How does practice lead to mastery?

Shi Yan Min, 34the Generation Warrior Master
Photo by Chen Miaoshan, 35th Generation Disciple


“Your master can give you 15% of the art, but the rest is up to you”
Shi Yan Min, 34th Generation Warrior Master from China’s Shaolin Temple

This answer draws on my experiences of learning from masters, and discussions about their learning processes. I will refrain from discusssing theory and research in this answer, because I strongly believe that the nature of mastery is a deeply personal inner journey. A master expresses something of his deepest self in his art, and paradoxically he can only show it by losing his self in the flow of the moment. I have come to understand that the pursuit of mastery is really the creation of art. As Joseph Campbell observed of secular cultures, art serves no lesser a purpose than man’s search for meaning.

I’d like to answer this question based on what I have learned from discussions with three of my master teachers, who I feel privileged to have spent so much time with. They have achieved mastery in fields as diverse as Shaolin Kung Fu, wooden boat building and elite level competitive freediving.

The framing of this question is wise, in my opinion, because it enquires about how to become a master rather than seeking a theoretical description. Like life, mastery is not defined by its end point. The path to mastery is a continuous and organic process, a way of being rather than a process of steps you have to follow. To understand how to become a master, we have to understand who a master is - and thus how they have lived their life to reach this point.

The art of Shaolin Kung Fu

My kung fu Shifu (an honorific term for teacher in Chinese) is a 34th generation Warrior Master from China’s Shaolin Temple. His name is Shi Yan Min, and he runs the UK Shaolin Temple. I found Shi Yan Min's kung fu school about four years ago, whilst looking for a local martial art for my son to begin his training at the age of eight. As a former kung fu black belt and instructor (I’m excited to have recently started teaching San Shou at the UK Shaolin Temple) I had trained for 15 years in a Shaolin style of kung fu, so I had learned to discern the qualities of movement, energy and being that true masters exude. There is an aesthetically beautiful grace that the best masters possess, which is simultaneously infused with great power, speed and a profound sense of energy and spirit. The chance to study under such an accomplished master is rare in the UK.

A couple of months ago I was having a coffee with Shifu whilst discussing his own martial arts journey. Shi Yan Min is his given name from the Shaolin Temple. He entered a full time kung fu school in China’s Henan province as a young boy named Yan Min Chen. There he endured long hours of demanding practice under the traditionally strict tutoring of ‘old-school’ kung fu masters (in modern China expectations have changed and training methods along with them, for better and for worse). Kung fu schools of this sort are numerous in China, and the kids generally leave their homes and families at a young age to board full time. Having visited China with Shifu a few years ago to train at the Shaolin Temple, I’ve experienced the way Shaolin monks train full time in order to push past obstacles, defeat fear and condition the body and mind. As shifu said to me before I went, “the secrets of Shaolin are all in the mind.” The training pushes you to the limit, so that you have to dig deep in order to progress. Physically, emotionally and mentally you learn to push towards, and beyond, the edges of your ability.

Yan Min’s early inspiration for his own training came from wanting to emulate his hero, Bruce Lee. He also admits that he didn’t want to waste his parent’s money by giving up, as he sometimes felt like doing, since they were paying his fees for a year in advance! It was many years later, as a teenager, that the young Yan Min came to a realization. It dawned on him that he didn’t want to be Bruce Lee anymore: his love of the martial arts, and emulation of his heroes, had matured into a deeper search for his own art. As he said to me at the coffee shop, you can't just try to copy your master. You are not him. Your body is different, your strengths are different. You have to find your own way, and nobody can tell you how. You gradually absorb things about the master’s art, and occasionally you make sudden breakthroughs during practice. This realisation was a turning point in his training, and marked the next phase of his mastery journey under the guidance of the Shaolin Temple’s masters.

The craft of a shipwright

I feel privileged to have learned boatbuilding from a master craftsman at the International Boatbuilding Training College at Lowestoft in Suffolk. Eight years ago I embarked on a year's sabbatical in between jobs, fulfilling a long-held dream of mine inspired by my love of wooden boats. The first three months of the training were spent learning joinery skills, working solely with hand tools. Our teacher, Ian, had served a seven year apprenticeship in Scotland's shipbuilding dockyards on the Clyde. So we were learning the traditional way, acquiring that feel for wood that can only be learned first-hand from experience.

