The winding path to mastery
What does it look (and feel) like to move from novice to master?
“When experts are wrong, it’s often because they’re experts on an earlier version of the world.” —Paul Graham
Any practice, including professional practice in Arts Management, involves a journey toward mastery. We all begin with minimal ability to make sense and take action in the work. Then we stumble, discover, and discern our way to making productive sense and taking impactful action in a wide array of situations.
Mastery, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the “command or comprehensive knowledge of a subject, art, or process; pre-eminent skill in a particular sphere of activity.” We’ve all witnessed mastery in artists and creative ensembles – who make extraordinary acts of beauty seem effortless and even obvious. If we’re lucky, we’ve also witnessed mastery in some or many aspects of Arts Management – in a mentor, a peer, or even (in glimpses) in ourselves.
But what’s the nature of the journey toward mastery? And how might we nudge or accelerate it in our professional lives?
One of the best known frameworks of skill acquisition comes from brothers Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus (1980). They describe five stages between novice and expert, and the key attributes of each stage:
Novice: Learns and follows rules of action, without awareness of or adaptation to the context.
Advanced Beginner: Follows some basic context cues to adjust behavior, but still relies on rules and rule-sets. Sees the work as parts rather than as a whole.
Competence: Able to navigate an array of situations through deliberate attention and assembled routines. Manages the growing and overwhelming variables by choosing among a set of perspectives or approaches.
Proficiency: Forms a holistic view of their current situation, prioritizes inputs and information, notices deviations from normal patterns, relies on rough principles (maxims) to frame the work at hand.
Expertise: Transcends reliance on rules, guidelines, and maxims, instead drawing on an intuitive grasp of situations and deep, tacit understanding. “The expert not only sees what needs to be achieved,” wrote the Dreyfus brothers, but “also sees immediately how to achieve this goal.”
According to the brothers Dreyfus, each stage has its unique cognitive and emotional frustrations that either drive people toward the next stage, or discourage them from continuing the journey. That’s why only those few with relentless persistence and grit generally find their way to expertise.
Other frameworks for mastery follow similar paths. The principle of Shuhari in Japanese martial arts (especially Aikido) suggests a three-stage journey (Aiki News 2005), with the three kanjis roughly translating as “to keep, to fall, to break away” or “follow the rules, break the rules, transcend the rules.”
Jazz master Clark Terry offered a comparable three-stage approach to learning improvisation: imitate (copy the master), assimilate (integrate that copy into your own practice), innovate (break away and find new ground).
Regardless of the framework, the path to mastery is an essential challenge for Arts Management practitioners, especially in a dramatically changing world. If we’re relying on context-free rules and maxims to make sense and take action, we’re bound to do more damage than good. And if we’re unwilling or unable to question or challenge our mastery of a previous world, we’re discouraging and diffusing next practice from finding its way.
Aiki News. “An Interview with Endô Seishirô Shihan.” Cosmos Online, 2005.
Dreyfus, Stuart E., and Hubert L. Dreyfus. “A Five-Stage Model of the Mental Activities Involved in Directed Skill Acquisition.” Berkeley, California: Operations Research Center, University of California Berkeley, 1980.
Graham, Paul. “How to Be an Expert in a Changing World.” Paul Graham website, December 2014.
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