In Defense of The Pursuit of Mastery

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There’s been a lot of talk, especially in the blogosphere, about having the freedom to put together a basket of interests, to pursue a wide variety of things simultaneously and figure out how to do do them in a way and on a level that allows you to mold together a decent living.

Freedom to pursue multiple interests, it’s claimed, is the end-all, be-all. Deep knowledge, total devotion to the pursuit of mastery in a single field has been, to a certain extent demonized. And here’s where I raise my hand, because on occasion, I’ve likely stoked that very fire.

But increasingly, I wonder if part of what’s going on here is that people, let me rephrase that – “I” – have not been willing to endure the intense work, discipline and willingness to embrace risk needed to walk away from certain ingredients in my “interest basket” in the name of becoming extraordinary at one.

I’m beginning to challenge the assumption that the desire to piece together a multi-tentacled living is really about freedom.

I’m wondering if “blending” interests is really the ultimate manifestation of fear and constraint.

Do we really feel good about spending our time being pretty decent at a bunch of things, but not exceptional at any?

Does this make us feel better than we’d feel earning an equal or better living at a single pursuit that allows us to experience that rare, exquisite sense of contentment that comes from having developed a level of mastery over a single, discrete set of skills or body of knowledge?

Or, is the need to not have a three-word answer to the question “what do you do for a living?” more a reflection of:

  • An inability to own the intense work needed for the pursuit of mastery,
  • A desire to avoid the potential pain of failure, and
  • Fear of choosing the wrong “one thing” and having to endure the pain of starting over

I can’t answer this for every person.

But what I DO know is that I’m beginning to feel like it’s time for me to reel in the nets a bit.

I’m getting increasingly dissatisfied with being known as someone who’s pretty good at a whole bunch of things, and I’m yearning more and more to be known as the X guy. The one everyone turns to for “that thing.”

Maybe not for life. I’m quite certain X will evolve into Y and then Z over a period of years or decades. But I’m feeling the need to explore and master one at a time, even if it means leaving certain activities on the table, risking choosing the wrong one and having to correct.

Sequential is starting replace simultaneous as my mantra.

Because I yearn for the sense of intensity, focus and intrinsic reward and that comes from a single-minded quest to master a particular body of knowledge, set of skills or field. I want to radiate the energy that comes not only from having attained mastery, but from being in the quest. The innate joy of the process, to me, is equally if not more rewarding than the end state.

And, yes, though I also fear the addictive pull of the pursuit of mastery, I believe strongly in the ability to put in place mechanisms that support a more humane, albeit very likely slower path, that honors not only the quest, but my deep commitment to be present and revel in the activities and relationships I hold dear along the way.

Now comes the really hard part…the selection process. Owning my X, and shelving the rest.

Curious, how do YOU feel about all of this?

 

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115 responses

115 responses to “In Defense of The Pursuit of Mastery”

  1. Adam King says:

    Just keep in mind that the pursuit of true mastery has no end.

    Ironically, though, your particular level of mastery that you must attain in whatever path you choose may manifest itself a lot earlier than anticipated – resulting in you moving and flowing into another path of pursuit. That fact has frustrated me in the past.

    But take heart that it all equals the pursuit of mastering Jonathan.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Thanks, Adam. Agreed on all. While my ego would love to be known as the go to person for X, like you, being immersed in the process is really what fires me up

  2. Matt says:

    I don’t believe in mastery, because it implies that a person has reached (or is near) a pinnacle. That means there’s nowhere in that field left for that person to grow. That’s why some martial arts avoid the use of that term, to acknowledge that even people who have spent their lives practicing an art can still learn new things.

    As for the focus on one thing, I have no issue with other people doing that – we need specialists, because they help drive knowledge forward in a given field. Personally, I don’t care to be a specialist in anything too granular; for example, I’m a Software Tester by trade, but there are plenty of other areas in IT that (a) are of interest and (b) I can work in with some degree of proficiency.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Thanks, Matt. To me it’s more about the “pursuit” than the “status” of mastery. Apologies if that wasn’t clear from what I wrote toward the end of the post.

  3. J-

    Well, competence translates across things. But, when you find something you can be the best in the world at, working your ass off is the thing to do.

    I used to sell websites, videos, seo, copywriting, design.

    I didn’t ever get traction. I didn’t make money consistently.

    I ditched everything and did a specific kind of video (http://simplifilm.com/work).

    We’ve gotten better at running things with every delivery, and we’re making consistent money and having a blast. We don’t have all of our soldiers on the field yet. When we do, big things will be here.

  4. Sarah Lewis says:

    Funny timing. I just flipped to this tab from the Amazon page for The Idea Hunter. In the “Amazon.com Exclusive from the Authors” section, this point was highlighted:

    Be a “T” rather than a purely “I” professional. The “I” type (think narrow and tight) is deeply versed in a specific area of expertise, while the “T” professional (think extended and broad) has a greater breadth of skills and interests. Both types of professional have much to offer, but “T” people are better at fostering the diverse connections and conversations needed to bring exceptional ideas to the surface.

    I think this “T” concept strikes a helpful balance between narrow-mastery and the basket of interests. Now I just have to figure out how to apply it to my basket!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Yep, I’ve recently seen that same T/I role analysis. I feel like I’ve been the T for a long time now. And I wonder, too, how valid the comparison really is. Might there come a time where you become so good at being a T that it becomes your I?

      • Justine Musk says:

        I’ve also seen that (and read that book, it’s good), and wondered about that. Suspect that successful multi-passionate people are T’s in that they have ‘mastered’ one particular thing that feeds and supports the rest (direct marketing, for example) — but is not as sexy to talk about — or they’ve had that brilliant, unifying insight that brings everything together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and the insight in and of itself represents a kind of mastery.

        Also wondering if this blending of interests is being mistaken for well-rounded — to me it’s something different, still very spiky, demanding of tenacity focus and sacrifice. The mastery of the thing + ability to manifest it in the world.

      • Laura Zera says:

        There is a program at Seattle University called “Organization Systems Renewal,” which would have some of that result (of the T becoming your I). One description of the program is that you become a “specialized generalist,” able to move across all different sectors — corporate, non-profit, government.

        As for myself, I have been a consultant, hip-hopping across sectors for about eight years, and I now find that when I think about focusing in on mastering one area, it brings on a little panic attack. Once you’ve been operating in one mode for a while, it can be quite an adjustment (mentally and emotionally) to ‘reel in the net,’ as you said, Jonathan. Working across so many different areas, though, has left me pondering both my identity, and feeling a pull towards the idea of developing a ‘body of work’ in one area that would serve as my professional legacy.

  5. Peekay says:

    This really chimes with me at the moment – I feel my interests and feelings for so many different things, which can repeatedly help me generate great ideas in all those areas, also leads to a failure to totally “own” one thing, one area.

  6. Richie says:

    Great topic. There are multiple factors for me — one is economic: Over the years I’ve been in the workforce, I’ve had to stay nimble because the same-job-for-life paradigm that worked for my dad has become impossible for most people of my generation, partly due to the workforce/marketplace constraints, but also because of the “middle class striving” and expectations that I would be able to self actualize to any dream lifestyle I choose. So I might stay at a job for an average of six years but need to learn many skills on the job and not be content with the narrowness of widget-making or whatever. My restlessness saved me from drowning from reaching the pinnacle of, say, being a legal secretary.

