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The Two Critical Skills for Mastering Your Craft

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Master craftsman at work

This week I just got done re-reading Mastery by Robert Greene for what’s probably the tenth time—I’ve lost count by this point. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this is my all-time favourite book.

You see, despite some of the more objective successes I’ve had in the last couple of weeks like my first public talk for my book, I’ve slipped into a low mood due to some poor sleep habits. That, and having to handle a technical emergency at my 9-5 job and doing a full shift on a Saturday.

Needless to say, not overly conducive to creativity!

That’s where this book comes in. Mastery is a book that explains the steps to attain mastery in any field or craft, be it writing or one of the infinitely many other outlets for creative expression. The enthusiasm with which Robert wrote this book shines through, and I always feel better after reading it.

We’ve all heard of the 10,000-hour principle for achieving mastery. Well it turns out that once you put your 10,000 hours on top of that, and maybe dollop another 10,000 while we’re at it, the brain makes a qualitative change, forming new connections that expedite skills until they become second-nature. We gain a kind of “fingertip-feel” for our skills.

You’ve demonstrated it to yourself when driving to work or brushing your teeth—obviously these are dry, mundane skills, but you’ve practised them so many times you don’t have to think about them.

What if we could extend this same amount of daily practice to skills like writing, developing software, or any other creative endeavour we’re passionate about? The hours of focused practice frees us to unlock new levels of creativity, writing our best work or developing fantastic apps. The possibilities are endless.

What’s even better is that true mastery is really the most equal-opportunity goal out there, especially in today’s internet age. There are no barriers to cross, only your own willingness to embrace the process.

Now, it’s easy to take this as some kind of cheesy self-help stuff we’ve all read before a million times, but it’s so simple and true—hours of true focus on our craft cannot help but produce results.

Along this journey that we’re all on, I believe there are two critical skills that stand above all others, that we’ll call Negative Capability and Youthful Openness.

It’s all very well and good to preach the power of good honest work, but it’s not so easy to put it into practice all of the time.

From the aspiring novelist who faces her tenth query rejection in a row, to the software developer whose latest project is full of bugs and overrun deadlines, we all have to face consistent daily disappointments and struggles. It is useless to deny this fact of life, and even worse to fight it.

If we don’t see the opportunities in these temporary setbacks, then we’ll become consumed with doubt until we become its victim. This is the primary pitfall that we need to avoid.

The Chinese character for “crisis” is the character for “danger” in front of the character for “opportunity.” All crises, no matter how hopeless they seem in the moment, are filled with hidden opportunities.

That novelist’s tenth query rejection might give her the clarity that there’s something wrong with how she’s approaching agents. She realises that this has actually helped her become a better writer than if she’d breezed through and won a six-figure contract on her first try.

The software developer’s bugs enable him to practice key coding skills—take it from me, a developer in my 9-5, that finding and fixing bugs is 80% of the job!—and give him the chance to to develop his skills in dealing with conflict, perhaps from an angry customer or boss. He grows from the ordeal and has an incrementally stronger skillset.

This ability to calmly deal with setbacks is the essence of Negative Capability. Those who lack it are blown about by life’s daily problems and ultimately fail; those who embrace it cannot help but grow their skills, becoming stronger with each issue that fate throws their way.

Once we gain some experience and skill in our craft, it is easy to rest on our laurels. There is a risk that we can stagnate, clutching onto our status at the expense of what has got us there: resilience and creativity.

We cannot allow ourselves to fall into this stereotypical image of the Scrooge: to fearfully hold still, congealing into an immobile form like that. We must allow ourselves to stay open to new ideas, feeling a love and wonder at great work in other people’s craft. Feeling this sense of awe, and channelling it into our own work, is the essence of Youthful Openness.

Benjamin Franklin, the great Founding Father, is said to have held onto his emotional, free-flowing, child-like spirit well into his seventies and eighties, able to charm people and write great work up until his death. Franklin is the quintessence of Youthful Openness, and his lifetime successes and legacy speak for themselves.

Open yourself up to wonderful prose and underlying messages of other writers, and channel it into your own work. Find the fun and joy in this process, the butterflies fluttering in your stomach with excitement as you open up a new page in your project, and you’ll become unstoppable.

Posted on: 18th January, 2019

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