the myth(s) of mastery

I'm beginning to think that mastery is a myth. Or at least that the idea of mastery is tied to a myth or two that aren't helping us. 

This has been on my mind because I'm nearing the completion of a master's degree in theology, and I will in no way be a master of theology. I know more than I did when I began the degree program several years ago. But mostly I know, now more than ever, how little I know. It's more than humbling. It's annoying. 

I do think there is such a thing as mastery, (although in fields like theology, I'm not sure how one ever attains an objective sense that they've achieved it). That's not the myth. Malcolm Gladwell says 10,000 hours of practice can make you a master at something, so I suppose an hour a day, everyday , for 27 years, and you can be a master. Rather, the idea of mastery leads us to a couple of other myths: we're all too likely to think we're a master when we're not, and we're all too likely to think we need to be a master when we don't. 

The first part of this is obvious enough. We've all worked with someone, lived with someone, studied under someone, who thought they knew more than they did. It's tragic. And as annoying as they are to everyone else, the real tragedy is in what they suffer. When we think we're a master and we're not, it robs us of learning more. It prevents us from growing. And it robs the work we're a part of the benefit of other people's insight, since we think we don't need it. 

But the second part may be where we really get hung up: we think we need to be a master when we don't.

My friend Seth moved to Nashville a few years ago, and now he plays music with some first-rate musicians. His last EP had some rock stars on it, playing drums and guitar and bass and keys. A few months ago Seth played a show in Nashville and invited me to be a part of the band. I was a little star struck as we set up on stage together and began sound checking. These were guys I viewed as masters, and I really didn't see myself that way. I had pretty much stopped playing keys a few years ago, and just began to start playing again to help Seth plays shows for his EP. These guys were full-time touring musicians and studio players in Music City. I even recognized one of them as the guitar player I had seen performing with one of my favorite artists at a show I went to. 

At some point during our brief rehearsal I realized I had allowed the idea that I needed to be a master rob me of the joy of making music. I was stifled thinking about how much better everyone was than me. So, difficult as it was, I decided to just suspend that thought. I figured I could spend as much time as I wanted later, after the show, thinking about how much better the other guys were than me. But during the show, I would just enjoy making music with them. And once I let go of the myth that I needed to be a master, I had the most incredible, memorable experience making music with these guys. 

I'm a good keys player. But not a master. But that situation really didn't require mastery. The best I had to offer was good enough to make some good music and create something beautiful. And I wonder how many other endeavors I've been stifled in because I thought they required a mastery I don't have when they didn't. (And here's something really insidious about this myth: any chance we have of actually mastering something is snuffed out when we sit on the sidelines, convinced that mastery is a requirement for entry to the game.)

I often find someone talking to me about the Bible, telling me they don't know how they could ever really read it. They feel like they need to have mastered the text before they can be changed by it. But that's just not true. Now, I'm all for learning — I think a lot of people gave up on learning about the Bible a long time ago, and so it's been years since they had the experience of reading anything new or fresh or life-giving in its pages. But I don't believe the Bible was ultimately given to us so we could know things about it. I think the Bible was given to us so we could know God. Revelation is given for relationship. Not for purely academic inquiry. (More on that in another post.) And in relationships, there is certainly no such thing as mastery, but that doesn't keep us from jumping into them. We understand intuitively that a relationship will always mean more learning, more growing, never mastering. 

In Matthew 18, Jesus is asked who is the greatest in His kingdom. And he says: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me." 

Jesus tells us to become like children because children have no status in that society, and to remind us to be servants. But maybe it's also because a child is both unlikely to think herself a master when she isn't, and unlikely imagine the requirement of mastery when it isn't required. They just jump in. 

Maybe you've bought into a false sense of mastery in an area where you have a lot to learn. Or maybe you're convinced you need to be a master to enter into something when you don't. Either way, the myth is robbing you of something valuable. Maybe it's time to suspend the myth for a moment and discover what's there for you once the myth is chased away.