Why You Should Stop Striving for “Mastery,” and What to Aim For Instead
Photo courtesy of Eran Sandler.

Why You Should Stop Striving for “Mastery,” and What to Aim For Instead

Written by Emilie

Topics: Learning

Multipotentialites are often made to feel bad for our supposed inability to “master” something. But the concept of mastery is fraught with problems. What on earth does it mean? How do you quantify it? Is it even possible to master a discipline or even a specialty these days? There’s so much knowledge out there. And can you be an expert–or even just superbly effective–without being a master? (Yes, of course you can.)

If I’m being honest, I’ve never really cared much about mastery. I know I’m supposed to care, and that pressure has seeped in at times and made me think I cared, but the idea of knowing everything about a subject? Meh. I’d rather just learn until I’ve satisfied my curiosity or accomplished something cool.

You know what I do love, though? Projects.

Projects are great. They have end points. They have perimeters. They’re fun.

I used to think: if I could just spend my life doing projects, I’d be so happy.

I’m well aware that lots of unpleasant things are called “projects” in the corporate world, but I didn’t experience any of that growing up. I only had good associations: art projects, science projects, film projects. Projects were the best! They still are.

It’s pretty “multipotentialite” to love projects… Projects allow us to learn something new, work hard, do an awesome job, wrap it up, and feel a sense of accomplishment. Then we get to move on to the next project, which might be very different.

A lot of multipotentialites pursue project-based work, like freelancing, for this reason. Others have personal projects and hobbies with defined edges like building a piece of furniture, writing a novel or running a marathon. Not all of our interests fit into this framework, but many of them do.

The Multipod Version of Mastery

So, where do projects fit into the framework of mastery? Well, I recently read Robert Twigger’s book, Micromastery, and it helped put my love of projects into a broader context of how I, and I think, many multipotentialites, learn.

Micromastery is learning the expertise and skills of many small things instead of aiming to completely excel in just one area.

From Robert’s blog:

“A micromastery can be anything from spinning a basketball on your finger, doing an eskimo roll, or making a perfect daiquiri- it is a small, contained and perfectable thing, an activity in a box that nevertheless points to greater masteries out there.”

(Is anyone else swooning? ;)

I’ve realized that many of the projects I’ve enjoyed in the past were essentially micromasteries, though perhaps a little bigger in scope than spinning a basketball on your finger. For example:

  • The musical theatre performance I did at camp a few weeks ago. I had to nail a few lines, act the hell out of them, and sing a small part in front of an audience. It was small, challenging, fun, and at the end of the performance, I felt amazing. But then the week was over and I could tie a neat little bow around it. I might want to do more musical theatre at some point, but it doesn’t have to be my new direction in life.
  • Writing and performing a TED talk. Yup, that’s a skill. Actually, it’s composed of a few skills: condensing an idea into the structure of a TED talk, performing, managing my nerves… And at the end, it’s done. YAY! HURRAH! But I feel no need to do more TED talks. I just get to feel deeply satisfied about a job well done and move on.
  • The album my friend and I wrote and recorded in a month (we actually did this twice).

These might be “projects” more than “micromasteries” since they involve learning multiple skills, but I think the idea still holds. You get your feet wet and learn about a broader subject by completing something small and specific, with a deliverable and a deadline.

Focusing on micromasteries makes a lot more sense to me than focusing on mastery. Or rather, it’s an approach that is better aligned with how I’m wired.

A Community-Wide Micromastery

We’re doing a project in the Puttytribe this month that definitely qualifies as a micromastery. It’s the very first Puttycomp and it involves making a comic with the theme: “you know you’re a multipotentialite when…”

Any puttypeep who wants to participate can create a short comic and send it in. We’ll pull all of the submissions together and design a real book of comics, print-on-demand style.

I’ve decided to choose the following idea for my comic, which was originally written by puttypeep, Lia:

“You Know You’re a Multipotentialite When… You belong to four different social groups and are on the fringes of others, several of which have instinctive tribal loathing towards one another. You have to lie about where your ideas come from, because the sources are often verboten. But you realize how similar in mindset the groups actually are.”

I’ve turned the idea into a script and now I’m starting to draw. As someone who does not consider herself to be a good illustrator, I’m finding it challenging! But I can’t think of a better way to learn how to make a comic than through this little project/micromastery. And the fact that I’m doing it alongside my multipotentialite friends, many of whom are also new to comic-creation, makes it feel a lot less scary.

I say we ditch the idea that we all need to strive for mastery and instead embrace micromastery. To me, it seems like a far more interesting, fun, and varied way of gaining skills and building a body of work.

Your Turn

Do you learn by micromastery? What micromasteries/projects are you working on now?

