The Pursuit of Mastery

Nobody knows what it means, but it’s provocative. 

The idea of pursuing mastery sounds great. But for most of us, understanding where to begin in our pursuit and how to measure our progress along the way is easier said than done. 

For artists, the pursuit of mastery is more straightforward. Unless you’re pursuing artistic mastery in the narrowest of niches or venturing into an emerging art form, there are countless “how-to” and “how-not-to” examples of pursuing artistic mastery at your disposal. This isn’t to say that the pursuit of artistic mastery is easy or that achievingartistic mastery is guaranteed - locking yourself in a room, making five beats a day for three summers doesn’t necessarily lead to the production of a platinum record - but there are examples to be referenced, believable case studies to understood and practical work routines to be adopted (or avoided) when you’re a young artist aspiring for greatness.

For athletes in pursuit of mastery, in addition to benefiting from the path transparency that can support an artist in pursuit of mastery, they have the added benefit of having access to usable mastery measurements. If you’re an 18-year-old pitcher, point guard, cyclist, or midfielder, you can (roughly) measure your ability against other 18-year-olds in your league. You can (roughly) measure your production against the accomplishments of last year’s 18-year-olds nationwide. In most fields, you can even measure your current state of mastery against the all-time-greats worldwide when they were 18-years-old, whether that was five years ago or fifty years ago. Add the measurement transparency to the coaching infrastructure that typically surrounds the young athletes in pursuit of mastery, understanding how to achieve athletic mastery is no mystery to those inspired to pursue it.

The pursuit of mastery off the field or outside of the arts, however, is much more mysterious. Or at least, that’s how it might feel if you’re working your way through opaque organizational matrices, navigating dangerous political waters or climbing rickety corporate ladders. For ambitious white-collar warriors entering the workforce with some experience pursuing artistic or athletic mastery, attempting to understand exactly how to achieve mastery within traditional workplaces can lead to extreme frustration and system rejection. That’s where it led me.

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For ambitious white-collar warriors entering the workforce with some experience pursuing artistic or athletic mastery, attempting to understand exactly how to achieve mastery within traditional workplaces can lead to extreme frustration and system rejection.

I graduated from college with a decade of recreational athletic experience and even more recreational artistic experience. Between middle-school and college, I dedicated thousands of hours to practicing and performing with small jazz ensembles, school orchestras, church orchestras and regiment bands. I also followed an individual practice regimen outside of these organized practices and performances. On the path to alto saxophone mastery, I never approached the top of the asymptote, but I understood what was required of me if I wanted to try and get there. 

During these same years, I dedicated thousands of hours to practicing and playing-on tennis, soccer, football, basketball and rugby teams. I also followed individual workout regimens outside of these organized practices and games. On the path to athletic mastery, I never approached the rare air shared by national or professional athletes, but I understood what was required of me if I wanted to try and get there.

But all of this experience and energy felt wasted in the workplace. My learned discipline and dedication to team practice and individual practice had no meaningful outlet. I sought to understand what was required of me to achieve mastery, but never found adequate or believable answers. I responded to this frustration by finding a side-hustle: I founded a charitable organization that I could run with my friends on nights and weekends. A few years later, I enrolled in a master’s degree program that I attended on nights and studied-for during the weekends. And soon after I graduated from that program, I co-founded a second side-hustle that I could run with a friend on nights and weekends. This side-hustle would eventually turn into my full-time gig. Bleeker began - in part - as a vehicle to fulfill my own pursuit of mastery and has since become a company that endeavors to help others do the same.

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I sought to understand what was required of me to achieve mastery, but never found adequate or believable answers.

I believe that many of the professionals who have entered the workforce in the past fifteen years - especially those young professionals who have graduated from highly competitive colleges that favor applicants who’ve accumulated artistic and athletic accomplishments - experience a similarly frustrating realization once they’ve settled into their first real jobs. How do I pursue mastery in this job?

In the past four years, the Bleeker team has met with thousands of extraordinary talents who are struggling with variations on this theme. They’re working for the world’s biggest companies in their most competitive teams. Their titles are impressive, their compensation is enviable, and their work is high-profile. And yet they’re looking for more. They’re looking for a path to mastery. This could explain how we became a nation of side-hustlers; a workforce full of start-up of you personal optimizers.

Daniel Pink defines the pursuit of mastery as the desire to get better and better at something that matters. But you need to know how to identify that ‘something’ and you need to understand whether you’re getting ‘better and better’ or just spinning your wheels. If you’re not an artist or an athlete, you’ll probably need a partner to help you understand what area of mastery you want to pursue and to help you recalibrate your pursuit from time-to-time. Otherwise ‘the pursuit of mastery’ becomes an empty, provocative phrase that gets your going but doesn’t produce any meaningful change.