Think Mystery, Not Mastery

Over the weekend, I attended a meditation retreat at Garrison Institute led by Sharon Salzberg and Ethan Nichtern. I can’t recommend this place enough. It’s one of the hidden gems of the Hudson Valley and only one hour north of the city.

After Sharon’s and Ethan’s talk on the first night, I was browsing the library and discovered the timeless classic The Artist Way by Julia Cameron. I have wanted to read this book for years. Since I’m trying to write more frequently, I decided to pick it up and dive in.

A few dozen pages into the book, the following line grabbed my attention: “Write what intrigues you, explore what interests you; think mystery, not mastery.” I repeated to myself, ‘Think mystery, not mastery,’ and then quickly wrote that phrase on a scrap of paper I carried in my pocket all weekend.

There’s something romantic and intoxicating about beginning a new hobby, craft or profession. We dream of penning that New York Times bestseller, performing in front of sold out crowds at Carnegie Hall, coaching a legendary Fortune 500 CEO and/or building a category defining company that touches millions. We feel like the sky is the limit and we can accomplish anything.

But soon after we get started, our inner critic runs wild on us and the learning curve begins to feel like a cliff. Or even better, we make initial progress but eventually hit the dreaded plateau that seems to stretch as far as the eye can see. Eventually we get that sinking feeling inside and reality sets in: becoming really good at [enter whatever skill or craft you’d like] is going to require a tremendous amount of time, energy, experimentation, mentorship, luck and failure. Gulp.

That’s why mystery is our friend. Mystery is the unknown. Mystery takes us to our edge. It’s at these outer limits where we grow and evolve. This is also the space where we find the confidence and faith in ourselves and our process. If we allow our true interests and curiosity to lead the way, we expand our boundaries through exploration, inquiry and experimentation.

Dreaming about and even obsessing over mastery early in our journeys can be debilitating and limiting. I’ve been there too many times to count on both hands. I haven’t found it to be productive in all these years.

That’s why ‘think mystery, not mastery’ is a useful mantra. It’s not about the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s about getting really curious about the tunnel each step of the way.