Emilie Wapnick is the Founder and Creative Director at Puttylike, where she helps multipotentialites build lives and careers around ALL their interests. Unable to settle on one path herself, Emilie studied music, art, film production and law, graduating from the Law Faculty at McGill University. She is the author of How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up. Learn more about Emilie here.

28 Comments

  1. I’ve been practising Micromastery since my late teens. When I was a young adult it was frowned on. Everybody made me feel stupid and as if I didn’t take working life seriously.
    Now, at 53 and with the Zeitgeist very much about ‘doing many projects’, life and people have finally caught up:-)

    As for Robert (and his brillant book), a kindred spirit. That’s why I got him to write my ‘How to make Better Decisions’ Mapology Guide.

  2. Clare says:

    Things are starting to make sense now. At work I love it when someone comes up with a problem that can be turned into a project even if it is completely outside (or perhaps especially if it’s outside) my job role. At home I try lots of different hobbies, but run out of steam without feeling I’ve achieved anything and I’ve just switched to thinking up a project that includes my new hobby but that would make me feel as though I’ve gained something tangible.
    I now know that I’m not alone. Thanks for the post Emilie.

  3. Gabriela says:

    Projects! I love them! But what about when you don’t finish a project? Or when the idea of one keeps banging around in your head?

    Proposing to people the idea of committing to a project with an end date sounds so much more manageable than saying “You will be working on this every Tuesday for the rest of your life!”

    This must be why I also keep buying my kids those projects in a box and why they sell so well.

    Love it!

    • Emilie says:

      “what about when you don’t finish a project? Or when the idea of one keeps banging around in your head?”

      That’s when you learn to let yourself off the hook if you’ve lost interest or you get some serious accountability/support and a plan in place if you do want to finish it.

      Thanks for your comment, Gabriela!

  4. Catherine says:

    This is such a timely post! People are always making fun of me because I’ve had so many different jobs, so many different skills, I lose interest in things when other people think I should be reaching the top of the field or department or whatever.

    Thanks for this <3

    • Pedro says:

      Hi Catherine :-) I totally relato to your comment…i didn’t have many jobs but i recently changed to a new one when i was at a very good position at the company…now that i have my Mechanical Engineer degree i want to change my life to a completely different direction…i want to do something related to human relations, humanitarium, writing, etc…but, for one side most people say i shouldn’t do it, for the other i’m also afraid because i have bills to pay, etc…how do you deal with the fear of the unknown? With the changes? Thank you :-)

  5. Nitsan Tal says:

    Thank you for that post! You just gave me the words to describe what I’m doing. The mastery issue is my main psychological struggle in the multipotentialite journey and looking at it this way makes so much sense.

  6. Melissa B says:

    I love this!!! I give everything I do the term of “project” and now I know why. But because everything was termed as a project I felt very overwhelmed in getting things done. I will keep “project” for things that really are projects (hobbies, working on my vocation, etc) and maybe that will reduce the freak out over having too many things to do! I love knowing I am not weird…well I am weird but not “weird”!

  7. Layne says:

    Sounds look a really interesting book! I’ll have to pick it up!

  8. Awesome!
    This explains so much to me. Yes, I do love projects and I really love getting things finished to move on to new stuff.

    Perfect timing on this awesome post, Emily!
    I’m juggling a bunch of things again and more keeps coming. I was (emphasis on WAS) feeling bad to tell people I’m happy to be closing projects.

    Thank you again for letting me know I’m ok.

    Sincerely yours,
    M.

  9. Kaci says:

    Thank you for this! I have always been a projects person and die inside at the thought of doing one thing indefinitely. I love the term micromastery, it’s brilliant!

  10. GINNY EVANS-POLLARD says:

    Great that I just got this email about your book Emile. I have had a day of being quite depressed. The winter is drawing in. Is it that SAD syndrome or is it the MULTIpotentialite thang? It is really great to not feel that you are not alone in the world of being that ONE thing. Perhaps my new desire to be involved in the digital media world is not such as crazy thing after all!

  11. PowerMechGuy says:

    This really hit home. I’ve never learned like my peers. I have a sort of passion for knowledge that ceases to be sated. I’ve started more projects than I can count. But I think the idea of being a multipotentialite and my precursor understanding of what I felt to be micromasteries opened my mind when I found I was able to do things as if I had multiple arms and increased dexterity. My mind began to comprehend difficult subjects based on the sum total of all my previous experiences. I’ve always sought mastery in what I like to call my “domain” and as a result have a plethora of micromadteries in my portfolio that I call upon regularly to accomplish tasks that require creative solutions.

    Thanks again, and God bless you!

    • Emilie says:

      “I’ve always sought mastery in what I like to call my “domain” and as a result have a plethora of micromadteries in my portfolio that I call upon regularly to accomplish tasks that require creative solutions.”

