In his quest for the mastery of painting, even the young Vincent Van Gogh once said that these questions prayed on his mind: “What am I good for, could I not be of service of use in some way, how can I become more knowledgeable and study some subject of others in depth?”
— The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh
You may have seen the following in your newsfeed: the lady who had never tried triathlon until her late 20s broke the world record that was held for 14 years by over 30 minutes, and won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship 4 times, the relatively new NBA player scoring 37 points in a quarter, the young man whose family was under social support and who worked as a cleaner in a grocery store built a chatting app and sold to Facebook for $19 Billion, the single mom who conceived an idea at a train station due to a delayed train, wrote a novel series that had sold 400 million copies.
The whole world seems to be full of geniuses.
If you were like me, you might have also wondered, when’s our turn?
Life is already tough just to make ends meet. Family, career, expectations, diet plan, gym, back pain, car repair, not enough sleep.
It’s not easy to even finish the daily chores. How do these geniuses do it?
Sometimes in the middle of the night, you may also have this little fire burning in your heart, a yearning to find out if you are actually good for something. You would tell yourself, maybe you just haven’t found your muse yet.
You would wonder how greatness feels like.
Outliers, Mastery, and all those books are New York Times Best Sellers for a reason. Because we all crave to learn the secret of those who achieved greatness, and to find out why we are not one of them.
Maybe because I haven’t had my 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, or maybe because I haven’t started practicing golf when I was 2, or learning math when I was 3, or playing tennis when I was 4…
But wait, I just want to be happy and have a peaceful life without too much drama, why so harsh on myself, you asked.
A famous blog post said that Being mediocre ain’t so bad.
I read an article 10 years ago that solved these mysteries. It was the script of a speech in Chinese given by Professor Steven Cheung at a university in China.
It only took me 10 years to finally understand more about that speech. The speech touched on a topic of what I called the “Elite Club”–the new club members, the associate masters and the grandmasters.
Professor Cheung is a world renowned economist. Being mentored by Nobel Prize winners Ronald Coase and Milton Friedman, he is most famous for his economic analysis on China open-door policy after the 1980s and was considered a very likely candidate for the next Nobel Prize. He is also an avid Chinese Calligrapher, chess master, successful entrepreneur, writer, educator and photographer.
Here are my 6 interpretations of his speech on how to Master a skill:
“Follow your passion” is the most overused phrase nowadays. It is not completely wrong but can be dangerously misleading. For example, I can say I am passionate about being a novel writer. Or I am passionate about Formula One Car Racing. Or rock climbing. Or snowboarding. Or being a culinary master. They all sound like wonderful passions. But am I really “passionate” about those?
Professor Cheung said that in order to know if you are really passionate about something, you have to go all in, pour all your heart into it, for at least 3 months, and see how it feels.
If, after 3 months of completely going at it with all your heart, you are still enjoying every moment, then you may have a passion.
Sometimes you think you would love something, but in reality you hate that feeling and it turns out to be a disaster, then it’s not your passion.
He said it is like falling in love with someone. After you pour your heart into it for a few months, it only goes stronger. You keep thinking about that person every moment. Sometimes you even forget to eat or sleep, thinking about ways to improve that relationship.
As Gary Vaynerchuk also said, “There are way too many people that are doing the stuff they hate. Please stop doing that.” Put in your time to find out what you are passionate about is the first step. You need to know what makes you happy. But that’s just the first step.
2. CAN YOU DO REALLY WELL
Another commonly misunderstood phrase is “Do you have what it takes?” People usually misunderstand this question as a challenge to their will power. When there’s a will, there’s a way, they think. It’s not true. Yes, with willpower you may achieve something but you may not be happy.
When Professor Cheung was 13 years old, he loved playing ping pong. In fact, he was the best player in his school. One day, he saw a kid, about 10 years old, practicing at a ping pong table behind a library. The kid was from a poor family and could not afford school, so he was working full time in a library sweeping the floor. After work, the kid would go to the ping pong table trying to learn how to play by himself. Prof. Cheung said the kid was a newbie and had no idea how to play at all. But he realized something interesting. Every time the kid hit the ping pong ball with his racket, the sound of impact was much louder than any other people. Cheung found it interesting, so he taught the kid how to play. After 2 to 3 times, he already felt that his potential could not compare with the kid. Within two months, he lost to the kid completely, in all matches. That’s when he realized that somebody could have so much more potential.
Long story short, the kid later became the ping pong champion of Hong Kong, and then the champion of China, and subsequently the first ever Chinese world champion of Ping Pong. His name is Rong Guotuan. Unfortunately, his life ended too soon.
Prof. Cheung thought he could do ping pong pretty well in the beginning, until he met Rong. Then he realized that someone could be so much more talented in a skill and that was the time when he knew he should not continue to try to master ping pong. He said you have to ask yourself, after you found something you are passionate about, whether you have a chance to do very well in it. You have to be brutally honest with yourself.
It doesn’t mean you have to be particularly smart. It’s more like a style, a personal trait. Some people like to organize things. Some people are more patient. Some people like outdoor, some people like to stay in. It’s neither good nor bad. It just means you are more suitable to do certain things.
3 .YOUR STYLE IN DIFFERENT SITUATIONS
So what if you found something you are passionate about but after a few months of pouring your heart into it, you realize you are never going to be really good at it? He suggested you to stop trying to master it. It would be okay to treat this activity as a past time. But if you want to master something, it is time to quit and switch to another one. As Seth Godin said in “The Dip”, one should quit often if he knew he could never become the best in the field.
