Is mastery that important?

Every year there seems to be a book that comes out which has a big influence on the conscious thinking of society as a whole, it’s the book that introduces new concepts into our world, concepts that will create shifts in the way we do things. Getting Things Done by David Allen, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow by Daniel Kahneman are a few of these books that come to mind. You may have never heard of these books but the concepts they promote have probably been introduced into your world since they were released.  

In 2008 the book that had a massive influence on our thinking as a whole was Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. At the start of the book, Gladwell asks one question ‘why do some people succeed, living remarkable lives while others seem to struggle in the day to day grind?’. One of the many things that makes this book an interesting read is that Gladwell comes up with non-traditional answers for this question. Traditionally we look at successful people and give them all the credit for being ‘self made’, that these people did it all on their own, if you want to be successful you just need to work harder and develop yourself like these people have. Gladwell however, provides many examples and arguments against this and shows us why success may not be 100% up to the individual. 

One of the ground-breaking concepts that Gladwell and Outliers brought to the forefront of society’s awareness was the rule of 10,000 hours. I’m sure that many of you reading this will have heard of this rule, it states that to become a master of a skill, area of expertise, or activity you need to have done around 10,000 hours of practice performing these activities to get to this level of mastery. Gladwell doesn’t go into detail around what the 10,000 hours of practice involves, but books like The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle does give more insight by introducing the importance of deep practice, a theory of practice that can be emotionally draining.  

Once Gladwell’s rule of 10,000 hours was released into the minds of the masses sport stars, musicians and world-leading business people were made examples of and used as proof of how the rule of 10,000 hours was one of the keys to their success. The introduction of this theory lit a fire in the mind of coaches, parents, and individuals, the path to success was now clear, start racking up those hours of practice. 

I remember hearing a story about a guy who quit a successful career to start the journey of becoming a professional golf player. He followed the rule of 10,000 hours believing that if he achieved this practice time he would reach his goal of becoming professional in a sport he loved, he was so detailed in his plan he could tell you at any one time exactly how many hours he had done to date. 

While the rule of 10,000 hours has definitely captured the imagination and there has been much debate on how true it is, there has been a positive benefit from it as it has influence people towards developing themselves with a long term, working approach. There is one thing about the rule of 10,000 hours that can lead people astray, it is that maybe mastery doesn’t need to be the goal in life. 

When I was younger, I remember hearing a story about Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, it claimed that after only his first guitar lesson Kurt went home and started to write music and create songs. It seems that right from the start Kurt wanted to be a creator. While Nirvana produced some of the most powerful and influential music of all time not many masters of guitar admired the skill of Cobain’s work, many think his guitar playing is very basic, but was Kurt Cobain’s aim to be a master or was it to create music that expressed himself?

Developing yourself in areas that are important to you helps keep things exciting, challenging and can keep you stimulated but if you are always searching for mastery you may miss the many other benefits of what that activity has to offer. If Kurt Cobain felt he had to get another 5,000 hours of practice in to become a master before he could create music - we may never have had Nirvana. 

Mastery is an admirable ambition which can lead to a very rewarding life but if we only keep our eyes on that level of achievement we risk being blind to the other great opportunities that come our way. Sometimes life isn’t about mastery, sometimes it’s just about participating in an activity that we love, doing something that brings us enjoyment and rewards us in so many other ways.  


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Bevan Eyles