Book Review: Mastery

How to gain serenity *and* success with one weird trick (care less about results, and learn to love the process)

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I have ambitious goals and I work hard. I like this about myself! But honestly? I struggle with the anxiety and restlessness that seem to come with the territory.

Perhaps you can relate. Do you ever find yourself, at the end of a long week, wondering why you’re baseline stressed so often? Like you have no time for anything? Case in point: I spent an embarrassing amount of money on an espresso machine a few years ago, and I hardly use the dang thing. Too much effort for not enough liquid. (It takes ~5 minutes and it’s delicious.) Instead, every morning I make a quick pour-over while I fuss over emails, and the espresso machine looks up at me with sad, lonely, overpriced eyes. Do you have your own version of this routine, where you sacrifice moments of joy for marginal productivity gains?

I would love to flow through my day with a sense of peace, safety, and spaciousness. But I’m not willing to give up my goals, and I fear they’re the cause of the problem. When success is statistically unlikely and the stakes are high, is it inevitable for a person to get wound up?

I hope not. I want to find some way to have my cake (serenity) and eat it (ambition) too.

My cofounder Dan wrote about this a few years ago. He shared some science-backed ways to decrease stress that are a lot more helpful than “take deep breaths” (although that is good advice, too). It remains the most popular thing we’ve ever published.

I read a book recently called Mastery that reminded me of that post. It offers a different, complementary perspective on the same problem. The big idea is that we can gain serenity without sacrificing our ambition if we focus on long-term mastery and learn to love the process of continual improvement for its own sake, trusting that the results will inevitably come.

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Results-oriented?

The book opens with a parable about an athlete who wanted to become a great tennis player as soon as possible. He hired a coach who started with the basics: how to grip the racquet, how to make contact with the ball, how to track the ball with his eyes, etc.

The training process didn’t look much like the results he wanted to achieve. He stood in place and swung at easy balls the coach lobbed at him. He was purely focused on his grip and the exact angle of contact between racquet and ball. There were no epic volleys or blistering serves, and they didn’t keep score because there was nothing to win.

After a few weeks of practice, the athlete hit a plateau and began to feel impatient. He asked the coach how long it would take for him to compete and win in real matches.

“I would say you could probably start playing after about six months. But you shouldn’t start playing with winning as a major consideration until you have reasonable control of forehand, backhand, and serve. And that would be about a year or a year and a half.”

I don’t play tennis competitively, but I remember when I first learned to code and build tech products. If some coach had told me I couldn’t even think about getting results until I had been practicing for a year or more, I would have started looking for a new coach. I am willing to work hard, but only because I want to win as fast as I can.

It’s not just me. In tech, we worship results. Startup = growth, after all. But sometimes the foundations for growth are invisible. You can’t plug them into a spreadsheet and calculate their weekly rate of change.

Skills build on one another. Before you learn to hit a ball while sprinting across the court, you need to land solid forehands when the ball comes right to you. Before you can build software that people like to use, you have to be able to write code, design, and understand user problems. You could spend your time competing in tennis matches or building janky MVPs instead of focusing on the basics, but what seems like the more direct route to your goal actually ends up slowing you down.

In the pursuit of results—like trying to hit the metrics and KPIs we’re responsible for—it’s tempting to engage in behaviors that undermine our long-term success. We look for quick fixes and hacks rather than grappling with the fundamental issues limiting our performance. The reason we do this is because it is painful to go back to basics.

But it doesn’t have to be, if we allow ourselves to relax and stop clinging to immediate results.

Practice

The word “practice” is sort of like “school”—it’s the thing you do before the real thing. It is temporary.

But there are other ways of understanding practice that go much deeper. It is not something you do to prepare for the real thing, it is the whole thing. It’s not something you do, it’s a path that has no end. Mastery is not the end of the road, it is the road. The point is to stay on it.

In the book, there’s a story about Larry Bird that is the same story you always hear about people who have attained mastery: He showed up to practice early and stayed late. He practiced in the off-season when others took time off, even if that meant playing on a crappy, overgrown court in his hometown of French Lick, Indiana.

It seems safe to assume Larry Bird practiced so much because he wanted to win. But according to his agent, that wasn’t the whole story. “He just does it to enjoy himself. Not to make money, to get acclaim, to gain stature. He just loves to play basketball.”

