The Path To Mastery And Art
How to get to where you want to be, in the air and in life.
By Patty Wagstaff
I was recently interviewed for an Experimental Aircraft Association podcast and was asked an interesting question that I had not been asked before: What did you learn about yourself after you had flown for 10 years? I had to think for a minute before I answered, and I asked how other people had responded. At least one of them said, “I learned that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.” A good answer, but it wasn’t my answer. I finally said, “I learned that I was more capable than I thought I was.” Learning to fly was the key that helped me feel like I was ready to take on other challenges in life.
I was an adventurous kid who was told, “You can do anything you put your mind to.” But as I got older and started thinking about reality, the path got very narrow. In the 1970s, after high school and a few college credits, I was encouraged to get a job, and while I tried to step outside the box, I discovered that not much other than waitressing or secretarial work was available to me. The message I kept hearing was: “Don’t worry, honey, I’ve got it;” “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it”—and it wasn’t encouraging. The “you can do anything” mentality I was raised on was getting pretty confusing, and I began to wonder where life would take me or if I even had a choice.
As kids, we are brave. We don’t have a lot of self-imposed limitations. We know anything is possible. Ironically, as we get older and have more freedom, the possibility box narrows. The “you can do anything” turns into “do anything within the bounds of future security.” It’s easier to stay on the narrow path that society prescribes for us. Do what you love, they say, but make sure it’s going to lead to a fatter checkbook…and don’t do anything “crazy.” It takes courage to break out of our comfort zone and to do something new.
Take learning to fly, for example. We ask ourselves a lot of questions when contemplating something like getting a pilot’s license: Do I have the ability to become a pilot? Will I be good at it? What if I fail? At our aerobatic school, we get requests for training from people who sometimes say: I want to try aerobatics but I don’t know if I’ll be good at it. I wondered the same thing before I took aerobatic lessons. How do we know we will be capable of learning the skills necessary to succeed at something we’ve never tried?
We are often more competent than we give ourselves credit for. Of course, we will never know how good we will be at something before we jump in and try it, but learning something new isn’t magic. A genie doesn’t pop out of a bottle and endow us with instant genius and special gifts. If you want to accomplish something challenging, like learning to fly, then skill and mastery are possible. Achieving just about anything is methodical, and it starts with the desire and willingness to start.
I designed a simple illustration of concentric circles showing a simple-in-theory path to mastery. The start point on my graph is the starting place and the outer ring is Desire (wanting to do something); the next circle is Technique (learning how to do something); next is Skill (perfecting the technique); then Mastery (mastering the skill); finally, at the heart of the circle, is Art (your personal expression of Mastery).
Everything starts with Desire. If you are drawn to doing something productive, you will only know you are capable if you try it, usually more than once. A lot of people sabotage a Desire based on the practical realities, expenses, etc., but I believe you shouldn’t worry about where it will lead and instead think of the possibilities. If you feel insecure based on fear of failure, then do what you are afraid of. If you don’t try, you’ll never know.
When I started flying, I thought I would be good at it, but didn’t really know for sure. What if I failed? There are two schools of thought on whether to make your intentions known to others or not: If I don’t tell anyone and I fail, then I’m the only one who knows, but I prefer to tell people I am going to do something because it gives me extra incentive to succeed.
Most of us aren’t born with any natural capability or inborn talents. Often, the difference between the winners and losers is perseverance. With aerobatics, anyone can learn the Techniques for flying maneuvers. Start small, then add complexity. Watch others. If you are learning to land, then sit and watch landings. If you’re learning to do aerobatics, watch aerobatics. My mantra is: If “they” can do it, then I can do it.
Don’t expect you’ll be instantly great at something difficult. When you fail, and you will, repeatedly, you have to make sure you learn something from it and apply that learning at your next attempt versus taking the failure as evidence that you are no good. You have the power to think differently about who you are and to turn off the critical voice inside of your head.
Skill isn’t something some people can do and others can’t. After learning the Technique, it is practice that turns Technique into Skill. Skill is something you develop through cultivating an open mind, leaving your ego at home and using a methodical system of practice.
Skill is where you learn there are no mistakes and only lessons. It’s where you learn that nothing is given to you, and it’s up to you to. I’ve seen people walk away from competition aerobatics before they had a chance to develop any real Skill due to frustration. Skill takes grit and perseverance and is where you find what you are capable of, what you’re made of. Skill is also where you start to appreciate and enjoy the process instead of just waiting to see what happens.
Robert Greene, in his book “Mastery,” wrote: “Think of it this way: There are two kinds of failure. The first comes from never trying out your ideas because you are afraid or because you are waiting for the perfect time. This kind of failure you can never learn from, and such timidity will destroy you. The second kind comes from a bold and venturesome spirit. If you fail in this way, the hit that you take to your reputation is greatly outweighed by what you learn. Repeated failure will toughen your spirit and show you with absolute clarity how things must be done.
Sometimes the most gifted people achieve the least because they don’t persevere. To truly master anything, we first need skill and a solid background. There are no short cuts. The person who is truly skilled doesn’t quit and finds it easier to stay motivated because they know that Mastery is within reach with intense applied focus. When we have a high degree of skill, we are capable of reaching our goal of Mastery faster because we can experiment and push our limits.
When you look at someone who is really good at something and wonder if you could ever do that, you are watching a person who is not naturally gifted but one who has persevered and worked hard to gain the skill to achieve Mastery. The people you admire and compare yourself to compare themselves to other people too. They have all failed many times along the way to Mastery and Art.
Art is where you turn your Mastery into a deeper personal expression. Art is where your unique personality shines through. Not everyone has the opportunity or ability to turn Mastery into Art, but if you are deeply driven and you want something enough, you will reach it.
Art is ineffable, but we know it when we see it. It’s also the place where a person can feel real joy and freedom in their pursuits. Art comes from a place of wanting to win versus being afraid to lose. The fear of losing might bring Mastery, but it will never take you further into the Art of it. Wanting to win or excel is the positive expression of excellence and will bring you closer to achieving your highest level of expression, the Art of it.
Floating around somewhere in the graph is that buzzword “Passion.” Sometimes our Desire is a Passion, but often it comes when truly mastering something. If there is no Passion, we can still find Skill and Mastery, but we will never truly achieve Art. After learning the Technique and getting some Skill, if we decide that the challenge we’ve undertaken isn’t for us, then we find something else to put our egos and energy into. This is not failure. This is where true self-knowledge starts, and we can take the experience into the next step.
Know that everyone is capable of learning something new, no matter how many people have told you weren’t. But you’ll only truly know when you give it a try and push yourself. Jump in. Forget fear. Crawl out from under the blanket of your comfort zone even though it’s cozy in there. Learn to fly, perhaps. You will surprise yourself and could be that much closer to finding fulfillment in your life.