The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Your Craft
When it comes to masters of their craft, we see the result. We rarely see what went into getting there. However, when we start to dig deeper, we see that mastery results from a combination of factors: purpose, practice, performance, recovery, and of course years on end, possibly a lifetime. Becoming a master of your craft is a decision that the juice is worth the squeeze. So if you’ve decided that it is, keep reading.
When Dan Pink studied what drives people to do what they do, he discovered purpose, autonomy, and mastery were the three driving forces. Purpose and mastery are birds of a feather. You can’t have one without the other. So let’s dissect purpose.
One of the most ludicrous ideas that society drills into our heads is that we should know what we want to do with our lives when we’re 18 years old. It’s the rare 18-year old that is self-aware enough, and experienced enough to make an informed decision about what their purpose is.
There are times when I think to myself, “If I knew what I know now, I would have started working on becoming a writer in college.” But there’s no way I could know what I do today without experience. Experience is what allows you to collect data and purpose often tends to be revealed through those data points. As Tina Seelig once said to me on the Unmistakable Creative, “passion follows engagement.”
How do you look back at the proudest moments of your past and say, “in this proudest moment, what were you doing, and who were the people that were benefiting from the work that you were doing, and what was the impact on their lives? Once you have those two ingredients, you can very simply flip that around into a simple purpose statement or question in which you ask “how might create more of this impact for these people. — Joe Brown
When I looked back at my life, I realized there was a common pattern to the times when I was most engaged. I was using technology or the internet to create something. But I couldn’t draw a straight line from that to what I do today. In fact, this video below is one of my earliest efforts to create something. It doesn’t exactly scream “published author in the making.”
People become experts on a particular subject by accumulating and connecting enough dots related to them, in the form of experiences, knowledge, and best practices. Our brains are naturally programmed to cluster related dots. — Chris Bailey, Hyperfocus
Don’t find your passion. Instead, make a note of what engages you and do more of it. Keep collecting data points. You can only connect the dots by looking backward. But you can only collect those dots by looking forward. As the dots begin to connect, the purpose will gradually reveal itself.
When a sense of purpose drives us, we’re more likely to persist in the face of challenge, our motivation will be much stronger, and we’ll derive far more satisfaction from our work. A sense of purpose amplifies grit, ambition, focus and virtually every other characteristic that is needed to achieve mastery. Given that the pursuit of mastery will mean a lack external rewards, possibly for a very long time, we have to be driven by something deeper.
A person could have all of the natural talents in the world, but without practice, that talent will never enable them to achieve mastery. In fact, many soon to be masters of their craft don’t appear to have very much natural ability on the surface. In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin tells the story of two young corporate employees who are fresh out of college.
Their assignment is to help sell Duncan Hines brownie mix, but they spend a lot of their time just rewriting memos according to strict company rules. They are clearly smart: one has graduated from Harvard, the other from Dartmouth. But that doesn’t distinguish them from a slew of other new hires at P&G. What does distinguish them from many of the young go-getters the company takes on each year is that neither man is particularly filled with ambition. Every afternoon they play waste-bin basketball with wadded up memos.”
These two slackers turned out to be Steve Balmer and Jeffrey Immelt, who later became CEO of two of the most valuable companies in the world.
The power of practice became apparent to me both as a musician and a surfer. I didn’t have a natural aptitude for either. Thanks to practice, I made all-state band three times in a row and learned to surf at the age of 30.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea of 10,000 hours of practice. And if you’re like most people, you might have thought to yourself “why the hell didn’t my parents force me to spend 10,000 hours practicing insert skill of your choice.” But there is far more to practice than putting in 10,000 hours. You could show up to the driving range every day until you’ve hit golf balls for 10,000 hours. Tiger Woods will probably still kick your ass in a game of golf. That’s because the way you practice matters just as much as how much you practice. And that’s where deliberate practices comes in.
The act of doing something repeatedly until you hit the 10,000-hour mark is not deliberate practice. As Anders Ericsson writes in his book Peak: The New Science of Expertise
The hallmark of deliberate practice is that you try to do something that you cannot do — that takes you out of your comfort zone- and that you practice over and over again, focusing on exactly how you are doing it, where you are falling short, and how you can get better.
In the process of writing my books, I’ve applied many of the principles of deliberate practice.
- Modeling a top performer: When I interviewed Julien Smith, he had one of the most popular blogs on the internet, and he was a best selling author. He was the one who turned me on to the habit of writing 1000 words a day.
- Working with a Coach: I’ve worked closely with a writing coach on my last two books. She gives me daily feedback, points out mistakes I’ve made and calls me out when I do something lazy. If I’m truly stuck, we have a phone call and talk things through.
