The Dabbler, the Obsessive, the Hacker, and the Master

Are you on the master’s journey, or are you dabbling, obsessing, or hacking your way through your music?

In his book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, George Leonard paints an inspiring picture of the masters journey. His insight helps us stay on the path in the face of the internal and external forces that can knock us off. Leonard’s discipline is the martial art Aikido, but his lessons in mastery are equally relevant to music (and any other domain).

Mastery is a path, a journey—not a destination. A commitment to the master’s journey is dedication to lifelong learning and growth.

Our progress toward mastery isn’t linear. We experience bursts of growth on our path, but the majority of our time is spent on a plateau, where we continue to practice even when we don’t see day-to-day results.

The Master’s Paradox

On one hand the practice is goalless:

  • There is no final destination—we die before achieving complete mastery.
  • We embrace our time on the plateau.

On the the other hand, the journey is a commitment to growth:

  • We constantly push the edge of our abilities
  • We are dedicated to realizing a vision of our future selves.

The practice requires we embrace both the goalless and goal-oriented elements of the journey.

The Dabbler, Obsessive, and Hacker

George Leonard introduces us to three personalities who are not on the master’s journey. What they have in common is they are not dedicated to lifelong growth and learning. You will likely recognize yourself in one or more of these personalities (I certainly can be all three).

The Dabbler constantly seeks novel stimulation. Leonard tells us, “The Dabbler approaches each new sport, career opportunity, or relationship with enormous enthusiasm. He or she loves the rituals involved in getting started, the spiffy equipment, the lingo, the shine of newness.”

The Dabbler loses interest once the novelty wears off. Facing a plateau, the dabbler is quick to move on to a new activity and restart the cycle.

Dabbler musicians:

  • Accumulate a collection of new instruments (that eventually gather dust)
  • Dabble in countless styles
  • Are bored by repetition

Leonard says, “The Obsessive is a bottom-line type of person, not one to settle for second best. He or she knows results are what count, and it doesn’t matter how you get them, just so you get them fast.” Obsessives focus entirely on goals without regard for the process.

Traditional school and employment train us to be obsessives. When we are only motivated by grades, requirements, or a paycheck, we become disconnected from the intrinsic value of the activities. Consequently, we don’t stick to the path once the requirements or awards are checked off. Obsessives may reach external measures of success, but often burn out or quit over the long haul.

The Obsessive is constantly looking for shortcuts and hacks, while the master is committed to the longcut.

Obsessive musicians:

  • Only motivated to practice if there is a pending competition, audition, or grade
  • Constantly compare their skills to others
  • Seek constant reassurance and validation

Leonard says, “After sort of getting the hang of the thing, [The Hacker] is willing to stay on the plateau indefinitely. He doesn’t mind skipping stages essential to the development of mastery if he can just go out and hack around with fellow hackers. He’s the physician or teacher who doesn’t bother going to professional meetings, the the tennis player who develops a solid forehand and figures he can make do with a ragged backhand. At work, he does only enough to get by, leaves on time or early, takes every break, talks instead of doing his job, and wonders why he doesn’t get promoted.”

Hackers can be amateurs or professionals who are comfortable with their level of proficiency. Some highly-skilled musicians fall into the mindset of the hacker when they become comfortable with a steady stream of gigs.

Hacker musicians

  • Rarely practice
  • Feel their skills are “good enough”
  • Are resistant to push themselves out of their comfort zones

Pivot to the Mastery Path

It’s never too late to choose the path of mastery. Leonard tells us, “Mastery isn’t reserved for the supertalented or even those who are fortunate enough to have gotten an early start. It’s available to anyone who is willing to get on the path and stay on in—regardless of age, sex, or previous experience.” In fact, Leonard himself came to Aikido training later in life.

“Enough delay. It’s time to get packed and get on the path. Maybe you’re starting something new, a journey into an unfamiliar realm of mastery. Maybe you’ve decided to get on the path, at long last, in some old skill you’ve been dabbling in, obsessing over, or hacking at for months or years.”

His book Mastery will help you find and stay the course.

– ST

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