The magic of mastery

A magic trick works precisely because we don’t know how it is performed.

A sureshot way to ruin a magic show is to find out how all the tricks are performed. Because we like to be dazzled by magic, we don’t do this. We preserve the magic by keeping its performance a secret.

Savants across fields seem like magicians. When Seth Godin speaks in public, TM Krishna sings a carnatic raga, or Magnus Carlen plays speed chess, they appear to be performing one magic trick after the other. And since we want to preserve the magic, we don’t try to think about how they do what they do.

With the right training and practice, anybody can learn to perform a magic trick. Mastery seems like magic, and like magic, it can be learnt.

Start all over

You are the top player of your football league. Your dribbling is so good, that you can practically dance around defenders and score individual goals. Nobody can stop you. So you move to the next league.

The defenders are now tougher, and you cannot get past them easily. When you try your usual tricks, they fail. So you need to unlearn them, learn how to pass and involve your teammates more. At some point, you get so good at this that you can score whenever you want to. That is when you move to the next level.

At this advanced level, defenders are keen at anticipating your passes, and they shut down your team’s play. You need to unlearn again, and learn something new – to combine dribbling, passing and clever movement across the field.

And then, you need to factor for injuries. At some point, you inevitably get injured. As you recover, your game needs to change to prevent such an injury and still sustain your level. Once again, a whole bunch of unlearning and learning.

The path to mastery isn’t a straight line from beginning to end. Instead, it is made of several circular loops of learning, unlearning and learning again.

The key to overnight success

For the first five years, a bamboo plant looks small and unassuming, as it builds extensive root systems underground. And then, the plant explodes ninety feet into the air in six weeks.

As a programmer, on most days, it seems like you’re making no progress as you inch along from error message to error message. And then, on one inspired evening, you accomplish several days worth of work in a few hours, leaving the keyboard smouldering.

Success is a product of tiny, incremental improvements. On a day-to-day basis, it will seem like you aren’t making progress. But one day, these increments compound to produce powerful results.

When people see this, they will call you an overnight success. But the key to overnight success is days, months and years worth of improvement in tiny increments.

Inspiration: Atomic Habits