    The second factor has to do with you could call the embrace of parallel tracks — rather than either/or paradigms, embrace both sequential and simultaneous. In fact I suspect that’s what you’re doing already. A kind of blending. And it’s very post-modern, LOL.

  7. “He who chases two rabbits, catches none.” ~Confucious

    I think we can be fluent in several “languages”, but pursuit of mastery is a sequence. In drawing for example, one of the ways to mastery is figure drawing. The classic, timeless and fundamental discipline of quick gesture drawing over a 3 hour session feeds the fluidity, the agility of that particular skill and many others. It would be silly, thwarting even to attempt anything else while in one of those sessions. Yet, the skill of observation, of detecting essence, of translating what is before one to line, perhaps to volume too, and capturing some sense of “more” than what meets the eye in 30 sec. then a min, then 3 min. , doing that consistently and in sequence, feeds the fluid response an artist needs to master in many facets of what we do.
    Application of that responsiveness, that agility, that real knowledge,
    Well that has a multitude of possible directions, across many disciplines.
    Yes?

  8. Annette says:

    How refreshing Jonathan to read your perspective. I am the exact opposite, having spent a decade (and still going) in my pursuit of mastery and have been wondering if in not having a broader view and approach I’ve missed the boat. The satisfaction of achieving mastery is immense but its also a high risk strategy. I guess it all depends what suits one best. Not everyone has the stamina to stay on a mastery path and not everyone has the flexibility to gain satisfaction from developing a broad skill set. Thank you for a great post.

  9. Rachel Greenberger says:

    Not only do I relate to the quest – I went so far as to make a film about it. It’s called “The Only Thing,” an 11-minute short, which premiered at the South Asian International Film Festival in 2008. You can watch it on Facebook.

  10. Dragos Roua says:

    I don’t see nothing fundamentally wrong here. It’s not about the right or wrong way to do things. As I see it, it’s about a need for identity from your part. Fostering and using different skills it’s still a tremendous joy source (at least for me). I guess it’s more the way you want to present yourself to the world. And, in the end, that has nothing to do with the things you learn, apply and leverage by living your life.

    So, now that you opened the discussion, what’s your X?

    • Like Dragos I am wondering what’s your X?

    • nora says:

      I think this is a personal thing – one person may be pursuing many things because of fear, another might be unsure what their ‘X’ is, while yet another may just be interested in many things. (even Freud who read into everything, agreed that “sometimes a banana is just a banana.”)

      I don’t think there’s a right and wrong ‘type’ to be. It’s what works for you. (and that might change over time).

  11. Andrea Olson says:

    After years of trying to master just one thing – from being a lawyer to selling real estate to working in higher education and a whole bunch in between – I’ve discovered that my natural proclivity to be interested in (and do) a multitude of things is the exact thing that has made me a valuable commodity. I’ve got range and breadth that allows me to look at opportunities and challenges a bit differently. That said, mastery is a beautiful thing as well (and I certainly want my advisors to be in a place of mastery!!). I think it is a personal choice about how you want to live your life. If you are walking away from mastery because you are afraid or don’t think you have the personal resources to deal with it, that’s a completely different situation than doing or trying something just because you want to. Personally, I am choosing to embrace my multitudes.

  12. Jay Baer says:

    incredible post. i’ve been thinking A LOT about this topic. Thanks for putting it out there.

  13. Jonathan,

    Wonderful, soul-searching post.

    I tend to agree with Brian Tracy on this one: become really excellent at one thing. And make sure it’s something you love, since it is possible to be a master and not love it (Andre Agassi, for example, which is still puzzling!).

    Better to be a master at one thing, and pretty good at a bunch of other things, than to be pretty good at everything and not get anywhere.

    The resistance toward committing oneself to one field or endeavor to me seems somewhat analogous to fear of commitment in relationships – you have to go all in to get a truly meaningful experience out of it.

    As always, timely and thoughtful, J!

    Peter

  14. Morgan says:

    Jonathan,

    We were just talking about this in the office this morning. We were saying how frustrating it is to come to a website and see that a person or company claims to be able to offer 10-20 different services. It makes me shy away from that person or company because I really do not believe that they can be an expert at all those things and to be able to supply me with the type of amazing service that I really want.

    I would rather hire 20 different people to do 20 different things because at least then I know those 20 different people are a master at what they do.

    I absolutely have my fingers in a lot of interests, but I also understand that I have one single aspect of business that I am absolutely devoted to and will sell only that service.

    Having a lot of interests is for my own well being and for being a well-rounded individual, not for business.

    Great post!!

  15. I think of mastery as being fully present to the process, in thought, word, deed, reflex.

    And I think you’ve opened two questions: how do you make your living, and how do you live your life.

    For me, in making a living, the focus and work of becoming a go-to resource is the way to go.

    But in life, although this can change with the seasons, wide exploration of talents ideas and interests is really important. It helps us to maintain a sense of beginnerhood.

    So, to do things badly, as you explored in a previous post, is a vital tonic for a full life.

  16. Mastery is a great thing to strive for. Once you dig a well deep enough to hit water, you reach a stream that connects all the shallow pools you may have been sampling up near the top layer.

    Having Mastery is not the same as “having mastered” something. A true master is always engaged and learning.

    I applaud you.

    (and have your read George Leonard’s little book called “Mastery”?)

  17. Kelly D says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    Your post feels very “timely” to me! Please do keep us in the loop as you go through your decision making process about what is the X that you’ll choose first to focus on. I am very interested in learning more about this.

    Regards,
    Kelly

  18. ginabad says:

    I think this is a very complex issue. For example, if you want to be a great fiction writer, and if that’s where your talent is, can you honestly give up your day job to pursue that? No, not in today’s publishing market. There is a lot to be said, though, about niching tightly. In my “field” (aka, my PT business) of web design, I noticed the most successful people do ONE thing, and outsource the various aspects rather than trying to do it all. There are always those who will try to do it all (programming, design, SEO, video editing, Flash, etc), but it made my life a MILLION times each when I focused on one thing, outsourced the rest.

    That said, what I’d love to do for real (blogging professionally) has not yet materialized in a way that I can earn a living, but still I try to master it.

  19. MikeTek says:

    A protection against the fear of failure, isn’t it?

    “Well I wasn’t really a X anyway, I was just dabbling.” If we define ourselves based on a specific art, skill or trade, internally and publicly, then when we come up short we lose that fallback.

    Nobody wants to define the specific terms of their own success/failure. There’s safety in keeping it vague.

    The dirty joke is that it only feels like safety when it’s actually suicide.

  20. Andy Sansone says:

    Interesting topic. Curious. Along with enjoying the process, are you motivated by the idea that mastery of ‘one thing’ instead of ‘jack of all trades/ master of none’ may result in a more financially lucrative strategy?

    • I am. But as was mentioned above, I think getting one thing rolling allows for the development of those abilities that had to wait for the money to start coming in.

      My strategy is to apply myself to what I perceive as my biggest strength, then fold in the lesser pursuits, as appropriate, to support that over time.

      But that one thing needs to lead the way.

      At least, that’s my plan.

