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Blog // Images // Sounds // Thoughts
October 10, 2013


What makes the people who are really good at something, those who have achieved mastery, different from everyone else. Is it something we can learn?

There’s a study that was done into golf and concentration. Low handicap players were asked to putt and their success was measured. Then they were asked to attempt the same putts, but this time, they had to explain what they were doing. Their success rate was noticeably lower. It seems talking about what we do uses a different part of the brain, a different thinking muscle, to the doing itself.

To put it another way explaining the task interrupted the golfer’s mastery of the task

I find studies like these fascinating because while education clearly helps us, it often feels like reading an extra book or taking another course doesn’t yield the improvement in our craft we might be looking for. The search for information and inspiration can feel like an endless, thirsty journey that brings us no closer to creative greatness.

Can We Ever Be A Master?

I’m an Apple Certified professional. In fact, the official title is Logic Studio Master. In the musical world, the word Master brings to mind a performer who has control of all the skills and can play any piece of music with flawless technique. Andrés Segovia, for example, was the benchmark for a virtuoso master classical guitarist

I long ago realised a paradox in my musical life. I was extremely unlikely to ever become a master guitarist in the Andrés Segovia sense of the phrase. But, I could, on occasions, play with mastery, with a kind of musical fullness that listeners found compelling and engaging.

“Country music isn’t nothing but three chords and the truth.” Harlan Howard

John Lee Hooker, Jack White, or even Jimi Hendrix are not masters in the classical, virtuoso sense of the word. But, their musical vision still bends the reality of a guitar’s physical limitations, the wood and wire, into profoundly moving musical realities.

It doesn’t matter if an artist can or can’t play everything, what matters is whether when they play, it means everything, to them, to their fans and to their listeners.

The Noun And The Verb

I believe this echoes Austin Kleon’s notion of the noun and the verb, which I discussed recently.

Becoming a master feels like a noble goal, something that will forever validate us. The word implies a distinction a separation, between the master and everyone else. The master is superior, complete, whole, everyone else is inadequate and incomplete. Maybe being a master means you can sit on the mountaintop and tell others how to do their art?

But, mastery feels more mundane. It immediately implies work, perhaps even, unceasing work. Mastery doesn’t speak to our relationship with other people so much as our relationship to our own craft and to the tools we use for that craft. Mastery is our ability to use tools to bend reality in order to realise our creative vision, regardless of whether the output of our work one day sits in a gallery or is acclaimed by the critics.

Effortless Mastery

One of the few books that really changed my life was Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery. I’m in debt to Werner for helping me see the opposite of mastery is not lack of technique, knowledge or the right gear, but fear. Mastery eludes us when we play or create from a position of fear, of doubt in our ability, or service to the negative and unhelpfully critical voices. Fear pulls us out of the creative game in the same way explanations pulled the golfer out of their best putting stroke. Fear makes us use different mental and emotional muscles, ones suited to fight and flight, but ill-suited to making art.

Often fear manifests itself in our desire to impress others with our craft. It’s the fear of being seen as ordinary, average, or insufficiently creative or daring. That might be a good mindset for pushing us to learn more, to acquire new insights and ideas, but it holds us back when we create and perform, making us tight, nervous and unsure. Fear makes us look at and listen to our work with dissatisfaction, even before it is finished. It makes us long for approaches we can buy or import, flavours we can spray over our work, rather than searching for solutions within ourselves.

The first step to real mastery is not in learning another technique, or attempting some horribly complex creative performance, but doing something straightforward and repeatable in full and authentic way. It might mean playing a simple piece of music with full conviction and no concern over “wrong notes,” or taking a straightforward photo as if nothing else on earth existed, with no concern for how many likes the image will get online.

Practising Mastery

Take a small creative task from your work and imagine doing a version of it that requires no real effort. Maybe it’s a photo that asks nothing of you than to just press the shutter, or a sentence that flows from your pen onto the paper with no corrections or pauses. That’s what mastery feels like.

I believe this is something we can practice. In fact, I do this myself, almost every day.

There’s a tune by Tommy Emmanuel called Amy. I play it whenever I enter my studio. It’s not the hardest tune in the world, but it’s not a walk in the park either. I know it well and can play the whole thing with my eyes closed. Everyday I pick up a guitar, tune it and play the song. If I start getting frustrated by mistakes or thinking “gee this sounds good” I stop. Put the guitar down and walk away. Then I come back later and play again. It’s a process of training my mind to think about nothing but the piece of music and what it sounds like, to experience the music as it is created and comes to life in the world, of connecting an idea in mind, notes, rhythm and harmony, into something that exists in the physical world, sound, timbre and resonance.

You can do the same in other fields. Perhaps as a writer you can start your day by crafting one good sentence. The subject doesn’t matter, just coherently string some words together so you can feel your craft coming to life. Or pick up your camera and make a photograph of something, anything that is around you, doing so in an honest mindful way, with your full attention on the moment you are in and the experience you are having as a creative soul.

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