The Important Difference Between Mastery and Achievement

Everyone has managed to master something, even if it’s the most basic of skills. If you’ve learned to read, or ride a bicycle, or play a musical instrument, you’ve experienced the moment at which an ability that previously seemed bewildering, then merely very difficult, finally yields to your efforts, becoming something you know how to do. After crossing such thresholds, you feel, in some mysterious way, more fully yourself, occupying your place in the world a little more definitively, and with more authority, than before.

Yet Adam Gopnik is surely right to argue, in the opening pages of The Real Work, his new book on what he calls “mastery,” that the effort needed to achieve such proficiency (to completely learn the gestures, the vocabularies, until they become nearly second nature) is generally undervalued. What is championed instead is the lesser goal he distinguishes as “achievement,” the evanescent act of meeting some external measurement of success in order to move ahead: the SAT score, the grade-point average, the performance review that unlocks the promotion to a higher salary. Gopnik, a longtime New Yorker critic, isn’t the first author to emerge victorious from the American tournament of achievement only to discern its spiritual emptiness. But his contribution to an antidote feels original, and mercifully within reach. We need to refamiliarize ourselves, he thinks, with the profound and enlarging experience of truly mastering things, or at least attempting to do so.

The personal epiphany motivating the book was Gopnik’s realization, after years of covering the art world (among much else), that to appreciate completely the works he wrote about, he’d need to take at least a few steps toward acquiring the skills involved in creating them. “I came to see,” he writes, “in drawing as much as in boxing and dancing, that we miss the whole if we don’t attempt to grasp, in however limited and even feeble a form, what the real work feels like for other people as they do it.” This leads him to classes in classical life drawing, where he learns that the key ability is staying open enough to draw what’s really there, instead of conceptual schemas of arms and legs that may exist in one’s head, and from there to adventures in bread making, boxing, dancing, and learning to drive.

Gopnik is aware that this is a tired approach for memoir-slash-ideas books such as this one: “Apprentice to a baker. Every writer does that now,” his wife says early in the chapter on bread. And she’s not wrong. But it works for him because—and here the book serves as a demonstration of one of its themes—it’s a pleasure to spend time in the presence of someone who’s mastered their craft. In one especially entertaining chapter, he learns to drive, in middle age, on terrifying Manhattan roads, under the tutelage of a passionate instructor named Arturo who yells “I love it!” when Gopnik adjusts his mirrors correctly and urges him to “Become the noodle!”—to relax completely into the experience, merging with his vehicle. “Driving, I realized, isn’t really difficult; it’s just extremely dangerous,” Gopnik writes. “You hit the gas and turn the wheel, and there you are—in possession of a two-ton weapon capable of being pointed at anything you like.” (He emerges from this training a basically competent driver rather than a masterly one, he concedes, but then everything’s relative; among New York motorists I’ve little doubt that he shines.)

[Read: The best time management advice is depressing but liberating]

The phrase the real work, Gopnik explains, comes from the world of professional magic, for which he retains a teenage boy’s enthusiasm. When one magician credits another with having done the real work on an illusion, it doesn’t mean having had the original idea, but instead—and more nebulously—mastering the whole effect: the timing, handling, and theatrics. “The real work,” he writes, “is what makes a magic effect magical.” This is to be distinguished from performing it in a technically perfect yet soulless way. Indeed, one of Gopnik’s most intriguing observations is what he calls “the Too Perfect theory”: the notion that true mastery entails doing things brilliantly yet imperfectly, inviting the viewer “into a credibly imperfect world.” If a magician passes a cigarette too smoothly through a quarter, the performance loses its allure, because it must so obviously be a trick coin. What impresses us is witnessing masterful humans—masters, yes, but also humans, people whose abilities we can imagine possibly emulating, masters of the real world in which we also live.

The same democratic spirit infuses Gopnik’s other main findings about mastery. First, that it always begins as a series of separate steps—“a slow carpentering of fragments into the illusion of a harmonious whole”—and second, that mastery is ubiquitous: Masters are everywhere among us, though usually we fail to notice. He recounts the story of the Turk, the 18th-century automaton that stunned European and American audiences by holding its own in games of chess against famous players. It turned out to be a hoax; a human was concealed within. But it worked because spectators were more ready to believe in the apparent genius of its “inventor,” Wolfgang von Kempelen, than in the truth—which was that very good chess players were abundant enough to be locally recruited as required, as the Turk toured from town to town.

The book’s emphasis on professional magic as the epitome of mastery highlights an oddity of Gopnik’s argument, his implication that mastery is something fundamentally performative—that without an audience, real or imagined, it cannot truly exist. Mastery, as he puts it, entails “looking at another, with something up your sleeve—even if doing nothing grander than pleasing a partner, or a table full of friends.” My reaction to this may be that of a repressed Englishman, raised to be wary of drawing too much attention to oneself, but to me such a definition veers uncomfortably close to equating mastery with showing off. Is mastery, that deeply internal experience of stepping into an authoritative relationship to some skill, really only mastery when it wows? The ordinary masters Gopnik celebrates—the masters of whipping up a nutritious meal on a school night, or of driving the family car safely along a busy freeway—do their work for other people, certainly. But not to impress other people. They do it because such acts of care just matter in themselves. (To equate mastery with performativity may be an occupational hazard of being a writer, a performative trade by definition.)

[Read: Why grades are not paramount to achievement]

Perhaps this also helps explain why the most affecting part of the book is the one in which Gopnik describes—at the cost of considerable potential embarrassment—a purely private triumph of self-mastery, his struggle to overcome paruresis, or “shy bladder syndrome,” which makes it impossible for the person who has it to urinate in public restrooms, sometimes even in individual cubicles with closing doors. Here, the challenge isn’t to perform impressively before others; nobody has ever impressed anyone else with their ability to urinate successfully. Instead, it’s to internalize the fact that it’s not a performance at all, and no one is watching. Of the specialist therapist Gopnik recruited to aid him, he writes: “I began to understand that the therapy he offered his patients was the therapy not just of ‘acceptance’ but of embracing one’s own existence as a mammal with mammalian appendages, traduced by human anxieties. No shame in public bathrooms, no disgust to be found in shared urinals … Nothing human is alien to human beings, or ought to be.”

Gopnik never claims that he’s going to crack the code of mastery decisively, so it’s no criticism to say that in this wise, companionable, and often extremely funny book he never does. On the contrary, he comes closer to concluding that it can’t be done. After all the preparation and learning comes the still-mysterious moment when you can just do it—just balance on the two-wheeler, just draw a realistic shoulder and neck, just pee. The book reveals no hidden secret to mastery because there isn’t one. It’s like the “bullet catch,” in which, Gopnik explains, a magician holds a cup in his or her mouth, into which an assistant fires a bullet. How’s it done? There’s no trick—or, to put it differently, the trick is what it seems: The magician catches the bullet in the cup, entrusting his fate to his own acquired abilities and to the dependability of his collaborator. You can use a small-caliber bullet, a low-velocity laser-guided rifle, and a titanium cup. You can attend to each detail, carefully rehearse the setup, and cultivate the right frame of mind. Eventually, though—and this is a metaphor, albeit a slightly hyperbolic one, for so many challenges in life—you do just have to ask your assistant to fire a gun at your mouth.