How to Master Anything

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Jack Meditating

noun: mastery

  1. comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment.
    1. the action or process of mastering a subject or accomplishment.
  2. control or superiority over someone or something.

Master is something to aspire to in any skill you engage in.  It’s something Samurai Jack has certainly achieved with a variety of weapons and other skills.  It sounds super fancy, but in reality it’s not all that difficult a task (becoming a master in something.)  You’ve probably already mastered a number of skills!  Walking, reading, navigating the internet…  You probably didn’t even realize when you were doing it!  Quite a few things we master in our lifetime happen so gradually or at such a young age that we don’t even notice!

The challenge, of course, is willfully attaining master in a new skill.  This can be difficult, in practice, depending on what the skill is, how naturally it comes to you, and how much you enjoy it.  Spoiler alert: If you don’t enjoy doing something, you will probably never master it.  Sorry (but I’m sure you’re not too broken up about it, right?

So, how do we master something?  Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, first I want to talk about something a bit more manageable.  Competence.

It’s theorized that there are four stages of competence, and rather than rehash things, I’m just going to go ahead and drop in the Wikipedia article on the subject, because I think they lay it out pretty damn well.

  1. Unconscious incompetence
    The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.
  2. Conscious incompetence
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
  3. Conscious competence
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
  4. Unconscious competence
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

Unconscious Incompetence

Alright, let’s break these down one by one.  Unconscious incompetence basically means you’re bad, and you don’t even know how bad you are.  This is sometimes a tricky stage because if you take to something easily right off the bat, you might not even think you’re incompetent at it!  That is, until, you see someone who has mastered it.  Despite the trickiness of this stage, it’s often the quickest, and easiest one to get through.  It’s mostly just a matter of mindset.

How to Surpass It:

Realize that when you’re starting anything new, you suck.  I tell my martial arts students this all the time.  If you’re new at something, you probably kind of suck at it, and that’s okay!  The first step is realizing that you suck!  Then you can start getting better!

Conscious Incompetence

Congratulations, you know you suck!  Great!  Now the healing …er… I mean learning can begin.  The good thing about realizing that you’re a beginner is that you will apply a beginner’s eyes to everything you’re doing.  This means that while you might be overly critical of yourself at times, you’re going to keep striving to improve.

How to Surpass It:

Practice.  Practice and make mistakes.  Make lots of mistakes.  Mistakes mean you’re trying and experimenting, and that’s how your brain learns.  Don’t worry about being perfect in your practice, but strive to get better every time you practice anyway.  The key at this stage is persistence.  Many people never get past the conscious incompetence stage because they get disheartened, become convinced they’ll never be any good, and give up.  DON’T LET THIS BE YOU!  Continue to persist and practice when you are able and you will soon move on to…

Conscious Competence

Okay, now you’re getting kinda-sorta pretty good at something!  Awesome!  You still need to work pretty hard when you’re performing the skill, and occasional mistakes happen, but you can definitely start to see your hard work and progress paying off.  You still need to be persistent, but persistence isn’t as hard to maintain as you’re probably seeing real, measurable results for your time invested, now.  At this point, you’re just trying to remove the “conscious” qualifier of your competence level.

How to Surpass It:

Practice still matters, of course, but intentionally challenging yourself matters as much as rote repetition.  Your regular practice habits probably aren’t resulting in the same old mistakes you used to make.  You need to find new, creative ways to challenge yourself in addition to your normal practice sessions.

Unconscious Competence

This is it, the final stage of competence in a skill.  You no longer have to think about the actions you’re trying to perform when you’re performing the skill in question.  Maybe it’s a kata or martial arts form, or playing your favorite musical instrument, or painting a picture.  You give your body the command to do it, and it just does, no further real dedicated thought necessary.

But is this really the final stage?  Is this mastery?

I would say not.


Being competent is fantastic, but truly mastering something goes beyond just mastering it.  How do you attain true mastery?  Well, continued practice matters, sure, but there’s something else that I would say matters, as well.  Play.

Play with your skill!  Do it backwards, forwards, inside out.  Discover new mediums.  Perform it under different, more difficult conditions.  Mastering an instrument?  Learn to play pieces backwards and forwards.  Compose your own pieces.  Challenge yourself to play at double speed.

Like moving from conscious to unconscious competence, you need to force yourself to continue to make mistakes, but you need to do so in a creative manner, to increase your overall innate understanding of the skill.

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.
-Bruce Lee

That’s it for today!  I hope this helps you on your own journey to becoming a master of your chosen ability.  I’ll see you again on Thursday, in A Samurai’s Quest.

Live boldly, change the world, and continue to be awesome!

Dan “DaRatmastah” Wallace


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