Should you pursue mastery?

I am fascinated with mastery. I will not embark on anything unless I know I can become a master at it. I did not start Ashtanga yoga until I knew I could do it every day for a year. I did not start swing dancing lessons until I had enough money to take three lessons a day, with three different teachers. (Actually, it’s debatable as to whether I had enough money, but that’s how I spent it.)

I am not interested in just trying something. I find just trying totally unrewarding.

The idea that mastery is a positive experience is well researched and not particularly controversial. The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is actually an ode to mastery, but very controversial. The mom who wrote it is a Yale law professor and her kids are musicians and there is no room in that family for dilettantes. The book says that parents should force feed the self-discipline that mastery requires. The issue, of course, is whether mastery can come from such external motivation. She says yes. I’m not sure. (Though just in case internal motivation is overrated, I’m forcing my own kids to practice their instruments twice a day.)

In my life there has been only a very fine line between obsessive interest and mastery. I think today about what I’m trying to master, and honestly, I feel like I’ve mastered the happiness stuff. I know what makes me happy.

I appear to be unable to maintain a close bond with someone I’m married to. Which is, by far, the most important thing we can do for our happiness. But I am able to derive happiness from intellectual and physical mastery.

I’m really drawn to this photo. Somehow, I immediately knew it was sexual. Maybe because power is sexual. Maybe because she’s so pretty. I don’t know. But it turns out, this is a photo of a blow up doll for having sex. The artist, Laurie Simmons ordered the doll in the mail and then took a series of photos. In this photo, the doll is dressed in the artist’s daughter’s clothing. Of course, the doll does not come with these clothes.

The photo reminds me of how transformative physical mastery is.

I want to feel strong.

Right now I am focusing on the hill that leads up to the farm. I want to get so good at running up it that I can sprint. Four times. That’s my goal, and then I’ll feel like I’ve mastered the hill. It will take me running all summer, I think. But I don’t want to do anything else. No gym, no pilates. I just want to do that hill. Every day.

I have been reading Tim Ferriss’ new book, The 4-Hour Body. I can’t stop myself from liking it because he’s so obsessive. I couldn’t put my finger on the draw until I saw an article by Ferriss in Men’s Journal. The title is “Rule the Pool.” I’m not swimming right now, but I read the article anyway. I read it because Tim is always a master of the topic he’s writing about. And mastery is interesting. And his book is interesting because it follows his journey to master his body.

(Forget the parts of that other post I wrote about how much I hate his book. I guess I am changing my mind. I still would never want to be friends with the guy. But part of my internal drive toward mastery is not caring at all if I’m wrong.)

Mastery is interesting. And now that I’ve decided to focus on having an interesting life rather than a happy life, I have, by default chosen to focus on mastery. Which, no surprise, is what I’ve been focusing on all along.

I think I am mastering sex. I’m not sure what part of it. Definitely not the doing part, because the farmer and I seem to be on sexual hiatus while he is refusing to talk with me. And my ex and I were able to get through the last six years of our marriage having sex only two times. So I’m not the type of girl who is gaining mastery through first-hand experience. But the research part of sex is endlessly interesting to me. How other people do it. How people think about it. How people ruin it and fix it and ruin it again.

Here’s some stuff I learned recently:

iPhone users have more sex than android users.

Sex strikes are effective in a community of women because the men have nowhere to cross the proverbial picket line.

Bats that lick sex organs are more successful at breeding than bats that don’t lick.

I am not good at knowing how people negotiate sex. Which is why you probably wouldn’t have the patience to have sex with me, but it’s also what drives me to understand the rules and underpinnings of sex.

My expertise includes incest. I love incest. I mean, I love reading books about it. (Here’s a classic.) I’m fascinated by what drives people to do it. I’m fascinated by the girls so often hating it and loving it simultaneously. It is complicated but I think I can master it—understanding it.

I read the review of the book Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso, who was sexually abused for fifteen years, starting at age 7. I’m fascinated by how she was seduced, and how she came to enjoy the sex in a way she says is like being a heroin addict. And I enjoy feeling nervous to read it but knowing I’ll push myself to read it anyway.

So I have been thinking about people who try a lot of stuff—those who are not driven to master what they do. Sometimes I think they are losers. I think of girls who do 1000 first dates but never have long-term relationships. At some point, all first dates become the same. The beginnings of relationships are all the same, but deeper connections require understanding more and more about yourself to keep going. That’s what I think of mastery.

I worry that I should not be writing this blog. It’s insane, really, that I spend hours and hours writing without really making any money from the work. I mean, I have basically the same traffic whether I post three times a week or once a week—no kidding. And I know I’m not alone. Leo Babauta has said the same thing about his blog.

