In the past, I’ve written about the mastery path, and I depicted it as a line – a flat path along which you march.
But I’ve come to realize that this image is wrong. The mastery path is actually a muddy slope that decreases in steepness the farther you go. It looks more like this:
The beginning is very difficult. You’re starting from the “I don’t get it.” circle, which is a confusing place to be. It’s messy at first. You’re going to make mistakes. And it’s so steep, you’ll need to use two hands to really grasp what you’re trying to learn. You also can’t afford to be distracted. Put your phone in airplane mode or put it in another room.
It’s tempting to give up at the beginning because making progress is such a struggle and because it’s hard to see when understanding is just around the corner. So here’s some good news: Because it’s so steep, you can rapidly increase your level of mastery. It doesn’t take that long to go from beginner to intermediate. It’s hard work, but there are often quick payoffs.
When you reach the “I get it!” moment, it’s so satisfying and triumphant that you might think you’re done. But this milestone is not a good place to stop and rest. The muddy slope is still steep here, and you can’t stand still. If you stop working, you’ll slip backward. With no additional practice, a week after achieving understanding of a new concept, you will probably have lost so much ground that you no longer get it. So keep going.
The Slow March Toward Mastery
As the slope starts to flatten out, you can pause for longer periods of time without slipping backward. This means you have formed a long-term memory. You might be able to come back to a concept after several months of not engaging with it and still remember what to do. The further you’ve gone along the path, the longer you’re able to stand still without slipping backward.
The trade-off is that improvements are now more subtle and come more slowly. The slope is still uphill, so walking forward (practicing) does still increase your level of mastery, but the hill has leveled off so much that it can be hard to tell. You might even feel like you’ve plateaued because your progress is almost imperceptible. But as dedicated performers like Yo-Yo Ma have demonstrated, you can continue to improve.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
He writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.