Wednesday, August 26, 2015

An Exploration of Mastery

All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns.
Bruce Lee

A few days ago, I watched a video on youtube exploring the Japanese sword art, Iaido. The narrator and host is an American who studied karate in Japan. He is an international tournament champion and now a high level instructor in his discipline. In this series he takes introductory instruction in an unfamiliar martial art, asks the masters questions, and allows them to perform sometimes painful demonstrations on his person. Iaido is an art that teaches the swordsman how to draw his sword from the scabbard and dispatch an opponent in a single motion. Today it is not practiced against a live opponent but is primarily a meditative practice. However, for this video an 8th degree master agrees to demonstrate on the narrator with a heavily padded practice sword. Three times a skilled martial artist in his late 30s draws his sword on a man twice his age. Three times the old master delivers a killing blow before his attacker’s sword is halfway to its target. At normal speed, the video appears to show that the master drew first, but when slowed by high speed photography it is clear that in every case some trifling twitch of a hand telegraphed the nature of the planned attack. The master responded perfectly, without thought, every time.

In my last post I stated, “On the other hand, you will never achieve mastery in any profession working a forty hour week.” I was asked for a further explanation by a friend of this blog. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. In context it seemed pretty obvious to me, but then I realized I have never defined mastery. Even though I knew what I meant, as I attempted to nail down an explanation in my mind, the definition proved elusive.

Of course I have read and commented on Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. From this book we learn that even the most gifted artists require at least 10,000 hours to achieve mastery. I have listened to Robert Greene discuss the components of mastery and I have found the definition of intelligence offered in Godel Escher Bach: An eternal golden braid by Douglas Hofstadter a most useful way to explain the essence of mastery.

1) To respond to situations very flexibly;
2) To take advantage of fortuitous circumstances;
3) To make sense out of ambiguous or contradictory messages;
4) To recognize the relative importance of different elements of a situations;
5) To find similarities between situations despite differences which may separate them;
6) To draw distinctions between situations despite similarities which may link them;
7) To synthesize new concepts by taking old concepts and putting them together in new ways;
8) To come up with ideas which are novel;

I have been told it takes five years (about 10,000 hours) to become a competent automobile mechanic, but in that time can one achieve mastery? While waiting on a botched delivery from a local parts house, a local mechanic entertained me with some of his war stories. He had recently attended a class given by a company that provides tools to independent garages. The presenter, besides marketing tools and answering questions for his customers is a hired gun. He is paid by garages and dealerships to fix problems their own mechanics can not solve. On weekends he handles 3 or 4 of these questions in one day for a fee that averages between $300 and $400 per call. I don’t think he reached this level of competence working a 40 hour week. I rather suspect there were hours spent in classrooms obtaining specialized certifications, time spent on the Internet researching problems, and hours of uncompensated overtime, both at the shop and in thought experiments performed in his mind at night while his sleeping wife snored peacefully by his side.

One of my old supervisors was a remarkable genius. He solved some extraordinarily complex problems for the U.S. Navy in the course of his career. I once listened to him solve a technical conundrum that had stumped some rather brilliant men in less than thirty minutes during a meeting. He didn’t really need to even concentrate on the problem, a good thing since he was constantly interrupted as he described the solution. At that point he was drawing on thirty years of experience. When he was a young engineer, he had the luxury of creating his own experiments. There was funding for that sort of activity back in those days. Later in his career he was paid by the Navy to complete his doctoral degree. I know the solution to the problem that made his career came to him listening to the flow of water moving through pipes while taking a shower. His mind never stopped. Mastery isn’t a cheap commodity.

Competence isn’t mastery. I have reached a point in my studies of investment where I have read dozens of books on this subject, but I know that with some exceptions, I have, in fact read the same book dozens of times. I know there is a higher level. I have experienced a taste of what lies beyond what is generally taught in personal finance classes. Experiencing the same problems at the same job year after year isn’t moving you closer to mastery. You don’t have ten years of experience, you have one year of experience ten times. More than the forty hours offered by your employer will be required to move you towards mastery.

I began this post with a quote from Bruce Lee. He was considered a renegade, or perhaps even a traitor by the traditional Chinese martial arts community, because he did not always show proper respect for their traditions. Yet, before he created his own art, Jeet Kune Do, he achieved mastery in Wing Chun at the feet of one of the great martial artists of that generation. My former boss knew how to do the math, but his mind wasn’t limited by what he learned in the university. Instead his learning, his experience, his experimentations became a springboard to what was viewed by others (sometimes with good reason) as impossible. To paraphrase Bruce Lee, my former boss was free. Having mastered the routines, ideas, and traditions of others, he came to an understanding of engineering science based on a deep personal understanding of who he was.

That is mastery.

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