Getting good at just sitting is harder than just sitting. Of course, zen masters will say that mastery is learning how to just sit. 

Getting good at just sitting is harder than just sitting. Of course, zen masters will say that mastery is learning how to just sit. 

If you like snapping pictures with your cell phone it’s inevitable that you’re going to click on something fabulous once in a while. It’s a statistical thing: the more you do anything, the greater the potential that the good side of the bell curve will collect a few data points.

If you consciously practice taking pictures you’ll probably increase the total number of successes. Your overall photographic perceptions will improve and the number of terrific shots you capture will rise in proportion.

But what if you want to make a living taking pictures? What if you’re thinking of shooting images for a fashion website, a top news outlet, or a heavyweight corporate client? There’s a big gap between developing some skills and becoming masterful. They’re related, of course, but deciding to become an expert in anything is a decision to do whatever is necessary to make that reality come true. What’s more, not every person who wants to be a virtuoso has the same level of talent, the same je ne sais quoi. Success is something you can pursue, but mastery is a rare gem.

If you care about what you’re doing competence is essential, but, believe it or not, mastery isn’t. Even for lifelong practitioners of many a fine art or technical discipline, mastery doesn’t come simply by deciding to pursue it. There are plenty of things where being good enough will see a person a long way through life. Mastery defines something else, something sublime. It’s the thing about being a practitioner that’s almost always out of reach, like touching your own shadow. Even for those who attain some level of mastery, there’s usually another level of insight and execution to discover further down the path.

There’s a funny paradox about the tension between success and mastery. The person who’s content with success, no matter what the discipline, will almost always be curtailed from achieving mastery. Mastery is the thing that grows only for those who barely realize they’re on a relentless hunt for it. Success is what keeps the lights on in a business; mastery is the sublime intangibility of extraordinary reputation earned for providing services or craftmanship that cannot be found elsewhere.

Perhaps the best way to differentiate between the two is that success is a product of effort. A person works hard to achieve a measure of success, and, by degrees, that measure improves with effort, dedication, and time. Mastery, however, isn’t always a choice. It pulls the practitioner into its thrall. It’s the force that compels someone to transcend competence and achieve something artful, no matter what it is he or she is doing. It’s an embodiment of excellence that a person can’t simply decide to achieve. It’s an earned proficiency that’s more about being than doing.


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