What Is Mastery, Why It’s Important, and 8 Cool Examples

“Be all that you can be.” — Ad Slogan, United States Army

Those who have mastered skill mastery are the best in their field. And if you are the best, success, fame, status, and money typically follow.

by Murray Johannsen.  Feel to connect to the author by Linkedin or by email.  

Yun-Na Kim Showing her Gold medal for figure skating. Image by: amex
Yun-Na Kim Showing her Gold medal for figure skating. Image by: amex

What is Mastery?

Image by: SD Dirk: High Jump Triton Invitational 2011
Image by: SD Dirk: High Jump Triton Invitational 2011

WE are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — Aristotle


Mastery is a special state of mind in which the skill runs almost entirely within the unconscious (Johannsen, 1986).  It implies a level of practice that approaches perfection.

The drive to be the best did not begin in the modern era, it has always been something a small number of individuals chose to do. After all, mastery involves being great, and being great is a lot of work. Much easier to die forgotten. 

How Do You Achieve Mastery?

We have many examples of mastery. The most obvious example is that of the Olympics. Endless hours of practice to master a skill, endless chances of fall by the wayside. But for those who get the gold, you have your moment in the sun and the possibility of some type of corporate sponsorship. 

But there are some who hare born with the — a special talent. Mozart was that way. It had the ability even as a child to hear something and be able to reply it perfecting.

The first rule of mastery: practice, practice, practice. It’s like the first rule of real estate: location, location, location.

Physical practice is important. But mental practice is more important still. The mind processes mental and physical practice the same way — they both work.

How Can Mastery Be Achieved Faster?

“If we don’t have a vision of the future, we are lost in the present.” — Murray Johannsen

Skill Mapping. The Future of Career Development.  Decide what skills you need to prosper in the 21st Century

Skill-Based Learning. What You Need, When You Need It. The theory you need to know but were never taught.

The Mastery Practices. The Secrets to Lifelong Learning. The five mental skills that shorten the time from novice to mastery.

Examples of Mastery

The detail of the Alexander The Great Mosaic, made about 100 B.C.
The detail of Alexander The Great . Mosaic was made about 100 B.C. Alexander deserves the title great added to his name. For he mastered the skill needed to be a great king and an even better general.

Walking and riding a bike are examples of two skills that reach the autonomous stage. Have you ever watched a baby take its first step? Most parents realize that there is a great amount of effort and practice walking which leads to a baby walking on its own.

Or think back to the first time of riding a bike without training wheels. In those few minutes of panic and anxiety on the bike, individuals concentrate totally on the nature of the task of not falling. After a few hours of practice, however, the unconscious takes over and the conscious mind becomes free to think about other matters.

Example 1: World Record Holders

Here is an example of mastery on a trampoline

Humans have mastered all sorts of things. Some like to call this a “superpower.”

Superhumans. There is an interesting show called Stan Lee’s Superhumans. Many are ordinary people except that they have one special ability that makes them truly special. One can withstand high temperatures in a sauna, another can run for 16 hours, for a third, its speed when shooting guns, while another shoots arrows with truly incredible accuracy, etc.

And sometimes the skill starts really young, as in the case of Jessica Mah, who built on core computer skills to go on and grew a successful start-up.

Example 2: Great Aptitude Developed 

We have all known people who have a gift for something. Individuals like Mozart can hear a song once and then play it perfectly. Aptitude and talent always makes mastery easier..

Example 3: An Innate Ability Not Practiced: Photographic Memory

The famous psychologist, A. R. Luria, (1968) studied a person with an eidetic (photographic) memory and then wrote a book called Mind of a Mnemonist. This person was cursed to remember the details of even the most mundane of tasks, actions you perform thousands of times throughout life. Can you imagine what it would be like to perfectly remember washing your hands or brushing your teeth? Still, others come very close (Foer, 2006). I even ran across one person like this once.

I was not graced with a phenomenal memory. Getting a degree in pharmacy required a great deal of effort and endless hours inputting drug descriptions from sources such as the Physicians Desk Reference. For each drug, you would have to remember its brand name, its generic name, dosage, how it worked in the body, the class of drugs it was part of, contraindications, possible adverse reactions, etc.

However, I once had a next-door neighbor who never seemed to do any type of study. He might open a book 24 hours before an exam, but that was about it. So I asked him once about this.

He told me he could make a mental picture of every page in the textbook and then pull the information from that page to get an A. He went on to become a doctor of course.

Want Results More Quickly?

Tired of sitting in a class for 12 or 15 weeks learning how to be a theory wonk? Want to practice to build skills?

Mastery Examples From the Movies

Cooking Chinese Food

Eat Drink Man and Woman — Opening Scene. Watch a master chef preparing food. You will see many of the characteristics of mastery: speed, precision, and a sense of the aesthetic.

Perfect Ability to Remember Smells

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. In this movie, the main character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, possessed olfactory mastery. But while he could create great perfumes, he completely lacked compassion and empathy.

