I've been thinking a lot about mastery lately. Mastering ideas, concepts, or skills, to reach a high level, or new insights.

I think of mastery per se as a worthy goal, but a friend has argued that it can indicate obsession or compulsion, and he thinks high-level mastery is sometimes pathogenic.

Do you have a view on mastery, whether good or bad? For the purposes of this question, let's say mastering that has a neutral impact on the world, like privately learning an idea or skill.

@bkam I've spent some time recently with that idea. Things that I've noticed.

- mastery requires a great deal of time, persistence, and a certain talent (which doesn't have to be that much)

- structured & systematic understanding of how to improve, both at the mundane and at the step function improvements.

it is a common American belief that life should be balanced (implication: mediocrity in all things). I deeply question that. There's no *point*.

@pnathan I agree that the talent doesn't have to be much. Although I've also been thinking lately that the growth mindset is only optimal if you truly are capable of growth. I may never become a great singer, regardless of effort; that may be a good place to adopt a fixed mindset.

Could you say more about the understanding of how to improve?

I agree that mediocrity in all things is not desirable, but I also believe the dose makes the poison in most cases. Pursuit of a goal to starvation, e.g.

@bkam You can't become a virtuoso by practicing scales. You have to make a shift to reading music. You have to reorder your stance. You have to know the repertoire. You have to spend the time so that the instrument and you have become and one and separated again. And more, of course.

all of these are are different aspects to becoming a master musician. You have to understand why these things matter before you can practice them.

it's worth looking into the ways of Zen re mastery and life.

@bkam I don't know what a growth mindset is.

If you want to be an knowledge expert, you have to, roughly, commit 5-10 years of your life constantly studying the thing: in breadth and depth, with a guide and a library. A trade expert takes about 10-15 years to form, with appropriate direction and mentorship.

mastery is next level to that.

I don't believe Talent (nature) plays a big role compared to privilege (nurture) to be honest.

@bkam This is part of why I don't get involved in arguments over hobbyist software quality and legibility (mastodon). I've been doing software for 22 years. My perspective is irrelevant to most.

@pnathan Right, makes sense.

Zen is an aspect of Buddhism I know little about, having spent most of my time in that area learning about Theravada and various bits of Tibetan.

@bkam It's probably more complicated than this, but I believe the pursuit of mastery is fundamentally alienating.

On my most humble and mediocre days do I feel connected to the people around me the most.

(the people who pursue mastery for the sake of being admired or loved are, from my perspective, worth feeling sorry for)

@bkam Mastery has costs. Every hour you spend mastering a skill is a choice to not spend that hour doing every other thing you could possibly do.

Also, you are what you do. So if you decide to spend 8000 hours mastering, say, potato farming, you are a potato farmer. You will think, act, and speak, like a potato farmer.

So you have to weight how those choices fit in your life.


With art I think mastery is an illusion. I dislike art that is masterfully executed (and there is a whole lot of it). For me art is about bringing yourself out to the edge of what you are capable of in order to tunnel through your defenses. When you are holding on for dear life as you create a thing you can barely manage to make you have no capacity to lie to yourself about who you are.


Of course edges are always moving and as you chase them you naturally become a master at what you do. However the mastery of the thing is never where the essence of the art is. Mastery is just a record of past time spent at edges, it says nothing about whether what is being made right now is made an artist's edge.

This is just my personal opinion and applies mostly to creative pursuits but it also feels true to me about a philosophy of life.


People I know that focus on mastery in technical and quantifiable senses always seem to be letting the important stuff of life slip between their fingers.

Of course those people probably feel the same about me when they look at my very unmasterful life lol.

Sign in to participate in the conversation
Refactor Camp

Mastodon instance for attendees of Refactor Camp, and members of various online/offline groups that have grown out of it. Related local groups with varying levels of activity exist in the Bay Area, New York, Chicago, and Austin.

Kinda/sorta sponsored by the Ribbonfarm Blogamatic Universe.

If you already know a few people in this neck of the woods, try and pick a handle they'll recognize when you sign up. Please note that the registration confirmation email may end up in your spam folder, so check there. It should come from administrator Zach Faddis.