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Book Summary: Mastery – The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment

Mastery (1992) reveals how you can shift your mindset to achieve long-term success in new pursuits. Drawing on real-life examples from sports, psychology and mindfulness teachings, these blinks explain the five essential elements for achieving mastery in any discipline and give us the tools we need to bounce back from pitfalls along the way.

In a world constantly offering us quick fixes and easy, step-by-step programs to achieve goals in no time with little effort, it can be easy to forget that to become not just good, but truly great at something takes time. This is where the concept of mastery becomes especially relevant.

True mastery isn’t just about reaching goals; it’s just as much about internalizing a philosophy that will keep you learning even after you’ve reached your goals. In short, true mastery is a lifelong journey.

But what constitutes true mastery? How can you find it in yourself and what can you do to make sure you stay on your path, even when the going gets tough? That’s what this book summary are all about.

In this summary of Mastery by George Leonard, you’ll learn

  • why goals, prizes and recognition are overrated;
  • what made John Wooden such a great basketball coach; and
  • which ritual surgeons perform before every operation.

Book Summary: Mastery - The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment


In the following book summary, you’ll learn the four questions that will keep you on the path to mastery.

“Love of your work, willingness to stay with it even in the absence of extrinsic reward, is good food and good drink.” – George Leonard

Mastery is the mysterious process through which something that initially seems difficult or even impossible (like public speaking, writing code, or serving a tennis ball) becomes easy and pleasurable through diligent, patient, and long‐term practice. The key word is patient because the path to mastery involves long plateaus of work with little signs of progress. Then suddenly something clicks and what previously took effort to perform becomes automatic and effortless.

“The cognitive and effort systems ‘click into’ the habitual system and reprogram it…This habitual system makes it possible for you to do things—return a scorching tennis serve, play a guitar chord, ask directions in a new language—without worrying just how you do them.” – George Leonard

The key to truly mastering something, whether it’s a sport, art, hobby, or profession, is to embrace the long plateaus between spurts of progress (when something ‘clicks’) and resist the path of the Dabbler, the Obsessive, or the Hacker.

  • The Dabbler starts a new hobby, sport, or job with enthusiasm but quickly loses interest when they experience a plateau. Carl Jung refers to the Dabbler as “the eternal child.”
  • The Obsessive dislikes a plateau as much as the Dabbler, but instead of losing interest, they redouble their efforts and exhaust themselves before finally giving up. This is the executive who works 100‐hour workweeks until they hate their job and burnout.
  • When the Hacker reaches a plateau, they are content. The Hacker is like someone who mines for gold and stops the instant they find a gold nugget, whereas the master continues digging and collects several gold nuggets.

If you can answer “yes” to the following four “Mastery questions” at the end of every week, you will remain on the path to mastery and avoid the unsatisfying path of the Dabbler, the Obsessive, and the Hacker:

Am I surrendering to instruction?

Allow yourself to be molded by the insights of people who have come before you without any preconceived notions.

If you go into an endeavor with a big ego and scoff at best practices, you will never grow. Leonard says, “The courage of a master is measured by his or her willingness to surrender to a teacher… Even those who will some day overthrow conventional ways of thinking or doing need to know what it is they are overthrowing.”

When searching for a teacher, ask for recommendations and interview a handful of instructors or read a dozen instructional books. During your search, keep the following questions in mind:

  1. Did this instructor learn from a master?
  2. Do they have an impressive resume of successful students?
  3. Are they kind, empathetic and patient with beginners?
  4. Are they likely to provide a balance of positive and negative feedback? UCLA Coach John Wooden, perhaps the greatest basketball coach of all time, strived to maintain a 50/50 ratio of reinforcement and correction.

Am I practicing intentionally?

The more vividly you imagine yourself executing movements in your next practice, the more enthusiasm you’ll have to practice. Clarity creates energy. Once in practice, be fully present and conscious of your movements. As Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “Pumping a weight one time with full consciousness is worth ten that lack mental awareness.”

