Is there a common path to mastery?

Cooking is a love of mine, each year I look forward to the UK competition: Master Chef – amateur chefs with diverse backgrounds from around the country compete to be crowned Master Chef and start a career as a professional chef.

The participates are thrown into all kinds of culinary challenges during the competition – the overall winner being the one that keeps their head, remains motivated and consistently produces high quality meals that are externally verified by leaders in the culinary field: 1-, 2-, and, 3- star Michelin Chefs.

It got me thinking… what does it take to be a Master Chef and what are the parallels to mastery in other fields…

Some of the things I noticed about the three finalists are that they:

  • Have a ‘big’ goal (but don’t necessarily know how they will achieve it) (i.e. win Master Chef!)
  • Have a goal beyond the goal (i.e. after Master Chef ‘I want too…run a restaurant’)
  • Take small incremental steps to towards their goal
  • Execute each step precisely – ensuring quality at each step
  • Constantly adapt and ‘de-scope’ when necessary
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Learn from their ‘mistakes’  (see Pete’s previous blog)
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Maintain motivation
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Love what they do
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Create new ‘products’ by combining, or connecting, ingredients in new and palatable ways
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Define mastery for themselves through the goals that they want to achieve

These steps seem like a simple recipe (pun intended!) towards mastery…  a process if you like… that reminds us that we can all aim for mastery in our chosen field.

Is versatilism another type of mastery path? And if it is, what are the steps to mastery of versatilism? And, what is the practice that we need to be giving attention to achieve mastery?


Managing your personal hype-cycle

A hype cycle is a “graphic representation of the maturity, adoption and social application of specific technologies”. The term was coined by Gartner in 1995 and typically shown as in this diagram.

I was reminded of this cycle whilst reading Imagine – How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer cites as an example of how the creative process works  Bob Dylan who, in the mid-sixties, having had his initial ‘creative trigger’ (equivalent to the ‘technology trigger’ in the hype-cycle) became so sick of the constant touring and being questioned about the meaning of his lyrics he almost quit the music business. Instead, mainly prompted by a bout of severe food poisoning, he took off to upstate New York where he stayed in a log cabin with nothing but a notebook and pencil (not even a guitar) telling his manager he was going to start work on a novel. Here Dylan found that once the pressure of writing songs was off and his “creative burden” was lifted he suddenly found that, out of nowhere, he had an uncontrollable rush of creative insight. A creative insight that led to not just one of Dylan’s greatest songs but, according to Rolling Stone magazine the greatest song ever – Like a Rolling Stone.

It seems that sometimes in order to reach new levels of creativity we need to go through a “peak of inflated expectations” (Dylan as cult poet of his generation), through a “trough of disillusionment” (Dylan is burnt out and wants to give up music) before we suddenly hit a “slope of enlightenment” (takes a break and writes Like a Rolling Stone) and finally reach a “plateau of productivity” (the rest of Dylan’s career).

The trick, of course, is to figure out how to heave yourself up from that trough of disillusionment. For Dylan it was taking a complete break to do something else, then finding he had a sudden surge of creativity in the very thing he was thinking of giving up. As discussed here sometimes we get too bogged down in the daily humdrum of existence to give our inner creative selves the room we need to break out and reach new slopes of enlightenment. Sometimes all we need to do is take a break from that humdrum and see what creative insight we might get.

Versatilism and English Mustard…

My ears pricked-up over the Easter break when I heard the Colman story on the BBC 2 Our Food programme.  The series that is looking at the roots of some of the foods that we consume today.

It would seem that the founder of Colman’s Mustard, Jeremiah Colman (1777–1851), was also a versatilist!

Jeremiah Colman started out as a flour miller, owning a water mill in 1803.  But he saw an emerging market for mustard flour – until then mustard was generally sold as seeds and ground at the table or in the kitchen.  By the 1880’s there was a purpose built factory that employed over 2000 people and another 4000 people earning their living directly through the Colman Company.

