On gaining mastery

I’ve recently finished reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I like his writings, and his other books – Blink and The Tipping Point, have provided me with new ways to consider how I might view and understand the world around me. I wasn’t convinced by Outliers at first in truth. I had to persist with it because I was searching for the hidden nugget.

What I realised was that one of Gladwell’s assertions is what we L&D professionals have known for ages. Gladwell makes the point that one of the things that made (and continues to make) many successful people successful is that they practice their craft endlessly to the point of mastery. I’m loathe to say this is based on research, as none is evident, but Gladwell asserts that what these people have done is spent up to 10000 hours of their life doing nothing but being immersed in their craft.

We can readily identify where this is clearly the case for those at the pinnacle of what they do. Sports people are successful because they practice for hours on end in between major tournaments. Surgeons are put through hours on hours of training before they’re allowed to move up the ranks in medicine. Firefighters are particularly skilled because of the hours of mock drills they go through. Technologists are mad geeks because they spend whatever time they have becoming better technologists. This is all very apparent.

What it got me thinking is how organisations just aren’t geared up for this. There is a huge expectation that once people attend a learning session they will learn the requisite skills and be better at their job. But look at the various crafts above. They are good at what they do because of the time they put in. Crucially, though, they have an in built support network that helps them to continue to strive. Coaches, team members, reading material, seminars, practice, feedback, all form part of the mix of things which are crucial to their success.

We’ve tried as L&Ders to put things into place to mirror this thinking. You must talk to your line manager before and after the event so you get the most from your learning. The manager must make it a part of the person’s objectives so that they are motivated to keep at it. People must be given protected time to practice their new skill. We will organise follow up sessions to find out if the learning has lasted. We’ll make you do an assessment to see if the learning has embedded.

What we’re not considering is that these are very mechanistic approaches to sustained learning. Take those crafts above, and a lot of what they do is mechanistic, but to get better they are having developmental conversations and gaining new knowledge to make them better. That’s what is missing in organisations.

Some places try things like having internal coaches. Some places try things like having internal social networks. Some places try things like carrying out simulation exercises. Some places try things like giving their people the freedom to explore their craft during work hours. Some places have got the right idea.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

2 thoughts on “On gaining mastery”

  1. What an interesting post! I have to admit my first thought on reading it was to question whether these mythical conversations really do ever take place between people and their managers before and after they have been on training courses.
    I am a professional speaker as well as a trainer and spend quite a lot of time working on my ‘mastery’ of public speaking. I’m not there yet, though!
    During the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics I watched Dave Brailsford, Head of Performance at the extremely successful Team GB cycling team. He said that everyone’s role in that team and its support fiunctions was to ensure that everyone was able to be the best that they could possibly be. I found myself asking myself the question ‘Am I the best that I could possibly be at anything that I do?’

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