THE CHEF LAUGHED WHEN I STARTED CRYING. “Daijoubu desu ka?” (Are you ok?) he asked. “I’m ok, it’s spicy, but I like it,” I said in basic Japanese, and he laughed harder after I said it. His laughter stood out in this small sushi restaurant near Tokyo’s financial district, and both staff and customers turned to see the gaikokujin (foreigner) tearing up with the wasabi. I still had five more tuna nigiri pieces on my plate. There was more crying to come.
We never hear someone say, “I sort of fell into the Olympics,” or “I dabbled in tennis and managed to win the US Open.”
Those words aren’t uttered because those types of wins never happen. Mastery shines only upon those willing to make sacrifices—it’s not for the half-committed or impatient. At the same time, there’s nothing mystical about it. All masters start from the same point: commitment.
Like us, even the most legendary masters were once beginners. And like them, we too can commit to the path of mastery by adopting their attitude, efficiency, and relentless work ethic.
If you want to commit to the path of mastery, here’s what it looks like to take your first step.
Ask any of the most accomplished athletes, musicians, and artists in the world, and they’ll almost certainly say that they hit bumps in the road on the way to greatness.
Maybe it was an injury, bad review, or lost championship, but whatever the challenge, everyone who has pursued a craft has had to deal with difficulties and discouragement at some point. Encountering challenges—and overcoming them—is part of the journey toward mastery.
We can’t avoid challenges entirely, including setbacks, impatience, and plateaus. We can, however, prepare for when they come. Here’s how.
Criticism is hard to accept—a truth Leonardo da Vinci understood well when he wrote, “Often, while finding fault with the minor errors of others, you will ignore your own great ones.”
But if we all share this common blind spot when it comes to our own performance, how can we identify the faults in our skills and improve on them?
Whether you’re playing the guitar, giving a speech, or skiing down a mountain, it’s through feedback that you find out what you are doing right, what you are doing wrong, and what needs fine-tuning.
To continually improve your skills, you need to gather feedback at every step of the learning process, from study to practice to performance. However, while feedback is the ultimate improvement tool, not all feedback is created equally.
What makes good feedback?
Not long ago, basketball star LeBron James made the news for a skill that seemed unrelated to basketball: memory.
During a post-game news conference in 2018, James broke down several plays in incredible detail: “The first possession we ran them down all the way to two on the shot clock. Marcus Morris missed the jumpshot, fouled it up, they got a dunk. We came back down, we ran a set for Jordan Clarkson, and he came off and missed it.”
He continued to describe the entire sequence of events, from who did what and when they did it. His memory was so accurate it amazed reporters and made some speculate he had a “photographic” memory.
Yet, as impressive as it seems, LeBron’s memory for the game, though difficult to develop, is not uncommon for elite performers across fields. Top dancers remember complex sequences after seeing them once, skilled musicians can play chord progressions after one listen, and chess masters can play multiple games at a time in their mind.
To understand how this elite memory works, let’s take a look at what’s happening in these performers’ minds that allows them to remember so much about their craft.
Think of a magic illusion. A magician vanishes a card and makes it reappear in an impossible location. As spectators, we see the effect and are amazed by it. What we don’t see is the method behind it. If we could learn the mechanics that made the illusion possible, we would realize that the magician’s “powers” are also within our reach.
Just like with magic illusions, our unawareness of what happens behind great performances of the people we admire makes us think their results are beyond our capabilities. But there is a process behind every impressive feat—in sports, arts, or any other field. A process that we could follow too.
We are obsessed with the idea of the genius, the talented, and the genetically gifted. We think that great achievers got to their level because of their physical traits or innate abilities and that we could never do the same because we don’t have what they have.
It becomes an excuse not to pursue a craft. We think, “why bother if I don’t have what it takes?” Or even worse, “maybe I should get into something I’m better suited for.”
We overestimate the part that talent and natural abilities play in learning and mastering skills. In most cases, those advantages only account for an edge and not the bulk of elite performance—and only matter in specific fields.
Sometimes, practice sessions fall flat. Picture a violin player slouching through rehearsal, struggling to remember the notes and summoning the minimum amount of energy necessary to get through it. At the end, the violinist walks out of the room no more skilled at playing than when they entered.
What separates the productive practice sessions from the busts? How can you, regardless of what skill you’re trying to improve, make sure practice doesn’t wind up a waste of time?
Usually, to learn how to cook a delicious soufflé, you’d pick up a French cookbook. To learn how to play guitar, you might watch a video on YouTube. To learn how to speak Mandarin, maybe you’d take a class. What you don’t do is spend time learning how to learn in the first place — and that’s a mistake.