On Mastery

I was watching a video the other day about development of skill. It had two especially interesting points to make. 

First, the science of this topic has concluded… there is no such thing as a plateau. If you’re not improving, you’re sliding backwards! That’s depressing. But the flipside of it is that progression can be very small, easy, attainable, and localised. And the backwards slide can always go upwards again. 

Second, and I’ve half said it already, that the main reason progression stops is that we block the process by getting “okay” at too many things (or attempting to progress in too many things) instead of mastering things so that they become automatic, are thus “put to one side” in our mind, freeing up mental energy to tackle and master the next step. Crucially, each step has to be so small and easy that it can be mastered within no more than three sessions. Imagine that. This definitely appeals to me, as I like to learn something detailed and precise rather than lots of things at a lower level. Why do you think I ended up self-teaching corsetry instead of going on a general sewing/design course? 

The former makes sense in relation to the Sigmoid curve that we’ve discussed before. The latter is insightful for those of us who may take on too much at any given time. I’m not too guilty of that, but since I like to flutter back and forth between topics I can sometimes not cement something as well as I should have before continuing. Eg: with equine anatomy, I’m currently most interested in structure. But last Summer I quickly learned the digestive system in order to help support the girls at the stables who were preparing for their exams. Have I internalised/remembered it all? Nope. Because I didn’t give it as much concentration as I should have as I wasn’t naturally drawn to the topic. But I was halfway there, and if I’d just been a tiny touch more deliberate and focussed I wouldn’t need to re-learn aspects of it now. 

As pointed out in the video, “practice makes permanent”. For corsetmaking, this is yet another call to do things deliberately and as well as you can, right from the start. My first corset was made from a truly inappropriate fabric, as I did what everyone else did and bought something cheap to practice with. A rather pointless exercise (unless the point of the exercise is to get past nerves about cutting or sewing, in which case buy cheap fabric and hack away at it until your confidence is up). If I’d stayed there, instead of quickly ditching it in favour for proven corsetry fabrics, I’d have learned how to be an okay corsetmaker. If I’d stayed there for any length of time, I’d have made my skill level and knowledge permanent and never approached any sort of mastery. 

Mastery, by the way, doesn’t have to be a big word. Craftspeople, especially women, can be uncomfortable with words like this. It’s too arrogant. But in terms of learning theory, it’s just about proficiency, ease, automatic skill. If you thread a needle and execute a quilter’s knot without thinking, that’s mastery. You could easily nail that within three deliberate practice sessions, making your life easier longterm. If you use a thimble without thinking, that’s mastery and, what’s more, it’s wrist protection for the entire life of your sewing career. 

Development of mastery is made possible when it is broken into tiny steps, as per the video. I’m interested to see what topics are covered in Part Two though, as I’ve a feeling it’s going to be along the lines of adjusting expectations and environment to suit. 

Both Holly and I have “mastered” cutting for corsetry using a rotary cutter. It’s quick and easy now, which allows for accurate work and efficiency. But that isn’t just down to practice. No matter how deliberate or focussed or small the step, if the blades are blunt or snagged, if the cutting board is warped or damaged, if the fabric is layered too deep or difficult to cut, mastery won’t be obtained. If that’s the case when you’re first learning, you may well get stuck there, internalising a level of skill which isn’t high enough. Once something becomes automatic, it’s much harder to change. A bad workman may well blame their tools, but good workmen make sure they’ve got the right tools for the job in the first place. The “right” tools will no doubt vary from case to case.

We all have our quirks. I struggle to study if my notebook has blank pages or dark lines. Faintly lined paper, preferably in an A6 book with a retractable pencil, lets me learn swiftly. Larger notebooks make me feel somehow exposed, so I don’t learn as well. If the thickness/texture of the paper is displeasing, or if I’m having to use a pen which either scratches or leaves a thick line, it’s like the flow of learning has been disrupted. Resources and environment matter to development of skill. And whilst having such precise preferences about notebooks might be a tad ridiculous, if I know that this is an easy way to make my life easier or harder then of course I’m going to leverage that information. 

Learn about learning, as it applies to everyone, but also learn about learning, as it applies to you. 

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