Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Mystery of Mastery

George Leonard was a writer, editor, and teacher whose passion was the exploration of human potential. In the early 1990s, he published Mastery – The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment.  It may help to point out that he was also a 5th degree black belt in Aikido, which like most ancient martial arts, sprung from a foundation of religion, spirituality, and mysticism.

Over the past 10 years, I have read this book at least four times, and it has definitely influenced the way I view life, success, business, and now, physical training.  But when it comes to defining what mastery is, I cannot quite get there.  I can tell you that it is more than any dictionary would lead you to believe. Leonard’s concept of mastery is much more than success, or excellence, or dominance, or skill, or expertise, though it certainly contains all of that.

Pick your sport or your passion. It can be a javelin or saxophone; a barbell or a sauce pan; a volleyball court or a theatrical stage; a kettlebell or a boardroom. I cannot tell you what mastery is, but I think I can show you what it looks like.

As far as the sport of golf is concerned, I am neither a player nor a fan, but I have to admit being intrigued and amazed by the early success of Tiger Woods, who not long after turning pro and winning the Masters was generally considered the best golfer on the planet and an odds-on favorite to become the winningest golfer in the history of the game.

So how do you explain it when a player who was often described as having the perfect swing, decides to dispense with that swing and build a new swing from scratch?  In fact, some experts say that by now, he has rebuilt his swing at least four times.  I think it is safe to say that most athletes, whether pros or duffers, believe that, when it comes to technique, tampering with success is a fast track to failure and frustration – especially when that technique is already winning tournament after tournament.

Many basketball fans consider the 1980s to be the golden era of professional basketball, and they credit Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as being the players most responsible for lifting the NBA out of the doldrums and exciting a new generation of fans with their unique abilities to lead their teams, the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, to victory.

I was not a serious basketball fan during that era, but living in Celtics Land, it was impossible not to be aware of Larry Bird’s almost commonplace heroics which made him a 12-time all-star, earned him 3 MVP awards, and helped lead the Celtics to 3 world championship titles.  But my outstanding memory of Larry Bird was seeing his ritual of being alone on the court before a game, shooting jump shot after jump shot, before any other player on either team even made an appearance.

What was he going to accomplish with all of that practice?  Wasn’t that jump shot already so perfectly embedded in his muscle memory that it could never be lost even if for some strange reason he wanted to lose it?

And that brings me back to Tiger Woods and my outstanding memory of him. It was a Nike commercial, where he is repeatedly and flawlessly bouncing a golf ball off the head of a golf club, as though he was hitting a tennis ball off a tennis racket. He softly hits the ball up in the air in front of his body, then moves the club behind his back, and then through his legs. The ball never stops until he makes it land and rest, incredibly, on the head of the club – with seemingly unnatural control.

If you are involved in sports or fitness at any level, you have likely bumped into a coach or trainer who preached the gospel of the mind-body connection. But George Leonard operated on a different plane.  He preached the gospel of the mind-body-spirit connection.

We live in a culture that preaches measurable accomplishment.  Competitors train and hone their skills with their eyes on the award, the trophy, the championship, the MVP.  We, the more ordinary humans, seek our own individual milestones: losing 25 pounds, adding 50 pounds to our best deadlift, running 26 miles in under 4 hours, or seeing our first poem or short story published in a magazine. We set our sights on goals that keep us working and that keep us engaged in our training.

But, are we missing something that would bring us greater success and greater happiness? To me, George Leonard’s view of mastery is still somewhat of a mystery, but it is a mystery worth solving, so I am going to examine some clues, taken right from master’s lips:

Clue #1: Fundamentals, Practice, Small Incremental Steps

“Almost without exception, those we know as masters are dedicated to the fundamentals of their calling. They are zealots of practice, connoisseurs of the small incremental step.”

Tiger Woods and Larry Bird stand-out as zealots of practice, but what exactly does practice accomplish when conducted by individuals who are already at the very pinnacle of their sport? I think the answer lies in the phrase: “small incremental step.”
How many incremental steps are there to shooting a jump shot? If you or I might break it down to 5 steps or 7 steps, is it likely that Larry Bird broke his down to 10 or 12 steps, examining and perfecting micro-movements that are invisible to most observers?
And what about Tiger junking his seemingly perfect swing? Could it be that he saw microscopic components that did not mesh as perfectly as he wished they did and as perfectly as spectators and critics believed they did?

Clue #2: The Journey and The Plateau

“To take the master’s journey, you have to practice diligently, striving to hone your skills, to attain new levels of competence. But while doing so – and this is the inexorable fact of the journey – you will have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere.”

Your goal is to throw a 95 mile per hour fastball – literally or metaphorically. You started with an 88 mph fastball.  Your version of this goal could apply to any other sport, or fitness challenge, or life mission.

You practice religiously. You get good coaching. You adjust your mechanics. You practice your new and improved motion, and It begins to payoff. You are consistently throwing at 90 miles per hour, and you continue to practice, and practice, and practice, but your progress comes to a stop. You feel that you are getting nowhere.

You have reached the dreaded plateau.

So, what do you do? It is here, on the plateau that many give up. But if you decide that you are on the road to mastery, you will have no reason to give up. You understand that you must embrace the journey. You realize that true progress comes in small incremental steps, and that those steps may be so small that you cannot see them.

Clue #3: Loving The Plateau

“Loving the plateau is to love the eternal now, to enjoy the inevitable spurts of progress and the fruits of accomplishment, then serenely to accept the new plateau that waits just beyond them. To love the plateau that awaits just beyond them. To love the plateau is to love what is most essential and enduring in your life.”

