When it comes people mastering their craft, we see the result. We rarely see what went into getting there. However, when we start to dig deeper, we see that to master your craft you need a combination of purpose, practice, performance, recovery, and of course years on end, possibly a lifetime.
To master your craft is a decision that the juice is worth the squeeze. So if you’ve decided that it is, keep reading.
Step 1 to Master Your Craft: Find Your Purpose
When Dan Pink investigated what causes people to do what they do, he discovered that purpose, autonomy, and mastery are the three driving forces. Purpose and mastery are birds of a feather. You can’t have one without the other.
One of the most ludicrous ideas that society drills into our heads is that you shoud know your passion and purpose in life when you are 18 years old. It is the rare 18-year-old who is confident enough and experienced enough to make an informed decision about their purpose.
Sometimes I think to myself: “If I knew what I know now, I would have started to become a writer in college.” But without experience, I could know what I do today. Experience is what enables one to collect data, and purposes are often revealed through those data points. Tina Seelig once told me about the Unmistakable Creative, passion follows engagement.
How do you look back at the proudest moments of your past and say, “in this proudest moment, what were you doing, and who were the people that were benefiting from the work that you were doing, and what was the impact on their lives? Once you have those two ingredients, you can very simply flip that around into a simple purpose statement or question in which you ask “how might create more of this impact for these people. – Joe Brown
Looking back on my life, I realized that there was a common pattern at the times when I was most engaged. I used technology or the Internet to create something. But I could not draw a clear line from that to what I do today
People become experts on a particular subject by accumulating and connecting enough dots related to them, in the form of experiences, knowledge, and best practices. Our brains are naturally programmed to cluster related dots. – Chris Bailey
Do not find your passion, make a note of what engages you, and do more of it. Keep collecting data points. You can only connect the points if you look backward. But you can only collect these points if you look forwards.
If we are driven by a sense of purpose, we are more likely to be steadfast in the face of the challenge, our motivation will be much stronger, and we will draw much more satisfaction from our work. A sense of purpose amplifies grit, ambition, focus, and virtually every other quality required to attain mastery. Since to master your craft will mean a lack of external rewards, possibly for a very long time, we must be driven by something deeper.
Step 2 to Master Your Craft: Practice
A person could possess all the natural talents in the world, but without practice, that talent will never enable them to achieve mastery. In fact, many who will soon be masters of their craft do not appear to have a great deal of natural talent on the surface. In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin tells the story of two young company employees who are fresh out of college.
These two slackers turned out to be Steve Balmer and Jeffrey Immelt, who later became CEO of two of the world’s most valuable companies.
The power of practice became clear to me both as a musician and as a surfer. I had no natural talent for both. Thanks to practice, I made all-state band three times in a row and learned to surf at the age of 30.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea of 10,000 hours of practice, and if you’re like most people, you might have thought, “why the hell didn’t my parents force me to spend 10,000 hours practicing insert skill of your choice.”
But there is much more to practice than spending 10,000 hours. You could go to the driving range every day until you hit 10,000 hours of hitting golf balls. You won’t master your craft Tiger Woods will probably still kick your ass playing golf because the way you practice is just as important as how much you practice.
And that’s where deliberate practices comes in.
The act of doing something repeatedly until you reach the 10,000-hour mark is not deliberate practice. Anders Ericsson writes in his book Peak: The New Science of Expertise
The hallmark of deliberate practice is that you try to do something that you cannot do— that takes you out of your comfort zone- and that you practice over and over again, focusing on exactly how you are doing it, where you are falling short, and how you can get better.
While writing my books, I have applied many of the principles of deliberate practice.
- Modeling a top performer: When I interviewed Julien Smith, he had one of the most popular blogs on the Internet, and he was a best-selling author. He was the one who got me to write 1,000 words a day.
- Working with a coach: For my last two books, I worked closely with a writing coach who gives me daily feedback, points out mistakes I’ve made and calls me out when I’m lazy.
- Apply what I have learned: After receiving feedback or comments from my writing coach, I apply what I have learned to the next session.
Deliberate practice is difficult, requires concentration, and requires you to push outside of your comfort zone. Reading this article will not be enough to apply the principles of deliberate practice to your life or master your craft.
