Achieving Mastery

It's easy if you try.

Achieving mastery - defined as getting better & better at something that matters - can be accomplished by following a simple, five-step process.

Step One: Identify the activity that you really care about

Step Two: Break down that activity into its essential skill

Step Three: Set goals connected to your improvement in that skill

Step Four: Work on improving that essential skill every single day

Step Five: Embrace the people who are similarly committed to achieving mastery

If you can follow the above five steps, you can achieve mastery. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pianist, a point guard, a marketer or a mathematician.

If you're interested in the nuts and bolt of achieving mastery, you can find a more thorough exploration, some advice on how you can get started and a few additional reading recommendations below...

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Step One: Identify the activity that you really care about (i.e. your central motivation)

Your central intrinsic motivator is the thing that matters most to you; the activity that you really care about that’s shaping your career choices or informing your career dissatisfaction. Maybe it was your desire to understand people that led you towards a career in marketing? Maybe your desire to make life simpler for people inspired you to pursue a career as a software engineer? Or maybe your motivation to make meaningful connections with people guided you towards a career in sales? Underlying motivations have influenced each of your career choices, and maybe your academic choices as well. Drawing-out and identifying these central motivations will help you uncover what it is that you really care about.

In this identification process, you’ll want to ignore whatever extrinsic motivations have shaped your career (e.g. a desire to impress mom & dad, a desire to outperform your classmates, a desire to be acknowledged by gatekeepers) and focus entirely on the intrinsic motivators; the actions or interests that motivate you from within.

Bleeker has produced a collection of tools and exercises that are designed to help our trainees conduct this identification process. These include:

  • A "Flow Recognition" exercise
  • An "Open Exploration of Purpose" exercise
  • A "Purpose and Values Journaling" exercise
  • A "Reversed Ideals Journaling" exercise
  • A Values Affirmation Journaling" exercise
  • An "Identifying Your Values" exercise

In one way or another, each exercise helps to draw out of the trainee an answer that’s already inside of them. Until you’ve determined your central intrinsic motivator, charting a path towards mastery is premature. 

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Step Two: Break down that activity into its essential skill (i.e. the activity's core elements)

Once you’ve determined your central intrinsic motivator, you’ll want to break that action down into its essential elements. If your intrinsic motivator is a desire to understand people, the core essential elements might be observing and listening. If your intrinsic motivator is a desire to make life simpler for people, the core essential element might be empathizing. If your intrinsic motivator is a desire to make meaningful connections with people, the core essential element might be emotional awareness.

If it's not clear to you exactly how to break down an activity into its essential skills, you might want to read a profile or biography of a current or historical figure who is known for their mastery in your area of interest and - as you’re reading the profile/biography - keep a list of the skills that made them special. Or if you’re lucky enough to know a person who appears to have mastered the activity that motivates you, have a conversation with them about the skills that underlie their mastery.

Through the Bleeker Network, we’re fortunate to frequently cross paths with a diverse collection of professionals across a variety of fields who have dedicated decades to their pursuit mastery; professionals like Lisa ShalettKristen WiseEd Faulkner and Michelle Keinan. We’ll often interview our Network members to better understand what it is that makes them special. Through these conversations, we unearth the essential skills that they have practiced and refined in their pursuit of mastery. This understanding helps us guide others towards their identification of essential skills.

Once you identify the essential skills that shape your central intrinsic motivator, you can determine where to direct your betterment efforts. Like the young musician who understands that a core essential skill to jazz is hearing the space between the notes. Or the young athlete who understands that a core essential skill to basketball is moving without the ball. Understanding the essential skills that can be practiced and improved-upon in ways that strengthen individual and team performance is a core capability in every incredible talent.

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Step Three: Set goals connected to your improvement in that skill (not reward goals)

Having identified the core essential skill that powers your central motivator, you can now set smart goals that align with your pursuit of mastery. You can assign goals related to becoming a better listener, a stronger empathizer or a more emotionally aware person.

