Mastery, Practice and Subtlety

The French have a saying: “Qui trop embrasse, mal etreint” which means, “he who embraces too much, has a weak grasp.” What does it take to move from being a “Jack of all trades, master of none” to being a master of all trades?

While there is value in have a breadth of skills and knowledge, it is also important to cultivate mastery in at least one area of your life. Everyone I know who has achieved mastery in their life has told me some version of this: you have to believe that mastery is within your grasp. To be sure, mastery – expert skill or knowledge – is available to every man and woman on earth.

The road to mastery is one that is paved with practice and a passion for the increasingly subtle touch. There is an old joke that has become part of the folklore of Carnegie Hall in which Arthur Rubenstein, the famous Russian pianist and composer is approached by a tourist on the streets of New York who asks: “Sir, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” Rubenstein replies:”Practice, practice, practice.”

Practice makes perfect, assuming, that is, that you discard the notion that nobody’s perfect. Perfect practice allows for a gradual refinement of your skills, understanding and perhaps most importantly, your sensitivity to the delicate rhythms involved in any creative activity. Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Cristiano Ronaldo on the soccer field, Richard Petty on the race track and Roger Federer on the tennis court all built their expertise over time through practice.

Mastery in any field can be described in similar terms. It doesn’t matter if mastery is achieved in sports, in the arts or in some other area of function, mastery is invariably beautiful, elegant, and awe-inspiring. Experts in any field always possess the magical ability to make even the most challenging task look easy. Why is that?

In mastery there is subtlety. Anyone who has mastered an activity has developed the ability to sense corrections that need to be made before they are visible to the inexperienced onlooker. As a beginner in any activity you will likely find yourself making gross and awkward adjustments and you might find yourself flopping around on the horse for a while before you can look graceful.

Over time, however, the adjustments become more and more subtle, less and less emphasized and more and more intuitive. You develop a sixth-sense in mastery that is only available when your other senses are at rest and not over-stimulated.

A perfect example is found in the equestrian arts. A rider in pursuit of mastery will find himself increasingly stable, relaxed and secure in his seat and a well-trained horse will move in accordance with the wishes of his rider requiring less obvious aids to the point of invisibility if consistent practice is made. Training a dog is the same. If your training regimen is appropriate and effective, you will find that less and less force, repetition and energy is required – by the trainer and the dog – to secure the desired result. Isn’t that exciting?

Take stock of the fields of activity that you participate in and consider how you might move from where you are to that no-longer elusive and eminently tenable state of mastery. Practice consistently, practice perfectly and make adjustments in your approach with as little fuss and as little muss as possible and you will be well on your way.

Beating yourself up, getting depressed about the not-so-perfect practice sessions, demanding too far beyond present capabilities and insisting on a certain outcome will retard your progress. Giving yourself (and others!) a break, embracing failure as an opportunity to fortify likely shaky foundational elements, being reasonable in your demands and giving it your all without expectation of results will hasten your progress.

Which will it be?

4 thoughts on “Mastery, Practice and Subtlety

  1. Ed Barnes, Sr

    Great advice. I agree with Colin about it becoming contagious, and once you’ve paved the path for one victory it makes it sets the precedent for further victories if you have the work ethic.


  2. Colin

    I think once you master one thing, that it can become contagious. You realize that mastery is attainable, and that all it takes is dedication. It
    definetly helps to have natural ability in your undertaking, but it isn’t absolutley necessary. I’ve actually found that some of the greatest
    masters were not naturals, but just had a great work ethic.


  3. Marianne

    I appreciate your emphasis on maintaining one’s balance and sensibilities when it comes to developing the technique and instinct needed to master any skill. A favorite quote that came to mind while I was reading your post is from Theodore Roosevelt. I love his emphasis on enthusiasm and devotion in applying oneself to a worthy endeavor, and I think your point about maintaining a balanced composure throughout the process regardless of the highs or lows which invariable come up is essential for my further meditation. Thanks!

    “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”


  4. Lady Leo

    I love watching a master perform his art, the grace, confidence and beauty is inspiring. But I also love to watch someone who is learning, their enjoyment and the freshness of a novice are both stages I find appealing. Watching a child learn to ride a bike, swim or hit the ball is as deeply satisfying as watching the master.I have realized the enjoyment is in the journey as well as the perfected result.


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