Some would say that mastery is merely a function of time. For instance, Malcolm Gladwell is often credited for coining the 10,000 hour test which suggests that you have to do something for 10,000 hours before you are truly an expert. While this certainly has the ring of common sense about it, I can't help but wonder if simply using time to determine mastery is a bit limited. After all, I know lots of people who are highly experienced but are neither experts or masters.
Reflecting on the many individuals in my sphere who, in my view, have truly achieved a level of mastery in their given field, there are 7 the characteristics that are common to them all:
1. They are rarely surprised – there is a positive sense that the truly experienced “have seen it all before” and therefore can remain calm, clear-headed and confident when the exceptional occurs
2. Their skills are not circumstantial – in other words masters are adept and comfortable in a wide variety of situations and contexts because their skill and expertise is second nature
3. They move beyond rhetoric and long-windedness – Paradoxically, I often find that it is people who use the most complex language who know least about a topic of body of knowledge. Those with superficial or merely academic understanding tend to find intellectual security in rhetoric and jargon. In contrast, those who truly understand a topic tend to use language that is refreshingly simple and concise. As Albert Einstein said, If you can't explain it to an 6-year old, you don’t understand it yourself.
4. They have added to knowledge – rather than simply consuming or re-hashing existing knowledge and insight, true experts get to a point where they create and contribute new knowledge
5. They are constructively contrarian – Anyone can throw stones and attack another’s views but true experts can offer a contrary view without any need to be either aggressive or defensive. The goal becomes to improve the quality of thought rather than to score points
6. They are humble and open – True mastery engenders a wonderful humility, openness and a hunger to constantly grow and learn. In contrast, those with limited skill, knowledge or expertise often have the most rigid views and firm opinions. There appears to be something about the road to true mastery that wears away hard edges and dissolves arrogance.
7. They actively seek to apprentice others – Finally, I see time and time again that a key mark of mastery is the innate drive to invest in and mentor the next generation. There seems to come a point where the goal for those with mastery is not to simply build their own success but share what they have learned with those coming behind them – just as someone had likely done with them at some stage. This desire to leave a leave a legacy and pass on a heritage of skill and knowledge is perhaps one of the most powerful dynamics to witness – when an expert becomes an elder.
I don’t know if you find the above list as challenging as I do. As I draw closer to my mid-30s, I am increasingly aware of the tendency for age and experience to ossify my views, dim my optimism and even breed selfishness.
Bearing this in mind, I for one am committed to pursuing mastery in the true sense of that word. I don't want to merely be experienced, I want to become an expert: secure in my convictions but ever-curious, open and looking to share and serve.
How about you?