      : )

      • Andy Sansone says:

        …sounds like a great plan to me! I assume the challenge for many will be identifying a specific direction to concentrate on. As you said, ‘over time’ may be a strategy that works best, eliminating the immediate need to select one thing and allowing for a gradual discovery of the ‘one thing’.

        • Yeah.

          We do have to accept that there is a lot of preliminary work to do in identifying what we really want, at least generally, and in laying the foundations for achieving it.

          For myself, I’m pretty sure the foundation is in place and now I’m beginning to frame the walls.

          Long way to the roof, but I’ll get there.

  21. Shane says:

    Jonathan,

    I think you touched on something here that is really important. I was mentioning just yesterday on G+ that our brains take in something like 2.5 billion pieces of information a second but most of that (for obvious reasons) is filtered out.

    And if you take this to the world of information then it exponentially increases – – because we have access to so many things at once and we feel empowered to do “anything” in the name of creativity and pursuit of freedom.

    As humans, we desire knowledge (Aristotle) and at one time it was either harder to get it or we were too focused on other stuff. But now, that’s changed. I think what you are saying is correct – – and instead of spreading ourselves too thin and being a generalist, perhaps focusing on one topic that we “most” desire is not only more productive but frees us up to deliver something better. And all the other desires we have, can be thought of as ways to escape and become our “hobbies”

    -sjk

  22. Jen Young says:

    I can so relate, Jonathan. As a jill-of-all-trades, I long to feel such passion for one thing to the point that I become a practicing master.

    Still, I see incredible value in pursuing multiple interests, especially in this day and age. We need to be exposed to many things so that we can create new combinations. Otherwise our mastery may become dogmatic and static.

    I think of it as doodling. We start off just moving the pen on a piece of paper. Eventually, we see an image that we want to manifest and refine. We begin to focus on what we are doing. Doodling becomes drawing. Something unique emerges.

    Of course, we may spend our whole lives doodling. There is mastery in that too, I think. In my mind, Jackson Pollack was a master doodler.

    • Pollack worked with Thomas Hart Benton early in his career. From American realism muralist to innovative action painter….we evolve into our paths don’t we? With our multitude of doodlings. I like your analogy.

  23. Marguerite says:

    Absolutely fantastic!!! I’ve gone through that change in both my educational pursuits and my creative and I can tell you from experience that it’s far more than rewarding. I’ve learned to channel that high-intensity fascination and focus into a single laser beam directed at one pursuit and it is turning that pursuit into a diamond. Am I where I want to be yet? Not even close. However, the sheer joy and contentment, the recognition that is being gained from that single-mindedness, the lessons learned about determination, and a host of other lessons have made the journey absolutely incredible.

    I think it’s actually quite liberating to pursue just one thing intensely. I find that when I take a break from it – even for a few hours – I enjoy my other interests and passions more than before and when I go back it is with a renewed sense of wonder at what has been achieved and what is yet to come.

    Take that step of faith in yourself, Jonathan, it’s so incredibly worth it. …But I have a feeling you already know that.

  24. Shelly Immel says:

    Thanks for bringing this up, Jonathan. My husband and I are opposites in this. Each of us has at times felt we had the short end of the stick.

    My husband thrives on the stimulation of multiple pursuits. When he’s given enough to one, he delves into the next. But in a year or three, he’ll be back to the first as a primary focus.

    I dive deep and stay in one area for years before moving from X to Y.

    He wishes he had my long-term focus (which he thinks of as fairly painless follow through–ha!), while I envy his ability to renew his creative energy by shifting focus.

    But the truth is that we each live as we must. To trade my mode for his would drain me dry, and likewise for him.

    Whatever the current blogosphere-approved approach to life, you have to find your own groove. Then it’s really useful if instead of beating yourself up for failing to be someone else, you can embrace what’s good about who and how you are.

  25. Unorthodoc says:

    Jonathan,

    So grateful you brought this up. The digital frontier brings such an exciting opportunity for cross-training our way out of our information silos. TED is a brilliant example. It’s also dramatically lowers many barriers to making a living or getting all manner of education. It levels the playing field for millions.

    Lately, I HAVE noticed with alarm the demonization of mastery, being replaced everywhere with the intellectual version of a “get-rich-quick” schemes. The Wild West freedom of the digital world allows rebellion and disruption to get up a head of steam which is glorious…until it’s uncoupled from consequence and wisdom. The beauty of “mastery” of anything is the sustained, single-minded pursuit it requires. This devotion has rich rewards beyond the subject itself. Learning to play an instrument is such a good example.

    As a doctor, I find the digital age offers amazing ways to amplify mastery, but never replace it.

    Jonathan, as always, I deeply appreciate your “masterful” provocation of thoughtful, intelligent discussion.

  26. gwyn says:

    Wow the timing is uncanny. I just wrote something about claiming my real power and excelling. I am good at many things and always saw my visual art as my gift. It is but I have a deeper gift in being a motivator/healer of damaged souls/something not quite defined. I have suppressed (run away from) that part of myself and decided it is time to dig in and see what I can do if I allow it. I suspect my visual art will still be a vehicle for expression, but I am ready for anything.

    “I want to radiate the energy that comes not only from having attained mastery, but from being in the quest. The innate joy of the process, to me, is equally if not more rewarding than the end state.”

    YES I want this too!

    Thanks

  27. Erin Feldman says:

    I found your post interesting because I’ve been in the process of refining what my company does. No, I won’t ever be a quote-on-quote master of the services my company provides, but the pursuit of something unattainable is part of the fun.

  28. Lana says:

    I can relate! Barbara Sher’s book “Refuse to Choose: A Revolutionary Program for Doing Everything You Love” offers great advice and strategies for handling this dilemma.

    http://www.barbarasher.com/

  29. moonfire says:

    great topic jonathan! Your words resonate for me in this journey.

    What if we dropped the labels altogether? To me, compartmentalizing doesn’t work in the dynamism of our organic lives. To pursue mastery of something is worthwhile and rewarding if it is connected to meaningful purpose. Merging the divergent and the linear creates balance for me. Engaging new models of ways to reach our “genius” can be a way to become fully realized in our potential fields.

    I recall a conversation that gave me solace. Jean Houston told an anecdote about a tribe in Africa that problem-solved in a wonderous way. They danced and drummed and sang to their needed solution.

    As a complex, expressive human being, I know I have created cognitive dissonance to my audience within my diversity. Yet, my way to learn, master and express is multi-faceted. The insight and the genius arrives for me at the my point of synthesis of music dance, art, writing, meditating, laughing, researching …. What I then bring is a new way of seeing for others.

    Jonathan, being there is only one of you on Earth – unless you’ve cloned yourself and we don’t know about it 🙂 I say, this process of inquiry is part of your/our great journeys. Align with YOU and go for it- who cares what the label(s) are, not me. Be your genius in balance in whatever that unveils, and shine, shine, shine.

    Thanks everyone for all the comments you’ve all shared here.

  30. Midwesterner says:

    I selfishly hope that any narrowed focus still includes writing this blog.

  31. Amazing post, Jonathan! I have been thinking so much about this lately as well. Your article came at the perfect time. I often wonder though about how we go from “multiple” to “focus?” I believe that having a focus also simplifies life, which is ultimately what I’m looking for. Thank you again for the awesome thoughts!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      hey S – Great point about simplicity, which is also one thing I’m exploring these days, too (although not yet all that successfully, lol)!

