Practice and Mastery

Mastery is when you’re very good at something. You know all about it. That generally means you can do it quickly, easily, with low attention and with few errors. Time, effort, and attention are resources. Masters do things more efficiently and make few mistakes. They use up fewer resources to get more done. Mastery implies efficient use of resources. Mastery can also be thought of as getting things to be second-nature, automatic, intuitive, habitual, or something you can do on autopilot with little or no conscious attention.

Practice means doing something for the purpose of learning and improving. It’s a main part of how you gain mastery. There are three stages of practice. First, you learn to do something at all, once, successfully. Second, you learn to do it repeatedly and improve your success rate. Third, you learn to do it efficiently (using less resources, e.g. less time and attention) and achieve mastery.

For example, if you’re shooting free throws with a basketball, at first you wouldn’t know how to get the ball through the hoop at all. You wouldn’t know how to hold it or how hard to throw it. With a few tries – some practice – you might get it to go in once and have a rough idea of what to do. That’s stage one. Then, with practice, you could get your success rate up from 5% to 70% or to whatever your goal success rate is (free throws aren’t something you expect to make every time). That’s stage two. Finally, with a lot more practice, you could get really comfortable with free throws. It could become a relaxed, easy activity that you could do while tired, distracted or under pressure, while still maintaining a good success rate. That was the third stage of practice which gets you to mastery. At that point, you’ve learned it well. You could still try to improve even more, but it’d also be reasonable to consider the skill done and focus your learning elsewhere (and maybe still practice it occasionally to avoid getting rusty).

Sometimes people stop practicing early. They succeed once and think they finished learning. Or they practice enough to have a decent success rate, but not enough to make it seem easy, intuitive, habitual, or automatic. They still have to focus to do it. If they’re tired or hungry, that distracts them and they screw up a lot. They avoid doing it much because it takes too much effort. In other words, the resource cost is too high so it doesn’t fit into their budget as much as it would if they’d learned it better. And after a while of not doing it, they forget how, because they were always relying on conscious attention and it never became second-nature.

Not everything is worth practicing much. Some things you’ll only do once or twice. The more you’ll reuse something in the future, the more effort is worth putting into practicing it. Also consider the stakes. If something is really important and doesn’t allow second chances, like a space flight to the moon, then it’s worth practicing even if you’ll only do it once.

Walking is an example of a skill people practice and reuse a lot, and master. People spend so much time walking that it’s worth getting really good at. Your success rate on keeping your balance while walking down the sidewalk should be really high. Walking should be intuitive, easy, automatic, habitual and second-nature, so you can hold a conversation while walking.

You may think you’re good at walking merely because you’ve done it a lot. But merely doing something a bunch isn’t effective practice. Effective practice requires putting some thought into learning and improving. As toddlers, people practice walking, on purpose, with a goal of getting better at it. We don’t remember learning to walk, but we did put thought into learning it, and we still have the skill. Skills degrade significantly slower after you achieve mastery, especially if you keep using the skill. Once you know something well enough to do it in an automatic, intuitive way, it’s much harder to forget.

A key idea for effective practice is breaking stuff into smaller parts and practicing the parts individually. It’s easier to learn small chunks and then practice combining them in small groups before doing the whole thing. You can learn something big in a faster way, with a higher chance of success, by learning many little things instead of trying to do it all together.

Learning smaller parts is easier because there’s less stuff to pay attention to at once, and because it helps with error correction. It’s easier to catch mistakes early, and isolate where the problem is, when dealing with smaller parts. A good way to think about a part is it’s something you can do on its own and then check if you succeeded. It’s a separate, independent part if it can be done and evaluated separately from other parts. The separation of parts just needs to be pretty good, not perfect.

An example of something to break into parts is getting a career. One part is job interviews. It’s easier to figure out how to deal with just interviews than with everything about your career at once. And interviews can be broken down further, e.g. focusing just on how to dress for interviews, or just on salary negotiation.

The concepts of practice and mastery apply to learning ideas, not just to skills like using a hammer or playing chess. To learn a philosophy idea well, you need to practice to achieve mastery, so that it no longer takes much attention to use. For example, some people can recognize some logical errors automatically, without consciously trying, which indicates they’ve mastered that knowledge.

In general, you need to know what situations ideas apply to and how to apply them. You can practice both of those parts. You can take an idea and then brainstorm a bunch of situations and then think through each one to see if the idea applies (is it relevant and important?). And you can take situations where the idea does apply and figure out what it tells you about that situation. You can practice applying it and figure out what difference it makes.

Mastering ideas is required for building up to more advanced ideas. To think about a complex or high level idea, you need most of the prerequisites or building blocks to be easy and intuitive for you. If every little idea needs your conscious attention, then you’ll get stuck because (as a loose rule of thumb) you can only pay conscious attention to around seven ideas at once. Mastering ideas frees up your attention to think about further implications and more advanced issues.

For example, understanding comma use is one part of writing. If using commas correctly is automatic and intuitive, it frees up more attention to think about the plot of your novel. A smaller idea, which helps you use commas correctly, is understanding parts of speech like nouns and verbs. Even smaller ideas include knowing how to recognize whitespace, word boundaries, or individual letters.

You’ve probably heard something about practice and mastery before. It’s an old idea. For example, Henry Hazlitt wrote something similar 100 years ago. I write about it because it’s an important part of how to learn, and I want to organize it and connect it to other ideas that I write about (like error correction and resource budgets). There’s a lot of information about how to learn and practice available elsewhere, but the quality varies, and I think people have problems with it that I can help with. But other stuff can be helpful too, e.g. the four stages of competence (the fourth stage, “unconscious competence”, is what I’m calling “mastery”).

I particularly like Objectivism’s ideas about practice and mastery. For example, from The Romantic Manifesto:

The function of psychological integrations is to make certain connections automatic, so that they work as a unit and do not require a conscious process of thought every time they are evoked. (All learning consists of automatizing one’s knowledge in order to leave one’s mind free to pursue further knowledge.) There are many special or “cross-filed” chains of abstractions (of interconnected concepts) in man’s mind.

And from Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology:

All learning involves a process of automatizing, i.e., of first acquiring knowledge by fully conscious, focused attention and observation, then of establishing mental connections which make that knowledge automatic (instantly available as a context), thus freeing man’s mind to pursue further, more complex knowledge.

In other words, initially learn ideas using full conscious attention (doing that involves practice). Then make them automatic (that involves more practice, which still requires some attention directed at improvement) so they no longer require your focused attention (you’ve now achieved mastery), which lets your attention be available for more advanced ideas.

You can learn more from my writing about practice and mastery:

I’ve also written about examples:

And in Mario Odyssey Discussion, you can read other people’s examples, particularly GISTE. He had been really stuck about learning anything, but my explanations helped him practice and make significant progress.