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terms: rethinking ‘mastery’

May 19, 2012

How a person ‘masters’ a subject seems to imply violence; almost as if the subject itself is conquered by its student. All of the main meanings of ‘mastery’ and ‘master’ (both noun and verb) emphasize not only comparison with others but dominating them, being superior to them.

Nothing I’m doing, or expect to be doing, will need me to compare my performance or expertise with others, never mind so we can figure out who’s ‘better’. But if I insist on using words like ‘mastery’, a dominance paradigm is implied.

I think my real issue is that I don’t know of any models or paradigms that invoke what matters to me. The models I do know require someone to be at the top preaching to the masses below. Or the ‘master’ is a guru, with would-be disciples who seek him out, to learn at his feet.

I don’t think I have anything to teach. I embody beginners mind, and I continue to learn every day.

I don’t have a name for what I’m doing. I don’t begin to know how to describe it to other people. I don’t have any idea if what I’m doing is valuable to other people. I’ve thought about writing a book about what I’m doing, but I don’t know what it is that I’m doing. Who would want to read a book like that?


I think I got on the wrong track when I started thinking of any of this as somehow relating to ‘discipline’ or ‘mastery’. Using terms like that is a bid for respect, for being taken seriously. And that is not something I have much influence over. Beyond that, ideologically it pulls me into a different frame of mind, one that is incompatible with what I’m trying to do. Because I’m not trying to impress anybody. I’m not doing things for anybody but myself, what I need and want.

So for me, I don’t think I have to call it anything.  I can just do it. Why is that so scary?

For that matter, this is at least the second time, maybe the third, that I have noticed myself writing, “because I’m not trying to impress anybody”.  Why is it so important to me to point that out? If I were exceptionally skilled at some activity, isn’t that legitimate grounds for impressing someone? Except that I am exceptionally skilled at several things, but somehow no one ever tells me that they are impressed by me. Instead, I’ve tended to hear, “that’s pretty good but, if you really applied yourself, then you could really impress people!” Impressing someone, then, is a goalpost that is always scurrying away from me.

If I were a ‘master’ of something, that would be impressive. Of course, being a master at something no one else appreciates or thinks is hard is kind of an oxymoron, or maybe (more charitably) a paradox.

I feel certain that what I originally meant to convey by the ‘mastery’ I was seeking had nothing to do with comparing my skill with others’ skill. And yet… there is something weird and troublesome here.

Do I honestly believe that whatever activities I’ve devoted my life to do not count, or are somehow rendered meaningless, if no one else is impressed by them? Or are there specific people that are supposed to be impressed? Like, say, my mother? My father? My siblings? If it’s the latter – that my family of origin needs to be impressed – then I am definitely out of luck, as our values do not overlap.

This same kind of issue cropped up while I was in graduate school. I gradually realized that the underlying reason I wanted a master’s degree (oh, and there’s that word again!) was because I thought it would get my parent’s attention, and that maybe they would be pleased with me, and/or impressed with the efforts I made. I mostly did not enjoy graduate school — I had one really excellent class. I didn’t enjoy the field of study I was in; I was much more interested in other fields that my school did not have programs for. I was not able to customize my degree in a way that would have allowed me to study what I was most excited about. I already knew that the kind of jobs you could get with my background were not jobs I enjoyed doing. So I reached a crisis point with grad school: (1) I don’t enjoy the subject itself; (2) I’m learning skills I don’t want, and won’t be able to use in a way I’ll enjoy; (3) I might want to try grad school again, to take classes in something I do enjoy, but having my bachelor’s and master’s both in related fields would make it that much harder to switch to something completely different (and what would I do with a Ph.D., since I don’t want to teach?); (4) my parents and mostly everyone I know have never even heard of my field of study, so how likely is it that they will be impressed by a master’s degree in it?; and (5) my parents have never been impressed by anything I’ve ever done — why would this be any different?

I’m spending all this money and time — taking eight hours of credits while working full-time — so I can try, but probably fail, to impress people who do not care what I do. I hate being here; I’m stressed out all the time; and I already know it’s not going to lead to anything that I want.

So I quit. It was the right decision; I’ve never been sorry.

I never had to tell my parents of my decision because, for very different reasons, I stopped speaking to them. I never had to hear them tell me how I had disappointed them, yet again. I didn’t have to hear about my ‘lost potential’, nor how my brothers had ‘surpassed’ me in something I didn’t care about.

I thought I had moved well beyond all of that. But I guess some parts of me still feel like I’m being judged, and always found wanting.

Even if I were to declare myself a ‘master’ of the ‘discipline’ of joy (or something else), my parents would most likely snort in disbelief, and then move on to something ‘worthwhile’, which could not, by definition, have anything to do with me. My role in my family of origin is to be the yardstick by which everyone else judges themselves; because I am always at the bottom, they always look good in comparison. To say that I had done something impressive would turn the world upside down. I am the reliable disappointment, who exists merely to make everyone else feel better about themselves. I’m not a real person in my own right. Therefore I cannot accomplish anything. Therefore no one can be impressed.


An unsettling aspect of all this is that lately I’ve been aware that my family of origin is fading into insignificance amongst the things that I care about. I cared way too much for way too long, and I guess it’s all burnt itself out. Back when I still cared, I thought I would always retain curiosity about why things are the way they are, but even that is fading. My curiosity generally seems attuned to things that are inherently interesting, or that I might be able to make use of. I don’t see how either of those conditions (can) apply to a bunch of people I don’t have relationships with.


Once upon a time, I had the job title of ‘environmental scientist’. To me, that was the most impressive job title I could even imagine, and it was officially mine. I was over the moon about it, even though technically I wasn’t doing any science, and the environmental part wasn’t what people expected to hear about. I was actually more of an administrator than a scientist. Still, that was the only time, during 25 years of paid employment, that I actually enjoyed telling people my job title. (I also enjoyed telling them what I did, but almost nobody wanted to hear much about that.) Predictably, my parents were not impressed, nor at all interested. I didn’t realize at that time that no one actually wanted me to succeed; I honestly thought they would be happy for me finally achieving something that I’d always wanted.

Maybe this is the last gasp of my (historic) interest (in their opinions) kicking up a fuss before it fades into oblivion?

I think I do need to spend more time thinking about why impressing people seems so important. Because that can’t be a good use of my energy or time.

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