      Right on!

  12. Wonderful new insight, thank you. I love the freedom of completing projects, learning what I need for each one and moving on to the next project. Nothing learned is lost and it can be used later. I will be eighty at the end of the year and have recently completed a paid writing project. Looking forward to whatever comes next.

  13. Tina B. says:

    That’s me to a tee! Even named our feral cat rescue Animal Compassion Project.

  14. Corey Mallory says:

    I can’t express how happy I am that I stumbled upon your TED talk. The feeling of under-accomplishment is really consuming to the point where it has a physical effect for me. It’s insane how your message was exactly the questions I would ask myself. On top of that you mentioned the quote, “What do you want to be.” Although it is the same, but the one quote I hate is, “You can be anything you want to be.” Although many have been encouraged by this, I would take this statement literally. I mean from dreaming to be a chef, to a pro golfer, then actually taking a like for musical instrument while being surrounded by siblings who were at the time great artist. I loved playing instruments so much I was able to experience college with a scholarship. Sadly that ended by me having to work to keep an apt, switching to producing, then out of the blue attempt to have a instagram page that consist of my own comedy sketches. I’m at the point now we’re I’m refusing to take on another “new idea” unless I have a for sure sensation that it will lead me to continuous successful. Sadly nothing is for sure. So fear continues to consume me.

  15. Tania says:

    Hurray to this post! Do you also feel that not only do we ‘jump around’ projects – several jobs, hobbies, even social groups – but we also tend to excel at them, even if at a ‘micro level’? This leads me to a certain constant feeling of satisfaction with life, a sort of freedom to go around doing what I love – at that time! – and then move on. Given that, I would propose we use the term MULTIMASTERY, ’cause it’s what it is, right?
    Cheers,
    Tania

    • Emilie says:

      Absolutely! And I think it’s easier to excel at small projects, particularly when we’re super passionate about them.

      Multimastery is rad. :)

  16. Harald says:

    Emily, I agree wholeheartedly and I would like to add a point that makes micromastery even more useful. Probably you know the Latin proverb “Pars pro toto”: A part for the whole. And, in my experience, this is so very applicable to all the micromastery I have achieved so far. To put it more poetically: From a drop of water you can learn so much about the ocean.

    Especially, if you are enough of a perfectionist (which I am, for example) to really understand and master what you do. In micromastery, this is just a tiny fraction of the entire field but it imparts plenty of knowledge about the entire ocean of the field.

    To give an example of my own: I have researched and formulated a specialized skin care for my own atopic dermatitis based on ingredients that are mostly plant-based – that is: following a rather tight and not too overstretched idea of natural cosmetics.

    In the online forum where I could talk about this, get some information and some really good ideas, they now consider me an expert for skin care in general – but, hey, I did not even produce a single typical emulsion (oil in water or water in oil) like the others do all the time. But to do what I did, I had to get a good enough idea of those types of emulsions, too.

    All I did was building a drop of water and, by doing this, learning incredibly much about the ocean. So, my conclusion: If, for your micromastery, you choose a representative part of the whole (the entire field), your micromastery might be mistaken for mastery.

    And that is an intriguing award of micromastery. ;-)

  17. Cassi Gallagher-Shearer says:

    I love this idea! Thanks for the great post as always – they’re alway inspiring. Actually I’m starting a blog with this exact concept, where I do 30 mini “projects” to learn a new skill before trying a new one – thank you for giving me a term for it! ?

  18. Loraine Heller says:

    As a lover of foreign languages (and learner of many), I’ve definitely had to resist the idea of mastery. If I mastered each of the languages I’ve studied, I would never have moved on to the next one, and would have missed the excitement of starting over and seeing how each language sounds to my ear and feels in my mouth. When studying some of the languages, I’ve set attainable goals, such as having a five-minute conversation, learning the writing system, or even just enjoying a crash course. If I’m living in a country surrounded by native speakers of a language I know, I feel great when they shower me with compliments. No one has to know I haven’t mastered the whole language—and never intend to!

  19. Yannick says:

    I love, love, love this post. I had an ah-ha moment reading it, realising that this is exactly how I learn…. through projects. I didn’t want to master knitting; I wanted to make myself a pair of socks, and then a sweater, and then a hat, and, and, and. I didn’t want to master sign language; I wanted to communicate with this handsome guy who in turn became my husband. I didn’t want to become an artist; I wanted to make birthday cards with pictures I had drawn. I didn’t want to become a seamstress; I wanted to make my daughter the kind of clothes she likes to wear. I didn’t want to become a chef; I wanted to know how to make mayonnaise and sauerkraut and salmon mousse, etc. The funny thing is that I have become quite good at the things I had no intention of mastering. Good is good enough. Bring on the next project :-)