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Who are the masters now?

31 December 2010

In my last post I sang the praises of Daniel Pink’s book Drive. If anyone needs any convincing that the Type X approach to managing professionals is counter-productive, they should look at how demotivated so many teachers in Britain have become as a result of top-down targets from politicians, inane box-ticking and morale-destroying inspections by Soviet-style Ofsted officials.

But I do wonder how universally applicable are the Type I (for intrinsic) principles that Pink and the ‘positive psychologists’ regard as fundamental. Autonomy, common purpose and something more than mere competence are clearly crucial for those doing highly skilled, problem-solving, creative and professional work. But even then the scope for attaining anything like real mastery is limited by the fact that most businesses and the people who work in them have more pressing priorities. The most successful firms will generally be those where everyone is encouraged to take pride in doing good work, but only a tiny number really aspire to or have the chance to pursue mastery.


Mastery is a noble ideal, but like empowerment, innovation and passion it’s in danger of being devalued, the chief culprits being universities and masters degrees. The term was always hyperbolic for a year or two of study, typically straight after an undergraduate degree. Nobody ever believed that it made anybody a master of anything in the way that Julia Childs mastered the art of French cooking or Roger Federer that of tennis. A masters used to be a stepping stone to a PhD and an academic career, but now it’s mainly a means of differentiating yourself from the hordes of other graduates on the job market.

Real mastery of anything comes from years of deliberate practice and experience, actually doing the cooking, hitting the tennis balls, playing the piano, speaking the foreign language. The key to it is learning by doing. (Contrary to all the rhetoric about investment in skills, not much of that happens in universities. What they are best at is the acquisition of knowledge, sometimes by students, more often by those academics who become masters of their subject after years of immersion and thought.) Most of those who deserve the epithet would be embarrassed to use it of themselves – they’re so intent on trying to attain perfection that they’re always conscious of how far they have to go.

This kind of mastery is rare. Malcolm Gladwell gives a compelling account in Outliers of how outstanding successes, from Bill Gates and Bill Joy in computer programming to Mozart, Lennon and McCartney in music, got to be so good at what they did. According to some researchers this is entirely because they spent inordinate amounts of time when they were young, close to 10,000 hours over ten years, practising their art and honing their skills. It was not so much their natural talent that made them exceptional as their willingness to work much harder than everyone else. To achieve excellence at something really demanding you have to care about it deeply and be prepared to sacrifice the many other things you could be doing if you weren’t practising for three hours every single day. Only an obsessive few make it.

The origin of our use of the word master is the mediaeval concept of master-builders and master-carpenters who employed other craftsmen and took on apprentices. Even after qualifying as artisans, they had to spend years as journeymen practising their trade, before they could apply to their guild to be recognized as master craftsmen themselves. Well into the twentieth century, mastering a traditional craft was a path both to satisfying work and modest economic security for boys without much formal education. But those days are long gone.

New technology and ever more efficient business processes have wiped out one craft after another, from the handloom weavers of 200 years ago, forced to become unskilled factory workers, to blacksmiths, saddlers and ostlers a century later when motorized vehicles replaced horses. More recently, dressmakers, dance bands, watch repairers, typesetters, printers and even mainframe computer programmers are just a few of those to have been marginalized. The pace of innovation and creative destruction in the last twenty years has speeded up so much that the skills acquired as a youth are unlikely to remain useful for an entire working life. It is not just businesses that have to reinvent themselves – we all have to acquire new skills and knowledge throughout our lives. Investing 10,000 hours of your youth acquiring mastery of something for which there may be no demand in twenty years makes little economic sense.

Those who make that commitment do it, not for economic reasons, but because they are pursuing a dream, a vocation. For a few like Lennon and McCartney (but not Mozart or Schubert), there were enormous financial rewards, but that wasn’t why the Beatles played their hearts out in Hamburg and Liverpool. And although Bill Gates’ early prowess at writing code set him on the path to founding Microsoft, what he turned out to be outstandingly good at was business strategy and eliminating competition, and he learned that as he went along. Contingency and character play a bigger part than planning in most people’s lives.

People who get to the very top in business have one thing in common with those who become masters in music, cooking or computing: they want it so much that they are prepared to sacrifice most other things to get there. With the notable exception of Steve Jobs, their ambition has little to do with dreams of perfection. For most would-be CEOs, power, status and the material rewards that go with them are the real prizes.

Creators of groundbreaking new businesses have rather more in common with obsessive artists and technologists than with captains of industry. They are pursuing a dream rather than climbing the greasy pole, and initially getting rich comes second. Building distinctive capabilities is very much a form of mastery in which the founders normally take the lead.

