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Why Mastery  
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Barriers to Mastery
Separation of Knowledge from Practice
The natural learning process between mentors and protégés has been replaced by institutional learning. It’s possible to get an advanced degree and never practice in the area of study. Students frequently study with teachers’ assistants rather than the masters in their field. Learning is a physiological process. The mind connects instantly to the body only after years of drill and practice in an area of expertise. We refer to that as unconscious competence. Getting an MBA is worlds apart from practicing the art of management, finance, marketing, etc. for 10-17 years

Why is it that an experienced lawyer or mediator can sense (they actually see or feel) conditions in the courtroom that suggest a change in their strategy, tone of voice, moving closer or farther from the jury? Because they have gained what we call unconscious competence. Their body responds before their mind. They’ve experienced the same or similar conditions so often that their body knows what to do. This is true for a mechanic, an experienced carpenter working with a piece of wood, a cab driver in familiar territory or a neurosurgeon performing her thousandth operation. They know what to do. When asked by a colleague or student or passenger, they think about and give you a rational answer for why they made the move. Unfortunately, much formal education has divorced learning from practice. Look at the numbers of university and graduate students who’ve never worked nor had a mentor. How will that impact our future?

One wonders if our current fascination with “thought leaders” and “political pundits” is but a subtle way to discount the sweat and tears that go with the combination of knowledge and practice. Just because you know something doesn’t mean you can bring it to life, or contribute powerfully to a dysfunctional world.

Lack of Mentors – Experienced Instructors
The need to appoint mentors or create formal mentoring programs suggests how far we’ve come from the historically natural mentor/protégé situation. Almost every person interviewed by Joan Evelyn Ames in our memorable book – Mastery: Interviews with 30 Remarkable People, mentions the importance of having a mentor. Sometimes they found the mentor in their search for mastery of their field. In other cases, mentors found them in the natural course of events. Size of organizations and the speed of moving from organization to organization or job to job make this natural process more and more difficult. It takes time to develop a trusting relationship, assess the unique characteristics of the learner, and to build a learning path that works. In many organizations, our over-focus on the short-term bottom line limits the development of people on a mastery path.

Instant Gratification – Microwave Culture
Our “pop” culture highlights the belief that anyone can do anything and do it quickly. Look at the number of self-help, do-it-yourself, dummies books, and video clips for almost any profession or trade – cooking, auto repair, landscaping, real estate, parenting, household improvements, etc. Yes, we can do it. However, mastery takes thousands of moves and years of practice. Because of our instant gratification culture, our work and learning ethics are suffering. Drop out rates are increasing. School testing scores are low in comparison to our global neighbors. The number of engineers, scientists and mathematicians is decreasing in the U.S. and growing in India and China.

Mastery takes time and practice ten to seventeen years according to George Leonard. Many people are in a hurry to move up and make more money. Compensation systems frequently don’t reward staying in place or taking lateral moves to positions or projects that provide opportunities for depth and practice. This limits access to the kind of long-term relationships that foster mentoring and learning from colleagues. Anxious executives, fearing for their jobs, focus on the short-term, cost-cutting operations to improve short-term earnings, often at the expense of balance and growth. Hard work, practice, and passion for a calling and contribution have been replaced by a culture of “crash diets, miracle drugs, lotteries, sweepstakes, instant fame, and the worship of effortless success and fulfillment. Nature can’t be fooled. Some industrialized countries are feeling the result, as patents decrease and outsourcing increases. Greatness takes time, persistence and patience – individually and organizationally.

Your Role in Developing Mastery
Talent management systems either help or hinder mastery of a particular profession or trade. Listed below are several ways HR professionals can assist management in developing an appetite and culture for mastery:
  • Build consensus with the leadership on the core and secondary professions/trades required to accomplish the organization mission and strategic initiatives;
  • Clearly define and communicate the practices and competencies required for different levels of mastery in each profession;
  • Distinguish the practices and competencies needed to become masterful in a profession or trade from those “soft skills” required to work successfully in organizations;
  • Identify “masters” in each profession and develop ways to leverage their know-how and mentorship; more...
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