Yet I’m driven to post. I’m obsessed with finding the right photo and the right topic and the right tone and putting it all together. I’m obsessed with having a spot for the research I love. The blog is the ultimate act of going deeper and deeper because on the blog, there is nowhere else to go.

It occurs to me that mastery is irrational. Pursuing it makes life more difficult and more interesting than people really need life to be. But people who are driven to mastery can’t stop. It’s either charming or boorish. I’m not sure which.

Posted in Fulfillment
90 comments on “Should you pursue mastery?
  1. sj says:

    Mastery–I wish I had been brought up with that concept as I was brought up with the belief that you had to be good at everything…Jill of all trades…that was the epitome of perfection in my Mom’s eyes. Now I see that being focused on what you like and what you want to be good at leads to more self fulfillment than struggling to be good at everything.

    • MB says:

      How are you able to separate mastery from perfectionism? P's example of committing to 3 daily swing dance lessons reminds me of myself, except that I would inevitably miss a lesson and beat myself up and subsequently give up, because (my thinking goes) if I was really earnest in wanting to master it, I shouldn't have missed a day.

  2. JW says:

    And now I can’t stop staring at that doll. I didn’t think it was sexual when I first glanced at the photo – it seemed a little sad. I immediately felt a loss of innocence.

  3. KateNonymous says:

    Funny, I just thought that photo looked fake. Now that I know that the doll is wearing the artist’s daughter’s clothes, I also think it’s a little creepy.

    I think mastery is fine, if it helps you focus. But there’s a lot to be learned by trying, whether or not you fail. I think that refusing to try unless you know you can master is often just fear.

  4. Lisa Cach says:

    It’s a bummer that intellectual mastery of a subject is so far from actual, applicable mastery. I have a favorite quotation, from Goethe:

    "Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world."

    I think of this often when I hear people say they’re brilliant artists in their heads, but just have to figure out how to get that art onto paper. Or people who have an idea for a book that they keep talking about, but they have never written the first sentence. Understanding is the beginning of mastery, but it is a long, long way from the end.

  5. Lauren Milligan says:

    I don’t understand how a person can be happy when they don’t have a close relationship with their spouse. That’s just too apathetic for me to understand, and frankly, it sounds selfish. You may be happy, but what about the farmer? Either he too is apathetic, or he is unhappy. It’s selfish for one spouse to be happy while the other isn’t, without trying to change things so that both people are fulfilled.
    I’m not trying to sound bitchy, I’m just being honest. I truly don’t understand what motivates the two of you to stay together, which is sad to read from post to post. I’m pulling for you P, I really am.

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      Well. I’m not happy. I’m actually really sad that the Farmer is not talking to me. I just am not sure what to do. I don’t even really know how to write about it.

      But I think how I cope is that I have spent all this time researching happiness — changing my life a million ways, including moving across the country to get it — and I have decided that interesting is more appealing to me than happy. And while I’m not happy, I do have a very interesting life.

      Penelope

      • Annemarie Donnelly says:

        You don’t have to share if you don’t want to…but I think many of us are wondering why the Farmer won’t talk. What has transpired that has led to this? If you’re culpable, and you may be, can you look at your actions and see what you have contributed to? Or maybe he is completely passive agressive and is trying to control you through silence. We are all here to try to help you gain perspective, through our own experience and the little bits of wisdom we have managed to cull.

      • Chris M. says:

        P., just so you know not everyone will agree with this statement: “It’s selfish for one spouse to be happy while the other isn’t, without trying to change things so that both people are fulfilled.”

        I have been married for almost 20 years now, and there were times when my husband was happy and I wasn’t , and vice-versa. I would hate for him not to be happy just because I wasn’t, and it would be stupid for him to “try to change things” so I could be happy — nobody but me could come to terms with the reason for my unhappiness (for example, a very well paying job that was also very boring) and fixing it, which at the right moment I did.

        I’m sure you and the Farmer will find the right balance for your relationship at some point. Sometimes there’s nothing to do but be nice to each other without trying to actually fix things that only time and internal realization will solve.

  6. .Bryan says:

    Some people’s personality type just doesn’t go for mastery….it’s what Barbara Sher calls being a Scanner. You just have to many interests to spend so much time on one thing or one career…..
    And the doll looked funky in some way at first blush…I did like the face and the breasts but something wasn’t right….then when you said she was a doll i looked closer and saw the hands as doll like…what i find even more intriguing are the abilities some people have for creating lifelike computer images of people….see this website http://www.designflavr.com/resources/12-Photo-Real-Computer-Generated-People-i109/

  7. SixEast says:

    I totally get it. I’m a slave to mastery. I’m not happy learning just to be mediocre at something, I have to be good at it, to master it, or it’s not worthwhile in my eyes. I spread myself thin trying to master too many things. So does that make me a dilettante, or only if I don’t master all that I pursue?

