The 4 steps to mastery

productivity May 24, 2023
The 4 steps to mastery

Whenever we acquire new skills, there is a learning curve to it. We start on one phase and end on another. The most common knowledge about mastery is that it takes about 10,000 hours to achieve mastery. Rather than think of mastery like this, I prefer to think of it in the 4 steps to mastery.

These 4 steps are more like phases than actual instructions. Nevertheless, to achieve mastery you go through all of them.

These 4 steps to mastery are outlined in Shannon Lee's book Be Water, my FriendEver since I read this book, it changed my perspective on life and mastery.

Today, I'll be sharing the 4 steps to mastery with you here. Here's the general overview of each one as I've come to understand it.

1. The formless novice

Have you ever tried teaching somebody a skill they've never tried before? It can be quite exhausting. They have so many questions that you know the answers to. They mess up on the smallest of things. However, it isn't long until they acquire some sort of form. This beginning phase is when they have neither form nor skill and is the first step toward mastery.

If you've ever seen a kid try to play an instrument, you'll notice that they probably have no idea what they're doing. In order to make any sort of coherent sound, they have to follow the teacher's instructions.

The phase of the formless novice is noted by a sort of free-flowing form with a lack of any skill binding it together. The end result of this is they experiment, but they reach no satisfactory conclusions.

The formless novice is defined by curiosity and the desire to learn. They want to achieve a form so they can accelerate their learning.

As they learn more and more, they acquire a form and start to make progress that is clear and coherent. At this point, they reach the second phase.

2. The formed apprentice

An integral part of learning is mimicry. When you start out, there's no way you'll understand all the nuances of the skill you're trying to learn. It's in this stage that the formless novice acquires a form to follow and their learning accelerates. Thus, they graduate from being a beginner.

The phase of the formed apprentice is the most common one you'll see out there. Most people want to skip past the novice stage to learn faster, but this can end up backfiring.

The point of the novice stage is to spark interest and passion. The point of the formed apprentice stage is to harness that passion and turn it into drive.

The phase of the formed apprentice is in stark contrast to the formless novice. 

Whereas the formless novice is free-flowing, the formed apprentice is rigid. This trade-off is made for greater efficiency in learning.

The formed apprentice is defined by a desire to make greater progress, more than when they were a formless novice. The way they achieve this is by following the teachings of the master, with experiments becoming rare.

This phase is meant to give the skills necessary for the student to advance to the next stage of mastery.

3. The formless master

Have you ever watched a master at work? They do their thing effortlessly, almost as if they aren't thinking about it. They just do it, and it's done. Well, that's more or less what happens. At this point, the student becomes a master of the skill, entering the third phase of mastery.

In learning a skill, you go full circle but with a twist. You return to your formless flowing, but this time with the skills you've desired from the beginning.

The phase of the formless master begins when the student has learned all they can from the teacher, and the student needs to start their own journey. The student must discover the nuances for themselves.

When this happens, the rigid nature of the formed apprentice is set loose. The whole point of that rigidity was so they could learn the necessary skills.

But once they learn those skills, there is no more point to the rigidity. Once you have the necessary skills, you need freedom of expression once more.

The phase of the formless master is a return to that curiosity you had as a novice, but with the skills you've acquired as an apprentice. These two traits are the hallmark of a master.

The end of the formless master phase is denoted by an understanding of the fact that learning never ends. Once the formless master understands that a true master is an eternal student, they reach the final phase.

4. The Void

No, you didn't read that wrong. This is actually how it's defined in the book. The rarest of all the stages, the void is for those who are truly devoted. This stage is a bit difficult to explain, so I'll start right away.

The formless master is defined by the curiosity of the novice with the skills of the apprentice. The void is defined by simply the curiosity of the novice.

At this point, there is no more form. There is no form to follow, you just do what needs to be done. This is true mastery.

Those who reach the void are defined only by the desire to continue their learning. They desire further exploration, but not mastery.

They continue their learning not to acquire any more skills, but to have more fun. They still use their skills, but they aren't actively thinking about them.

The void is that point where you've become so good at a skill, it's automatic. Not even second nature, it just happens. 

The best teachers are those who have reached the void. They have the skills the novice needs to make progress but also understand the desire to enjoy the process.

Those who reach the void understand best that learning is eternal. This is why they make the best teachers.

Take your damn time

The process of mastery is not an easy one. It requires dedication and patience, two things that many people struggle to have.

If you can harness these two things for yourself, you'll find yourself learning so many things at such a deep level. 

Making progress as a man is reliant on you mastering key skills. Remember to take your time and enjoy the process, you have all your life to master your skills.

- Karl