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The Pursuit of Mastery

Many, many near wins

Driving halfway across Reno to work out gives me ample time to listen to podcasts. One of my favorites is NPR’s TED Radio hour. With last week marking the start of my black belt test, I though it would be pertinent to load the Champions episode from last July. Now, far be it from me to suggest I’m a champion at much of anything besides, perhaps, cat wrangling, or coming up with creative epithets to mutter at my computer when I’m troubleshooting code at work. But don’t we all, on some level, look for those brief brushes with greatness in the hopes that some small iota of success will embed itself in our own identity?

What struck me most from the show was a quote from the final featured TED talk. Speaker Sarah Lewis described watching a women’s varsity archery training session. For three hours, the women fired arrow after arrow at targets distant enough to make Hawkeye squint. Sometimes they hit close to the mark; other times they missed the target altogether. Despite the physical and mental exhaustion, these women came back day after day to do this same thing, over and over again.

Lewis’s ultimate interest was in the difference between success and mastery. After watching the archery session, she concluded, “Success is hitting that ten ring, but mastery is knowing that it means nothing if you can’t do it again and again.” And yet, she says, many greats, especially artists and authors, don’t appreciate what she calls “the gift of the near win.”

The near win is that level of excellence you reach in the constant pursuit of mastery. It’s getting so close to your vision that you can taste it. It’s a fountain of motivation to propel you forward towards you goals.

What a great concept to keep in mind for checklisting, I thought. An integral requirement for the first half of the black belt test, there are 111 different techniques, combos and rounds in which candidates must exhibit proficiency. If you perform the technique correctly (and with gusto!), you check that technique off the list — thus, the term “checklisting.” Over the past three years, I’ve watched many friends endure the frustration and panic of failing one or more checks over and over. Sometimes it was something silly, like the most basic boxing move ever: The left jab. Sometimes it was something that the candidate had to wonder if they were even physically capable of performing, like a tae kwon do wheel kick.

But the amazing thing is that the absolute worst check for each person, the move or technique they got so close to completing so many times, yet missed again and again — that move almost always ended up being that person’s best technique of all. They practiced at the dojo, they practiced at home, they practiced at the office. After missing the check, some would go home and cry, others got royally pissed and ate a bunch of Ben ‘n Jerry’s. Yet if you watch any of these black belts train today, if you were see them perform whatever technique it was that frustrated them most, you’d be blown away. You’d assume they were naturally talented at that move because they make it look so effortless. And if you were to compliment them, they’d probably laugh nervously and give you shifty eyes for the rest of the session.

Even though I’ve checklisted a lot this week, I’ve been a bit of a chicken about it and haven’t checklisted on the things I know will frustrate me the most. However, even though I’m nervous about it, I hope that when I do fail, then fail again, and then fail again and again, I’ll see it for what it is: The gift of a near win.

2 thoughts on “The Pursuit of Mastery

  1. Ah… good ole’ Automobile University. Listening to audiobooks or podcasts while driving is probably one of the best things you can do to make a worthless activity (driving somewhere) extremely useful (studying).

    This doesn’t have anything to do with the gift of the near win, but it does have to do with success. I “read” these books, mostly via audiobook lately. If you’re interested you should check them out:

    Born to Win: Find Your Success Code (Zig Ziglar)
    As a Man Thinketh (James Allen)
    Acres of Diamonds (Russell H. Conwell)
    Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team Six Operator Adam Brown (Eric Blehm)
    The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (Stephen R. Covey)
    MONEY Master the Game: 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom (Tony Robbins)
    How to Win Friends & Influence People (Dale Carnegie)
    Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell)
    The Millionaire Mind (Thomas J. Stanley)
    The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy (Thomas J. Stanley)
    The Richest Man in Babylon (George S. Clason)
    Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes Into Stepping Stones For Success (John C. Maxwell)
    How Successful People Think (John Maxwell)
    Smart Money Smart Kids: Raising the Next Generation to Win With Money (Dave Ramsey and Rachel Cruze)
    Who Moved My Cheese? (Dr. Spencer Johnson)
    Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways To Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time
    Goal Setting: 21 Days To Achieving Life Changing Goals & Being Happy Happy Happy (Darrin Wiggins)
    You Are A Writer (So Start Acting Like One) (Jeff Goins)
    EntreLeadership: 20 Years of Practical Business Wisdom From the Trenches (Dave Ramsey)
    The Power of Self-Discipline: No Excuses – Brian Tracy

    Fearless, which is listed earlier on the list, is probably the most inspiring and “couldn’t put it down” book I’ve ever read in my life. I think I finished it in about a day…

    1. We all have that moment in testing which feels like a fail, but is a learning experience. We are learning how to process physical movement as quick as thought during stress-induced situations. If we never had these moments we would never really progress.

      Well written, Elaine! Enjoy the journey!


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