I found it challenging to write about it because it is a rabbit hole that goes deep. You have to experiment with what works for you. But I would recommend starting with this conversation I had with Anders Ericsson and reading his book.
Every time we do something consistently, we experience a process called myelination. Your muscle memory becomes sharper, you experience more creative breakthroughs, and your progress begins to accelerate.
Regular training leads to changes in the parts of the brain that are challenged by the training. The brain adapts to these challenges by rewiring itself in ways that increase its ability to carry out the functions required by the challenges. – Anders Ericsson
When I surf or snowboard for several days in a row, my performance level improves dramatically. I make waves that I would normally miss, and fly down the mountain at speeds that would normally cause me to fall. It’s no coincidence that the best athletes train several times a week, the best musicians rehearse several times a week, and masters of their craft in every area have made a habit of doing what they do. They understand the profound power of consistency.
Process Orientation and Visible Progress
The process is in our hands, and when we focus on what we control, it becomes much easier to clearly define our goal. With clearly defined goals, we increase flow. And with flow we get peak performance and creative breakthroughs.
1000 words a day is one of my clearly defined goals and accounts for 90% of my creative output. As I looked through Steven Kotler’s book, I realized that this goal is so clear because there is a number attached to it. Either I achieve the goal or not, and it can be applied to everything:
- Call 20 potential prospects
- Read 75 pages
- Exercise for 40 minutes
There’s no questioning whether you achieve these goals. Either you hit the number or not. The simple act of putting a number in front of the goal reinforces its clarity. And my habit of writing 1,000 words a day sparks ideas for books. It enables me to think about books I have read, the conversations I have had with friends, and interviews I have conducted for the Unmistakable Creative. And it enables me to experience visible progress.
Visible progress is one of our greatest sources of motivation
Whether it’s a calendar where you haven’t broken the chain, a blank page that’s being filled, or a total number of words, you can see the progress before your eyes. It motivates you to keep coming back to master your craft.
It becomes a self-sustaining cycle of habit, progress, flow, momentum, and motivation. It transforms creative expression from an item on a to-do list into a daily habit, from a commitment to privilege. I don’t write because I have to. I write because it literally changes my mood, and I would probably lose my mind if I didn’t.
Ryan Holiday is a perfect example of this. Although he has published six books, he still writes for several web sites. It’s not because he needs the money, but because each of these articles is an opportunity to practice his craft. As a result, every book he writes is better than the previous one.
When Michael Jordan showed up for his first day of practice with the Chicago Bulls, he treated it as if he were playing in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. And that intensity continued throughout his career. Although he pissed off many of his teammates, he led the Bulls to many championships.
Practice leads to proficiency and determines performance. Performance is where the rubber meets the road to help you master your craft.
Step 3 to Master Your Craft
We practice in order to perform:
- We practice an instrument to play it in front of an audience.
- An athlete practices his sport to play in a game
- An actor rehearses to film a movie
- A writer writes every day to publish a book
Performance is the point at which your level of mastery is tested and measured:
- A company measures its revenue
- An athlete measures the number of shots he scored, touchdowns he threw, tackles he blocked, and ultimately the score.
- An actor measures a movie’s box office sales
The paradox of performance, however, is that we need to measure it in order to improve it, but we can’t become attached to the results; we take what we learn from it and apply it to our practice.
- When I publish an interview for the Unmistakable Creative, I have no idea how anyone will react to it. But I go back and listen to it, take notes of what I would do differently, and apply this lesson next time.
- When I write a new article, I reread it. The content I think I missed often becomes the subject of my next article.
- The sports review their game film and what they learn into practice in the coming week.
Performance improves when we are willing to be our own critic, to put our ego aside and admit that there are aspects of our work that could be better. There is no level of performance at which a Master sees his work and says, “My work is done here.”
Becoming an Apprentice
There was a time when the only way to learn a new skill was to become an apprentice to the one who had already mastered it. The aspiring shoemaker had to become an apprentice to the shoemaker, the aspiring metal welder to the blacksmith.