- Apply What I’ve Learned: After getting feedback or comments from my writing coach, I will apply whatever I’ve learned to the next writing session.
Deliberate practice is hard, requires focus, and requires you to push outside of your comfort zone. Just reading this article isn’t going to be enough to apply the principles of deliberate practice to your life. I found writing about it to be a challenge because it’s a rabbit hole that goes deep.You will have to experiment with what works for you. But I’d recommend starting with this conversation I had with Anders Ericsson and reading his book.
Anytime we do something consistently we start to experience a process called Myelination. Your muscle memory becomes sharper, you experience more creative breakthroughs, and your progress starts to accelerate. Doing something consistently quite literally rewires your brain.
Regular training leads to changes in the parts of the brain that are challenged by the training. The brain adapts to these challenges by rewiring itself in ways that increase its ability to carry out the functions required by the challenges. — Anders Ericsson
When I’ve surfed or snowboarded multiple days in a row, my skill level improves dramatically. I make waves I would generally miss, and fly down the mountain at speeds which would typically make me fall. It’s not a coincidence that the best athletes train multiple times a week, the best musicians rehearse multiple times a week, and masters of their craft in every field have made what they do a habit. They understand the profound power of consistency.
Process Orientation and Visible Progress
The process is in our control, and when we focus on what we control, it becomes much easier to define our goal clearly. With clearly defined goals, we increase flow. And with flow, we get peak performance and creative breakthroughs.
1000 words a day is one of my most clearly defined goals and results in 90% of my creative output. I realized while reviewing Steven Kotler’s book that what makes this goal so clear is that there’s a number attached to it. I either accomplish the goal, or I don’t. And it can be applied to anything:
- Call 20 potential prospects
- Read 75 Pages
- Exercise for 40 minutes
There’s no questioning whether you accomplish these goals. You either hit the number, or you didn’t. The simple act of putting a number in front of the goal amplifies its clarity. And my habit of writing 1000 words a day sparks ideas for books. It enables me to reflect on books I’ve read, conversations I’ve had with friends, and interviews I’ve done for the Unmistakable Creative. And it allows me to experience visible progress.
Visible progress is one of our greatest sources of motivation.
Whether it’s a calendar where you haven’t broken the chain, a blank page that gets filled, or a total word count, I see the progress before your eyes. As a result, I’m motivated to keep coming back. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of habit, progress, flow, momentum, and motivation. It turns creative expression from an item on a to-do list to a daily habit, from an obligation to a privilege. I don’t write because I have to. I write because it literally changes my mood, and I’d probably lose my mind if I didn’t.
Writing articles gives authors an opportunity to practice for their books.
Ryan Holiday is a perfect example of this. Despite having published six books, he still writes for media outlets. It’s not because he needs the money. It’s because every one of those articles is an opportunity to practice his craft. As a result, every book he writes is better than the one before.
When Michael Jordan showed up for his first day of practice at Chicago Bulls, he treated it as if he was playing in game 7 of the NBA finals. And that level of intensity continued throughout his career. Despite pissing off many of his teammates, he carried the Bulls to many championships.
Practice leads to proficiency and determines performance.
We practice in order to perform.
- We practice an instrument to play in front of an audience.
- An athlete practices his sport to play in a game
- An actor rehearses to film a movie
- A writer writes every day to publish a book
Performance is where your level of mastery gets tested and measured:
- A company measures its revenue
- An athlete measures the number of shots he scored, touchdowns he threw for, tackles he blocked, and ultimately the score of the game.
- An actor measures the box office sales of a movie
However, the paradox of performance is that we must measure it to improve, but we can’t become attached to the results. We take what we learn from it and apply it to our practice.
- When I publish an interview for the Unmistakable Creative, I have no idea how somebody will respond to it. But I do go back and listen to it, make a note of what I would do differently and apply that lesson the next time around.
- When I write a new article, I’ll read through it again. The content I think I missed often becomes the subject of my next article.
- Sports teams review their game film. And what they learn gets incorporated into practice in the upcoming week.
Performance improves when we’re willing to be our own critic, set aside our egos, and admit that there are aspects of our work that could be better. There’s no level of performance at which a master sees his work and says “my work is done here.”
Becoming an Apprentice
There was a time when the only way to learn a new skill was to become an apprentice for the person who had already mastered that skill. The aspiring shoemaker would have to apprentice for the cobbler; the aspiring metal welder would have to apprentice for the blacksmith. Today this isn’t as common, but it is necessary for mastery. It’s not impossible but rare that you can become a master of any craft without learning from someone who has gone before you.
