George Leonard’s “Mastery”

In any area of self-improvement, a common complaint is that we often reach a plateau and get stuck there, failing to make progress towards our goals. While this is a natural consequence of homeostasis–our organism’s inbuilt resistance to change–the experience of plateaus often leads to frustration and abandoning our resolutions. One person who understood this well and offered sage advice on how to handle the plateau was George Leonard, who recently passed away at age 86.  As an author, fifth degree black belt aikido master, and a giant in the human potential movement of the 1960s and 70s, Leonard’s passing brought to mind his little gem of a book that I first read in 1991:  Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment.  It is a self-help classic that has grown in stature with time, but it is so much more than that. The ideas in this book made a strong impression on me the first time I read it, and it has never been far from my mind.  I picked up the book again this week to take another look and realized how much wisdom it holds, and how pertinent it is to the topic of getting stronger, and persisting through plateaus.  It is a very short book, but powerfully succinct, with profound lessons about the path to mastery in any field.

The starting point of Mastery is that we live in a culture at war with the proper understanding of mastery. From movies, commercials and popular culture, we tend to see life as an uninterrupted series of successful climaxes, without consideration of the effort, pauses, or setbacks that will be inevitably encountered.  We expect a certain level of excitement and interest in any experience, or we become quickly bored. We adopt a quick-fix and bottom-line mentality. In our work life and even at home, we are told to set goals, to measure our advances, and to expect continuous progress towards our goals. And even happiness itself is defined in terms of reaching those goals.

Presciently, Leonard also noted that this “antimastery” attitude applies not just to us as individuals, but as a nation.  Keep in mind that these words were written almost two decades before the recent global financial crisis:

Our present national prosperity is built on a huge deficit and trillions of dollars worth of overdue expenditures on environmental cleanup, infrastructure repair, education, and social services–the quick fix mentality. The failure to deal with the deficit goes along with easy credit and the continuing encouragement of individual consumption at the expense of saving and longer term goals…But our time of grace might be running out. In the long run, the war against mastery, the path of patient, dedicated effort without attachment to immediate results, is a war that can’t be won. (Mastery, pp. 36-37).

Leonard portrays common attitudes towards attempting to master new skills or challenges in the guise of three personas.  These character types are to some extent caricatures, but if you think about, you may find within yourself one of them.  Which one best describes you?

  1. The Dabbler, who approaches each new sport, hobby, job opportunity or relationship with enthusiam, but loses interest once initial progress slows or a setback is encountered.  Then it is on to the next interest.
  2. The Obsessive, who is intensely goal-oriented and results-focused, and pursues mastery with intensity and dogged persistence, making rapid initial progress.  When setbacks are encountered, the Obsessive redoubles the effort and pushes forward without mercy. But because this cannot be sustained, ultimately the crash comes and burnout follows.
  3. The Hacker, who is much more laid back about learning new things than the Dabbler or Obsessive, and is content to stay on the plateau indefinitely, just “hanging out” in a certain comfort zone. The Hacker does avoid getting frustrated, but at the same time is unwilling to invest real effort and hard work in the practice, never pushing, and never really progressing.

For Leonard, mastery is not about reaching perfection, but rather comes from maintaining a particular mindset as you move along the path of improvement in building your skills or overcoming challenges in any endeavor.  He adeptly describes the “mastery curve” :

Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it…the upward spurts vary; the plateaus have their own dips and rises along the way…To take the master’s journey, you have to practice diligently, striving to hone your skills, to attain new levels of competence. But while doing so–and this is the inexorable–fact of the journey–you also have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere. (Mastery, p. 14-15).

This fact of devoting much of your time on plateaus or even backsliding may be frustrating or dispiriting if you are hellbent on bottom-line progress. But the person on the path of mastery not only acknowledges the plateau, he embraces it and learns to love “practice” for its own sake and rewards. I think this advice can be of great help to those of us struggling with plateaus in the effort to get fit, lose weight, or advance in other ways.

It’s hard to select just a few of the lessons from such a rich and wise book.  Because Leonard is a talented writer, instead of paraphrasing him, I’ll pick quotes from four chapters that I think are especially useful for working to improve your strength in any chosen endeavor.

Chapter 6: Practice

To practice regularly, even when you seem to be getting nowhere, might at first seem onerous. But the day eventually comes when practicing becomes a treasured part of your life….Ultimately, practice is the path of mastery. If you stay on it long enough, you’ll find it to be a vivid place, with its ups and downs, its challenges and comforts, its surprises, disappointments, and unconditional joys. (Mastery, p. 79)

Chapter 7: The Edge

The trick here is not only to test the edges of the envelope, but to walk the fine line between endless, goalless practice and those alluring goals that appear along the way…Playing the edge is a balancing act. It demands the awareness to know when you’re pushing yourself beyond safe limits. In this awareness, the man or woman on the path of mastery sometimes makes a conscious decision to do just that. We see this clearly in running, a sport so pure, so explicit that everything comes into full view…Many people run not to lose weight but to loosen the chains of a mechanized culture, not to postpone death but to savor life. (Mastery, pp. 99-100).

Chapter 10: Why Resolutions Fail–and What to Do About It

Backsliding is a universal experience. Every one of us resists significant change, no matter whether it’s for the worse or for the better. Our body, brain and behavior have a built-in tendency to stay the same within rather narrow limits, and to snap back when changed…Be aware of the way homeostasis works…Expect resistance and backlash. Realize that when the alarm bells start ringing, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re sick or crazy or lazy or that you’ve made a bad decision in embarking on the journey of mastery. In fact, you might take these signals as an indication that your life is definitely changing–just what you’ve wanted….Be willing to negotiate with your resistance to change. (Mastery, p. 107-115).

