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What would you say is the least common denominator of all successful people?
What have they done that enabled them to rise above the rest of the crowd?
Why do others clamor to give them their money?
Sure, successful people are usually smart, motivated, hard-working, and so on, but these aren’t the fundamental reasons for their success. They can’t charge customers for their intelligence, energy level, or work ethic.
What they can charge outrageous sums for (and do) and what serves as the foundation of every wildly successful business venture is mastery. Extraordinary ability to do something that others find valuable.
That’s what “striking it big” boils down to: You have to master something that others find valuable. That means you have to be so good that people talk about you and your work. You’ll have fans. You’ll get sought out for advice. People will pay you premiums for your work.
Does mastering something mean that you have to be the best in the world? Absolutely not (but feel free to strive for this!). It simply means to become highly skilled in something or acquire a complete understanding of it.
This principle applies to any undertaking in life and business. This applies whether you work for someone or for yourself: If you haven’t mastered something that your customers or employer finds very valuable, don’t expect much success.
Many people settle for mediocrity and are rewarded in kind: mediocre pay, mediocre acknowledgement, mediocre status.
Mastery, however, shines like a lighthouse in our society. Mastery attracts attention and business. Mastery is instinctively respected and admired by others. Everyone in the world who has achieved real, honest success has mastered something.
The professional sports player has mastered his sport to a point where a businessman is willing to pay him millions of dollars per year to play on his team and entertain the fans.
The millionaire writer has mastered the art of storytelling sufficiently to be able to entertain hundreds of thousands or millions of people.
The person that runs the successful company selling widgets has mastered how to market and sell his products to people that need and want them (as a matter of fact, almost ever self-made millionaire I know is a master of sales and/or marketing).
Now, what does it take to achieve mastery? Many books have been written on the subject (this one is particularly good), but I think it boils down to a handful of simple steps:
Make a Decision
“I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories.”
-John Steinbeck in East of Eden
When you watch an interview with a brilliant and successful person, something might happen deep down in your gut. From somewhere down there a feeling might arise that leads you to think, “Some are chosen to create brilliant work, and the rest of us are screwed. Lucky him.”
What you usually miss from those interviews, however, are the stories of the hours, days, weeks, months, and years of dedicated, grueling practice and perseverance that it took to get there.
You’ll probably also miss that in the beginning—when that person was just another face in the crowd—a decision was made. On a particular day, at a particular hour, the person had said, “This is the thing I will dedicate my working life to.”
The first step on the road of mastery is to make a conscious decision about what you will decide to master.
Do not wait for it. Decide.
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Focus, Focus, Focus
” Your time and energy are limited, and you must learn how to preserve them. Exhaustion and frustration can ruin your presence of mind.”
-Robert Greene in The 33 Strategies of War
Our society tells us from a young age that to become a “well-rounded” individual is wise and good. If you want to master your craft, ignore this advice.
The master has focused intensely on a narrow set of skills and ultimately led to incomparable ability. He has studied other various subjects and disciplines only to the point that they served his needs in what he is mastering. He has become competent in other fields to help develop and further his chosen skill.
Think deeply about the core demands of your craft. What is needed to advance in mastery of it? What can be ignored as mere distraction?
Practice brutal focus. Emphasize what’s needed, and shun what can be ignored.
Become an Idiot
“To become strong, a man’s life needs the limitations ordained by duty and voluntarily accepted. The individual attains significance as a free spirit only by surrounding himself with these limitations and by determining for himself what his duty is.”
Idiocy is the other side of the coin of mastery. You can’t have one without the other. I know that sounds odd, but let me explain.
In order to focus your working life on mastering your craft, you’ve got to rule out a lot of the trivia that takes up most people’s time.
Many masters achieved their amazing abilities by …becoming idiots.
You see, their greatness—and ours—is largely defined by what they do not know. To reach the exalted state of mastery, they had one driving professional goal and shut out the rest. All of their mental power and attention was directed at a small set of practices and disciplines that support them.
Distraction pulls us in all directions. The boredom of repetition drives us to other interests. The pressures of culture make us worry we are missing out on something “important” by dedicating ourselves to our pursuit of mastery.
If you want to master writing, you are going to have to give up the fantasy of running the 800 meters in the Olympic Games. If you want to master the cello, you are probably going to have to give up following all the best television shows. If you want to master anything, you must become an idiot in nearly everything else.
You must become an idiot to become a genius.
Continue to Obsess
“In this age, which believes that there is a short cut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, the easiest.”
When you’re going for mastery, you’re playing the long game. It takes thousands of hours of focused practice to get there, which is why a decision to achieve mastery in some field or activity shouldn’t be made lightly.
This path of mastery is not for everyone, but I believe it is one of the great callings and joys this life has to offer.
You’ll never get all the way there … nobody does. But do not despair, the meaning comes from the making. And it’s a much more pleasurable way to live than by doing just enough to get by.
There is only so much time in one day, and only so many days in one life. Why not spend them in the pursuit of greatness? Why not strive for the unattainable?
Choose. Focus. Become an idiot. Continue to obsess. And achieve mastery.