Mastery, striving for a goal, and the four S words

All my life, I have been trying to do my best at whatever I am doing.

I am very interested in the way we humans learn, how we retain and recall information, and how we reach great heights in performance. In some way, that’s why Chinese Medicine Central exists. Certainly, it’s why all the posts on study techniques and professional development litter the blog.

I’d say I’ve been actively trying to understand how to reach pinnacle performance for at least 15 years. I read countless books on the topic, take courses and go to seminars, and experiment with methods, technology and techniques. GTD has been part of this journey, as has my adoption of applications like Devonthink, Things and, most recently, Nirvana. Inbox zero is, now, for me, effortless. I’m a competent planner.

You may notice something about that list. It has precious little to do with mastery of any particular topic.

It doesn’t seem to lead me towards any particular heights in medicine, in business, or really anything else. That’s true. Somehow, in my quest to find the key to mastery, I ended up working a lot on efficiency and productivity. I believe that is because even as I have been practicing medicine, I’ve known that there’s another realm of activity that I need to enter. That I’m not quite ready to get into the stream of working towards mastery, because I’ve not quite figured out what to master. So, instead, I’ve worked on topic agnostic tools that will help me no matter what I’m reaching towards.

Along the way, these techniques have helped me a lot in memorizing and working with information in Chinese medicine as well as in business – so – bonus!

Most recently, I’ve been reading the book The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life by Thomas Sterner.

From where I’m standing now, this book feels like the perfect capstone to decades of exploration.

It speaks plainly in words that make sense to a person who has been working hard to develop the skills and techniques to work hard. It’s a simple book, with a simple premise – that getting really good at something isn’t a goal, it’s a process, and the process is the point. Nothing revolutionary, but poised perfectly to resonate with my mind.

Sterner discusses how his work in the world of music has helped him to understand how frustrating reaching mastery can be for modern people. Simply – we’re impatient, and we worry too much. Those two aspects of the modern personality are intertwined. We’re impatient in that we want to reach the heights of whatever activity we’re engaged in, and see all the work in between as basically “in the way.” We’re worriers in that we’re always concerned that we’re not progressing fast enough, high enough, hard enough.

I’ve certainly suffered from this. But the book really began to resonate when he began to talk about his proposed solutions.

He asks us to let our goals be guideposts that we check in with once in a while. We don’t stare at that goal in the distance, being utterly unrooted in the present. We simply look up once in a while to see where we are, and make course corrections if necessary. That, in itself, is revolutionary for me. Instead of focusing so much on the goal, we focus on the process we’re engaged in as we travel.

It would be easy for this advice to seem cliché, and thus, unimportant.

For you, perhaps, it is. For me, it’s been nothing short of revolutionary. Taking his advice, I’ve been using the “Four S Words” to guide my daily activity. These four words are: “Simplify, Small, Short, Slow.” They are all really subtly different aspects of the same principle. This principle helps me stay rooted in the current process I’m engaged in, which I’ve found to be tremendously enjoyable. I’m also taking less time to do the same tasks as I would otherwise, and not ending my days full of tension and exhaustion.

Let me demonstrate with an example. I’m readying a 2 hour lecture to be given to a non-Chinese medicine audience this Thursday. Typically, I’d start preparing the lecture about two weeks ahead of time. I’d spend some time thinking it through, all the while starting to get a little anxious about what’s coming. By the time the week of the lecture came around, I’d be typing it up in earnest, and probably getting a touch panicky about the performance I’ll have to be giving in a few short days. I would frequently spend my days being frustrated at every little delay to my work (dog needs to stay out extra long, UPS guy comes to the door, glass falls to the ground and breaks, daughter needs some time chatting about this or that) which would then bleed over into frustration WHILE I was actually working. I’d not be happy when distracted from work, and then not happy when working.

This is because I would be too focused on the end point – the giving of the lecture – and worrying about doing it wrong, about not adequately preparing, about not sleeping the night before. That focus, and the worry it generates, makes me both unable to enjoy the process of creating a great lecture, as well as unable to enjoy the rest of my life. I’d just seem irritable, constantly working, and checked out. Fortunately, I seem to be blessed with the ability to continue to make decent work, even under these conditions, but it’s taking the life out of me. It’s not sustainable, and I’m plagued with this deep sense of malcontent.

Since adopting the attitudes and techniques in the book, everything has changed about how I work.

First, I simplify. This means that I break the task at hand down into simple parts that can be completed one at a time. In effect, I’m turning the big goal (deliver a lecture to a non-Chinese medicine audience) into a bunch of mini goals (draft two paragraphs about the five elements that will be engaging and easy to understand for non-Chinese medicine people, and so on…). Combined with this is “small and short” because I want to make those pieces small enough that they don’t produce any anxiety, and don’t extend me too far out into the future. These are “human scale” tasks, about 45 minutes in length, and they feel blissfully doable.

Finally, I employ the last S – Slow. This is the most important part for me, and has been the most interesting to observe. I actually engage in these tasks as slow as possible. When I sat down to write today, I carefully cleaned my surface – paying close attention to every swipe. I took care to use all my senses, breathing in through my nose, smelling what’s around me, paying attention to color, shadow, texture. I got out my iPad, and took a few minutes to consider what writing environment I wanted to use (Byword, iPad in portrait mode, with classical music playing, and puerh tea on tap). Between each separate action, I take a few breaths and center.

Upon writing, things get tricky.

I type VERY fast (in the neighborhood of 130 words per minute) and when I get into the writing flow, I can easily multitask – thinking about other things, etc… So, I’ve had to adapt. I take time after every punctuation mark to consider where I am and what I’m doing. When the flow takes me, I let it, but I work hard to be conscious of breathing, and always take time when I’ve finished a thought flow. I do not multitask at all. No phone, no Twitter, no reading, no drinking tea, nothing. I just pay attention to the mini task at hand, and take good care with it. I enjoy the process deeply.

Want to know what’s weird? What I produce is so much more satisfying to me, upon reading it, than what I was producing before. Weirder than that? It takes me about half the time to do an equivalent amount of work. Yes, you read that right. By picking small tasks that I can do in short periods of time and doing them very slowly, with intention, and engaging my full person, I’m doing more work of higher quality in less time. Consider my mind blown.

As I was reflecting on this, I realized that it’s a similar experience as I have when I’m needling a patient.

I go into this deeply connected, calm, non-judgmental, non-striving place and try to pay attention to every single aspect of what I’m doing. Time disappears, goals disappear, worry disappears. I imagine many of you know what I’m talking about.

Ultimately, what I’ve written doesn’t exactly speak to what I was hoping to elucidate in this article – mastery. I’ll have to revisit the concept in a future article. But, let it suffice to say now that I believe this calm, centered approach to the work central to my profession (whether acupuncture or writing) is how I will travel farther on the path to mastery. In some way, doing work like this is the fundamental technique in the mastery of all areas. Enjoying the process, living deeply into the process, and being energized as a result.

I hope that my sharing this will help some of you who find yourself in a similar state of malcontent that I described at the outset of this article. I hope it will inspire you to pick up the book!

[This post has been updated during the 2020 site updates. My goal during post updates was to keep the character of the original post, but update for corrections and clarity, as well as to remove broken links.]

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