I’d like to explore a simple question:
Is change possible without the process that appears to be innate to transformation?
As human beings go, we seem to change slowly and with difficulty. Is there, then, a shortcut to becoming human? Or does hacking our way forward not actually take us forward?
True change doesn’t seem possible without the adverse undertaking of metamorphically altering the existence of something.
Which is actually just a conversation on the difference between success and mastery.
- Defining success and mastery through three metaphors.
- Showing the difference of these approaches as “the short game” and “the long game.”
- Deciding which direction you want to go is choosing which deal to make.
Metaphors to Define Success and Mastery — [Gardens, Candy, and Video Games]
My premise here is that missing (or intentionally avoiding) the difficult, daily, slog of transformation and change inevitably results in missing the outcomes of that process. I make that argument more fully here:
Transformation and the Process - Becoming Human
Why You Should Play the Long Game If there is one component of change that seems foreign to our culture more than any…
What I’d like to explore now, however, is that there is a particular disposition toward outcomes that may be enticing this avoidance of a transformational process. Essentially, if our goal an outcome of success, we will undertake the path of least resistance to arrive at said outcome. As a result, we are also likely to miss the transformative process that leads to mastery.
To illustrate, let’s consider the hypothetical metaphor of a garden.
You have a plot of land and you decide you want to grow some food on it. But, let’s say the plot of land is mostly clay soil; which is not very suitable for growing anything but weeds.
So, you go to the nearest mega-store, buy some conditioned topsoil in one of those plastic bags, throw it on top of your clay soil, and plop in some pre-grown transplants that the store had in the gardening section. Technically, this passes all the markers of getting what you want. You now have a garden.
But how well will that garden continue to grow, develop, and produce over time?
If your goal is success well, technically, you pass. You do have a garden (even if it is a sorry excuse for an ecosystem of food production). Mastery, in contrast, requires transformation of both the soil and the gardener.
Let’s shift metaphors.
You’re hungry and the lack of glucose getting to your brain tells you that a form of starchy, sugary food is best. Before you, there is a plate of vegetables (not from your clay-soil garden, of course) and a plate of candy.
One offers quick satisfaction and ease (with appealing packaging, as it happens) while the other plate, though not as satisfying in your glucose-craven state, will actually nourish your body with positive long-term effects and won’t give you a headache when you’re done.
If left to our own uncritical devices, which one are we likely to choose? Short-term satisfaction or long-term transformation?
Because the real depiction of what I think is happening when we avoid the process and choose short-term success over long-term mastery is comparable to using cheat codes in a video game.
Cheat codes are a way to manipulate the software and modify how the game plays, typically to your own advantage. Let’s say you get a new video game and you want to learn how to play it so you install some modifications and enter some cheats and, immediately, you are successful.
However, are you actually good at playing the game?
There is a glaring problem in choosing to embark on your gaming spree in this way. What happens when the cheat codes are no longer functional? Maybe the software blocks the cheats or you begin playing in a multiplayer format where the codes or mods won’t work. A change in context means your “successful” results won’t translate if they are dependent on the specific context in which your magic tricks are contained. Like someone who claims to be a great mathematician because they are really good at those timed math equation sheets, not because they understand the complexity of math, but because they know the template of the problems and have memorized the solutions. This is the critique within education that testing may not accurately measure intelligence.
When using cheat codes, you may be successful according to a particular metric of winning the game, but have you developed any real skill?
Probably not because cheat codes do not create long-term, sustained gains. They are not rooted in development, but immediate achievement. Cheat codes don’t take you through the process. It’s like buying a body-builder t-shirt and claiming you are physically fit.
What we see is that there is a difference between success and mastery.
Back to the garden — if you want an actual garden to grow, you have to literally change the nature of the soil; which is a long, slow, arduous process. If you don’t, you will come back to the same problems year after year and just keep dropping dough on an endless supply of topsoil and transplants.
You can have a successful garden in the short term without having mastered the art of gardening.
