The Route to Mastery
Upskilling is vital for remaining afloat in the dynamic landscape of the knowledge economy of today.
But let’s face it – It’s not easy.
Practicing professionals have responsibilities to address during their committed 9-5 hours, and there are also personal commitments that we have to tend to. Time is a sparse commodity, and so are our energy reserves.
So, how do we make ends meet? More so, is there a systematic, meta-approach we can adopt to keep up with current trends?
In my research and teaching experience, I have found the following way to work across several cases. I call it the Tools – Craft – Art – Mastery framework.
Let’s take a simple example. Say you want to learn how to make good presentations. The first step in this direction is to see what Tools available for you to do it, and learn them well. There are several presentation packages out there with their own strengths and features. Picking a conventionally used one is a good starting point, as there will be more learning resources available for it. The key aspect here is, you have to spend sufficient time with it so as to learn its features. This is similar to a carpenter knowing their tools, and keeping them sharp and ship-shape all the time.
The next step is to have an overview and understanding of the Craft. For presentations, this means having an overview of the different styles of presentations that you would normally deliver in your field. For instance, in a recent orientation and skills training talk I gave to first year PhD students, I asked them to focus on three primary kinds of talk – the ‘Meeting with your Guide’, the ‘Conference presentation’, and the ‘Scholarship/Interview talk’. Identifying such situations and specific use-cases provide a framework will help you to learn how to apply your tools and hone your tool-use. In the process you will also learn and practice routinely used actions and procedures that will train your muscle memory.
The third step is getting an appreciation of the Art and developing your own style. A good ‘in’ is to look at existing examples and trying to replicate them, with your understanding of your tools and the craft. In the case of the presentation example, this would mean picking up a presentation you like, and try to replicate in your software package. More often than not, it is not what the presentation includes, but what it doesn’t. As you keep curating such practices, over time it will become a compendium that is idiosyncratic to your own sensibilities, helping you define your own approach to the medium, or your ‘art’, if you will.
Most of the time, specifically when it comes to upskilling, you may be happy stopping at the previous step. However, there may be times when you have the gnawing urge of something being amiss. For instance, you may want a presentation element to move a particular way, but it doesn’t. You feel as if something is broken, and you want to fix it. That, my friends, is the call to Mastery. This point often comes when you undertake regular and mindful practice of your craft and art, and have recognized its full landscape of strengths and limitations. Mastery is often recognized as the pushing of the boundaries of a discipline – often in a revolutionary way, resulting in a redefinition of the art form and the very tools of its trade. Arriving at such a point is not a case of serendipity, but rather the result of a subconscious crystallization of your chosen practice. It is not an opportunity to be squandered, for you are not only presented with the chance to redefine the way things are done, but now you are also capable of effecting such change.
I have often seen this TCAM framework reflected across several domains of practice, across disciplines – be it a student who is exceptionally adept at writing code, the teacher who can hold the rapt attention of a class of hundred, extending all the way to brilliant artists like Picasso or Dali, pathbreaking scientists like Einstein or Feynman, and even pioneering musicians like Rahman or Zimmer. Clearly, all of them have an exceptional understanding of their respective practices. But beyond this, they have one other thing common – their towering mastery rests on the bedrock of their deep understanding of the tools of their practice.
So, what does this mean for us mere mortals?
Not all of us are interested in becoming masters. We consider upskilling to have a functional knowledge of a practice, enough to get a few things done and keep up with the most recent advances. For such modest aims, an identification and understanding of the tools and its application to specific use-cases of the craft should suffice. This still requires effort, given the surfeit of tools that are accessible to us, and the diversity of use-cases. But putting bounding boxes and having realistic expectations will help us to ward off the fear of missing out, safeguarding our inner peace.