Mastery – Seasonal Theme
It’s time for the final seasonal theme for 2021. For the next three months, I’m focussing on mastery.
The last three months of 2021 are upon us. The days are already shorter, colder, and darker. Soon, it’ll be winter, and our thoughts will turn to the new year.
My theme for 2021 has been imagination. With no prospects for travel or major adventure, I knew this year would require imagination for magic to appear in our lives. So far, I’ve broken the year up into seasonal themes related to the idea of Imagination: Optimism, Map-Making, and Panache.
For the remaining months of the year, the theme is Mastery.
Writing About Mastery
I’ve already signalled that most of my writing for the rest of the year will be focussed on this topic of mastery. This has been an obsession of mine for some time. I’m deeply curious about what it takes to go from being good at something to being excellent, to move from intermediate to advanced, to reach a level where you don’t just perform, you excel.
In particular, I’m interested in how the question of mastery changes as we get older. How it becomes more urgent. Acquiring skills is one thing when we’re young and learning feels easy. It’s something else when we’re older and society entrains us to believe we aren’t able to remember what we know, or maybe what we know is no longer relevant.
Once you reach a certain age no one looks at you as undiscovered talent anymore. No one is waiting for you to “emerge”. You aren’t going to be “discovered”. It feels like you’ve either “got it or you don’t.”
It’s easy to tell yourself you don’t have it unless you can feel a sense of mastery in what you do.
Some Problems With The Word Mastery
We need to acknowledge the word master is problematic. Master evokes the legacy of slavery. And also the many abusive work practices of the old master and apprentice system.
To be a master implies standing in an exploitative relationship to other people. That’s why the world has dropped out of favour in a lot of professional settings, from groups that used to certify master status on well-trained individuals, as was common in many areas of the food and beverage industry, to the dropping of phrases like “master bedroom” from the real estate lexicon.
But does this same concern apply when we talk about mastering a skill, or mastering our emotions?
I’m not sure it does. When we talk about a musician’s masterful performance, or a coder’s mastery of a piece of software, or a chef’s command of seasonal ingredients, we’re describing their relationship to the things they work on. It might be instruments or music, apps and code, ingredients and knives. They are all things.
The word master is problematic when we use it to map out power relations between people. I am not the master of my household, so I don’t sleep in the master bedroom. I’m not the master of anyone I hire to work for me.
Mastery And Generativity
One particular way the issue of mastery gathers importance as we age is the question of generativity, which is a way of describing our legacy and our impact on the people who follow after us.
This can express itself in the desire to codify knowledge. We don’t just not just aim to master a skill but also to master explaining how the skill was formed.
As we get older, teaching, mentoring, and being a wise friend can take on a moral dimension. Our mastery helps us make deep and meaningful contributions to the greater good.
This sense of generativity can benefit our well-being when we age. It can help us avoid becoming self-obsessed or stagnant. Generativity can also deepen our satisfaction with life.
One Stone Among Many
Of course, this is simply the beginning of a journey. One stepping stone among many. We’ll come back to this question of mastery in several ways over the coming few months.
I hope we come to see that as we age, mastery is a fortress for our mindset and sense of well-being.