This is a little book that packs a big motivational and inspirational wallop. Leonard is an ex-military guy and writer for Esquire who took up aikido late in life (age 47). He uses his exploration of aikido as the basis for this book, but his thoughts and theories can be applied to any pursuit. I got a lot of out it.

Mastery is a difficult concept to define in a few sentences. Let me take a few paragraphs.

Say you want to try something new or just do something better; so you go out and practice and make some quick gains. Then you level off for awhile before you get another spurt of improvement. But after this improvement you’re back on the plateau for a period of time even though you’re practicing just as hard as when you made the gains. It gets frustrating. But alas, this plateau gives way to another jump in performance. Thus is the cycle of mastery:

plateau – performance jump – plateau – performance jump …

What you doing during these plateaus defines whether or not you’re on the path to mastery. Some people (1) lose interest and eventually quit. Others will (2) obsess and overwork, but eventually burn out if the gains don’t come quick enough. Maybe a few will (3) concentrate on tips and tricks to expedite gains at the expense of working on the fundamentals. Leonard refers to these three people as dabblers, obsessives, and hackers. None of them are on the path to mastery, and in all probability each will either give up or perform whatever they’re doing with a level of mediocrity for the rest of their lives.

The path to mastery involves loving the plateau. Here is how Leonard puts it:

How do you best move towards mastery? To put it simply, you practice diligently, but you practice primarily for the sake of the practice itself. Rather than being frustrated while on the plateau, you learn to appreciate and enjoy it just as much as you do the upward surges.

This is unconventional. If you’re solely goal-oriented or if you’re a one-dimensional results-oriented person, this is not for you. But if you want to achieve lasting greatness in something, this route of mastery should be something you consider. Let me help Leonard sell you on this route by looking at the pursuit of mastery from a big-picture perspective. Leonard accuses America of engaging in a “War Against Mastery.”

Keep in mind, when Leonard said America was in a War Against Mastery, he said it back in the early 1990s. He was concerned about the direction of this nation after the high of the Reagan years and the fall of communism, which everyone perceived as a great victory. Here’s what he wrote:

… there’s perhaps no more dangerous time for any society than its moment of greatest triumph. It would be truly foolish to let the decline of communism blind us to the long-term contradictions in a free market economy unrestrained by the considerations of the environment and social justice, and driven by heedless consumerism, instant gratification, and the quick fix. Our dedication to growth at all costs puts us on a collision course with the environment. Our dedication to endless climaxes puts us on a collision course with the human psyche.

Our present national prosperity is built on a huge deficit and trillions of dollars worth of overdue expenditures on environmental cleanup, infrastructure repair, education, and social services – the quick-fix mentality.

America is still the most exciting of nations. Its freedom, its energy, its talent for innovation still inspire the world. But our time of grace might be running out. In the long run, the war against mastery, the path of patient, dedicated effort without attachment to immediate results, is a war that can’t be won.

These things struck me. I feel like the bill came due in 2008, about 17 years after Leonard said these things, and now we have to retrench as a community. We need to start the journey towards mastery. I’m not advocating that we relegate goals and results to the backburner. I’m advocating that we temper our pursuit of those intermittent highs with the understanding that if we take shortcuts, it will cost us.

So I’m going to be more conscious of the journey towards mastery in my everyday life. I’m not necessarily setting any new goals. I still want to be in better shape, I want my business to grow, I want to deepen my personal relationships with my family. I want to learn things, gain experience, build skills; my goals haven’t changed. But I’m going to change my tactics and perspective while pursuing them.

Leonard lays out the path for you. The Five Keys to Mastery are:

  1. Instruction: Leonard sees advantages in being self-taught, but also realizes that it leads to “reinventing the wheel.”
  2. Practice: This is Leonard’s most valuable insight in my estimation. He says, “A practice (as a noun) can be anything you practice on a regular basis as an integral part of your life-not in order to gain something else, but for its own sake.” This idea of a “goalless journey” is enticing to me. For example, I’ve never had a fitness practice. I’ve achieved a lot of fitness goals, don’t get me wrong, but I haven’t sustained what I deem to be an acceptable level of fitness for my whole life; and I’m in especially poor physical shape right now. Historically, I achieve the goals, then I switch to a different plan or I just quit for awhile. I get off the path. I need to start a fitness practice. I need to stay on the path.
  3. Surrender: Leonard says, “This means surrendering to your teacher and to the demands of your discipline. It also means surrendering your own hard-won proficiency from time to time in order to reach a higher or different level of proficiency.” He also says that “…surrender means there are no experts. There are only learners.”
  4. Intentionality: This is the combination of “character, will-power, attitude, imaging, and mental game.” Leonard is a big advocate of envisioning success and he has a few good examples in this section.
  5. The Edge: This is complicated and I’m not quite sure how to apply it. Here is how Leonard couches it:

Now we come, as come we must in anything of real consequence, to a seeming contradiction, a paradox. Almost without exception, those we know as masters are dedicated to the fundamentals of their calling. They are zealots of practice, connoisseurs of the small, incremental step. At the same time – and here’s the paradox – these people, these masters, are precisely the ones who are likely to challenge previous limits, to take risks for the sake of higher performance, and even to become obsessive at times in that pursuit.

These five topics are kind of ambiguous and I’m not exactly sure how to apply and integrate them into my life. Luckily, Leonard has a lot more help in the book after the Five Keys above and devotes the final third to various tools you can use on the journey. I’ll use that and keep the book with me (it’s nice and compact) during 2009 to insure that I’m on the path to mastery. I’ve already started to convert goals into practices. I want to start thinking of goals as things I practice everyday more than things I am trying to achieve in the future. I’ve even created a playlist in iTunes that I will listen to occasionally to keep me on the path.