Monday, May 09, 2005

Book Review: Mastery

On the advice of Slacker Manager, I added Mastery to my last order from Amazon. The book intrigued me since it was written by an Aikido Master.

In the U.S. just about every sport has been presented as a metaphor for life: football (Vince Lombardi), golf (many, many examples), baseball (George Will), even boxing (the fictional Rocky Balboa). There are dozens of books out there that use martial arts as the metaphor, but I picked this one up just because the timing of the recommendation coincided with some thoughts I was taking away from my own martial arts practice.

The book's overarching premise is simple and something you have heard before: it isn't the goal that matters, it's the journey. Everyone nods in understanding when they hear this, but it is another matter to put the concept into practice. Most of us are racing for goals - the next promotion, the VP title, the perks of the corner office - when what should matter is taking joy and pride in the practice of what we are doing. For my career that would mean taking enjoyment and pride in the act of marketing - even if I don't make a bazillion dollars or get annoited as CEO of SuperMegaCorp. What matters is that I become better and better in my selected profession each day and take joy in its practice, even if I retire in obscurity.

And this was an idea I was getting to on my own with my martial arts training. Most martial arts in the U.S. have the coveted Black Belt. It is a part of the popular culture and is (rightly) seen as a significant right of passage. Beginners in class look at envy at those with more advanced belts - especially the Black Belt - and talk among themselves on how long it will take them to get to the next rank, how long they will have to bear the stigma of the lowly white or yellow belt, how fast they will race up the ranks to get the Black.

After a few months the realization hits some (but not all) that the belts don't really matter. It is the enjoyment of practicing that matters. Of becoming better. Of honing your skills. Of doing something every day - no matter how insignificant - that makes your art better. In fact, most martial arts Masters consider the Black Belt as someone who just has all the basic skills down and is just now ready for true learning. And the true Black Belt doesn't quit the day after he gets the title. It's just another rank and the learning continues the next day.

So I enjoyed the book's message, and it's a quick read which can be done at one sitting. I also liked his characterizations of the various students he has seen over the years - the dabbler, the hacker, the excessive - which he feels characterizes how many people treat most aspects of their lives.

I do have some complaints about his griping about American consumerism and capitalism. I sort of skimmed over those sections, but I figure he had to do it if he is going to complain about short-term goal setting and instant gratification, which I do admit is rampant in our society. There is some pseudo-zen stuff in there that is okay if taken with a grain of salt. He also griped several times about Lombardi's famous quote "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing", which he feels goes against his philosophy of Mastery.

I think he took this quote out of context since his philosophy and Lombardi's are actually closely related. That quote is only one part of a speech, which also includes:
"Every time a football player goes to ply his trade he's got to play from the ground up, from the soles of his feet right up to his head. Every inch of him has to play. Some guys play with their heads. That's O.K. You've got to be smart to be number one in any business. But more importantly, you've got to play with your heart, with every fiber of your body."
I think this also sums up the concept of Mastery, just in a different way.

Taking these complaints into consideration, I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

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