Yet, the ability to nurture a plant from seed, enrich the ecosystem of the soil, attentively care for plants by knowing what they need as situations change, saving the seeds after harvest, and winterizing the soil to plant those same seeds next year takes a depth of knowledge, skill, and intention honed and refined over time.
Success versus mastery.
Let’s define them, shall we?
Success is a standard that is extrinsically motivated; it is a way to achieve a particular status as opposed to a particular skill. It’s why youth activities are full of trophies and certificates and events to jump through various hoops so they can say they did it as opposed to actual training. Success is focused on outcomes.
Mastery is concerned, in contrast, with process. Mastery sees an activity through the lens of change with the goal being a fullness of being independent of achievement. Therefore, this pursuit willingly embraces the slow, difficult undertaking of actually being good at the game; of producing a healthy garden by enduring the benefits of the plate of vegetables as opposed to the gratification of candy.
Mastery intrinsically adheres to the long game even though it takes time.
The Short-Game Versus the Long-Game
Hopefully, we are beginning to see that cheating your way to desired results might be worse than enduring and building a life that will hold over time. The reason I say that is because whatever you skip for those immediate, easy results may not produce the eventual outcome you want.
Essentially, choosing successful metrics that do not involve the refining of your being may allow you to accomplish certain shallow goals, but you will have a framework that is less sustainable and, eventually, an outcome that is less desirable than if you would have begun with the intention of mastery.
The non-cheat gamer will eventually be more successful than the cheater because they are actually good at playing the game and have developed skills that can continue to adapt to a variety of circumstances. Interestingly enough, then, approaching the garden of life — or whatever component you are attempting to transform — with the long game of development and process in mind will also offer the byproduct of success.
What I am attempting to articulate is that the means to the outcome produce the outcome.
The means of preparing for and running the marathon brings a totality of effects that are only possible by training and running the marathon.
Success is the wearing of a medal at the end of a race; which could result from taking a shortcut through the business plaza, sitting on a bench until you see the other runners, and then slyly weaving across the finish line after only having run a couple of miles.
Mastery comes from the literal altering of your mind and body that allows someone to accomplish such a monumental feat.
Essentially, success cannot be pursued, it can only ensue from the process of mastery.
Pursuing success probably won’t bring much success outside of short-term satisfaction and achievement. Mastery continues to sustain richer and richer development over time in which success will naturally follow.
This is why much of classical philosophy regarded wisdom as different from knowledge. Wisdom involves the entirety of your existence, and is something resulting from the difficult adventure of transforming the entire fabric of your symbiotic being.
What does it mean to have mastery over your physical health? Is it completing a program and getting a certificate or just taking a pill of dehydrated ingredients blended together and put in a convenient capsule?
What does it mean to have mastery in education and learning; to have true wisdom? Is it being able to just Google some bit of information or pass a test? This is actually a heightened conversation in education circles — that our educational system in America is built on success, not mastery. As long as you can jump through the hoops, receive letters behind your name, and produce particular outcomes based on systemic expectations, you are successful.
I find this reality regularly coming into focus in a particular sphere in which I am involved: the world of sports. I coach at my local high school and, consistently, the disposition of most players is one of success; what do they need to do to have the feeling of playing under the lights and in front of the crowd and, hopefully, winning all of their games and enjoying the romanticized post-game celebrations?
Playing appears to be extrinsically motivated in these cases. It is about achieving outcomes, not developing skills or disciplining the body and mind in a particular way. The sport is a hoop to jump through to get something else they want.
I have developed a posture — and I’m not saying this is a right or wrong coaching technique — where I adamantly express that I do not care about the outcome. I care about mastery. Because, honestly, when mastery is pursued — though it is overwhelmingly difficult and slow — success appears to be a natural byproduct.
Be so good at what you do that the outcomes and successes naturally unfold.
Be so intrinsically motivated that in pursuing the long game, short-term satisfaction occurs by proxy.
In choosing success, you may not ever achieve it.