  8. Roberta Warshaw says:

    You write your blog because you have to. You are mastering the blog so to speak. Don’t stop. I like reading it.

    I don’t make any money from my blog but who cares? I like writing it.

  9. Victoria says:

    P, as always reading your post is like skiing the Olympic Slaloms – and coming up gold. Disclaimer- this is not scientific so I can’t give back up data BUT confirmation: women do not give great blow jobs. I’m a pleasure coach (somatic sex educator.) One day, a male friend looked me in the eye and said “You know, women don’t give good head.” Whaat? The gauntlet was thrown down. I had to find out the truth. So I started doing informal ‘focus group’ testing with my clients. Alas, he was correct. Near as I can tell, approx 1 in 4 women have this skill. Maybe this was what Goethe was talking about? ;-)

    • Rosanna says:

      @ Victoria,
      If that guy was comparing women vs men “giving head”, men would def. have an advantage on mastering that craft, having the same organs and all. What is your professional opinion?

      • Victoria says:

        Sure. And it swings both ways so to speak. A woman would navigate another woman’s body more intuitively because of knowing the ‘equipment.’ Mind you, we’re speaking about technical skill…which is not the only element in pleasure giving.

  10. Cheryl Roshak says:

    Wow, P, this post just blew me away! Sometimes you’re so raw and open it amazes me and I admire you so for honesty and directness. I, too, am fascinated with mastery and those who have it. I have a problem with continuity, alas, and have many interests and talents. So my problem is that I never feel I have mastered anything well enough. But if I get on a tangent about something, when an interest or an activity takes me, then I am consumed by it, and cannot let it go until either it wears me out or I feel that I’ve gotten it. Something like that.

    And I admire your courage to speak so frankly about sex as if it were a natural thing as it should be. Even about your personal fetishes, I love that. I think we all share in something like that but never discuss it in public. I’m gaining courage from you. Thank you.

  11. Penelope Trunk says:

    Announcement: I decided that this post is too long. I decided I broke one of my own rules that you cannot have a really long post unless it is Nobel-prize winning or something. So I am deleting part.

    Can you do that? Publish a post and then delete stuff? I am doing that. Because I can’t stand that I should have edited better. So here is the part that I’m deleting. Which is sort of important to the comment section now that we have a professional blow job person commenting:

    “Here’s something I’ve read about blow jobs. If you ask women if they’re exceptional at giving blow jobs, most women will say yes. But the truth is that what makes an exceptional blow job is that the woman loves doing it, and so most women are pretty unexceptional. But women know men love it so women want to feel like they are great at it. Whether they do it or not.

    If you are not working hard at what to do when you are not talking, in bed and out of bed, then you are probably not good at it. Tiziana Casciaro at Rotman School of Management in Toronto, does research on social skills and she says that if you’re consciously working hard at something you’re probably relatively good at it.”

    -Penelope

    • lynnevon says:

      I’m glad that section wasn’t deleted in the version I read in my email inbox, I think you make a great point about enjoyment being essential for mastery to be achieved, not just sexually but in any area.

    • jim says:

      Of course you can publish a post and then delete stuff. It’s your blog and your rules.

    • Erica Peters says:

      If you tell women they suck at blow jobs, that won’t make them love it more. Guys should tell their girlfriends that they are exceptional, make them feel like masters of the blow job, and then give them a suggestion every once in a while, “just to tweak your peak, darling.”

      From the BOBS’ song “Tweak Your Peak”: “So you think you’ve made it to the top / That doesn’t mean you should stop / Don’t lean back in your chair, don’t lose your desire / Keep on tryin’ to go even higher”

      • will says:

        Erica, at giving Bjs, sucking (gently) is a perfectly acceptable technique. Women who suck can be exceptional. I am told.

      • Victoria says:

        Erica,
        Of course women shouldn’t be barked at that they don’t give their
        man oral pleasure. And I’m sorry if my previous post was too flip.
        First time posting here and I think I missed the right tone.
        The underlying message in my post speaks more to the fact that men
        and women – still – don’t talk about sex in their relationship. Sexual happiness in a couple is an important component of connection, intimacy. It doesn’t just magically evolve nor magically sort itself out. It deserves as much respect, time and attention as the other parts of the relationship. And most times, it doesn’t get it.
        No disrespect, but your suggestion of behavioral conditioning
        instead of honest dialogue often turns out to be way too subtle to
        be effective. Result: people stay confused, embarrassed, frustrated, resigned, etc. and the cycle continues.