Chapter 13: Mastering the Commonplace

Our preoccupation with goals, results, and the quick fix has separated us from our own experiences…there are all of those chores that most of us can’t avoid: cleaning, straightening, raking leaves, shopping for groceries, driving the children to various activities, preparing food, washing dishes, washing the car, commuting, performing the routine, repetitive aspects of our jobs….Take driving, for instance. Say you need to drive ten miles to visit a friend. You might consider the trip itself as in-between-time, something to get over with. Or you could take it as an opportunity for the practice of mastery. In that case, you would approach your car in a state of full awareness…Take a moment to walk around the car and check its external condition, especially that of the tires…Open the door and get in the driver’s seat, performing the next series of actions as a ritual: fastening the seatbelt, adjusting the seat and the rearview mirror…As you begin moving, make a silent affirmation that you’ll take responsibility for the space all around your vehicle at all times…We tend to downgrade driving as a skill simply because it’s so common. Actually maneuvering a car through varying conditions of weather, traffic, and road surface calls for an extremely high level of perception, concentration, coordination, and judgement…Driving can be high art…Ultimately, nothing in this life is “commonplace,” nothing is “in between.”  The threads that join your every act, your every thought, are infinite.  All paths of mastery eventually merge. (Mastery, p. 141-150).

These last words by Leonard about mastery of the commonplace are among my favorite.  Reading this chapter led me to see things in a new light, to slow down, to deliberately take more time and be more patient getting through the day. Obstacles such as getting stuck in traffic or encountering angry or irritating people are no longer seen as frustrations, but rather opportunities for practicing our skills of calmness, persistence, kindness, and good humor.  Peforming daily tasks, with care, responsibility and in “good form” also resonates with the Hormetic principle of “constraint”, or practicing without cheating or compromising in form, so as to train the correct behavior.

Leonard’s advice that we pay careful attention to the quality of our actions and attitudes in everyday tasks, brings to mind the perspective of the ancient Stoics that we should concentrate our focus on “internals” — the character of our thoughts and actions, the things in life over which we have the most control.  By contrast, the Stoics considered “externals”–our dealings with others and the world around us–as not so very significant in and of themselves, and as not fully within our control.  Externals were to be considered merely as “materials” or opportunities for us to demonstrate and perfect our character–to master ourselves. And in fact, plateaus in our progress can be thought of as an excellent example of externals that are thrown at us.  These give us an opportunity to test our stoicism and sharpen it. Just as we can increase our physical strength by testing ourselves against progressively greater physical stresses, we can become emotionally and spiritually stronger by adopting Leornard’s attitude towards mastering the commonplace, by welcoming every challenge as a chance to get better at living life.

Does this ring true in your own attempts at mastery?


  1. AikidoFan

    George Leonard was an incredible human being. I took aikido lessons from him in his Tamalpais dojo (studio), where he was sensei. He had a real gift for teaching in simple terms. I also agree that “Mastery” was one of his best works. It takes the hard lessons of aikido and extends them in to all areas of life beyond the martial arts. I also like the quote you have in this post about “mastery of the commonplace”. It is so true

  2. Jbird

    I confess I never heard of George Leonard and have never studied martial arts, but I love his concept of “mastering the commonplace.” I read something a long time ago about “doing the next right thing” with full attention. I think it was in a macrobiotic or vegetarian cookbook. It sounds zen-like. I think it was talking about cutting vegetables. Somehow that stuck with me, and over the years I have found myself looking at everyday tasks differently. I’m less likely to think of ordinary chores as mundane, a waste of time, boring, etc. I find that if I focus on whatever I’m doing and try to do it well, if not perfectly, it brings satisfaction. I’m about to go and clean out my car, and I’m looking forward to feeling a sense of accomplishment!

  3. Marissa

    This point about homeostasis, resistance to change, backsliding and getting stuck on the plateau is very true. I think it is the bane of most of us who are trying to “master” anything. As Leonard says, when the alarm bells go off and just when you think it is unbearable, you break through the plateau and overcome your resistance. Recognizing this up front and realizing that this is the way things work are very helpful when you are working on making personal changes, or even changes to organizations or society.

  4. Spenser

    I had never even heard of George Leonard until recently… my god father is a life coach and has insisted that I read Mastery. So before picking up the book I have just been doing some research on the reading and have been very impressed. I plan to go rent out the book this afternoon after I leave work and an actually quite excited about it.

    • Todd

      I know you’ll enjoy the book, Spenser. It’s one of those short classic books with wisdom dripping from every page. You’ll never look at “hard work” the same again.

  5. Just came across George Leonard’s book Mastery today, a quick search online found my way to this blog. Thanks for taking the time to really communicate the messages of the book and share your reflections.

  6. What a cool book. The approach he uses here can be applied to any passion or hobby you have. Slow steady mastery. Just perfect advice in this ADD get-rich-quick society. Get it. You’ll love it.

  7. Luke

    I read this book back when I managed to find a free copy online. It really was eye opening and shattered how I looked at the whole learning process. I pretty much apply what I have read to almost every endeavor I have undertaken since I read that book about 5 years ago, and I have seen the results in my own life. Awesome book, thoroughly engrossing, and a quick paced read as well.


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