The Art of Mastery

Thanks to Daniel Pink and his book Drive, the concept of pursuing mastery has become more popular in modern corporate culture.

The best example I’ve come across of pursuing mastery is an old school one.

George Pocock grew up in England where his father made racing shells for rowers. George learned to row and he learned to build shells. He ended up immigrating to America and eventually setup shop at the University of Washington’s boat house. His handcrafted racing shells were without a doubt the best in the world. Part of it was using better material found in the great woods of the northwest, much of it was his dedication.

If you haven’t read The Boys in the Boat, I highly recommend it. It provides deep lessons on dedication, perseverance, leadership, and teamwork. And it’s an exciting story of triumph too. In the book, George Pocock is a secondary figure. However, he’s my favorite character. He was a true craftsman and a poet.

What lessons can we learn from his example?

George Pocock believed in the power of concentration, deep thought, and extreme caring.

“Growing up and learning his trade from his father at Eton, he had used simple hand tools-saws, hammers, chisels, wood planes, and sanding blocks. For the most part, he continued to use those same tools even as more modern, laborsaving power tools came to market in the 1930s. Partly, this was because he tended strongly toward the traditional in all things. Partly, this was because he believed that the hand tools gave him more precise control over the fine details of the work. Partly, it was because he could not abide the noise that power tools made. Craftsmanship required thought, and thought required a quiet environment. Mostly, though, it was because he wanted more intimacy with the wood-he wanted to feel the life in the wood with hands, and in turn to impart some of himself, his own life, his pride and his caring, into the shell.” – The Boys in the Boat page 136.

This quiet, thoughtful approach is so different from our modern world full of interruptions, distractions, and noise. How many teams work in shared spaces? Open floor plans where there is no chance for audio or visual privacy? How often do we allow email, text messages, or social media notifications to interrupt our concentration?

More importantly, mastery requires a level of caring that is rare and precious.

“Pocock paused and stepped back from the frame of the shell and put his hands on his hips, carefully studying the work he had done so far. He said for him the craft of building a boat was like religion. It wasn’t enough to master the technical details of it. You had to give yourself up to it spiritually; you had to surrender yourself absolutely to it. When you were done and walked away from the boat, you had to feel that you had a left a piece of yourself behind in it forever, a bit of your heart. He turned to Joe. ‘Rowing,’ he said, ‘is like that. And a lot of life is like that too, the parts that really matter anyway.’” – The Boys in the Boat page 215.

It’s worth considering, which parts of our lives we should pour a piece of ourselves into. If none are worthy of that, it’s time for a change.

Seth Godin argues that we should all be artists. I also believe that this concept of being an artist is something we should all pursue. No matter the medium, pursuing mastery is an art form.

“In fact, George Pocock was already building the best, and doing so by a wide margin. He didn’t just build racing shells. He sculpted them.

Looked at one way, a racing shell is a machine with a narrowly defined purpose: to enable a number of large men or women, and one small one, to propel themselves over an expanse of water as quickly and efficiently as possible. Looked at another way, it is a work of art, an expression of the human spirit, with its unbounded hunger for the ideal, for beauty, for purity, for grace. A large part of Pocock’s genius as a boatbuilder was that he managed to excel both as a maker of machines and as an artist.”

– The Boys in the Boat page 136.

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