In Pursuit of Mastery

Learning and mastery are higher level human needs.

Mastery involves both learning and doing.

Mastery is the "Ri" level in Shu-Ha-Ri.

Mastery requires a lot of trial and error.

I recently bought a skateboard.  I haven't owned a skateboard since I was about 15. 

It was a little scary getting on it at first.  But it came back, like riding a bike.

I ride regular, with my left foot forward, pushing with my right foot.  I had tried goofy--right foot forward--for variety, but couldn't get the hang of it.  But on my first day with my new toy I went too far and hurt my right achilles.  So I couldn't ride anymore unless I rode goofy.  That required that I start over.  I had to learn to balance with my right foot forward.  Had to learn to push with my left foot.  Had to learn to carve by leaning in a way that felt unnatural.

I was unsteady.  Self-conscious.  Scared that I might injure myself.

As I rode around the neighborhood, I had to concentrate on what I was doing.  Riding goofy meant I had to overcome muscle memory that wanted to do things one way, and force my body to do things the opposite way.

I had to have beginner's mind.  I didn't know what I was doing.  I couldn't fake it.  If I was going to get better, I was going to have to practice.  It would take time and effort.  It wasn't going to be fun for awhile.

That state of mind can be both frightening and liberating.  You don't know what you're doing.  You can only get better.

On a software development team, each member of the team needs to have the time and space she needs to pursue mastery of her craft.  Achieving mastery isn't necessarily the goal.  The journey is what's important.  That means she needs time and space.  She needs to feel safe failing, even doing things that might seem silly to someone who knows better.

She'll need coaching and correction, and it will need to be specific and constructive.  Both novice and coach need to believe that improvement will come, and that it's worth the cost to spend time and money to help bring it out.

When you're just getting started at something new, progress and achievement are exhilarating.  Being able to do something with relative ease after a period of practice and frustration is immensely rewarding.  Looking back from higher ground at the path that got you there is rewarding and encouraging--the kind of implicit reward people in knowledge work crave, and managers should highly value.


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