There are several different kinds of teacher. For example in a martial arts dojo the head teacher may have a big reputation that attracts talented students. In the controlled environment of the dojo he may work stuff that looks like a miracle. Certainly he or she will be impressive- but they probably won't have normal friendships with their students. Part of being 'open' to a teacher precludes to some extent the banter and rough and tumble of ordinary friendship. This teacher is there, among other reasons, as a magnet for attracting the right calibre of people. Also he supplies an energy for general improvement. But within the dojo you will probably find a person who can be your teacher in a different sense. Maybe you are their only student, the only person who really pays attention to what they say and do. You can see all thier flaws, however they have something you admire or want to emulate so they become your teacher. Because they do not have the worries and cares of many students they can direct a different kind of attention to you.
The more micromasteries you have under your belt the more confident as a person you will be- not merely for the skills themselves, but for the skills that are transferable between micromasteries- rapid learning, structural information about knowledge acquirement, performance skills, memory improvement.
The single biggest cause of failure is not trying. Not giving something a go. When people self-describe as ‘failing’ or being a ‘failure’- you usually discover they merely entertained a notion but did nothing further about it. They didn’t take the extra step. They believed ‘it wasn’t worth it’ or that ‘too many others are already doing it’ or that ‘I’m not good enough’.
I am familiar with the ‘I’m not good enough’ excuse- because that is all it is. When I was 20 I met the son of a world famous playwright who also wrote poetry. At that time I also wrote poetry- it was my main interest. The son, my friend at university, kindly offered to show my poems to his famous dad- who he wasn’t that close to but who wielded tremendous clout in the world of the arts. What did I do? I said thanks and thought about it and did nothing- why? Because I thought they weren’t ‘good enough’. I even said as much to my friend who rather sadly commented “I told him and he was interested, that doesn’t happen with many people…”
I thought I wasn’t good enough. And a few months later I won a top poetry prize- but still I thought I wasn’t quite good enough…
I was making the classic mistake of all people who lack confidence- I was doing the world’s work myself. The world decides whether you are any ‘good’- not you. Andy Warhol had a brilliant line: “the critics say this and that: my answer- make more work”. Warhol realised the job of the artist was to create, the job of the critic is to criticise. You cannot criticise yourself with any kind of objectivity. It is simply not possible. There is a traditional tale about a man tasked with taking seven donkeys to market. Naturally he rode one since he needed to get there before the market opened. But after a while of riding he’d get nervous and start counting the donkeys around him, and of course he’d only see six. So he’d get down and gather the donkeys and count them properly and of course now they’d be seven. So up he’d climb and carry on. But after a bit more riding his confidence would start to weaken and he’d count again, get six, climb down in a panic and gather the donkeys and with relief discover there were seven after all. Fearing he could lose a donkey for good he decided to walk holding all their reins in his hands. Tired and footsore he arrived at the market just as it was closing…
Like the obsessive compulsive who has to keep checking they have locked doors simply because they ‘might have forgotten’ the donkey driver in the story lacks the confidence in his general situation to just ride. And when you’re riding you’re riding- you can’t be checking too. When you are making something new- be it artwork, writing or a new business of some kind you have to have faith, you can’t keep asking for approval ratings, focus group input, pats on the back. You just have to trust and get moving. Another traditional idea that seems to link up here: Trust in God but tie your camel first. Not tether it with a D-Lock and guard it with a detachment from G4. If you take reasonable precautions you can rest assured- do not cripple your attempts to try anything new by letting fear run riot.
Perhaps you can see where micromastery comes in. Confidence is primarily about starting small and succeeding step by step, or starting big and succeeding step by step. Whatever way you go you have to a) start and b) continue and c)achieve the success you set out to achieve. You will eventually develop ‘a template for success’ and be able to apply this to whatever you attempt.
Which is what micromastery already supplies you with.
Lack of confidence is a funny thing- sometimes it takes a BIG goal to motivate you enough to overcome your lack of confidence to try something new. When I was in Japan I started studying aikido a few times a week. I took a few tests but I just couldn’t believe I’d ever get a blackbelt which was my goal. So I took the massive step of giving up my job for a year and taking a full time course with the Tokyo riot police which came with a guaranteed black belt at the end of twelve months training.
Start up energy is curious- it rises to meet the challenges presented to it. You might not be arsed to get out of bed to go for a half hour walk before breakfast but the idea of a twenty mile hike might get you going, galvanising your imagination- a major source of energy. We tend to think of energy as the physical ability to keep moving- yet it is actually mental energy that is required. To keep trying things, to remain focussed on a single problem, these are not the same as the ability to keep dancing at an all night rave. When the imagination is engaged huge inner resources are coupled to everyday activity. Likewise when meaning is joined with everyday activity energy reserves you never knew existed can be tapped into. When activity becomes meaningful to us we surge ahead. So imagination and meaning are two ways to get out of the self-imposed comfort zone, to renounce commonplace fears and start doing the things you really want to do.
Micromastery builds confidence because the gamelike structure of a micromastery ‘tricks’ you into doing things you wouldn’t normally do.
1. MM provides a structure for success
You can never harp on enough about structures for success. Why? Because otherwise you get stuck in uncallibrated mode- something succeeds, but because there are so many wild variables you just can’t repeat it. In the old days of film photography you were encouraged to calibrate your camera and film- shoot and entire film under ideal conditions and record all exposures and how they look- then if you have to adjust something you’ll know why.
Similarly, when you learn something new, if you break it down like a micromastery so that it can be repeated- or the core skills can- then you will be on track for success.
2. Easy experimentation through repeatability
Again- repeatability breeds confidence. And if you can experiement each time you repeat you can extra confidence since you will have steepened your learning curve but will still be keeping it within mental brain seizure limits.
