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.

The March To 10,000 Hours

How long does it take to become a master at something? I first learned of the “10,000-Hour Rule” about a decade ago when I first read ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell. The premise of this rule is simple: the key to achieving mastery in any skill or craft, is, largely, a matter of putting in the time and practicing for roughly 10,000 hours. Gladwell argued that legends like The Beatles, Bill Gates and others crossed this milestone before truly breaking out.

I’ve been thinking about the “10,000-Hour Rule” following a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a talented and thoughtful executive at a well known startup in NYC. This gentleman just turned thirty and is starting to think about the next phase of his career and life. Despite being very good at his job, he doesn’t feel like he has made an impact or developed real skills that are truly valued in the world.

He told me about Thomas Callahan, a bike builder in Brooklyn, who is the founder of Horse Cycles. Thomas makes about twenty custom steel bikes each year. His bikes are incredibly well made and beautiful. I can assure you Thomas has passed the 10,000 hour threshold building bikes. He’s a master craftsman.

My friend explained, “there’s something intoxicating about the idea of building something with my hands, delivering it to a customer, and then seeing that person derive happiness and meaning from that exchange.” I got the sense my friend desires to transition from his “desk job” to a new vocation that has a tangible impact on others. Thomas Callahan clearly has impacted my friend.

How does this story relate back to 10,000 hours? My friend just entered his thirties and is clearly contemplating what to do next with the next phase of his career and life. I don’t know what is the right answer and path for him. BUT I do know that he has the time to remake himself and master a craft if that’s what his heart truly desires. God willing he makes it to eighty, he has five decades remaining to devote to his craft. Five decades! That’s fifty years! The time no doubt will go fast but it’s certainly more enough to achieve mastery.

So what does the march towards 10,000 hours look like? Eight hours a day for five days a week gets you there in only five years. Seems challenging but doable especially if one switches careers. Here’s another combination: two hours a day for five days a week gets you there in twenty years. That’s the part-time path to 10,000. There is even a calculator should you want to go down that rabbit hole.

Here’s my point in all of this. We all have the ability to launch our lives in a different direction. We all have the ability to master a new craft. We all have the ability to bring our visions to life. 10,000 hours seems like an eternity but remember time is on our side for many of us especially if we get started today. Each of us can become our own version of Thomas Callahan if we’re willing to put in the effort, passion and of course the time behind a vocation that we truly love.

Godspeed!