Do I love to practice?

When you love to practice, you don’t need to worry about consistently practicing because you always make time to practice. Missing an opportunity to practice is like missing a meal. In the words of a master painter in the book who paints in her studio four hours a day, five days a week, “It’s the routine itself that feeds me. If I didn’t do it, I’d be betraying the essential me.”

Fall in love with practice by starting each practice by going through the motions until you no longer feel tired or restless from the day. Then settle in and find a trance‐like rhythm where you lose track of time and the number of repetitions. Get to a point near the end of practice where you wish you could keep practicing all day, but you choose to stop and look forward to the next practice.

Am I exploring the edge?

You explore the edge in your craft by seeking out resistance and negotiating with it. A master ultra‐marathon runner will explore the edge by staying in a heart rate zone that feels “slightly difficult,” so they give themselves the best chance to finish a race and run a personal best. Just like the master ultra‐marathon runner, seek to stay in a “slightly difficult” zone. Reach that zone by volunteering for performances, routinely taking tests, and putting yourself in competitions where you feel pressure. You’ll know you are exploring the edge if for every two steps forward, you take one step back. Loss and reflection are essential to mastery.

“Perhaps we’ll never know how much a human being can truly achieve, until we realize that the ultimate reward is not a gold medal but the path itself.” – George Leonard

Mastery is not a state to achieve, but a journey to live by.

Most of the time, we take on new activities with a singular aim – to master them. Be it tennis, chess or a new job, new pursuits can go from exciting to frustrating once we reach the point where our lack of talent seems to be staring us in the face. It’s tempting to give up, but you shouldn’t; you might still have a shot at mastery if you change the way you think.

The first step here is to rethink your motivations for learning a new skill. Many of us are seeking simple recognition from others and the gratification that comes with it. But if you practice tennis until you can do a handful of impressive shots, beat a few of your friends and be congratulated by spectators, you’ll only have the motivation to improve up to a point.

Once you’ve reached a level of skill that’s sufficient to earn you a bit of recognition, you’ll find yourself stuck in your comfort zone. Attempting new shots or competing against more challenging opponents becomes daunting, as you fear you won’t look as good while playing. A true master develops her talents by pushing forward for the sake of it, rather than chasing praise and encouragement.

Another key to mastery is your approach to learning itself, namely by cultivating a certain respect for the process. If you want to master tennis, you’ve got to accept that it’ll take time, patience and perseverance to perfect your forehand. Learning isn’t something you do for a while until you’re good enough – it’s an ongoing journey.

By shifting your mindset, you’ll find that you’re capable of mastering whatever you set your mind to. After all, you were a baby once! Babies enter the world incredibly vulnerable, with very few of the skills adults need to survive.

And yet, they learn at their own pace to crawl, walk, communicate, understand and think for themselves. Some infants learn to walk between nine and ten months of age, while others don’t master it until much later. Children are capable of learning motor skills despite their lack of physique and often slow learning speed.

In this way, learning isn’t about how fast you acquire new skills or how talented or fit you are when you start out; rather, it has much more to do with the journey you take along the way. So, the student who shows the most promise during the first few tennis lessons might not be the one who excels, while an initially clumsier player with a mastery mindset is far more likely to go on to be a pro.

But while a mastery mindset offers us a clear path to excellence, our society seems to reject it at every turn. Find out more in the next book summary.

Marketing in the modern Western world tries hard to make us abandon mastery in favor of quick fixes.

American society, like most Western societies, seems to be waging war upon mindful mastery. We’re bombarded with slogans like “Get fit in two weeks!” or “Hit the jackpot!” as advertisers try to convince us that buying their products will allow us to “master” something instantly. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Mastery is built on long periods of practice without tangible results, which lead to bursts of improvement, which then give way to steady, deliberate practice once again. The journey toward mastery isn’t shaped like a steep incline, but rather a series of plateaus punctuated by spurts of progress. Learning to love these plateaus is essential to achieving mastery.

