I have emphasized life-long learning as one of life’s best practices: here, for example, and in this category.  George Leonard’s Mastery, a quick read — really an extended essay — holds a few simple truths about learning that bear repeating.

I was struck by his facially paradoxical statement that modern Western society is at war with mastery. This sounds odd, since we celebrate the “winners” in everything we do. His point, however, was more basic — we focus on the winning, we focus on the ecstatic moment of victory, and we yearn for that. Advertising promises that immediate gratification. TV shows resolve their conflicts in less than an hour. The payoff is always swift, and it is always the payoff that is important.

That, Leonard says, is wrongheaded. Mastery focuses on the long path of personal improvement, and that path never ends. If you don’t like and indeed revel in the path, you cannot achieve mastery.

Leonard lists five keys to mastery. The first is “instruction,” and he emphasizes that one who wishes to achieve mastery should get some form of personalized instruction from someone the student knows to be gifted at instruction in the discipline. This is a personal reminder for me, as a recovering perfectionist, since one lingering aspect of that former affliction is an unwillingness to seek personal instruction. I can hear my pride saying that I will read about it, I will learn about it in videos, but please do not make me submit to instruction from one who is clearly superior in ability.

His second key is “practice.” Not a stunning insight, perhaps, but by “practice,” Leonard means not just a verb, but also a noun. Mastery requires taking up something as a practice, and immersing one’s self in the journey,

His third key is “surrender.” This is related to the tale I’ve told on myself already. The master must be willing to reach plateaus, surmount them, then actually regress as he struggles to take on new skills.

His fourth key is “intentionality.” By this, Leonard means creative visualization, which is something I have been experimenting with for a year or two with increasing success. (Maxwell Maltz’s Psycho-Cybernetics is a surprisingly meaningful introduction, but Tony Robbins’ writings are also useful.) Leonard believes that the master is able to imagine his successful actions, thereby enhancing his practice.

His final key is “the edge.” He professes that here there is a paradox, in that the person on the path to mastery, who must revel in the journey and the practice, is also the one who necessarily tests the outer boundaries of the discipline. (I see no paradox here, incidentally, since I see a lifelong practice as a way of not only enjoying the walk across conquered land, but also expanding the boundaries.)

The book is best where it is simplest — in noting, without belaboring, these five keys to mastery. The rest of the work left me wanting the opportunity to work with Leonard, because I got the sense that, in his discussion of the “tools” of mastery, he was belaboring the obvious. Be fit. Find support. Beware pitfalls. Revel in the moment. All rather obvious stuff. But perhaps that is the point: mastery is not difficult, in the sense of being beyond the capacity of most human beings. Leonard’s point is that we all have the stuff of mastery, but few of us have the patience, dedication, and love to follow through.