The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Mastery or Perfection?

‘Life is a journey, not a destination.’ ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

In German there is proverb attributed to Confucius and describes that the way is the goal (”Der Weg ist das Ziel”). This proverb has accompanied me for years as it seems to frequently pop up in a variety of forms. Today I came back to it as I thought about perfection and about its relationship with mastery. Interestingly, mastery seems to have somehow lost it’s importance in daily communication while perfection seems to be omnipresent.

A quick search revealed that Google finds about 229.000.000 results found for perfection and only about a fourth of this, 57.000.000, for mastery.

Wikipedia describes
Perfection as “the state or quality of being perfect” and “a person or thing considered to be perfect”
Mastery as “comprehensive knowledge or skill in a particular subject or activity” and “control or superiority over someone or something”

But, what does this mean for the way we lead our life or our learning?

When I’m learning let’s say marketing in a seminar, then I can to it with an intrinsic motivation, where my goal is to master and truly understand the material. I’ll do it, to be able to use and apply it. Another approach can be, to follow an extrinsic motivation and demonstrate superior ability as a marketing student. In this case the goal is one of performance, the usage of the material afterwards is secondary until one has been seen for one’s performance or received the expected grade.

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Our learning for the last hundred or so years has been focused on achieving tests, on showing performance. We have learned from it to follow the rules, be obedient to authority and become passive victims of life as society is suggesting it to be. And yes, we often have done so out of a genuine positive idea to make our parents proud of us.

But perfection is a state, it doesn’t last. Life passes by and transforms perfection to a past state. Imagine sweeping a floor. The minute you’ve finished, new dust starts falling again on it and the cycle starts anew. Imagine having created the perfect solution for a problem. Now that it has been solved, other problems become solvable and the cycle starts anew.

“Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend.”
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Engaging in deliberate practice is the way athletes train, they constantly push their limits and capabilities to reach higher levels. They know that other athletes will do the same and that tomorrows competition is a different one than yesterdays. They know that other athletes are training as hard as their are to expand their skills. They know that achieving mastery needs their own commitment to excellence.

Pursuing mastery is possible without becoming a top athlete, it is done by engaging into a subject we are interested in, one that we can become passionate about. Deliberate practice does mean hard work, finding obstacles and overcome resistance. It also means to constantly step out of one’s comfort zone, be able to be wrong and search for a better answer. That learning and doing is what actually gives us satisfaction. It’s the pleasure of seeing new depths of a subject, having been able to cook that recipe that didn’t work out the last times, having found the perfect spot to make this majestic picture you looked for.

Mastery as a life path allows us to take control of our life.


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