When the author first began attending an Aikido school, he soon began to enjoy the ritual of classes and the seemingly endless repetition of exercises. While his classmates dropped out, he stuck around through the plateaus and worked his way toward mastery.

Why do many of us find these plateaus so hard to bear? Well, typically because we’re one of three personality types that struggle with mastery – dabblers, obsessives and hackers. Which one are you?

Dabblers tend to approach new hobbies with a lot of enthusiasm. They might pick up an expensive tennis racket, dress like their favorite pro and pat themselves on the back after their first improvements. But they aren’t able to handle the plateaus and end up dropping out, justifying their decision with excuses along the lines of “It just wasn’t the right sport for me . . .”

The obsessive is determined to master his forehand in just one tennis lesson. The learning journey doesn’t matter to him, it’s results that matter. Most of the time, the plateaus after the first small spurts of progress will discourage obsessives enough for them to quit.

Finally, hackers are perfectly comfortable spending the rest of their time in the plateau. They’re happy just to hit the tennis ball over the net a few times when playing against a superior opponent, and aren’t particularly motivated to push themselves to improve any further.

If, to your dismay, you’ve identified yourself as a dabbler, obsessive or hacker, don’t fret! Recognizing the behaviors that prevent you from mastering the skills you’ve always wanted to have is the first step to overcoming them. So what’s the next step?

Finding the right instructor and seeing practice as a path, not just a task, are crucial steps toward achieving mastery.

Instruction and practice are two of the five key elements of achieving mastery. In this book summary, we’ll find out just how important they both are.

Of course, there are many skills you can teach yourself without too much help. But on the road to mastery, finding great instruction is a must. Instruction can come in many forms, from video tutorials, computer programs, real-life experiences or even a good old-fashioned book. They’re all valid, but social contact is particularly crucial to great learning experiences. For this reason, one-on-one or group instruction is definitely worth pursuing.

But how can you know if your instructor is worth sticking with? The best way is to observe how they treat their students. Take UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, otherwise known as the “Wizard of Westwood” and one of the best basketball mentors in history.

Wooden’s respect for his players is what made his coaching stand out, as did his balanced focus on the team’s strengths and weaknesses. He would split training sessions fifty-fifty between correcting problems and reinforcing what the team already did well.

Practice, like instruction, is vital in your journey to mastery – but not practice as you know it. While most of us think of practice as repeating a task until we’re good at it, mastery requires us to think of practice as more than a simple action. Instead, think of practice as a noun, as a synonym for “path” or “journey.”

To illustrate this, consider why a martial arts master would continue to train even after receiving his black belt, the highest qualification. The answer is simple: the black belt is just another milestone along the journey, and a license to continue practicing for as long as you wish. Here, the black belt doesn’t represent practice as the act of repetition, but the notion of practice as a noun that captures the joy of ongoing learning.

Surrendering to your teacher, visualizing with intention and confronting your limits are the final three pillars of mastery.

Now that we’ve explored the roles of instruction and practice in mastery, let’s explore three more key elements that’ll help you on your way to excellence: surrender, intentionality and edge control. These terms are a little less familiar than instruction and practice, so let’s take a closer look.

What does surrender have to do with mastery? Well, it refers to the need to surrender to your teacher and the demands of your discipline. Sometimes this means sacrificing your pride, too.

Say your top-notch tennis instructor, who you respect and trust, asks you to stand on one foot and hold the other foot against your back with one hand, while your other hand rotates in the air above your head. You’ll have to do this for five minutes at the start of every class for your entire first month.

You could, of course, refuse and complain that you’d look ridiculous. But by doing so, you’ll miss out on what the exercise teaches you – improved balance, for instance. Though your instructor might sometimes ask you to do things that you don’t understand, if you trust their wisdom and want to benefit from it, you’ll need to put your pride aside and surrender to them.

Let’s turn now to intentionality. This element focuses on the power of the mind in mastery. Intentionality is the ability to visualize yourself succeeding, and is a technique that golf professionals, for example, rely on heavily. Take international golf legend Jack Nicklaus; he believes that a successful shot consists of 50 percent visualization, 40 percent set-up and just 10 percent swing!

