Love the Plateau

The late swimming coach Terry Laughlin had a powerful note on the plateau as he summarized his lessons learnt from George Leonard’s book on Mastery.

“Love the Plateau. All worthwhile progress occurs through brief, thrilling leaps forward followed by long stretches during which you feel you’re going nowhere. Though it seems as if you’re making no progress, learning continues at the cellular level. If you follow good practice principles, you are turning new behaviors into habits.”

Progress is lumpy. We experience short periods of acceleration when we go through an intense experience, crystallize important learning, or, every once a while, experience a good outcome. But, between these periods of acceleration, we go through long periods of time (i.e. the plateau) when we’re just working away in relative silence.

Channeling Terry Laughlin, keep working away purposefully. Love the plateau – love is a verb.

Mastery – The Terry Laughlin summary

Life is not designed to hand us success or satisfaction, but rather to present us with challenges that make us grow. Mastery is the mysterious process by which those challenges become progressively easier and more satisfying through practice. The key to that satisfaction is to reach the nirvana in which love of practice for its own sake (intrinsic) replaces the original goal (extrinsic) as our grail. The antithesis of mastery is the pursuit of quick fixes.

I haven’t read George Leonard’s 1990s classic “Mastery.” But, I came across this synthesis of the book’s core ideas from legendary swimming coach Terry Laughlin and thought it was spot on.

The quote – “Life is not designed to hand us success or satisfaction, but rather to present us with challenges that make us grow.” – is a keeper. And, “The antithesis of mastery is the pursuit of quick fixes.” is one for anyone facing a tough challenge.

Mentorship and grit – The 200 words project

Venture capitalist and blogger Tom Tunguz nicely summarized Robert Greene’s book “Mastery” by identifying two common paths to mastery – mentorship and grit.

Leonardo da Vinci’s story captures both ideas. Leonardo was born out of wedlock and was prohibited from attending school. His father, a notary, had access to a large supply of paper which was a rare commodity at the time. So, Leonardo would walk through the forests of Vinci and draw. Over time, he built an excellent body of work that led to Andrea Del Verrochio to hire him as an apprentice. Leonardo would go on to learn many different sciences under his mentor and become a master artist.

As he was still scorned because of his birth, Leonardo demonstrated grit as he pursued hundreds of inventions including helicopters, parachutes, and a giant crossbow. This combination of an education from a leading expert and grit led Leonardo da Vinci to greatness.

Tying it into his work with entrepreneurs, Tom observed – “I suspect all great founders and CEOs are supported by a network of great mentors. Most of these mentorship relationships are hidden in the shadows, not often mentioned. But that lack of visibility belies their critical importance.”

A few times in my life, I have been privileged to have amazing mentors and all of those experiences share something in common. Those people helped me learn something about myself that I couldn’t have without them: they pushed me to start a business, they challenged me to carry a quota, they offered me an opportunity in venture capital. – Tom Tunguz


Source and thanks to: Tom Tunguz’s blog, Mastery by Robert Greene

The phonograph – The 200 words project

Thomas Edison, working on improving the mechanics of the flow of paper as it moved through the telegraph, was busy recording the various dots and dashes. Work was not going well. The machine gave off a light musical rhythmic sound that resembled human talk heard indistinctly. He wanted to get rid of this sound but he couldn’t. And, over the course of the next few months, the noise continued to haunt him.

A few months later, he had a sudden thought – could that weird sound just have been hearing himself indistinctly? So, he spent the next few months studying sound. That single epiphany led to the discovery of the phonograph – thus laying the foundations for every music and record player produced since.

In studying great inventors, Robert Greene noticed their habit of processing and evaluating every idea that entered their mind. They viewed every idea as a possibility. Most led nowhere. However, some worked and they were often big ideas. Nobody could have discovered the phonograph in Edison’s time by rational thought. It needed a leap provided by chance and, luckily for us, Edison was open to it.

Like seeds flying through space, ideas require the soil of a highly prepared and open mind to take route in and sprout a meaningful idea. – Robert Greene

mastery, phonograph, edisonImage Source


Source and thanks to: Mastery by Robert Greene

PS: This marks edition 125 of the 200 words project and edition 400 of weekly synthesized notes of interesting stories and ideas (the version before the 200 words project was not shared here). Here’s to 400 more..

The only question – Jiro Ono and Rene Redzepi

Rene Redzepi, the chef and founder of Noma – the restaurant that has been consistently ranked the best restaurant in the world, conversed with Jiro Ono at Ono’s legendary sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro. I am a huge fan of the movie on Ono – Jiro Dreams of Sushi. So, I enjoyed every minute of the short 12 minute summary video.

My favorite part of the conversation was (paraphrased) –

“How long did it take for you to feel like you became a master?”
“Till when I was 50 years old.” 
“Between when you started as a teenager to when you were 50, did you every think of quitting?” 
“No. The only question I asked was – how can I get better?”

Powerful. Thank you, Rene and Jiro-san. And, hat tip to Matt Mullenweg for sharing this.

Talent -> Skill -> Work ethic

Watch a bunch of 5 year olds playing a new sport and you’ll quickly be able to spot the ones with natural talent.

8 years later, however, it’ll get harder to tell which ones were the talented ones from the group you first saw. This is also because 9 out of every 10 who started out at 5 are probably not even playing in this group. The differences observed at this stage become less about talent and a lot more about skill.

A further 8 years later, you’ll be hard pressed to remember if the survivors (again 1 out of 10 you saw 8 years back) were among the original talented 5 year olds. In this group, everyone has above-the-threshold talent and skill. It is work ethic that sets them apart.

Talent is what we are born with. It has a lot to do with our mental and physical make up. Some bodies, for example, are just a lot more suited to long distance running. Skill is when we wrap process around that talent. We use that mental and physical make-up and coax it to do a series of counter intuitive things that enable the individual to perform that skill at a certain level of consistency. For a soccer player, it is often learning collect the ball and make a difficult pass/take a shot in one fluid movement. Talent helps speed up the skill acquisition process. And, the speed of the skill acquisition process determines if you have what it takes to become a professional in what you do. However, skill alone doesn’t do much in a professional’s life. Sure, prodigious skill could result in a brief spell at the top. But, again, it is work ethic that makes a top top professional.

You’ve seen this in every field. Michael Phelps is a great example of natural talent (he was born with an abnormal wing span) who was able to learn the basics of swimming very quickly. But, it is when his coach coaxed in an unmatched work ethic that the became a machine that won a record number of Olympic medals. Whether it is Roger Federer, Kobe Bryant, Jerry Rice, Rafael Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo, Sachin Tendulkar, Michael Schumacher or Tiger Woods, you’ll be hard pressed to find a superstar who doesn’t have an awe-inspiring work ethic.

And, while we are at it, I’d like to call attention to two important points. First, talent isn’t completely overrated. It helps greatly in the first stage. But, the irony is that we often see above-average talent triumph prodigious talent because they have to work a lot harder on the process. I once met a ticket collector on the DLR in London who used to be a teenage player at Chelsea football club. He said John Terry (Chelsea’s captain and legend) was among the least talented and skillful players as a teenager. All the others, however, just lacked the discipline and work ethic he had.

Second, notice how being professional involves mastering yourself and things you control. Talent isn’t in your circle of influence. Skill sort of is. But, work ethic? It is completely what you make of it.