Today this is not so common anymore, but necessary for mastery. It is not impossible, but rare, that one can become a master of any craft without learning from someone who is already learned to master your craft
- World-class athletes have coaches
- World-class musicians have private teachers
Studying with someone who is a master saves you years of trying and going astray. It also ensures that your practice improves your performance because we are often blind to our weaknesses and inclinations.
Everyone needs a mentor nowadays because they recognize the value they will gain from it. But what they often do not seek is the value they bring to the situation. Usually, someone is interested in you because you have something valuable to offer them.
Ryan Holiday did not become Robert Greene’s apprentice because he was an ambitious college dropout full of piss and vinegar. Ryan understood how the Internet works, and Robert needed to know how the Internet works to make his next book a success.
When Charlie Hoehn wanted to work with some of the most influential people on the Internet, he did not ask them for their time but came to them with an offer to do video editing work for them, along with suggestions and possibly even samples of what he could do.
One of my main mentors asked me for advice before working with me. He wanted advice on how to publish a book, and since I had self-published a book myself and was a prolific writer, I had something to offer.
If you can put something on the table, you’re better off.
Step 5 to Master your Craft: Focus
If you want to master your craft, it requires intense concentration. And budding masters today face a challenge that previous generations did not have. They live in a world full of endless sources of distraction.
Dopamine-driven feedback loops can get them to check how people have reacted to their latest status update, or what fans have said about them on Twitter. But that doesn’t do anything for mastery. Feedback of almost any kind, whether it’s a like on Facebook, a book review on Amazon, or a troll on Twitter, is a distraction from what makes you a master at work.
The damage caused by distraction goes far beyond declining productivity. It inhibits visible progress. Without visible progress, we have no motivation. It fuels a toxic cycle that makes mastery impossible.
Once you learn to become really present and avoid distraction, you will reach a state of altered consciousness that is far greater than motivation.
Entering into a flow state is like pouring rocket fuel on the fire of mastery. It puts an aspiring master in a state of pure bliss. Work becomes his own reward, and unlike the short-term rewards that one receives from social media, it leads to more significant results in one’s life. Why exactly is this happening?
In a state of flow, the brain is flooded with chemicals that make us feel good. We become happier. We know, thanks to Shawn Achor’s work in The Happiness Advantage we know that happiness is a precursor to high performance.
Steven Kotler has found in his research that top executives are 500% more productive inf flow. Imagine what your days would be like if you got a 500% productivity boost. You would achieve massive performance increases and creative output from as little as one concentrated hour a day.
While you may think that it is about achieving external results, the greater value is what happens internally. Flow makes the quest for mastery go from a painful struggle to one so rewarding that we cannot live without it. No one has to hold a weapon to my head to get me to write. I can assure you that I get much more from writing this than you do from reading it.
What flow does is create a perpetual cycle of happiness, progress, motivation, and momentum that leads writers to write books, artists to make art, and entrepreneurs to start businesses. We are set to spend our lives doing something of meaning and value.
Now that we’ve looked at why, let’s look at how. Steven refers to these things as flow triggers or on-ramps to flow. And in my experience, you don’t need all triggers. In the last few weeks, while researching this article, I decided to do an experiment where I would test different flow triggers.
Meditation: Gay Hendricks sold me on the benefits of a meditation habit after he told me it helped him sell companies.
In an interview with Chase Jarvis, Steven mentioned that box breathing helped people who couldn’t sit still for 10 minutes without any struggle. As a person who has to do shit with ADHD, I decided to give it a try. A lot of things happened that morning.
- I didn’t get distracted for almost three hours.
- I wrote 1250 words, some of which you’re reading right now.
- I recorded two of the best interviews I’ve ever done for Unmistakable Creative
- And as if that wasn’t enough, everything on my list for the day was done.
Box breathing is crazy and simple in terms of its effectiveness. All you do is imagine drawing a box around your chest. Every breath you take draws a line of the box. Every breath you let go draws a line of the box. 4 counts in and four counts out. No matter how hard I tried to think about something else, I couldn’t. And 10 minutes passed quickly.
90 minutes without interruption: I put my phone out of the room, in, do not disturb mode. This was crucial. Without this, all the benefits of mediation would be undone. I read a book for 40 minutes, and then I filled almost six pages in a Moleskine in a matter of an hour. As I opened my computer, the outlines for this article began to emerge.
