What is Skill Mastery? 5 Characteristics You Should Know

The most important outcome of education is not a grade. Grades are about as useful as age in predicting real world success. What’s works better? Mastering skills.

Written by Murray Johannsen. I welcome connections via LinkedIn or directly on this website. And DON’T MISS OUT on insightful content on our Linkedin feeds. Themes include: 21st Century Skills: What’s Needed and What’s Not; AI Savvy: Essential Skills For AI at Work; and Bootstrapping Your Dreams: Growing  Digital Business Skills.

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What is Skill Mastery?

“Before you start down any path, you should have a clear destination.” Murray Johannsen

We find adepts in all aspects of life. Some possess their ability primarily due to genetics (i.e. Mozark). For others, the competency came about as a result of conscious, purposeful learning over many years (Beethoven). And for many, it’s a bit of both.

  • Just because you know, it doesn’t mean you can do, and
  • Just because you can do, doesn’t mean you can teach.

The Current Situation

Universities Lots of Theories. But Skill Mastery? Not so Much

You would think that in business schools, the professors would tend toward the practical. But even here, many full-time professors cannot apply their expertise outside of the classroom. We commonly see professors in entrepreneurship that never had and never will start a business. A cynic would say they had a business, couldn’t make it work, and decided to teach.

Experts Are Often Not Skilled

We see experts who are not skilled in what they are “experts” in. Someone who cannot put theory into practice is like being blind and lecturing on color.

This is one of the most common failings of a four-year university. For the system rewards theory wonks with degrees in something they can’t do.

I once met a professor who was teaching market theory to undergrads. In other words, these undergrads were paying good money for some sound advice so they might become a future Warren Buffet. So I asked him, “How often do you trade?” The reply, “Oh, I don’t trade since it would interfere with my research.”

Things aren’t much better in the social sciences. For example, there are professors in Buddhism that cannot meditate. Reminds me of the chef who writes a cookbook yet cannot make a decent meal.

5 Characteristics of Signifying Skill Mastery

“The mastery of nature is vainly believed to be an adequate substitute for self-mastery.” — Reinhold Niebuhr

1. The Skill Shifts from Running Consciously to Unconsciously

Stars on Ice, 2010 Halifax by David Carmichael

What works for Olympic athletes also works for certain common skills such as driving. In fact, driving becomes so automatic that many individuals remember practically nothing while driving between work and home. Imagine that the next time you are on a freeway, that the person on the right and the left, the one in front and the back, are all not paying attention to their driving. Yet, we manage to get to our destination safely.

Driving is a common skill that reaches the mastery stage for almost everyone. Driving becomes so automatic, that many individuals have the experience of leaving work for home but remembering nothing in between leaving work and getting home. Contrast this experience with trying to find an address in a strange area of town.

In the second case, much more conscious monitoring of the environment occurs since the scenery is novel. In fact, a stranger to an area can always be spotted. These individuals drive slower than everyone else, are the only individuals looking at street signs, and like to make lane changes just before an intersection.

The importance of the unconscious in this process cannot be overestimated. For example, in the Four Competencies Model (Wikipedia, N.D.), one goes through a progression of four phases, two of which are primarily conscious and two of which are not.  

Unconscious incompetence

In this phase, we neither know nor understand what needs to be done. Nor can we do it. In some cases, one does not even know that one is incompetent. This more commonly occurs in mental skills. One may not even realize that one is a poor listener. Typically, something triggers a realization that one is not skilled and needs to be skilled.

Conscious incompetence

In this phase, an individual makes efforts to improve but knows they will make a number of mistakes.  Learning and recognizing mistakes is a critical element of proficiency.

Conscious Competence

However, demonstrating requires concentration and awareness. Proficiency becomes better but mistakes are still made.

Unconscious Competence

Most of us might consider that we are fairly skilled in food preparation. And microwave chefs surely have mastered the process of getting the food from the freezer to the microwave.  What makes the video so fascinating in the precise movements associated with preparing the vegetables an the meets. Not a motion wasted. And the speed, so very fast. You will see many of the characteristics of mastery: speed, precision and a sense of the aesthetic.

The skill is second nature and does not even require conscious awareness for it to run. An example is the typing of individual letters by your fingers. One doesn’t need to thing about what finger hits the key for l or d. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. Sometimes an individual can teach it to others. Sometimes they can’t. 

However, if one stops a unconscious competence, one falls into the trap of practice without improvement. That’s why we have added another phase known as mindful competence. 

