Can Mastery and Innovation Coexist?

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Mastery takes a dogged commitment to becoming extraordinary at a single task or pursuit.

It means learning by someone else’s rules, then spending thousands of hours in deliberate practice, building neural circuits that allow you to reach a level of extraordinary ownership of a process or body of knowledge. It’s largely about trial, analysis, correction and repetition.

Innovation, on the other hand, is about breaking from convention, repetition and routine. It’s about doing what’s not been done before. Seeing how two things go together to create a third in a way nobody’s seen before. It is, by definition, about novelty, which would seem to be the antithesis of mastery.

Very often, mastery lays the foundation for innovation. You need to become adept enough at someone else’s game, rules, patterns, music, vision to cultivate the depth of understanding needed to generate the insight that fuels a radical departure from the past and launches you into innovation. Which leads to ideas, experiences and solutions that move beyond the current paradigm, then leads back into a quest for mastery of this new paradigm.

So, question is—can you pursue both at once? Mastery and innovation?

Can you seek to be the best in the world at something while simultaneously striving to shatter the paradigm within which you’re working to do what nobody’s ever done before?

Can innovation, the creation of something new, arise directly from and during the pursuit of mastery?

Or does the base requirement of mastery—repeat, refine and rework—so contradict the experience of innovation—novelty, insight and disruption—that the two can exist, but never at the same time, in the same room?

Must they move in alternating cycles within a larger quest for genius?

Curious, what do you think?


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38 responses

38 responses to “Can Mastery and Innovation Coexist?”

  1. Matt says:

    I’ve heard there is a zen saying: Enter by form, exit from form. To me, this means that in order to break the rules and do something innovative, you must first understand the rules and master them.

  2. I’m going to say yes, they can co-exist. I think a lot of innovation comes from the mistakes people make when they are pursuing mastery. Bad and dissonant notes become jazz improvisation. Typos become new words, etc.

  3. Faye says:

    I think that they happen simultaneously or intermittently alternate after the initial level of learning is achieved and some momentum has been built.

  4. Human beings are diphasic in nature. Our bodies are always seeking homeostasis with multiple feedback loops that continuously communicate information in order for corrections to fall into sync. Most of us favor one side of our brain as being our predomiant character…hence some are creative while others are analytical. Once in a great while there are those who are gifted in being able to utilize both sides with harmony. Steve Jobs comes to mind…form with function. Innovation with mastery.

  5. BZTAT says:

    A true master grows tired of someone else’s rules and creates his/her own rules. That is what innovation is all about. We know the great artistic masters because of their innovation AND their mastery of artistic media.

  6. Al Pittampalli says:

    I think mastery and innovation work together, but you’re right, they are very different skills. Mastery involves the narrowing of focus, constantly getting better at a certain specific skillset. Innovation is the widening of focus, often seeing connections between fields, industries, areas, never seen before. Mastery can happen without innovation, but innovation rarely happens without mastery.

  7. Jonathan,
    Sure, they can and DO co-exist. You touch on the concept of mastery being the basis for innovation. I would contend that it can work the other way as well. However, I believe that the true foundation is actually a result of the energy coming from the constant dance between the two, the tension created as we attempt to bring the “mastery” and “innovation” together. If we are willing to move through and not get stuck in the bouncing back and forth, trying to figure out, control freakish psycho analytical drama, this energy can indeed move us to shift it all. To places we have never been. Ahhhh, true growth, deep change, beautiful movement. Does it not all come down to discovering a deeply seeded purpose placed within each of us, intended to be brought forth into this world in the unique way only each of us knows as individuals to do it. . . whether through mastery, innovation, or just plain love? Curious. What do YOU think?

  8. dave r. says:

    is being “fundamentally sound” a term used in sports the same as “mastery”…i think it is…you must have your fundamentals down in order to free your mind and imagination to become innovative….1 goes with the other…even a great “improv” performer has a base to work from.

  9. I think it’s possible. What apprentice doesn’t experiment away from the master’s teachings?

    I was just reading recently about Japanese noodle masters and how apprentices would study underneath them. They would learn everything about just the broth. Then making the noodles by hand. Before they could strike out on their own with their own innovations, they had to master the fundamentals and their master’s style.

    You can’t innovate unless you know what you’re innovating against.

  10. Hiro Boga says:

    Jonathan, for me, mastery fuels innovation, and innovation in turn deepens mastery.

    Since my work is about effecting transformation, it is highly fluid, creative, and happens at the shifting shoreline of the unknown. And, since I’ve been doing it for 35 years, I’ve developed deep mastery at it.

    But transformation requires meeting each situation, each client, exactly where it, or he or she is — and then creating a pathway from there, to where spirit leads them and where they want to go.

