I love making progress. When I was an avid tennis player, I wanted to move from being rated a 3.5 to 4.0. In my various jobs, I always wanted the next promotion or big assignment. On the potter’s wheel, I’ve pushed to create ever taller forms. In water skiing, I’ve been on a multi-year quest to speed up the boat and shorten the rope.
In my mind, progress tends to involve the next measurable milestone much more than cultivating deep mastery.
While I appreciate mastery as a concept or theory, actually putting it into practice has been something I have avoided in order to achieve my beloved “progress.” To me, mastery is boring. Why? Because it involves the subtleties of doing the same thing over and over, improving slowly and carefully, filling in the gaps that are easily glossed over with my need for speed.
This fall, I had an experience that has wakened me to the a different need: rather than move on, I need to move deeper. It was revealed with the one-two punch of falling off a horse (landing me in the hospital) and then having to take several months off water skiing right after I had achieved a previously unattainable milestone. Having to sit still in my recovery gave me to time to reflect.
My extreme lack of mastery contributed to the fall from the horse. While I had many important takeaways from that experience, perhaps the most profound was this:
Knowing how to stop a horse in theory does NOT translate to embodying the energy, mindset and physical actions to stop a horse that would rather run.
When it came time to put my theory into practice, all the knowledge in the world meant nothing. Without having practiced and learned to connect my knowledge to real skill, at the moment of truth all I could do was hold on and hope for the best. In this case, I was wearing a helmet and went down on relatively soft ground. It could have been much, much worse.
I had a good part of the winter to reflect as I healed on the difference between knowledge and skill and mastery. I realized that in many areas of my life, I have substituted knowledge for real skill. And nowhere have I undertaken the journey of mastery. As a result, I end up holding on and hoping for the best. When my skills fall short, the consequences are not usually as severe – so I’ve gotten away with it – with consequences.
When it was time to get back on the water ski, I started by slowing the boat down a little bit. Of course, this went against everything I typically do, which is try to make progress (even though in water skiing my progress is usually baby steps.) A wonderful thing happened. First, I could still ski! This is an intense sport and anytime you come back from a long time off, there is this question: Can I still do it? Second, I moved deeper. In this case, moving deeper meant that I was able to feel things at the slower speed that I couldn’t before. My coach said this: “I’m not trying to say that it was good that you got injured – but it’s giving you a chance to build a better skiing foundation than you had before.”
In that moment, I realized it was time to move deeper.
So I am. Moving deeper that is.
I’m slowing down and trading progress for depth. Rather than claiming my prize of achieving the goal, I’m deliberately practicing the actions that lead to the goal. Moment by moment, I’m moving deeper.
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