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Mastery: A Possible Panacea for The Pursuit of Meaningful Work and a Vibrant Life

Leonardo da Vinci self portrait, Chambord Castle, Loire Valley, France - The metallic stone effect is generated by computerWhenever I hear of someone not knowing what they want to do with their life, I empathize and wholeheartedly understand their frustrations. After years of studying this common dilemma and overcoming it in my own life, I believe the fulfillment that we seek is found in the pursuit of mastery.

Abraham Lincoln once said: “Whatever you are, be a good one.”

I believe the solution to feeling stuck is picking something—and not limited to just one craft—and becoming so great at it that it becomes your Life’s Task, as Robert Greene calls it in his latest book, Mastery. Certain crafts come to mind such as writing, graphic design, coding, painting, music, architecture, etc. Leadership and making brave decisions and solving difficult problems are skills too. The pursuit of mastering a craft, I believe, provides a deep sense of meaning in our lives and gives us a platform to contribute.

Or, put more eloquently by James Rhodes, a concert pianist: “Find what you love and let it kill you.”

With initiative comes fear. Fear of failure, of not making ends, of uncertainty, and of greatness. Succumbing to a safe, routine job that doesn’t evoke your inclinations, passion, or skills is the norm. It sustains life, but doesn’t fulfill it. Why is it that most people hate their jobs?

Roberte Greene—known for his meticulous methodology in providing rich research by using patterns in history and its heroes, and deeply thought-out books on power, seduction, and purpose—offers a compass to those who need help finding their Life’s Task. Here’s how he defines it:

“The process of realizing your Life’s Task comes in three stages [emphasis by me]:

First, you must connect or reconnect with your inclinations, that sense of uniqueness. The first step then is always inward. You search the past for signs of that inner voice or force. You clear away the other voices that might confuse you—parents and peers. You look for an underlying pattern, a core to your character that you must understand as deeply as possible.

Second, with this connection established, you must look at the career path you are already on or are about to begin. The choice of this path—or redirection of it—is critical. To help in this stage you will need to enlarge your concept of work itself. Too often we make a separation in our lives—there is work and there is life outside work, where we find real pleasure and fulfillment. Work is often seen as a means for making money so we can enjoy that second life we lead. Even if we derive some satisfaction from our careers we still tend to compartmentalize our lives this way. This is a depressing attitude, because in the end we spend a substantial part of our waking life at work. If we experience this time as something to get through on the way to real pleasure, then our hours at work represent a tragic waste of the short time we have to live.

Finally, you must see your career or vocational path more as a journey with twists and turns rather than a straight line. You begin by choosing a field or position that roughly corresponds to your inclinations. This initial position offers you room to maneuver and important skills to learn.

When I was in this position, I chose writing. At the time of this decision, all I did was really play video games—seriously. I always seemed to have a strong opinion. In the game, in the chatrooms or in forums, I was always able to spark a conversation. Not trolling, of course, but real debates on the functionality of the video game and what the creators ought to do to improve it.

When sitting down with my best friend/mentor, he helped me outline my strengths, weaknesses, and ultimately the kind of lifestyle I desired to live. It is then that he introduced me to blogging, having my platform, understanding the internet, etc.

Fast forward about three years, and here I am, still doing what I enjoy/love most, slowly but surely mastering the skill by exercising it daily, creating new opportunities to use my expertise, and at the same time, building a life where it sustains my desires, aspirations, and curiosity.

In The Start-Up of You, Reid Hoffman shares the story of Sheryl Sandberg, current CEO of Facebook:

Today, Sheryl is the chief operating officer of Facebook, where she is in charge of the company’s business operations. She serves on the boards of Disney and Starbucks. Fortune named her one of the most powerful women in business.

You might think someone so successful knew her goals and aspirations from day one, and followed a rigorous and ambitious career plan to achieve them. But you’d be wrong. Sheryl hasn’t stuck to a conventional career plan. In fact, as an idealistic undergraduate majoring in economics she never imagined that she would one day be working in the private sector, much less as a top executive for one of the world’s most valuable companies. Sheryl began her career in India, about as far as one could get from Silicon Valley. There she went to work on public health projects for the World Bank. It was a first job consistent with deeply embedded values: to give back to those less fortunate and to make a difference in the world.

Yet after a couple of years with the World Bank, Sheryl shifted course and left the public sector to enroll at Harvard Business School, where she earned an MBA. From academia, her next stop was the business world. But after a one-year stint at management consulting firm McKinsey, she realized the corporate track wasn’t for her; so she shifted yet again, this time to Washington, DC, where she served as then U.S. Secretary of Treasury Larry Summers’s chief of staff from 1996 through 2001.

She then went on to work for Google as vice president of global online sales and operations. She grew the company’s online sales and turned a group of four individuals into a global team of thousands; she was responsible for the growth of Google Ad Sense and Google Adwords—Google’s top revenue generating engines. After six years at Google, she pivoted yet again, but this time to Facebook.

Hoffman also mentions the idea of being aware of your assets.

Assets are what you have right now. Before dreaming about the future or making plans, you need to articulate what you already have going for you—as entrepreneurs do. The most brilliant business idea is often the one that builds on the founders’ existing assets in the most brilliant way. There are reasons Larry Page and Sergey Brin started Google and Donald Trump started a real estate firm. Page and Brin were in a computer science doctoral program. Trump’s father was a wealthy real estate developer, and he had apprenticed in his father’s firm for five years. Their business goals emerged from their strengths, interests, and network of contacts.

