Mastery

Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person.

-Albert Einstein

The other day, I was in an interesting conversation.  The individual was concerned because he had been in his current position for almost two years and hadn’t heard any talk of a promotion.  He was considering looking for a job elsewhere–somewhere that his skills and knowledge might be better appreciated.

This got me thinking about my own feelings on the matter.  They have changed.  Several years ago, I would have been loudly agreeing with this individual.  At that time, I believed if I was doing well, my success should be rewarded with regular pay increases and regular promotions.  Then something changed.  I ran into some job-related issues I wasn’t prepared to handle.  I had skills and I had knowledge, but I lacked experience and wisdom. I lacked mastery.

I now believe that job dissatisfaction can come from several different sources.  The most obvious are when you are in a job that doesn’t take advantages of your strengths, or you are working for someone who treats you badly.  A less obvious source can come when an individual achieves significant advancement in a short time.   The problem arises, because if someone is promoted too regularly, they may come to view promotions as entitlements.  Then, success can become more about advancement rather than the satisfaction of a job well done.

To the point: Many individuals want to be recognized by increasing titles and paychecks, and end up working toward those titles rather than taking the time or the effort to attain real mastery.  These individuals often mistake book-knowledge or formal education for mastery.  Please understand, there is obviously nothing wrong with reading or taking classes.  Both are critical to success.  But in a tight economy, or a competitive market, they are not enough.  The problem arises when that knowledge is not combined with action to create experience (remember I said that leaders are action-oriented).  What makes this harder to distinguish is that many people seem to be experiencing success.  Until, that is, they reach a level that requires experience more than knowledge.

Another commonly overlooked fact is that there is a significant difference between mastery of a profession and mastery of  a job or product.  Products and jobs can come and go  and if you are a master of a product or job that is no longer necessary to your organization, by extension are no longer necessary.  Professions don’t change as quickly.  If you can demonstrate real mastery of a profession you can become very valuable to your organization.  Therefore rather than worrying about your title, my advice is to focus on mastering a profession.

What does it take to become a master? According to  Dr. Benjamin Bloom of Northwestern University it can take between ten and seventeen years of focused practice.  While that may seem like a long time, it really isn’t.  To obtain mastery, you need to spend time “in the trenches”.  Don’t be afraid to do the dirty work.  These tasks help you understand what must be done, how things can be done, what obstacles exist, and what options or tools exist to help.  In short, getting your hands dirty helps hone the instincts and habits necessary to make the skills of your profession unconscious, and allow excellent results to be consistently demonstrated.  If you get to this level, the promotions and pay will naturally follow.

So, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work!

Call To Action:
  1. Consider your current situation.  Are you working toward mastery or are you working to earn a title?
  2. On paper, list the profession(s) you are interested in exploring.  Then, answer the following questions.  Research the answers if you don’t know them.
    1. What practices/skills must you master  as you move from neophyte to expert in this profession?
    2. What is the typical time it takes to move from entry to mastery?  What examples exist?
    3. What knowledge and or principles must you understand?
    4. Where can you learn the knowledge and principles?  What books exist? Are courses or degree programs available?
    5. Who are the recognized leaders, and how did they attain their level of mastery?
  3. Compare your list of answers to question number 2 against your strengths.  Does this look like something that you would be willing to do for the next ten to seventeen years?  If not, perhaps you need to keep looking.

Read to Lead:

I found a great deal of useful information for this post in “Who’s Running Your Career?  Creating Stable Work In Unstable Times“, by Caela Farren, Ph.D.  Unfortunately, it looks like neither Amazon nor Barnes and Noble are actively selling this book.  Fortunately, you may be able to find it new or used through one of Amazon’s partners.  Alternately, you may be able to find a copy at your local library.  In the book, Dr. Farren discusses how to analyze a profession or industry for longevity and how to better prepare yourself for a successful career.  Throughout the book she gives sound advice for individuals just starting their career journey, those in transition, and others who might be well along.  If you can find this book, I highly recommend it.

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