Colman did two ‘versatilist’ moves:

  1. he realised that the technology of the day, water mills and wind mills, used for flour and paper milling, could be applied to    milling mustard seeds – creating a new ‘product’ that the had appeal to a mass market;
  2. he  created a product that promoted itself: by combining the flour from milled brown and white mustard seeds he produced the uniquely flavoured and coloured yellow mustard flour that we know today.

I was inspired by this story, as I realized that the activity of versatilism that we are exploring through this blog may well be an inherent human characteristic that we all possess.

I have a feeling that it would be fun to explore our own inherent versatilism through Colman’s approach.

So, I’ve created a simple game – lets a call it the Colman Game (:-)) – where we apply Colman’s approach to our own areas of interest… here is the principle:

The Colman Game – An approach for turning ideas into reality

  1. Choose an idea that you are currently working with.
  2. Set aside 10 minutes.
  3. Take a piece of blank paper and some coloured pens.
  4. Start timing 10 minutes.
  5. At the centre illustrate the idea that you are working with (can be with words or graphically).
  6. Then around the idea capture all the technology that could be used to deliver your idea today.  Be creative with the meaning of the word ‘technology’; technology can also be processes, systems of thinking, as well as tangible ‘things’.
  7. At the end of the ten minutes – review – is there anything that you could take forward today?

Will you give this a try? If so, I invite you to add some comments to the blog letting us know about your experience – is there any inherent versatilism shinning through?  I’ll do the same with my next idea.

Thank you.

Learning and the three C’s

Seth Godin has created a manifesto called Stop stealing dreams (what is school for?). You can download it Squidoo. Here’s the basic idea behind the need for this manifesto.

“The economy has changed, probably forever.  School hasn’t. School was invented to create a constant stream of compliant factory workers to the growing businesses of the 1900s. It continues to do an excellent job at achieving this goal, but it’s not a goal we need to achieve any longer.”

Here are some quotations from the manifesto if you can’t be bothered to read all of it (but shame on you if you don’t). Two of my favourite, and related quotes are:

“There are only two tools available to the educator. The easy one is fear. Fear is easy to awake, easy to maintain, but ultimately toxic. The other tool is passion.”


“What we cannot do, though, is digitize passion.”

I don’t know what teachers think of this? For me as a parent and someone who cares about where our next generation of engineers, scientists, artists and entrepreneurs is going to come from it seems to make a lot of sense. The manifesto is not just a catalogue of what’s wrong with education in the modern world but also has some concrete ideas for what to do about it. Here are six:

  1. Homework during the day, lectures at night
  2. Access to any course, anywhere in the world
  3. The end of multiple-choice exams
  4. Experience instead of test scores as a measure of achievement
  5. Cooperation instead of isolation
  6. Lifelong learning, earlier work

For some teachers these are, I imagine, scary ideas. They require a seismic shift in how we go about organising, paying for and delivering education. It seems though that the alternative is, well there is no real alternative!

Ken Robinson has similar thoughts and if you have not seen his TED talk Schools Kill Creativity go and take a look. It’s both amusing and hugely worrying.

Many of the ideas in the manifesto and the talk by Ken Robinson resonate with our ideas of what it is to be a versatilist. Creativity can, and often is, ‘educated out’ of children. Learning of facts which you can look up in seconds on the web and passing tests which just teach you how to pass tests are a way of damping down passion and driving kids away from lifelong learning.

There are many aspects to being a versatilist which we aim to explore over time in this blog however for me one of the things education needs to focus on is not the filling of heads full of facts but the three C’s:

  • Collaboration
  • Creativity
  • Communication

I think these form a virtuous circle that reinforce each other as shown here:

Collaboration leads to new ideas and creativity which, when communicated aids collaboration which leads to… You get the idea?

The three C’s definitely underpin what it is to be a versatilist and “teaching” these in schools will certainly help get us off the race to the bottom that the current education system seems to be leading us to. Please read the Seth Godin manifesto and join the debate both there and here.