Mindful Competence

This is a very interesting state in which mindfulness practices allow one to monitor and even intervene in the script from time to time. It is one of the reasons we expose members to this practice early–unconscious competence means the behavior runs for good or ill without conscious intervention.

2. Motivation Comes From the Both the Conscious and the Unconscious 

“Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason, mastery demands all of a person.” — Albert Einstein

Painting by: Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912): Unconscious Rivals

Some skills require you to put willpower into it. For example, we were runners will tell you that you can get into a state in which your running is effortless. But at times, when you will have to add willpower to go the distance.

The more I think about this, the more amazing it is. When at the mastery stage, you don’t have to use willpower to type. Your fingers effortlessly float across the keyboard. We walk but don’t put any effort into it. Even runners talk about getting into a rhythm where the body just seems to run by itself.

Contrast this to learning something new. Think back to the first time you rode a bike without training wheels. In those early minutes of panic and anxiety, you concentrated totally on the task of not falling. But after a while, the unconscious takes over running the body and you don’t even consciously think about it anymore. Magic.

3. Speed is Greatly Enhanced

“You cannot achieve speed by speedy practice. The only way to get fast is to be deep, wide awake, and slow.”  — The Listening Book by W.A. Mathieu, p. 101

Here speed increases to the point where little conscious thought is possible. Take professional basketball or soccer as an example. A shot gets taken, a ball gets passed, all without conscious thought. For a player to think, “He’s open,” before passing means delaying action just enough to lose the opportunity.

Even certain normal physical limitations can be overcome in this stage. The story is told about a woman who had the job of rolling cigars by hand. But she was never happy about her performance and continually improved over a period of five years — all except for the last year. She had not reached her physical limitation, one of the machines she was using could not go faster.

The Alphabet (in 1.72 seconds). This is a nice one to test for whether you are a novice or an expert typist. How quickly can you type 26 letters?

4. One Experiences Great Accuracy and Precision 

“Ah, mastery… what a profoundly satisfying feeling when one finally gets on top of a new set of skills.” — Gail Sheehy

2011 World Figure Skating Championships, free skating. Image by: doorstop

“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” – Vince Lombard

During the mastery stage, individuals exhibit exceptional accuracy. Think of basketball free-throw completions. Contrast a novice in high school with the shooting percentage of the pros.

Or take typing as an example. Most people start by hunting and pecking the keys at less than twenty words a minute with lots of mistakes. With practice, typing becomes more automatic, more accurate and speeds of fifty to sixty words a minute are not unusual. If the person keeps on training, speed can improve to over 100 words a minute with few errors a page (Wikipedia, ND).


Over learning is defined as spending an immense about of time practicing. In this video, one see that even punching would is not as easy as it appears. An example would be the huge amount of time spend in practice, every day, for years. Just for the probability of getting a medal. Take for example, professional skaters. By the time they get good enough to be paid, they will have spent thousand of hours on the ice practicing.

In the case of chess, “It took an average of 11,000 hours to reach 2200. One player needed around 3,000 hours to reach 2200, while another player spent more than 23,000 hours to achieve the same level. The average master (rated 2257) had 7.0 years of serious practice. The average expert (2174) had 1.03 years of serious practice. Experts increased their chess-playing skill level very little with time, whereas masters kept increasing theirs.” (Hearst, Eliot and Knott, John, 2010)

5. Skill Mastery Requires Practice — Sometimes Hundreds or Thousands Hours 

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” ― Michelangelo

Spending thousands of hours becoming an expert is not unusual. In the field of fine wines, there is a small group who are recognized as experts in the field. The Court of Master Sommeliers, (CMS) established in 1977, is an independent examining body that offers the Master Sommelier Diploma. Individuals must spend months of daily study (and wine tasting of course) preparing. The certification is so difficult that less than 300 people across the world can pass.

 “Knowledge is never converted into skill without practice.” — Murray Johannsen


Wall, Bill (N.D). The Cognitive Psychology of Chess. Chess.com

Hearst, Eliot and Knott, John (2010) Chess as a Behavioral Model for Cognitive Skill Research: Review of Blindfold Chess, Journal of Experimental Analytical Behavior. November; 94 (3): 373–386.
Wikipedia (N.D.). The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition

Wikipedia (N.D.). Four Stages of Competence.Hoorens, Vera (1993). “Self-enhancement and Superiority Biases in Social Comparison”. European Review of Social Psychology (Psychology Press) 4 (1): 113–139.

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