This morning I was thinking a lot about mastery — about the process of getting great anything, whether it’s weight loss or building a business, achieving a fitness goal or even having a successful relationship. Part of what I do is coach people to their goals, but I also try to push myself in new directions. So I was thinking about what I plan to do next, and how I’m going to do it.
It occurred to me that three words sum up the path to mastery: imitate, emulate and innovate. I’ve been pretty lucky (thanks to a good dose of natural stubbornness — or what my blunt-to-a-fault grandmother called my “willfulness”) to have come close to mastery at a few different things. Each time I imitated, emulated and, eventually, innovated. Nearly all of my most successful friends and clients have followed that routine, too.
The best thing is, once you learn how to master something — once you’ve gone through the process — you get better at mastering each new thing you decide to tackle. You gain something called self-efficacy — which, basically, is your own belief in your own abilities to accomplish something. (For what it’s worth, I thought I was pretty clever coming up with “imitate, emulate and innovate,” then I Googled those words and found out I’m not all that clever. Apparently business leaders teach the same process.)
Before you can begin the process of earning swagger, you have to identify what it is you want to do. True story: this will change. It’ll evolve into something better than you thought, because what it will become is something unique to you.
So, now you’ve chosen your goal. Great!
Imitate. That goal you want to accomplish? Find someone (someone who preferably started out like you) who has accomplished something similar. Maybe it’s someone in your real life. Maybe it’s someone you stalk on Twitter. Then, do what they did, step-by-step. How do you find out what they did to become successful? Ask them. Follow their social media posts. Subscribe to their newsletters. Borrow/buy their book. Hire them. Find out what they did, and then do it.
When I was in college, I had a writing teacher who was kind of a jerk. He failed me on my first paper because, he said, even though it was well-done, I did not correctly fulfill the assignment. He even ridiculed me in front of the class, saying that I was going to have a tough time since I couldn’t follow directions. My first reaction was to drop the class, but then I got angry. I fought the grade, and eventually he relented and gave me a C. But I knew that from that day forward, I had to do exactly what he asked. When I worked on my class midterm project, I went through his outline line-by-line and, with no creativity whatsoever, did exactly what it said. I got an A, and he asked to use my project as an example for future classes of how to do this particular kind of writing.
I learned a lot from this teacher, and one of those lessons was that in order to beat someone at their own game — like not just passing their class but owning it — you have to play their game. And when you’re starting out to master anything new, you’re playing on an unfamiliar field, so you need to acquaint yourself with the boundaries and rules. It’s an important phase because that’s when you learn the externals — the physicality, the DOing — of achieving whatever goal you’re after. If you’ve set a big fitness goal (like running a 10K), your body has to learn what to do. You need to groove the patterns of success so that you know them intimately and they become second nature. You learn the rules by following them. That’s the imitation phase.
Emulation. Over time, rather than simply copying someone else, you begin to emulate your mentor. Your brain kind of clicks on and you suddenly “get” what it is that you were imitating. You understand. For instance, that jerky professor? Well, he really wasn’t a jerk (except for the during-class mental beatdown, that was jerky). After I wrote that midterm paper, I realized that in the style of nonfiction writing we were exploring, following a logical pattern that led to a clear conclusion was critical. In the process of imitating his outline, I understood that fact. I internalized the rules.
One of the things I now do is coach physique athletes (bodybuilders/figure/bikini competitors) who are preparing for competitions, and that includes helping them learn to pose. When we first begin, they are all about the imitation: they look at pictures, each other and YouTube videos and then they try to copy exactly what they see. It’s incredibly technical and it hurts. They look stiff and even angry (during group posing sessions my mantra is: SMILE!) and then that makes them even stiffer. But over time, as they continue to imitate the poses, they suddenly understand how to make their leg muscle “pop,” or how to flex their arm a certain way.
As their coach, I try to help them make that mind-muscle connection. When this happens, their body starts to own the pose, and they no longer need to look at pictures or even their own reflection in the mirror. They understand what they are supposed to do, and they can make it happen. Even with their body twisted in a way that’s completely unnatural, they make it look easy and relaxed.
Innovation. This phase takes the longest to achieve (although the more things you master, the faster you can make this happen). This is when you know the rules, understand the rules, and then one day you find you are in a certain “flow” where the rules become simply guidelines that you can manipulate.
At a fitness conference last fall I attended a class on workout program design. The instructor asked us how often we assess our clients — how often we look at their progress, note any muscle imbalances, changes in function, etc. Back when I first started as a personal trainer, I used to assess them at regular, predetermined intervals, just as it recommended in the certification courses I took.
But at the conference, I felt like an idiot because I had to admit to the instructor that except for initial assessments I don’t do formal movement screenings anymore. They are boring and waste client time. Instead, I told him I assess my clients during every workout, while they’re working out, and adjust their day’s routine based on their current level of fatigue/function/mobility. I waited for the inevitable fallout (the fitness crowd can be tough) but he gave me a thumbs up and said I had mastered certain skillsets. I had passed into the innovation phase. Yay!
So, are you going to join me on a journey to new swagger? Any new goals you want to own? Any new skills you want to master? Find someone who has done something similar to what are going to achieve (I’ve identified a few). Copy them (I’m on it!). Understand what it takes. And then earn it — it’ll change your life.