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Mastery: What It Is — Why You Want It — Why It’s Important

Those who have mastered expertise, a skill or the ability to teach it are recognized as being the best in their field. IT’S IMPORTANT BECAUSE if you are the best, success, fame, status, and money typically follow.

“Be all that you can be.” — Ad Slogan, United States Army

Yun-Na Kim Showing her Gold medal for figure skating. Image by: amex
Yun-Na Kim Showing her Gold medal for figure skating. Image by: amex

by Murray Johannsen.  Last Updated October 5, 2018. Feel to connect via Linkedin, or by email. First Published on May 9, 2016.  

Table of Contents


What is Mastery?

Both the ancient games run for a 1000 years at Delphi and the modern games held at very cities represent the highest level of personal mastery in sports.


Mastery is a special state of mind in which the skill runs almost entirely within the unconscious (Johannsen, 1986). 

We have many examples of this. The most obvious example is that of the Olympics. Endless hours of practice to master a skill, endless chances of fall by the way side, but for those who get the gold, you have your moment in the sun and the possibility of some type of corporate sponsorship. 

The drive to be the best did not begin in the modern era, it has always been something an an small number of individuals chose to do do. After all, master involves being great and being great is a lot of work. Much easier to die forgotten such that after you children die, no one even knows you are here. 

Great video. Find our what people can do when they master something.

5 Characteristics That Define Mastery

1. The Skill Shifts from Running Consciously to Unconsciously

“The mastery of nature is vainly believed to be an adequate substitute for self mastery.” — Reinhold Niebuhr

Image by: SD Dirk: High Jump Triton Invitational 2011
Image by: SD Dirk: High Jump Triton Invitational 2011


What’s works for Olympic athletes also works for certain common skills such as driving. In fact, driving becomes so automatic that many individuals remember practically nothing while driving between work and home. Imagine that the next time you are on a freeway, that the person on the right and the left, the one in front and in the back, are all not paying attention to their driving. Yet, we manage to get to our destination safely.

Driving is a common skill which reaches the mastery stage for almost everyone. Driving becomes so automatic, that many individuals have the experience of leaving work for home but remembering nothing in between leaving work and getting home. Contrast this experience with trying to find an address in a strange area of town.

In the second case, much more conscious monitoring of the environment occurs since the scenery is novel. In fact, a stranger to an area can always be spotted. These individuals drive slower than than everyone else, are the only individuals looking at street signs and like to make lane changes just before an intersection.

2. Motivation Comes From the Both the Conscious and the Unconscious 

Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person.” — Albert Einstein

Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912): Unconscious Rivals


Some skills require you to put will power into it. For example, we were runners will tell you that you can get into a state in which you running is effortless. But at times, when you will have to add willpower to go the distance.

The more I think about this, the more amazing it is. When at the mastery stage, you don’t have to use willpower to type. Your fingers effortlessly float across the keyboard. We walk but don’t put any effort into it. Even runners talk about getting into a rhythm where the body just seems to run by itself.

Contrast this to learning something new. Think back to the first time you rode a bike without training wheels. In those early minutes of panic and anxiety, you concentrated totally on the task of not falling. But after a while, the unconscious takes over running the body and you don’t even consciously think about it any more. Magic.

3. Speed is Greatly Enhanced

Image by: Peter Emshwiller: Space Motocross


Here speed increases to the point where little conscious thought is possible. Take professional basketball or soccer as an example. A shot gets taken, a ball gets passed, all without conscious thought. For a player to think, “He’s open,” before passing means delaying action just enough to lose the opportunity.

Even certain normal physical limitations can be overcome in this stage. The story is told about a woman who had the job of rolling cigars by hand. But she never happy about her performance and continually improved over a period of five years — all except for the last year. She had not reached her physical limitation, one of the machines she was using could not go faster.

4. One Experiences Great Accuracy and Precision 

“Ah, mastery… what a profoundly satisfying feeling when one finally gets on top of a new set of skills.” — Gail Sheehy

2011 World Figure Skating Championships, free skating. Image by: doorstop
2011 World Figure Skating Championships, free skating. Image by: doorstop


During the mastery stage individuals exhibit exceptional accuracy. Think of basketball free throw completions. Contrast a novice in high school with the shooting percentage of the pros.

Or take typing as an example. Most people start by hunting and pecking the keys at less than twenty words a minute with lots of mistakes. With practice, typing becomes more automatic, more accurate and speeds of fifty to sixty words a minute are not unusual. If the person keeps on training, speed can improve to over 100 words a minute with few errors a page (Wikipedia, ND).

5. Mastery Requires Practice — Sometimes Hundreds or Thousands Hours 

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” ― Michelangelo Buonarroti

The first rule of real estate is location, location, location. The first rule of mastery: practice, practice, practice. 

