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The master’s journey can begin whenever you decide to learn any new skill– how to touch-type, how to cook, how to become a lawyer or doctor, or accountant. But it achieves a special poignancy, a quality akin to poetry or drama, in the field of sports, where muscles, mind, and spirit come together in graceful and purposive movements through time and space. 

– George Leonard, Mastery

George Leonard wrote Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment over twenty years ago. I’ve passed my copy around to friends for years, strongly believing in the message he presents. Its pages are yellowed and the cover is sun-faded, but I still peruse it from time to time.

If we are to truly embark on a journey of mastery in any given area of our lives, then we must dedicate ourselves to the enjoyment of that journey for the sake of taking it. It’s not about the end goal.

Let me explain.

Leonard writes that goals are important, as they help us push our edge just a little further and break new ground, but singular and obsessive focus on those goals is destructive. Part of any journey to becoming a master involves considerable amounts of time spent on the plateau of progression. In these periods, there is seemingly little to no progress being made.

Those who are too goal-obsessive may become frustrated with lack of progress ignore the fundamentals in pursuit of the next high. This may work, but it will probably harm long-term gains by sacrificing a strong foundation to work from.

Yet others may disengage entirely, and go find a new goal to pursue.

In the end, neither will become masters.

Mastery Isn’t a Get Rich Quick Scheme

We see this in the shooting community quite a bit.

We sometimes have a tendency to look for that next widget or gizmo that helps us shoot faster or more accurately without any additional practice time. Perhaps we chase after certain shooting styles and disciplines that reward us for speed while having very generous accuracy standards.

But, as many a shooting master has said before, good shooting is good execution of the fundamentals. Great shooting is great execution of the fundamentals.

We’ve been conditioned by our culture to see life as a never-ending series of climaxes.

Movies and commercials show quick montages of practice and training in a matter of seconds or minutes. Usually, there’s exciting music to go along with it. This creates the impression that obtaining a high level of skill is easier and faster than it actually is.

We think that if we only want it bad enough, it will come to us.

Men’s Health magazine is famous for always showing a man with a rippling midsection on the cover, accompanied by a headline, “Great abs in just 15 minutes!”

How many training courses, self-help books, or the like promise quick results with minimal effort?

The reality is, of course, different. That cover model most certainly did NOT get his abs in 15 minutes. We don’t see the lifelong dedication to eating right, working out, or the weeks of “prep time” leading up to that photo shoot where the model was dehydrated and starving in order to present just the right image. And that is all before it was photoshopped.

I use these cultural elements to illustrate why many of us have troubles staying dedicated to a goal of mastery when it seems we are not making progress towards it.

Personal Growth and Periods of Stagnation

Stagnation is Death.

Catchy, right? For a long time, I used that as my motto. But this is incorrect. Stagnation is part of mastery, it’s even a necessary part.

Leonard emphasizes that we should be happy to hit that plateau. It gives us time to continue focusing and practicing on those fundamentals we have been so hard at work building. With repetition and application, we will eventually break that plateau and incrementally continue climbing the ladder of mastery.

I can think of no skill worth a damn that can be mastered in a short amount of time.

Professional musicians practice the same scales hundreds of thousands of times for years.

Martial artists, like George Leonard, spend their entire lives gaining experience and continuously learning to master themselves and their craft.

Professional athletes rarely got where they are based on raw talent alone but through a lifetime intense and focused practice of the fundamentals.

There was no montage, no inspirational theme music, and probably not even a medal at the end of it. Learn to love that plateau and keep practicing because it’s what you love to do.

Developing Mastery

George offers five keys to attaining mastery:

  • Instruction
  • Practice
  • Surrender
  • Intentionality
  • The “Edge”

Instruction

Everyone needs to have something or someone to learn from.

The best instruction will always be tailored to the ability level of the student. More importantly, it provides feedback to the student on how they are performing on their path.

For a lot of us, professional instruction is a difficult thing to find. That’s especially true for activities that aren’t our profession. Resources are tight and training is expensive when someone else isn’t footing the bill. That doesn’t mean it’s not out there, though.

Resources like The Everyday Marksman are merely one example. There are many other books, videos, clubs, and other available resources.