    • MyWifeThinksImADonkey says:

      If you made mastering the BJ a priority, I’d bet the farmer would talk to you again for a little while.

  12. Skye says:

    I stumbled upon your blog after googling quarter life crisis. I have since subscribed to it and although I might not relate to all the posts, I have to say that I LOVE LOVE LOVE reading it. I appreciate your sincerity and your honest writing. It’s extremely raw and blunt and real. Thank you.

  13. lynnevon says:

    I saw Laurie Simmons’ photography project with the doll a couple of weeks ago, I love it! Empowerment, transformation, and context are all part of what makes it brilliant. The ‘real girl’ sex doll is so exquisitely rendered and realistic, her designer or whoever conceived and created her is either truly a ‘master’ of masturbation, or a craftsperson who creates beauty for its own sake, regardless of how it will be utilized, or whether it will be utilized, or whether it will be appreciated. There is your idea of mastery for its own sake, and why you should and will keep writing, blogging, etc. regardless of whether or not you make money at it. There also is your idea of how you can attain mastery of sex whether or not there is anyone willing to actually have sex with you. Why isn’t there a male version of the doll? Because, as you mentioned, female mastery of sex involves enjoying the act of giving enjoyment (either to a real live person or to herself). So while the iphone news you posted is good news for anyone who has recently purchased an iphone, it’s *especially* good news for female iphone owners!

  14. Lindsay says:

    Some things that were worth doing, even worth doing badly:

    -teaching myself piano
    -starting a punk rock band (as a singer)
    -writing songs
    -teaching myself Portuguese
    -learning to play the drums
    -law school (first year only; all the rest was a waste.)
    -massage therapy school (I don’t work as a massage therapist.)

    I mastered none of these, but each one changed my life, some in major ways. The first half of the learning curve, the part where you can feel new neural connections being formed every second, is much more exciting than the second half, the part where you work for weeks for a tiny improvement.

    Things I work to master: Relationships. Writing. Self-knowledge. Mastering these things matters, not because I care about being an expert, but because they’re the essentials for a happy and growing life (for me).

  15. Anhelo says:

    Happiness and sex, that’s what we were taught to pursue. But we weren’t told they’re not goals, they’re the tools. Writing makes you happy, that is happiness. Take it as a nice dinner, you sit down to enjoy it, while it nourishes your body (mind). There’s nothing beyond that. There’s not a promised land of overwhelming excitement and fulfilled satisfaction. Happiness can be mastered too, as something you do and do and do and keep doing.

    As for the farmer. When people don’t want to talk to someone is mostly cause they need privacy to think over. Give him privacy. You might not need it, he might do. That, maybe includes not talking about him, publicly. It could be embarrassing for some people, you know? or make them feel guilty or pressured.

  16. s says:

    …I subscribed to your blog at one point b/c it really seemed to be time well-spent. And certainly, though sometimes off the wall & ignorant (as in the post about the Wisconsin protests) but now I think it’s actually become a total waste of time. And it was good that you deleted that part — it was a waste of time to read too. I think lots of things can be a waste of time and still enjoyable, and some people seem to enjoy your posts. It doesn’t even matter if people enjoy them or not if that’s what you want to write. But god, so boring. I guess since you’ve moved to the farm and all that, your life has just taken a different path. Good luck to you. Goodbye..

  17. Shandra says:

    Just to counter S’s comment, I had stopped reading your blog while you were focused on launching Brazen Careerist because it had gotten boring, but now I’m back because it seems more real. So net loss: 0. :)

  18. Hazel says:

    Like many of your other readers, I got annoyed with your anti-union post. It demonstrated what irks me about GenX, the flip dismissal of anything that doesn’t feel personally relevant.

    I get that it is important for you to self-validate in tough times, but do you need to do so at the expense of others? Putting down people who don’t share your obsessive nature?

    I guess you are frustrated by the fact that you are living next to a huge national story that doesn’t revolve around something you can personally identify with other than it’s taking place where you buy your kids food they don’t eat. You must also be frustrated by the state of your marriage.

    So puppies, puppies are always good. But then what? Sex, I guess. Lots of material there. Master your own domain baby.

    I call bullshit on the line: “But part of my internal drive toward mastery is not caring at all if I’m wrong.” A drive toward mastery seems totally about trying to stop from being wrong–to control something, dominate it in order to demonstrate how right you are. I wonder if this refusal to admit a need/desire to be right (which we all have to some extent) is a factor in your marriage troubles.

