One of my goals for our children is that they truly master some skill or subject. I should clarify that I don’t mean “master” in the sense of meeting some minimal requirements set by someone. I’m referring to that sensation that comes when you have reached a point where a skill is so internalized that you begin thinking about it at a higher level. Your muscle memory, or instinctive mental memory, handles the details, freeing your mind to think on a higher plane. Your thoughts become fluid, and problems become easy to resolve. Mastery does not necessarily mean being the best at something, or achieving at any particular level. It is a feeling of “getting it” that is hard to quantify. The sad thing is that many people never really master anything in life. They never have that feeling of pure joy or that rush of endorphins that comes from being on top of the game.
I have found in my own life that the feeling is highly motivational. To have deeply understood some subject is to desire that same understanding in other subjects. It dispels the aura of magic that surrounds those who excel in other areas. It brings a clarity about the amount of work, effort, and focus required to get good at something. Given that we largely learn by analogy, by having some existing concepts in our minds to tie new ideas together, mastering a subject gives us a deep reservoir of subtle concepts to use in understanding new fields.
If you interact with those who excel at something in their lives, you will frequently find that they are more passionate about life, more interested in learning about new things, and have a deeper respect for other fields. That has been my experience, in sharp contrast to the view that popular culture presents in television and movies, where those who excel are bizarre and arrogant. Of course there are exceptions, largely those who were told that they were good at something because of some innate talent throughout childhood, who therefore developed the arrogant attitude.
I think that most people have a very distorted view of excellence. A lot of the misunderstanding comes from an attempt to view things as a zero-sum game, where time spent excelling at something must necessarily come at the expense of “real-life” experience. This view probably develops in high school or even earlier. There is a phenomenon that occurs when students of a fixed age group are placed in a concentrated environment with social and academic pressure. Some focus on the social dynamics almost exclusively and dominate those who focus on academic pursuits. This is discussed in Paul Graham’s essay on “nerds”, here. In this case, where the focus on social development is so intense, it can approach a zero-sum situation, where those who fail to focus on social development lose. This is a very artificial situation though, unlike any other stage of life.
The sad reality in life is that pretty much everyone wastes tons of time. Spending time to master a subject does not require taking time away from other activities of value. Small amounts of focused effort can lead to major results.
“Few people think more than two or three times a year. I’ve made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.” – George Bernard Shaw
If we make an effort to cut down on the tens of hours of wasted time in a typical school day (standing in line, waiting between classes, waiting for a teacher to deal with a disruption, reviewing material), there is plenty of time to master at least one subject or skill and still do well with everything else.
I want my children to feel that rush of mastery, whether it be in music, sports, mathematics, dance, or some other subject. In addition to the intrinsic value of being good at something, it will teach them what the process of mastery feels like. That knowledge should give them a sense that they can master other subjects as they grow older and find different passions in life. I believe that is one of the greatest gifts that an education can give to a child.