Mastery: More than Just Teaching

I recently returned from a vacation in Europe, where I met a wonderful woman named Lucy. Lucy is a sign language interpreter, and works as an independent contractor through an agency that handles her bookings. She’s successful – so much so that she’s able to pick and choose her jobs, which is wonderful.

We talked a bit about her industry, and because it’s been on my mind so much lately, we talked a bit about my apprentice/Master spiel. It occurred to me that her industry in particular is one where Mastery should be a critical, embedded, and expected part of life, although at present, she told me, it isn’t. She pointed out the extensive training and classes that she’s taken over the years to build up her abilities.

But I asked a pointed question: were those classes the only thing she’d needed to get to where she was today?

No, she answered. Of course not. The classes were good for building her sign language vocabulary, but a good interpreter also injects a lot of expression into their work. I’ve seen this myself, in presentations where – for example – an interpreter is signing the national anthem. Their body is conveying more than just words, it’s also conveying the meaning of those words. It’s expressive, exactly like how the tone of my voice conveys more meaning than just the words I’m saying. Signing is speaking, and so it makes sense that it conveys as much emotion and intent as it does words.

So I asked her where she’d learned that expressive side of her work. She kind of shrugged, and said she’d picked it up as she went along. And then – we’d had a drink or two, so this wasn’t as macabre as it’ll seem when you read this – I asked what happens when she dies, or when she’s too old or uninterested to continue in her profession. She kind of blinked. THAT, I said, is what apprenticeships and Mastery is all about.

Mastery is not just teaching a class to some colleagues. Classes, along with books, videos, and other “formal” means of instruction, are fine for conveying the base knowledge of a topic. They’re fine for bringing in a certain amount of the instructor or author’s experiences, and sharing those. But they’re not Mastery. Mastery is where you work alongside someone, helping them pick up all the stuff that’s locked up in your head. The expressiveness of your job, if you will. The emotion of whatever topic you’re helping them learn. The things you can’t teach in a class, or write down in a book, or convey in a video. Sure, Lucy could create a series of videos that focused on the expressive side of her work, but it’s not the same as working with someone.

Every job, every profession, every topic has these “hidden” facets. The things we’re expected to just “pick up” as we go. And because we never formalize teaching those things, because we tend to be so focused on the “technical” side of what we teach, we tend to lose those “personal” pieces over time. Each generation has to re-discover them, and re-invent their wheel. It’s the little flick of a wrist when you’re signing a particular word, or the extra step you take when you’re configuring a computer, or the specific, light touch you use on the car’s brakes when the road is wet. They’re things someone can only learn by experiencing them, and that someone can learn best when they’re doing it alongside an accomplished Master.

So as you’re thinking of your own ability to serve as Master to someone else, don’t think so much about the “formal” stuff you can teach them. Stuff that’s already in books and videos and classes; think instead about all the things you know those books and videos and classes miss. The subtle things that aren’t, and can’t be, written down. The knowledge locked up in your head, that someone else is supposed to just “pick up.” Then work with your apprentice audience to help convey those things to them. Mastery isn’t rote; it’s personal.

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