On Mastery.

[As many people know, I’ve given a lot of thought to the subject of “Mastery” lately. With that in mind, here are the VERY ROUGH notes of the talk I gave recently at the first ever Ignite Miami:]

1. Like everybody else here tonight, I give a lot of thought to “Success”. What does it take to be successful, prosprous, happy, have a sense of purpose etc? What does THAT actually look like?

2. And by successful, I don’t mean “lucky”. I don’t mean people born rich or lottery winners. That kind of success never comes from within, that kind of success is too external and random to bother worrying about.

3. Of course, the media LOVE success models of the outrageously fortunate- celebrity artists, celebrity businessmen, celebrity spiritual leaders, not to mention the Reality TV, famous-for-being-famous crowd.

4. The thing is, I know TONS of super successful people, but none of them fit this extreme, celeb-lottery-winner TV model. Some of them are actually pretty boring, to be honest. But they lead happy lives and do VERY well careerwise. THAT is what most success looks like, if you think about it. The stuff on TV or in the movies just isn’t REAL enough to be that useful for us.

5. So I was thinking about this again, recently, HARD. What model would work for these people, folk like you and me? A model that didn’t mean you had to sell your soul to Wall Street, Hollywood or Washington? A success model that doesn’t rely solely on the unlikelihood of outrageously good fortune or plain, dumb luck?

6. Then quite by chance, I saw a great documentary the other week: “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, a film about the world’s greatest sushi master, and a lightbulb EXPLODED in my head.

7. Our man, Jiro is eighty five years old (EIGHTY FIVE!), doesn’t have a lot of money or own a fleet of trendy restaurants in all the world’s capitals, a-la Wolfgang Puck. He’s just being doing it for 60 years; he just has just a small, plain, dingy, ordinary, low-key sushi bar with ten seats in a Tokyo subway, the kind you’d probably just walk by without stopping if you saw it. Ten seats!  Yet he’s the best in the world at what he does.

8. Jiro works over 350 days a year, serves sushi and sashimi to people in very small numbers, and THAT’S IT. Just sushi. No salad, no appetizers, no deserts. Like I said, JUST SUSHI. And by sticking to this bare-bones formula, he’s become the first sushi chef in the world to win three Michelin stars.

9. A tiny little sushi bar in some random subway station. Yet people wait in line, people book a stool at his sushi bar as much as a year in advance, a prices starting around $600 a head. People have been known to fly all the way from America or Europe, just to experience a 30-minute meal. In a subway station!

10. I was lucky enough to have a similar experience first-hand when about eight years ago, I started working with the English Savile Row tailors. They make the best suits in the world; all hand-made, they go for about $5000 a pop.

11. The tailors have a similar shtick as Jiro. They’re generally not that rich, their businesses are tiny, yet the great and the good worship at their feet. Celebrities, captains of industry, people who are also world-class at what they do, like Jiro’s customers, waiting as long as a year in advance to get their next suit.

12. Like Jiro, the tailors just get up every morning and do their thing, day-in-day-out, humbly, quietly, without a lot of fanfare, totally dedicated to their jobs. I’ve seen it. On the surface, it’s quiet, calm and kinda dull.

13. And like Jiro, from my observations they seem to have this sense of inner satisfaction my Wall Street trader friends (who easily make ten times as much, on  a good day) can only dream of.

14. As a result, Jiro and the Savile Row tailors are the people I really try to emulate. Because it’s doable. I can do that. I may never be as rich as Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet, I may never be literally a rock star like Bono or Jagger, but I can be like Jiro and the tailors… or at least, more like them.

15. And like them, I live very low-key; I get up every morning and quietly get on with the business cranking out my product, my cartoons. Like I said, quiet, calm and kinda dull.

16. So what’s their secret? THE secret? What is the secret sauce that lets these otherwise quite ordinary people like Jiro and the tailors, lead such extraordinary lives?

17. In a word: MASTERY. They’ve MASTERED something. Something interesting and valuable. They are MASTERS of their craft. It may be an old-fashioned word that makes people uncomfortable, but that’s only because it’s something that eludes most people.

18. Though, having watched these masters carefully first-hand, I can honestly say MASTERY is more satisfying than money (and I’ve seen both, trust me). If you’re up for it, yes, MASTERY MATTERS MORE THAN MONEY, MASTERY MATTERS MORE THAN SUCCESS.

