How to master a skill

Gemma O’Brien recently talked to us about her ambition to pursue mastery in her work. Something she touched on was the fact that mastering a skill is not, as it might initially seem, about achievement. Rather, it boils down to the experience of mastery itself. 

What is mastery?

What does it mean to have mastered something? Does it mean to be proficient? To be skillful? And is mastery the same as success?

In a popular TED talk, Sarah Lewis suggests that mastery is, in fact, different to success. She explains that success is a time-bound event, something the world tells us we have achieved. Whereas mastery is something that comes from within, it is a constant pursuit. Mastery is in the reaching and not in the arriving. It is in “constantly wanting to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be,” says Sarah.

Why is mastery important?

Psychologists have been talking about mastery for a number of years now. In fact, mastery is considered one of the six components that make up ‘psychological well being’. So really, experiencing mastery is an important part of living a comfortable, happy and healthy life. This is evident in the fact that the concept of mastery turns up everywhere in the study of human behaviour.

Self efficacy

We’ve mentioned Self efficacy previously on this blog, but essentially, it refers to your belief in your ability to do a task. And experiencing mastery, as it turns out, is one of the ways that we can develop our self-efficacy beliefs. So experience mastery and you’ll improve your belief in your own capabilities, which in turn, will objectively improve your performance in a task.


Ah, this is a personal favourite. First of all, what is flow? Flow is a term coined by happiness psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and refers to a state of complete immersion in an activity. It has been suggested that flow is actually the true nature of happiness. We typically experience flow when we are in the pursuit of, you guessed it, mastery.

What is cool about flow is that it suggests that doing the tasks we do, as in the process of doing it specifically, is intrinsically rewarding. Think of a time when you’ve been so absorbed in a task- reading a book, playing a game of chess, being ‘in the zone’ during a tough game of tennis, this is all flow. Csikszentmihalyi suggests that while it is great to finish the book/chess game/tennis match, true satisfaction will come from the process itself.

And the best flow experiences? These occur when the task you’re tackling is at the optimal level of difficulty, when you’re striving to improve and learn and grow, when you’re in pursuit of mastery.


Research into mastery is changing the way we go about learning and teaching in all domains of our lives. What we have found is that learning is not about competence, but rather about aspiring to master something. Students focused on learning and improvement, whose goals are to master a task, rather than those whose goals are to perform well at a task in comparison to others, have far better long term outcomes.

What can be mastered?

Mastery can be experienced in almost any area. For example, American chef Julia Child, who has been credited as a culinary virtuoso, experienced mastery in the world of baking, broiling and simmering.

Gemma O’Brien, artist, typographer and generally all-round cool cat, similarly experiences mastery though her work. In an interview we had with her recently, she describes how, after discovering her passion for design, she found herself in pursuit of creating things she feels personally satisfied with. “Knowing deep down that what I am creating is somehow pushing myself further,” as opposed to feedback from other people, is what Gemma believes gives her the most purpose in her work.

Now. How do you go about experiencing mastery? We reckon you can do it in four steps.

Experience mastery in four steps:

1. Do lots of things

Get out there. Have you always wanted to surf? Write? Sing? Go do it. Or otherwise, consider something you’re already doing. Do you make enough time for these activities? It’s not just hobbies, it could be work. It could be becoming a better listener. Anything that doesn’t really have a ceiling. But do it.

2.  Find the thing you love

If you do enough things, and really give them your all, you will find the thing(s) you love. They mightn’t be the things you are best at. This is not about talent. But you’ll feel your brain fire as you work at this task. Something keeps drawing you back. Makes you feel curious and interested, energised and excited. Maybe this thing will help define your life purpose, something we discussed in a previous blog post, or maybe it will simply be something that is right for you in this moment.

3. Practice

The most crucial part of experiencing mastery is practice. As we mentioned above, mastery is not about success. It is not about doing well in something, and moving on from it. It is about the persistent and unrelenting drive to learn and grow from our experiences.

It can be difficult to frame things in this way, we are generally taught from a young age to work at something until we can check off that we have done it, and then move on. But consider again your motivations for doing the task. If you are intrinsically driven, you will find it easier to (even difficult not to) practice, practice and practice.

4. Enjoy the process

Take it back to what we mentioned above about Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow theory. This is about the process, not about the outcome. As much as we are taught to focus on grades and likes and pats on the back, these things do not lead to long term satisfaction. So focus on the fun and on the challenge. In this way, mastery is the secret to happiness. Do it for the process. #Doitfortheprocess.


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  • I love this blog. Mastery of something is such a wonderful idea and I imagine an extremely satisfying state.
    I find myself with many skills, things I might even be good at however reading this brings me back to my constant dissatisfaction and restlessness with being a master of none!
    I am always drawn back to a desire to write, contribute to the conversations in our society about equality, fairness and compassion but something stops me at each turn…how to step through the fear and just sit down and do it?

    By Kate Reeves
    August 25, 2016
  • This is so interesting. I have been looking for something outside of work and bringing up family etc something just fit for me. I have started cross stitch and felting. I’m rubbish at the moment but improving and it’s really satisfying. So what if it turns out rubbish to begin with start again as it’s satisfying. Doesn’t have to be big things little things can be satisfying also . Getting tips from a friend and u tube . I don’t think I’m artistic at all but have an eye for detail. So whatever it is give it a go.

    By Collette
    November 7, 2019
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