Those heights may be beyond the grasp of most of us, but many succeed in doing work that brings intrinsic satisfaction at least some of the time. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has argued convincingly that people are happiest when they are completely absorbed in what they are doing, using their skills to the utmost, stretched but not stressed. Some of us have the good fortune to be paid for doing this. Sadly most do not, but we all have to make painful choices and compromises between economic necessity and personal fulfillment. The fundamental reason we go to work is to put bread on the table and pay the mortgage, and businesses are rightly governed primarily by economic imperatives.

But making short-term financial performance paramount risks, not just the contentment of employees, but the firm’s own long-term survival. The only businesses able to survive creative destruction are those who learn how to reinvent themselves and develop new capabilities. And they can only do this if they manage to attract and retain exceptionally talented people and give them the chance to develop something very close to mastery. Outstandingly innovative companies like Apple and Google have values very similar to those that Masara Ibuka proclaimed in 1946 when he founded the company that became Sony: “an ideal workplace, free, dynamic and joyous, where dedicated engineers will be able to realise their craft and skills at the highest level”.

(Next month, the growing rivalry between Apple and Google.)

5 comments to Who are the masters now?

  • Thought provoking, Kieran.

    One clarification if I may: You said “According to some researchers this is entirely because they spent inordinate amounts of time when they were young, close to 10,000 hours over ten years, practising their art and honing their skills.”

    This may be true, but there should be a separation of the necessary from the sufficient. Practicing a lot, honing skills, these are the key phrases. Being young is not a requirement. Think about the oft quoted “Education is wasted on the young.” What’s more important than youth is energy (which comes from health as in another oft quoted: “You have to train to be old.”).

    My own personal practices assure me of a lot of energy and I have used it over the last 60 years to “master” a number of ideas or skills from mindfulness practice to small business expertise, teaching and meeting online, comparative religion, just to name a few.

    I’ve always maintained that I would never “retire.” I couldn’t see the point. As long as there are interesting projects, why decide to stop working?

    The other point you make, paying the bills as an obstacle to doing what you want, is critical. That’s why I spent so many years mastering how that works. As a consequence I’ve developed “Good Work Guidance” (http://www.meaningfulwork.com/) helping hundreds of others find their right livelihood so that they could do what they loved and still pay the bills.

    Thanks for the stimulation.

    All the best,

    Claude Whitmyer
    FutureU.Com
    meaningfulWork.Com
    claudewhitmyer.com

  • Kieran

    I agree, Claude that distinguishing between necessary and sufficient conditions is immensely important – there is never a single cause of anything complex. I don’t believe for a moment that Mozart reached the heights he did solely because he practised so much – I bet Salieri did too. However, the fundamental idea of inordinate amounts of deliberate practice distinguishing the best from the rest seems to me to be broadly true. And the price prodigies pay can be enormous: John Stuart Mill’s father pushed him as hard as Mozart’s did, and he had a nervous breakdown.

    Of course there are fields, particularly involving knowledge and broad understanding, where maturity and experience are precisely what’s needed to achieve mastery. But for skills like music, mathematics, languages, sport and computer programming, youth is an enormous advantage.

    I applaud your undimmed enthusiasm for new challenges and your energy. Long may it continue.

  • You say:
    ‘The pace of innovation and creative destruction in the last twenty years has speeded up so much that the skills acquired as a youth are unlikely to remain useful for an entire working life.’
    There is, of course, one skill that will remain fireproof under such conditions: the ability to acquire new skills quickly and effectively. This has massive implications for education and how we go about it. People need to be taught how to think rather than what to think or what to think about.
    On the question of leading examples of success I think there is another important factor to be taken into account: dumb luck. Lennon and McCartney had the good fortune to meet each other and to work together with George Harrison and Geaorge Martin – the whole was far greater than the parts. Bill Gates had the dumb luck to be in the right place at the right time with the right (very new!) skill set. The dedication/obsession element is over-rated. The world is full of people with total commitment and burning desire, but without the element of luck they bang their heads against a brick wall, talented or not.
    This is not to say that hard work should be devalued. I am reminded of the words of my old chum Mickey Duff: “People say that I’ve been very lucky, and they’re right, I have. But the strange thing is, the harder I work, the luckier I get!”

  • Kieran

    Of course luck plays a big part in success and failure. It’s true of all the businesses I’ve studied, but it’s never the only factor: almost invariably several are involved. Mickey Duff hits the nail on the head. You need application and luck – and several other things too – it’s the combination that counts.

    The original topic was mastery, rather than worldly success, and here luck plays a smaller part – unless you count innate ability and the opportunity to pursue your passion as luck. Many of those who achieve mastery do so at the expense of material success, because they’re mainly driven by intrinsic satisfaction. The really lucky people are those who manage both.

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