1. Ignorance - this is the brief but enjoyable stage where the task at hand appears interesting and enjoyable. Without the confusion of knowledge, accidental competency sometimes occurs and practitioners are often able to make some early headway quite easily. At this early stage it is easy to take things too lightly, underestimate the top performers in the category, and even get a little cocky.
2. Immersion - this stage is the key. Without long-term immersion in a topic, mastery will never be realized. This takes intensity, focus, commitment, and time. The challenge here is that as one plunges into the the craft, all sorts of details and complexity reveal themselves. Things begin to seem overwhelming and difficult. What at first appeared fun and easy soon begins to feel impossible and perhaps "not worth it." There is a clear choice in the Immersion stage: feel the pressure or marvel at the wonder. It is possible to do both productively, but never just the first. A healthy sense of wonder at all that is involved is required for ongoing enthusiasm and commitment.
3. Intelligence - this is where the practitioner has mastered his craft and makes it look "easy" to the outside world. Outsiders look at those with such master and say they have a certain "intelligence" in the topic, as in, "Peyton Manning has incredible football intelligence." Competence is now second nature and almost unconscious, although the job of the master to continually improve never ends.
We can consider the above steps from the standpoint of martial arts. Upon first look, it may seem that throwing a punch is nothing more than that - simply throwing a punch. However, once immersion in martial arts begins, the student realizes that there are complex and specific mechanics involved in properly throwing a punch, such as body position, center of gravity, core involvement, opposing hand pull-back, torso twist, formation of the fist, pointing of lead knuckles, and much more. It is in this stage that one realizes that "a punch is MORE than just a punch." After thousands and thousands of practice punches in a whole host of different environments and applications, honed to sharpness by the oversight of a master sensei over a long period of time, eventually a punch returns to being "just a punch," meaning, it becomes second nature and almost automatic. However, now it is extremely effective and correctly done.
The challenge along the path of mastery is the pressure that results in the Immersion stage. Most people cannot handle this pressure. Instead they:
1. become overwhelmed, determine that the task is too hard, and quit. Or,
2. they cave in to the pressure but don't quit, but also don't bring the concentration and effort required to pass through Immersion on to mastery. Instead, they wallow around in Immersion indefinitely, going through the motions half-heartily, and never really improving. Or,
3. they blame the craft or the process . This often turns people into "suggestion machines," as in, "This craft would be so much better if they would just make such and such changes . . . ." Unwittingly the productive pressure of the Immersion stage is bled off and applied elsewhere. Relieving this pressure by directing it elsewhere robs the participant of the lessons the pressure brings and prolongs the time required to reach mastery. Or,
4. they blame other people for their lack of progress. This is even worse than becoming a suggestion machine because now it also involves playing the part of a victim. This is a total relief of the productive pressure and is the surest way to become entrapped in the Immersion stage long term, or to take the short trip back to #1 above and quit outright.
Once one has traveled down the road to mastery in a subject, quitting is particularly tragic because it effectively and mercilessly starts the clock over. Quitters often enjoy immediate relief from the pressure of immersion, and even brag about it to their associates. But masters know that this temporary respite from pressure is simply the pause in the time line until the person must choose the next endeavor and begin the process all over again. Sadly, the cycle usually just repeats itself as the person gets frustrated at the next new thing and quits again. It is precisely in this fashion, blaming processes and people all along the way, that many would-be achievers accomplish very little with their lives and never actually master anything. Time ticks without remorse as the self-deceived entrap themselves in unnecessary mediocrity.
In this progression it can also be seen why time spread too thin across too many activities is a killer for anyone truly seeking mastery. There simply isn't enough time to become a master at more than one or two things in life. I dislike the well-intentioned phrase, "It's never too late," precisely because, well, there IS a too late! Time doesn't wait forever. Health doesn't last forever. Windows of opportunity don't remain open forever. Relationships will not wait forever. Time lost is time lost. Period. Mastery is only available if given enough time, and delaying Immersion or spreading oneself too thin both deprive one of the time required for mastery.
Also, one can easily see that attempting to compete part-time with someone who has dedicated himself full-time to a profession is likely an exercise in futility. Sooner or later the person or enterprise with the most focus, the most commitment, the most "skin in the game" will win. NY TImes bestselling author Orrin Woodward says, "Half of you against all of them means you lose all!"
Decide to master your craft. Fall in love with the wonder of the depth of what you do. Become excited by each new discovery and layer you remove of greater dimensions and understanding. Let this fuel your intensity and magnify your focus. Throw your whole self in to the endeavor and be a patient student of the process. Use the challenge of the pressure wisely and allow it to mold you, long term, into a legitimate master, one with that special "intelligence" in your field. And don't worry that most people will not understand you. That's okay. In fact, it should be seen as a positive indicator that you are headed in the correct direction away from the herd. Simply look to other masters for approval. They were once where you are, and will be the first to cheer you on.