03/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

On Mastery

Some women claim their ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously is confirmation of the obvious superiority of the female mind; some men respond that multi-tasking is simply a term for doing a bunch of things badly. Parents lament that computer games and Internet surfing is costing their kids their intelligence; a new study shows that searching the Internet actually makes us smarter. However you spin it, the complexity of modern life has us more distracted than ever, and inundated by stimuli and messages that divide our time in such a way that no one activity is likely to bear the brunt of it.

It's a pity, this, because while being a jack of all trades may make it easier to slip into current of 21st century life, the weapons of mass distraction around us make it harder and harder for us to achieve any kind of mastery. Without narrow focus, long practice and plenty of patience we are likely to see the beauty of the landscape around the lake, perhaps even notice the patterns on the water when the wind blows or we skim a stone, but we will probably miss the plants growing at the bottom, the baby garfish swimming between the tall weeds just above the bottom, and the flash of a watersnake's tail as it navigates a cluster of thick branches just below the surface.

Has mastery become an old-fashioned notion? Maybe so, with information developing at such a rate that whatever we learn in school is obsolete by the time we get out and whatever technology we come to command at our first job will likely be considered archaic by the time we arrive at our second. Still as any quantum physicist or superstring theoretician knows, there are layers upon layers to experience, and universes within worlds. Spending time at one thing long enough to develop mastery develops a quantum awareness within us, lends us ability to see past the differences in things and tease out the similarities, to understand the sort of foundation truths that transcend fields of study, industries, software programs and even particular human relationships -- truths that are all pervasive, meaningful and useful.

Some of us are lucky enough to have engaged a career whose dimensions have remained stable over time, allowing us to go deeper and deeper into our chosen field and thereby develop insights that not only make us valuable to employers, but which reveal the world to us in irreplaceable ways. In addition to a vocation or job, we might have worked long and hard at a successful marriage. It seems we are increasingly unlikely to develop mastery in an avocation or hobby these days, not only because our culture puts a tremendous financial slant on activities and experience (if it doesn't make you money, doesn't get you something, why in the world are you doing it?) but because we have so many choices for each hour of free time that we're unlikely to stick with any one for very long.

Mastering a hobby is unlikely in the zany "rush to the end" frenzy of modern life. We might like to garden but be pulled out of the yard and into the house by eBay auctions or on-demand video. We might like to play football but notice that our knees are often sore and anyway the kids like the Nintendo Wii more than mixing it up on real turf. We might in the past have learned to play a classical instrument or at least become knowledgeable connoisseurs of classical music, preferably at a live performance or on a really great high-fidelity system. Now we find that live orchestras are rare, hi-fi is an indulgence for a few wealthy folks, and most of the dynamic range and quality is removed from music by the recording process anyway. We listen rather than play, and sample a bit of this or a bit of that on our MP3/MP4 player, thereby missing the deeper experience of music and gaining no mastery over anything but switches and buttons.

Mastery takes time, something most of us have trouble finding. It takes discipline, a quality in short supply today. It takes patience, an attribute best appreciated in its absence. It takes dedication, something peer pressure and changing social mores makes more difficult all the time. And yet staying with a practice or a field for years on end offers even more than the insights already cited. Mastery, it turns out, is not merely valuable for the pure joy of gaining command of a flute, a sword, a foreign language, a woodcarver's chisel, an artist's palette, a golf club, tennis racket, calligraphy pen or guitar; mastery is all about self-knowledge. Nobody seems to talk about it anymore, but decades spent mastering something we truly love reveals us to ourselves in ways nothing else can.

So let go of fear and excuses and distractions and delay. Pick whatever really rings your chimes -- you probably already know what it is -- and commit to mastering it no matter how long it takes. The decision itself will make you stronger, and the rewards are sweeter than you can possibly imagine at the start.