When your fastball went from 88 to 90, it seemed to happen all at once, in a great spurt of progress. But, in reality your skill improved before you saw the measurable result. Now, on the plateau, while you are focused on every micro-component of your arm motion, you are continuing to improve, even though you have not seen the measurable proof of that improvement.

So, when that next spurt does happen and the radar gun tells you that you are now throwing at 93 mph, you of course enjoy those fruits, but your road to mastery demands that you continue to practice and hone your skill, while you look forward to your next plateau.

Clue #4: The Journey is Endless

“Ultimately, the master and the master’s journey are one. And if the traveler is fortunate – that is, if the path is complex and profound enough – the destination is two miles farther away for every mile he or she travels.”

Are we now getting closer to solving the mystery, or are we coming to terms with the truth that the mystery of mastery is not quite solvable?

The destination never stands still.  If we are fortunate enough to find our 95 miles per hour fastball, we will either set our sights on 96 or we will find the components that need to be fixed or replaced to have the most efficient and consistent 95 that we can possibly attain. For Tiger Woods, the perfect golf swing is one that he has not yet discovered. For Larry Bird, the perfect jump shot was farther down the path. For you, the perfect deadlift, tennis serve, kettlebell swing, 10K road race, chess match, or whatever may be your own personal fastball just might be a lot more than what you see in the mirror, on the radar gun, or on the stat sheet. It might lie deep in your soul. It might begin with the simple joy that comes with your deep connection to the golf club, or the basketball, the barbell – your fingers on the seams of the baseball, or on the strings of the guitar, or in the garden soil.

Our culture drums into our brains that we must have goals. Trainers and coaches tell us that those goals must be measurable, and George Leonard agrees, but he also tells us:

“Keep your eyes on the path. And when you reach the top of the mountain, as the Zen saying goes, keep on climbing.”

A true master never stops being a learner.

And a real detective never stops searching until the mystery has been solved.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Costume Change

I spent two and a half decades wearing a certain suit. For nearly all of that time, I was quite confident that it fit me to a tee. So, what do you do? That is the question that you get from strangers that either begins a conversation or changes the subject. I am in the trade show business usually triggered the latter, since most strangers had no idea what that meant nor did they care to find out. 

When a stranger would express an interest in what I did and why I did it, I likened the job of running trade shows and events to being in the carnival business. You go to different cities. You take a big empty space and you fill it with attractions and booths. People sell. People perform. People buy. Then it closes and you take the trade show or the carnival to the next town.

It did fit me to a tee. Some shows were great because they drew big crowds. Some were dreadful because they drew tiny crowds. Most were simply middle of the road but I almost always believed that I would eventually find the key that would make them great.

Over the years I worked with quite a few others who entered the business after I did. Most of them did not enjoy it, and they left. But I was somehow suited for it – the highs and lows and all those in-betweens. It often seemed (falsely) that customers either loved us or hated us. You had to find ways to make that balance work in your favor, which I somehow was able to do.

When you have a perfect fit that lasts for almost two and a half decades, you probably do not consider that there might be an expiration date. But, for me, there was.

Now, the suit that I wore for two and a half decades hangs in my closet. I wear a t-shirt and workout pants. I became a personal and group trainer, and kettlebell instructor. My favorite clients are optimistic men and women in their 50s, 60s, and 70s who are hopeful that they can get strong in spite of their injuries, surgeries, and health problems.

One client, in his 60s, has Parkinson’s disease, forcing him to deal with unnerving tremors that begin in his left hand and work their way up his arm. The tremors quiet down when his hand grips an object. When he completes a vigorous routine with his hands gripping the handle of a heavy kettlebell, he is tired, relaxed, and happy with the feeling that he is getting stronger, in spite of the beast which inhabits his body.

Observing such results has helped me grow comfortable in my new suit.

Thank you for listening. I will see you here again – sooner, rather than later.

P.S. I write about fitness at Train Brilliantly!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Margarine Man

So, where did you go? 

You disappeared rather abruptly.  I suppose you could say that there was no reason for you to hang around.  After all, the game ended, and you lost. And you will never get another shot.  Maybe you needed to be alone, or at least alone with your family, and friends, and associates. You never struck the rest of us as being the type who would need to crawl into a cave and lick your wounds, but then again, we did not know you.  We only saw that slick, hyper-confident veneer.  

Beneath that mask, there might have been a shattered expression – a silent scream.  Perhaps, but we will never know.

Still, it is odd not to hear at least a peep of your once ubiquitous voice. You had so much to say, and you took every appropriate and inappropriate opportunity to say it. Did you forever lose your voice the moment after the famous fat lady sang?  Did your opinions, whatever they genuinely were, suddenly evaporate? The big issues and angry debates certainly haven’t diminished.  In fact, this new civil war is as bitter and dangerous, and for some, as exciting and energizing as it ever was. 

So much has been decided by your defeat, but even more remains in play.  It goes on without you.

So, why the silence?  What happened to your passion?  Was any of it real, or was it all just about closing the deal, and not really about changing the future?  No need to answer.  I think most of us, including your temporary, hopeful friends of convenience, searched for your soul and came up empty.

And, please do not lecture me that too many of us have a problem with ambition, and that we begrudge you your wealth and success.  No one enters the biggest of all races in the free world without lofty ambition and enormous ego.  But, the worthy ones also bring big ideas and deep conviction, and there lies the difference between the margarine and the butter.

It is unhealthy to eat a phony food that is made in a laboratory and is a molecule away from being plastic.  Take a stick of margarine and a stick of butter and place both in the backyard of one of your homes, in one of your many “home” states.  The squirrels and the raccoons will devour the butter and leave the margarine untouched.  Instinct protects them.

And, our collective wisdom protects us.  We are wiser now because you reminded us that a false product is usually the least healthy choice. 

Thank you for that reminder.  Thank God for that reminder.