Mastery Archetypes #4: The Master
Taking pleasure in the humble repetition of ordinary acts
I’ve been exploring the four archetypes in George Leonard’s 1992 book, Mastery. I’ve previously explored the anti-mastery archetypes of The Dabbler, The Hacker, and The Obsessive. These describe the characteristics and personality traits that lead to patterns of behaviour which hold us back in our personal development and growth on the path of Mastery. The four archetypes relate to different ways of approaching our tasks and interests.
As a quick recap:
The Dabbler tends to start something enthusiastically but soon gives up when progress plateaus, moving on to something else.
The Hacker is willing to skip important steps of development in the pursuit of quick fixes and is perfectly happy with that approach, not really interested in the long-term path of mastery.
The Obsessive is goal-oriented and results-driven, doubling down on their efforts when faced with a slump in progress, to the detriment of their own well-being, risking burnout in the process.
So today we will finally meet The Master archetype.
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According to George Leonard, the Master archetype describes someone who is imbued with a certain attitude towards the process of developing a competency. The Master archetype is characterised by a focus on long-term progress, a willingness to embrace uncertainty and failure, and a commitment to consistent and deliberate practice.
Some key traits of the Master archetype include:
The individual focused on mastery is dedicated to long-term commitment, rather than seeking immediate results or recognition. They have a low time preference, to use economics terminology, investing now to enjoy the rewards later.
An expectation of uncertainty and failure:
The master archetype is comfortable with uncertainty and views failure as a natural part of the process, data or information to grow from, rather than a setback. They expect to encounter difficulties and a certain amount of backsliding on the journey. They will use obstacles as leverage to pull them towards their next step.
Mastery of practice:
The master archetype adopts a rhythm of consistent and deliberate practice along the path of mastery and has reverence for their practice. The master practices their practice. They are zealots of practice, bringing their full intent and awareness into the dojo. They pleasure in the endless repetition of ordinary acts.
Humility to learn:
The master archetype is egoless in learning new ideas and approaches, embracing new challenges and perspectives with a beginner’s mind that is completely open. Their humility allows them to develop a support system so they will let go and surrender to instruction and to the demands of the discipline with the spirit of the fool, accepting the indignities of the clumsy steps of learning new things.
A connoisseur for slow growth and never-ending adventure:
The master archetype views mastery as a steady lifelong journey of learning and growth, rather than a destination to be reached. It’s a mapless journey, the path others have followed is not your path. The master is a connoisseur of the tiny incremental step rather than a fanaticism for the big egotistical goal.
Quiet contemplative mastery
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few.”
Shunryu Suzuki, Sōtō Zen monk and author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
This substack is called Ordinary Mastery, but I could have called it Quiet Mastery, Humble Mastery, or Egoless Mastery - it would have the same intent. The idea was to take inspiration from George Leonard’s concept of Mastery, to reclaim it from propagators of the “Learn this secret billionaire hack for achieving mastery” slogans which dominate on social media platforms and conflates the Master archetype with the Hacker archetype.
Leonard opens his book with a look at the prevailing cultural mindset of the modern world.
The external world of anti-mastery
Leonard describes the modern world as ‘a prodigious conspiracy against mastery’. Remember he was writing in the early 90s, before the rise of the internet and the smartphone. He talks about how we are bombarded with enticing distractions within a societal worldview that promises ‘immediate gratification, instant success, and fast temporary relief’ which he calls an Anti-Mastery Mentality.
He describes mastery as a process, a journey requiring patience and endurance, contrary to the anti-mastery mentality of the modern world. The plateau, that step on our journey where progress is elusive, arguably the most important feature of the journey, is where the mastery character is formed and tested, and where the anti-mastery mindset fails.
But we have been acculturated to a rather valueless modern world, characterised by consumerism, the social disease of acquisition which has emerged as the organising principle of modern life, prioritising climax after climax, and a world without plateaus. He refers to the War Against Mastery where the prevailing economic system pushes ‘hyped-up consumerism’ and unprecedented choice, where we are being constantly enticed by a ‘dazzling array of nonnecessities’, forever seduced into parting with our money to buy the next easy climax.
Everything we are exposed to emphasises the ‘climactic moment’ and instant gratification. The hyped-up schedule of TV, movies, ads and social media are all enmeshed in the climactic moment. Any problem can be easily plastered over with a quick fix, or another pill, so there’s no need for hard work, effort, or restraint. And the insatiable hunger of the system just keeps needing to be fed.
