Getting Focused

Mastery in the Age of the Overnight Success: What Successful People Do that Others Don't

I was recently asked a compelling question by a young, bright college senior: “Once I graduate, how do I become an expert and thought leader in my field?” My answer: “Seek total and complete mastery.”

That led to a dialogue about what true mastery means. I realize I am starting to sound like some sort of mystical guru, which I promise you I am not. (I don’t even own a white, flowing robe) However, this fascinating discussion did get me to think about a key question: Why don’t more of us seek mastery in our respective fields?

Webster’s defines mastery as: Command or grasp, as of a subject: a mastery of Italian. 2.Superiority or victory: mastery over one’s enemies. 3.The act of mastering. 4.Expert skill or knowledge. 5.The state of being master; power of command or control.

Unfortunately, we live in an age in which the media is constantly crowning the latest entrepreneurial wunderkind who is an overnight success. It might be the creator of some new technology or Internet application or a musical artist who hits it big. Infomercials promise dramatic, overnight results. Contestants on The Biggest Loser lose 15 pounds in one week. We have the distinct impression that this is how success really happens. As most people know, this is the exception and not the rule. A career is a marathon, not a sprint—a very long run down a dusty road.

The only way to be successful is to seek mastery. The people who are masters in their field make the most money, are the most successful, and have stability and longevity. As Alan Pease once said, “Brain surgeons earn 10 times that of a general practitioner… it pays to be an expert.”

We all know masters when we see them. Think Warren Buffet, Jack Welch, Andrew Wyeth, Willie Nelson, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, and Maya Angelou.

So how do you achieve mastery in your field? Based on my experience doing executive coaching and working with thousands of people across the country in the last 20 years, here is what I have learned:

They have been doing their work for many, many years.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, he asserts that most people who are extraordinarily successful (masters) have been practicing their craft for at least 10,000 hours to achieve that level of competence.  The idea is if you do one thing for 10,000 hours, you generally get pretty good at it. Many people I meet don’t have the patience or willingness to invest that kind of time and effort.

Question: How many hours have you invested in the mastery of your field?

They constantly hone their craft.

My wife is a bead artist and has been one for about seven years. She takes glass rods and melts them with a torch, bending and molding them around a steel mandrel into beautifully delicate decorative beads. She is among other artists known as “lamp workers.” She has taken lessons from other master bead artists, reads bead magazines, and has watched countless lamp-working instructional videos.

I look at the work of other bead artists and think right now she is in the top 10% in her field. She does not find that acceptable. When asked, she says, “I want to be in the top 1%.” So she keeps experimenting and practicing her art and wants to take more lessons from other masters who are already in the top 1%. She has not achieved mastery—yet.

Question: What will you do this year to hone your craft?

They keep up with the latest developments in their field.

Many people discount the idea of attending trade shows, symposiums, and special training events because they are expensive and time consuming. They don’t belong to or participate in their industry associations. At the rear of their desks, they have piles of dusty trade journals they’ve never read.  

But they are missing the point. This is where the new ideas emerge and massive connections with other experts can be made. How can you be a master if you don’t know what other masters are doing? I recently attended a National Speakers Association Meeting. There were 400 professional speakers who gathered for three days on a weekend and on their own dime.

Question: How do you keep up with the latest developments in your field?

They are driven by their passion.

They have a passion for their work and the field they have chosen. When asked, they will tell you, “Even if they didn’t pay me, I would do it for free.” This kind of energy and enthusiasm drive the work and stamina required to achieve mastery. They want to be a master in their field because they love it.

Question: Do you have a passion for what you do? If not (with all due respect), get out, and do something else.

One last thought: if you were seeking out a medical specialist, and I asked you what you were looking for, I know what you would say: “I want the best in the region or maybe the world.” It almost goes without saying, but it needs to be said. Isn’t that how you would want people to regard you? Don’t you want to be that masterful person?

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