Mastery

When I was younger, one of my favorite websites to waste time on was Lifehacker’s “This is How I Work.” Even now, searching for that link, I am starting to get sidetracked looking at all the great authors and what type of laptop they use. I am pulled by the notion of, “if I just try this new notebook, or this new productivity system, then I will be productive, or creative, or have a new insight.” I wish this were to be true, but I can still accomplish things with my cheap five year old HP laptop and a $20 notebook.

Unfortunately, I find failure more instructive then success. Failures can be a turning point in our lives to improve ourselves and how we act. In 2015, I fell and broke my right knee. This was challenging in many ways, but mostly because I had to rely on others for almost three months. I couldn’t drive, dress, or shower without help. Looking back, this was an opportunity for me to relearn how to lift weights. I read Starting Strength, fixed my squat, bench, and deadlift form, and am stronger today than I was six years ago. I have been focusing on my strength training process and programming, focusing on simplicity and ignoring complex exercises or “confusing my muscles.”

In Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy, there is an early chapter titled, “Become A Student.” He describes Kirk Hammett’s acceptance into the band Metallica and Hammett’s continual practice of being a student, learning what he didn’t know about being a guitarist, to stay relevant and stay humble. The chapter continues into martial arts, describing how being a student allows you to subsume yourself, and how “false ideas about yourself destroy you.” You must subsume yourself and face reality by destroying any illusions you have about yourself. In jiu-jitsu, egos don’t last long on the mat. Either you quickly learn how little you know or you leave. Even those who do know a lot, eventually know how much they don’t know. Holiday references Frank Shamrock who had a system he called plus, minus, and equal. I’ve also heard this described as “mentor/peer/student.” This means that you have someone more experienced than you who you can turn to for help, peers who you can train with, and at least one student or younger person you are helping train or grow. Very importantly, the act of being a student keeps you humble. You can’t have too big of an ego if you admit to yourself that you need to keep learning.

Holiday also describes how the subsummation of your ego negates the likelihood of “Eureka moments.” If you are waiting for inspiration to strike, you won’t do the work necessary for your trade, your craft, your art, whatever that is. So rather than sitting down to write everyday, you’ll browse the web waiting for inspiration. Rather than training every day, you’ll browse Muscle & Fitness for new workouts. Rather than trying to learn how to make an omelet, you’ll watch Food Network and…well I don’t know since I don’t watch Food Network. Holiday states how, “To become waht we ultimately hope to become often takes long periods of obscurity, of sitting and wrestling with some topic or paradox.” I recently found this Zen koan about the master swordsman. At first the swordsman thought he was great, but it wasn’t until he had trained for over three decades that he became a master.

In his book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihali argues for deeper, focuses pursuits leading to a deeper, richer life filled with purpose, contentment, and happiness. He introduces the book by describing how he “discovered” that “happiness is not something that happens…It does not depend on outside events, but rather, on how we interpret them.” I could have been angry at the world, angry at the hard ground, angry at myself when my knee fractured in an inverted V. None of that would have changed the reality. Mihaly describes how optimal experiences can be achieved when we feel in control and have some input into our fate, “that contrary to what we often believe or are told, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive relaxing times…the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” As a corollary to this, later in the book he points out that, “To become enjoyable, a relationship must become more complex.”

To tie these notions together, to achieve happiness you must strive for difficult and worthwhile endeavors, acknowledge what you don’t know, seek help from others, and continue to learn and add complexity to your lives. Happiness does not come from going to the beach or binge watching Netflix. Seek the process of continual improvement mastery, rather than the end goal of being “happy.”

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