, but for a responsible person, suggestions on how to get started are presented:
1. Maintain physical fitness.
2. Acknowledge the negative and accentuate the positive. Positive thinking! But don't try to deny negative facts.
3. Try telling the truth. Don't avoid saying things to save your own skin or anything else.
4. Honor but don't indulge your own dark side. Robert Bly in A little book on the human shadow tells about a child putting all parts others don't like in an invisible bag. This drains his energy and by 20 only a thin slice of original energy is left. We can use the energy of eg anger in a positive way.
5. Set your priorities. " move in one direction, you must to forgo all others." As a 29-year old friend of the author says: "Our generation has been raised on the idea of keeping your options open. But if you keep all your options open, you can't do a damned thing." "Ultimately, liberation comes through the acceptance of limits."
6. Make commitments. Take action. Deadlines! A commitment leads to a surge of clarity, and energy.
7. Get on the path of mastery and stay on it. "A regular practice not only elicits energy but tames it. Without the firm underpinnings of a practice, deadlines can produce violent swings between frantic activity and collapse." "People whose energy is flowing don't need to take a drug, commit a crime, or go to war in order to feel fully awake and alive"

Chapter 12 mentions a lot of pitfalls along the way to mastery, such as conflicts in life, injuries, laziness etc. "Never marry a person who is not a friend of your excitement." It is also warned against excessive use of external motivation. Schoolkids that gold stars as reward for good achievements initially speed up their learning, but soon level off and when gold stars are no longer being given they drop to a level lower than before (p137). Another proof that the fat bonus checks in big corporation are nothing but greed. The danger of perfectionism is highlighted too. If we set our standards too high it kills our creativity. "The master is the one who is willing to try, and fail, and try again, for as long as he or she lives."

Chapter 13 - Mastering the commonplace - is about applying mastery to all kinds of stuff in our lives; driving, making the dishes, vacuuming. After all, most of our lives consist of these commonplace tasks. It also applies to our relationships. In fact, driving takes more brain power than landing on the moon (p144), so why not take it seriously? And make it fun!

For the journey of mastery you should pack this book (surprise) but also find your qi. Qi, inner energy, has been "proved difficult to measure, and skeptics tend to attribute its powers to suggestion, a sort of dynamic placebo effect." Shortly, it's about relaxation, being able to focus all your energy at one point but never let it linger (see Thomas Cleary - The japanese art of war). (I personally recommend you to study gong-fu or tai-chi if you want to find your qi.)

This last chapter ends with some encouraging words:
"You are the culmination of an extravagant evolutionaryjourney. Your DNA contains more information than all the libraries in the world; information that goes back to the beginnings of life itself. In potentia, you are the most formidable all-around athlete who has ever roamed this planet. Many creatures possess more highly specialized sense organs, but no total sensorium is so well equipped and integrated as is yours. (The unaided human eye can detect a single quantum of light - the smallest amount possible - and discern more than ten million colors.) Your brain is the most complex entity in the known universe, its billions of twinkling neurons interact in ways so multitudinous and multifarious as to dwarf the capacity of any computer ever yet devised or even imagined. The best way to describe your total creative capacity is to say that for all practical purposes it is infinite. ... How to begin the journey? You need only to take the first step. When? There is always now."

The epilogue speaks about the importance of letting yourself be a fool - that emptiness is a precondition for significant learning. The downside is that you might look childish, like a fool, but in fact the world's greatest geniouses have allowed themselves this, and thereby unleashed their full potential (Mozart and Einstein to name a few).

The very end is buddhistic as it tells about Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, who wanted to be buried in his white belt. "At the moment of death, the ultimate transformation, we are all white belts."

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