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The Meaning of Mastery?

(Written on December 29th, 2008)

Seth Goden put forward some thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers in a blog post today. My friend, Chris Milroy, responded by emailing Seth a few times on the subject of “mastery” and then put forward some thoughts of his own hoping for his good ol’ facebook friends to provide some response. Below is Mr. Milroy’s response to Seth. I also rapidly typed some points that were running around in my brain (can be found under Mr. Milroy’s response) – I’m working on other things but might follow up again on this subject.

The point of Seth’s post is that in new, unique, or otherwise low-competition fields it is easier to become a standout. The original source for the 10,000-hour rule is Herbert Simon’s work in the 1970s on chess players; I interpret what he did to mean that it takes about 10,000 hours of focused learning to become a master in any particular discipline (he derives this number from knowledge acquisition and retention data).

I’ve emailed back and forth with Seth a bit about the definition of mastery, and my current position is this:

There are two types of mastery, contextual and context-independent. The former involves being better than your competition at your chosen field. The latter involves being “objectively” good at something.

My question for you is this: does context-independent mastery exist?

Is mastery ever about some objective sense of skill? In some trivial sense, no, it’s not–at some point we expect people to surpass easily any level we can attain today (in most fields, particularly if skill is easily measured). I hesitate to say that we only value Aristotle because he was the best philosopher of his day, though perhaps that has to do with the difficulty of measuring skill in philosophy.

Maybe a better comparison is to Michael Jordan. I would call him a master of basketball, in that he fulfilled both of the relevant metrics. The contextual definition of mastery would suggest that the best basketball player in 1900 was also a “master.” Perhaps Seth would say we need to take a broader view–that masters are better than the competition over the long-term. In that case, how do we ever classify somebody as a master until the field has died out?

I want to know your thoughts. What is the meaning of mastery?

Seth criticized the 10k rule by bringing up “new” and “unexplored” fields like being a real estate agent in a rural town compared to a metropolitan area where more competition exists. His point made me consider mastery being quite relative then (in your contextual sense Chris). I know Seth set forth mastery of a field as personally defined by one’s market; but then mere success becomes the key, and the most successful becomes master.

I don’t believe this is the case. We would never view a successful real estate agent in Grab Ass, Montana as a “master of real estate” – even in his field. I couldn’t even apply the title of master to a successful innovator in cutting-edge research (in a new field). There must be some level of required competition or expectation for someone even to have the opportunity to become master of a certain market. Most likely those markets would be consumer/demand driven to make them high profile; in this sense, mastery is relative to the subjective tastes and wants of the mass population.

We must also consider (and maybe further weigh) other fields not capable of being “mastered” like computer/video gaming or arm wrestling where the competition can never truly be ensured representing the best of the best. But this thought would then lead us to ponder whether the true master is ever present in any field as latent knowledge or skill could be residing on a couch watching “Maury” in some double-wide instead of throwing plus 100 miles-per-hour fastballs.

Yet, with gaming and arm wrestling the demand for mass competition doesn’t quite exist on the same level as the Olympics. The venue to prove one as the best and the path to that venue is universally known and recognized in the case of the Olympics (or the World Series or the World’s Strongest Man Competition). Then you have to consider the role of luck. In the last ten years, only one (I believe) professional poker player has won the World Series of Poker – the rest were all amateurs who focused their time on other vocations. With that in mind, what about chance as well factoring into a good hand (even the winning hand)? Is the victor then truly the master of poker? What about the master of luck?

Alright, well I’ve rambled enough, though I see I haven’t even addressed your original question on objective mastery. So, let me throw out the possibility of genetics maybe contributing to objective mastery. Just a suggestion to carry the discussion forward.

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