More about mas­tery


Deb Ben­nett, PhD, pro­vides an ap­po­site anal­y­sis on hu­man per­for­mance with “The Quest for Mas­tery” (Con­for­ma­tion In­sights, EQUUS 479). Ben­nett sug­gests that true mas­tery---as ap­plied to any pro­fes­sion, pur­suit or vo­ca­tion---is not easy to de­fine or iden­tify. She writes that Web­ster’s of­fers the word “com­mand” as syn­ony­mous to “mas­tery,” yet I have seen dic­tio­nar­ies also state that “pro­fi­cient” and “pro­fi­ciency” are suit­able syn­onyms. For me, it is dif­fi­cult to equate these terms with mas­tery. To master or com­mand some­thing seems to con­note a much more wise, prac­ticed and nu­anced grasp and ap­pli­ca­tion of a skill.

To re­spond to Ge­orge Leonard’s ques­tion, as posed by Ben­nett, “Why is it that so few peo­ple who take up a sport, a pro­fes­sion, an art or in­deed any en­deavor ever master it?” Is it pos­si­ble that most of us are com­pelled by life’s re­al­i­ties to set­tle for mere pro­fi­ciency? Is it likely that true mas­tery of any­thing is ex­ceed­ingly more dif­fi­cult and elu­sive than we sus­pect?

Ben­nett’s ar­ti­cle re­minded me of an in­ter­view with Al Oerter, one of his­tory’s great­est track and field ath­letes who won four con­sec­u­tive Olympic gold medals in dis­cus be­tween 1956 and 1968. He said, “I’ve thrown for 45 years, prob­a­bly on an av­er­age of 10,000 throws a year; that’s 450,000 throws, and prob­a­bly a lot more than that. Not one of those throws has ever been per­fect---not a sin­gle throw. There was al­ways some­thing else af­ter ev­ery throw, af­ter ev­ery one of those 450,000 throws, there was al­ways some­thing else I could have cor­rected to make that prior throw just a lit­tle bet­ter.”

I thought this was an in­ter­est­ing ob­ser­va­tion by some­one who was inar­guably a master at his craft. As the ti­tle of Ben­nett’s ar­ti­cle sug­gests, it may be that true mas­tery is not an end prod­uct, but rather a “quest.” Monte Mul­doon Lark­spur, Colorado

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