The Pursuit of Mastery

Thoughts on the pursuit of mastery through deliberate practice and mentorship.

Diner Ismail

3 minute read

I keep highlights and notes for most of the books that I read. Today I was going through some of them, and I really enjoyed reviewing the book Mastery by Robert Greene, which I have read two years ago. I remember how that book instilled in me a strong desire to relentlessly improve, while making me place less importance on inborn talent, and instead place more importance on hard work and practice.

However, even though these ideas are very present in my mind and they help me be more confident about learning new things quickly, I now realise that I haven’t applied some of them as actively as I should have.

Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice is defined as a highly structured, purposeful form of practice that is particularly relevant to the improvement of performance in a specific domain. The term was coined by Anders Ericsson, who researches expert performers across various disciplines. This is one of the main concepts in Greene’s book, and it is also present in other books that I’ve read, like The Talent Code or The Practicing Mind.

There are two main fields which I want to use deliberate practice with: programming and writing. So far, my practice in programming was decided based on whatever tools or frameworks I needed to know for a current or future project, and also influenced by the natural tendency of choosing a more comfortable type of practice (e.g. watching tutorials instead of doing a coding challenge). Therefore my study sessions from now on will involve more hands-on coding and less passive watching of videos. As I’ve learned and written about previously, discomfort in learning is a desirable difficulty.

For practicing writing, alongside reading books and watching courses, my current practice consists of journalling and the actual writing of these blog posts. I think this is not enough, so I will schedule at least a weekly session of deliberate practice of writing on Sundays.

Mentorship

Over the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of working with some great people that I’ve learned a lot from, some of them actively mentoring me and offering me very useful advice.

Looking back though, I think I could have gained even more through these mentorships. I should have made more notes of advice and tips that I’ve received from them, I should have asked more questions, but more than anything else I should have asked for constructive criticism of my work (the last one works well only if you manage to keep your ego in check). Some mentors will criticise your work anyway, but I think most of them will try to be nice, and that’s because it is well known that most people don’t respond well to criticism.

Here I say “criticism”, and not simply “feedback”, because pointing out the bad parts in a piece of work is more helpful for improving it than pointing out the good parts.

I think these concepts are essential in the pursuit of mastery. However, because this pursuit can take decades, it’s really important to find the joy in learning and improvement, to avoid overspecialisation, and to maintain a good balance between work and play. If you overwork yourself and don’t enjoy the journey, what’s the point, right?

Here, Michael Gelb’s description of Da Vinci’s genius fits very well: “The essence of Leonardo’s legacy is the inspiration for wisdom and light to triumph over fear and darkness. In his never-ending quest for truth and beauty, art and science were married through the ministry of experience and perception. His unique synthesis of logic and imagination, of reason and romance, has challenged, inspired, and baffled scholars through the ages. History’s greatest master of science and art has achieved the status of myth. In an age of specialisation and fragmentation, Leonardo da Vinci shines forth as a beacon of wholeness.”

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