“Love of your work, willingness to stay with it even in the absence of extrinsic reward, is good food and drink.” – George Leonard

The Path of Mastery

In his book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-term Fulfillment, George Leonard describes the learning path of mastery, “the mysterious process during which what is at first difficult becomes progressively easier and more pleasurable through practice.” Mastery is an ongoing process or journey. The path keeps going – there is no final destination – and it’s a path of “brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it.” The path (or curve) looks something like:

mastery curve

When learning any new skill, there are initial and subsequent spurts in progress after each of which is a slight decline to a plateau where progress seems to be slow or non-existent. When learning new skills, we learn new patterns of sensing, moving and thinking to replace old patterns. Note that most of the time is spent on the plateaus where progress appears minimal or non-existent while our bodies learn and integrate the new patterns.

I will explore the path of mastery from Leonard’s Mastery book from the context of my path of learning ninjutsu, historical Japanese ninja and samurai martial arts. Before I dive into my martial arts path, I’ll quickly talk about the three other learning paths that Leonard describes: obsessive, dabbler and hacker plus the “path of endless climax” that is ever present in our modern consumer culture.

Other Paths of Learning

learning paths

My Dabbler Path in Self-Development

The dabbler approaches each new thing with enthusiasm, gets quick progress, then can’t accept the fall off and subsequent plateau so then moves onto something else. My bookshelf at home is full of self-development books. I’ve read about half of them and have the other half queued up to read. At any point in time, I am reading three to four of them. I read them for new ideas and tools I can use to further “develop” myself. I don’t prescribe to a particular philosophy or methodology.  I love the newness of new ideas and I may try a few of the suggested exercise or practices but I quickly get bored with one set of ideas (or forget about them) and then it’s on to the next book.

My Hacker Path in Photography

The hacker is the learner who quickly learns enough to get started or get the job done then is happy to stay on the plateau indefinitely…like me with photography. I purchased a nice Canon digital camera a few years ago so I could take pictures at triathlons for my roles as a triathlon coach and race director plus I love pictures of nature. I quickly learned the basics of photography so I could take action and nature shots. Once I had the basic skills, I stopped learning new skills.

My Obsessive Path in Triathlon

By itself, triathlon is a challenging and demanding sport as it requires participants to train in three different events (swim, bike and run), especially at the IRONMAN® (IM) distance (2.4-mile swim / 112-mile bike / 26.2-mile run) so it tends to attract obsessive personalities.

My initial path in triathlon was a blend of mastery and obsession. Over a span of 17 years, I attempted to master all the mechanics of swim, bike and run, perfect my transitions between events and be in top physical and mental shape for the event. If triathlon was a puzzle with 1,000 pieces, I wanted to figure out where all the pieces in the puzzle fit just right in order to have a perfect or almost perfect race…and it took learning, working hard, experimenting and obsessing.

I hit my ceiling on performance in 2007 as I set personal best times in both IRONMAN Triathlon and marathon, earned an elite (pro) triathlon license and won Vineman Full Triathlon overall. Once I achieved these personal best times, I simply set the bar higher. In early 2008 while training for a marathon, crashed and burned with overtraining, burnout, injury and adrenal fatigue. Yet, even after all that, I could not accept the plateau (in this case, a trough) and still thought I could continue to get get faster, but I never could after 2007. I also no longer felt any sense of accomplishment from finishing races and I lost my desire to compete so I stopped.

I talk more about my obsessive path in triathlon my blog post: The downside of flow states and setting guardrails to mitigate.

The Path of Endless Climax

According to Leonard, this path is “driven by heedless consumerism, instant gratification, and the quick fix.” Tired of waiting on the value of your mutual fund to compound over time? Buy a lottery ticket or roll the dice in craps (I love playing craps). Not feeling like one of the “cool kids?” Smoke a cigarette or drink a scotch. New iPhone model out? Upgrade. Not losing fat fast enough with your diet? Take a pill or do a juice cleanse. All of these are temporary fixes to an underlying challenge.

This path of endless climax – where life is full of peak moments and you’ll never need to be on the plateau – is a fantasy. As Leonard says, “In the long run, the war against mastery, the path of patient, dedicated attachment to immediate results, is a war that can’t be won.”

My Mastery Path in Martial Arts

I begin studying To-Shin Do in early 2014. As part of the training curriculum, students progress through each of the 5 elements of the Japanese godai or five elements (earth, water, fire, wind and void) passing through three belt ranks in each element before testing for shodan (1st degree black belt).  Each element has its own flavor of movement and energy so each time I changed elements, it felt like I was starting over learning new skills, which also built on and reinforced the skills I had just learned. I spent approximately 9 months in each element (repeating each 3 month block of curriculum three times) before moving onto the next element.

I’ve noticed the plateaus on my path through the each of the elements in To-Shin Do. I would first learn the mechanics of the katas (techniques) and then spend many months without seemingly making any progress until everything seemed to come together (or integrate) just in time for my final belt test in that element before leaving to start the next element.