  19. Ron Amundson says:

    Mastery is fascinating… to some extent, I think prevailing culture does a dis-service to those who are wired for it. Ie, someone striving for mastery should be encouraged, and the label of obsession outside of those closest to said individual never be used. Sadly, labeling rather than encouraging seems to be the norm. Granted, not all, or perhaps not very many at all feel the call to it. Your example of 3x/day w 3 teachers to learn swing dancing is incredibly cool…

  20. Tzipporah says:

    I think I’m sort of a dilettante. Or maybe I just have a low threshold for what I consider mastery of something.

    I am completely fascinated by learning about something new, and delve into it in as much detail as possible, but once I’ve taken what I learned and applied it I get bored. I want to learn about something new.

    Like my garden. I read lots of gardening books and blogs and came up with bed designs and planting schedules… but the actual building part is boring. It’s just physical labor. It just gets in the way of going straight from learning to having produced something. I was obsessed with mastering the design, but not the implementation.

  21. JM Blevins says:

    Yeah, you write provocative things. I get it. That’s why you’re successful. But when I taught Tae Kwon Do and someone like you walked in, I cringed. How can I teach you if you looked up kicks and forms on YouTube, practiced that, and on your first lesson, correct me? If you want me to teach you, don’t come in with a big ego. Come in with an open mind and a willingness to learn. Then go home and practice.

    • MB says:

      I’m curious – why do you think that P would correct you? I love to do TONS of research before jumping in. But if I’ve decided to take classes, I’m acknowledging that there’s more to learn, and am open to learning it from a particular person’s perspective. I would argue that the person who would walk into Tae Kwon Do on day 1 and try to teach the instructor isn't interested in mastery but in being a know-it-all. And how many lessons do those types stick around for?

  22. Evy says:

    Penelope?

    Perhaps a close bond with someone you are married to feels too much like…family. Familiar?

    Incest is, in our culture, a trauma. Particularly if the perp is also focusing physical abuse on the victim. Like you.

    A victim who can eventually thrive, in my opinion, is going to have a BIG problem with trust in close relationships.

    Suggesting again a therapist who works with trauma survivors.

    Why not use all that communication skill on your farmer instead of hitting yourself with a lamp? Just a thought.

  23. Alyosha says:

    Very beautiful post. Sad and beautiful.

    My opinion is nothing. But blogs are about opinions — so I’ll just offer — I think you should clean up the glass.

    It is really good to go against the current of your thoughts. You feel an emotion — a real resistance to doing something — and then push yourself to do it with your stomach in a knot, as if you are walking against a wind. People think that freedom is going along with your desires — but real freedom is being able to do something that you don’t want to do (particularly where it might benefit someone else).

  24. Evy says:

    Recommending a book that has been recommended before plus another one for you and the farmer.

    The Five Love Languages. Read it. Find out what makes him feel loved. I don’t know if ANYTHING will make you feel loved without major effort in major therapy.

    Another book:

    Non-violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. Anyone who hits themselves in the head with a lamp and leaves blood and glass on the floor to make a point could probably use some of the ideas.

    Also, if his hands bleeding is dysfunctional, how much MORE dysfunctional is hitting yourself on the head with a lamp, breaking it, bleeding and leaving the glass/blood on the floor. What are you kids learning from YOU?!?

    I truly do wish you well. With your farmer and otherwise.

    You have great writing skills, courage and candor. And many, many other skills.

    Healing your emotional wounds would be the hardest task you took on. I would love to hear about your getting mastery in that.

    In detail.

  25. Master E says:

    Surprise! I’m finally going to let you in on a secret, but first, some things topical.

    Mastery is about the commitment to the journey. Mastery is not a “ding” event. A great book on the topic is “Mastery” by G. Leonard.

    I can’t pinch my nose long or hard enough to read his book.

    You are such a train wreck. I love reading you. It is like looking into the mirror.

    I figure it is time to spill the beans. You and I are having quite a successful relationship together. I enjoy the the way that you think and how you express yourself. You don’t need my input to meet my needs, and I find communication exhausting. I’m a good listener, and a giver, but you haven’t asked anything of me yet. My libido is low, so the sex is spot on. I think I want happiness, but my interesting life contradicts. There is no holding us back!

    Sorry, but there really is no surprise.

    • Master E says:

      “I can’t pinch my nose long or hard enough to read his book.”

      Ferret that is. It seems I couldn’t even bring myself to type his name. And, I know.

