The Mechanics of Mastery (And Why We Give Up)

A Zen Master and one of his disciples in a Zen garden. Behind their a some clouds crossing in front the moon. They belong to the tradition of Zen Buddhism.

Inspired by a talk given by Jesse Lawler

Do you believe most skills are learned, or innate?

Chances are it’s a mix of the two – maybe you believe you can learn new skills but you are still “not a math person.” Or have two left feet. Or just aren’t an athletic person.


I believe the three most destructive mental dispositions that exist are:

1. Insecurity – the underlying source of most negative emotions
2. Fixed mindset – the belief that traits are mostly fixed (the source of giving up because you don’t believe you can improve, as well as things like an incarceration system which focuses on punishment rather than reform)
3. Believing emotions are external/real – this is when one might see emotions as an environmental byproduct, an objectively real attribute of the world (I am mad because you insulted me), versus a subjective reaction to a situation (I am mad because you said words to me which I took as an insult which hurt my pride. This caused negative emotions in me – they are from me and they are mine.)

This post is about #2.

Let’s say you want to get better at something…how do you do it?

“Just practice. Practice makes perfect.”

But what if you don’t get better right away? Or don’t even KNOW if you are getting better?

Here’s how the 4 phases of competence work (and why it’s so easy to get frustrated at new things): 

1. Unconscious incompetence – you don’t know what you don’t know and suck at.

2. Conscious incompetence – you know what you don’t know and are bad at.

3. Conscious competence – you start to get good, but it takes a lot of conscious effort.

4. Unconscious competence – you are good, and can be good without really thinking about it. This is true mastery.

Why is this really interesting? Because it explains why it is easy to give up

Think about the actual experience of feeling extremely overwhelmed and ridiculous by a new skill or concept. This is where the fixed mindset tends to rear its ugly head.

If you aren’t familiar with the above phases then it might be easy to conclude “I am just bad at this” instead of understanding “I am in the conscious incompetence phase.”

It is easy to think “it’s just too difficult,” “I’ll always be bad at it,” “I’m just not a natural,” etc. Then you give up.

How this plays out in real life

Example 1 – Not A Good Way To Learn

I’m a terrible rapper. I had a good friend growing up who loved to rap, so it led to some extremely embarrassing moments.

I have a memory of smoking weed with my rapping friend and some of the “cool kids” in high school showed up (all of this is extremely contradictory with my personal identity – I was feeling WAY out of place).

All of the sudden, we end up in a circle, with people rap battling each other. Everyone was taking a turn. One by one.


Important note: I am extremely reactive to most substances, and I definitely wasn’t used to smoking weed. So at that moment I was actually unable talk, and had just slightly drooled on myself while watching as the dog of one of the “cool kids” seemed to lick my hand then instantly disappear.

So when it was my turn, people continued to beatbox and someone tells me “Your turn Grant!” I pause awkwardly, and all I can do is anxiously blurt out..


…then proceed to avoid eye contact.

The point of this story is that this kind of embarrassment is very common when people start a new skill. Needless to say, that did not greatly encourage me to think that rapping is something I could ever be good at. And because of this, the whole thing is uncomfortable for me and something I’ve avoided ever since.

Example 2 – A Great Way To Learn

Not only was I always a bit socially awkward, but historically I was quite clumsy.

Yet somehow I got really really good at salsa dancing, which is not a common occurrence amongst uncoordinated introverts.

There were many reasons why this happened, but a key one was having a great first experience with it:

A few years back a friend invites me to a random salsa dancing event on the weekend. Neither of us had danced anything before, and we were both the types to hide in the corner during a high school dance, but it still sounded like fun to try.

We walk into a nice hotel, and there are about 20 people from all over the world dancing skillfully to types of music which sounded extremely foreign to me.

I played the alto sax for many years, so I actually have a great sense of rhythm…but I honestly couldn’t even comprehend the beat to salsa dancing when I first heard it, let alone dance to it!

This is the transformative moment – when something is uncomfortable, overwhelming and out of place. Either things go really well and you want more, or you have a negative experience that you avoid in the future, concluding “I am just not a dancer.”

But when my friend and I walked in and started trying to learn, there was immediately a warm aura of patience and acceptance without judgement.

Beautiful women would walk up to me, ask me to dance, then try to show me things. There was great patience when I made lots of mistakes, as well as a ton of encouragement and delight when I did something correctly.

I had an amazing time, and so I went back again and again and again.

Just like rapping I was terrible to begin with, but the difference was the social and emotional push to continue versus avoid out of fear of future embarrassment.

Studies show that when people learn a new skill, positive feedback is much more effective (“awesome you just did that right!”) than criticisms (“you just did that wrong!”). It is only once you are already skilled that constructive criticism becomes an asset instead of a hindrance.

Can you think of a time when you had a strong negative experience that deterred you from improving at a new skill? A time when you had a great experience with a new skill that kept you coming back for more?

Here are the key takeaways:

1. Your ability to be great is directly dependent with your ability to put up with being really BAD.
2. Positive or negative experiences early in the process of learning a skill can make or break it for you, so be careful about your learning environment.

If you can deal with sucking, you can get excellent easily over time, if you cannot deal with sucking, then you will give up at everything before you can put in the time to get good at it. I see this all the time.

Further Reading:
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