Imagine you’ve played a little tennis, but not much—which might be a good thing. If you’re going to go for mastery, it’s better to start with a clean slate rather than have to unlearn bad habits you picked up.
At first You have to think to keep the parts of your body synchronized, and thinking gets in the way of graceful, spontaneous movement.
You find yourself becoming impatient. You were hoping to get exercise, but this practice doesn’t give you enough even to break a sweat. You like to see the ball go across the net and into the dark green part of the court, but your teacher says you shouldn’t even be thinking about that at this stage.
The practice just goes on and on: hold the racket correctly; know where the racket makes contact with the ball; move shoulders, hips, and arm together; stride into the ball—you seem to be getting exactly nowhere.
Then, after about five weeks of frustration The various components of the tennis stroke begin to come together, almost as if your muscles know what they should do; you don’t have to think about every little thing. In your conscious awareness, there’s more room to see the ball, to meet it cleanly in a stroke that starts low and ends high. You feel the itch to hit the ball harder.
But now you’re going to have to learn to move side to side, back and forth, and on the diagonal, and then set up and swing. Again, you feel clumsy, disjointed.
Days and weeks pass with no apparent progress.
the plateau can be a form of purgatory. It triggers disowned emotions.
“Do you mean how long would it take for you to automatically get into position and hit a forehand effectively to a target?”
“Well, for someone like you, who starts tennis as an adult, if you practice an hour three times a week, it would take, on average, five years.”
a lot of practice time on the court is spent picking up balls.
Points last only about three hits over the net. You don’t get much practice. What you really need is to hit thousands of balls under fairly controlled circumstances at every step along the way: forehand, backhand, footwork, serve, spin, net play, placement, strategy.
plenty of time on the plateau, where long hours of diligent practice gain you no apparent progress at all.
You’re tempted to drop tennis and go out looking for another, easier sport. Or you might try twice as hard, insist on extra lessons, practice day and night. Or you could quit your lessons and take whatever you’ve learned out on the court; you could forget about improving your game and just have fun with friends. Or you could stay on the long road to mastery. What will you choose?
This question, this moment of choice, comes up countless times in each of our lives, not just about tennis or some other sport, but about everything that has to do with learning.
we sometimes choose a course of action that brings only the illusion of accomplishment, the shadow of satisfaction.
The Mastery Curve
Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it.
Why does learning take place in spurts? Why can’t we make steady upward progress?
we have to keep practicing an unfamiliar movement again and again until we “get it in the muscle memory” or “program it into the autopilot.”
Level deeper than conscious thoughts:
return a scorching tennis serve, play a guitar chord, ask directions in a new language—without worrying just how you do them.
When you start to learn a new skill, however, you do have to think about it, and you have to make an effort to replace old patterns.
With enough practice, the cognitive and effort systems “click into” the "deep level".
Learning generally occurs in stages. A stage ends when the habitual system has been programmed to the new task.
Then you can perform the task without making a special effort to think of its separate parts.
But this learning has been going on all along.
Practice diligently: practice primarily for the sake of the practice itself. Rather than being frustrated while on the plateau, you learn to appreciate and enjoy it just as much as you do the upward surges.
Chapter 2: Meet the Dabbler, the Obsessive, and the Hacker
Starts with enormous enthusiasm. Falling on a plateau after the peak comes as a shock. The enthusiasm vanishes.
His mind fills up with rationalizations: too competitive, noncompetitive, aggressive, nonaggressive, boring, dangerous, whatever.
In relationships, the Dabbler specializes in honeymoons. the ego on parade.
To stay on the path of mastery would mean changing himself. How much easier it is to jump into another bed.
The Dabbler might think of himself as an adventurer, a connoisseur of novelty. An eternal kid.
Though partners change, he or she stays just the same.
He's not to settle for second. It's all about getting results, as fast as possible no matte what.
He wants to get his move right at the very first lesson.
He stays after class talking to the instructor. He asks what books and tapes he can buy to help him make progress faster.
The Obsessive starts out by making robust progress.
But when he inevitably finds himself on a plateau, he simply won’t accept it. He redoubles his effort. He pushes himself mercilessly.
He works all night at the office, he’s tempted to take shortcuts for the sake of quick results.
In relationships, When ardor cools, he doesn’t look elsewhere. He tries to keep the starship going by every means at his command: extravagant gifts, erotic escalation, melodramatic rendezvous. He doesn’t understand the necessity for periods of development on the plateau.
The relationship becomes a rollercoaster ride, with stormy separations and passionate reconciliations.
He shows very little in learning or self-development.
the Obsessive manages for a while to keep making brief spurts of upward progress, followed by sharp declines.
After getting the hang of a thing, he is willing to stay on the plateau indefinitely.
He doesn't mind skipping stages essential to the development of mastery if he can just go out and hack around.
He doesn't attend meetings in his field. At work, he does only enough to get by.
The Hacker looks at marriage or living together not as an opportunity for learning and development, but as a comfortable refuge from the uncertainties of the outside world.
This traditional arrangement sometimes works well enough, but in today’s world two partners are rarely willing to live indefinitely on an unchanging plateau. When your tennis partner starts improving his or her game and you don’t, the game eventually breaks up. The same thing applies to relationships.
You can be a Dabbler in love and a master in art. You can be on the path of mastery on your job and a Hacker on the golf course
Even in the same field, you can be sometimes on the path of mastery, sometimes an Obsessive, and so on.