3. Beat one-off paranoia
‘It was a fluke’, ‘beginner’s luck’- how many times have I heard this in response to honest encouragement of early potential? Of course beginner’s luck exists- the firmament looks kindly on bold learners boldly going- but that isn’t a reason to be paranoid about early success. Take everything you have going for you and use it to fuel your improvement.
But because a micromastery is a small and repeatable thing it can very easily be demonstrated that you are improving. Many people – believe it or not- have gone years without learning anything new apart from a few new products advertised on TV. Their ability to learn is severely atrophied and their confidence to learn is low. With a micromastery you can just keep repeating and beat this vicious circle.
4. Show off ability is a social requirement
Some people might deride or belittle the human need for attention. But it’s a fact that can’t be wished away. We all need it, some more than others – just watch kids to see the differences. We all learn how to get it- some of us better than others. Now if you aren’t getting enough of the right kind of attention why not get more with your micromastery- and use this ‘attention payment’ as a reward to keep going. The committed and virtuous may shun such a reward but I know that when you are on a steep learning curve you need all the help you can get.
But there is another factor at work- lack of confidence is connected to not liking ‘to be watched’, ‘on stage’, ‘observed’. People who lack confidence feel a reluctance to even say their own names loudly in public and they rather dread those little intro speeches you have to do at seminars and courses- I should know because that’s me as well…But I overcame it all through micromastery.
It isn’t the watching so much as the imagined judging which is going on. You may be quite happy to try your three card trick in front of a couple of friendly eight year olds- but not a snarky teenager. No one likes to be judged but a micromastery puts you outside the judging zone because it is only ONE of many versions. Doing a poor job doesn’t matter. For example the single commonest micromastery I am asked to perform is making a perfect omelette- time and again it happens. Now I could get nervous- what if I fail? But then I realise the whole point is that I am the path to mastery not some kind of kung-fu fantasy. This is just one more step- and if they say it is less than perfect I’ll just bow and thank them for deigning to eat my food. And my next one will be better.
You are on the path to mastery with micromastery, you are therefore saved from ever having to think of yourself as a master of anything.
As Cartier Bresson remarked- 'if your pictures aren't good enough, you're not getting close enough.' The single biggest leap in quality for a photographer can be made instantly: by framing the shot, then getting two, three, four or more steps closer. Or just force yourself to get closer than seems comfortable. I was given this advice by a twenty two year old fresh out of college and its invaluable. And it also applies to writing.
Writing requires broad scene setting- at the start of a chapter or section. But we quickly get stuck in this broad distant mode. We miss details and most essentially we get BORED. But the answer is not the zoom. Like in photography, zooming is easy and lazy but you miss the essential reassessment you do when you are CLOSER. what looks interesting from a distance and down the zoom may actually not be that interesting. By getting closer you can weigh the whole scene and decide. You can be closer to everything. You scan that much faster- compare looking through glasses adjusted for close up with looking through a magnifying glass.
When you're closer to what you want to write about- proximity I'm talking about not emotional closeness- you can see more clearly, feel more clearly and smell everything. Things don't have a smell in longshot but they do close up. You know you are in the right range of closeness when you can actually in your imagination start smelling the thing you are writing about.
In Idries Shah's The Dermis Probe he mentions the need of sincerity in the student. Many may have heard of such a requirement before. But here he goes further and unpacks this technical term for us: sincerity- which many mistake for heartfelt desire- in in fact being straightforward and having an instinct or liking for balance. And a big part of balance is the ability to REGAIN ones balance after a fall. (People who make a fetish of saying they are balanced can often simply be control freaks who dislike novelty and change.)
These two requirements- straightforwardness and a liking for balance- work just as well in the lower sphere of ordinary learning as they do with higher studies. When I was at university the student who got the highest marks used to ask the questions we were all too scared to ask because they made you look stupid. However there also exists a kind of bogus straightforwardness "I just don't get it" which conceals laziness and a desire to abolish- which can confuse. But most of us have a nose for real straighforwardness- it is open, interested, not into point scoring, not trying to shut down things that are new or unusual, eager to learn without being taken in.
And this is where the instinct for balance comes in. We can all get a bit obsessive from time to time. When that happens we usually notice and pull back, do something else. But some people are wired strangely. They note the obsession- and do MORE of the thing. They enter on that dry downward spiral that engages and provides a kind of meaning, but somehow in a dulling way. The bore- an obsessive is always a bore eventually- lacks the necessary sense of humour to see the dry well he has fallen down.
Straightforward; a sense of humour when applied to self (always rather easier to laugh at others); an instinct for turning off the tap that is overflowing and threatening to drown oneself- to do less of what makes us mad, not more.
The Japanese approach to learning martial arts, the tea ceremony and calligraphy is different to Western methods of teaching subjects regarded as ‘talent’ based. In the West the tacit assumption is you either start very young, possibly driven by obsessive parents, or you have an innate talent. Teaching is conceived as a kind of coaching. And if haven’t got the talent you’re considered a lost cause.
The Japanese know that talent is rather over-rated. More important is your attitude to learning. So their method of teaching assumes that everyone can learn- whatever their initial talent. Instead of hoping that students ‘pick it up’ by osmosis- as in the West- micromastery routines are devised so that everyone, even the apparently talentless, can learn.
A micromastery can be anything from spinning a basketball on your finger, doing an eskimo roll, or making a perfect daiquiri- it is a small, contained and perfectable thing, an activity in a box that nevertheless points to greater masteries out there.
I am currently writing a book for Penguin about micromastery- if you have a something you think is a good example of a micromastery let me know.