There Are Two Paths To Mastery

I watched a documentary film last night titled, “Soul,” which focused on the lives of two cooks. The two main characters were Eneko Atxa, who owns a three-Michelin-star restaurant, Azurmendi, in northeastern Spain, and the 91-year-old Tokyo based sushi chef, Jiro Ono, who was also the subject of 2011’s “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”

I'm not a "foodie", but I immensely enjoy films about craft. I seek out films, such as this, that delve into the processes of people who excel at their trade. Eneko and Jiro display an equal love and passion for what they do. Eneko's passion for cooking, however, developed from a love of food and the traditions passed down from his mother and grandmother. He approaches his craft as an artisan, creating and perfecting seemingly complicated dishes in an environment that resembles a modern museum more than a restaurant. Jiro, on the other hand, assumed his role as a young boy out of necessity to survive, then grew to love his craft as he perfected it through more than eighty years of practice.

These two independent paths - one of passion, one of necessity - led to the same destination of mastery and success. Conversely, most of us seek this type of success and determined purpose, but flounder in committing to one path. At least that has been my journey of jack of all trades and master of none. Though I've reached competency in enough trades I haven't pushed through to mastery — yet.

I sat watching and thinking to myself, "I wish I had been able to identify a passion and acted upon it early in life as did Eneko, or alternatively I wish I hadn't had choices and was directed into a trade I could have spent the last 25 years mastering."

The film is timely fodder for Susan and I as we have conversation after conversation attempting to whittle work and income ideas into actionable and viable products or services we can master, then offer to those seeking a similar path of wellness and deliberate living. With rising rents in Bend, OR (I just saw a studio listed on craigslist for $1,795) and the competition for jobs increasing, we firmly believe this mobile, small footprint, deliberate way of life is our most sustainable and logical option.

Coincidently, I had a meaningful conversation with a local couple here in Bishop, CA a few nights earlier. They were born and raised in Bishop and the neighboring town. We discussed the culture of the town and the mix of locals and dirtbag climbers. I confessed, while not climbers, we were living in a van and pursuing a way of life similar to one pursued by the boulderers in vans which pepper the landscape outside of town. I shared that we wanted to recraft our lives into ones that allow us to refocus our energies on gratifying work and personal pursuits. He confessed that as a young adult he simply wanted to live the life of a ski-bum. However, the circumstances of a baby on the way forced them to put their heads down and work hard. He got a job he didn't like, and put in the years necessary to support a growing family. Today, he loves his work. He owns the store he worked in as a young adult, as well as a few other businesses in town. His deliberate work allowed him to create the life of autonomy he currently experiences. He disclosed he often disappears in the afternoon and gets in a few runs up at Mammoth Mountain.

His path, then, is not unlike the one Jiro has taken. Circumstances reduced choices, threat of survival created necessity, and work ethic (coupled with some good fortune) produced a life many of us are seeking.

Perhaps we have too much choice in our culture, and rather than continually trying to create and select from more choices, we should be culling options.

There are many articles and books available, I've read them all, that claim to help the reader find his or her purpose, or identify a passion. Many contain good advice, most contain similar advice:

1. Write down what you love in a circle.

2. Write down what you are good at in an overlapping circle.

3. If you wish to add a layer of practicality, add a third circle of what people will pay for.

3.5 If feeling especially daring, add a fourth circle of what the world needs.

4. List vocational pursuits that fall within the two (3 or 4) spheres.

5. Pick one option that falls within the interconnecting circles.

I wonder if we'd be better served with a book full of trades and some dice. Roll the dice, take the number revealed, turn to that page in the book and pursue the trade listed relentlessly until you become a 91-year-old master Pho Potager.

My advice to a younger self would be pick one thing, work at it relentlessly, forego any temptations of wealth, and simply enjoy the journey. Seeing as I can't time travel, instead I attempt to remove distractions and craft a way of life that supports trying to build mastery in my second half of life. I fear we assume once in our late forties, fifties, or sixties, that the opportunities for personal betterment or social impact have already passed. I try to remind myself regularly that many who came before me accomplished a significant amount of work and art in a short timespan. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart only lived to age 35, F. Scott Fitzgerald passed at 44. My point being, if I focus on my health, work persistently toward one objective, and have a bit of fortune in regards to longevity, an equal amount of time remains for me to create valuable work.

So, reader, I chose to believe I have forty years of productivity ahead. I recognize my pace may slow, but my resolve will not. Let's each devote ourselves to becoming masters of one.