Spending thousands of hours becoming an expert is not unusual. In the field of fine wines, there is a small group who are recognized as experts in the field. The Court of Master Sommeliers, (CMS) established in 1977, is an independent examining body that offers the Master Sommelier Diploma. Individuals must spend months of daily study (and wine tasting of course) preparing. The certification is so difficult that less than 300 people across the world can pass.

Six Examples of Skills Mastered

The detail of the Alexander The Great Mosaic, made about 100 B.C.
The detail of the Alexander The Great Mosaic, made about 100 B.C.


Walking and riding a bike are examples of two skills which reach the autonomous stage. Have you ever watched a baby take its first step? Most parents realize that there is a great amount of effort and practice walking which lead to a baby walking on its own.

Or think back to the first time of riding a bike without training wheels. In those few minutes of panic and anxiety on the bike, individuals concentrate totally on the nature of the task of not falling. After a few hours of practice, however, the unconscious takes over and the conscious mind becomes free to think about other matters.

Mastery Example 1: Cooking Chinese Food

Eat Drink Man and Woman — Opening Scene. Watch a master chef preparing food. You will see many of the characteristics of mastery: speed, precision and a sense of the aesthetic. 

Example 2: Mastering the Sport of Swimming

Michael Phelps, 7th Gold Medal in 2008 Beijing Olympics. What’s fascinating about this race is how it was won at the very end. Sometimes the true mark of a champion is how you finish.

Example 3: World Record Holders

The Trampoline Jump. You need to watch it to the end to get a feel for the record that was broken. Anyone who has won a world record has surely mastered a skill. 

Five examples of incredible abilities

Superhumans. There is an interesting show called Stan Lees Superhumans. Many are ordinary people except that they have a one special ability that makes them truly special. One can withstand high temperatures in a sauna, another can run for 16 hours, for a third it’s speed when shooting guns, while another shoots arrows with truly incredible accuracy, etc.

And sometimes the skill starts really young, as in the case of the Jessica Mah, who built on core computer skills to go on and grew a successful start-up.

Example 4: MOZART: A Truly Great Musician 


We have all known people who have a gift for something. Individuals like Mozart who can hear a song once and then play it perfectly. Music is not the only area where this occurs, some have special gifts of memory.

Example 6: Photographic Memory

The famous psychologist, A. R. Luria, (1968) studied a person with an eidetic (photographic) memory and then wrote a book called Mind of a Mnemonist. This person was cursed to remember the details of even the most mundane of tasks, actions you perform thousands of times throughout life. Can you imagine what it would be like to perfectly remember washing your hands or brushing your teeth? Still others come very close (Foer, 2006). I even ran across one person like this once.

I was not graced with a phenomenal memory. Getting a degree in pharmacy required a great deal of effort and endless hours inputting drug descriptions from sources such as the Physicians Desk Reference. For each drug, you would have to remember its brand name, its generic name, dosage, how it worked in the body, the class of drugs it was part of, contraindications, possible adverse reactions, etc.

However, I once had a next door neighbor who never seemed to do any type of studying. He might open a book 24 hours before an exam, but that was about it. So I asked him once about this once.

He told me he could make a mental picture of every page in the textbook and then pull the information from that page to get an A. He went on to become a doctor of course.

Mastery In the Movies

Periodically, you see a movie about an “idiot savant.” These individuals have a special ability, but certain human relations skills remain undeveloped. Below are a couple of examples.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. In this movie, the main character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, possessed olfactory genius. But while he could create great perfumes, he completely lacked compassion and empathy.


Rain Man. In this story line, a mathematical genius lacks basic social skills. His social skills are bad that he has to be institutionalized. Still, this kind of ability comes in handy if your ethically challenged brother would like to make money gambling in Las Vegas.

Mastery of Expertise: 5 Discoveries About Chess Masters

To understand how to make good decisions, one must understand the limitations of rationality. — M. Johannsen

Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912): Egyptian chess players


Over the years, studies such as those by Chase and Simon (1973) and Degroot (1965) discovered important differences between chess masters and those who are novices. In fact, DeGroot wrote a classic book called Thought and Choice in Chess. This serves as the basis for some of our fundamental assumptions between how novices differ from the experts.

In these studies, researchers divide the sample into beginners and experts (really easy to do in chess) and ask them to verbally explain what they are thinking as they play the game.

Some thought patterns are the same. For example, both groups say they look ahead 30 to 50 moves. But it’s the differences between the two groups that are really interesting.

First, experts were better able to recall and memorize patterns of play of the twenty-five pieces on the board more quickly than new players. But if pieces were arranged randomly, they did no better than novices.

Second, masters have stored a large number of patterns in memory—somewhere between 50 and 100 thousand; for which it takes somewhere between 10,000 to 20,000 hours to learn. Technically, these patterns are known as heuristics; or rules of thumb that allow one to find a solution without checking all possible alternatives. As you might expect, part of this ability runs unconsciously.