- World-class athletes have coaches
- World class musicians have private instructors
Studying with somebody who is a master will save you years of trial and error. It will also ensure that your practice is improving your performance because we are often blind to our weaknesses and tendencies.
Everybody wants a mentor these days because they recognize the value they will get from it. But what they often fail to look for is the value they will bring to the situation. More often than not, somebody will take an interest in you because you have something of value to offer them.
- Ryan Holiday didn’t end up as Robert Greene’s apprentice because he was some ambitious college dropout full of piss and vinegar. Ryan understood how the internet worked. And Robert needed to know how the internet worked for his next book to be a success.
- When Charlie Hoehn wanted to work some of the most influential people on the internet, he didn’t beg for their time. Instead, he came to them with the offer to do video editing work for them, along with suggestions, and possibly even samples of what he could do.
- One of my most important mentors came to me for advice before he started working with me. He wanted advice on how to publish a book, and since I had self-published a book, and been a prolific writer, I was able to offer something.
If you can bring something to the table, you’ll be better off.
Mastery requires intense focus. And aspiring masters today face a challenge that previous generations didn’t. They live in a world filled with endless sources of distraction.
Dopamine driven feedback loops can keep them checking how people responded to their latest status update, or what fans have said about them on twitter. But this does nothing for mastery. Feedback of almost any kind, whether that’s a like on Facebook, a book review on Amazon, or a troll on twitter is a distraction from the thing that will make you a master, the work.
The damage that distraction does goes far beyond decreases in productivity. It inhibits visible progress. Without visible progress, we have no motivation. It fuels a toxic cycle that makes mastery impossible.
Once you learn to become genuinely present and avoid distraction, you’ll tap into an altered state of consciousness far more magnificent than motivation.
Entering a flow state is like pouring rocket fuel on the fire of mastery. It puts an aspiring master in a state of pure bliss. The work becomes its own reward, and unlike short-term rewards you get from social media, it leads to more meaningful results in your life. So why exactly does this happen?
In a state of flow, the brain gets flooded with chemicals that make us feel good. We become happier. Thanks to Shawn Achor’s work in the happiness advantage we know that happiness is a precursor to high performance.
In his research, Steven Kotler discovered that top executives in flow are 500% more productive. That’s insane. Just imagine what your days would be like if you got a 500% boost in productivity. You would get massive increases in levels of performance, and creative output from as little as one focused hour a day.
While you might think this is about creating external results, the greater value is what happens internally. Flow causes the pursuit of mastery to go from being a painful struggle to being so rewarding that we can’t live without it. Nobody has to hold a gun to my head to make me write. I can assure you that I get far more out of writing this than you do from reading it.
What flow does is create a perpetual cycle of happiness, progress, motivation and momentum that keeps writers writing books, artists making art, and entrepreneurs starting companies. We are hardwired to spend our lives doing something of meaning, significance, and value.
Now that we have addressed why let’s talk about how. Steven refers to these things as flow triggers or on-ramps to flow. And in my experience, you don’t need all the triggers. Over the last few weeks as a part of the research for this article, I decided to conduct an experiment, in which I would test various flow triggers.
Meditation: Gay Hendricks sold me on the virtues of a meditation habit after telling me that it helped him selling companies.
I didn’t miss a day very often, but there were still some days when I wasn’t following through. In an interview with Chase Jarvis, Steven mentioned that box breathing had helped people who couldn’t sit still meditate for 10 minutes without any struggle. As a person who needs to get shit done with ADHD, I decided to give it a try. That morning, a bunch of things happened.
- I didn’t cave into a source of distraction for almost three hours.
- I wrote 1250 words, some of which you’re reading right now.
- I recorded two of my best interviews I’ve ever done for Unmistakable Creative.
And if that wasn’t enough, everything on my list for the day got done.
Box breathing is crazy and straightforward in terms of its effectiveness. All you do is imagine drawing a box around your chest. Each breath you take in draws a line of the box. Each breath you release draws a line of the box. 4 counts in and four counts out. No matter how hard I tried to think about something else, I couldn’t. And 10 minutes went by rapidly. At the time of this writing, I was on my 7th day in a row of box breathing meditation.
90 Minutes with No Interruptions: I put my phone out of the room, on do not disturb mode. This was essential. Without this, all the benefits of the mediation would be undone. I read a book for 40 minutes, and then I filled something almost six pages in a Moleskine in a matter of an hour. When I opened up my computer, the outline for this article started emerging.
Zero Multitasking: Finally I committed to avoiding multitasking throughout the day. There are two simple ways to do this. I used distraction-free writing tools, and I worked in full-screen mode to resist multitasking.