In support of our training programs, the Bleeker team has produced a collection of tools and exercises that are designed to help our trainees set strong goals. These include:

  • A "Defining Success" exercise
  • A "Goal Setting" framework
  • An "Envisioning the Outcome" writing exercise
  • An "Envisioning the Obstacles" writing exercise
  • A "Building Resilience" lesson

These exercises, frameworks, and lessons help disciplined and determined professionals follow goal-setting guidelines that will produce the desired result. But in the pursuit of mastery, it’s important that you set improvement goals (e.g. I want to be a better listener in 2018 than I am today), not reward goals (e.g. I want to be rewarded for my improved listening skills in 2018).

When you set improvement goals, you can more easily align your betterment activities towards your goals. You can control the factors that influence your improvement. You can almost measure your progress in the time you spend working towards improvement. And you can more easily set future goals, based on the gap between the intended and achieved improvement.

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Step Four: Work on improving that essential skill every single day (i.e. make time to practice)

One of the benefits of identifying the essential skill underlying your central motivation - and tying an improvement goal, not a reward goal to that skill - is the resulting flexibility in selecting the exercises and activities that can make-up a realistic practice routine. If you only have thirty minutes a day to commit to ongoing betterment, and you’ve set a goal of being selected by TED to deliver one of their prestigious speeches before you turn 35, where do you start? How do you break that goal down into improvement chunks that can be practiced every day and built-upon every week?

However, if you’re motivated by teaching others, you’ve identified that an essential element of teaching others is simplifying complex subjects into relatable stories and you’ve committed to the ongoing improvement of your storytelling abilities, you can draw from a whole range of exercises and activities to practice becoming a stronger storyteller every single day.

  • You can spend 30 minutes every Monday strengthening your comprehension skills. 
  • You can spend 30 minutes every Tuesday listening to episodes of The Moth or This American Life
  • You can spend 30 minutes every Wednesday practicing your speech-writing. 
  • You can spend 30 minutes every Thursday recording (and then analyzing) video of your speech-giving. 
  • You can spend 30 minutes every Friday reflecting on the complex subjects that are most meaningful to you; the subjects that you’re most interested in teaching.

If you were to follow the above exercise routine for one month - and storytelling is an essential element of a pursuit that you actually care about - you will definitely become a stronger storyteller. If you were to follow this routine for a few months, you’ll become a legitimately strong storyteller. But if you were to follow this routine for years, there’s no telling how strong of a storyteller you can become. At that point, TED would be lucky to find you. 

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Step Five: Embrace the people who are similarly committed to achieving mastery (i.e. identify your betterment tribe)

The final step in your path to achieving mastery is in surrounding yourself with people who can support your ongoing growth. Whether it’s the one officemate who is similarly committed to practicing essential skills in their pursuit of mastery, a coach and thinking partner who support you with accountability and patient guidance or a diverse collection of lifelong learners who are leading an extraordinary life’s work, you will greatly benefit from pursuing mastery with the help of others. Your likelihood of successfully emerging from the weeks and months when your attention is divided, your confidence is shaken and your resilience is challenged is slim if you don’t have a strong support structure.

With the collection of talented and generous professionals in the Bleeker Network, our partnering coaches, our staff educators and our community of trainees, we have created a rich learning environment that can deliver the depth and quality support needed by any talent in pursuit of mastery. 

Although the pursuit of mastery can be distilled into these five, simple steps, following these steps can be incredibly challenging. Mastery is a lifelong pursuit. Bleeker is here to support you along the way.

Additional Learning Resources

Book: Mindset (Carol Dweck)

Article: How Praise Became a Consolation Prize (The Atlantic)

Book: Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell)

Article: Most Likely to Succeed (Malcolm Gladwell's Blog)

Book: The Talent Code (Daniel Coyle)

Article: How to Grow A Super Athlete (New York Times)

Book: Drive (Daniel Pink)

Video: The Puzzle of Motivation (TED)