Is your mastery a mystery?

“I don’t know what I’m good at.”

I hear that comment a lot. I’ve often even thought it myself.

There’s a lot of talk about mastery. It’s one of the three elements of intrinsic motivation that Daniel Pink describes in his book, Drive (the other two being autonomy and purpose). And who could forget the 10,000-hour rule—success comes from 10,000 hours of practice—that Malcolm Gladwell popularized in Outliers?

Is your mastery a mystery?

All that talk can create a lot of angst. You’re either unsure what you’re good at or which of your many interests you should “settle on.” Even if you do know, if you’re at midlife, you may wonder if you have enough time or energy left to even invest 10,000 hours. (An hour a day in dedicated practice would take a little over 27 years)

The conclusion? Mastery is for some; savants and early bloomers. Mediocrity is for the rest of us; the bewildered and unfocused. We’re either relegated to the frustration of trying to answer a question we cannot, or simple resignation to not answer the question altogether.

Could it be that we’re asking the wrong question? Perhaps what we’re good at it is found in thinking differently about mastery.

Most of the conversation about mastery is really about specialization. Our culture, especially over the last 50 years, has increasingly placed higher value on the specialized. Ask yourself, how many different kinds of physicians are there today. More importantly, do you value a specialist more highly than a generalist? The phenomenon of specialization is not unique to health care. Attorneys, financial analysts, and even fisherman specialize.

All this specialization is understandable really. The explosive growth of information and new ways of learning now available, make it difficult, if not impossible, to keep up with the latest findings in one area, much less several. The pressure to specialize is high, leaving many to feel decision anxiety; the need to pick a lane and to get it right.

Most who face this anxiety, I’ve found, are, like myself, scanners. This is Barbara Sher‘s terminology for those who have a broad array of interests and, unlike specialists (whom she calls “divers”), prefer to connect ideas and concepts across an array of interests. Historically, these people would have been referred to as “Renaissance,” though that terminology, in my view, is tainted with unnecessary loftiness.

If you’re a scanner, you’re not a specialist. Nor should you try to become one. Trying to find something within you only because you see it in others fosters anxiety, envy and disillusionment.

Instead, practice a different kind of mastery. Not vertical mastery as a specialist would, but horizontal mastery. Horizontal mastery comes from recognizing and honing transcendent skills you possess. Once you discover them, you’ll be able to apply them more richly in all of your endeavors and, discover delightfully, that you’ve already put in a good chunk of the 10,000 hours to get where you are right now.

Horizontal mastery is not as self-evident as vertical mastery, though. It will take some effort to discover, particularly because it has likely been cloaked in specialist-looking activity. But it’s there, and you can find it. That’s the subject of my next post.

What frustrations have you experienced in discovering and developing your own area of mastery?

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2 thoughts on “Is your mastery a mystery?

  1. This article was helpful for me in realizing that I need to use a different method, horizontal, to find my greatest skills. Looking for commonalities or pattern instead of career achievements.

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