when mastery is all the rage

If you’re looking for the ticket to mastery, I can’t help you. Plenty of books promise to show you how it’s done, but I don’t think mastery is something you can choose. That said, I might have a viable alternative.

In Making Things Right: The Simple Philosophy of a Working Life, Norwegian carpenter Ole Thorstensen tells the story of a loft renovation from beginning to end; I was enthralled.

Thorstensen is a master. In fact, he is a master carpenter. It’s right in the title.

Thorstensen approaches his work with great seriousness and boundless humility. The goal might be nothing more significant than a new bedroom and bathroom for his clients’ kids, but the job itself—long winter months of painstaking and backbreaking effort in an uninsulated attic in Norway—receives the full measure of his skill and craftsmanship. His mastery shines through every phase of the work—even the bidding process at the start, as he carefully balances his strict professional ethics against the desire to win the job. To Thorstensen, all of it is the craft: bidding, budgeting, professional networking, even taking archival photos of the work. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing masterfully.

Thorstensen knows not only what to do at each step of the renovation—a feat of (to me) astounding technical complexity—but why. Why this material or that technique and not something pretty similar, probably just as good, and maybe a bit cheaper or easier? He understands which details really matter because those tiny differences will be magnified by the scope and complexity of the job. That kind of nail might be fine for hanging a picture or two, but if used improperly in this context, you might have to tear everything out and start again later on, losing days or weeks of work.

In some ways, renovating a loft is like writing a book. I’m glad you see the parallel, too.

You can see that Thorstensen has considered the many ways each problem can be approached and selected the most efficient, effective, safe, and—ideally—elegant solution. Further, he is always able to explain his reasoning in layperson’s terms. I’ve struggled to understand more than one self-proclaimed expert only to suspect they’re more confused than I am. Clarity is a hallmark of mastery.

Even under the pressure of milestones and deadlines, Thorstensen is deliberate and unyielding about periodic rest and relaxation—he has learned that rushing the work or pushing himself to his physical limits will only come back to bite him. Reading the book, it feels as though the entire renovation exists as a four-dimensional model in his mind, the ramifications of any deviation calculated and compensated for between blows of the hammer.

Clearly, mastery brings Thorstensen satisfaction. I think that’s why he wrote the book. He takes pride in the way he works. He wants you, the reader, to take similar pride in your own vocation, whatever it might be.

Just as clearly, he earned his mastery without any shortcuts. Thorstensen is so intimately familiar with the craft of carpentry and all its pitfalls that we see him anticipating and avoiding problems several steps ahead, down to making sure there is enough floor space to work at each stage as stacks of wood and mounds of cement are hauled in and out of the loft. He knows where the tolerances are tight and where they’re not. In one case, precision up front saves hours of arduous labor down the road. In another, he can afford to eyeball it. He has learned all of these lessons the hard way, through endless repetition and a single-minded devotion to his calling.

What kind of person spends every waking minute thinking about carpentry? Or about any subject, for that matter? Does Jiro dream of anything other than sushi? As I’ve written before, a good ER nurse anticipates chaos—and saves lives—by painstakingly arranging the cables, tubes, and sheets to avoid any trips or snags when every second counts. Mastery is mastery is mastery. It is the product of obsession multiplied by time.

We’re talking about more than practice here, however many thousands of hours you might invest. Inborn talent plays a fundamental role. IQ doesn’t measure a fraction of the scope of human potential, but I believe a gift must be present to achieve mastery. Gifted people are driven in a way the rest of us simply aren’t. The thing is, I don’t envy the geniuses their mastery. In 1843, Maggie Fergusson suggests genius is a curse. She makes a good case.

One characteristic of gifted children is a “rage to master.” As Fergusson explains, once a brilliant child locks in on something—trains, the violin, dinosaurs—it’s almost impossible to divert their attention. They have to spend every moment studying the object of their interest, plumbing its depths.

Mastery is nothing more than the byproduct of this compulsive attention. The actual purpose, for the gifted individual, seems to be distraction. Distraction from the grinding discomfort of perceiving the world at 8K resolution and 60 fps. Life shouldn’t be in such sharp focus. Like a faded star of old Hollywood, we all benefit from a little Vaseline on the lens.

Pity those bunched up at the far end of the bell curve. They see reality a little too directly, warts and all, and they do so alone:

A gifted child may have an advanced ability to master something like maths, but more limited capacity to deal with their social environment which is another important part of growing up and fitting in over the course of their lives. “A gifted child might be prone to complete social meltdowns,” says Anguera. “They can’t understand how other children work, and they can’t control their emotions.” Being exceptionally able in some areas means they need “the right support” in others, she says.

You can see why Latin, or the piano, or carpentry might represent such a powerful escape to a gifted mind. These subjects offer complexity, bottomless complexity,  enough to engage the whole overclocked processor for hours at a time. The “rage to master,” a phrase coined by developmental psychologist Ellen Winner, represents a kind of bottled-up energy that, unchanneled by logic puzzles or subway maps, leads to intense anxiety, depression, even suicidal thoughts.

I’ve often wondered why so many of the greatest artists, having achieved the fame and wealth necessary to travel the world or mingle with other legendary peers, continue spending their waking hours in a studio or at a desk, alone. I’m starting to think they have to stay engaged with the work in order to survive.

Maybe you’re not a genius and maybe neither am I. Just because we don’t have an obsessive devotion to writing—or any other area of expertise—doesn’t mean we can’t get pretty darn good at doing our jobs. You don’t have to be a master to act a lot like one, most of the time. That’s what I aim for, anyway.

Here’s what I take away from gifted, driven people like Thorstensen. Take it easy. Pace yourself. “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” Recently, I was talking to a friend who’d spent some time in the trades. According to him, the pros on any given job always took their time getting set up. Regardless of the timeline or the weather or their mood, they would find a good, clear spot to work, lay out their tools, and arrange everything they needed to begin just so. There was no hurrying them. The right way was the only way.

School seems to teach the opposite. We’re constantly hurried along, and speed is held up as a metric of success. It’s a hard habit to break. As I’ve been facing down one deadline after another myself, I’ve forced myself to adopt the stance of mastery despite being anything but a master myself. WWMD: What would a master do?

Resisting the urge to dash anything off for the satisfaction of ticking a checkbox, I open all the necessary applications and documents, make a written plan for the work session, and read all the materials carefully before typing a single word. The steadier and more methodical my pace, the faster the work gets done, and the less pain involved in doing it. Never fails to surprise me, but then again, I’m just pretending to be a master here.

Contrary to popular belief, Salieri had a pretty great career. I’d take it over Mozart’s path any day.

Subscribe to The Maven Game

Don’t miss out on the latest essays. Sign up now.