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10 Ways to Develop a Mastery Mindset

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In today’s world of hacks, shortcuts and instant money-making blueprints, I think we have lost appreciation for slow-brewing mastery in our work.

Through the years, I have worked with many martial artists, cultural leaders and business mentors who have taught me that trying to finish first in a short race is not only stressful, it works against developing deep expertise.

Here are ten ways to develop a mastery mindset:

  1. Learn patience
    My mother in law has taught me that Diné people (Navajos) have ceremonies for every part of life. There are baby’s first laugh ceremonies and puberty ceremonies and seasonal ceremonies. There are water ceremonies and lightening ceremonies and beauty way ceremonies. In these sacred gatherings, conversation is slow and deliberate and unhurried. An elder can take an entire hour to share a teaching, or bless food before eating. I have watched elders see a young person squirm with impatience, then choose to talk slower and longer. They do this because they know that learning to settle down and develop patience is going to help young folks develop thoughtfulness, depth and wisdom.
  2. Practice the basics
    When we first learn a new skill, we dive into it with abandon, taking classes, learning from mentors and practicing like crazy. When we reach a certain level of success, we often get lazy. True masters never stop practicing the basics. Martial artists do push ups and sit ups every day of their lives. Artists practice brush strokes. Writers write daily. Entrepreneurs create, market and sell. When you don’t practice the basics, they go away.
  3. Appreciate the source of your materials
    In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Jiro’s son walks slowly around the fish market, looking for the perfect fish for the evening meals. He has relationships with fishermen who will not sell their product to anyone but him.  Great work is built with great materials, by people and partners who care as much about what they do as you care about what you do. Avoid cheap, sloppy and poorly constructed source materials.
  4. Deconstruct everything
    Often, success is random. If you started a business in 1996 like I did, you might have thought you were naturally talented. The market was flourishing. Companies were throwing huge sums of money around for training, employee perks and expensive toys. If you do well, take the time to figure out exactly what were the conditions that led to your success. If you have a raging failure, figure out exactly which conditions, personal and environmental,  led to your failure. As Don Miguel Ruiz says in The Four Agreements, “Don’t take things personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dreams.”
  5. Set boundaries
    You cannot create great work if you are in a constant state of reaction. You must protect your creative work time by blocking out your schedule, turning off your phone and closing down your email.  You must protect your creative energy by avoiding “life sucking squids,” as my friend Martha Beck calls people who only care about their own edification and not about your needs or soul. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can take advantage of you without your permission.”
  6. Make your space holy
    When you respect your work, you want to create a beautiful, clean, sacred container for it. Regardless of the size, cost or fanciness of your physical space, treat it with reverence. Pay attention to what you bring into it. Take time to clean the floor and wash the windows. Surround yourself with images of beauty and inspiration. Give gratitude to the tools that you use to do your work, and to all the masters who have come before you.
  7. Cultivate your voice
    While you can become fluent in another language, you will never feel more anchored and at home than when you are speaking your native tongue. Explore your voice. Listen to your intuition. Write down your thoughts. Develop your ideas. Don’t get distracted by your love for someone else’s voice, that will only lead to cheap knock-offs. 
  8. Swallow your pride
    True mastery is based on a love affair with your work. You want to take a great photograph, or write a great paragraph, or lead a transformational coaching call because you want to make the profession proud. You want to please the past masters and the art itself. If your work is criticized, or isn’t up to your own standards, don’t take it personally. If you receive lots of accolades and exposure, don’t let it get to your head. Keep your focus on honoring  your profession.
  9. Punch through the bag
    My mixed martial arts teacher Mr. Fiori always tells me to “punch through the bag” when I am practicing jabs and crosses. If you just focus on hitting the target itself, your punch will be weak. Set your target a foot behind the bag, and aim to hit that. The same applies to your work. How does today’s goal relate to tomorrow’s goal, and next year’s goal? How will your choices today affect your relatives in seven generations? Always think ahead.
  10. When imitated, don’t retaliate, innovate
    When you are great at what you do, people are bound to imitate you. Sometimes they will try to steal your  intellectual property, or students, or employees or business model, or artistic genre. It is natural to get upset when this happens. But instead of fighting with the imitator, move on to innovate the next stage of your work. If you are doing your job well, your work is constantly improving and growing. Imitate that.

Once you begin to cultivate a mastery mindset, life slows down and you appreciate the delicious nuances in every moment. And when you sink into that way of living, you may realize that mastery is not even the goal.

“Science is not about control. It is about cultivating a perpetual condition of wonder in the face of something that forever grows one step richer and subtler than our latest theory about it. It is about reverence, not mastery.” – Richard Powers

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20 Responses to “10 Ways to Develop a Mastery Mindset”

  1. [...] 10 Ways to Develop a Mastery Mindset by Escape from Cubicle Nation [...]

