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6 years ago

Mastery vs. GTD

Mastery by George Leonard is one of my most-cherished-books-of-all-times. I've seen this book mentioned on a tennis web-site, and not even once, as I've been digging the web for some nuggets of information on what in the world do people do to make their game perfect and enjoy it. Ironically, now I can see that these 2 searches are absolutely irrelevant.

I wouldn't say that this book has unveiled some unknown truths. It gently reminds of the basics for any learning making readers aware that the mass culture quest for scoring, quick wins and quick fixes at any rate proves wrong in the long run and brings along the consequences more grave than one can imagine.

aikido dojo
Calm face and full concentration. Check large size

There're some important conclusions I have made for myself out of this book, to name a few:

Mastery is Enjoying

The first and most prerequisite for practicing any art or hobby or job is that you got to enjoy it. Love doing it. Not reading about it, not writing about, not showing off before others, not thinking about the competition. George Leonard cites various examples of this sustained desire to just enjoy it, for example: Aikido black belts are never bored to practice simple moves finding newer and newer shades in what they do, going into focused trance, whereas boredom and hasty search for more tips and tricks are characteristic of shallow students looking to feed their vanity on the rich texture of any given sport or art.

Craftsmanship movement in software development tries to apply similar practices via coding dojo and katas. It is not clear whether this direct transition is good enough, but it definitely looks interesting.

Mastery is Unrewarding

Mastery is an unrewarding process. It's not about getting 100% results.  It's about following this path. Master is the one who deliberately takes on the fool's mask, like court jesters. The point is that if you think of yourself as an expert in any given field — you're full. There's no more room for novelty. So, you've got to pour out of this glass of attained expertise to keep fit as an agile apprentice. The luggage of expertise steals the ability to enjoy your path of mastery.

Have you met agile experts that know everything and have confident answer to every question? Have you met agile experts that deny new things and believe in a defined set of principles? Beginner's Mind is a great way to keep learning.

I've mused quite a lot on the Mastery book. I do have several hobbies -arts or sports- that I feel like I should practice, because I got talent for them — and I've actually practiced them for quite a long time — and I should definitely keep up with them. At some point I just got stuck. I couldn't figure for myself how one can fit several hobbies and sports, and their diligent practice to a busy schedule — after all, there's a job that I also love doing! How do I fit all these loves into a limited time?

I also noticed that in the process of getting stuck with this dilemma I seemed to stop actually enjoying those masteries. I would spend countless hours on the web, reading everything I could find on getting things done, finding focus, feeling superior to bloggers describing things that I know very well how to do.


The problem of choice has been chasing me all the time. Finally, it all came out simple. I also noticed that even if you read countless how-to's, countless blogs, no matter of how many of those how-to's you read, and how well laid out they are — it inevitably takes time for things to go home. Reading about something and understanding something from within are two different things. That's why all the "getting things done" blogs and books are nothing more than someone else's experience reports. Reading someone's blogs will not solve your problems of gaining focus and concentration. It's a substitute for what it's all about — for practicing. I've seen people making a big deal out of GTD. All these GTD software, gadgets, hacks to block interruptions, you name it. Making a religion of GTD gives no more time to practice your mastery, that's the point.

You've got to sit down and decide for yourself: what is it that you actually love doing? Once you listen to your inner voice — it all gets in place, like in a puzzle. There's no need to think any more. If you really enjoy what you do, setting priorities is absolutely irrelevant, because what you enjoy doing now is the best thing you could do right here, right now.

If you still find yourself digging in how to's and blogs, there's nothing wrong about it. Probably your research reflex isn't yet saturated, and you feel more at ease in a research, in a familiar comfort zone of consuming information on a soft couch.

  • Graham

    Nice piece.  There is undoubtedly a point at which too much research takes us away from the practising and mastering of anything.  GTD is particularly prone to this, as one of its greatest strengths for me is about making us aware of the process of our work, not just the work itself.  From that perspective, I find other peoples’ observations on their own processes can be really really helpful and transferable to my own practices.  BUT, as you rightly point out here, there’s a line.  I think Merlin Mann seems to have been thinking a lot about this through his shifting of the 43folders site (  It’s the same reason that at Think Productive, when people start asking us what new apps to get, we ask them what’s wrong with their old ones…!

  • Michael Dubakov

    In general Mastery book has many interesting concepts that can be (possibly) translated to organizations, agile adoption and software development. Here is the quick list:

    – Homeostasis (resistance to change). It is quite obvious that people resist new processes adoption. Homeostasis is a good explanation why it happens.

