Some Pre-Quest Thoughts on Mastery

Back in May, several Quest city hosts (our Activators of Awesomeness) and the Quest co-founders got together to explore what ‘mastery’ means to us – generally and then in service of thrivable organisations.  This was in preparation for the Quest we ran on June 18.  From our exploration together – we came up with 3 juicy questions to explore during the Quest.

If you 'google' the definition of 'mastery' - here's what you get.

If you ‘google’ the definition of ‘mastery’ – here’s what you get.

 (RIGHT: We leaned towards the first definition of mastery, and a strong desire, unlike the second definition, to work with and emulate the best of nature, instead of to control or dominate it.

“The mastery of nature is vainly believed to be an adequate substitute for self mastery.” – Reinhold Niebuhr  (take that Google definitions))

We will cover our treasure -the insights and findings of our multiple cities- to our 3 juicy questions, in a separate blog.  For now – here are some of the ideas that we had together going in to our quest as hosts…

Mastery is in the Eye of the Beholder

There are many different meanings of ‘mastery’.  Traditionally, mastery was thought of as the ability to do something well repeatedly. This was particularly true in the industrial age. Even now, there is an idea that blue collar workers are interested in doing the job well, whereas white collar workers are interested in developing themselves.  The meaning of mastery seems to be changing towards doing something you love, that you want to explore, that you’re happy to fail at as you grow in mastery.  The old world and new world definitions coexist.

We noticed that mastery also means different things in different disciplines.  For example, in engineering, ‘mastery’ seems more about getting to the one right answer.  But in design, mastery is about the process, the exploration, of being not afraid to fail. (This was a designer speaking). This idea of mastery is closely related with the idea of mastery as a skillset which can enable people to do lots of new things with ease (this was an improviser speaking). That one form of mastery can be in the ability to approach new situations with ease and grace  - rather than mastery at a specific task.

What if all of these are true, and just part of the story of what mastery is?

Some Insights into the process of mastery

One beautiful ‘old world’ aspect that we’ve lost in many places is the master/apprentice relationship.  Organisational mentorships often don’t allow for as much care or space to develop skills to master level – so many of us feel like we are winging it.  This might be fine as one of us noted that ‘becoming better’ goes through the path of failure.  That mastery involves exploring what is possible, rather than what is the one “right” answer.  In some areas, we can become masterful only where we can feel fully alive.  This is also where we make the most contribution to life around us.  In other areas, we will never be masters, and being forced to contribute in these ways only sucks the life out of us.  With these areas, we need a lot of energy to be competent, and the competence does not bring us joy.

For areas we want to master, there is something about going through ever deepening circles of this four stages of competence model.   Mastery seems to involve moving from unconscious incompetence, to conscious incompetence, to conscious competence, to unconscious competence – and then seeing the focus of your mastery at a whole new level. 

Mastery requires that we cultivate the ‘beginner’s mind’, to constantly see it with fresh eyes what we do, and how we might refine it.

“Ah, mastery…what a profoundly satisfying feeling when one finally gets on top of a new set of skills…and then sees the light under the new door those skills can open, even as another door is closing.” -Gail Sheehy

Model from

Model from

The way we organise our organisations has a big influence on our ability to be a master.  It’s connected with the professional space that the craftsman is allowed to take, dares to take.  It also seems easier to find mastery in a small, entreprenuerial organisation than a large one – though large ones typically have the resources to support mastery (but often chose not to).

There is something life affirming about being masterful.  With mastery – we don’t feel like cogs in a wheel.  Mastery requires a certain level of freedom.  People need to be able to explore things they are curious about to see what sets them alight.

We feel alive and can often achieve what Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’ – the sweet spot between challenge and ability with mastery.  Mastery is the ability to tackle increasingly complex challenges with more complex set of skills.  As your abilities grow, you can up your challenge level – and upping your challenge level helps your ability to grow.

There is also something about using positive psychology to nurture mastery.  To celebrate steps along the path to mastery, including learning through both failure and success.  So how might we both strive for mastery and have a healthy attitude for short term failure along the path?

Mastery is also connected with our innate strengths. One insight was that if you’re not attached to what makes you thrive, you won’t get mastery.  Which is why movements like Now Find Your Strengths are so important for people.  It helps people to focus on elements of what they are already masterful in, and helps identify areas which, if they apply themselves, would enable them to contribute fully to life and their own thriving.

Mastery for us as individuals

“It took me a lifetime.” ― Pablo Picasso

Mastery, for one Activator, means: (1) I’m good at my job; (2) I’m always learning and improving, (3) I bring something of myself, like a master craftsman, (4) I “host myself” well – I reflect on my craft, my learning, I take responsibility….and I discover talents that are close to my talents – that’s exciting.

There is an invitation for craftsmanship to go into what we do.  Similar to the Artists Way.  And some useful questions:

How can we be the artist of our life and what we manifest? 

How can we design our life in a way that feels beautiful and well-crafted? 

And, as part of the expression of our mastery is part of a collective contribution…How can WE contribute with beauty, art and aliveness to what we do? 

Being masterful might carry some anxiety with it – an internal and external pressure to always be perfect.  Part of the path to mastery is to both strive for, and be able to let go of the idea of perfection, and to be very present and respond to things as they emerge in response to what you do.

Mastery in Thrivable Organisations

In the Quest for thrivability, we ask, ‘how might we connect what we do (our mastery) be in service of life on the planet?  Inside and outside of the organisation…

One thing we did notice – mastery in a living organisation must include evolution as the environment evolves.  And who among us isn’t feeling that pressure?

Tune in to our next blog – the booty of the Quest on Mastery…

Thank you to our co-founder Michelle Holliday for writing up the notes from the calls.

Note: Featured image is of Miyoko Shida Rigolo, from her stunning display of mastery here.