    This calls on qualities of innovation, improvisational skill, trust, and a willingness to create in the moment.

    Innovation and mastery are both aspects of a larger ecology of creation and transformation, and they nourish and support each other.

  11. Rita says:

    Innovation often comes during the activity that has been mastered because the skill has become so natural. The left-brain, linear thinking is no longer needed to carry out the task at hand or analyze it. This allows the big-picture right-brain to take charge and make connections or solutions that haven’t been seen before.

    Mastery is the portal to innovation.

    Sometimes the mastery is that of seeing — the ability to see objects and situations as they are without the baggage of preconceived notions, labels, or paradigms.

  12. Beth says:

    I think bursts of inspiration can happen during the learning process, but true paradigm-shifting innovation can only come once mastery is reached. You need the 10,000 feet view, the big picture, to really understand the hows and whys of the system. That just doesn’t happen in the learning stages.

  13. Ellen Moore says:

    Great thought-provoking post!

    Yes, first comes the mastery, and then it is as if we are “standing on the shoulders of giants” and can see farther and further. Then another masters what we’ve created, and an endless chain is created. Think of how the various schools of art, music, and philosophy have evolved.

  14. david says:

    You need to know and understand the rules before you can break them. Otherwise, any “innovation” you do is just luck.

    • mike says:

      Excellent comment on needing to know the rules from which something was developed. Understanding the rules lets you see that there are gaps, unneeded extras, which can lead to new directions. Thus innovation is born.

  15. Sheira Furse says:

    Love this post! I agree with the comments that mastery fuels innovation. I am reminded of Danielle LaPorte’s wonderful quote from Chris Guillebeau’s World Domination Summit: “To innovate you have to know the rules you are breaking, otherwise you are just a flake.”

  16. Christopher says:


    We stand on the shoulders of giants.

  17. Erika says:

    Key concepts that come to mind are: beginner’s mind, mindfulness and humility. I do think that mastery and innovation can exist at complementary ends of the same process. I agree with those who talked of a cyclical process between them. That is how I experience it.

    Beginner’s mind comes from a beloved Iyengar yoga teacher’s repeated advice. Always approach your triangle pose as if it is your first, no matter how many you have done. The openness and sense of play that comes from beginner’s mind creates the space for mindfulness, which in turn allows for new observations and learning. I think that humility is also key, not holding onto any ideas as “right” always being open to seeing a situation in a new way.

  18. Chuck Frey says:

    I think they can co-exist if you’re talking about personal mastery and personal innovation. But in an organizational setting, mastery usually takes the form of continuous improvement, Lean and Six Sigma – which attempt to increase efficiency to the nth degree and in the process, end up creating an environment where it’s very difficult for innovation to survive, much less flourish.

  19. Srikanth says:

    I think mastery of a process most often leads to incremental innovation. Ie if “x” is known and mastered, the persons innovative contribution could be “x+1”. But if some one wants to be truely innovative, he needs to completely think out of the box. He doesn’t need to be a master in some thing, but he probably needs some fundamentals to build his idea/logic up on….

  20. I think one should set out to first master a skill or field and then focus on innovation.

    Learn the rules and get good at following them and using them to get more skilled, then begin strategically bending and breaking said rules where appropriate to blaze new frontiers!

  21. Kirsten says:

    I wrote about something similar a few weeks back, but in the context of renaissance men and the 10,000 hour rule. While I do agree that mastery can fuel innovation, I think it’s important not to underestimate the power of jumping into an idea with no formal training. Some amazing advances have come from people who didn’t know enough to know that what they were doing wasn’t possible under the prevailing knowledge.

  22. Jonathan, I love the richness of this question. In the guild structure of old, the path was from apprentice, to journeyman to master. Implicit in this is that mastery is not a destination, but a way of being. The stone masons guilds were a constant unfolding of mastery and innovation. Even more beautiful, the mastery was about the use of a common resource, stone, so that mistakes had less consequence as your journey unfolded. And, the cathedrals that were built were designed to last for 100’s and 100’s of years. We enjoy them today.

    Show me an innovation in building today that is designed to last for centuries?

    We are addicted to innovation as a new gimmick, or gadget, however, innovation may have many dimensions. Such as beauty, longevity, simplicity on the other side of complexity. Truly remarkable innovation is rarely luck. It is because of the mastery that walked before it.

  23. Leszek Cyfer says:

    Mastery can’t exist without innovation – but apply it from the view of the mastering one. From outside you might think there’s no innovation, because someone else, some time ago did it already. From inside though it is a discovery – even if one heard of it before – “It works! Yay!”.