  26. Laura says:

    I relate to this post. I come from a family of masters. My grandfather was an Antarctic explorer from the 1940s to the present who has medals from 5 monarchs, and has skills that were literally shared by nobobdy in the world. My mother did tall ship sail racing in the 70s and made speed records. She also emigrated to the USA with money she made winning songwriting contests. She played many musical instruments, and after 3 years couldn’t find a banjo player in our city who could teach her anything. My other grandfather was a popular state legislative representative and wrote 5 widely read books on the native anthropology of his region. My Dad had a masters degree in computer science in 1979 and spent his career troubleshooting the most complicated and high tech copy machines in production. My aunt learned to speak 3 languages fluently after becoming deaf at age 12, and had a 30 year career as a historian and librarian. Almost everyone in my family have this kind of accomplishment in their own sphere.

    I have always known that my accomplishments should only be restricted by my dedication to my goals. However, it seems like I can’t ever finish anything, but only work in obsessive spurts to the point at which I know in my heart that I could succeed brilliantly, with the proper effort. At that point, I lose interest, find something else, and move on. So my resume is full of embarrassing half starts and I am relatively accomplished in a wide range of really diverse fields. I have no idea how to pick something and settle in for good so I have nothing to show for the level of mastery I have actually achieved. But I am practically addicted to that part where I come over the crest of a new subject or skill which I am now better at than anyone I know, and can see the pinnacle of mastery just ahead.

    I love your blog by the way. Thanks for sharing your passion and personality.

  27. Laura says:

    I relate to this post. I come from a family of masters. My grandfather was an Antarctic explorer from the 1940s to the present who has medals from 5 monarchs, and has skills that were literally shared by nobody in the world. My mother did tall ship sail racing in the 70s and made speed records. She also emigrated to the USA with money she made winning songwriting contests. She played many musical instruments, and after 3 years couldn’t find a banjo player in our city who could teach her anything. My other grandfather was a popular state legislative representative and wrote 5 widely read books on the native anthropology of his region. My Dad had a masters degree in computer science in 1979 and spent his career troubleshooting the most complicated and high tech copy machines in production. My aunt learned to speak 3 languages fluently after becoming deaf at age 12, and had a 30 year career as a historian and librarian. Almost everyone in my family have this kind of accomplishment in their own sphere.

    I have always known that my accomplishments should only be restricted by my dedication to my goals. However, it seems like I can’t ever finish anything, but only work in obsessive spurts to the point at which I know in my heart that I could succeed brilliantly, with the proper effort. At that point, I lose interest, find something else, and move on. So my resume is full of embarrassing half starts and I am relatively accomplished in a wide range of really diverse fields. I have no idea how to pick something and settle in for good so I have nothing to show for the level of mastery I have actually achieved. But I am practically addicted to that part where I come over the crest of a new subject or skill which I am now better at than anyone I know, and can see the pinnacle of mastery just ahead.

    I love your blog by the way. Thanks for sharing your passion and personality.

  28. ann hooker says:

    keep doing what you’re doing. the world needs you. way too many fake bitches in the world (and that includes the men too). mastery in writing you have achieved. sounds like a cliche because it is – keep doing what you love and the money will follow. you’ll be on oprah one day mark my word.

  29. ann hooker says:

    another thing. these commentators that wax so poetically about you finding your balance or your way back to your spouse are infuriating. these are the same people who think their life is the bomb, when in reality they are probably in denial. have seen it so many times. and if their life were really a phenom, they would certainly not be commenting to you about how your life needs this change or that change. they would simply have more sense than to spout off like that. grrrrr

  30. Jens Fiederer says:

    Quick (likely, can’t say I can be completely authoritative here) correction:

    The doll is probably NOT a blow-up doll. Blow-up dolls are invariably hideous, and very difficult to pose. The NYT article (at http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/21/artifacts-laurie-simmonss-love-doll/ ) says “The dolls weigh nearly 60 pounds, and though they have joints and limbs that move, proved to be not all that pliable.”

  31. Erin says:

    “The beginnings of relationships are all the same, but deeper connections require understanding more and more about yourself to keep going.”

    I think being in love long term is the greatest intellectual and emotional achievement one can have in the lifetime. Its like keeping a candle lit when it’s windy.

  32. Varun says:

    There is a difference between mastery and proficiency.

    You can master that hill by walking up it. Why did you choose sprints? The hill is not what you want to master, it’s uphill running. And uphill running will make you a proficient sprinter, but it won’t make you a master sprinter. Heck, even the best sprinters STILL need coaches.