The Craft vs. The Prize
When you focus on the craft instead of the prize, the likelihood of success by external measures significantly increases. But there’s nothing glamorous about this. It requires labor, persistence, and discipline.
- It’s much easier to mildly entertain yourself by scrolling through your newsfeed, while you dream about the prize, and at the same time avoid working on your craft.
- It’s easier to look at the most popular pieces on Medium rather than attempting to write one yourself
- It’s easier to read about the latest startup that got funded on TechCrunch that is to build a product that people can’t live without
With the focus on your craft, you start to bridge what Ira Glass calls the taste gap. You’re able to produce a much higher quality of work, the kind of work that will be much more resonant, impactful, and you’ll be proud to put your signature on.
Of course, this is not to be mistaken with the attitude of “if you build it they will come.” The difference is this. If you build it well, they’re much more likely to stick around. An artist is better off with thousands of fans who stick around for life than millions who pay attention for a brief moment in time. Or to put it more concisely in the words of Sam Altman “you’re better off building something a small number of people Love, then something a massive number of people like.
Your greatest work emerges from your deepest and most intense levels of focus. And in a world where this ability is being gradually damaged and destroyed, those who develop and maintain this capacity will have a substantial competitive edge over others who aspire to master their craft.
In the year his book was being published, Cal Newport, not only finished a manuscript, he received tenure at Georgetown, published in several peer-reviewed journals, and maintained an active blog. That’s the power of deep work.
As Trevor Noah brilliantly put in his book:
Hustling is to work what surfing the internet is to reading. If you add up how much you read in a year on the Internet- tweets, Facebook posts, lists, you’ve read the equivalent of a shit ton of books, but in fact you’ve read no books in a year.
For most people, the prize is more appealing than the craft. After all, nobody gives a shit about seeing a picture of you sitting in your room, drinking coffee, battling resistance, self-doubt and all the other demons that show up in creative work.
- It’s easier to do all sorts of ancillary things that surround the work.
- It’s the podcaster who obsesses over the quality of the sound instead of the content of the episode. It’s the author who obsesses over their FB fan page instead of the book they’re writing. These things might be necessary. But when you consider the effort to value ratio of such activities, they become far less critical.
- If you’ve been watching my friend Amber Rae’s book launch unfold, you’ve been witnessing what seems like a remarkable life that you envy. But what you never saw was the countless hours, revisions, rewrites, shitty first drafts that inevitably precede the prize that an audience gets to see.
Every time I start a new book project, my first thought is “we’re going to write a 50,000-word book? How? I can’t even write a sentence that doesn’t make me want to throw my laptop against the wall.”
So I start with shitty first sentences, followed by shitty first drafts, followed eventually by a paragraph I read to myself and think “well that doesn’t sound terrible. I can use that.”
When it comes any creative endeavor that leaves a mark on the world, more time has to be spent on the craft than the prize, on the process rather than the product.
Masters are those who by nature have suffered to get to where they are. They have experienced endless criticisms of their work, doubts about their progress, setbacks along the way. — Robert Greene, Mastery
The path to mastery is not a walk in the park on a sunny day. There will be moments that test your conviction, moments that challenge your faith and make you want to quit. Every person who has achieved anything of great significance has done so in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and unfavorable odds.
Cai Go Qiang is a pyrotechnics artist who had a dream to use fireworks to literally build a ladder in the sky so he could connect earth to the rest of the universe. In his mind, this was the artistic equivalent of connecting with God.
Each attempt to build the Sklyadder took months of planning and likely hundreds of thousands of dollars. He failed multiple times. For a dream as nutty as putting a ladder in the sky made of fireworks, he was willing to lose tons of money and years of his time.
Over the course of his life, he’s been responsible for some of the most spectacular fireworks displays in history. He’s pushed edges and redefined the limits of what you can do with pyrotechnics. If you watch just one of his pieces of work, you’ll probably draw the conclusion that I have. Cia Go Qiang is the Picasso of pyrotechnics.
And after more than 20 years, he finally managed to build a ladder in the Sky.
He could have easily quit after the first attempt. But instead, he learned what he could from the failure and made a second attempt, and a third. By building on the lessons from his previous efforts he made the impossible possible.
At some point on the path to mastery, you will be in a rough patch. You will want to quit. It’s a moment that Seth Godin refers to as the Dip:
- Revenue is down
- A client bailed
- The audience hated your latest piece of work
- Nobody bought what you attempted to sell
This is when your desire to quit will be strongest. But as Seth so brilliantly said in his book “quitting while you’re in the dip wastes all the time you’ve invested before it.”