Seek them out.

Practice

Practice isn’t an afterthought. John Buol over at The Firearms User Network made a post years ago with a quote I never forgot.

Armies think Proficiency is something spontaneous, or like having perfect pitch. Instead, an army finds either a quick learner or someone bringing skills in from civilian life. It is the number of careful shots fired. Slow learners fire more shots and they just take a little more time to get to Proficiency, but get there they do. Armies consider it something associated with having a military elite profile. Rubbish. I have seen a thin, short, very myopic middle-aged woman at a pistol range make one little hole with her M1911 Colt .45 automatic pistol. At an outdoor range, I have seen a genuine blue-haired old lady, with glasses to match, make a disturbingly large number of holes in the black at a thousand (1000) yards.

Keep all the military at the range at slow-fire and eventually
 the whole lot will plod to Proficiency and shoot about as well as the snipers. The track record of Proficient civilians put in the army and thrust into live-fire is 1.5 shots per hit/kill. This is the Hermann Phenomenon, first observed over 200 years ago. The record is stable through astounding equipment changes, because it is something one learns on the Long Plod to Proficiency.

– Darryl Davis, The Long Plod to Proficiency

Some people get this sense that you arrive at mastery one day and then you have nowhere else to go.

Those we call masters have spent more time working on a skill than most anyone else. Yet, ironically, the further along that path you go, the more you realize you still have to learn.

Better get to work.

Surrender

Drill instructors of Company C, 1st Recruit Trianing Battalion, encourage recruits to exert maximum effort to excel during the quarter-mile sprint exercise aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego April 16.
U.S. Marine Corps photos by Lance Cpl. Bridget M. Keane

Surrender means being willing to sacrifice some of your gained ability, or pride, in order to seek better gains long term.

Many of my students over the years complained about the amount of repetition I made them do. That was especially true compared to their peers, who seemed to have it easy. Sometimes, I inadvertently made them feel inadequate because I pushed them to fail.

I noticed a trend, though. The students who stuck with it, who overcame the challenge, began to far exceed their peers. They didn’t always know it because they lacked perspective.

Those elements that I made them practice, the fundamentals, made them better. Their willingness to learn from the failures I pushed them to made them far stronger than they knew. But it still took a willing effort on their part to surrender their misgivings and do things my way.

In hindsight, I realize that not all of my students were ready for that.

Spend time on what you’re not good at

We should be spending time practicing the things we perceive to be our weaknesses, but we often just practice the things we believe are our strengths. Doing things well is more fun than doing things not-so-well. 

We get a stronger rush from success.

In the shooting world, that means we slap on our red dot sights and shoot at targets 15 yards away and call it “combat accurate.”

Or we prop our rifles on to bipods and bench rests to shoot tiny groups at the range. Ultimately, this tests the gun’s accuracy more than our own ability.

Cheating yourself into accepting lower accuracy and calling it “combat accurate” is not the path to success. The ability to apply fundamentals consistently enough to produce high levels of accuracy directly translates to doing the same under pressure.

Your accuracy may be degraded, but your starting point will be significantly better than someone who has not practiced those fundamentals.

This applies across all spectrums of marksmanship. The adrenaline rush of taking aim at a deer or elk, defending your home and family, competing, or shooting in open conflict are all examples of where this principle applies. The better you master your weapon by mastering the fundamentals and your weaknesses, the better your performance will be across the board.

Intentionality

Leonard’s definition of intentionality is closely aligned with the visualization practices that Lanny Bassham describes in his book, With Winning in Mind.

Think of this as the power of visualization.

Do you ever daydream about going to the range? If you do, how much detail do you imagine?

Most of us probably think about the basics. What rifle are we going to take? What does the target look like? How cool will this look on Instagram?

Visualization warrants a post to itself, so I’ll simply say go deeper with your imagery.

  • What’s the wind doing?
  • How fast is your heartbeat?
  • Is your breathing controlled?
  • What position are you in?
  • How is your natural point of aim?
  • What does the sign picture look like?
  • What happens before, during, and after the trigger squeeze?
  • Visualize your grouping

Go through this process over and over in your mind. It’s like practicing without spending money.