Watching Ian's mastery of wood was a lesson in itself. Every day, my fellow students and I - there were about 15 of us - would watch in awe as his hands worked with miraculous speed and precision, and produced such effortless perfection time after time. As his students, what we slowly learned was just how amazing our tools were. And I'm not talking of our chisels and planes, though we did grow to love them. Rather, he taught us just how amazing our eyes, ears and hands are. For example, after months of daily practice, all of us could look at a piece of wood we were working, and tell if it needed another 1 mm shaved off to achieve a thickness we wanted. And time and again, not yet fully trusting our eyes, we would measure the wood and be confirmed - exactly - right in our judgment. Working with different types of soft and hard woods, we didn't just learn about their theoretical properties. We formed a bond with every piece of wood we worked on: no two pieces of wood are identical, and so every stroke of a plane or tap of a chisel must anticipate how the wood will respond. I have never looked at a piece of wood the same since, let alone the finished product of fine craftsmanship.

A freediving champion's self mastery

My brother Mike holds the current British depth record for freediving. He took up freediving after mastering Scuba diving as an instructor, and teaching technical deep diving using mixed gases and special re-breathing apparatus. As a former Royal Marine Captain, he was also no stranger to exploring his own self-imposed limitations. We share a mutual love of martial arts, having trained and taught together in our twenties, and a fascination for the psychology and science of performance. Unfortunately Mike no longer has the time to train in martial arts as his fitness training is so highly specialised these days.

I can vividly recall a conversation a few years ago that helped me understand better the linkage between our bodies and brains. I was interested to learn more about how he was able to keep diving deeper, by probing his body's and his mind's limits. Perhaps unusually for a professional athlete, at that time he did not have a coach. So he was learning from fellow freediving athletes, as well as his own discoveries from practice and from his research into elite sporting performers and their methods.

Mike used the term "perfect practice" to capture the idea of learning efficiently, and as a way of transferring new methods and techniques from conscious competence to unconscious competence. The simple idea behind perfect practice is that the process of mastery is all about making forwards progress, and so practice that leaves you standing still is a waste of your time. It's quite a profound idea, and the deeper you explore it the more you will discover about your own areas of practice. Every perfect practice session should move your game on in some small way. Perfect practice is itself an art, in that practice becomes a process who's purpose is to find ways to unlock something new in your performance, and then to develop ways to repeat your discoveries reliably.

By contrast, mindless repetition can never lead to such discoveries and is merely treading water. Just as with Shaolin mastery, the secret is the mind: it is only possible to practice perfectly when you are wholly present in the moment. It is similar to the difference between running on a treadmill with your favourite tunes pumping in your headphones, versus running outside (without headphones) whilst drawing your full bodily awareness and attention to your gait, balance, breathing and pace in order to find that next small adjustment that will unlock more pace or stamina. The former is valid as an approach to maintaining your current fitness, but not as a way to improve fitness at the fastest rate possible.

The path to discovery

If I were to pick just one idea from all my learning about mastery, it would be the importance of discovery in pursuit of becoming the best you can be. Discovery is not about absorbing information or ideas, it is about learning from experience: discovery is the product of practice. Without practice, and therefore discovery, there is no possibility of progress towards mastery.

The pursuit of becoming the best you can become implies and necessitates a certain quality of singular, intense focus. Whilst you may be able to make lots of discoveries across a broad range of disciplines, you cannot master them all at once. Commitment to a path of continuous - and usually small - discoveries is the only way to really master anything.

The process of discovery is best illustrated by a lesson I learned whilst Shi Yan Min was teaching in a kung fu class I attended not long ago. The lesson is so simple that it still astonishes me that it has taken me so long to realise it. My insight came from the most innocuous of comments, that could easily have passed me by. Shifu was mid-way through demonstrating a kung fu form (a set of pre-arranged movements akin to a solo dance, where you are performing a set sequence of moves fighting imaginary opponents). He explained that we shouldn't practice the form all the way through. Instead, he said, we should keep practising a single segment of the form that we are struggling with, over and over again. This is when the light bulb went off: in my mind's eye, this connected to something that Shifu had said to me at the coffee shop. He had explained that through repetitive practice, if you practice for long enough with the right attention, you will start to make discoveries.

