This article explores the transition you can make as you learn and develop a love for the work you do. It will describe the transitions from early Explorer to Novice, then to Practitioner before others can then start to recognise you as you progress to become an Expert and, for the very few, a Master.
The Start of the Journey
Looking back I’ve spent time thinking about my journey and watching others. I wanted to understand how business people learn, how they develop and grow and where some of the greatest achievers get to on that journey.
As you began your journey you were an explorer. By listening and observing more experienced business people, people with authority, insights and knowledge, you would begin to try things out. You probably (if you were like me) make lots of mistakes and like some explorers occasionally get lost. If this new land is exciting enough you will continue to develop and build skills, gaining confidence as you do.
Study alone is necessary, but not sufficient. Ken Pawlak and William Bergquist suggest that this “pedagogic” learning (the same way we learn as children) is important in forming the fundations of understanding. They also show that it is at this stage that many behavioural traits and habits can be formed.
We’ve seen this too, in the past few months (since March 2020), with businesses having to make changes in the way they work as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic. Nearly every business has had to become explorers again for some aspects of the work, perhaps learning to use video conferencing tools, or to coordinate teams now working from home.
Novices Make Mistakes
You can only be an explorer for a while; once you know enough to do some of the work you start to gain experience. In this phase, you learn by trying and failing. You aren’t learning by rote, but through experience, (something Psychologist Malcolm Knowles described in 1980 as “Andragogic” (adult) learning). Your inexperience may trip you up, but with your knowledge, determination and intention, you will improve.
Questions are a key part of the experience, to build your understanding as different tools and techniques are tried and tested. Key to success at this stage is documenting the learning, embedding it, and harnessing it. This takes time, but it is crucial in effectively moving to the next stage of development, practitioner, particularly if the ambition is to move further beyond that. Gradually you learn how to do the best job that we can.
Professional Businesses Rely on Practitioners
At this point in the journey, you have put the knowledge you gained from being an explorer and applied the experience of your work into practice. You are a practitioner. For some, the skills you need can take many years.
Doctors for example will spend six years in tertiary education before they begin to specialise and build experience in the specific area they choose. Similarly airline pilots spend many years learning to fly first in small planes and then in simulators. Only then can they have some time at the controls of a large passenger flight.
All the learning is put into practice as you become the solid, capable, business practitioner, who does the work effectively and efficiently.
The journey towards mastery takes time
If you want to be a professional you need to dedicate the time it takes, to explore, to be a novice and to become a practitioner of your ‘art’.
You cannot short-circuit the journey towards mastery.
You need the knowledge, and the time to hone the skills and embed the experience.
Stepping Up by Building Expertise
For some, further development is not a goal. Being good at what they do is sufficient and they choose to remain as accomplished practitioners in their field. Is that you, or do you want to push on?
Most businesses perform well at what they do because they have great practitioners delivering the work. To build expertise, to become recognised as an expert you have to share your knowledge. As a practitioner you probably taught the explorers and novices what they needed to know to do the work. That teaching helped you to understand your work in depth. Not just the ways to do it but as you start to recognise the nuances and subtleties you start to stand out. Others see you as an expert in your field. You are getting to the top of your game. When I see others here, I’ve noticed how their work changes, with more leadership of others. They spend less time with the explorers and novices, and more with practitioners, and even those who are becoming expert themselves. The psychologists tell us that this is now about “transformative” education. Passing on your understanding the nature of what you do rather than just how you do it. Experts know how to take experience in one context and apply it in another.
Too often I have seen business people race to take leadership roles, but if you move too quickly you may not have the tools you need to be the expert. Without them you simply cannot reach mastery.
In the journey to mastery, you can only move on when you are truly ready.
When you push ahead without the foundations of the previous steps and you will find times of being out of your depth, feeling like an imposter, and without the confidence to harness your true value to others.
Take Better Photographs, or Be a Better Photographer?
Recently I took a course in photography. Photography has been a hobby of mine for some time. I would say that I am reasonably good at handling a camera. A solid practitioner, with some expertise, but not yet as an expert. The course I studied was from Jimmy Chin, an adventure photographer working with magazines like National Geographic. His course did not teach me to take better photographs. He taught me what it would mean to be a photographer. Identity rather than my skill.
I see this too, in some of my clients and the people that I work with. Experts in their field now seeking to lift their game. To become more than just an expert at doing what they do. They are thinking about how they will turn up in the world. How they behave and address the issues that they find in their field. They are asking questions that few ask, and that is a special skill. Is it one you have honed?
The Pinnacle of Mastery
For a very few, the call to mastery remains powerful and compelling. You will start to think about your identity, rather than your profession. Who you are, rather than just what you do. You appreciate all that you know, and your skills are solidly based at a deep level. You will have learned what it means to truly appreciate all that has gone before, and how it has created the person that you now are.
From a psychological viewpoint, this time of learning is qualitatively different from the others. Known as “appreciative” learning it is emotional and difficult, but it is critical to do so if you wish to become a master. As a master, you will advise and counsel rather than direct, and you will be able, in an instant, to lift the conversation to a higher level. You will help people to be, rather than to do. “Master” is a role, not a title, it is borne of action and values, not self-proclamation or accreditation. It’s not about self or ego, but about the greater good of the greatest number of people. Your wisdom will be sought out widely and respected by all.
It’s for the few, not the many.
For many people Mastery is not required. As practitioners and experts their work provides all that they need. Only a few ever climb to this pinnacle.
Only a few have the commitment not just to become experts but to go on to mastery, to elevate others in their market, and the market itself. This isn’t because only a few can be chosen. It’s because only a few will choose to make that journey their life’s work. If this, for you, is the thing that truly matters, your magnum opus, then let’s speak.
- Four Models of Adult Education. (2014, March 28). The Professional School of Psychology. https://psychology.edu/about/four-models-of-adult-education/.
- MasterClass | Jimmy Chin Teaches Adventure Photography. (n.d.). MasterClass. https://www.masterclass.com/classes/jimmy-chin-teaches-adventure-photography.
Image by: William Buist © 2020