How we learn and how to achieve mastery

Learning and Mastery

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

There is a lot of focus on learning and improving in the circles that I run in.  Many people want to learn something and move onto the next thing, leaving a lot of opportunity available for people who really want to focus and learn something to the point of mastery.  If you want to be the best at something, it takes time. This article talks about how we learn and looks at a different way of defining mastery.

If you read Malcolm Gladwell’s work, you will hear about the theory that by putting  10,000 hours into something, you will hit mastery of that skill. And if you read Peak by K. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool – and you should – you’ll learn a lot about the idea of “deliberate practice.”  

Unsurprisingly, most people will focus on the one that seems faster or easier to do. I am sure that some people read Ericsson’s work and get excited about the idea of working just 500 hours on something and still achieving mastery, if they just practice deliberately.  

With that in mind, let’s talk a little bit about how learning happens in four stages and also a little bit about my standards for vetting content in a world where everyone is trying to give away a little free content in the hopes that it will build trust and lead to a sale further down the road. This is not new information, but the first time I heard it, it broke my head for a couple of days.  It had so much overlap with my everything else in my world; sales, kung-fu, poker and even digital marketing that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a few weeks. Let’s start by using the example my friend originally used with me.  

Picture a child who’s just gotten their first pair of shoes with laces. This is a confusing moment, because up until now all their shoes have been velcro, easy to tighten and also easy to loosen when you want to take them off at the end of the day.

Before this moment, when they are handed those shoes with the laces, the child is in a state of unconscious incompetence about the wider world of shoes. They simply didn’t know what they didn’t know, a state we sometimes refer to with the famous phrase, “Ignorance is bliss.”  

Once the child sees the shoes and knows that something is different, they move into a state of  conscious incompetence. Now they know there is something that they don’t understand. For some people, this is the end of the road; they make a decision that they don’t want to learn this new thing. (That typically doesn’t happen with shoe-tying, but you get the idea.)

The next stage is conscious competence, a place where we as students spend a lot of time. We can figure something out, but each section is a very thoughtful procedure. This section is also unfortunately where people develop bad habits due to misunderstandings and ego.

The last stage is unconscious competence. When you go to tie your shoes as an adult, you don’t even have to think about it. In fact, when you have to teach a child how to do it, you may struggle with finding the words to describe the method, and that method may even vary from family to family. The teaching of this universal skill is sometimes so difficult for people to do, that there have been songs composed for kids to try to make the process easier.  

I know this first hand because my daughter is six and recently learned how to tie her shoes. I teach adult Americans how to fight using a 400-year-old martial art twice a week, but teaching her how to tie a shoe was admittedly much more frustrating.

The goal for most people who are trying to learn a skill is to get to unconscious competence, but I don’t think that that is actually the same thing as mastery. To me, mastery is another level higher than unconscious competence, and the path to get there is not nearly as cut and dry as the four steps listed above. But before we talk about how I view mastery, let’s look back at the popular theories about learning we started with.

Deliberate practice is the methodology that a lot of people are using to try to attain mastery. The idea is that you become mindful about each component of a movement or a skill, and can then see where and why it breaks. This practice happens easily at the conscious competence level, but most people have a hard time sticking to it past that point.

Here’s the thing: you should be mentally and probably physically exhausted after practicing in this way. This is why new people in kung-fu are wiped out after their introductory classes. They are not doing anything taxing from a cardiovascular standpoint, but the way of moving is so completely different that it forces the brain to work differently.  

I am always amazed in kung-fu how quickly people will go from not knowing how to do a movement, to trying too hard because their ego is driving their movement. They don’t really understand how to do it well, but think trying to practice harder and faster will make up that difference. But harder and faster is how negative training scars happen. This is not a scar in the traditional sense, but since we are establishing muscle memory, when you don’t take the time to hone that sense, gaps in knowledge and technique can and do occur.  Most students won’t take the time to go back and put in the work on the lower level techniques to fix what has taken them off the path.

In the school that I attend, there is a lot of focus on real-world application. This is due to my teacher’s history in the military and coming from a traditional kung-fu environment where he had to fight on a regular basis. In class, we find ways to put ourselves out of our comfort zones under stress to see how we perform. One thing that I tell students all the time is that the way that they practice a drill in the school is the best execution of technique that they can hope for in an encounter outside of the school. In other words, the way you practice is the best possible version of the way you’ll perform.

Another way that I think you can have mastery of a topic is by teaching it to different kinds of people. Since everyone learns differently, it can be difficult to explain a concept or idea to a group of people if you don’t fully understand it yourself. I have explained beginner level kung-fu techniques to hundreds of different students, and a straightforward explanation will work with one, but be completely lost on another who might require a metaphor to grasp understanding. If I didn’t have a good grasp of the knowledge, then I wouldn’t be able to teach these techniques to anyone who couldn’t learn it the same way that it was taught to me.

Some of you are currently wondering what in the world does any of this have to do with sales or business. It has everything to do with sales and business. Have you ever set up a sales meeting and gone in with a plan, only to get derailed into small talk and chitchat? I know that I have. I will leave and realize that I don’t have a next step or if they are even qualified.  If you have ever had a prospect try to shut you down with a hard edged question and your mind goes blank, that means that you need more practice.  

People get complacent in practicing their skills and tell themselves they will be fine in the moment, but they are wrong. You will not rise to the occasion, you are going to perform at the skill level you have mastery of.

Everyone has the same amount of time in the day, and it is impossible to achieve mastery of everything that we would like. We all have to be selective about what we want to focus on, because to be able to call on those skills under pressure takes longer than most people care to put in.

Since we are in the middle of the winter Olympics, we get an opportunity to see a group of people who have achieved mastery.  They are not trying to figure anything out on the spot, they have practiced their craft so many times that it comes effortlessly to them, even under tremendous pressure.  Go be an olympian in what you are passionate about.