    Path of mastery is made of looking for things that work, and then repeating them endlessly and modifying them to find all the slightly different versions that still work. Finding this multitude of versions is what gives joy along the way of mastery.

  24. Gilliom says:

    The idea “you have to know the rules, before you can break them” seems very widely accepted. Perhaps you can hardly disagree.

    “The rules” stand for what we consider to be valuable, true and right about (for example) an art form. Shifting the paradigm, radical innovation, means you alter the rules. A problem arises at this point. These changes have to be judged (are these innovative and valuable or is this just stupid a

  25. Gilliom says:

    (sorry, I messed up and submitted my comment unfinished by accident. Let me try again…)

    The idea “you have to know the rules, before you can break them” seems very widely accepted. Perhaps you can hardly disagree.

    “The rules” stand for what we consider to be valuable, true and right about (for example) an art form. Shifting the paradigm, radical innovation, means you alter the rules. A problem arises at this point. These changes have to be judged (are these innovative and valuable or is this just stupid and wrong?) The more radical the innovation is, the harder it will be to judge this. Perhaps the very core of the rules is under attack. So the question actually becomes whether we “believe” this to be an innovation (because, since the rules are being altered, we can not rely on them anymore).

    Is it not true that at this point we look for something to hold on to? If someone wants us to “believe”, what makes him believable? One thing would be his credentials, no? Does this person know what he is talking about? Did he master the previous rules? If not, this new way, these new rules are immediately more questionable.

    The idea that mastery functions mainly as a way to prove ones credentials seems awkward to me. It somehow closes the door for innovation coming from outside. And it should not be the reason to accept or dismiss something new. So what if Picasso could draw realistic pigeons when he was a kid? Is that what makes him worthy of our attention?

    • Emma says:

      Hi Jonathan,

      I think it sounds good in theory, that a person can integrate seemingly opposite processes, can achieve both mastery and innovation. That’s what personal growth is about, integration of and harmony between opposites. In practice though, I think there are a few pitfalls.

      You wrote
      “You need to become adept enough at someone else’s game, rules, patterns, music, vision to cultivate the depth of understanding needed to generate the insight that fuels a radical departure from the past and launches you into innovation.”

      I think this depends what field or type of endeavour you’re in. I also think it depends whether you tend to be a left-brained (sequential) or a right-brained (holistic) thinker – one of the right-brainer’s strengths is that they can understand the gist of systems easily without familiarity with all the parts.

      Yes, you need to engage with the subject matter to a certain degree in order to have some idea (remember even experts aren’t right 100% of the time) which innovations will be effective and which ones won’t. However, it seems to me that sometimes this is used as an excuse not to innovate. So many technological and scientific breakthroughs in history, someone told them beforehand “that’s ridiculous, it can’t be done”!

      I think sometimes this has more to do with the person who has already mastered it, protecting their ego. Gilliom wrote a reply to this effect: “Is it not true that at this point [where we can’t rely on the old rules] we look for something to hold on to? If someone wants us to “believe”, what makes him believable? One thing would be his credentials, no? Does this person know what he is talking about? Did he master the previous rules? If not, this new way, these new rules are immediately more questionable.” So maybe there is good reason to question the new rules, but lack of mastery can also serve as a convenient way to undermine someone’s credibility when you just don’t want to listen to them, or change how you do things.

      Let’s say you decide to master widget twisting and in your particular scheme you have spent years mastering the nuances of clockwise twisting. Because that is how you were taught to do it, clockwise.

      Some newcomer waltzes in and says “hmm maybe it would work better if we twisted them counterclockwise.” Now, when you were new, you too wondered about the counterclockwise, but “experience” taught you otherwise.

      This may not have been the experience that counterclockwise didn’t work, but rather the experience that nobody listened to your counterclockwise twisting initiatives so you decided the only way to get a promotion was to master clockwise twisting. (It’s possible of course that counterclockwise could have been a roaring success, had you had the support and resources for it within your organization.)

      And indeed, maybe you became a Senior Widget Twister and/or a manager.

      Of course you could be the kind of person who naturally believed in doing things the way they’d always been done, and that approach got you career success.

      However, even if you were once a young “rebel”, and believed in counterclockwise twisting at one time, you could still tout the “You have to master the rules before you can break them” philosophy to your new(ish) employees with fervour, because of all the time and effort you put into mastering clockwise twisting, you are not going to let this new kid get away without doing that too.

      Even if counterclockwise twisting would in fact be more effective, the senior widget twister is not going to turn around and say “yes you’re right, let me discard this thing I spent years working on.” It can be more about ego and being risk-averse than a need for mastery before one can innovate.