19. And it’s portable. It travels with you, wherever you go. No landlord, no boss, no recession, no Wall Street analyst, no newspaper critic can take it away. It’s something that truly belongs to you, for always.

20. So when a young person asks me for career advice these days, I tell her, “Don’t worry about so much about money, fame, success, whatever. Worry about Mastery- that is something precious you can actually control. And yes, if you’ve achieved mastery, you’re more likely to be successful and prosperous, anyway.” Again, MASTERY MATTERS MORE THAN SUCCESS. So go for it. Thank you.

[P.S.: Thanks to Alex and Ana for making this happen for me. I had a great evening!]


  1. I agree 100 percent. In fact I was just having a conversation with a man and his college age daughter about this. Mastery is what the youth underrate – and what I underrated in my youth. It was all about exploration and adventure then.

    Fine, but here’s the problem. If you don’t get your 10,000 or so hours into something early on, it’s hard to get it later sometimes.

    Because when you get into the McJob world later, you may not be able to master the things that would play into your strength, your happiness, your soul.

    As a friend of mine put it, “I’m afraid of becoming mediocre by excelling at useless things.” Which is why there is an urgency to acquiring mastery in something soul-fulfilling before you find yourself mastering dull skills.

    • I totally agree, the problem with Mastery when you do not work for yourself, is that people mistake this as the ability to move up the ladder. Sometimes people just want to do the thing that they love and not move to the next level of doing it. These people are often criticised for being lazy, boring or wasters.
      Whilst I agree with Seth Godin that you should not chase approval, being effectively discrimated against for being content with your lot seems a little harsh as well.

  2. I think you’ve got it: what it takes to cultivate mastery and thus success is pretty boring day to day. Just do the work, again and again.

    It lacks the drama of reality TV and I think there are many of us who can’t quite tolerate that quiet life. Yet we long for the rewards.

    Um your minimalist guy up above? I think the reason he sucks at so much is that his arms are too short. He’s like T-rex: Big body, unable to hold onto a meal/pencil. I could mail you a pencil if you’re running short.

  3. Hugh, thank you for participating in the first Ignite Miami and for motivating everyone with your great presentation. Thank you for your support! -Alex

  4. So true – and in the mind of the master, it’s all about the process rather than the product. Cliche though it may be, it’s the journey not the destination. The master never sees him/herself as such. The master is always learning.

    • Good point @sheila and great article @hugh.

      I think its also equally important to be present in your mastery as opposed to always peering over the top of the hill. While its critical to have a goal, having one that’s too far off can make it frustratingly elusive as well as misguided over time. For example, choosing to have mastery over website design would be a rewarding and potentially lucrative endeavor today. In 5 years, you may find that the world is shifting away from the browser. You have to allow yourself to evolve with the world you live in. Choosing to have mastery in steam engine repair might, on the other hand, be purely a hobby pursuit.

      This doesn’t just apply to technology. Consider physicians and the shrinking opportunity available to a young surgeon. It is not the people who do what their mentors did who will be successful in the future. It is those who innovate out of current situation, those whose vision is tied to their passion rather than their career path, who will break free from the grind of the modern world.

    • Shelia, you’ve nailed it:
      “in the mind of the mas­ter, it’s all about the pro­cess rather than the pro­duct.The mas­ter is always learning.”

  5. […] Follow the link to the 20 points that will save you from short sighted success.  On Mastery. | gapingvoid […]

    • Yes, but video games are the easier option. The cop out from the real world: no real pain, no real consequences. It’s the same with online “friends” and “dating.” For the most part, people avoid the pain for the process.

  6. Outstanding post, Hugh, as well as everyone’s comments above.

    Where there’s mastery, there’s passion, intensity, and commitment to the exclusion of external interference. You just ‘do’. It’s also a result of tapping into a ‘flow state’…

  7. In this multi-tasking, multi-media kind of world, everyone looks for multi-mastery but instead get multi-mediocrity.

    I, for one, consider myself (and feel compelled to be) a jack of many trades and master of none. I greatly admire those who have found, persevere and rise to the top of whatever pursuit they have chosen.

    Thank you, Mr. MacLeod, for sharing.

  8. Love this, Hugh! It’s so true, there is nothing more satisfying – or worthwhile – than building those things that circumstances or the outside world can never take from us.

    The more people we can convince that the lucky celebrity is not the one to emulate, the better off the world will be!

  9. […] on gapingvoid.com Sharen mit:TwitterFacebookTumblrPinterestEmailMoreLinkedInLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  10. Thank you for this post. No, I mean it: Thank you. After reading through it (several times), I can say for myself that this post holds such a value and insight that everyone should read and remember.

