Cultivating Mastery: The Humble Truth about Progress

Cultivating Mastery: The Humble Truth about Progress

What is mastery?

Perhaps it’s easier said than understood. At first blush, one might imagine an athlete who has perfected his or her craft. Standing tall and proud, hands clasped in triumph. And yet… something is missing from that picture…

How did they get there?

Not long ago I had the pleasure of meeting a medical doctor who was in the business of purveying hope in unlikely places. He worked in the field of pediatric palliative care – a business where hope is scarce and frankly, difficult to conceive.

Unusually, this particular doctor had dedicated his life to discovering a family’s needs, wants and desires, given the dire circumstances they found themselves in. He listened with skill to their dreams and their fears, and helped them to craft the best possible way forward together.

What struck me about this man was his immense humility – and how it seemed to allow him to see the bigger picture.

No one would doubt his level of technical skill. Nor could they disagree that he had the clearest and purest of intentions. Yet the third ingredient – his willingness to empty himself of a need to “already know” in order to be present with the people he was serving – was an integral part of what made him a master at his craft.

In his writing on Practical Wisdom, psychology professor Barry Schwartz describes the difference between outstanding fire fighters, and those who are still learning their trade. These masterful players seem to have a few things in common, 1) they have embodied the skill required to call upon their personal strengths and talents at the right moments, in order to do their work well and 2) they have the will to make the right decisions that will serve the highest good of those involved.

It turns out that humility – the ability to put one’s own attachment to mastery or expertise aside in order to fully take in and address the immediate situation – also plays a big part in both the cultivation, and the living, of mastery.

Taking each moment, whether it be the first or the one thousand two hundred fifty-first, as a fresh new experience in which there is something important to be learned, can make the difference between getting something done… and doing something really well.

This week I invite you to consider your relationship with mastery.

For example, think about the areas in your life in which you have cultivated a great deal of raw skill.

Are there moments when you use that skill in a masterful way, to serve the greater good of those involved?

How does that feel?  What’s different about YOU in those moments?  What are you most conscious of?

And, how are you received?

Or, perhaps you are one of those people who jumps from thing to thing, never staying in one place for long enough to truly master your craft.

If that’s you, what’s challenging about staying in one place?

Without judgment, take stock of your priorities, habits and even fears in this arena. You can use your observations to design your practice this week.


In your movement practice,

choose one thing you already do well and up the level of attention you place on it this week. Rather than add more complexity, take this week to simplify – your two-step, your golf swing, your flip-turn, your trot… choose a familiar part of your craft and dive in deeper. Expand your awareness. Sense the more minute details. What can you learn that will increase your capacity to do well?

And who do you want to be while doing it?

In life,

think about one situation, role or relationship in which you’d like to cultivate a deeper level of mastery. The next time you find yourself in that situation, practice entering with humility. Ask yourself: what is most needed here? And then really listen. What skills are you bringing to the table? What is it your intention to serve?

Take note – are able to empty yourself out in order to discover the next level?

In practice with you,


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