From Masochism to Mastery

Courtesy of Amarpreet Kaur (Creative Commons)
Courtesy of Amarpreet Kaur (Creative Commons)

When you frame your pursuits within the context of creative mastery, then meaning more than self-masochism ensues. Let me unpack this.

Let’s say you want to write your first or fifth book. You can fantasize about finishing that book, getting it into the hands and hearts of people who need your book, and what might happen to your presence and life and fulfillment once that book is “out there.”

Let’s say you have a cool idea for a new endeavor. Again, it’s a turn on to fantasize about what could be.

But you feel this tension. It’s tension in the gap between what you currently know versus what you need to know and be able to do. The tension between what your skill set is now versus the skill set you need in order to reach that horizon.

That gap can feel like a chasm. 

That chasm’s enormity can take your breath away. The self-masochism begins. You can feel intimidated, inadequate, isolated. You shut down, try to ignore what feels like a fantasy, and go on about your daily business of checking off your to-do list and answering emails.

Here’s a curious thing: Amateurs aren’t the only ones who face this Chasm. People with post-graduate training in writing, who’ve published books, who’ve accomplished great things within their fields feel inadequate at times, too.

One Sentence at a Time

A couple of years ago, I had coffee with and asked the writer’s writer Charlie Baxter this question: “In which novel while you were writing it did you feel as if you were never going to get through it, as if you had set yourself up for too many complications to unravel?”

He chuckled. “Every one of them.” Then he paused. “Except for maybe the first one, which kind of felt like a romance, maybe because I was too naive to know any better.”

“How do you get through that middle?” I asked. 

“One sentence at a time,” he said. “I try to make every sentence the best possible sentence.”

That focus is a writer’s humble focus on creative mastery. You find meaning in this pursuit of craft knowledge. Craft knowledge expands self-knowledge because your attention is not fixated on your own inadequacies. It’s focused on potentially delightful and challenging aspects of your art.

Get Curious

So what if you can transmute that inadequacy into curiosity about craft and creative mastery? 

Avoid simply repeating things such as “I’m a good writer” or “I’m a good enough entrepreneur.” That’s counter-productive. Placating your self-esteem is also a poor model for education – formal education or self-education. 

Instead, acknowledge the skill inadequacy or cognitive inadequacy and get curious.

I suck at numbers and spread sheets, but when I met someone recently who sees the world passionately through those lenses, I got curious. I wondered what one or two skills or mindset habits related to numbers or spreadsheets I might build. And then I thought how I would delegate the rest of the skills to this other expert.

If you are staring down the Inadequacy Chasm, get curious about craft. What skills could you learn that might expand your wits and artfulness? What could you learn and how might you learn it that might bust some biases and well-worn ways of viewing yourself? How can you grow an apprentice’s heart again?

Out of the Expert’s Trap and Into the Apprentice’s Heart

I recently met a seasoned Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He has a new venture idea, but no one around him could understand his idea. He acknowledged his inadequacies and sought help in how to phrase and frame his premise.

It’s that very humility in admitting what we do not know and can still willingly if not achingly learn that in part makes, not ironically, the master’s heart and mind and soul.

Otherwise, we get stuck in the expert’s trap and and cannot free our artful magnificence.

You can derive incomparable meaning in stretching your creative wits with right challenge.

And if through writing the book or advancing an endeavor, you enrich other people’s lives with meaningful experiences – that in turn may also contribute to your right livelihood – well, that is an incomparable wonder.

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