I realised in that instant that despite Mike having encouraged me to practice perfectly, I had been practising in a way that taught me to repeat my mistakes, and compound error on error. Because only by perfecting the minutest of details can you transform a small discovery into a repeatable skill. Why? Because discoveries are delicate moments of sudden insight, akin to those creative ideas that try to burst into conscious awareness after sleep or in the shower. If you don't capture the insight there and then, it will soon be gone. To grasp a discovery and manifest it in progress towards mastery, it has to be wrestled into becoming a part of you.

Unfortunately, in most people's minds repetition is equated with boredom. Nobody wants to be bored, and so mastery eludes those that are not willing to put the work in. What I now understand is what Shifu meant when he said at the coffee shop that you can't copy the mastery of a master that is teaching you. If you try to replicate a master’s masterful movement in an identical manner, you will fail unless you have have previously made the necessary progress by building all the same foundations that that master has put in place.

In martial arts, it is tempting for a student to approach learning a new form as learning the sequence of moves that constitute the form. But this is just a beginning, a bit like the scaffolding erected to work on a building's transformation. The sequence of individual moves that constitute a form are are the first step of learning. Within this scaffolding, you can then start to build your mastery of each individual move. And in between each move, there is then a transition from one move to another that must be mastered. And then there are visualisations, breath synchronisations, energy shifts and underlying strength or flexibility to work on as you iron out the problems in your movement that block unconscious mastery. Eventually, mastery is achieved when all these things blend together in one continuous flow that expresses the art of a form through your movements, thoughts and presence.

Veering off the path

Let me offer some simple signs of losing your way on the path towards mastery, a subject which I feel depressingly qualified to talk about. Here are my top five ways to know that you are stalling in your progress towards mastery:

1. There is gap between what you know, and what you are doing

2. You are addicted to intellectual learning

3. You keep asking yourself what you want to do with your life, or you continuously explore new possibilities and options

4. Your focus is on the outcome, not the process

5. Your self-image is not keeping pace with your progressing mastery

If the first four derailers seem rather similar, that’s because they are subtly different manifestations of the same problem: lack of commitment. The ‘know-do gap’ is familiar to all of us who have ever felt overwhelmed by the gap between where we are and where we want to be. Not starting is often the result of overwhelm, as we feel confused about where to start. It often leads to the second problem: it’s easy to become addicted to learning intellectually, because this phase of learning comes naturally to you, and involves absolutely no commitment to doing anything differently. These two problems are like a vicious cycle of inaction that feels like progress. Don’t fool yourself.

The third derailer is an avoidance strategy in disguise. The thought, “what do I want to do with my life” keeps repeating in your head like a scratched CD. The gremlin in your brain’s processing starts with a feeling of dissatisfaction, of wanting to escape from the groove you are stuck in. The thought is not really a thought, it’s just an automated habitual replay of an old annoying ‘tune’ that you’ve been singing to yourself and can’t get out of your head. To distract yourself, you start exploring new pathways every time the feelings surface.

The fourth derailer is even more subtle and cunning. The process of mastery involves practice: nothing else will get you there. But fears interfere with your practice and disconnect you from ‘the force’ that we call flow. Fear bubbles up from imagined scenarios of failing, of looking stupid, of not meeting expectations, of not pleasing those whose approval you crave. Even more subtly, the fears can manifest as unconscious sabotage in the form of self-talk or limiting beliefs that save you from the possibility of failing. If there is one character trait that Shi Yan Min has in abundance, it is fearlessness. He taught himself to act in the face of fear, in the certain knowledge that it was necessary to reach his dream.

The final derailer is a common cause of plateaus in progress. Ex Olympian gold medallist in shooting Lanny Bassham writes about this at length in his book, “With Winning in Mind.” In a nutshell, he recounts his experience of becoming a 8/10 shooter, referring to the scores awarded for target hits. When he shot a 7/10, he would find that he would somehow automatically revert back to 8/10, often thinking something like, “come on, you’re not a 7/10 guy” and pulling his socks up. The problem he discovered, though, is that same would happen when he shot a 9/10. So he learned to shift his self image ahead of time by using positive affirmations to change his self talk and beliefs.

This article was originally posted on Quora here.

Thomas BoardComment