But what if you are doing something you are not that passionate about, but you are really good at it? Everything feels effortless yet you just don’t have much love. Professor Cheung said one should also quit, because eventually you will end up hating yourself doing something you don’t enjoy.
Surprisingly Professor Cheung said he was a total failure in school before he was 25, being kicked out by schools in Hong Kong multiple times. Then, suddenly, he became the best student, winning all sorts of academic excellence awards and became a world class economist. The most shocking thing? He had never changed his style of doing things before and after 25. The only thing that has changed was just the situation: that he moved to a new environment and picked up Economics. He said: Given the same person, in certain situation, he could be a complete failure. But in another situation, with the same style and method, he could suddenly achieve something that people envy and respect honorably. So don’t underestimate anyone around you who don’t seem to achieve much, because all of a sudden, he would produce results that many people admire.
He believes that everyone should be able to find a few things he is passionate about and have potential to do very well.
4. THE REAL TEST
After you find your passion and that you have the potential to do well, it comes to the final stage. Mastery is very different from technically perfect, such as having full score in an exam. It’s a stage which Seth Godin called “The Dip.” It is a difficult period. Without the correct approach and guidance, bad people and bad things can happen that take away your dream while you are just a few steps away from becoming a master.
“Narrow is the way; strait the gate and there are only a few who finds it.” —Vincent Van Gogh
To go through the dip, to pass the gate and get to the other side, aka the “Elite Club”, Prof. Cheung mentioned 3 key points:
A: STUDY THE BEST WORKS
You have to find the best works, the best books that inspire you, and study them with all your heart. It doesn’t need to be a lot, but study them deeply. You have to build extremely strong fundamentals.
B: MODEL THE MASTERS
You have to seek help from the giants in the field. Good mentors/teachers, whose work inspire you, could bring you to “the other side”, the “Elite Club.” They could save you years of blindly searching because once you are standing on the shoulder of the giant, it’s easier to climb from the ground up. It is almost impossible without at least one good mentor who is already in the “Club,” no matter how talented you are. So model their belief system, their style, their thoughts, everything. In the book “Steal Like an Artist,” the author Austin Kleon said that if you model one teacher, people would say you are a copy cat. But if you model more than one teachers, people would say you have your own style.
C: LIKE-MINDED FRIENDS
You have to build a strong network of friends who share the same passion, who you can discuss, encourage, and challenge each other’s limits. It is hard to keep up with the literature or complicated theories. You need to constantly brainstorm with friends on the newest vision, techniques, or even the best equipments that can help you realize your vision.
5. HOW DO YOU KNOW YOU HAVE ARRIVED
So you have studied the best works in the field, modeled the mentor you admired the most, and constantly brainstorm with like-minded friends for a long time. But when would you know you have mastered it?
Prof. Cheung said he has a friend about 50 years old who used to be a professional tennis player. His back was badly injured when he was young so he no longer played competitively. But every time when you see this guy play, from his serve, and how he attack at the net, you can instantly tell that he used to be really good. You could tell he used to be world-class. He loses every match because of his bad back. But from the way he played, you knew he’s in the”Elite Club”.
So what’s this “Elite Club”?
Professor Cheung said it’s a special feeling when you have arrived and joined the “Elite Club”. You may not be the best in the world or a grandmaster, maybe you are not even a small master, but the feeling of being a “club member” is very interesting:
You will feel a bit lonely. You will feel a bit bored even. You start to see other people wandering on the other side, the side where you once was, trying to look for the entrance. It’s like you are on a mountain looking down. You wonder how long it will take for them to eventually be able to join you.
B. YOU SEE THROUGH
All of a sudden you see others’ works differently. You see the strength and weakness of people’s works in a whole new way.
C. YOU CAN COMMUNICATE WITH THE MASTERS
You can suddenly see the people who are also in the Elite Club. You can see the other new club members, and also the “associate” masters and the grandmasters. You can suddenly communicate with them and understand what they are talking about. You can carry on a conversation with them.
D. NOT RELATD TO ACHIEVEMENTS
You may not have any achievement yet. It takes time. It has nothing to do with how many awards you got or how many perfect scores you have received. It’s just a different feeling.
He said once you have arrived at the other side in one field, it is quite easy to do the same on other fields.
6. THE FREEDOM AND THE FUN
So it gets back to the original question. Why so harsh on yourself to master something? Isn’t the most important thing to be happy and with less drama?
In Men’s Search for Meaning, author Viktor Frankl said true happiness consists of 3 keys:
- When you are doing something that you feel is meaningful and that your next generations would be proud of.
- Spending time with your loved ones.
- To a deeper sense, the courage to overcome adversity.
When you have put in the hard work, when you have studied and understood the best works in the field, when you had worked with your team, when your teacher had held your hand and take you to the “club”, you have built a strong foundation. You can finally of your own thoughts and dream, to let your ideas run wild and fly.
You can do whatever you want, nobody can control you, nothing can stop you. Suddenly, in the darkness, in the limitless ocean, you see a spark. It’s difficult to describe the happiness. When you let your idea roams in the ocean, you would hope to be standing on a firm rock. The world wouldn’t benefit much with your existence, and it wouldn’t lose a lot if you are no longer here. Why don’t you give yourself the freedom to create some art? After all these hard work, you finally earned this freedom to be independent and to be creative, it is the time to have some fun.
It’s about soul searching. How great it feels if you can find something that you are naturally good at, and you are able to cultivate that skill with the best in the field to reach a level where you can utilize this skill to create art that you enjoy immensely, and share with your loved ones and like-minded friends and many others and have an impact to their lives?
At the end, it’s all about happiness.