On Mastery

These were the days when wells were dug in homes by hand for water supply. Depending on the terrain, each well can go as deep as 25 feet. The entire process of digging is a complex artistic process, where mud is taken out in circular rings forming enthralling structures. Raghavan was the master of this subject in my village. His artistry was not just in digging wells but also in ascertaining where to search and how deep to dig to find the drinking water source, which hydrogeologists do today. He could look at the terrain, touch and smell the earth’s surface, and give accurate information on where to dig the well. He knew at what depth you would find water, at what depth the land would become hard and rocky and give a clear indication of how the water will appear- like sweat droplets or a flow. He could even indicate the taste of water!  

My 12 year old self-witnessed this wizardry with awe when Raghavan was performing his act, giving birth to my home well. While many people did the same work, nobody could match Raghavan, both his skills and enthusiasm. People from far-off places came to fetch him, and you had a long waiting period to get his time. In my later years, I discovered what he exuded was pure mastery! He made it all look so effortless, and his accuracy was legendary.

All of us have witnessed this form of intelligence that represents the high form of human potential. At some point, we have had glimpses of it in our own experience, feeling exceptional creativity and a sense of control. Mastery is when we can tap into that heightened state repeatedly. 

What goes behind the making of it? As a child witnessing Raghavan was magic, but he was inaccessible to understand the deeper truths. Later in my late twenties, when I found my teacher and through my eight yearlong apprenticeships, I was given a ringside view of this pursuit. 

If you are lucky accidentally or through deliberate pursuits, you will stumble on something “What seems like work to other people that doesn’t seem work to you?”



The first move to mastery is an inward journey, a glimpse into your liking, an insight into what you liked as a child—a clue on your strengths – topics you are naturally interested in. The challenge is that our schools and academic institutions focus more on compliance than curiosity. Hence it needs effort in later stages of life to answer these questions. I was lucky to be part of a group of friends who supported each other to take sabbaticals in this journey’s quest.

Then comes the relentless focus is given to a subject over some time and unabated curiosity to pursue it. This means you don’t chase the hottest new career but be honest to where your interest takes you. That’s the only way you will withstand the ups and downs of any profession and excel. At this stage, you should value learning over money. 

Initial years are spent in profound observation and practicing the basics of the craft. And at the start, you are forced to learn the individual parts properly before venturing into constructing the whole. Learning the fundamentals of your field, taking more pleasure in executing the little, secondary things well rather than focussing on the dazzling whole. All significant learning is composed of brief spurts of progress, followed by long work periods where it feels as if you are stuck on a plateau.

The process comes to a halt when you give in to feelings of boredom, impatience, and fear and stop observing and learning. This is where frustration starts, and the pursuit of shortcuts begins. While we start with great excitement, we quickly realize the hard work ahead of us. To the extent that we believe we can skip steps, avoid the process, magically gain power through easy formulas, we move against the natural grain to attain mastery.  We become slaves to time—as it passes, we grow weaker, less capable, trapped in some dead-end career.

Trust your mentor: We can learn what we need through books, practice, and occasional advice from others. However, it’s a hit-and-miss process. For mastery, the approach needs well-defined specific goals, and a teacher makes this possible. Mentors do not give you a shortcut, but they streamline the process. Their real-time, customized feedback helps in finetuning your practice. As we observe and follow others, we gain clarity, learn the rules, and see how things work and fit together. If we keep practicing, we gain fluency; basic skills are mastered, and we can take on more exciting challenges.

Finding your voice: There comes a time where our individuality starts reflecting in our practice. We start breaking free from the strict instructions, practicing the basics in new, more accessible, and imaginative ways. We start connecting to our personal experiences, explore patterns with subjects we are interested in, and develop the confidence to be in zones of ambiguity and uncertainties without jumping to quick conclusions. Straying outside the comfort zone is an essential part of this journey. 

Choosing mastery for mastery’s sake: All significant learning is When your focus is on mastery of a subject with which you feel a genuine connection. The pursuit automatically leads to purpose and contentment, and you’ll feel compelled to continue and eventually see extrinsic rewards. If you stay the path, you’ll likely work with brilliant people, have enriching conversations, and produce acclaimed work. The joys of the work itself trump the ceremony of success.

The entire journey doesn’t happen in a linear progression; it’s more like in concentric circles. The fundamentals remain the same, but expressions keep changing with students bringing their individuality and taking the subject to higher levels. In that sense, there is no end goal to this pursuit; we all remain learners.

In the much-acclaimed documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” the 89-year-old sushi master Jiro Uno says, “I’ll continue to climb trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.” The film is the story of Jiro Ono, an 89-year-old sushi master from Tokyo who has been regarded by his contemporaries and peers as the greatest sushi craftsman alive. At 89, Jiro wakes up early morning and goes to his restaurant every day to better make sushi!. 

Raghavan was the Jiro of “well-making” to me. After many years I met Raghavan; he was now a frail man in his eighties. To my surprise, he exuded the same energy. I recounted my childhood experience and gently enquired about the magic behind his wizardry. He laughed and said, “I don’t know.” It happens spontaneously and effortlessly when I am in front of the subject”. 

Maybe that’s the outcome and magic of mastery, where we forget external goals, evaluative judgments and indeed forget ourselves!

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