6 Tips To Move From Theoretical Mastery To Practical Mastery - Your Peak State

6 Tips To Move From Theoretical Mastery To Practical Mastery

Curtis McHale
Written By: Curtis McHale posted November 14, 2015

There two are types of mastery you can achieve. The first is probably the easiest and where most people stop. The second type of mastery is only achieved by a few because when things get tough they keep pushing to achieve it. These few people that keep going and attain that second type of mastery are the truly successful people many idolize.

The first type of mastery is theoretical mastery. This is where much of school focuses it's time. Theoretical mastery is the book learning you get.

While theoretical mastery is valuable, it often doesn't survive encounters with the real world intact. In many fields the theory you've learned entirely disappears when confronted with how things really operate.

For me this was most apparent when I started rock climbing. I read all about how to be safe with my ropes and figured I'd be fine since I read about it over and over and talked about rope safety at length.

Then I got out and had to setup my first safety station. It all went fine as far as I could tell. Then another experienced climber came along and my theoretical knowledge showed many gaps. The work I did ended up torn down and we redid it together as they explained each choice they made and how it contributed to our safety.

Years later with hundreds of climbing hours under my belt I've got the second type of mastery, practical mastery. This second type of mastery is much more robust when faced with novel situations because it's got more experience.

Here are 6 ways to try and shortcut your progress towards practical mastery.

1. Get critiqued by someone with practical mastery

First, if you're striving for mastery this is not the time to avoid critique this is the time to seek it out with passion. The single best thing you can do if you want to master a new field is to find someone that is at least a few steps ahead of you and get them to mentor you.

This is what happened to me when I was first climbing outdoors. The experienced climber came along and walked me through better decisions. This was a crucial point of choice for me when I could have got my back up with my theoretical mastery, or I could have listened and learned. I’m happy to say I picked the second option.

2. Practice, then repeat, repeat, repeat

Second, practice practice practice and repeat that practice. When I was learning how to rig ropes safely for whitewater rescue I'd sit with a chunk of rope while we watched a movie and tie endless knots. When it came to crunch time and my hands were cold in the water it was second nature to tie the knots that would save someone's life.

3. Get uncomfortable

Way to often we gain a little bit of mastery over a subject and then stick within that comfort level. We never push ourselves again. That means that our little bit of knowledge is never pushed to it's limits. If you want true deep master of a subject you need to keep seeking out novel situations that make you uncomfortable and test your knowledge against these situations.


4. Don't let failure get in the way

If you're continually pushing yourself to find these novel situations you need to get comfortable with failure. One of the skills you need to do Crossfit is the dreaded "double-under". That's where the skipping rope goes under your feet twice for every jump. Even practicing this for months I still hit my feet plenty. Some days I can barely get 2 or 3 in a row and others I roll through 50 without a care in the world. One of the biggest mistakes people make learning double-unders is getting frustrated when they are struggling.

When it's that struggle time, go back to basics and start again. Each time you fail it's a learning experience so that next time you can do more before failure. One day you'll look back and all that failure will have turned itself in to effortlessness.

5. Do after action reviews

Piggybacking on failure is the after action review. This is a process that you undertake after a project or training session where you figure out 3 things:

  1. What went right (10% of your time)
  2. What went wrong (40% of your time)
  3. How you're going to mitigate/learn from/deal with what went wrong (the other 50% of your time)

Undertake this after action review process every time you are doing anything and you can maximize the learning each time and get to mastery faster.

Here is where a coach can be extra valuable. At Crossfit I’ll have the coach video me as I do double-unders and then we’ll watch the video and critique my position together. Without my coach’s input I’d be mostly guessing at what would work and what wouldn’t work.

6. Be patient

Finally, mastery takes time even with the 5 tips above to try and shortcut it. In the world today we often expect instant mastery of...everything. As adults we should know better. We should know that true mastery takes hours, years, and maybe even decades. By some estimates it takes 10,000 hours to truly master something but even that may be a best case scenario.

Stop thinking like a 4-year old who throws a tantrum when their drawing doesn't look like they imagined it would. Sit back, take a deep breath and learn from each experience.

All that anger will do is get in the way of learning from the mistakes your making. Take a deep breath and stick to the plan. Take incremental steps each day towards your goal. One day you'll look back and you'll be the master you wanted to be.


Curtis McHale,

About the author:

Curtis McHale is a business coach and speaker. He mainly focuses on helping businesses build effective processes for vetting ideal clients and building a business that doesn’t take every hour of every day to run.

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