One of my early articles for this publication looked Beyond 10,000 Hours: The Constant Pursuit Of Mastery. The main point was about embracing your own unique talent, developing it into a strength, and devoting yourself to a cause. It’s worth relooking at and updating as we head into 2023.

Robert Greene’s book “Mastery” made a compelling case that mastery is earned, not granted. He describes three distinct phases of the journey, I) Apprenticeship, II) Creative-Active and III) Mastery. For leaders, it’s valuable to apply this thinking to their own quests – particularly keeping in mind the goal is not to become a master, but continually to pursue mastery with a purpose.

If mastery is your end point, when you get there, you are done. You are at the top, the pinnacle, the peak. However, as Darwin told us, survival of the fittest is about survival of those best able to adapt, and adapting is a continual process. That’s why achieving mastery is so dangerous. The only way to go from the peak is down. The moment you think you have arrived; you begin to atrophy and decline. As others adapt and move past you, your chances of survival diminish. Thus, the pursuit of mastery is a never-ending quest.

Crossing Greene’s ideas (including his portrayal of Darwin) with Malcolm Gladwell’s in “Outliers,” and Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman’s theories in “First Break All the Rules,” leads to three prescriptions.

1) Embrace your own unique talent

We all have talents. Buckingham and Coffman describe talent as “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behavior that can be productively applied.”

Greene rejects the notion of natural talent or brilliance and suggests what really matters is our innate preferences for particular activities or subjects of study. He describes how a number of masters discovered their own talents and passions. Similarly, in his book, “Bounce,” Matthew Syed suggests talent is a myth and it all comes down to practice.

They could all be right in that it may be possible to overcome some lack of talent or build on preferences with deliberate practice. It reminds us, we are all different. We each have unique talents or preferences and success is going to be much easier if you build off your own strengths instead of fighting them or concentrating on your weaknesses.

2) Develop it into a strength

There is no way anyone can become a concert violinist without talent. But talent is not enough. You must acquire knowledge and skills. Knowledge comes from study. Skills come from practice. Gladwell suggests that becoming an expert or master requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

This is where Greene’s notions of Apprenticeship and Creative-Active come in. These are the phases Greene’s masters went through between embracing their own talents and becoming masters. They learned from others, practiced their skills, gained hard-won experience and built craft-level caring and sensibilities as apprentices: observing, practicing, and experimenting – ideally under the tutelage of a mentor. Then they went beyond what they had been taught to create new knowledge and new skills in their creative-active period.

3) Devote yourself to a cause

The most inspiring causes are unending. As Greene describes, what drove Albert Einstein was “a fascination with invisible forces that governed the universe;” what drove filmmaker Ingmar Bergman was “the sensation of animating and creating life;” and what drove musician John Coltrane was “giving voice to powerful emotions.” No one masters the universe, life or emotions. They pursue understanding, sensing and creating.

The pursuit of leadership mastery

Leadership is about inspiring, enabling and empowering others to do their absolute best, together, to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose. People will follow someone who takes them to a happy place in a happy way. But they will devote themselves to the cause of a BRAVE leader who helps them make sense of their behaviors, relationships, attitudes, values and environment. It’s not about you. It’s not about your talents or your strengths. It’s about the never-ending pursuit of learning and getting better at inspiring, enabling and empowering others to join you in a shared purpose.

May your 2023 be filled with just that as you pursue mastery with a purpose.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #810) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.

Follow me on Twitter.
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