    I’ll take proficiency over mastery any day. Proficiency gets the job done well, mastery seems to get the job done perfectly, however long that takes. Proficiency is not mediocrity, it’s stepping above without unreasonably stepping beyond. It’s about maximizing growth and return before they diminish, without becoming a perfectionist.

    Moreover, proficiency gives you room to move laterally. I’d rather be a good lacrosse player & learn chess rather than be the next great thing in lacrosse without learning anything else. I refuse to be a hyperspecialist/master in anything: it leads to pointless perfection rather than purposeful growth. One of my favorite quotes:

    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” – Robert A. Heinlein

    Now, i reread your post, and i dont think i misunderstood you, since you didnt deliniate between mastery and perfectionism. But if i misread you, my apologies.

    – Varun

    P.S. as far as sexual mastery is concerned, any tips for a 24yr old male? (other than buying an iPhone haha)

  33. Varun says:

    *delineate

  34. PM says:

    I love mastery too, I cannot just do something, I have to really ‘know’ it :)
    I often wonder if it is because I love to learn, or because competency is so important to me,( being an NT ( I am an INTJ)) or because I am somehow seeking approval( from my parents?) or acceptance ( from friends?) or just the voice in my head ?
    It is exhausting on days like today, but on other days, I am energized by the process of learning…

    I love your blog and have forwarded many posts to many friends and co-workers…

  35. Bernie says:

    In many ways mastery means victory, or even winning. If we think about it like that, it reminds me of this post from last year: http://www.jasonshen.com/2010/winning-isnt-normal/

  36. Aurélie says:

    I’d like to know, after all your research on happiness, do you think that mastery makes people happy?

    I personnally think that mastery, trying to be the first or the best at something, is hugely overrated and almost always delusionnal. Being somewhat good at your job is important, but I don’t think you can ever master anything. You only master what your mind has delimited as your playing field, you only attain the goals you have yourself set. We are subjective beings: we can never be totally objective about what we do, what we think we master.

    As a foreigner, it seems to me that american people are particularly prone at fooling themselves into mastering stuff. It’s probably related to the “american dream” and “you can do anything” culture.
    Having taken a few years of piano lessons doesn’t make you a pianist. Being a pianist is a job, and it takes years of training, and you can never truly master Music. You just try getting better at performing it.

    I like to play piano sometimes, to take pictures, to write stuff. Those are no jobs to me, I do them because they make me feel good and I love it. I’ve never tried to “master” them or being the best at it, I play when I feel like it and it feels good and it makes me happy.
    It sure doesn’t help me to make more money or anything but, to me, humble amateurism is the key to happinness.

  37. H says:

    Oh, look. SEO keywords: The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Body, incest, sex, Leo Babauta.

  38. Harriet May says:

    This is really interesting to me, because all of my childhood and my adolescence I felt like a loser. I felt like I was not good at anything. I thought that was because I had no talent, but the truth is I had no motivation to become really good at something. I don’t have tiger parents, and I didn’t develop enough focus on my own. Until I developed an eating disorder and got into running. That was the first time I had any real focus, and I remember my parents saying things like “If only you concentrated as hard on your schoolwork as you do running…” without paying any attention to the fact that I wasn’t eating and getting dangerously obsessive. But now, even though sometimes I feel that I’m not a runner, I know that I know a great deal about it. And I find eating disorders fascinating too. And now I am coming to realize that I do have a lot of interests, and I’m getting closer to mastering them. It’s hard to realize that mastery does not happen over night; it’s a process. In an age of instant gratification, I think that’s the hardest part. But I’m overcoming that. I’m getting better at mastery.

  39. Jens Fiederer says:

    @Dee – I believe Penelope is on the record that she believes crude sexual terms are NOT good SEO, because (IIRC) too many other sites are doing it.

    • Dee says:

      @ Jens – Fair enough. What about Iphone; Android; lick?
      Woman is good

      • H says:

        She is good because many of her fans appear to have no idea why her posts are so freaking random. If I read one more fawning, gushing comment about how she links random ideas together to create something special, I’ll vomit. Hey fanboys and girls, it’s called SEO. Look it up.

  40. BrendaH says:

    Please tell me this-because it’s my problem. How do you plan something long term, like mastery of the hill at the farm, when you aren’t even speaking with the Farmer and the whole relationship seems to be teetering and you could even have, in the back of your mind, that you are going to have to leave the farm soon. How can you make a lon-term plan in this situation?

  41. Kathy says:

    I don’t know anyone that is happy full-time w/life in general or whomever they spend their time with. Not possible…. The great days of your life will always be mixed w/not so great days, that’s what life is.

