The Objective

The aim of this paper is to investigate the ways in which humans go about “mastering” a task. Mastery is characterized by comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject. To be a master or specialist of a task demonstrates dedication, perseverance, and ability, and all these elements are sought after in individuals no matter the field. Thus, understanding how people develop mastery is important for discovering a path for success in any variant of the word. 

This paper synthesizes the works of bestselling authors and academics to demonstrate how the mastery process is not just a topic for academic offices, but mainstream as well.

Racing as a Mastery Process

My passion for racing began with a Radio Flyer wagon. I was ten years old and living in a mountain town at Lake Tahoe,Nevada. I pulled the wagon, rigged with a brake from a bicycle, far up into the mountain neighborhood, and rode it back down. A Radio Flyer wagon is not the most stable form of transportation and flipping onto its side is rather easy.Thus, through wanting to avoid injury I taught myself how to make a curvy mountain road as straight as possible. This is a basic principle of automotive racing- the less you turn the wheel, the faster you can go. A racing “line” in a simple sense is the straightest path through a turn. There are complications when turns follow each other, but at 10 years old, getting my wagon through any turn without flipping was the “racing line.”

Eventually, I graduated from a wagon to a Mini Cooper S, the modern BMW built version. And it is at this time I began a more active role in the process of mastery. I read books on high performance automotive driving, strength trained, and spent hours in preparation time. I found a task I considered important, racing, and I applied hours and hours of hard work towards this task. This is the beginning of the mastery process. I am by no means an expert race car driver, but in hindsight I believe this experience illustrates the mastery process well.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

If you want to be happy, you need a task you consider important, and you have to practice this task well. Working off pieces by Psychologist Abraham Maslow, Satinder Dhiman writes, in the paper Personal Mastery and Authentic Leadership,“Personal mastery is approached as a quest for finding authenticity, meaning,and fulfillment in one’s life, both in the personal and professional realm.” It is little surprise to most people that when working on a task they feel is of significance or value, they are more motivated to accomplish the endeavor.Authentic tasks provide meaning and a sense of purpose. Often there are hurdles to accomplishing the task, but challenges are viewed as opportunities for success more often when the mission is fulfilling. According to Maslow,individuals who journey down the path described above are self-actualizers. Maslow outlines eight ways in which one self-actualizes: they experience with full concentration, make growth choices over fear choices, let the self emerge,take responsibility, are courageous, go through arduous preparation, create conditions for peak performance, and have the courage to drop one’s defenses(Dhiman).

These behaviors are not simple procedures- taking responsibility,having courage, and dropping personal defenses are not actions accomplished in one minute. Self-actualizing is a process. As stated by Maslow,“self-actualization is not a matter of one great moment. Rather, it is a matter of degree, or little victories accumulated one by one over time” (Dhiman).

Furthermore, it is key to notice that several of the eight actions Maslow outlines are attributed to identity formation. Letting the self emerge, making growth choices (challenging one’s self), and taking responsibility are a few examples of how the self-actualizing process is a lived identity. This is a step further in commitment than rote learning. Memorizing the names and dates served of US Presidents does not make one a master of presidential information. Gathering, understand, and contextualizing information from thousands of sources over the course of years.Visiting Presidential houses, museums, and interacting with current or former presidents does generate the level of knowledge and understanding to be considered an expert Presidential historian. And historian is an identity.      

The Beatles in Hamburg: the 10,000-Hour Rule

Doing a task “well” is not innate. Rarely are people able to perform complex procedures without having first trained in abundance. Therefore, to accomplish an outlined task well, one needs to develop a strategy for mastery. The strategy allows for the time required to become an expert and provides motivation through accomplishment.

In forming a strategy there are a two key factors to consider: time spent working diligently on that task, and avoiding complacency (plateau). Maslow viewed the process of self-actualizing as many small victories and not one great moment. These small victories are achieved through adding difficulties to the task that are realistically achievable. For example, best selling author, Haruki Murakami, broke his writing into pieces comprised of hours. He trained himself to sit down at the desk and write for a few hours everyday even when he felt no words would emerge. He was conditioning himself in discipline, and unsurprisingly, his commitment to long distance running grew with his writing ability. The trick was winning these small victories, whether it was pages written everyday or miles run. Murakami states,“Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life- and for me, for writing as well.” Through developing this discipline, and accomplishing small duties, Murakami built on an important factor of the strategy- he put in lots of hours working at the task in a diligent manner.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, outlines several fascinating cases of individuals who acquired high levels of success because they seized an opportunity to work hard and put in many hours to become world-renowned experts- at least 10,000 hours. Some of the people Gladwel lwrites about are: Mozart, Bill Joy (co-founder of Sun Microsystems), Joeseph Flom (specialized lawyer of takeovers), and the Beatles. Each of these individuals, and group, were presented with an opportunity to work hard at the task they considered important, and they accepted that challenge. For the Beatles, Gladwell writes, Hamburg was their opportunity and challenge. Between August 1960 and December 1962, the Beatles regularly performed in Hamburg for weeks at a time. During those weeks it was common for the band to play eight-hour, or more, sessions, and the band utilized the time to hone their skills and add new elements to their existing pieces, after all, they had lots of time. “Lennon said: ‘we had to play for hours and hours on end. Every song lasted twenty minutes and had twenty solos in it. That's what improved the playing. There was nobody to copy from. We played what we liked best and the Germans liked it as long as it was loud’” (Wikipedia).