The resume is no longer a valuable currency—experiences are.

The trouble in finding work that provides fulfillment, work that relentlessly challenges you and helps you contribute, is ultimately the fear of serendipity and the fear of being an amateur. What if you started to learn how to code? How will you know if it’s the right path? This riskiness unmans us. We usually want solid, concrete plans so that we know where we’re heading. We want to know which boxes to check off and which obstacles to hurdle so that we can have what we want.

Alas, that is not how great careers are forged. It turns out that the strongest careers are non-linear.

Hoffman provides some more insight on Sandberg’s career path. This also relates to what Robert Greene said earlier in finding your Life’s Task, in that “you must see your career or vocational path more as a journey with twists and turns rather than a straight line. You begin by choosing a field or position that roughly corresponds to your inclinations. This initial position offers you room to maneuver and important skills to learn”:

Sheryl’s story contradicts the analogous assumption that massively successful people find their calling at an early age, devise a bulletproof life plan, and then follow it unwaveringly until attainment. Sheryl’s career plans wasn’t something she crafted once in her early twenties and then followed blindly. She didn’t assemble a bunch of dominos, knock over the first piece, and then sit back and watch the rest fall into place over time. Instead of locking herself in to a single career path, she evaluated new opportunities as they presented themselves, taking into consideration her (ever-growing) set of intellectual and experiential assets. She pivoted to new professional tracks without ever losing sight of what really mattered to her. “The reason why I don’t have a plan is because if I have a plan I’m limited to today’s options,” she says.

What we can focus on, like Sheryl Sandberg did, is creating value. What value are we creating for others? A graphic designer does what you can’t because not only did they develop an eye for it, but it overshadows nearly every aspect of their life. Wherever they go, they can be inspired, because the art of designing is ultimately the art of seeing. They go from “Oh, that’s interesting,” to “Oh, I can steal this and morph it into something of my own.” As Pablo Picasso once said: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

When I first started writing, I never admitted it to anyone. Looking back, I was ashamed. Ashamed to be viewed as a beginner. Ashamed to be viewed as a 20-something-year-old college student who decided to do, of all possible things, writing. How did I gain confidence to keep going? Practicing, shipping, and learning, i.e., signing up for online courses or asking for help—the very acts that elicit fear and self-doubt but ultimately reshape who you are.

You don’t find your purpose, you create it

My first realization was when I landed a guest post on Problogger. Then another big blog. Then another. I finally realized, Wait, I can do this writing thing. I’m actually getting pretty good. Now I write for multiple popular blogs, self-publish books, created an awesome manifesto, did a ghostwriting gig, some freelance work, etc. This may seem linear, but I would disagree, because anything could happen from here on out. There are plenty of writers just like me who won’t self-publish or write a manifesto, but instead, may start a company or become an editor for a magazine or start a podcast. Anything can happen. But the focus remains the same: creating value, practicing the craft, and adapting to opportunities.

Pursuing a path is scary. It means that tomorrow requires a newfound commitment. The pressure, anxiety, and fear of practicing your craft and exposing yourself only increases with time. But this pressure and being able to overcome your own negative self-talk forges you into something greater. We look up to our heroes in a specific niche because they overcome, everyday, the pressures and fears of creating value and doing meaningful work. This is a pattern, and it is worth understanding.

Lastly, I want to end with a passage from The War of Art, written by one of my favorite authors, Steven Pressfield. I’m hoping this scares you in a way to make you realize that inaction is far more detrimental than failing.

Have you heard this story: Woman learns she has cancer, six months to live. Within days she quits her job, resumes the dream of writing Tex-Mex songs she gave up to raise a family (or starts studying classical Greek, or moves to the inner city and devotes herself to tending babies with AIDS). Woman’s friends think she’s crazy; she herself has never been happier. There’s a postscript. Woman’s cancer goes into remission. Is that what it takes? Do we have to stare death in the face to make us stand up and confront Resistance? Does Resistance have to cripple and disfigure our lives before we wake up to its existence? How many of us have become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumors and neuroses, succumbed to painkillers, gossip, and compulsive cell-phone use, simply because we don’t do that thing that our hearts, our inner genius, is calling us to? Resistance defeats us. If tomorrow morning by some stroke of magic every dazed and benighted soul woke up with the power to take the first step toward pursuing his or her dreams, every shrink in the directory would be out of business. Prisons would stand empty. The alcohol and tobacco industries would collapse, along with the junk food, cosmetic surgery, and infotainment businesses, not to mention pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and the medical profession from top to bottom.

If you’re saying, “I don’t know what I want to do with my life,” then let me offer an option: start something, fail hard, learn from it, adapt and pivot, then try again.

Focus on mastering a skill and leveraging it to embark on other endeavors. Let the very idea of using your hands or transferring thoughts to words or communicating with design devour your day and ultimately yourself. There is no time to think, or even care, about the latest scandal—it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t help you do better work.

The first person who found buried treasure didn’t sit in their room or ship and think of possible solutions to obtain lost riches. They used the resources available and started digging.

(I’ve never really written an article like this, but I might start doing so—focusing on a topic, using my research, while tying in my own story/opinions. Did you like this article? Should I write content like this more often? I’d appreciate your feedback.)