  32. Brandi Moore says:

    Jonathan –
    This post really struck me. What I have always seen in myself is that walking outside my niche feels like a backdoor. I take that walk when I get worn out or tired or don’t get the feedback I hope for or when people lash out at me publicly. The back door is the seductive place where I can focus on something else – and be the non-expert. Its harder being the one who has spent so much time on just one thing…because it only gets harder. And I think this is the aspect of mastery that we don’t learn about in school. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. It really never ends.

    Thank you for writing this blog Jonathan – I love getting it every day!

  33. TomC says:

    John Wooten said something that struck me. In my brain I have probably twisted what he said but here is what I’ve come up with on this subject:

    Develop: 1. what you are naturally good at and 2. what drives you. In a sense, YOU are you’re gift to the world and the world will benefit from your work.

    Steve Martin is someone admire. How far from mastery is he from being an actor, writer, musician, director and art collector? Oh and he was a comedian once. Good to see he got some use out of his Philosophy classes after he dropped out of college. Martin did it in sequence, not all at once. A few interests at a time with a narrow focus on one or two.

    On another level, I think you owe it to yourself to be happy. At the age of 43, I am starting to feel that I need to get some things done to a professional level. I’ve always considered my interests to be many but most of them boil down to just a few things: creating and discovering are two. Again, like making mistakes, mastery is much easier to pursue when you are not in crisis/survival mode.

    Finally, I like the idea of two pursuits. If only to take a break from one. I notice that I improve playing the guitar if I practice every other day instead of daily. Also, I feel less resentful that I am not doing EVERYTHING that I want to do if I can have an option.

    Love the post. Bookmarking it so I will read it again when I need it. Thank you.

  34. Randy says:

    Very astute post. Excellent job…again!

    As an artist, I have yet to meet/see a cream-of-the-crop master who ever struggled to make a nice living. Clients seemed to just show up regularly and were willing to pay top dollar every time.

    Look at baseball sluggers. Bat .250, make a million a year. Bat .300, make $5 million. Bat .350 make $15-20 million.

    The difference between the top and the bottom? Only 10 more times on base for every 100 times at bat. Seems small, but that mastery makes a world of difference.

  35. What’s your X, Jonathan?

    Uncertainty? 😉

  36. Sara says:

    Interesting post and comments. Sounds like the ‘can I have it all’ issue that a lot of women grapple with! I am currently reading ‘Start with Why’ by Simon Sinek. He talks about the difference between Apple and other computer companies. Apple’s raison d’etre isn’t to make computers, its ‘why’ (or purpose) is to challenge the status quo, to innovate etc… this gives it the flexibility to move into phones, ipod, itunes etc. Other companies focus on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’. Perhaps we need to find new names and labels that reflect a way of being/thinking rather than describe what we do so that we can move about freely within our area of interest without it looking as though we can’t settle into THE job or career.

    As far as I understand growth moves upward then outward. It sounds as though you are approaching the end of your outward phase and need to focus on growing upwards. If everything you do comes from the same place – core value/belief/purpose – mastery should feel like the next logical step. There is no reason to stop growing.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Loved Simon’s book – so important yet so often neglected – the why behind the what and the how

  37. I love the great quote from Sir Vince, “I never lost a game. I just ran out of time.” I guess for me, being in perhaps the last third of my life, the focus has shifted from the pursuit of mastery to the pursuit of understanding. And yes, it’s like, “Ready, Fire, Aim.” I’ve done the treadmill and pushing for years, like so many others have said. I’d like to know how the world works, see it as a place that works for me, rather than a place I have to claw and scratch my way to secure a perch. Whatever place I belong in will come if I stop fighting and start exploring, with curiosity like a little child.

  38. Brandy says:

    This question so resonates with me. For the past several years I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to pursue my many passions simultaneously. This year, I vowed to get serious about what I’m trying to do – and in doing so, was accidentally on purpose led to a path of mastery. Crafting my writing and experiencing wild success – it’s unreal. I still have eons to go, and like you said Jonathan, for me it’s more about the “pursuit” than the “status”. But though I miss my other passions, I’m happy shelving them in this moment. And I truly believe that the doors opening for me now will someday lead to doors that will help me explore my other dreams.

  39. Alysson says:

    I don’t believe that the quest for mastery and building a working understanding of related fields are mutually exclusive. In fact, I don’t believe one can claim mastery in anything without understanding how that thing fits together with all the puzzle’s other pieces.

    Mastery of SEO, for example, is not of much use unless you also know how search engine optimization relates to usability and conversion. That doesn’t mean one must also master usability and conversion, but mastery of SEO can’t exist without also understanding its relationship to other areas in the overall search marketing landscape.

    So, in my opinion, mastering a single skill at the exclusion of everything else has little more benefit than being a master of nothing.

  40. I am a writer. It took me 45 years to figure that out. I have such a rampant intellectual curiosity that I’ve had a career that jumped from running a beer association to exporting beef to Japan to doing trauma counseling. Once I figured out that the foundation from which I operate is persuasive storytelling, all the rest just fell into place. I can write grants for my nonprofits, business and investment plans for entrepreneurs, marketing and stories for creativity and fun. The key for me was not choosing between my inclination to dabble across the board, but to find a foundation from which to make my wide knowledge of value to myself and the marketplace.

  41. There are many levels of mastery.
    I have struggled with this writing my book, A Mandala of Yoga and Massage; Expanding the Sphere of Your Health and Wellness Practice to Include Special Needs Clients.
    On a visceral level, I think I am a master of how body, mind and spirit work together. On a professional level, I question myself by thinking a true master is someone who has worked all their life with just one of these clients, eg, veterans with trauma. Then I think my mastery is making connections, among practitioners, caregivers,and clients, as well as the public.
    Knowing “a little” about a lot is still knowing a lot.

  42. Heather Holm says:

    So how old is your kid, Jonathan? 😉

    Seriously, I think the desire to simplify one’s life often comes when you find yourself dealing with the complexities of a family. You simply have to focus on fewer things because there are so many new stimuli to deal with from day to day.

    Also, as I get older (50+), I find myself wishing to make my own unique, significant contribution to the world, something that can only really happen if I narrow my focus.

    I’m also influenced by the death of my father, which has prompted me to think about the trajectory of a lifetime as a whole.

    Even though my knee-jerk reaction is to think of this issue as an expression of where a person is on the ADD spectrum, I also believe that universal factors such as age and life experiences play a big part.

  43. Awesome stuff, as usual!

    I think there is a danger to mastery…define your specialization to broadly, and it doesn’t translate into mastery at all.

    Define your specialization too narrowly, and you risk irrelevance. If you are the LinkedIN guy, or the Facebook Girl, is that true mastery? It’s useful, but ephemeral.

    Leonard’s book on the subject is illustrative. Masters are not so much master of the art they practice (Martial Arts, Archery, etc.), but masters of themselves.

    That’s something to chew on. Maybe we are spending so much time focusing on specializations and mastery that we miss the one thing we really need to master?