A Math Genius

Periodically, you see a movie about an “idiot savant.” These individuals have a special ability, but certain human relations skills remain undeveloped. Below are a couple of examples.

Rain Man. In this storyline, a mathematical genius (sometimes known as an idiot savant) lacks basic social skills. His social skills are so bad that he has to be institutionalized. Still, this kind of ability comes in handy if your ethically challenged brother likes to make money gambling in Las Vegas.

Example 5: A Mastery Example Based on Thousands of Hours of Practice — The Chess Master

To understand how to make good decisions, one must understand the limitations of rationality. — M. Johannsen

Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912): Egyptian chess players

Over the years, studies such as those by Chase and Simon (1973) and Degroot (1965) discovered important differences between chess masters and those who are novices. In fact, DeGroot wrote a classic book called Thought and Choice in Chess. This serves as the basis for some of our fundamental assumptions about how novices differ from experts.

In these studies, researchers divide the sample into beginners and experts (really easy to do in chess) and ask them to verbally explain what they are thinking as they play the game.

Some thought patterns are the same. For example, both groups say they look ahead 30 to 50 moves. But it’s the differences between the two groups that are really interesting.

First, experts were better able to recall and memorize patterns of play of the twenty-five pieces on the board more quickly than new players. But if pieces were arranged randomly, they did no better than novices.

Second, masters have stored a large number of patterns in memory—somewhere between 50 and 100 thousand; for which it takes somewhere between 10,000 to 20,000 hours to learn. Technically, these patterns are known as heuristics; or rules of thumb that allow one to find a solution without checking all possible alternatives. As you might expect, part of this ability runs unconsciously.

Third, masters process information differently than a novice. Instead of seeing 25 pieces, they typically saw 5-7 patterns, each pattern called a chunk.

Fourth, masters take less time to learn new heuristics than novices. But this accelerated learning did not transfer to other domains.

Fifth, masters did not develop their logical/deductive abilities — they developed the visual memory system. They could see patterns in the mind’s eye. De Groot concluded that for chess, it was the visual memory system that most enhanced play. Also, memory was particularly important since there are no new moves in chess.


This is an old teaching story. One written down by Aesop ages ago. Besides being something to tell the kids at bedtime, it contains timeless wisdom if you know how to tease it out.

Skill-based learning requires a different way of thinking and a different way of learning compared to what you are used to (Wikipedia, N.D.). The importance of finding good skill-based theory, of skillful practice, and staying with it until you have achieved mastery cannot be overestimated.


“There is no end to education. It is not enough that you read a book, pass an examination, and get a degree. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.” — Jiddu Krishnamurti

“WE are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — Aristotle

What’s Mastery, Why Your Want it, How To Achieve It. It turns out, that mastery is a new concept to many.

Why Mastery Eludes Us: Four Must Understand Barriers. If it were is, everyone could do it.

The Three Levels of Mastery Learning. If you don’t know what you are doing, you can be a maven at one level and a novice at the next.


“You can’t’ do math without getting good at the basics. You can’t quickly learn skills without the Mastery Practices.” – Murray Johannsen

Chase, W.G. and Simon, H., 1973, “Perception in chess”, in Cognitive Psychology, 4, p.55—81.

DeGroot, Adrian (1965). Thought and Choice in Chess. Mouton De Gruyter.

Foer, Joshua (2006). Kaavya Syndrome: The accused Harvard plagiarist doesn’t have a photographic memory. No one does, Slate, April 27

Germain, M. L. (2005). Apperception and self-identification of managerial and subordinate expertise. Academy of Human Resource Development. Estes Park, CO. February 24–27.

Germain, M. L. (2006, February). What experts are not: Factors identified by managers as disqualifiers for selecting subordinates for expert team membership. Academy of Human Resource Development Conference. Columbus, OH. February 22–26

Isenberg, Daniel (1984). How Senior Managers Think. Harvard Business Review, November.

Ingraham, Christopher (2014). The College Majors Most Likely To Lead to Underemployment, Washington Post, August 26.

Johannen, M. (2014). 7 Reasons Skills Don’t Get Developed. Legacee. This article presents five causes for why organizations and individuals don’t practice skill-based learning. 

Johnson, Diane (2014). Why Companies Want Competency-Based Education. EvoLLLution: Illuminating the Life Long Learning Environment.

Johannsen, Murray (1986). Bias and Error in Judgmental Heuristics, Harvard University, March.

Llopis, George (2013). Three Questions Great Leaders Ask Themselves More Than Once. Forbes, July 1.

Luria, A.R. (1968). The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About A Vast Memory. Harvard University Press.

Wikipedia (ND). Mozart’s Compositional Method

Wikipedia (ND). Observational Learning.

Wikipedia (ND). Words Per Minute.

Wikipedia, (N.D.), The Nature of an Expert.

First Published on May 9, 2016. Last Updated: October 19, 2022 

Work Skills For the 21st Century