  2. Great Article Expertise has been lost in today’s day and age Becoming experts requires time and patience Few understand that The question is to generate the drive to achieve this The techniques mentioned in this article are spot on

  3. Mickah Jutek says:

    Excellent, thanks for the great article.

  4. Michael says:

    Excellent, time for me to put this into practice. Patience and determination are the key to success.

  5. Vrajesh says:

    Great learning! For me it is #10 “When imitated, don’t retaliate, innovate”

  6. Ted says:

    Pam, How do you balance the desire for mastery and the need to produce. One of my favorite procrastinations is to devise plans to get better, get better… and never produce.

  7. [...] 10 Ways to Develop a Mastery Mindset at Escape from Cubicle Nation [...]

  8. “Punch through the bag!”
    I love #9. So many people are oriented towards trying to do just enough to reach their target. They don’t realize that you need momentum to take you past your immediate target to keep going and growing. This is true for both life and business. Being excellent, being masterful requires ongoing expansion of your power and presence.
    Thanks for this great post Pam!

  9. Lisa says:

    I loved this blog post, especially as a creative person and musician. I was thinking about this today actually as I started my day doing guitar scales practice. Some in my field (rock and roll) would say I don’t need to do this since I already play songs. But, to me, it’s keeping connected to the basics of music since melodies of songs are composed from scales. As an aspiring songwriter, I know this scale practice will assist me when I add music to my lyrics one day. It’s my passion :)

  10. Wonderful list – patience is so key in both life and business. More patience and less pride will always help you to become more innovative because they help you better deal with failure. Thanks for the list!

  11. David Morris says:

    Great thoughts here Pam, I really appreciate what you’re saying.

    Mastery requires much time (e.g. 10,000 hours), a willingness to keep learning, the wisdom to know when and how to apply or change the principles behind anything (like the Shu-Ha-Ri stages of mastering something), and the ability to guide others through their journey too. However ‘great’ people are in their chosen field, if they keep it to themselves, I don’t rate them as true masters.

  12. Jeff Schmidt says:

    This is such a great reminder Pam, thanks!

    Years ago I treasured a simple little book on mastery by George Leonard. I read it often. Somewhere along the way – it got packed away and forgotten.

    Your post reminds me of the simple message – the practice – the patience and my need to return to it.

    Timeless advice – thanks Pam!

  13. While reading “10 Ways to Develop a Mastery MIndset”,
    I was vividly reminded of a close friend of mine called
    Eddie.

    Eddie loved to sing, but had not made much progress in
    his chosen field as a vocalist.

    After several years in a different city, I heard Eddie
    was coming home for a visit. I had learned a couple of
    years earlier he’d achieved considerable local success
    since I had last seen him.

    We got together and I congratulated him on his success.
    Eddie opened up to me as he told me of the moment when
    things changed for him. He told me it was a simple
    momentary realization that he’d been trying to sing
    his songs exactly as well-known and famous singers
    put them over – instead of singing them as himself.

    It immediately rang a bell with me. I understood
    exactly what he meant, and realized what he had said
    would likely apply to many things we try to do. I
    believe it has to do with a particular aspect of mindset.

  14. channing says:

    There’s so much respect in what you describe here – for your workspace, for the work, for your own voice. Spoken like a true martial art student. :) Your respect for your teachers glows through this, even though you don’t mention that directly. Clearly you’ve had some good ones.

    When my ego gets all tripped up on itself (a failure, a fear, or the worst! a success) I reach through the sticky mess to find *curiosity*. That always seems to set me upright again.

    Thanks for a beautiful post, Pam!

  15. shelia says:

    Great post Pam – I especially love point #2 – practice the basics. In our society of “red shinny ball” and “me too” – we tend to forget how important the basics are. When I’m working with clients, the magic moment almost always stems from going back to the basics. Thanks again, great work.

  16. faisal says:

    Patience, dedication and a direction, all work towards in getting you there.

    • Bessy says:

      I agree. This article was extremely helpful because a lot of people try to skip the challenges and hurdles to get to the mastery part but you really need to learn patience first. When people realize the high chances of failing they often end up not trying, but some overcome their fears of failing and succeed. This is how I view entrepreneurs – entrepreneurs aren’t afraid of failing and keep looking for new opportunities and different ways of mastering subjects. The website define.babson.edu showcases definitions of entrepreneurship from people around the world. Many of these people have the innate drive to do what they want to do. This website is really inspirational if you need a push to help pursue your goals.

  17. Julie says:

    Pam, this is really beautiful…and wise. Thank you.

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