      Maybe it’s the industry I was in, but I didn’t see mastery fuelling radical departures or “launching” anything in people. What I observed happening in people was that mastery led to well-worn grooves, what they were doing was working for them. Maybe it could have been working *better*, but many people would rather stick with results that are mediocre but guaranteed, than take a risk on something new.

      Innovation requires room to experiment and tinker, and sometimes the prototypes don’t work! There’s error! And in a corporate climate where individual and company performance are measured by production of consistent results, there’s certainly a basis for reluctance to take that risk. (Of course it could also be because their innate temperament is risk-averse.)

      So to return to the original question, can a person both master and innovate? Perhaps the rare few whose discipline becomes an art, a language they are fluent in, that new possibilities emerge as they practice it….possibly not even planned by them!

      However, if the people in an organization decide that innovation is a positive thing that they want more of, that can also come about by masterers and innovators learning to work together better and maximize each other’s strengths. That is not to say we should go chasing after every crazy idea that comes up, some critical analysis is required and we don’t change things just for the sake of changing them, but the maximization I describe requires giving credence to the people who say “what if…we tried it this way?”

  26. True Black says:

    In the training and coaching business, mastery requires constant innovation. I’m not nearly as systematic about it as I’d like to be, but it tends to happen naturally and often. Client has a problem, you discover something you’d never thought of before.

    I think Gladwell talked about this in Outliers. Mozart, the Beatles, other artists became incredibly creative as they put in their 10,000 hours of practice.

  27. I see the intersect of mastery and innovation like a conversation. Both sides come to the table with specific views, beliefs, and points they want to make clear; but it’s the exchange between the two that ultimately steers the interaction. Monologues can be informative, but dialogues provide better engagement and a richer experience.

  28. I definitely feel innovation and mastery can be partners – partners in redefining an old mold so as to give it new life. I believe everything has an evolution and it’s only a matter of time before movement, genius and action collaborate creating innovation. I see an old archetype coming into its next phase of evolution in the blogsphere and among the creative circles and that’s The Artist. The Artist in the archetypal sense has been in shadows, especially in the usa for some time, it’s known as the starving artist. However, many personal development blogs, creative business blogs, even etsy is infusing the Aritst with a makeover. No longer starving now Thriving. Artists are abundant in ideas, imagination and entering the unkown, the blank page, it’s about time some mastery off the page, in everyday life collaborated in creating the materpiece called life. A life where you can sport yourself, mind, body and spirit off the page, just as much as you create on the page. To me, that’s innovation tempered with a little temper – in the sense of enough all ready w/all the brooding suferring – it’s not sexy.

  29. Lisa Alessi says:

    I absolutely agree that mastery provides the foundation for innovation and that we tend to discount many of the things we’ve mastered throughout our careers and life that help us innovate and think creatively. I like to think of mastery as a spring board to leap from when we innovate.

    True mastery means leading from within. It starts with external influences but true mastery is based on internal focus and there are different levels of mastery that can lead to innovations along the way, so I do believe they can coexist.

  30. Steve Errey says:

    Can mastery and innovation co-exist in the same individual? You bet. Can they happen simultaneously? I don’t think so, no.

    There are 2 very different styles of thinking there – essentially different ways that the brain works to get either the result of mastery or the result of innovation. As you say, one is about deep practice and the other often just “happens” without you even knowing about it.

    Some of the latest research into how the brain works points to insights being generated not from having better ideas, being more determined to solve something, trying harder or focusing harder on the problem or even being more creative – but from having a greater awareness of what’s happening in your thoughts and experience. It’s that awareness that allows you to both quieten your “doing” mind that tries consciously to solve stuff and hear an insight when it arises.

    Interesting times.

  31. David Lapin says:

    I wonder whether your question doesn’t highlight some of the difference between innovation and creation, Jonathan? A composer creates a piece of music, a performer innovates his or her own nuances when they play it. The performer has to totally master the art and science of music before he or she can add their own innovative nuances. The composer does not need to be accomplish quite the same degree of mastery as the player does. The composer is more of the imaginative romantic, conceiving of sounds the world has never seen before.

    Perhaps the same is true in business and other areas of life. Some of us create our own musical scores, some of us play the music of others. As long as we are authentic to our essence, our inner soul, the music will be original and divine whether we created it or merely performed it.

    Thanks for your stimulating thoughts, as always.

  32. I immediately thought of the concept of mastery as an abstract idea and using that idea as a conduit for innovation in something specific.

    For example: mastery of meditation (can be an abstract idea or concept) could be a conduit for innovation in helping a [specific] individual recognize peace and tranquility.

    Either way I thought the post was good and the title by itself made for a few good minutes of pause and reflection.