    Food for thought.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      “Masters are not so much master of the art they practice (Martial Arts, Archery, etc.), but masters of themselves.” – something I’ll definitely be exploring, thanks for that perspective

  44. Mike Poynton says:

    I’ve been an architect, web designer, web collaboration consultant, property manager, real estate owner/broker, bar/restaurant owner and now a PR/BizDev consultant. Each one of those has been built upon the knowledge and experience of the other(s). Sequential and cumulative.

  45. To me, there is no right and no wrong here. It’s what works best for the individual where they are at that point of time. We all change and evolve over time.

    Additionally, some individuals are more suited to single focus than others. Our brains work differently. Just think left-brain/right-brain for a portion of the answer to why this is. It also depends on how much connective tissue (corpus callosum) you have.

    I view myself as broad with multiple deep mastery spikes. The spikes have evolved serially – as I dove into various areas of interest over time.

    Those who know me well, have called me a Polymath. Another phrase/term is “Renissance Man” (or Woman). I think, in part, this is what you are touching upon.

    Here’s the defn from Wikipedia. Polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, “having learned much”)[1] is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. In less formal terms, a polymath (or polymathic person) may simply be someone who is very knowledgeable. Most ancient scientists were polymaths by today’s standards.[2]

    The common term Renaissance man is used to describe a person who is well educated or who excels in a wide variety of subjects or fields.[3] The idea developed in Renaissance Italy from the notion expressed by one of its most accomplished representatives, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472): that “a man can do all things if he will.” It embodied the basic tenets of Renaissance humanism, which considered humans empowered, limitless in their capacities for development, and led to the notion that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible. Thus the gifted people of the Renaissance sought to develop skills in all areas of knowledge, in physical development, in social accomplishments, and in the arts.

  46. Matt says:

    Hey Jonathan, thanks for the great article and follow-up discussion.

    This same topic comes up with athletes. I’ve always been told, “triathletes are never the BEST swimmers, never the BEST runners,and never the BEST runners.” That’s believable – you’d really have to work an individual sport to truly master it. After all, we’re all limited by the clock. But, it seems like general consensus is – triathletes are the elites – and have masters in their own domain. I can buy into that too.

    I’m wondering if you’ve read “Lucky or Smart?” In his book, Bo Peabody touches on the same subject – but comes at it from a different perspective. Bo suggests what makes a great entrepreneur is one who knows a little about a lot of things. That’s opposed to those know know a lot about a little – the masters, as you refer to them. Bo writes that both are essential – but the latter make better managers, and lousy entrepreneurs. It’s a great/short read, and I’d highly recommend it.

    My final thought is – in my opinion, people that are driven to learn a little about a lot of things and others that are driven to become masters in one thing – neither of those scenarios seem to be driven by fear. They’re both impressive compared to the alternative – stagnation.

  47. Chatty says:

    Renegades follow their hearts most of the time, and possibly you have been doing the same. God did make us all different for a reason! You might be like me and choose to focus your “mastery” on your family instead of following the status quo. I used to feel bad for being a “master of none” until I realized I have focused my energy on my family. After all this is what is most important to me.
    My last child will graduate next year, maybe then I’ll become an expert at something else!

  48. This is spot on Jonathan and something which has also come to my attention recently. I’m from South Africa where being a generalist isn’t that bad an idea if you’re in certain fields. Being a journalist but also having clients you write marketing copy for and others you write speeches for and also knowing a little design isn’t entirely uncommon. But of course those aren’t the ones at the tops of their fields. At the top are absolutely focused experts.

    I’m in London in the UK these days and it was clear from the moment I got here last year that being a generalist isn’t held in very high regard. You have to pick your thing and get great at it.

    I think it’s cool.

  49. Razwana says:

    Being a master and being know ‘for one thing’ makes clarity for all. If you are a good writer, painter and coach, what will people approach you for?

    Being focused on one thing can sometimes breed paralysis – #if I’m just looking at one thing, where’s the breadth of my knowledge?’ Going deeper into a subject is where the mastery comes in, in my opinion.

    Doesn’t mean you can’t pursue one thing on a professional level, and a few other things on a personal level now, does it 😉

  50. I’ve been considering the same question over the last couple of years as I’ve dived into the world of entrepreneurship and after some considerable reflection, for me the point is simplification.
    I have been a perennial ‘do everything’ type of person, try everything, say yes to everything. And while that has been fun, it has also been exhausting.
    Now the desire is there is simplify, to say no, to not do everything and just to be ok with that.
    I think it comes with confidence too, that opportunities will still be there even if I say no now, that I really do know what I want and am willing to pursue simply that because, as Sara references, I now know the ‘why’.

  51. Jane Crosbie says:

    Depends on the end results desired, and also temperament. If you are indeed that intense – anything less than fulfilling that intensity to its deepest depths will leave you feeling insufficient. Any experience other than the intensity you crave will leave your life feeling inadequate.
    Beware there is a price to be paid for living lifethat intensely. But the ecstasy is worth the price. Passion. Fire. We are CHARIOTS OF FIRE. But its painful.
    Intense, passionate, enthralling, enchanting, sweet
    ….. exciting, so intoxicating – such a massive rush. The passion is so deep so intense you lose control. You simply get lost in the ecstasy. And every moment becomes a precious jewel you can’t live without.

    A part of you wants to feel that pulse
    ….. that throb of ecstasy inside you always. And the pain
    ….. well it comes with the territory. You know that. You feel it in your bones. So you pay the price
    ….. willingly. For eternity
    ….. you will always be willing
    ….. to always pay this price.

    To be human. In the truest rawest most profound sense of the word. To be truly human Just be prepared to pay the price.

  52. Carla Serenko says:

    I’ll weigh in here because I often walk the fence-line between being afraid/constrained (hence the “blending”) vs. becoming awfully bored once I master something. An example comes to mind.

    I work in a new Federal job; I transferred many years in one area of Federal Service to another area of Federal Service. I love what I do now – I was thrilled at learning new things and becoming very accomplished in my new duties. Now, however, I’m getting a little bored. Kind of feeling like “Okay, now what?”

    Simultaneously, I began writing long fiction in earnest. It terrifies me but also satisfies me on levels never before experienced. BUT, I have to do other artistic things or I either 1). stop writing in fear or 2). run out of gas for awhile. The other artwork keeps me creative and keeps all that subconscious stuff coming up. So, I’m a master of neither but I love both and one feeds the other.

    While I do believe that blending interests can truly be a cover-up for fear and be constraining, there are several dangers, I think, in becoming TOO focused, too masterful. One danger is that whatever we master can often master us, thus limiting our identities and our sense of discovery. Another is that such mastery often leads to snobbery similar to the kind sometimes found in the world of academia.

    For me, I have to face my demons – my “fears” of not being good enough, not being creative enough – and tell them to get lost. Then, I explore all kinds of stuff and I’m becoming much more well-rounded (and not just physically!) and satisfied. Not to mention deeply fed on a creative level.

    Just my two cents.

