Slouching Towards Mastery

The previous post on the unsuspected nature of genius needs a follow-up, and this is it. It is now clear that what we call “genius” is a function of hard, relentless work leavened with good instruction and mentoring. But the process of approaching mastery baffles and sometimes discourages would-be learners because they don’t understand the nature of the process. An excellent read on this subject is a little gem of a book by George Leonard titled Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment. The title may sound a bit like some New Age or Tom Peters gospel, but don’t let that put you off.

Leonard explains that the learning process normally consists of brief periods of rapid progress interspersed with “plateaus” where we apparently get nowhere and perhaps even seem to decline a little. I recently read a wonderful description of this process by cartoonist Jules Feifer describing his early experience in the late thirties and early forties as a young comic book artist:

“The schlock houses were the art schools of the business. Working blind but furiously, working from swipes, working from the advice of others who drew better because they were in the business two weeks longer, one, suddenly, learned how to draw. It happened in spurts. Nothing for a while: not being able to catch on, not being able to foreshorten correctly, or get perspectives straight or get the blacks to look right. Then suddenly: a breakthrough. One morning you can draw forty per cent better than you could when you quit the night before. Then, again, you coast. Your critical abilities improve but your talent won’t. Nothing works. Despair. Then another breakthrough. Magically, it keeps happening. Soon it stops being magic, just becomes education.” (The Great Comic Book Heroes, The Dial Press, 1965, p. 50)

Getting back to Leonard’s book, apparently this is true of pretty much everything people learn, whether it’s drawing, playing the piano, learning a language, kung fu, or math. He reminds the learner not to be frightened of the plateaus because stuff is going on inside your head that is preparing for the next breakthrough. “Love the plateaus” is his advice.

Sadly, formal education does not really allow for this, and it can’t unless we go back to individual tutors or very small classes on very flexible schedules. Each learner reaches plateaus and breakthroughs on their own time and in their own way. Trying to “break through” the plateaus by working too hard can sometimes be counterproductive.

A person’s “learning style” will have its effect as well, although you can also use learning styles when engaging in self-study to maximize your effectiveness as a learner. That is something for another time, but the point remains: do not take recent lack of progress as a sign of failure. Get to know your learning patterns and, if you use an instructor, find one who understands the nature of individual learning who can help you see the plateau as part of your journey to the next peak.


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