Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

Thoughts About Mastery

Mastery. Becoming an expert. Being a ninja or rockstar. That seems to be everyone’s goal these days. And a lot of people are describing themselves with those, and similar, terms.

To be honest, there’s nothing wrong with becoming an expert. But do you need to achieve that level of mastery with everything you do? I don’t think so. Chances are, you won’t have the time or the ability to master everything that you want to do. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

Often, it’s sufficient to learn just enough to get by. And maybe, just maybe, a little bit more. I call that gaining situational knowledge. It’s worked for me in the past, and it can work for you too.

Situational Knowledge?

That’s what I call the knowledge you have for the duration of a project or a trip or whatever it is you’re doing. Knowledge that you’ll use at a particular time, but which you’ll probably let fade after six months (or less). Maybe it won’t fade, but it won’t be as far to the front of your brain as is newer knowledge that you subsequently pick up.

Over the years, I’ve used situational knowledge to my advantage as a professional freelance and technical writer. I’ve been able to quickly get a grasp of a technology or a subject or a way of doing things, which has allowed me complete a job faster and more efficiently than if I tried to become an expert.

Telling Tales in Foreign Tongues

How can you apply this to your life? Take, for example, learning a foreign language. There’s a cadre of self-described linguists on the internet, a portion of whom seem to collect languages in the way that others collect trading cards.

That attitude is fine (but only marginally so) for someone who’s passionate about language learning. Whatever passion I had for that evaporated a long time ago. While I’ve never been much good at learning languages, there are still times when I do need to gain some ability in a foreign tongue. Mainly when I’m travelling. And for that, situational knowledge is one of the keys to a better, more enjoyable trip.

I learn enough of a language to get by. And that’s more than the ability to ask where the toilets are! On the other hand, it’s not at the level at which I can have a lengthy conversation with a native speaker. It’s just what I can learn in a compressed time frame, contingent on the amount of time and energy I have of course.

Acquiring situational knowledge has allowed me to do that with several languages, I’ve also been able to pick up a little more in the way of vocabulary during my trips. Best of all, the fact that I’m trying really hard to communicate with the locals can help grease the wheels in most situations. They’ll take a bit more time with me, under the (correct) assumption that I’m not expecting them to speak English and that I’m taking an interest in their country and culture.

Sure, fluency or mastery would make things even easier but I don’t find that necessary. And since I’ll never reach those lofty heights with a language I don’t bother shooting for either.

Summing Up

Mastery is fine. But don’t make that your overriding ambition. You can’t master everything you do. And guess what? It’s OK to just be OK at something. It’s OK to be mediocre. It’s OK to just be pretty good at something.

No matter what your level of proficiency, or the level of proficiency that you’re aiming for, the key to is to have fun. To get some pleasure from what you’re doing or learning. I’ll be talking more about this in my next post.

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