In Defense of The Pursuit of Mastery

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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