Mastery at the Margin

Two disparate things came together yesterday as the inspiration for today’s post.

One of the things that happens to you as you invest yourself in trying to get better at the game of golf is that, even with a modest level of commitment, you do get better.

In the professional ranks, there is a sort of comprehensive understanding of the swing that begins to flush itself out the more time you work at it. In the beginning of that effort, you find yourself leaning into the process, soaking up the kinesthetic feelings and trying to understand what they mean. It takes a lot of time and quiet attention. At some point in the process, you move from being merely inquisitive to becoming invested in what you’re doing.

One of the risks is that once you achieve that imperfect, comprehensive understanding, you can become defensive and guarded about your nuggets of wisdom. You become possessive about them. You don’t want to do anything to mess them up. I had a young man tell me just this week that his family was very friendly with a wonderful, warm neighbor who also happened to be a Champions Tour player. As a budding golfer on his high school team, he was always looking for opportunities to play with the pro, but he never would play with him. He had accumulated his nuggets and was afraid that he would lose them if he played with the kid.

The higher you go on the golfers’ food chain, unless you’re aware of potential pitfalls, the greater the chance that you will become exasperated by failure: bad putts, bad shots, bad holes, bad rounds. It’s part of our enculturation, “Failure is not an option!”

One of the things that kept me going during my nine-year effort to qualify to play on the Champions Tour is that I saw my failures—a swing, a shot, a tournament—not as cataclysmic disasters, but rather as learning points. Some of them were so brutal that I found myself asking, “Now what was the point of that?” So it’s not that the failures didn’t sting just because I had a philosophical view of them. But some golfers get so invested in success, they look at failure as some sort of deleterious event, even some sort of character flaw.

I have been following the video blog posts of a teaching pro from the Long Island town of Smithtown, New York. Mike Hebron is well known in the teaching community as a teacher who uses learning research to come up with “brain compatible” ways of learning golf. He doesn’t just give students information, but rather finds ways to enable their learning, ways to help their bodies learn by experience and experimentation. You present the student with the objective of the shot and the freedom to allow their bodies to naturally and instinctively find a way to hit it.

Here is a loosely structured, 2½-minute YouTube video about the value of failure from his website, Neuro Learning Golf Live:

The second disparate thing came from an even more unlikely place, a Tweet from a woman in Melbourne, Australia, I follow who frequently has interesting links to blog posts on technology, management and social network marketing.

In this one, she links to a post by Tim Ferriss, “The Non-Overnight Success: How Twitter Became Twitter.”

If you are unfamiliar with Timothy Ferriss, he is an amazing man. Amazing. I first became aware of him through his huge bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek. He is an incredible entrepreneur who devised a system of carving larger and larger pieces of irrelevant activities and work out of his day to the point that he was able to disappear from his work environment while remaining highly productive.

He spent the free time coming up with a way to sell things on EBay and slowly wean himself off of his corporate job. He describes his system in thorough detail in the book that basically allowed him to work four hours a week so that he could travel the world doing things that were fun and interesting to him. (While you’re on his website you have to check out his bio—it’s jaw dropping. He’s one of the most inquisitive human beings I’ve ever become aware of.)

Anyway, his post served as an introduction to a guest post by Peter Sims, a bestselling author and former venture capitalist, about the trial and error of the development of Twitter. Of specific interest to us golfers pursuing mastery was this passage:

…Dorsey’s approach was brilliant. He focused like a laser on [the goal of] short messaging and made hundreds (if not thousands) of small, affordable bets in that area, most of which failed. But with each step he got slightly smarter, better, and closer until he ultimately achieved a remarkable feat [of creating Twitter].

And so, in the face of my own experience with failure, Mike Hebron’s ideas on failure and now this post on failure on the way to millions, I thought, “Yes, the principles of mastery that allow and accept failure are applicable across almost any discipline from learning to play golf to learning how to conceive a company like Twitter.

And I found that congruency very interesting.

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