America's War Against Mastery
Values were once inculcated through the extended family, tribal or village elders, sports and games, the apprenticeship system or traditional schooling, religious training and practice, and spiritual and secular ceremony.
Our society is now organized around an economic system that seemingly demands a continuing high level of consumer spending. We are offered an unprecedented number of choices as to how we spend our money. We have to have food, clothing, housing, transportation, and medical care.
Every time we spend money, we make a statement about what we value.
Thus, all inducements to spend money—print advertisements, radio and television commercials, mailers, and the like— are primarily concerned with the inculcation of values. They have become, in fact, the chief value-givers of this age.
Some appeal to fear (buy our travelers’ checks because you’re likely to be robbed on your next trip), some to snobbery, some to pure hedonism…
Keep watching, and an underlying pattern will emerge. About half of the commercials, whatever the subject matter, are based on a climactic moment: The cake has already been baked; the family and guests, their faces all aglow, are gathered around to watch an adorable three-year-old blow out the candles. The race is run and won; beautiful young people jump up and down in ecstasy as they reach for frosted cans of diet cola. Men are shown working at their jobs for all of a second and a half, then it’s Miller time. Life at its best, these commercials teach, is an endless series of climactic moments.
don’t work hard, and get rich quickly; The weirdest fantasy you can think of can be realized instantly and without effort.
It robs us from the real sense of rhythm.
One epiphany follows another. One fantasy is crowded out by the next. Climax is piled upon climax. There’s no plateau.
The Path of Endless Climax
So what do we do when our own day-to-day existence doesn’t match up? How do we keep those climactic moments coming without instruction or discipline or practice? It’s easy. Take a drug.
Of course, it doesn’t work. In the long run it destroys you. But who in the popular and commercial culture has much to say about the long run?
Another ad: The young man is immediately convinced. He then burns the hamburger he’s cooking and serves the french fries still frozen. “I don’t care,” he says happily. “I can win tickets. I don’t need this job.”
The common wisdom behind those ads: the nation is bent on self-destruction.
This vision isn’t just an invention of television. It resonates in the rhetoric about scoring (“I don’t care how you win, just win”), about effortless learning, instant celebrities, instant millionaires, and the “number one” finger raised in the air when you score just once.
The quick-fix, antimastery mentality touches almost everything in our lives. Look at modern medicine and pharmacology. “Fast, temporary relief” is the battle cry.
Symptoms receive immediate attention; underlying causes remain in the shadows.
More and more research studies show that most illnesses are caused by environmental factors or way of life. The typical twelve-minute office visit doesn’t give the doctor time to get to know that.
A War That Can’t Be Won
for there’s perhaps no more dangerous time for any society than its moment of greatest triumph.
Our dedication to growth at all costs puts us on a collision course with the environment. Our dedication to the illusion of endless climaxes puts us on a collision course with the human psyche.
In the long run, the war against mastery, the path of patient, dedicated effort without attachment to immediate results, is a war that can’t be won.
Chapter 4: Loving the Plateau
Early in life, we are urged to study hard, so that we’ll get good grades. We are told to get good grades so that we’ll graduate from high school and get into college. We are told to graduate from high school and get into college so that we’ll get a good job. We are told to get a good job so that we can buy a house and a car. Again and again we are told to do one thing only so that we can get something else.
The achievement of goals is important. But the real juice of life, whether it be sweet or bitter, is to be found not nearly so much in the products of our efforts as in the process of living itself, in how it feels to be alive.
Where are we being taught to enjoy, even to love the plateau, the long stretch of diligent effort with no seeming progress?
“Oh boy. Another plateau. Good. I can just stay on it and keep practicing. Sooner or later, there’ll be another spurt.” It was one of the warmest moments on my journey.
The Joy of Regular Practice
I knew quite well, however, that when I did overcome my lethargy, I would be rewarded with a little miracle: I knew that, no matter how I felt on climbing the dojo stairs, two hours later—after hundreds of throws and falls—I would walk out tingling and fully alive, feeling so good, in fact, that the night itself would seem to sparkle and gleam.
The Hacker gets on a plateau and doesn’t keep working.
Unlike the Hacker, we were working hard, doing the best we could to improve our skills. But we had learned the perils of getting ahead of ourselves, and now were willing to stay on the plateau for as long as was necessary. Ambition still was there, but it was tamed.
This essential paradox becomes especially clear in a martial art that is exceptionally demanding, unforgiving, and rewarding. But it holds true, I think, in every human activity that involves significant learning—mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual.
“The routine is important to me,” said a successful painter;
When it’s going good, I feel ‘this is the essential me.’ It’s the routine itself that feeds me.
The Face of Mastery
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar launching his “sky-hook” basketball shot over the hand of an opposing player, his face a revelation of inner delight. Abdul-Jabbar is not a man of small ego. I’m sure he loved the money, the fame, the privileges his career brought him. But he loved the sky-hook more.
Goals and contingencies, as I’ve said, are important. But they exist in the future and the past, beyond the pale of the sensory realm. Practice, the path of mastery, exists only in the present. You can see it, hear it, smell it, feel it.
To love the plateau is to love the eternal now, to enjoy the inevitable spurts of progress and the fruits of accomplishment, then serenely to accept the new plateau that waits just beyond them.
To love the plateau is to love what is most essential and enduring in your life.