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Paul Strickland
Paul Strickland

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The quest for mastery

Part of my job involves developing the skills of others. Well, I don't know if that's how it was advertised, but it's certainly what I do. As with many aspects of my role, nobody told me to do it. I didn't attend a training course to learn how to do it. I haven't got a certificate to show that I can do it. Not so many years ago I would have been indignant at the apparent assumption that I would just pick up this additional burden and do it without support or reward. And yet now I do it and barely notice. What has changed?

What motivates you to work?

Ask anyone this question in a work setting and there's a good chance that their first answer will include something like one of the following:

  • Money
  • Position
  • Title

There is no point denying the importance of some of these factors, and plenty of people are unfortunately poorly rewarded in these areas. But if you are fortunate enough to have enough money to get by, and have the luxury to think a bit more deeply about this question, I think you will get to a point where you start to value these attributes:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

These intrinsic motivators have stayed in my mind ever since I read Drive by Daniel Pink1 (watch this short primer from the RSA if you haven't already). The idea is that work that requires you to think is less motivated by external factors such as money, but motivated by a sense of autonomy in how the work is conducted, the idea that the work develops a mastery of the subject matter, and that the work has meaning or purpose.

I have worked in the same field for nearly thirteen years and I have been fortunate to have almost always had a sense of purpose about the work I do. As for autonomy and mastery during that time, I didn't feel fulfilled and these were areas I was most likely to complain about. Now, however, my perspective is changing.

During the pandemic, the sudden move to working from home may have inadvertently granted us a lot more autonomy, but that is the subject for another post. Unrelated to global events, but more obvious to me now is a more certain sense of mastery.


10,000 hours

Read much about the concept of mastery and you'll likely run into some common areas. In particular there's the 10,000 hours of practice written about by Malcolm Gladwell2. This is the time said to be required to perfect a skill such as writing and playing music, a sport, or programming.

I read the book with interest, but the idea of mastering a skill in that way wasn't feasible. Even if practice is more important than natural talent, opportunity to practise is essential -- and where will you find 10,000 free hours? Well, what about at work?

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I was asked this question on the first day of my job. As a fresh-faced 22-year old who didn't even know how to get to his office the next morning, this question seemed absurd: why should I be thinking about that? Surely the answer would be "still here". Why should it not be, especially so early in my career? Ever since then I've had a standard response to that question along the lines of "unless the company does something to push me away, I expect to still be here".

Depending on the type of job and approach to one's career, I expect some people would disagree with my opinion. Indeed, the idea of having a "job for life" has expired, and people often advocate spending no more than two or three years in a particular job. But that idea never sat well with me. It just didn't seem long enough.

Although I have been in the same company for all this time, and working in the same field, my job title has changed from Graduate, to Engineer, to Senior Engineer and finally to Principal Engineer. But the important point, I think, is that what I haven't done is stagnate.

Learning on the job

The first five years or so were spent learning by doing. At times if would feel like pot luck that what I had produced was correct or good enough. It felt difficult at the time, and since there was no formal training, there was a lot of trial and error. Obviously this can cause the young engineer a lot of frustration. Coming from a degree course where you apparently "learn" aerodynamics and then move onto another topic, having to slowly find out how the job works requires a more advanced set of skills that can't easily be taught.

After those years of frustrated learning, the amount of rework that was required each time began to reduce. And before too long, I realised that I was able to be right first time with a lot of my work. There were no shortcuts in my approach. It was only through deliberate, repeated practice that I developed my skills. And it took a very long time. But the result of that was some increased confidence which itself drove up my ability to do good work.

A turning point

Looking back now, the point at which I felt able to do good work was the start of my growth towards mastery. I say start, because I see two paths that people might take at that point.

  1. Enjoy the new sense of competence and stay comfortable
  2. Build on those newly established foundations by developing more

There is something very reassuring about feeling comfortable. The idea that, finally, you get things right and feel like you know what you're doing. A lot of people reach this point and are content to stay there.

I didn't set out to reject that position. In fact I don't think I made conscious decision at all. Whereas I might have relaxed my efforts if I recognised that I had achieved a certain level of competence, I inadvertently continued learning.

One trait of my personality is that I have high standards and expectations. This is a double-edged sword as it means I am rarely satisfied; everything can (and, in my opinion, should) always be improved. More by accident than design, this trait underpinned my drive towards mastery. Having opinions on improving things and sharing them soon grew into guiding others. And once you start to guide and teach people, it picks up momentum until you find yourself being the default teacher.


I am not a master. But I realise now that I practise mastery. I can feel confident in proposing a technical solution that will make sense to others -- even if it takes time to explain it to them. At the same time I can feel uncertain about the direction we should take, or whether we need to correct our course. I have a selection of ready-made solutions that just need to be tailored to fit the problem at hand. But I know I have not learnt enough to be able to fully transform the way we do our work.

Mastery is a long slow journey

Thirteen years on from being asked where I was headed, I can say with increasing confidence that it is in the direction of mastery. I don't have a plan of key objectives to achieve or positions to hold in order to move on. I work hard to tackle the problems of our customers, to guide and mentor new starters, and to give advice and opinion to colleagues. I get recognised for this work by being the person people turn to with their questions, and whose answers people listen to.

I might never achieve mastery. There will always be more that I could learn or do. But just being on the quest towards mastery provides the stimulus that makes it such a strong motivator.

I'm publishing this as part of 100 Days To Offload. You can join in yourself by visiting

  1. Pink, D. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Canongate Books, 2010. 

  2. Gladwell, M. Outliers: The Story of Success, Little, Brown and Company, 2008. 

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