The Beatles were musicians, that was their identities, and they revealed in the opportunity to play. The passion to play was there, it was their task, and the diligent hours were put in practicing. But how did the Beatles avoid complacency and continue developing as musicians?     

Memory as a Mastery Foundation

Our experiences make up our memories. Our memories inform our creativity and actions for dealing with new situations, and making new experience memories. Joshua Foer, in the book Moonwalking with Einstein, quotes, “No lasting joke, invention,insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory.” The importance of memory cannot be understated, and the manner in which humans utilize our memories is constantly evolving, but how does it relate to mastery?

Before ever arriving at a racetrack I was going to drive, I printed out a track map and watched videos online of others driving the track layout. My goal was to learn the track, and I often wrote on the track map which gear I planned on using at different parts of the track. I was taking mental laps around the track and visualizing the layout with my gear change actions. This preparation is crucial in the mastery process. Becoming an expert race car driver was the overall task, but the sub-task was becoming an expert at this particular track, and others that would follow. This is a practical example of breaking the overall mastery task into smaller realistic goals. Through watching the videos and applying the images to the track map, I was having my first experience with the track. I was in the cognitive stage of memory development. Foer outlines, “During the first phase, known as the‘cognitive stage,’ you’re intellectualizing the task and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second ‘associative stage,’ you’re concentrating less, making fewer major errors, and generally becoming more efficient. Finally you reach the ‘autonomous stage,’ when you figure that you’ve gotten as good as you need to get at the task and you’re basically running on autopilot.”

Upon reaching the track and taking in physical laps around the track I moved through the stages. However, running on autopilot does not fit into the mastery development cycle and experts do not plateau.

Foer adds that experts “develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the ‘cognitive phase.’” The Beatles, through the time required to play were forced to improvise solos. This challenges their playing technique, and the crowd provides immediate feedback. For myself, there were several other factors that took me from running a track on autopilot: other cars/drivers, deteriorating car elements, and changing weather, or track, conditions. My performance from one lap to the other is instantly quantifiable through lap timing and in-car computer data, and provides immediate feedback. Staying on the track and finishing the race session with a respectable performance maintains the goal orientation, and I monitored my driving technique constantly to push my car,body, and mind to the limit of the track. 

Staying Creative in spite of Mastery

Jonah Lehrer, in the Wall Street Journal article How to Be Creative, writes, “For prompting creativity, few things are as important as time devoted to cross-pollination with fields outside our areas of  expertise.” If one reverse engineers this sentence, it basically implies that focusing only on one’s field of expertise diminishes creativity. Furthermore, Steve Jobs and Joshua Foer provide evidence that this is indeed true. “’Creativity is the ability to form similar connections between disparate images and to create something new…’” (Foer). In business, creativity and innovation are critical for success, so diminishing our innovative talents through specialization appears self-defeating. Thus, how can one become a master in their field and stay creative in order to remain relevant? For Steve Jobs the answer was “diverse experiences” (Lehrer). Building on this is the concept of outsider thinking. “It’s this ability to attack problems as a beginner, to let go of all preconceptions and fear of failure, that’s the key to creativity”(Lehrer). In my opinion, this is essentially the same as the mastery process I have written. Letting go of the fear of failure is step one that Maslow mentioned. Elevating and making the task an identity is how to accomplish this step. Approaching problems as a beginner is staying in the cognitive stage of memory development as Foer outlined (and based off work from Florida State University). Add in the 10,000-hours of rigorous practice that Gladwell writes about and one is not less creative, but a master in that field. 

Returning to my personal example of racing, physical exercise is a type of the diverse experience that Steve Jobs mentioned as a way to maintain creativity. Driving acar at their limits of traction is strenuous on the body due to gravitational forces. Race car driving is a physical activity even though one sits in a seat and moves a wheel plus shifter. After a couple experiences on the track I quickly came to grips with this fact and began to exercise with the sole intention of improving my driving ability. I diversified my driving practice to include running and weight training. As my physical health improved, so did my driving technique and ability to accomplish new challenges, such as pushing the car to further limits of traction. Before, my abdominal muscles told me the G-forces I was pushing in a turn must be the maximum the car could handle.However, after strength training, my muscles no longer “spoke” for my driving technique, but instead I listened to the tires, who were more accurate indicators of traction.


The aim of this paper was to demonstrate mastery as a process achieved through articulation of a strategy. The goal of the strategy is creating a continuous loop of dedicated learning based on preparation and diligent work, realistic goal accomplishment, and continuous addition of complexities.

Our experiences create and inform our memories. We can then use these memories to perform tasks, and if this task is one that delivers personally meaning, we are dedicated to accomplishing this task well. Executing a authentic task requires devotion and an elevation of effort- the task becomes identity work. Once we achieve a level of identity association, approaching the task with constant acceptance of new challenges allows for one to allocate huge sums of hours towards the task. And in this process we accomplish several sub-tasks all on the path to mastering the desired task. This is not only a process of mastery, it is a process of happiness. If the task has meaning, then one must simply diversify the experience to achieve happiness. And if one is unhappy, then they need to experience more to find meaning in a task. Live and experience- the foundation of mastery.

Front page photo credit: dboystudio /