Kobe Bryant (RIP) famously had a similar motivation. He once said the most important thing was, “The process, loving the process, loving the daily grind of it, and putting the puzzle together. This generation seems to be really concerned with the end result of things versus understanding, appreciating the journey to get there—which is the most important—and the trials and tribulations that come with it. You have successes, you have failures, but it’s all part of the end game.”

Returning to our central mystery—how can we have ambition without sacrificing our serenity?—it was this insight that cracked the case open for me. The first key is: Love what you do for its own sake. Of course you care about results, too. Larry Bird and Kobe Bryant obviously wanted to win. But they also just loved the practice of basketball. Games, drills, training, recovery, sleep—it is all part of the practice.

But there was still something missing. It’s easy to tell myself I love practice, but I know deep down that I still care about results. How can I know my practice is working if I don’t see them?

Surrender

The source of my anxiety was not my ambitious goals. Instead, it was my inability to trust and surrender to the path. I couldn’t believe that by staying on the path good results would inevitably follow.

If you don’t have a process you can trust, the world is a pretty scary place. Any success you see could be your last. But if you know you are on a path of improvement that will definitely lead somewhere interesting, setbacks aren’t as threatening, and success along the way isn’t something to desperately cling to.

In The Score Takes Care of Itself, coach Bill Walsh tells the story of how he turned the San Francisco 49ers into a championship team. Walsh’s philosophy was to create a system of interlocking best practices, and to have everyone focus on executing their part to perfection. He didn’t mind losing so long as the team followed the system, and he hated winning when they didn’t.

It takes a lot of trust to elevate adherence to a system above the results that system generates. In the wrong hands, it is downright dangerous. You can easily end up obsessing over the wrong things and ignoring evidence that you are headed in the wrong direction. But in a metrics-driven startup world fixated on week-over-week growth, we often forget that it is also possible to go too far in the opposite direction. In the long run, the scoreboard doesn’t lie, but in the short run, it absolutely can. We know of startups that had meteoric rises only to be followed by an equally giant crash back to earth.

So what can you trust? Ultimately, very few people are willing or able to stay on the path for the long term. If you put in the work, it will compound. And although you can’t exactly predict how it will pay off, I have never seen it not pay off in some fascinating way.

“A winner is just a loser who tried one more time.” — George Moore

We all know it’s true. The hard part is remembering it every day.

Ritual

I am by no means an expert at remembering to trust the process all the time, but I have started to discover a few things that work for me. The most important of these by far is having a ritual.

Here’s my current ritual: Every morning, no matter how busy I am, I read a few passages from a book that inspires me. Right now it’s The Creative Act by Rick Rubin. When I walk into my office, I like to read it aloud, standing up.

Rituals are tools to remind you of certain slippery-yet-critical truths. All the most important truths in life are like this. They need refreshing. The most visceral way of doing this is having a master storyteller make it alive for you all over again. That’s what books and movies are for. But it’s hard to find new great content that reconnects us to our values every day. This is where ritual comes in.

Some rituals are passed down to us as part of a long cultural tradition. Others we make our own. There are no right or wrong rituals; there are only rituals that work and rituals that don’t. The active ingredient is your intention to use it to refresh your values, connected to a habitual action that you try to perform consciously. If it becomes a chore or a mindless routine, don’t feel bad dropping it for a little while, or maybe forever. Just try something else.

There is value in learning to get comfortable with discomfort, though. Perhaps that becomes a part of the ritual for you: doing it even when you don’t like it. But only if that’s something you value.

As for me, I’ve also started pulling espresso shots again. They’re delicious, and it’s nice to remind myself that I really do have the time for a little joy.

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Alex Adamov about 1 year ago

Doing work for intrinsic reasons close to our desires (mental templates built over life) and taking the courage to surrender to the path are both themes that artists grapple with. I recently read an inspiring book by David Whyte Crossing the Unknow Sea which helped me get another perspective on this. Beyond the rational reasoning of reducing stress and having a more harmonious life, he beautifully describes the emotional leap of faith we should take and why. I wrote a short summary here: https://alexadamov.com/crossing-the-unknow-sea-book-review/

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