Zero multitasking: Finally, I committed to avoiding multitasking throughout the day. There are two simple ways to do this. I used distraction-free writing tools and worked full screen to resist multitasking.
Craft vs. The Prize: Focusing on the craft instead of the prize, the likelihood of success through external measures significantly increases. But there’s nothing glamorous about this. It requires work, perseverance, and discipline.
It’s much easier to entertain yourself by scrolling through your newsfeed while dreaming about the prize while avoiding working on your craft.
- It is easier to view the most popular pieces on Medium than to write one yourself
- It’s easier to read about the latest start-up funded on TechCrunch to build a product people can’t live without
With the focus on your craft, you start to bridge what Ira Glass calls the taste gap. You will be able to produce a much higher quality of work, the kind of work that will have much more resonance and impact, and you will be proud to put your signature.
Of course, this is not to be confused with the attitude, “If you build it, they come.” The difference is this: If you build it well, they are much more likely to stick around. An artist is better off with thousands of fans who stay with her for a lifetime than millions who watch for a brief moment. Or, to put it in the words of Sam Altman “you’re better off building something a small number of people Love, then something a massive number of people like.
Your greatest work comes from your deepest and most intense focus. And in a world where that ability is gradually being damaged and destroyed, those who develop and maintain that ability have a significant competitive advantage over others who aspire to master their craft.
In the year that his book was published, Cal Newport not only produced a manuscript, but was hired at Georgetown, published in several peer-reviewed journals, and maintained an active blog. That is the power of deep work.
For most people, the prize is more attractive than the craft. After all, nobody gives a shit about seeing a picture of you sitting in your room, drinking coffee, fighting against resistance, self-doubt, and all the other demons that manifest themselves in creative work.
- The podcaster obsesses about the quality of the sound rather than the content of the episode.
- The author obsesses about the FB fan page rather than the book they are writing.
These things may be necessary, but when you look at the ratio of effort to the value of such activities, they become far less critical.
Watching my friend Amber Rae’s book launch unfold, you witnessed a remarkable life that you envy. But what you never saw were the countless hours, revisions, rewrites, shitty first drafts that inevitably precede the prize that an audience gets to see.
Every time I start a new book project, my first thought is, “We’re writing a book of 50,000 words? How? I can’t even write a sentence that doesn’t make me throw my laptop against the wall.”
So I start with shitty first sentences, followed by shitty first drafts, followed by a paragraph that I read to myself and think: “That doesn’t sound awful, I can use that.”
When it comes to creative endeavors that leave their mark on the world, more time must be spent on craft than the prize, on process than on product.
As Trevor Noah brilliantly put in his book:
Hustling is to work what surfing the internet is to reading. If you add up how much you read in a year on the Internet- tweets, Facebook posts, lists, you’ve read the equivalent of a shit ton of books, but in fact you’ve read no books in a year.
Step 6 to Master Your Craft: Failure
Masters are those who by nature have suffered to get to where they are. They have experienced endless criticisms of their work, doubts about their progress, setbacks along the way. – Robert Greene, Mastery
The path to mastery is not a walk in the park on a sunny day. There will be moments that test your conviction, moments that challenge your faith, and make you stop. Anyone who has achieved anything of great importance has done so in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and unfavorable odds.
Cai Go Qiang is a pyrotechnician who dreamed of using fireworks to literally build a ladder to the sky to connect the earth with the rest of the universe.
Every attempt to build the Sklyadder required months of planning and probably hundreds of thousands of dollars. He failed several times. For a dream as crazy as putting a ladder of fireworks in the sky, he was prepared to lose tons of money and years of his time.
In the course of his life, he has been responsible for some of the most spectacular fireworks in history. He has shown edges and redefined the boundaries of what you can do with pyrotechnics. If you look at just one of his works, you will probably come to the conclusion I have. Cia Go Qiang is the Picasso of pyrotechnics and after more than 20 years he has finally managed to build a ladder to the sky.
He could easily have given up after the first attempt, but instead, he has learned what he could from the failure and made a second attempt and a third. By building on the lessons of his previous efforts, he has made the impossible possible.
