Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Path to Mastery

"Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick." -- Bruce Lee

Consider the following post from the Shutterfinger blog, in which he relates Bruce Lee's philosophical statement with his practice in his chosen art form of photography:

Before you begin learning an art such as photography, the techniques it takes to practice the art are undifferentiated to you. All cameras and lenses look pretty much alike, you're not aware of differences in quality and direction of light, and differences in visual style appear subtle at best.

As you begin to learn the art, however, your mind and awareness begin to expand. You see things you never noticed before. Things that were once unimportant become extremely important. It's easy to become obsessed with a particular style or technique, the Right Way to do something, or owning The Perfect Lens.

You might even look down on photographers who lack your refined knowledge and sensibilities.

If you're fortunate and you stick with it long enough you'll find yourself coming out the other side. Where you were once focused on differences you now begin to look at things more holistically. Equipment and techniques are simply means to an end and your vision is far more important than the tools it takes to achieve it. A camera is just a camera, a lens is just a lens, and software is just software.

In short, the path to mastery is to integrate what you learn so that it becomes as much a part of you as the way you walk, the way you talk, and the way you sign your name. You do them all without thinking and without effort, yet they express more about who you really are than all the clever tricks you know or masks you wear.

This is the truth for anyone seeking to attain mastery of any endeavor. The guitarist who can play a solo without watching his hands, the pianist that closes her eyes while playing a difficult and complex arrangement; the artwork turned out by the skilled hands of the sculptor, the painter, the candlestick maker...all are the results of this journey along 4 stages of awareness. As commenter "Syed" notes at the end of Shutterfinger's piece:

In my first regular job (not related to photography and just fresh out of college) one of the senior guys told me that I would typically go through four stages of development: (1) unconsciously incompetent; (2) consciously incompetent; (3) consciously competent; and (4) unconsciously competent.

There's only one way to get to stage 4: practice. When your tired, sore, wore out, beaten down and on the verge of quitting, you practice some more. This is true of any and every task, hobby, sport, or art you decide to engage in.

While I was contemplating this topic in the midst of composing this blog entry, another old maxim came to mind - "Those who can -- do. Those who can't -- teach."

That quote has been attributed to a number of sources, including H.L. Mencken.

In terms of teaching subject matter in institutionalized educational systems based on an imposed curriculum from a centrally planned, bureaucratic organization, that quote has a lot of truth to it. It is certainly relevant to the current system of indoctrination carried out by our nationwide public education system.

Despite my regular denunciations of the public education system, I know many public school educators. Many of them are passionate educators doing their best to teach the subjects of their passion. Foreign language, music, writers, mathematicians, scientists and artists. Teachers teaching subjects they love. But as a cog in the great brainwashing machine, all must teach other mandatory classes like "Social Studies" (socialist studies), history, and other courses for which they do not have expertise nor passion, but rather have to teach such subject matters from the "book." In regards to this aspect of the education system in this country, Mencken is absolutely correct.

When it comes to the 4 stages of competence alluded to by the Shutterfinger commenter, I believe Mencken's derogation of the teacher archetype is absolutely incorrect.

Those who cannot do, certainly cannot teach.

However, the converse is not true. Many practitioners of art forms can personally reach stage 4 of mastery - unconsciously competent - yet cannot teach the techniques knowledge and experience they've gained to a student at stage 1. Many long time practitioners arrive at stage 4 intuitively, in which many hours of practice combined with natural talents allows a person to develop mastery, without explicitly understanding how they got there.

In other words, some talented individuals go from stage 1 to stage 4 over time without really gaining the technical insights of stages 2 and 3. These people we call "prodigies" or "born naturals."

But ask them to teach their art to a beginner, and they fail when their pupil doesn't grasp the nuances and techniques "the natural" intuitively developed.

Indeed, my first martial art instructor had a saying that he always repeatedly told our class, that directly contradicts Mencken's quote - "You never really know something until you are able to teach it to someone else."

When I was a student myself, I didn't really understand this. As a young child, I had participated in a large number of sports and activities that required athletic skill and developing eye-hand coordination. When I came to my martial arts class as a young man, many of the skills and abilities I first developed from prior athletic pursuits, made studying the martial arts easier for me. When I became an instructor, I learned an entirely new perspective. I had to learn everything all over again. To analyze, ruminate and re-consider aspects of things I had foolishly thought my knowledge of, was complete.

You think you've mastered some skill or trade? Good. Now teach it to somebody else. You'll find out real fast how much you really know and understand your chosen art form. By teaching others, you will also discover something else: no matter how much of a master you've become, there is always something new to discover and develop in your chosen pursuit. If anyone can claim complete mastery, that they have nothing more to learn - that is when you know the spirit of their personal artistic essence is dead.

The path to mastery is a road that never ends.

I'm not one for enthusiastically quoting vegan pacifists very often, but in the case of finding your passion and pursuing the path to mastery, Mahatma Gandhi said it best:

"Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever."

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