Third, masters are processed information differently than a novice. Instead of seeing 25 pieces, they typically saw 5-7 patterns, each pattern called a chunk.

Fourth, masters take less time to learn new heuristics than novices. But this accelerated learning did not transfer to other domains.

Fifth, masters did not develop their logical/deductive abilities — they developed the visual memory system. They could see patterns in the minds eye. De Groot concluded that for chess, it was the visual memory system that most enhanced play. Also, memory was particularly important since there are no new moves in chess.



This is an old teaching story. One written down by Aesop ages ago. Besides being something to tell the kids at bedtime, it contains timeless wisdom if you know how to tease it out.

Skill-based learning requires a different way of thinking and a different way of learning compared to what you are used to (Wikipedia, N.D.). The importance of finding good skill-based theory, of skillful practice and staying with it until you have achieved mastery connect be over estimated.

Related Articles on Mastery

Mastery is about doing things really well, such as riding a wave on the ocean.
Mastery is about doing things really well, such as riding a wave on the ocean. Image by John Sullivan

The Mastery Practices


Wisdom, mural by Robert Lewis Reid. Second Floor, North Corridor. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Caption underneath the painting reads, “IGNORANCE IS THE CVRSE OF GOD, KNOWLEDGE IS THE WING WHEREWITH WE FLY TO HEAVEN.”

Mastery practices do something special, they accelerate learning important application skills. It includes skills such as: self-visualization, self-talk, meditation, reflection, and mindfulness. 

To learn more about how to develop these:

1. Self-TalkPOWERFUL THOUGHTS: Improving Your Performance With Self-Talk

2. VisualizationSeeing With the Minds Eye: How to Construct Potent Imagery

3. Practical Meditation. Learn It, Practice It, Experience It

4. Reflection. What You Need To Do to Learn From Experience, and

5. The Psychology of Mindfulness. The toughest skill-set of all—it’s more than just staying in the present and focusing on the breath.

3  Levels of Learning Mastery 


Find out more about the three levels of learning on should strive to get good at:

1. Expertise. 
2. Skill Development
3. Instruction. 

4 Reasons Why Mastery Eludes Us

Clowns might make us laugh, but no one wants to work for one. Poster from Barnum & Bailey Circus, which advertised itself as, "The greatest show on earth."

Why is mastery in anything so hard? Besides the obvious factors such as bad theory and not enough practice, there are some subtle causes important to understand. 


Quick Guide To Skill Mastery

The Valkyrie’s Vigil, by Edward Robert Hughes. A symbol of MASTERY, the Valkyrie would meet only the bravest of warriors who had performed well in field of battle.

We all play roles on the stage of life. And it doesn’t pay to be a bit player. Delve into the three most valuable work roles needed when it comes to learning and being learned. 

Resources and References


“There is no end to education. It is not enough that you read a book, pass an examination, and get a degree. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.” — Jiddu Krishnamurti

Chase, W.G. and Simon, H., 1973, “Perception in chess”, in Cognitive Psychology, 4, p.55—81.

DeGroot, Adrian (1965). Thought and Choice in Chess. Mouton De Gruyter.

Foer, Joshua (2006). Kaavya Syndrome: The accused Harvard plagiarist doesn’t have a photographic memory. No one does, Slate, April 27

Germain, M. L. (2005). Apperception and self-identification of managerial and subordinate expertise. Academy of Human Resource Development. Estes Park, CO. February 24–27.

Germain, M. L. (2006, February). What experts are not: Factors identified by managers as disqualifiers for selecting subordinates for expert team membership. Academy of Human Resource Development Conference. Columbus, OH. February 22–26.


Isenberg, Daniel (1984). How Senior Managers Think. Harvard Business Review, November.

Ingraham, Christopher (2014). The College Majors Most Likely To Lead to Underemployment, Washington Post, August 26.

Johannen, M. (2014). 7 Reasons Skills Don’t Get Developed. Legacee. This article presents five causes for why organizations and individuals don’t practice skill-based learning. 

Johnson, Diane (2014). Why Companies Want Competency Based Education. EvoLLLution: Illuminating the Life Long Learning Environment.

Johannsen, Murray (1986). Bias and Error in Judgmental Heuristics, Harvard University, March.

Llopis, George (2013). Three Questions Great Leaders Ask Themselves More Than Once. Forbes, July 1.

Luria, A.R. (1968). The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About A Vast Memory. Harvard University Press.

Wikipedia (ND). Mozart’s Compositional Method

Wikipedia (ND). Observational Learning.

Wikipedia (ND). Words Per Minute.

Wikipedia, (N.D.), The Nature of an Expert.

Leadership Skill Development