Leonard shares five keys to mastery:

  1. Instruction – I’ve been fortunate to train with excellent instructors. What is impressive to me is their ability to teach at all levels from new beginners to experienced black belts. This is a very hands on martial art where the instructor demonstrates a technique (kata), we shadow their movements (shadow boxing) and then practice with a partner.
  2. Practice – “Ultimately, practice is the path of mastery, ” according to Leonard. I love to take classes at all levels and will take extra classes if my schedule permits. Even if I’m having a bad day, I’ll still go to the dojo and will always feel better afterwards.
  3. Surrender – Leonard says, “For the master, surrender means there are not experts. There are only learners.” Rather than focus on achieving the next belt (like in triathlon), I’m choosing to focus on learning something new in every class I take (including reviewing the fundamental earth classes) and from every instructor who teaches.
  4. Intentionality – Intentionality is having a vision for future. When I walk on the mat in the dojo, my intention is to learn something new every time as a student and to be a better attacker for other students. Leonard says, “Intentionality fuels the master’s journey. Every master is a master of vision.” My ultimate vision is to be a warrior protector.
  5. The edge – Playing the edge is a balancing act to push the boundaries but stay within safe limits. The curriculum starts with relatively basic movements then becomes more advanced (and potentially riskier) as students develop more skills and acquire more experience. The dojo provides provide a safe, yet experiential learning environment that constantly takes me to the edge.

There is resistance on the path to mastery. Training for a martial art consistently takes time, which means time in the dojo is time not spent not doing something else. There are days I don’t feel like training and often other things “show up” that keep from going to the dojo. Or, I get frustrated that I’m not able to “get it” quickly or screw up my demonstration.

Leonard shares five guidelines for dealing with resistance:

  1. Be aware of the way homeostasis works. Homeostasis is a condition of equilibrium or “the survival of things as they are,” as Leonard says. It’s challenging for any of us to grown and change and very easy to return to old habits and thinking. The greater the change, the greater the resistance will be.
  2. Be willing to negotiate with your resistance to change. This martial art is requiring me to change. I need to become more connected and present to what’s going on around me. As my skills increase, the challenge increases and I have to fully engaged for a safe training experience.
  3. Develop a support system. My wife supports my training and understands it helps me stay centered and show up better in our relationship. I’m friends with the other students and we help each other out with training and demos.
  4. Follow a regular practice. My goal is to attend three classes each week at a minimum. I attend as many seminars as I can. I will practice skills on my own at home (I love practicing with my bo staff).
  5. Dedicate yourself to lifelong learning. I’m on the To-Shin Do path for the long haul. I see myself doing this art for the rest of my life. Thankfully, ninjutsu is not about “bigger, stronger, faster” so I can always continue to improve and become a better martial artist and human no matter how old I get.

Learning takes energy. According to Leonard, “A human being is the kind of machine that wears out from lack of use…we gain energy by using energy.” So how to gain energy. Here are seven ways to gain energy:

  1. Maintain physical fitness. Move more. Move often. I’ve always been active so this one is easy for me.
  2. Acknowledge the negative and accentuate the positive. I tend to be my own worst critic so it’s helpful for me to receive the positive feedback I get from my instructors and training partners. My star tests (progress tests) are a way for me to demonstrate what I’ve learned on my path to nidan.
  3. Try telling the truth. As the saying goes, the truth will set you free.
  4. Honor but don’t indulge your own dark side. I use exercise (including To-Shin Do) to positively channel my negative emotions and manage my anxiety.
  5. Set priorities. As Timothy Ferriss says, “Lack of time is really lack of priorities.”
  6. Make commitments. Take action. I’ve made a commitment as a contract with my school to stay on my path to my next black belt rank (nidan). I take action by showing up for class, participating, asking questions and training.
  7. Get on the path of mastery and stay on it. This is key. I continue to put in the time.

Of course, the mastery path is not always a straight path. Leonard shares 13 common pitfalls that might show up on the path to mastery.

  1. Conflicting way of life. This fits with my way of life and who I want to be – a warrior protector.
  2. Obsessive goal orientation. I was obsessed about goals with triathlon (finish times and places). Although we have belt ranks and stars for black belts, my focus is on learning as much as I can and being fully engaged when I’m in and outside the dojo.
  3. Poor instruction. I have been fortunate to train at excellent dojos and receive instruction from the best instructors in this art.
  4. Lack of competitiveness. I’m competitive with myself in that I strive to do my best.
  5. Over competitiveness. We do not compete in this art. There are no competitions and prizes. I can progress at my own speed as can the other students.
  6. Laziness. I know I have to do the work.
  7. Injuries. Safety is priority for me and the school.
  8. Drugs.
  9. Prizes and medals. Same as over competitiveness.
  10. Vanity. I’m training in a martial art that no one has heard of. I hope I never have to demonstrate what I’ve learned.
  11. Dead seriousness. It’s supposed to be fun and enjoyable, too. I do enjoy it.
  12. Inconsistency. Show up. Do the training.
  13. Perfectionism. This is my biggest challenge. I’m working on not being so hard on myself and being OK with where I’m at in each moment.

A key point that Leonard stresses: Mastery can be applied to learning any new skill from learning to cook, training in martial arts, playing the guitar, learning tennis, or even folding laundry. Mastery can be applied to relationships. Mastery is more than way of learning; it’s a way of being.

The book ends with a simple question: “Are you willing to wear your white belt?” In other words, are we willing to walk on this path of mastery with the eyes and mind of a beginner?

Thanks for reading!


david glover headshotAuthor of Full-Time and Sub-Nine: Fitting Iron Distance Training into Everyday Life, David Glover recently earned his black belt in martial arts. He has completed 28 IRONMAN distance triathlons (includes two sub 9 hour finishes and winning the Vineman Full Triathlon twice). Now, he helps other triathletes achieve their athletic goals through his online triathlon education and training company, ENDURANCEWORKS. After six years of living in the triathlon mecca of Boulder, CO, David currently resides in California. He is now actively seeking flow state inducing activities and training in ninjutsu with Shinobi Martial Arts.