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The realization that mastery is impossible

The realization that mastery is impossible

Mastery is a subject that I’ve always been deeply interested in, and it’s even something that I try to strive for. However, a few years ago I had the daunting realization that mastery might be impossible to achieve.

What is mastery?

Many books have been written on mastery, some of them are approaching the subject directly such as Mastery by Robert Greene and Mastery by George Leonard. Where others approach it more indirectly such as Zen in the Art of Archery. Nonetheless, all of these books talk about Mastery in one way or another. So, if there are so many capable people talking about Mastery, of which some have taken out years to completely study and dissect it into a readable and understandable book, then why am I claiming that it might be impossible to achieve?

To understand this, we have to go back in time.

Michael Vincent

Mastery is something that I’ve been attracted to since the moment that I started in magic. After I saw the first video of Michael Vincent performing his Fool Us routine I was hooked on the idea of Mastery. Everything that Mike was doing seemed so seamless as if everything was happening by itself, as if it was happening by real magic. In my opinion and the opinion of many others, Mike is a true modern-day master. 

However, whenever I talk with Mike, he doesn’t seem to consider himself a master. He considers himself to be an eternal student of magic. Which is interesting for multiple reasons.

Firstly, this mindset is exactly the mindset that helps him to master his art and to keep growing. In order to master something, you don’t only need to practice a lot, about 10.000 hours according to Malcolm Gladwell. But you also do need to keep pushing your limits. You need to keep challenging and questioning yourself always pushing to the edge of your ability to keep improving.

Secondly, it is interesting because this means that he keeps thinking about his magic. Nothing is ever perfect and everything holds room for improvement. This means that Mike is still very open to feedback from his close friends and from the outside which keeps improving his routines.

But wait, I started this article by claiming that mastery was an impossible task, maybe an even impossible task, and now I go into why Mike is a master. What went wrong in your thoughts, Rico? Did you just forget the first thing you wrote!!??

Being a master

Well no, however, we might need to take it into a bit of a different context. As you’ve read earlier, Mike doesn’t consider himself to be a master. He considers himself to be an eternal student. Thus, feeling like a master might be impossible, how other people label you is outside of that equation. 

But why is this? Why can we not feel like a master?

A few years ago I came to a point in magic where my magic was better than it had ever been, however, I felt like I was worse than when I started with magic. Kind of a weird thing!

From that moment on I started to look into that feeling - why was this? It seemed weird to me that I had gotten to a point where I was good enough to lecture, however, I felt like I was worse than ever. Well, the reason for this, and I’m not claiming to be a master in any sense, I’m much too young for that, and also mastery is emotionally impossible. But, the reason why I felt like that, is because of a psychological principle that I discovered in a book.

The idea is that when we’re learning something we don’t have a good understanding yet of all the possibilities within our field. We don’t know how deep some fundamentals can go and how far the rabbit hole reaches. Because of that lack of knowledge, after learning a few things about a craft we start to live in the delusion that we’re really good, that we’ve learned a lot about the craft, and that we know almost everything that there is to know. May this feeling be mental, or just emotional.

We evolve and so does our perception 

It all comes down to the fact that we don’t have a conscious understanding of how far and deep the craft reaches. However, if we keep learning, there will be a moment when we start to build a conscious understanding of how much there really is to learn, our scope of our craft becomes much more realistic, and even though we might be three times better than we were before, we feel like we’re much worse. This is quite logical. Another way to explain it is the following:

Imagine that all the knowledge of our craft is 100%. When we start, we might only be aware of 5%, after a year or so we reach a point where we know and are able to do 4%, and we come to the conclusion that we know almost everything. But now, after some hard work, we have come to a point where we all of a sudden know and are able to do 8%, however, when we get to that point our conscious awareness of the craft also has grown. We start to realize how big the scope really is, and all of a sudden, we might be aware of 20% of the possibilities. This means we’re still not aware of everything, however, our level of knowledge and skill compared to the awareness of what is possible now has a much bigger gap, 12%, as opposed to first, only 1%. We might have become twice as good in reality, but due to our new knowledge, we don’t feel like we have.

Because of that I feel like mastery is an impossible task, at least, it is an impossible task for ourselves to emotionally achieve. It is still something that we should strive for, though. Because the way in which the world sees us is different from the way in which we see ourselves, and with that in mind I want to leave you with one last thought.

One last thought

Generally speaking, it is a bad idea to compare yourself to other people. Some people fall into the trap of seeing how other people are better off than them and they want to have the same as those people. But, there will always be someone that has more than you - this is a never-ending formula for unhappiness. However, I do think that it is good to compare yourself to your peers once in a while. This will give you a realistic point of view of where you’re standing and how good you really are. 

You might feel like you’re much worse than you truly are and it would be a shame to go through live like that.


- Rico Weeland, April 1st 2023, Amsterdam

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Chris Wood - January 15, 2024

Hi Rico, this can be summarised by the old saying, “Those who know little believe they know nothing, those who know more think they know everything whilst those who know much, know they know nothing.”
It’s based on Socrates (I know I know nothing) but includes the lack of humility which can come with a little knowledge. Not just Mike, but of course Vernon himself preferred to think of himself as a student rather than “the professor”.

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