    – Dabbler, Obsessive, Hacker character types. Reasons why people (or whole companies) skip the mastery road.

    – 5 Mastery keys (Instruction, Practice, Surrender, Intentionality, The Edge)
    — Instruction. Maybe finding good coach indeed is a better start that just reading books and trying agile adoption alone. The same is likely true for personal learning, if you want to learn new programming paradigm, it is better to have great coach near you. 
    — Practice. In software development it is NOT solving usual tasks, but something DEDICATED to sharpening skills. That is why coding dojo and katas MAY work.
    — Surrender. It is a humility in fact in XP core values. 
    — Intentionality. It is a power of visualization techniques in business.
    — The Edge. Simply you should try something new and invent things on your own. Push yourself or your company to the limits.

    I think it worth a dedicated blog post…

  • Olga Kouzina

    it is worth a SERIES of dedicated blog posts..

  • Anonymous

    “There’s no need to think any more. If you really enjoy what you do, setting priorities is absolutely irrelevant, because what you enjoy doing now is the best thing you could do right here, right now.”

    Thank you!

  • ramkumar p s

    In any basic process which most humans enjoy, for example, eating tasty food, there is considerable effort to take the food and putting it in the mouth and savoring the taste in the correct taste bud. It looks so effortless because we really do not consciously do when we are doing the motor activities. Say, for a child which at first does this, it struggles quite a bit to take the right amount of food in the spoon and put it in the mouth and savoring its taste. It does not stop the process because it struggles in it. So, in my opinion, enjoying any process means enjoying the sub-results associated with each of the steps that make the whole process, and in the end, enjoying the end result too. Also, There are more complex processes in which the sub-results do not give enjoyment. At most, you can feel proud about yourself having completed that step. But what really motivates us would then be the end result.  It all depends on our endurance capabilities in doing things for a specific long-term result. Take another example as listening to music as your hobby. The sub-results are so frequent that it appears as a continuous enjoyment process with zero effort. But in fact, our auditory senses and perception do their work subconsciously which gives us the sub-results as pleasure. Why does the sub-result contribute to pleasure? Because it satisfies our need to express our emotions or the hardwired need to experience enjoyment in sensory perceptions or physiological activities or it enlightens our intellect with a closer approximation to truth and our understanding of the world around us or it might enlighten our understanding of the interdependent connectedness of each thing in this universe by helping other people. Our Emotions are those that make our view of who we are. Sometimes, that view is formed by outer recognition and sometimes it is formed by inner recognition. It depends on the environment we go through and the specific emotions we experience in each case. Say if we need to feel free, it is because we value ourselves as a valuable being on this earth with a right to be free. That is Autonomy / Independence. The only difference between a hobby and a profession is that a hobby has many sub-results that make us enjoy the process and feel that the enjoyment is continuous whereas a profession may not give us pleasures in the sub-results but the end result would give us what we needed. If we want to enjoy the process in a profession, chances are that we might over-indulge in the process because it itself gives us the pleasures that we want and we might not be able to complete the task fully in the given time. If we over-analyze or over-optimize while doing a task, then too, we might not be able to complete the task perfectly within the given time. But, this is a result-oriented world in which you have to do stuff within the given time for most tasks. Learning how to do it should be done before actually doing the job, and when you encounter practical difficulties, you might apply what you had learnt and thereby get more experienced. After doing the task ,you can analyze your process and perhaps learn more theory about it, apply it the next time you do the job. That way, you will do the task as well as master it. Sometimes, you might need to learn on the job within the specific time. It might quite be a pressurized situation then. But, you need to find the right balance to learn what is required for just doing that job without any fear. So, my conclusion is that although we need to fulfill our physiological / sensory pleasure enhancement/ pain reduction, outer recognition, inner recognition, or intellectual enlightenment, in order to do so, this world expects us to contribute something that might be of some value to others . That gives us an invisible interdependent network with which we all can function. So, in our waking hours, we need to contribute half of it to be of some value to others without caring about our needs. Then in the rest of the hours, we can concentrate on fulfilling our needs. I think this is a perfect schedule with which we all can function to the best of our capacity and get what we want. When we do so, then we would not have any comparison with others, as we have been doing the best we can with whatever resources that are available to us. The only comparison then would be our own selves and not others. Inequality can then be easily reduced and the whole world can become prosperous once again.

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