Corentin Derbré


Mastery – George Leonard

ISBN: 0452267560
Date read: 2016-10-27
How strongly I recommend it: 9/10
(See my list of books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Short and well written. Explains what mastery is, how to achieve it, as well as common pitfalls like being a hacker knowing just enough instead of a master constantly improving.

my notes

Essentially goalless process of mastery.

Our current society works in many ways to lead us astray, but the path of mastery is always there, waiting for us. The modern world, in fact, can be viewed as a prodigious conspiracy against mastery.

It achieves a special poignancy, a qual- ity 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.


Keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere.

How do you best move toward mastery? To put it simply, you practice diligently, but you practice primarily for the sake of the practice itself.

Every time we spend money, we make a statement about what we value; there’s no clearer or more direct indication.

It should come as no great surprise that many of us have the idea that our lives by all rights should consist of one climax after another. American vision of the good life—an endless series of climactic moments.

Again and again we are told to do one thing only so that we can get something else. But the real juice of life, whether it be sweet or bitter, is to be found not nearly so much in the products of our efforts as in the process of living itself, in how it feels to be alive.

If our life is a good one, a life of mastery, most of it will be spent on the plateau.

Love of your work, willingness to stay with it even in the absence of extrinsic reward, is good food and good drink.

Practice, the path of mastery, exists only in the present.

We called it maximum performance, and it simply meant that we would fly as close as possible to perfection at all times, even when regulations didn’t call for it, even when no one was watching.

Most of the athletes we interviewed stressed hard work and experience over raw talent.

When you learn too easily, you’re tempted not to work hard, not to penetrate to the marrow of a practice.

One award-winning mathematician at a major university was famous for intentionally making small mistakes when he wrote formulas on the chalk-board. Students sat on the edge of their chairs vying to be the first to catch the mistake and rush up to correct their professor—truly a master of the instructor’s art.

Bear in mind that on the path of mastery learning never ends.

Practice is the path upon which you travel, just that.

And if the traveler is fortunate—that is, if the path is complex and profound enough—the destination is two miles farther away for every mile he or she travels.

“The master,” an old martial arts saying goes, “is the one who stays on the mat five minutes longer every day than anybody else.”

The master of any game is generally a master of practice.

But the day eventually comes when practicing becomes a treasured part of your life.

This means surrendering to your teacher and to the demands of your discipline.

Actually, the essence of boredom is to be found in the obsessive search for novelty. Satisfaction lies in mindful repetition, the discovery of endless richness in subtle variations on familiar themes.

For the master, surrender means there are no experts. There are only learners.

Intentionality fuels the master’s journey. Every master is a master of vision.

There must be many years of instruction, practice, surrender, and intentionality. And afterwards? More training, more time on the plateau: the never-ending path again.

In fact, you might take these signals as an indication that your life is definitely changing—just what you’ve wanted.

The lifelong learner is essentially one who has learned to deal with homeostasis, sim- ply because he or she is doing it all the time.

A human being is the kind of machine that wears out from lack of use. We gain energy by using energy.

I don’t want to be saved, I want to be spent.

More likely, we’ll put the learning process on hold by parking the learner in front of the television set, no matter what’s on. There! That’s better! Now the kid’s as lethargic as we are.

“It is in fact nothing short of a miracle,” Albert Einstein wrote, “that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry… It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and sense of duty.”

High energy is feared as a threat to conformity.

No wonder society wants to “socialize” us, to squash our energy.

Tools For Mastery

  1. Maintain physical fitness.
  2. Acknowledge the negative and accentuate the positive. Generally, denial inhibits energy, while realistic acknowledgment of the truth releases it. “Here’s what I like about what you’re doing, and here’s how you might improve it.”
  3. Try telling the truth.
  4. Honor but don’t indulge your own dark side. We can note that the prodigies of energy whom we admire are precisely those people who know how to utilize the blazing energy that flows from that which has been called dark.
  5. Set your priorities. And in making any choice, you face a monstrous fact: to move in one direction, you must forgo all others. To choose one goal is to forsake a very large number of other possible goals. Indecision leads to in- action, which leads to low energy, depression, despair. Getting priorities down in black and white adds clarity to your life, and clarity creates energy.
  6. Make commitments. Take action. Energy that flows from commitment. “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”
  7. Get on the path of mastery and stay on it. Over the long haul, there’s nothing like the path of mastery to lead you to an energetic life. You also learn that you can’t hoard energy; you can’t build it up by not using it. Adequate rest is, of course, a part of the master’s journey, but, unaccompanied by positive action, rest may only depress you. All of us can increase our energy, starting now.

Pitfalls Along the Path

It’s easy to get on the path of mastery. The real challenge lies in staying on it.

“Never marry a person,” psychologist Nathaniel Brandon tells his clients, “who is not a friend of your excitement.”

Lack of competitiveness.

“Disinclined to action or exertion; averse to labor, indolent; idle; slothful.”

Without laughter, the rough and rocky places on the path might be too painful to bear. Humor not only lightens your load, it also broadens your perspective.

The master is the one who stays on the path day after day, year after year. The master is the one who is willing to try, and fail, and try again, for as long as he or she lives.

Mastering the Commonplace

This is the “in-between time,” the stuff we have to take care of before getting on to the things that count. But if you stop to think about it, most of life is “in between.”

The quality of a Zen student’s practice is defined just as much by how he or she sweeps the courtyard as by how he or she sits in meditation.

Could all of us reclaim the lost hours of our lives by making everything—the commonplace along with the extraordinary—a part of our practice?

Go for efficiency, elegance, and grace in your motions; avoid hasty shortcuts. Rather than thinking about getting the job finished and going on to something else, stay wholly focused on the moment, on the task at hand. Above all, don’t hurry.

The truth of the matter is that if you have to work at a sport to achieve mastery, you also have to work, and generally work even more diligently, to achieve mastery in relationships.

The stronger you are the more you can give of yourself. The more you give of yourself, the stronger you can be.

The path of mastery is built on unrelenting practice, but it’s also a place of adventure.

Ultimately, nothing in this life is “commonplace,” nothing is “in between.”

Gaining energy from unexpected blows.

Relaxing for power. Power, in any case, is closely allied with relaxation.

© 2018 Corentin Derbré.