Finally, edges are those moments when you’re confronted with a challenge and, therefore, the opportunity to exceed your own expectations. Masters recognize an edge as a chance to grow, and they’ll concentrate their efforts to make sure they make the most of it.

How do you know when you’re facing an edge? It’s a pretty familiar feeling. For dabblers, the plateau is an edge. For the obsessive, it’s their inability to understand their own limits, while hackers rarely stay on a path long enough to reach an edge in the first place.

The next time you feel you’re facing a task that you simply can’t complete, you’ll need to choose between giving up or focusing hard to overcoming the obstacle. The master will always choose the latter.

Surround yourself with other masters, focus on the joy of practice and create rituals to bounce back from pitfalls.

Say you decide to follow the path of the master. You’ve told your friends, have gotten into the rhythm of practice and feel great. But then, all of a sudden, it happens: a backslide.

Let’s imagine, for instance, that you’ve decided to run five kilometers every morning as part of your practice routine. But after a little while, beyond the first successful mornings, breathing becomes difficult and your heart races like never before.

This is your body sending you a clear signal – you’ve pushed yourself too far out of your regular state and your body can no longer keep homeostasis going. Homeostasis is a process by which organisms regulate their internal systems, ensuring they function in balanced conditions and avoid drastic changes.

Despite all the well-intentioned resolutions you made, your body wins and interrupts your practice. This will happen for almost anyone learning a new physical skill. So how can you prevent your resolutions from falling apart?

Well, there are three steps you can take. The first is to surround yourself with people who have already made it through the same challenges you are currently facing. They’ll understand exactly what’s going on when you push up against your body’s natural limits, and can offer advice on how to overcome these limits in your practice sessions.

The next step to take is to ensure you have the right approach to your goals. Remember how our desire for instant success and recognition is counterproductive to mastery? The master finds joy in practice itself, and that should be your focus too. In other words, if you reach the top of the mountain, keep on climbing!

Finally, work hard to stay consistent in your practice and learning. You can even make routines more engaging by turning them into rituals that give you time to reflect on the task at hand. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observed that this is what master surgeons do when they wash their hands the exact same way prior to every operation – they create a ritual for themselves to focus their minds more deeply.

Move your body, set priorities and accept commitment to give yourself fuel for the journey ahead.

The last thing you’ll need to ensure a successful journey toward mastery is energy to sustain yourself. The author considers humans to be rather like machines full of energy. Unfortunately, troublesome behavior and social mores prevent us from using this energy to its full potential.

This inhibition of natural human energy begins when we’re kids. Think of how curious young children are – they won’t rest until they’ve explored and experienced everything for themselves. But parents, keen to ensure their children’s safety, quickly limit this exploration with rules; from “Don’t touch that!” to “Be quiet!” to “Not until you eat your vegetables”, we grow up listening to negative commands that curtail our natural curiosity and drain our energy.

Luckily, we’re all capable of reclaiming this childlike energy through a few simple practices.

One of these is maintaining physical fitness. By making sure we walk or cycle instead of driving, for instance, we can remind ourselves of the strength our bodies possess and put it to good use.

Another step is to set your priorities well. Focusing our energy toward one main goal means we may have to let go of other goals, but this is by no means a disadvantage; rather, prioritization gives us a better understanding of our energy levels and helps us learn to work within our limits. And priorities can always be shifted according to how you perceive your needs.

Finally, learning to accept your commitment to a goal, rather than fighting it, can give you an unparalleled energy boost. By diving into a new endeavor wholeheartedly, and by recognizing and welcoming the work that comes along with mastery, you’ll give yourself plenty of fuel for the entire journey.


The key message in this book

Mastering a new skill isn’t about the results you achieve, the recognition you get from your peers or even repetitive practice that helps you get there. Instead, mastery is a path that you can follow to ensure your new endeavors are shaped by ongoing learning, passionate and patient practice and a rediscovery of your own human potential.