Mastery requires a rhythm of ups and downs, just as music needs contrasting dynamics for us to differentiate and appreciate its qualities, with space for the instruments to be heard. When we prioritise climax after climax, there is no rhythm, there are no spaces between the notes, and there is no dynamic of loud and quiet.
Without slumps and plateaus, there is no rhythm of mastery.
Life on the plateau:
The vein running through Leonard’s book is the idea of the plateau. Mastery is not a series of perpetual climactic moments but is characterised by the endurance of long seemingly never-ending periods where despite your efforts, you feel like you are making no progress whatsoever. It is our mindset and actions we take to the plateau that truly determines our level of mastery. Sometimes the rock climber must traverse for while before ascending again, the sideways traversal is part of the ascent.
The distinguishing characteristic of mastery is the humble dedication to ‘staying on the mat’, as Leonard describes, patiently tending to consistent and intentional practice when other archetypes would give up, as in the case of The Dabbler, double down excessively until burning out, which is the style of The Obsessive, or simply be uninterested in pursuing further growth, like The Hacker archetype.
Leonard observes that when we first begin to learn a new skill, progress comes relatively easily and quickly. However, as we continue to practice and improve, we eventually hit a point where progress seems to slow down or even stop altogether. This can be frustrating and demotivating, especially for those who are used to seeing consistent improvement.
“To practice regularly, even when you seem to be getting nowhere, might at first seem onerous”, as Leonard observes. However, “the master of the game is generally a master of practice”. The master not only tolerates the plateau but learns to love the plateau.
Leonard suggests that the plateau is a natural and necessary part of the process of mastery, and can be viewed as a sign of progress, rather than stagnation. He argues that it is during this phase that we are actually integrating the skills and knowledge we have learned while building a solid foundation for future development. It is a time for refining technique, deepening understanding, and developing the habits and mindset necessary for mastery.
According to Leonard, the key to navigating the plateau is to approach it with patience, persistence, and a willingness to embrace the challenges it presents. Rather than becoming discouraged or giving up, we should focus on the process of learning and improvement itself, “practising regularly and hard for no particular goal at all, just for its own sake”, and trust that continued effort and dedication will eventually lead to breakthroughs and new levels of competency.
We will always face internal resistance in any endeavour, especially when it feels like we are languishing on the plateau, and we’ll have to deal with laziness and procrastination, but the master learns to negotiate with their inner resistance and prevails.
The master knows that they gain energy by using energy, that we are like a machine that wears out through lack of use. Momentum has a flywheel effect that makes it easier to gain more momentum. Leonard emphasises the importance of maintaining physical fitness. Personally, I would go further and assert that the practice of developing one's physical health and fitness should be the master’s uber-practice, a term I heard from Michael Hamman, author of ‘evolvagility’. The uber-practice is a topic I will explore further in a future post.
A Slow Adventure:
Mastery takes an adventurer’s perspective of the world - exploratory rather than excessively goal focused. Mastery is a “slow adventure” to borrow a term I came across recently fromin his substack, . It is a journey of patience and respect for the process itself. "You can't make grass grow quicker by pulling on it" as the African proverb goes. And likewise, the developmental process of humans is one of slowly unfolding to our potential.
Instead of impatiently rushing progress, the master adopts a sense of egolessness, and goallessness, while remaining deeply connected with their experience on the journey. They approach life with curiosity, and humility, as Leonard emphasises by quoting the old Eastern adage:
“Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment chop wood and carry water”.
The master does not indulge in the vanity, narcissism or judgmentalism of the ego and avoids taking themselves too seriously, even bringing a sense of levity to their practice and progress. We develop a relationship with the practice of mastery, rather than indulging our expectations of becoming a master.
I hope that in reading through this article, you’ve come to the same conclusion that I did when reading George Leonard’s book, that Mastery is not a quality reserved solely for those few remarkable people who have achieved crazy levels of expertise in their chosen domain, but is more of a mindset that can be claimed by anyone willing to approach their practice with the right attitude.
That’s why I’ve named this project Ordinary Mastery - it reflects an attitude available to anyone, in the most ordinary of circumstances, involving countless sessions of ordinary practice on the plateau so that sometime in the future you will experience the extraordinary.
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