  42. MyWifeThinksImADonkey says:

    methinks that maybe:

    (Happy == Selflessness) && (Interesting == Selfishness)

  43. MJ says:

    I’m perfectly happy with mastering the things I really care about, and being mediocre in the things I don’t. Mastery does not equal happiness, but a balanced and well-rounded life might.

  44. Shayla says:

    Penelope, have you read The Four Agreements or The Mastery of Love by Don Miguel Ruiz? They’re short. The Four Agreements could, at times, seem a bit “hokey” (not sure if that’s the right word) but I think totally applicable at various points in your (and/or the farmer’s) relationship and life together.

  45. Riley Harrison says:

    I don’t even know where to start commenting on your blog. The question that I’m always dying to ask over achievers is: Are you really any happier than a forest monk and if not then what.
    Riley

  46. GutsyWriter says:

    Wow, you’re all over the place with this post. Mastery, blow up dolls, sex or lack of it, where am I? Confused like you. Perhaps that’s what I’m supposed to feel, there fore a job well done.

  47. Ben says:

    I am fascinated by mastery as well. I know that in order to be really good at something I would need to be a committed to goal in mind and deliberate practice of it through the years.

    The funny thing is that I am at the age where I can make something happen for myself (26) and really go on and master something career wise.

    However, nowadays it seems like opportunities are endless and its hard to pick something!

  48. Maureen Sharib says:

    Was Margaux Fragoso a heroin addict? I’ve read there’s high correlation between sexual abuse as children and drug/alcohol abuse in adults. I wonder if there may be a link also with other kinds of addictive behaviors?

    • PJayBee says:

      I was extremely sexually abused by my step-father from age 5 to 16, when I left home forever. I supported myself from that moment on. I put myself thru UCLA, then got an MSW, and now I’m an attorney.

      I internalized my sexual abuse. I get sick a lot; flu, swine flu, strep throat, UTI, earaches, diverticulitis, even tho I’m thin and a vegetarian, etc. Oh, and did I mention migraine? Banging, suicidal migraine. And sleep? None o’ that, unless I have a pill or vodka. (My step-dad attacked in the dead of night when I was asleep. I tried to stay awake to avoid it. Now I can’t fall asleep, even tho I know he is long gone.)

      Externally, I am calm and strong and in control in the courtroom. I know how to fake it, fake it really well. But the energy it takes being a Normal is exhausting, particularly because I’m an introvert.

      I’ve read journal articles describing just this. Many of us who were recipients of repeated child rape get sick: either physically sick or mentally ill. I “chose” physical sickness because it is tangible and treatable. The few remaining members of my biological family are all mentally ill (not hyperbole, really, DSM psychosis, bi-polar, schizophrenia, paranoid personality disorder).

      But damn, we are all scarred, P in her own way, and I in mine, and each other molested girl or boy in their own ways. May the universe bless us all, because history is never past. We live in our history.

      • EVELYN MACPHEE says:

        Thank you for your candor and honesty. about your childhood.

        Mine, too. At 63 I am still dealing with the fallout.

        My heart is with you and the rest of us.

        Blessings upon you and all of us.

  49. Christina Frasher says:

    Penelope,

    I very much enjoy reading your posts about the Farmer, he seems like a wonderful man-hold onto him. I know that you have stated that you have Aspergers and that is beautiful that you can express that out into the world. However I believe that being an aspie is a gift and as such should be treated with respect. There is great creative energy running through you is a gift and needs to be focused and not allowed to flow through whatever instinctual feeling one encounters. Otherwise you will become a projection of what everyone puts onto the aspergers individual; ie an irrational nut. Incest is a backward flowing and not forward flowing of creative energy. I bet if that writer had focused her energy into creating something new and not in going back to what had happened to her (symbolic of not being able to heal for her) then she would find the healing she seeks, which she needs because no one in her life provided forward flowing, growth. That is mastery…it takes more than persistance and hard work-it takes guts to go where we are afraid to go, into the darkness. The past is already seen, the future is darkness and that is where one needs to go to grow to be a Master and not mastered.

    PS Farmers are pretty good at all of the aspects mentioned above :)

  50. BrendaH says:

    Penelope, I am sure other readers, like me, want to know if you are making money? Are you self sufficient now that you are on the farm? You don’t mention the farmer’s family anymore. Have you resolved your issues with them? Do you actually see this relationship as long-term? Are you hanging on so the boys have some degree of permanance in their lives? The farmer seems kind of like a dullard to me-I always wondered–way back in the beginning how could this really appeal to you? You, who likes to go to Cali to get you eyebrows done…?

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