Actionable advice:

Turn your dishwashing into mastery practice.

Next time you’re doing the dishes, don’t just try to finish them as quickly as possible. Instead, take a moment before you start and consider how you could do them in the most effective way. Then, once you begin, be mindful of every movement you make, taking care to do things well, rather than forcing yourself to rush. Though doing the dishes will feel slower this way at first, you’ll soon find that a more considered approach is faster and cleaner!

About the author

George Leonard was an American writer, editor and educator, known for his books The Transformation and The Way of Aikido. He was president of the Esalen Institute, president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology, founder of Leonard Energy Training (LET) – a practice inspired by the martial art of Aikido – and a co-founder of the Aikido Tamalpais dojo in California.

George Leonard was a writer, editor, and educator, who introduced Leonard Energy Training (LET), a practice for centering the mind, body, and spirit, to more than 50,000 people in the United States and abroad. He was the author of a number of books on human possibilities and social change, as well as President Emeritus of the Esalen Institute, President of the Association for Humanistic Psychology, and President of ITP International. He died in 2010.


Personal Development, Career Success, Religion, Spirituality, Buddhism, Self Help, Psychology, Philosophy, Business, Productivity, Leadership, Education, Zen Philosophy, Success Self-Help, Personal Transformation Self-Help

Table of Contents


Part One: The Master’s Journey
1. What Is Mastery?
2. Meet the Dabbler, the Obsessive, and the Hacker
3. America’s War Against Mastery
4. Loving the Plateau

Part Two: The Five Master Keys
5. Key 1: Instruction
6. Key 2: Practice
7. Key 3: Surrender
8. Key 4: Intentionality
9. Key 5: The Edge

Part Three: Tools for Mastery
10. Why Resolutions Fail – and What to Do About It
11. Getting Energy for Mastery
12. Pitfalls Along the Path
13. Mastering the Commonplace
14. Packing for the Journey

Epilogue: The Master and the Fool


Drawing on Zen philosophy and his expertise in the martial art of aikido, bestselling author George Leonard shows how the process of mastery can help us attain a higher level of excellence and a deeper sense of satisfaction and fulfillment in our daily lives.

Whether you’re seeking to improve your career or your intimate relationships, increase self-esteem or create harmony within yourself, this inspiring prescriptive guide will help you master anything you choose and achieve success in all areas of your life. In Mastery, you’ll discover:

  • The 5 Essential Keys to Mastery
  • Tools for Mastery
  • How to Master Your Athletic Potential
  • The 3 Personality Types That Are Obstacles to Mastery
  • How to Avoid Pitfalls Along the Path
  • and more…


“George Leonard is a remarkable man who embodies what he teaches: an amazing curiosity, a passionate intelligence, and the rare combination of someone who has both a broad vision and the focused mastery of details.”—Dean Ornish, New York Times bestselling author of The Spectrum

“If he’s right—and Leonard has been right so many times about prevailing zeitgeists that you have to wonder if he has a third eye—the upcoming decade might be known as the decade of mastery.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“George Leonard translates the wisdom of Zen into a self-help program for sticking with it—whether you want to learn aikido or need support in realizing long-held goals.”—The New Age Journal

“The practical wisdom in George Leonard’s book will have a great influence for many years to come.”—Michael Murphy, author of Golf in the Kingdom and The Future of the Body

“George Leonard is a remarkable man who embodies what he teaches: an amazing curiosity, a passionate intelligence, and the rare combination of someone who has both a broad vision and the focused mastery of details.” – Dean Ornish

“If he’s right – and Leonard has been right so many times about prevailing zeitgeists that you have to wonder if he has a third eye 00 the upcoming decade might be known as the decade of mastery.” – San Francisco Chronicle

“George Leonard translates the wisdom of Zen into a self-help program for sticking with it – whether you want to learn aikido or need support in realizing long-held goals.” – The New Age Journal

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