  53. […] he thinks. In a time where people are realizing that multitasking is a huge waste of time, I found In Defense of the Pursuit of Mastery a refreshing read. Instead of dividing your focus to become acceptable at many things, why not […]

  54. Well, I’m one of those people with ten million things going on, and one of them is a business about the art of balancing it all. And I used you as an example in a blog post recently, if I remember correctly. 😀

    I think for some people there is an element of fear in the constant shift through interests. But for others, the cycles are a deeper part of how we’re built. Forgive me for the blog post psychoanalysis, but I don’t see fear as part of your picture here. The polymathic cycle sets a frenetic pace, and I’ve watched your posts get much more introspective over the couple of years I’ve been following you. I wonder if, rather than acting out of fear, you’re simply following an evolution into a different sort of exploration – one in which you focus more on the present, your family, making things with your hands, and on one of the many passions you might have embraced in years past. In that sense, it’s not a decision to eliminate all but one passion, but rather to replace the passions that give you a tangible result with ones that give you more intangible satisfaction and joy.

    Just a guess on my part, from a fellow polymath. 🙂

  55. Jerry says:

    Hey everybody,

    This topic actually is very interesting, but first I’d like to agree with Matt who says that obtaining a mastery of martial arts is probably close to impossible, since there are so many different styles and techniques that are in need of perfection.

    Even though the topic is not limited to just sports and hobbies I think it might be easier since I’m still a student to use my own interests as examples.

    I have interests in badminton, chess and Taekwondo. I am far from being ‘good’ in any the 3, but I have tournament experience in all 3 things and train in each at least once a week. In doing so many things I’ve found that it is very time consuming, and especially as I want to reach a high level in each of them, I think it’s best if you prioritise on one thing so you can concentrate on that one and improve faster. But of course if you only have 1 skill you desire mastery for… then that’s problem solved isn’t it? 😀

    By narrowing your focus you are less distracted, and more eager for results, since you are putting all your effort onto one thing. Also finding common things between the 2 interests and working on them both at the same time (e.g. flexibility and leg muscles for both Taekwondo and Badminton are required… fitness is required for all 3 (even for chess… believe it or not)!) also helps. I yearn for those ‘set of skills’ in each sport :D.

    The key is finding the time to do a little bit of the other 2 interests whilst putting the majority of your time onto 1 of them, because if you completely stop something your skills and performance will degrade – I remember hearing a strong badminton player complain about his rusty play because he “didn’t play for 2 weeks!” I was thinking “I only play twice a week…”

    So I think why not? Go for the mastery! Or masteries! Or that however high level you want to get to… but in doing so… keep time out for other things too! 😀

    Jerry

  56. Hey Jonathan, this is a fantastic piece. One question. Kids today are growing up multitasking like never before (there is a study that says that today kids 8-18 consume 11 hours of content – audio, video, books etc – in only 7 hours. For a variety of reasons (internet, social media, structure of reading material etc). That means that the next generation at work will in fact be better at following more things at the same time, but worse at following one for a long time. How would you see that changing the definition of ‘expert’? What’s an expert in a world where everybody is able to find information quicker than ever?

  57. Aussie Phil says:

    Jonathan – much prefer the full text version!

  58. Jonathan, this has been on my mind a lot as well. I encourage people to narrow their focus to one thing – become the “go-to person for ____” – yet I find that I have diverse skill sets and interests and continue to work them in parallel. I think, as you say in the comments, it comes down to working those skills until one emerges as the supreme impact- and money-maker. At least for the time being (maybe something else emerges even stronger, later in the process…)

  59. Bonnie says:

    Great post, Jonathan.

    Thanks for the reminder that it’s all about the journey.

  60. Betsy Crossb says:

    Jonathan,
    All I know is what I’ve lived. As a ballet dancer I got really ticked off having to take modern dance, Flamenco, or any other dance class. I LOVED doing what I was in bliss doing. I didn’t want to be a well-rounded dancer. I just wanted to dance. So I worked hard in my ballet classes and groaned through the other ones. My time and energy, when focused bring amazing joy.
    And THAT’S what’s important to me. I can only share effectively what I’m infinitely passionate about…

  61. Kate Howe says:

    I have found that focusing on one thing I am passionate about has been a lens and a vehicle for exploring a wonderfully wide range or projects and topics. I am graphic designer. This was a career redirect after have a generalist liberal arts college education and post-graduate foray into business. Becoming a good designer has take a LOT of time, work, and discipline. But apart from loving design, I do love having a very concrete skill, and I also love how that skill opens up to me whole worlds of content, people, industry, history, systems etc. Instead of mastery inhibiting variety, I have found it leads to a variety that is even richer for having an anchor and reason to be there.

  62. David says:

    I think it varies throughout your life. When I was young, I didn’t focus on one thing because I wanted to explore what was out there and to figure out what I was interested in. Eventually, I picked a few of those, got really good at them, and made a career around them. Now that I’m established in my career, I’m branching out again and focusing on a handful of things that I enjoy doing. Not because I’m afraid to commit to any one of them, but because I really enjoy them and I want to grow in each of them. I’m not in a rush to master any of them because I’m in a fortunate position to not NEED to for any particular reason (like generating income). And I feel like I’ve made progress in each of them. There are too many wonderful things out there that I don’t want to miss out on by focusing on mastering one thing, and instead choose to focus on experiencing multiple things.

  63. […] given it some thought, though, and I’ve decided how I feel about the whole blending interests and being pretty good at all of them vs focusing on one thing and mastering it […]

  64. Cody DeLong says:

    Well written, I struggle everyday with ways to simplify my life so I can spend more time ‘going deeper’ into my chosen art form (painting). Quality of life for me is not about being the proerbial jack of all trades. I do a few things to keep my business running and pay the bills, but I’m constantly trying to find more time to do one thing beyond my own greatest expectations.

  65. Kate Howe says:

    Funny, after I wrote that last comment, I came across this review of Martin Seligman’s new book (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/how-happiness/201108/should-we-dispense-happiness-review-marty-seligmans-new-book-flourish), in which “He posits that well-being (aka flourishing) has four elements or pillars – positive emotion (happiness, satisfaction, engagement), meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment (mastery). Essentially, he argues, human beings yearn to flourish; in addition to wanting happiness, they desire to master something, to have fulfilling relationships, and to have meaning in their lives.” Ie, he see mastery as essential to human happiness..

    I think the desire for “freedom” though pursuing multiple interests is perhaps a desire not to be locked into an activity we don’t find meaningful or rewarding… but once we have found an activity that does seem meaningful, there is freedom in pursuing it as far as we can…

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Yup, recently read Seligman’s book – Flourish…maybe that’s where this is all coming from and I didn’t even realize it! lol

  66. caitlyn says:

    Every few years (minutes?) I am pulled to explore some other way of doing my life. For 14 years I have been “accredited” to do what I have wanted to do since I was 12 years old (which is almost 40 years ago now!) I teach at-risk, behaviourally challenged 13 to 16 year olds in an inner city alternate school. Wow.

    So much room for mastery. So many details to master. When I start thinking of real estate or design or some of the other bits I love (writing being one that I continue to master because I wanted that at age 12, too!) I can’t imagine taking that much focus away from teaching and learning how kids work – the ones specifically before me and generally.

    My question is … who wants to know what I know? The kids are recipients of this knowledge and bits of mastery but I have so much knowledge and have built so many skills I’d love to share this in meaningful ways. That process looks different but continues my mastery of the same thing. Maybe that is something to think about?