    This post matters.

  11. Excellent Hugh!!Great Post!Like this so much.I;ve been a fans of u.U’ve spread the virus of freedom and art.I am now on my way to take mastery in several things.But I dont know which one should I choose.Between farming, interior designer, writing and people development. Any advice Hugh??

  12. I too wonder of this. Have you read ‘Flow – The psychology of optimal experience’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ? I recommend to anyone who think what makes life worth living.
    Nice post :-)

  13. Thank you, Hugh. Your story reminded me of the reasons I hop out of bed. Sometimes I lose track, but you’re right, more so than money and other external comforts, mastery is the greatest gem of all. I remember reading a book a while back called Mastery (by George Leonard). If you’re unfamiliar with it, PLEASE pick it up. It’s very short, but it’s saturated with lessons that reform our patterns of thought so that we operate in a state of mastery (in a addition to mastering a specific skill). That might not make sense now, but read it!

    Thanks for sharing your insights!


    • Nima – I actually have the George Leonard book, and read it quite a few times back in the day – excellent book…

  14. Interesting post and it’s good that you know what success means to you.

    However, this definition definitely would not suit me, and I’m sure there are lots of people out there that it wouldn’t suit either. If I had a life anything like this Jiro guy, I think I would consider it a miserable failure. Making sushi for 60 years seems like such a pointless endeavour. The world would be absolutely fine without sushi. And if I sold suits for $5000 I would just consider myself lucky that there were so many stupid people out there willing to pay that much money for clothing.

    Mastery for the sake of mastery seems like an absolute waste of a life to me. That said, I do see mastery as something that can be a means to another end.

    Success to me is maximizing the total amount of happiness and satisfaction in one’s lifetime.

    • “Suc­cess to me is maxi­mi­zing the total amount of hap­pi­ness and satis­fac­tion in one’s lifetime.”

      Really, Scott? And how does one do that without mastering anything, exactly? Show me how it’s done 😉

      To be honest, I doubt very few people master anything wothwhile, just for the sake of “achieving”. That’s not how real dedication tends to work. For you to assume it does, makes me assume that you’ve not mastered anything, yourself.

  15. I believe that mastery makes things way easier. It’s effortless to be excellent. And often breathtaking to watch. Also, in many–if not most–fields, mastery must include innovation and creativity, so I think not necessarily boring.

  16. This sushi guy might not care about mastery. It was probably not a goal at all. Who knows?
    In mastery, there an “ego” thing that keeps people on the dark side.
    It looks to me like he just focused and that’s it. With focus comes flow (mihaly’s book), and with flow comes the deepest happiness you could imagine. And of course comes mastery, but not sure it should be a goal in itself.
    Just my point of view. What fits for a person, does not for another.

    • Yeah, Greg, that seems to be the case with the tailors I knew. They just loved it from the start, and carried on from there (from a very early age, I might add). It wasn’t this big- egomania thing at all, it was just time, talent and hard work.

  17. […] McLeod is making an important point in his blog post On Mastery. He argues that truly successful people do not become successful by chance. They achieve success by […]

  18. I think the other interesting idea with Jiro Ono is not only has he focused on mastery for himself, but his example has created that desire for mastery with both his sons (who truthfully are his equal) and in his staff as well.

  19. […] recently come across a number of articles on the topic of mastery. The one to spark it off was Hugh Macleod’s article. Then there was Buster Benson on his blog. Finally yesterday my friend Ahsan from college wrote a […]

  20. […] For more on Jiro and the importance of mastery, check out cartoonist Hugh MacLeod’s article here. […]

  21. […] his every move.  The point, the hat tip, every precise motion.  This is Mastery, […]

  22. […] ‘On Mastery’ – How a Subway Sushi bar with ten seats could charge $600 a meal and win Three Michelin Stars […]

  23. […] of the best posts I have recently read was Hugh MacLeod’s ‘On Mastery‘. I immediately riffed on it over at the other blog. It articulated things that I know for […]

  24. […] is what makes it a success. Fame, Money, Happiness are all a fallout of doing this consistently. Mastery is when you can create an exact replica of what you see, which comes when you succeed in small bits […]

  25. […] Practice The last few months I have been going back and forth to a post by Hugh MacLeod entitled On Mastery. Among other things, he talks about a Japanese Michelin three star sushi chef who has devoted […]