Pursue mastery and never look for work again

In this country, our job provides our identity.  It defines us, and, often, how we regard ourselves.

One of the first questions we are asked when meeting someone new is, “What do you do?”

Most of us reflexively respond with where we work.  “I’m a manager at Restoration Hardware.”  Or, “I work for Hilton Hotels.”  What we do is all wrapped up in our job.

And for many of us, we got there by accident. 

According to a recent study commissioned by CareerBuilder, almost half of all college educated workers said their first job was unrelated to their majors.  Of those surveyed, 36 percent wished they had majored in something else, and 32 percent said they never found a job related to their major.  For you philosophy majors, these figures may be a bit low.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many are dissatisfied?

Gallup’s latest State of the American Workplace poll finds that 70 percent of workers are not “engaged” in their job.  More than half indicate they are not enthusiastic or committed.  And 18 percent are miserable in their work, or “actively disengaged.”  On the flip side, only 30 percent really love their jobs.

Part of the problem lies in how we pursue our professional opportunities.  The key word is that last one – opportunities.

Something comes along so we grab it.  We need a job so we take it.  Many of us stumble upon a career by accident for these reasons.

Occasionally it’s a happy accident, but more often than not we are among the 70 percent who are not “engaged” in their work.

What if, instead of pursuing random “opportunities” as they come across our radar screen, we pursued mastery of our craft or profession?

This is the third in an eight-part series of practical things we can do to restore balance into our lives, and adopt a “slow” philosophy.

Practical?  Perhaps.  Simple?  Hardly.

Pursuing mastery turns our relationship with our work on its head.  Rather than identifying with a job or an employer, we are defined by a craft or profession.

Instead of being a slave to the whims of a corporation or your superior, we pursue perfection in the execution of a skill.  While absolute perfection may elude us, through its pursuit we can achieve mastery.  And with mastery we are not at the mercy of the marketplace – we control our own fate.

The difference in mindset is profound.  Getting there can be profoundly difficult.

Once there, however, once we have developed a mastery mindset, the common stresses associated with our jobs disappear.  Our satisfaction and happiness grows.  We develop a more inward focus toward our work.  We are in charge.

A couple years ago Robert Greene published a seminal book on the subject titled, simply enough, Mastery.  I cannot begin to do it justice in a few paragraphs.  But if you have any interest in changing your approach to your profession, I highly recommend it.

The pages are loaded with examples from all fields of endeavor – from those in the trades to artists to scientists to politicians to athletes to business people.

The process begins with a learning stage.  While this may involve some formal schooling, that isn’t the intent.  Rather, this is an apprenticeship under a mentor.  A master in their own right.

Next comes a prolonged period of practice.  This is a creative and active phase marked by intense focus, observation, and many small failures.  It can last upwards of ten years.

Then comes mastery.  To achieve it we must resist the temptation to take the easy path.  To be swayed by a higher paying job or a change in direction.  The next new thing.  Achieving mastery takes discipline.

Progress is slow.  The learning is continual.  The practice of your craft, refining the tools of your trade, never ends.

But with mastery comes security.  People contact you because of your skills and abilities, rather than you having to continually search for work.

Your work becomes a reward in itself, not a chore to be endured.  Over time, your work becomes easy.  An art.  Joyous.

And it’s never too late to begin the pursuit of mastery.

For years I chased money because I had none.  I felt the fastest way to get some was through a series of sales positions.  Some people are born salespeople, masters of their craft.  I was not one of those people.  If anything, I was a born sales failure.  Years were wasted.

Today, at the ripe old age of 57, I am working to perfect the craft of writing.  It isn’t easy.  On some days there’s no gas in the tank, and I struggle.

And it’s been a long time coming.  Decisions have been followed by yet more swats at “opportunities.”  As evidence I present this proclamation, written in 2007 and recently found in an abandoned Moleskin notebook:

I decided to become a writer on my 51st birthday.  Having failed at everything else I attempted, it seemed like a logical next step.

My poor attempt at self-deprecating humor.

Still, it’s never too late to start.  And if I could infuse your thinking with but a single thought, as it relates to the work you do, it would be this:  With the pursuit of mastery comes freedom.

Freedom from stress.  Freedom from want.  Freedom from being beholden to others.

It isn’t easy.  It takes a long time to get there.  But, once mastered, your craft or trade or profession defines you.  Not a job.  Not an employer.

And you won’t ever have to look for work again.  It will come looking for you.


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