- If Tim Ferriss quit after he got rejected by the 10th publisher, there would be no Four Hour Workweek. 27 publishers rejected the book.
- Some of the most successful startups got rejected by over 100 investors before they got funded.
- Sarah Blakely was rejected by dozens of potential manufacturers to get her first batch of Spanx made.
There’s a difference between persistence and delusion. But mastery requires dealing with failure. It means missing game-winning shots, throwing interceptions, playing wrong notes, writing shit that nobody wants to read, recording albums that don’t sell a million copies, and making movies that suck. It’s merely part of the process of becoming world class at anything you do.
If you’re interested in becoming a more resilient person, and cultivating your ability to bounce back from failure, be sure download our Unmistakable Guide to Resilience. In it you’ll learn how to see rejection and failure as feedback and precursors to success rather than personal failings.
Brilliant creative ideas and massive breakthroughs are almost never the result of sleep-deprived 120 hour work weeks. A more likely outcome of that scenario is that you will have a meltdown. As a society, we tend to underestimate the value of rest because there are no bragging rights that come with sleeping for 12 hours a night.
For the longest time, I believed that masters of their craft don’t take days off. To me that meant, I should never miss a writing day. But it was this nugget from James Clear that convinced me it was no big deal if I missed a day here and there:
“Missing a single day has no measurable impact on whether or not you maintain a habit long-term “
Rest is essential to becoming a master of your craft. Performing at the level of mastery requires doing something without errors. That’s going to be hard to do if you can’t stay awake.
My senior year in high school, I was studying for what would be the final grades my potential colleges would see before I was accepted. So I was pulling some late nights. I was also taking music lessons because I was applying to Northwestern as a music major.
Once a week I would make a 30–45 minute drive from Riverside to Cal Poly Pomona where my teacher was a professor. One of those weeks I showed up for my lesson after having stayed up all night. He told me to warm up and play some scales. He went to run a quick errand and by the time he came back I hadn’t played a single note. He said, “you’re not playing Tuba today, go home.”
On the way home I fell asleep on a freeway onramp with my car in park. A cop woke me up. And after a brief chat, he said “Son I suggest you find a place to crash, and I don’t mean your car.
What’s the point of all this? Sleep deprivation is a self-imposed handicap that stands staunchly in the way of your ability to master anything.
20 years later, I understand this even more. After a night of poor sleep or heavy drinking, my writing suffers. I find it difficult to focus, I make tons of mistakes, and my mood tends to be much worse.
Research shows that rest serves many useful functions that go far beyond making us less tired. In his book Rest, Alex Pang says the following:
You need time for rest because that’s when the unconscious mind can get to work. You can’t command inspiration to appear, but you can judge it, most notably by working steadily and regularly. The romantic notion of the artist who does nothing until he’s inspired and then produces in a furious burst of work is misleading.
With anything you want to master, there is a point of diminishing returns, a point where the same effort yields a lower quantity and quality of output. A lack of rest causes you to reach that point much faster.
Most people want to master their craft for the sake of some external result:
- Sell your startup
- Become a best selling author
- Get showered with attention
But in doing so, they overlook one of most significant benefits to getting good at something: how much it changes you as a person. Getting great at anything creates a cycle of progress, motivation, habit, confidence and more momentum until you start to dance on the edges of mastery. The value of becoming so good they can’t ignore you lies in the gift you can give to the world, not in what you can get from it.
There’s a certain point at which everything you’re doing starts to connect. You begin to see how art truly is mixing the different ways in which your creative efforts get expressed. Often they seem utterly pointless and appear to have no purpose. But we overlook the fact every creative act plants a seed for something that might come full a circle a week from now, a year from now or 10 years from now.
Neil Gaiman once said creative work is like putting messages in bottles. Some will reach the people they’re intended to reach. Others will get lost at sea. And the work is ultimately to keep putting messages in bottles.
Creative careers are not just the domain of artists. A creative career is one that you deliberately design, looking for opportunities to express whatever it is you’re needing to, and pay attention to what you find most engaging.
When you find the work you do engaging, it starts to take on a very different feel. It makes time go by faster. And it contains the potential for you to become world class at what you do.
Even the smallest expressions of your creativity add up over time ultimately leading to a body of work. And today we live in an era when there truly are no limitations to what you can do.
Download the Unmistakable Guide to Resilience
If you’re interested in becoming a more resilient person, and cultivating your ability to bounce back from failure, be sure download our Unmistakable Guide to Resilience. In it you’ll learn how to see rejection and failure as feedback and precursors to success rather than personal failings.
This post was originally published at Unmistakablecreative.com