The Book in Three Sentences

The most successful path to mastering anything is to practice for the sake of the practice itself, not for the result. All significant learning is composed of brief spurts of progress followed by long periods of work where if feels as if you are stuck on a plateau. There are no experts–only learners.

Mastery by George Leonard summary

This is my book summary of Mastery by George Leonard. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary includes key lessons and important passages from the book.

  • Definition of mastery: the mysterious process during which what is at first difficult becomes progressively easier and more pleasurable through practice.
  • If there is any sure route to success and fulfillment in life, it is to be found in the long-term, essentially goalless process of mastery.
  • Start with something simple.
  • All significant learning is composed of brief spurts of progress followed by long periods of work where if feels as if you’re going nowhere.
  • The seven varieties of intelligence: linguistic, musical, logical/mathematical, spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, intrapersonal, interpersonal.
  • The one physical feat where humans would outperform nearly all other animals of equal (or even larger) size is endurance running.
  • On the path to improvement: the general progression is always the same. To take the master’s journey, you have to practice diligently, striving to hone your skills, to attain new levels of competence. But while doing so, you also have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even hen you seem to be getting nowhere.
  • As we practice things, even though it feels like we are making no progress at all, we are turning new behaviors into habits. Learning is happening all along.
  • The most successful path to mastery is to practice for the sake of the practice itself. Not for the result.
  • On mastery in relationships: In today’s world two partners are rarely willing to live indefinitely on an unchanging plateau. When your tennis partner starts improving his or her game and you don’t, the game eventually breaks up. The same thing applies to relationships.
  • Every time we spend money, we make an indication about what we value.
  • The anti-mastery mentality is focused on quick fixes. Heart surgery rather than diet and exercise. Lottery tickets rather than retirement savings.
  • In business, some people can make a lot of money in a short amount of time (corporate raiders, finance whiz kids, tech startups), but often there is very little value created for others or the national economy. The individual gets rich, but the world doesn’t get much better. Is this really a better path than the one of the craftsman? Someone who slowly and methodically improves, contributes something useful and valuable to society, and makes enough money in the process (despite not getting rich)?
  • In the long run, the war against mastery, the path to patient, dedicated effort without attachment to immediate results, is a war that can’t be won.
  • On human nature: Man is a learning animal, and the essence of the species is encoded in that simple term. The mastery of skills that are not genetically programmed is the most characteristically human of all activities.
  • The five keys to mastery: Instruction, Practice, Surrender, Intentionality, and The Edge.
  • On learning: For mastering most skills, there’s nothing better than being in the hands of a master teacher.
  • On finding a good teacher: To see the teacher clearly, look at his students.
  • The best teachers strive to point out what a student is doing right just as frequently as what they are doing wrong. The idea of a teacher rarely giving praise and teaching through strict criticism is a myth.
  • One benefit of learning slowly: it forces you to look deeply at the process and you discover incremental steps that you might otherwise gloss over if progress came easily.
  • Idea: pursuing the path to mastery requires a certain type of mindset and willingness to work. This is likely influenced by genetics just as our physical abilities are influenced by genetics. People often say something to the effect of, “I’ve seen so many talented athletes with God-given ability who just didn’t want to work hard. They faded away.” These statements are overlooking the fact that psychological abilities are largely fixed too. The odds that someone has the peak physical abilities (“God-given talent”) AND the peak mental abilities (willingness to work hard) are incredibly low. Thus, you would expect the people to perform the best who are very high on mental abilities and high enough on physical abilities.
  • Regardless of your genetic potential, you have to work just as hard to fulfill it. Potential is just opportunity.
  • The best teachers are the ones who have discovered how to involve each student actively in the process of learning.
  • Practice is often used as a description of what we do. Instead, we can look at practice as something we have, something we are defined by.
  • Rewards will always come to someone who commits to the practice, but the rewards are not the goal. The practice is the goal.
  • Mastery reveals so much more to learn as you continue the journey. The destination is two miles farther away for every mile we travel.
  • Masters love the practice and because they love it, they get better. And the better they get, the more they enjoy the practice. It’s an upward spiral.
  • The master of any game is generally the master of practice as well.
  • Good idea: having dinner with the family each night is a form of practice, one that you can commit to just as passionately as practicing your craft.
  • “How long will it take me to master Aikido?” a prospective student asks. “How long do you expect to live?” is the only respectable response.
  • Mastery is practice. Mastery is staying on the path.
  • The essence of boredom is to be found in the obsessive search for novelty. Satisfaction lies in mindful repetition, the discovery of endless richness as subtle variations on familiar themes.
  • There are no experts. There are only learners.
  • On how things live on in our minds even after they are physically gone: “More and more, the universe looks like a great thought rather than a great machine.” -Sir James Jeans
  • Every master visualizes their success.
  • Now we come, as come we must in anything of real consequence, to a seeming contradiction, a paradox.
  • Almost without exception, those who are masters are dedicated to the fundamentals of their calling. At the same time, they are the ones most likely to challenge their previous limits.
  • Ancient Eastern wisdom: “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”
  • Backsliding is a universal experience. Everyone resists a significant change whether it is for worse or for better.
  • Homeostasis: Our body, brain, and behavior have a built in tendency to stay within very narrow limits.
  • Homeostasis works to keep things as they are even if they aren’t very good.
  • Resistance is proportionate to the size and speed of the change, not to whether the change is a favorable or unfavorable one.
  • When you realize more of your potential in any endeavor (even a small one), it can change the rest of you in many ways.
  • The alarm bells that ring when you try something new (fear, sweat, higher heart rate, discomfort) are signals of growth. It’s important not to ignore them for safety reasons, but you can also look at them as a sign of your improvement.
  • Follow a practice. People embarking on any form of change will gain stability and comfort though practicing something daily. The practice provides a stable base during the instability of change.
  • To learn is to change. Dedicate yourself to lifelong learning.
  • A human being is the kind of machine that wears out from lack of use. There are limits, but for the most part we gain energy by using energy.
  • Maintain physical fitness. It contributes enormous energy to our lives.
  • Acknowledge the negative and accentuate the positive.
  • Denial inhibits energy while realistic acknowledgment of the truth releases it.
  • To move in one direction, you must forgo all others. To pursue one goal is to forsake a very large number of other possible goals.
  • Avoid injury. Most people get injured because of goal obsessiveness. Pay attention to the signals your body gives and negotiate with them—but don’t override them or ignore them.
  • To be deadly serious is to suffer tunnel vision. Humor not only lightens your load, it broadens your vision.
  • Cool example of ritual: some surgeons wash their hands and put on their gowns in the same fashion before each surgery. It’s the pattern and ritual of it that sets their mind in the right place for performance.
  • Mastery is not about perfection. It’s about the process.
  • It’s truly bizarre when you think about it that we will devote ourselves fully to developing our tennis game, but leave something like our relationships largely to chance.
  • The plateaus, the ups, and the downs are even greater in our relationships than in other areas of life. And you will discover that your greatest learning happens on the plateaus.
  • To be psychologically balanced and centered depends heavily on being physically balanced and centered.
  • The best way to describe your total creative capacity is to say that for all practical purposes it is infinite.
  • Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, asked to be buried in his white belt after death. What an awesome symbol: the ultimate master forever embracing the mark of a beginner.
  • If you want to truly master something, you must be willing to remain a beginner and look a fool. The beginner’s mind is required for learning anything new.

Mastery by George Leonard

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