  67. Amy Tobin says:

    Outstanding post Jonathan. A much admired friend of mine who is also a very successful entrepreneur & now spends his life helping other entrepreneurs ‘make it’ said this to me:

    “I meet a lot of people with outstanding talents; it is the rare few who have the focus to be extraordinary and therefore successful.”

    It had a profound effect on me. I restructured my entire business so that I could focus on what I am really talented at. Before that I think I spent my entire life being jack of all trades, master of none.

  68. Cliff Ward says:

    Being focused on your task and/or specialty is great, unless you are so narrowly focused that you fail to see the turn of events that mean your pursuit has been changed in the market place. The people with a broader view of things will often be the ones that are more versatile and successful over the term.

  69. Jonathan: Another great, honest post. I’ve felt this very restlessness for a while and have been contemplating a lot about the need for mastery. I remember waking up in a small village and hearing this one bird sing its song over and over and doing it really well. I pined for that singularity of purpose and refinement of skill.

    On Monday, I wrote a piece for my Tracking Wonder blog at PsychologyToday about how “pursuit of mastery goals” help me and some of my clients shift anxiety about new creative ventures.

    You’re exploring a different nuance, though, one that makes a lot of sense. The pursuit of mastery does require rigor and focus, but the rewards of one-pointed concentration seem to be multi-fold. I agree to a large extent with Csikzentmihalyi (I know you know his work) that to “be creative” in this culture requires a person to immerse in a field and pursue mastery. (Not everyone agrees w/that view of creativity.) In this way, one contributes to the field. And that contribution – as much as the pursuit you love and more than being to the go-to person for X – can be overwhelmingly gratifying. Then your work really isn’t about you. It’s about the field. (And I think I’ve mentioned to you Dan Pink’s book Drive that articulates some views about this pursuit of mastery as being a central element of what motivates us.)

    I wish you the best on your new pursuit of one good thing. I’ll look forward to seeing what that is since you’re already good at so many things.

  70. Thomas says:

    Hate to be a bit of a spoilsport, but – hmmm……!

    Medieval monks were the “I” masters at making illuminated manuscripts. Then came Gutenberg…

    Enghlish longbowmen were the “I” masters of battlefield “fire power”. Then came the arquebus…

    Painters were the “I” masters of creating pictures. Then came Talbot and Daguerre…

    One of the reasons we want to be multi-skilled MIGHT be darwinian paranoia; narrow your mastery to a very small niche and you go out of fashion when the niche does.

    Personally I’d prefer being neither “I” or “T”, but “X” = able to BECOME anything, i.e., to acquire competency in a given field in a short time. The ability to acquire skills and knowhow, to be a flexible, changing, adaptable competent (rather than a one-trick master) seems to me to be the essential advantage of humans over other animals…

  71. Tom Bentley says:

    Jonathan, I think you can make great breakthroughs in your understanding and practice of some disciplines through dogged effort, which seems to work best if it’s accompanied by love as well as striving. But even masters of their arts, like Bruce Lee or Pablo Picasso, also strayed into areas outside their central focus, because of curiosity and temperament.

    I think of a “master” writer like Twain, who wrote essays, straight journalism, travel pieces, plays, short stories, novels, speeches and more. If he had set out to be the world’s best novelist, the world would have lost out on a bounty of remarkable writing.

    It would be an interesting pursuit to devote yourself to a craft for a period of a year, to the exclusion of all other distractions, and mark the results. However, I think we are all shapeshifters, even from one week to the next, and that the person who has mastered some area of their lives will always feel the pull of tangents (emotional, intellectual) that are beyond control. Not that it wouldn’t be great to have a killer curve ball…

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Tom – I actually agree with you. What’s interesting to me, as I go deeper into this, is the potential to pursue developing abilities around process and content in different ways. For example, I can devote myself to mastering the process of storytelling, while exploring and applying it around a variety of content interests. More on this in a follow up post to come.

  72. I’m not a huge fan of connecting certain business or life successes with sports, but look at the old Vince Lombardi Packers and the way they ran the sweep. Over and over and over. And over. You knew it was coming and they still ran over you — winning by success at the same thing done incredibly well.

    I recently made a list of all my interests and had to painfully cut most out so I could be exceptional at a very select few. The cuts were painful, but the remainder was a happy, exciting relief.

  73. Does serial mastery count? I just interviewed Margaret Lobenstine, author of “The Renaissance Soul,” about people with too many passions. Some work on them all at once and others in series (first I get my medical degree and now I want to be a photographer).

    I tend to believe that those who make the biggest impact are masters in one area, but not everyone is cut of this cloth.

  74. Jaimee Todd says:

    I have been wondering this very thing myself as I am a painter but I recently delved into photography. I’ve been told that I’m quite good at both but there is a tension between to which pursuit I devote more time. On the flip side, sometimes I like having the option to switch when I do get fatigued in one area. In addition to that, I am also a working lawyer that speaks three different languages, so I’m spread out in all sorts of different areas. I like to think that having a variety of skills makes me a bit of a Renaissance woman, but it also helps quench by seemingly unsatiable curiosity about…well, everything!

  75. Sara Hebert says:

    I’m with you on sequential Jonathan, and for me the time blocks of my sequential stuff are getting shorter. However, the closer I hone to what really makes my heart sing (my words for “flow/zone”) the more I’m able to pour myself into a single area.

    Another incredibly helpful reference for me on this topic is Gay Hendrick’s book The Big Leap and the concept of living in my zone of genius. Since I identified earlier this year my genius with 4 simple words, I’ve been able to see how connected the many pieces of my sequence/simultaneous are. Repeatedly coming back to my genius – what I naturally do and love – gives me great clarity in my efforts even though people on the outside might not see much connection. I also have a real feeling of mastery in my zone of genius, but the learning process begins again each time I apply it in a new context/task.

  76. Emilie says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    No disrespect meant by this… But I felt the need to respond on behalf of the multipotentialites in the audience:

    http://puttylike.com/a-disturbing-trend-in-the-blogosphere/

    Just some friendly debate.

    I love your work and am very curious to hear your thoughts on my video.

  77. As a bona-fide Renaissance Soul, it took me a painfully long time to figure out that it was physically impossible for me to do EVERYTHING I’m interested in at the SAME TIME.

    And yet, picking just ONE would never work for me.

    My solution (at least so far!) has been to think BOTH somewhat sequentially, AND somewhat simultaneously.

    In effect, my passions are pots on a multi-burner stove. At any given time, I have time/energy/brainspace/bandwidth to pursue mastery of a small handful of them (oh, the humanity!)

    (And yes, it’s the PURSUIT that turns me on, rather than the achievement. I figured that one out a long time ago too.)

    I think, as you imply, that the best balance is going to be different for everyone. As Shelly said above (and Peter seconded): “Whatever the current blogosphere-approved approach to life, you have to find your own groove.”

    I applaud you for your own self-awareness and look forward to seeing what your X turns out to be.

  78. […] Fields wrote a fantastic post this week about focus; it was a profound statement on how too many of us try to be too many things […]

  79. […] latest post, In Defense of the Pursuit of Mastery, brings up the topic of focusing on one thing and “mastering” it, or perhaps being […]

  80. Jonathan, I’m a little late to add to the comments but this post hit such a chord I felt like I had to say something.

