The point where you start having majority control over the result.
Mastery can be boiled down to the proficient use of a skill and its tools.
A skill is anything that humans can practice and apply themselves to get better at.
A tool is any sort of scaffolding that supports the skill, from the literal tools that humans wear or wield, to the ambient/concrete effects of the environment, the social structure, personal habits and frame of mind.
How much skill is needed for mastery?
Can you tell me when you’ve gained 1% mastery?
When learning a skill, there’s a mythical point where things start to get easier. You get the hang of things, you sweat the details less because you have systems in place, and you’re able to overcome unusual circumstances without it affecting your performance and output.
I call this nebulous point 1% mastery, which represents the first step into the realm of mastery.
To reach 1% mastery, you need two essential conditions to be met.
The minimum conditions for reaching 1% mastery is when:
1/ your skills outweigh your tools in determining 2/ a good result.
To get here, we must go to a place we’re all familiar with: the very beginning.
Starting at zero
As a beginner, it will feel impossible to perform confidently and to have good quality output even with the best of tools. You learn many new details concerning the skill, and immediately overthink them as they all claw for importance in your mind. At this point, no infinitely good tool can compensate for complete lack of skill. Every act will feel clumsy and clunky. Everything you create will look like crapola. You feel vulnerable, and painfully mortal.
SALSA pt. 1
“Alright, let’s warm up with our salsa básico. Left foot forward at one. Step on the spot with your right foot at two. Step your left foot back again at three…”
I’m in a small gym with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, learning how to dance Salsa with 20 other people.
The footwork for the básico is… Pretty basic. Deceivingly so. I think I’m following the simple instructions well but I must be missing a bunch of details because I look nothing like the instructor in the mirror. Nothing feels right. We were told to wear light shoes that didn’t have too rubbery of a sole. My New Balance sneakers are the least rubbery shoes I have. Still, the floor feels unreasonably sticky and the resistance gets me off balance instead.
I’m ‘basically’ learning how to walk again.
The journey out of básicos
When you’re getting the hang of things, you soon reach a place where you break a ceiling and start having a stream of reliable results. But whose ceiling is it?
SALSA pt. 2
“Well done all, you looked fabulous.”
The salsa fades out from the speakers and Jen, our instructor, returns to the front of the room.
“Time flies and we’re nearly at the end of level two!
Can you believe it??”
Her over-enthusiastic grin does not soften what’s coming.
“At this point you have now taken classes for almost 4 months. This means you have enough in your repertoire to dance outside the classroom and in the wild!”
She makes a big sweeping gesture and continues, “We encourage students to attend practicas and latin socials to improve your dancing. These are events where any salsa dancer in town can come to dance. Salsa is a social dance, a conversation between the leader and the follower. The best way to get better, faster, is to hit up as many conversations as you can.”
Oh no. Dancing with strangers? But dancing with classmates has been a safe space. We know the moves that are coming and the instructor curated a list of slower salsa songs so we can keep up. With strangers, there’s no knowing what’s going to happen.
Dang. The ceiling moved.
The safety of the cozy nest was an illusion, and the big spacious world awaits out there. For some, this is where the journey ends. It’s just too daunting, and they’re not hungry enough. For others, it’s where the real practice – and the gains – start.
Emerging as one
Those who remain in the game continue to push beyond their own comfort zones. The road towards improvement is less clear from here. Building skill becomes intertwined with the ability to see our own shortcomings, and work on those specifically. You force yourself to work on your weak muscles, and it’s gruelling. It’s uncomfortable. And yet, you continue to get after it.
There will be some ups and downs along the way. Like, 1/ When your dance partner is so good that they can cover up all your flaws. Or 2/ When you bought new shoes that gave you mad blisters. Or 3/ You did a workshop that superpowered your double and triple spins.
Through consistent practice and feedback, you will one day find yourself within reach of mastery. Rather than it all feeling like an unwieldy, temperamental appendage, the practice of utilizing the skill and tools begins to feel… more integrated. Almost like a part of you. The details you struggled with in the beginning no longer claw for attention – you’ve de-clawed the details and they no longer distract you from acting more intuitively.
Our skills now have majority control over output, meaning you depend less on tools and more on our skill to achieve good results.
Sometimes you’ll perform with superior tools, and your output will be exceptional (1).
Other times you’ll perform with inferior tools, but your output will still be unusually high quality (2).
Occasionally you may even have a shitty performance, and you know what went wrong. Take note, and be on your way again. (3)
We’re at a weekly latin dance event. The night is still early, but the pack of dancing and perspiring human bodies in the venue has got the whole place steamed up and the floors are already sticky.
Sticky floors. When doing a spin on the spot, the sticky floor can really slow down your rotation. That is, until you learn where the power of spin truly comes from.
You may think it’s from your partner’s arm strength to whip you into rotation. You may think it’s from your feet and legs. But the true power of a spin comes from your core, and your shoulders. Use that, and you can spin even on asphalt.
Skill growth doesn’t end here; it has only just begun. Once you surpass 1% mastery, you will be in a highly coveted position. You now have room to calibrate your application of skill proportionate to the desired outcome and the available tools at hand. And, the further you develop this skill from here on, your ability to deliver grows alongside it.
Using your skill will be a game of “right place, right time”: knowing when to preserve energy versus explode into big showy moves.
To you, the road to mastery has been an emergent journey with no shortcuts, many stops, and lots of snacks.
To everyone else looking at you from the outside, what you do will seem like nothing short of teleportation.