At some point on the way to mastery, you are in a difficult area. You will want to quit. It’s a moment Seth Godin refers to as the Dip:
- Revenue is declining
- A client bailed
- The audience hated your latest work
- No one bought what you were trying to sell
This is when your desire to quit will be strongest. But as Seth so brilliantly said in his book “quitting while you’re in the dip wastes all the time you’ve invested before it.”
- If Tim Ferriss stopped after being rejected by the 10th publisher, there would be no four-hour week. 27 publishers rejected the book.
- Some of the most successful start-ups were rejected by more than 100 investors before being financed.
- Sarah Blakely was rejected by dozens of potential manufacturers to make her first batch of Spanx.
There’s a difference between persistence and delusion. But mastery requires dealing with failure. It means missing crucial shots, throwing interceptions, playing false notes, writing shit that no one wants to read, recording albums that don’t sell by the millions, and making movies that suck. It’s just part of the process of becoming world-class in everything you do.
Step 7 to Master Your Craft: Rest
Brilliant creative ideas and massive breakthroughs are almost never the results of sleepless 120-hour working weeks. It is more likely that there will be a meltdown. As a society, we tend to underestimate the value of rest, because there are no bragging rights associated with 12 hours of sleep per night.
For the longest time, I believed that masters in their field would not take days off, which meant to me that I should never miss a day of writing, but it was this nugget by James Clear that convinced me that it was no big deal if I missed a day here and there:
“Missing a single day has no measurable impact on whether or not you maintain a habit long-term”
Rest is essential to become a master of your craft. Performing at the level of mastery requires something without errors. This will be difficult if you cannot stay awake.
In my last year in high school, I was studying for what would be the final grades my potential colleges would see before I was accepted. So I was pulling some late nights. I was also taking music lessons because I was applying to Northwestern as a music major.
Once a week, I would make a 30-45 minute drive from Riverside to Cal Poly Pomona, where my teacher was a professor. One of those weeks I showed up for my lesson after having stayed up all night. He told me to warm up and play a few scales. He went to run some errands. When he came back, I hadn’t played a single note.
On the way home I fell asleep on a freeway onramp with my car in park. A policeman woke me up and after a short chat, he said: “Son, I suggest you find a place to crash, and I don’t mean your car.
What’s the point of all this? Sleep deprivation is a self-imposed handicap that stands in the way of the ability to master anything.
Twenty years later, I understand this even more. My writing suffers after a night of bad sleep or heavy drinking. I find it difficult to concentrate, I make a lot of mistakes, and my mood tends to be much worse.
Research shows that rest serves many useful functions that go far beyond making us less tired. Alex Pang says in his book Rest:
You need time for rest because that’s when the unconscious mind can get to work. You can’t command inspiration to appear, but you can judge it, most notably by working steadily and regularly. The romantic notion of the artist who does nothing until he’s inspired and then produces in a furious burst of work is misleading.
In everything you want to master, there is a point of diminishing returns, a point where the same effort leads to a lower quantity and quality of output. Most people want to master their craft for the sake of some external result:
- Sell your start-up
- Become a bestselling author
- Get showered with attention
But in doing so, they overlook one of the most important advantages of doing something well: how much it changes you as a person. Getting great at anything creates a cycle of progress, motivation, habit, confidence and more momentum until you start dancing at the limits of mastery. The value of becoming so good that they cannot ignore you lies in the gift you can give to the world, not in what you can get out of it.
There is a point at which everything you do starts to connect. You start to see how art really mixes the different ways in which your creative efforts are expressed. Often, they seem to be completely pointless and seem to have no purpose. But, we overlook that every creative act sows a seed for something that could close in a week, a year or 10 years.
Neil Gaiman once said that creative work is like putting messages in a bottle. Some reach the people they are supposed to reach, others get lost at sea. And the work is ultimately to keep putting messages in bottles.
Creative careers are not just the domain of artists. A creative career is one that is consciously designed in search of ways to express what you need and to pay attention to what you find most engaging.
If you find the work you do engaging, it starts to take on a whole different feel. It makes time pass faster, and it has the potential to make you world-class at what you do.
Even the smallest expressions of your creativity add up over time ultimately leading to a body of work. And today we live in a time in which there really are no limits to what you can do.