Winning!

The Edge

George emphasizes the importance of finding a balance between goal-less dedication to the enjoyment of the fundamentals, and the desire to chase new and tantalizing feats of mastery. There is always a feeling of exhilaration when we break that plateau and reach a new level.

To this, I like to think about goal setting and competition. Being happy to practice fundamentals and ride the plateau is fine, but we should also seek to challenge ourselves. It’s part of the surrender.

The important thing is that you just need to go out and challenge yourself. Be the man in the arena who actually dares. You will only become better for it.

Too many of us approach shooting, or really any other skill-heavy sport like golf, archery, or even auto racing, with the mentality of, “I don’t have good enough equipment. I need to get better stuff before I go compete.”

In reality, the master competitors aren’t the best because they have the best equipment. They are the best because they’ve put the most time practicing and honing their talents. Their specialized equipment only gives them that extra edge to better compete with other experts. If you take any of my “standard” rifles and put them in the hands of a true master, they would still outshoot 99% of the population.

Lothaen over at The New Rifleman succinctly summed it up in a post about a match he competed in.

True mastery of your rifle will come when you have shot it under many different scenarios and conditions… and then you will understand it is *not* the rifle you must master.

It’s you.

– Lothaen, Shooting High Power with an M16-A2

So let’s talk about goals setting on this journey.

Goal Setting

If you are like most people, you’ve been taught SMART goals.

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time bounded

When implemented correctly, these make good guidelines. The trouble is that SMART isn’t enough to make a plan. A goal without a plan is just a wish.

As one former commander of mine used to put it, “You can wish in one hand and shit in the other. See which one fills up first.”

Writing Better Goals

With Winning in Mind, by Lanny Basham, is one of my favorite books. My method is derived from this, though a bit less rigid. The first step in a proper goal is to decide exactly what it is that we want to achieve and when. When we talk of specificity, you need to think about the end state and not the process.

For example, take these two goals:

  • Lose 20 pounds
  • Weigh 190 pounds or less

If the person who wrote these weighs 210 pounds today, what is the distinction between the goals? They both say the same thing, right? They just state different ways of looking at a target.

The successful person always talks in terms of how they see themselves at the end.

Those who don’t focus on the outcome tend to get lost.

The first person is more likely to say, “I’m trying to lose 20 pounds.” By constantly speaking in terms of “trying,” they subconsciously program their minds to never really reach the goal. They don’t see themselves as someone who weighs 190 pounds, but someone who is perpetually trying to lose 20 pounds.

Think of smokers you have known who are “trying to quit,” and get close to the end goal only to revert and continue “trying.”

So, to recap, step one of choosing a specific goal is to choose the specific end state you envision.

Measuring Outcomes

mastery at the CATM range
U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kiana Brothers

Step two is deciding exactly how you will measure such a goal and under what conditions. To truly demonstrate progress, measurements must be done in a controlled and consistent manner.

For example, “hitting the x-ring” doesn’t say a whole lot by itself.

  • Am I shooting from a standing, kneeling, sitting, or prone position?
  • Am I shooting outside in calm weather, or in cold/windy/rainy weather?
  • How much time do I have to prepare for the shot?
  • What kind of rifle will I be using?

Here is how I would incorporate that information into goals, starting with our weight loss example:

  • Standing on my bathroom scale in the morning after a shower and before breakfast, weigh 190 pounds or less
  • From sitting position outside in calm weather using my primary match rifle, place at least three out of five shots in the x-ring of a standard A-23 target from 50 yards.
  • From a fasted state within one hour of waking up, complete a 3.2 mile run over gentle hills in 24 minutes or less

Those three goals are all specific and include measurement conditions. I know exactly when I’ve achieved my goal, and I can clearly chart progress towards that goal for feedback and review.

This comes back to mastery and enjoying the journey. You need to avoid frustrating yourself when those goals aren’t quickly achieved.

Achievability and Relevancy

Your goals should be challenging.

Easy goals don’t motivate us the way that difficult goals do. Achieving difficult goals gives us a stronger “rush.” Failing to achieve goals does the opposite.

