The Glorious Grind: Sublimeness and struggle on the path to mastery
“I know some people say ‘Keep your eyes on the prize,’ but I disagree. When your eyes are stuck on the prize, you’re going to keep stumbling and crashing into things. If you really want to get ahead, you’ve got to keep your eyes focused on the path.” ~ Russel Simmons
Looking at the path of growth we see an upward trajectory to new levels of consciousness and mastery. But belying our upward ascent is the fact is that in the journey of growth most of our time is spent at a plateau. George Leonard, author of the book Mastery, explains this sensation well: “Days and weeks pass with no apparent progress. There you are on that damned plateau.”
An important contradiction stands out as we reflect on all the time we spend on the plateau: 1) we should venerate the positive benefits we all obtain on the plateau and 2) and it’s a difficult, constant struggle of overcoming friction and resistance. I call this the Glorious Grind to celebrate this phase’s inherent tension of transformative power and continual struggle.
“If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there. You must go beyond them.” – Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee may encourage us to go beyond the plateau but Leonard highlights an “essential paradox:” being “dedicated to the process as well as the product.” He explains this process holds true “in every human activity that involves significant learning – mental, physical, emotion, or spiritual.”
“Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Discharge our duties faithfully and well. Step by step you get ahead, but not necessarily in fast spurts. But you build discipline by preparing for fast spurts. Slug it out one inch at a time, day by day. At the end of the day – if you live long enough – most people get what they deserve.” – Charli Munger
Great artists and poets, like Longfellow in The Light of the Star, understand the importance of the glory and the grind on our path to growth:
Know how sublime a thing it is
To suffer and be strong
While the great Martin Luther King reminds us that struggle is built into the spiritual traditions like Christianity:
The cross we bear
precedes the crown we wear.
Again we turn to George Leonard who understands that practice at the plateau exists only in the “eternal now:”
“Goals and contingencies, as I’ve said, are important. But they exist in the future and the past, beyond the pale of the sensory realm. Practice, the path of mastery, exists only in the present. You can see it, hear it, smell it, feel it. To love the plateau is to love the eternal now, to enjoy the inevitable spurts of progress and the fruits of accomplishment, then serenely to accept the new plateau that waits just beyond them. To love the plateau is to love what is most essential and enduring in your life.”
One important aspect that’s important for us leaders on the plateau is focus. Daniel Goleman, of Emotional Intelligence fame, dedicated an entire book on focus.
In his book of just that name, Focus, Goleman explains the importance of ‘top-down focus’ in learning to improve any skill.
Echoing Russel Simmons admonition to keep our eyes on the path, Goleman highlights the importance of ‘paying full attention.’
“Paying full attention seems to boost the mind’s processing speed, strengthen synaptic connections, and expand or create neural networks for what we are practicing . At least at first. But as you master how to execute the new routine, practice transfers control of that skills from the top-down systems for intentional focus to bottom-up circuits that eventually make it’s execution effortless. At that points you don’t need to think about it – you can do the routine well enough on automatic.”
However, Goleman makes an important distinction between amateurs and experts. “Amateurs are content at some point to let their efforts become bottom-up operations.
With minimal hours of training – about 50 hours suggest Goleman – people become ‘good enough’ – going through the motions automatically.
But experts embrace the Glorious Grind during the journey of growth. “The experts in contrast,” writes Goleman, “keep paying attention top-down, intentionally counteracting the brain’s urge to automatize routines. They concentrate on the moves they have yet to perfect or correcting what’s not working in their game….Those at the top never stop learning: if at any point they start coasting and stop such smart practice, too much of their game becomes bottom-up and their skills plateau.”
As leaders we have to take this lesson to heart and be on guard for our game becoming ‘bottom-up’ as well. The antidote is to embrace the glory and the grind of our continual striving on the path of growth.
“Ultimately, the master and the master’s path are one. And if the traveler is fortunate – that is, if the path is complex and profound enough – the destination is two miles farther away for every mile he or she travels.” – George Leonard
Leonard closes out his book by telling a story of the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano. When he was close to death he called his students around him and told them that he wanted to be buried in his white belt. “…But Kano’s request, I eventually realized, was less humility than realism. At the moment of death, the ultimate transformation, we are all white belts. And if death makes beginners of us all, so does life – again and again. I the master’s secret mirror, event at the moment of highest renown and accomplishment, there is an image of the newest student in class, eager for knowledge, willing to play the fool.”
“And for all who walk the path of mastery, however far that journey has progressed, Kano’s request becomes a lingering question, an ever-new challenge: Are you willing to wear your white belt?”