What Everybody Ought to Know About Mastery

Performance experts tell us that the most important ingredient to mastery is deliberate practice, playing at the edge of our abilities for hours and days and years.

That’s academic-speak for failing. Imagine if the process of learning to ride a bike meant falling over and over for two years before you were able to keep that wobbly front wheel pointed forward and stay up. Schwinn would have gone bankrupt years ago.

I picked up a tennis racket in the summer of 1977 when I was 11 years old. I was flipping channels and happened upon this epic: Borg just beat Gerulaitis in the Wimbledon semis in the first tennis match I had ever seen. Something brittle inside me snapped, like those glowsticks on the Fourth of July. Tennis was it for me, man. I found an old wooden racket in the garage, the white paint on the frame chipped from being stuffed in a basket with hockey sticks, aluminum bats, skates and a plastic bowling set.

I spent the next hour hammering a bald tennis ball against our metal garage door trying to play just like Borg. I was out there after dinner. Then the next day. And the next until finally a neighbor begged me to stop because the sound was driving her elderly mother crazy. Thinking about it now, I think she made her up.

But I was terrible; I really sucked. With nothing but the television and grainy pictures in the newspaper to guide me, I gripped the racket the way I thought the pros did; I studied freeze frame shots in fan magazines for clues to their brilliance. The angle of their wrists was non-human, like their hand attached to their arm by a single cord. I hit off the frame about half the time, sending the ball over the garage and into my mother’s perennial garden. The rest of the time my racket rattled and buzzed at my off-center hits.

I’d love to tell a story of waking up one morning to find that it all clicked, every ball was off the sweet spot and from that day on I never missed another ball. Like riding a bike, I’d say. No problem. I was a natural, born to play the game. But I would be lying. I started to get better slowly, glacially, agonizingly slowly.

It was probably two years before I was good enough to rally with another player on a real tennis court.

I watch tennis beginners today struggling with the same maddening challenges that I did and I wonder how I ever got through it. Would I be able to start from the beginning today and stick with it? If I excuse my ego from this, no.

The secret to mastery isn’t 10,000 of practice, that’s just the road you have to travel.

The secret is tolerance of failure.

And then, ever so slowly, my coach started to add some rotation. Not emphasizing that we were practicing rotation, but just teaching a separate way of moving. The pupil has no idea what the real point of this sort of practice is. He merely does as he’s told and keeps on moving that one part of his body. For example, if it’s how to turn your shoulders, you just repeat that endlessly. Sometimes you spend an entire session just turning your shoulders. You end up exhausted and spent but later, in retrospect, you realize what it was all for. The parts fall into place, and you can see the whole picture and finally understand the role each individual part plays. The dawn comes, the sky grows light, and the colors and shapes of the roofs of the houses which you could only glimpse vaguely before, come into focus…

In order to get there you have to stubbornly, rigorously and very patiently tighten all the screws of each individual part. This takes time, of course, but sometimes taking time is actually a shortcut.

– Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

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