In choosing mastery, you will end up achieving both.
In buying top-soil or using cheat codes, you will never actually realize a sustained garden and you won’t be any good at the game.
In doing the hard, diligent work of altering the soil, and developing masterful skills, you will never have to buy top-soil again and, of course, you might end up enjoying the process of learning to play the game.
This is what I mean when I talk about the short-game versus the long-game.
How often do we look for the quick, easy, comfortable, convenient, simple, unobtrusive sense of success that gives us what we desire without costing us anything but a few more dollars (plus tax) even though it will ultimately fail to deliver in the long run?
The easy way out will fail us.
The short-game will leave us wanting.
How many stories have existed through the ages where some character gets access to some hack or shortcut and seems to be ahead until the item or idea can’t sustain and everything falls apart because it is so fragile? While, in the meantime, some other character who seemed destined to lose actually ends up in a better situation because they developed a way of being that was prepared for any circumstance?
The tortoise and the hare trope actually has a semblance of truth, it seems.
Yet, we often live according to the former description. And I think it is because the long-game may cost us more than we are willing to give.
You Have to Make a Deal
The dangerous seduction of the short-game is that it offers a semblance of success and accomplishment by making a deal.
You have limited time and energy. Resources, like money, are abstract and can appear to exist in the infinite. We also don’t like difficulty; we naturally resist it. The deal of the short-game is that you give up some resources and some satisfaction for ease.
You can change your eating habits with some pill or trendy diet that allows you to eat everything you want without the side effects — but it might not deal with the real problems that have made you consider the change in the first place (not to mention, you’ll have to keep buying the product).
Or, as an alternative course of action, you could rewire your physiology. While this is difficult and daunting, it will eventually create an actual solution that will trade your cravings for new habits.
You have to decide which costs you are willing to take on and which costs you want to avoid.
You have to decide which deal you are willing to make.
Mastery costs you time and energy and immense difficulty but gives you sustained satisfaction and actual outcomes.
Success and the short-game costs you resources (most of the time) and requires you to make a deal in trading long-term change and development for short-term ease.
The predicament we face in this conversation of success and short-games versus the mastery of the long-game is that short-term solutions will bring short-term satisfaction while long-term solutions may not give short-term satisfaction, but will create a foundation on which a changed life can stand.
Which is more important to you?
Maybe we could say that there really isn’t a short game, there is only an intentional or unintentional long game. You can responsibly choose a trajectory over time or irresponsibly choose to never really move anywhere. Covering your clay soil with expensive bags of transplanted earth is just a long game of having a dreadful excuse of a garden because you made a deal that won’t cost you your myopic desires of ease.
I encourage you, therefore, to embrace the process.
The soil of our lives will only grow the outcomes we desire if we do the hard, disciplined work of actually changing it. Changing the soil from clay to a nutrient-rich ecosystem is going to take years. If you’re starting that garden, you probably won’t even plant anything in the first year. As stated, the long-game will cost you short-term satisfaction.
You have to start with a bunch of compost. Then you plant cover crops and work the soil so that beneficial microbes and bacteria and insects call it home. Then you give them time to do their work.
And while you will be behind the person who just bought topsoil from the store and enjoyed one brief season of pithy transplants, eventually your garden will be such a natural extension of the land that you won’t have to do nearly as much as your topsoil counterpart.
In your mastery, success ensues.
But it takes the long game.
It takes time and discipline and discomfort.
It takes giving up on short-term “success.”
Because you are after mastery.
And when mastery is pursued and the process is endured, both satisfaction and health will follow.
Beware of anything promising to solve a problem without the process. Beware of cheat codes. And embrace the good work of the garden. Embrace all that comes with the monumental task of the marathon.
Remember, if it’s easy, it probably isn’t worth doing.
If it is going to take you years of becoming, bit by bit, with much difficulty, then it is probably the right choice.
The journey is the joy and the long-game is the only game.
Transformation awaits those willing to embark on the adventure of mastery.
Enjoy the process.