Mastery

Following up on the previous post about discipline, I think another reason for discipline is that it’s necessary to achieve mastery. I was reminded of this while reading Artful Making, by Robert Austin and Lee Devin. They relate the process of management to the making of collaborative art, such as putting a play together. I’ll review the book in a future post, but the point that struck me was their emphasis on iterations – trying things over and over again in different ways to see what works and what doesn’t.

Their description reminded me of being in the chorus. There’s always a rehearsal or two in the middle of preparing for a concert where it gets really tedious – we’re past the point of learning the notes but not quite to the point of making music. The notes are there, but they’re not quite locked down to the point where we can forget about them and concentrate on the higher level music. So we have to run parts over and over again until it becomes automatic. It’s boring, it’s annoying, but it’s necessary to get to the point where we’re not singing notes, but making music.

This relates back to my theory of cognitive subroutines. When we do something over and over again, we’re ingraining it deep into our brain so that it can be handled unconsciously, leaving our limited conscious brain to concentrate on other things. While the adage says “Practice Makes Perfect”, my music teachers told me that it should be “Practice Makes Permanent”. If we do something enough times the same way, we’ll do it automatically without thinking about it.

Why is it necessary to be able to accomplish the task unconsciously? So that we can think about other things. In chorus, it’s only when I can sing the notes automatically that I can pay attention to the lyrics and the musical shape. In volleyball, I have to be able to hit the ball consistently and automatically before I can start paying attention to reading the court and “hit ’em where they ain’t”. In frisbee, I have to be able to make the throw without thinking before I can start reading the field and figure out how to beat the defense. And then, all of these can be taken one step further when that level of expertise is mastered (but I haven’t gotten there myself).

This idea of mastery is also covered by Gary Klein’s Sources of Power, where he describes how firefighters make rapid and correct decisions in the field. They have been in so many situations that they know what to look for at an unconscious level, and thus can react immediately.

The key to this level of mastery is the iterations. It’s doing it over and over again until the reactions become automatic. It’s being in the situation enough times that you’ve seen everything that can happen and know how to react. When you’ve played a game enough times, whether it be hearts or World of Warcraft, you won’t be surprised by most situations that occur – you’ve confronted the situation before, tried a few different responses, found one that worked, and now use it without thinking in that situation, leaving your brain to concentrate on other goals.

Doing something enough times to lock it in at an unconscious level is tedious. It’s not fun, whether it’s practicing that scale on the violin or doing volleyball drills or writing code. And that’s where the discipline comes in. It’s being able to push through the iterations, to deliberately practice, to get to that next level. And the iterations can’t be done mindlessly – you have to know what results you are planning to achieve. To push through those iterations requires a level of passion, a desire to be the best. Passion enables discipline which enables mastery.

Now I just need to figure out what I feel passionate enough about to push through to the next level. Or learn some discipline.

P.S. Along those lines, Scott Berkun posted an essay yesterday on How to stay motivated. I really like Berkun’s writing, like his previous book on The Art of Project Management, so I wanted to give a shout-out about his new book on The Myths of Innovation, which is winging its way to me from Amazon right now.