    I’ve always admired you as someone who could do everything he wanted – I’d hate to see you go the complete route of mastery, but I understand the desire.

    I’m someone who has labeled myself a creative generalist for a while now. I had too many interests, and couldn’t pick just one thing to stick with.

    I do agree that not being known as the X person can be a little fearful. It’s scary to stick with just one topic. It’s also a little boring.

    I think it’s fine to become a master at something, but I don’t think this route fits everyone. For me, I’d like to completely master writing – and still have other things I do on the side.

    Anyway, keep up the great work!

  81. Jonathan,

    You have put words to a feeling that I have been trying to express.

    I find that a lot of multipassionate people are on the defense about having to choose something. They feel like they’re being told what to do. As a multipassionate person, I completely understand this.

    However,

    I also believe that we explore multiple passions out of fear of attaching to one thing. We’re afraid that we’ll be stuck with it forever. We’re afraid of failure.

    Just because you focus 100% on something right now does not mean that you have to focus on it FOREVER.

    I love when you said: “Sequential is starting replace simultaneous as my mantra.”

    This is exactly how I feel.

  82. Jen says:

    I love this post and resonate with it! As a person with multiple skills — as are many people — I came face to face with exactly what you talked about…the fear of diving deep into one space and mastering it, but there was more.

    Initially I did think that spreading myself between my interests was more fulfilling, but in the action, it became clear to me that it was anything but fulfilling.

    1. Financially — For me, using money gained from one thing to support another made me a busy hobbyist — a beautiful thing to be, but not my intention. I realized that I wasn’t achieving my goal of full time entrepreneurship because essentially I wasn’t committed to it…I was committed to feeding my unfocused creative jones (which has it’s place, but…). I’m still not there yet, but now on the right-for-me path.

    2. Emotionally — Being split in multiple directions left me with little to give to relationships outside of my work(s). Read: “Hellooo husband and son, be back in a minute.” & “These balls of yarn are my friends.” I was fully immersed in *things* I loved, but what about the people? It was becoming clear something had to go.

    Reputationally — I had people coming to me for paintings, messenger bags, jewelry, knits…lovely right? I realized that making and doing multiple things felt good to me…being called upon to produce (in the case of custom requests) was painful when I was in to painting and someone wanted a knit hat. Painful!

    I’m a career counselor, maybe I should have had this stuff figured out, but when looking at the three above together, I realized that I was still in an exploration phase — a sophisticated one, complete with follow through, making sales, and being in demand to some extent — but exploration and uncertainty all the same. Being non-committal was about the fear you mentioned, but also indicated that I was not sure about what it meant to put my talents, interests, and values all together. Experiencing the three things above helped me clarify what that meant and with that came a decision, focus, and the anticipation that new directions will grow from this space. I think of it as living from and upside down Y perspective.

    I planned on blogging about this soon. I wasn’t sure if I should. This is a totaly kick in the pants to speak my voice. Much appreciated and I will reference this picht perfect post for sure 🙂

    Thanks for putting it out there!

  83. Geoffrey says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed the original post and the follow ups. My take on it has been through the exploration of expertise itself as a spiritual path.

    There is always a focus on the self – “my” mind, my strengths and weaknesses, the sort of person I am becoming; there is always a focus on the whole because I subscribe to the notion that every idea or concept or process without exception is connected to everything else, and so there is the dance of interconnectedness. And there is always the depth that comes with the pursuit of mastery of any of the specifics.

    One key, I feel, lies in how narrowly or broadly we frame what we are doing. What seems to be too many fields to one person may just be several faces of the same field to another – at a higher level of generality. For instance, I have been a learning and education consultant for ages. But I have found myself delving into the many possible meanings of “learning” and “education” for almost as long.

    Great journey. Great post. Thanks.

  84. […] makes the decision to pursue mastery more frightening. (A reason to pursue […]

  85. […] bonus: In Defense of The Pursuit of Mastery Are you using “but I have so many different interests, I can’t choose just one […]

  86. Lisa Alessi says:

    Hey Jonathan — I used be so envious of the cello play who knew from age two that they were destined to perform in a symphony and everything they did was focused on mastering their craft. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that one thing!

    For many years I would start a new role with passion and zest only to find it sizzle out after a while — thinking there was something very wrong with me, why can’t I figure this out, why can’t I be the cello player and stick to one thing.

    But, then I realized for me — it would be boring as hell because I love to learn, love to expand my horizons and love to try new things.

    It was much more important for me to understand why I was motivated to do the work I chose to do. When I can tie back my work to what I truly believe in, values, principles and motivators and make decisions in what I do every day based on those — that’s what leads to greater satisfaction and a deeper appreciation and acceptance in myself! As you and others have mentioned about Simon Sinek evolution on the concept of purpose — it’s not about the what and the how in your work and your life but why!

    Maybe your X is your Y.

    Thank you for asking such thought provoking questions and for your wisdom in dealing with uncertainty!

  87. pranav says:

    True essence of mastery is to strive hard for excellence and not for success only , if you master at something everything follows such as fame, success, money etc.

  88. […] useful, and Jay Baer is one of the good guys. 3. Jonathan Fields: A few weeks ago Jonthan’s In Defense of the Pursuit of Mastery blew my mind. It’s one of those blogs I’ll keep and re-read when my world starts […]

  89. I compartmentalize:

    I know that for my income I must diversify right now so I separate my skills enough that I can pay the rent. On the other hand, I have a lifetime dedication to yoga and painting. These are two things that I revel digging 40-50 years of practice in because I want to see how far I can go, how much I can transform myself and the canvases I paint through my lifetime.

    I’m currently trying to go into business for myself as a creative consultant so I have more time to dedicate to my practice…I know that after 10 maybe 20 years of mastery, I could make a decent living off of my skills in those arenas, but for now I know that I must compartmentalize myself…dealing with the now.

  90. […] it seems like I’m doing all the same things, and making all the right moves, but getting radically different results.These days I’ve gotten a lot better about not comparing my success to those of my peers. I […]

  91. […] And I have to admit, sometimes I’ve looked at others rise to fame with feelings of envy when it seems like I’m doing all the same things, and making all the right moves, but getting radically different results. […]

  92. Tarun Varma says:

    John,

    I suffer from this itch too and read this article a few times and was going to agree. I transitioned from a career in business and entrepreneurship to teaching for two years 10 months ago. And education tugs at my mind and heart completely making me want to specialize. But a close pal just pointed out – this might be the age of learning well, unlearning and relearning and applying fast. So while I think I still think I need to add so much depth to my desire for mastery – the outer wrap of ‘incredibly useful transferable skills’ will remain.

    I hope you’re getting along with what you chose since 2011!

    Best
    Tarun

  93. John,

    I’m all for the notion of mastery but don’t really believe it to be attainable. More like a distant goal that keeps us moving. It’s kind of the opposite of the Victorian notion of degeneracy, which I think achieves the same end. One pushing the other pulling us to bettering ourselves.

    I gained a Masters degree several years ago but do not believe myself to be a master of the subject. I am currently trying to master the technique of lucid dreaming so can identify with those that counsel for the fact that we pass from one goal to another in the pursuit of something greater.

  94. therin says:

    @ Turun,
    Exactly this is what I was thinking as well.
    Anyway, some nice views on cognitive dissonance are presented.