Balance those two factors the best you can.

It’s a common mistake for people often set goals in areas they don’t have a large amount of knowledge or experience. If you don’t know a lot about a subject, it’s easy to incorrectly estimate what a “fair” amount of time would be to give yourself, or how difficult a goal might be, or even if you’re tracking the right data points.

I did this early on in my shooting journey and received solid feedback from others further along the path than I that my goals were too aggressive.

For another example, most people use the number on the scale as the sole indicator of health. However, health and fitness experts generally agree that measuring the weight of a person is not nearly as good an indicator of health as using body fat percentage and strength capacity.

If you take two women of roughly the same body type who both weigh 140 pounds, but one has a body fat percentage of 20% and the other a body fat percentage of 30%, the former may look like a toned swimsuit model and the other will look flabby.

But they weigh the same amount.

Moreover, dropping 10% body fat in a short amount of time is also unhealthy and comes with a high risk of “rebound.” The difficulty and proper time programming must be accounted for.

When you set a goal, do your homework!

Planning

How much do you care about achieving your goal? What are you willing to give up reaching it?

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just wanting it is enough. In Mastery, George Leonard talks about the concept of homeostasis. Whatever life patterns, social relationships, and obligations you have established to this point are going to fight against any effort you make to change something about your life.

Change is hard, it makes others feel uncomfortable.

Sacrificing for Mastery

So what are you going to give up? Our fat loss goal is not going to happen by itself. It’s going to take eating right, exercising, and discipline.

Are you willing to wake up earlier and feel more tired during the day so you can fit a workout in?

What about putting up with teasing from friends and coworkers about your new clean eating habits?

Are you prepared for the increased time and financial commitments required for buying and cooking your own food?

If these factors bother you more than not reaching your goal, then you will fail.

Whatever your goal, are you willing to trade your life for it? If the answer is no, then stop there and go pick a new goal that you are willing to trade for. Failing to reach your goals will only put you in a spiral of frustration and failure, which will hurt any other goals you have.

Deadlines

Once you’ve got your goal, put a fair deadline on it. Seriously, you really need to put a deadline on it. Now it’s time to plan for it.

First, list the things that might stop you from achieving your goal? Let’s look at a few for our fat loss goal.

  • Time – required to exercise, cook, and eat slowly
  • Financial resources – It might cost more to buy and cook your own food
  • Social relationships – People may give you a hard time for trying to break out of the pigeonhole they put you in
  • Convenience – Bringing your own lunch to work is less convenient than eating out

Really take the time to sit down and think about this. List everything that might hold you back.

Now, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to compensate for those things that will hold you back?

  • Time – Wake up earlier, pick efficient workouts, eat small meals
  • Financial resources – Build a budget that involves less Starbucks or other niceties (Satellite Radio? Luxury cell phone plans? Good beer/wine habit? Comprehensive cable/satellite TV packages? If you aren’t willing to give those up, then this goal wasn’t important enough to you to begin with)
  • Social relationships – Pre-build list of comeback quips, form new supportive relationships, get others to join you
  • Convenience – Embrace it?

Lastly, how are you going to reach your goal? What is your plan? This will probably require you to create sub-goals and milestones. Follow this whole process again for each of those. How often are you going to exercise? What proportions of fats/proteins/carbohydrates are you going to eat? What is the deadline for each of your milestones?

What Comes Next

mastery by George Leonard
My copy of George Leonard’s book

Perhaps even more important, what is the next goal you want to achieve after you’ve reached this one?

Always have another goal in sight. If you’ve reached your goal for body fat percentage, what about establishing a goal for strength or speed? If we’re talking about marksmanship mastery, how about winning a competition?

If you keep your focus on your smaller milestones, working towards each of them, then you’ll be breaking the mastery plateau one bit at a time without realizing it.

Wrapping Up

If nothing else, I want you to come away from this post accepting that your path to mastery will be both rewarding and frustrating. You will experience highs of triumph as you win matches, beat goals, and achieve high levels of skill.

You will also feel frustrated by lagging progress, poor motivation, and competing priorities.

It’s ok to feel these things. Mastery is not about the end goal, it’s about the journey to get there. 

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