The five traits you need to obsess over in order to become a master are growth, negative feedback, truth, skills (not knowledge) and failure. In a recent video (see below), Modern Health Monk, AKA Alexander Heyne, outlined his five traits you need to become a master. This is an article going through these ideas in their basic forms and discussing them a little. 

  1. Masters are obsessed with growth

In my late teens or early 20s some feedback stung me – it was one of those compliments that also gives you a kick up the backside at the same time. I’d started out on £2 an hour at a supermarket when I was a 16, but I’d been helping my dad for years, first when he was a milkman and then when he delivered poultry for a wholesaler.

At Christmas his work would enter its busiest period. He worked long hours and I’d help. However one day, he asked me to help his colleague out. I forget his name, but he was around 70, my dad’s current age (and he still does this job). I spent the day with him – he was stern, worked efficiently, and it was a good experience. At the end of the day my father asked how I did and he said “Mark did enough, nothing more, nothing less.”

My first reaction was – I could have done more. And then perhaps I should have done more. I fall back on this memory whenever I feel that I’ve only done enough to pass. This is especially the case when you’re working for someone else – that’s enough, I don’t have to do any more.

Well, if you are seeking to master something you cannot have this attitude. You do not reach mastery level by just doing enough to pass. A black belt is not mastery of something, 10th dan after a lifetime of study is. You become a master through constant growth and constant improvement. Do you do it by asking – what more could be done?

We all like to believe that not knowing anything might be bliss, but it’s certainly ignorance. A worse thing, however, is  believing you know everything. The fact we know nothing in the grand scheme of things should be seen as an opportunity to continue our growth because ultimately, it is limitless.

  1. Masters are obsessed with negative feedback

In 2014 I took part in a NaNoWriMo challenge to write a book in a month. The end result was The Girl Who Made It Snow. That year I self-published the novel and sold it where possible and got feedback where possible. Some enjoyed it, but mostly I got a bucket load of meh.

This is the worst possible feedback for someone who wishes to master their craft. A true master seeks out negative feedback wherever it can be found because it is this attention to weaknesses which allows a person to improve. It’s like the honing of an idea – it thrives amid debate and criticism yet withers when left unchallenged.

A few years later, in 2018, I released my next book entitled Single Frames. This is a collection of flash fiction stories inspired by Japanese cinema and Kawabata Yasunari (and a big dollop of Murakami Haruki and Akutagawa Ryunosuke). 

The feedback again was sparse and pleasant, except one friend who said – “the description is a bit minimalistic, isn’t it?” or words to that effect. It was true. I’d stripped out most descriptions and just gone with the actions, some emotions, and my love of rambling, one-liner dialogues.” – rambling? Moir? Since then I’ve paid attention to my descriptions more and have dedicated a whole edit run through aimed specifically at improving the descriptions.

This kind of negative feedback is essential because there is only so much we can do off our own backs. There is only so much impetus, self-reflection and analysis we can do by ourselves. We need people to help us by kinly pointing out areas of weakness, so don’t be afraid to hear it or to dish it out.

  1. Masters are obsessed with the truth

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson in 12 Rules for Life outlines telling the truth, or at least not lying, as one of the key rules to live by. I have also included truth in one of the 12 principles of the Runari. These are good principles for a master to follow, however, what we are talking about is the truth.

To become a master we need to obsess over the objective truth. Now, it is possible that we never attain it or that it simply does not exist. For example, Heyne talks about a chef. The truth is somewhere between the cook and the diner. Yet that midway point varies between each chef and each diner. It is possible that there is a true pizza that is objectively the best but it may be subjective only.

Being obsessed with the truth drives a master on. It is fuel in the engine and kindle in the fire. However, the truth is not just about provoking more growth, it’s an inspiration for seeking negative feedback. Looking for the ultimate truth is also about avoiding arrogance and hubris.

Woe to the surgeon who thinks they are the best. Woe to the sports player who believes they are at the top of their game. Perhaps do a comparison. Let’s say Neymar versus Cristiano Ronaldo. Why is the former a bit of a chump and the latter one of the greatest players of all time?

It comes from being obsessed with the truth. Ronaldo wants to be the greatest player of all time while Neymar thinks he’s a great player. Now, Ronaldo probably does have a super large ego, but he is always working on perfection. He wants the perfect technique for heading, for shooting, and especially for taking free kicks. Those are his truths and it is this perfectionism that makes him the greatest of our age.

  1. Masters are obsessed with skills (not knowledge)

In my last article on the nature of conservatism, I mentioned an old adage about socialists being all heart and conservatives being all brains. However, there is a kind of opposite divide that we see. Sir Roger Scruton aside, there have been few conservative intellectuals, but an abundance of them on the left. Why is this?

This is because, as Scruton himself says, conservatism is overwhelmingly practical and born out of love. The economics are hard maths and brains, but the rest is all small, actionable, real. On the other hand, Marxism is theoretical and always fails in the practical leading to mass murder, starvations, and gulags. 

Let’s look at it from a more philosophical side – Plato versus Aristotle in their theories of forms. Plato’s is based on knowledge – we know a table is a table because we’re programmed to know what a table is. Aristotle’s theory is more practical and is based on the senses, accumulative experience, and logic. We know what a table is because of a pattern of uses of the words matched by common uses and shapes in the general if not the particular.

Masters are obsessed not with knowledge based on theories, but on actionable skills. It is the development of these skills which set them apart from others and allows them to reach the top of their game. Once again consider Cristiano Ronaldo’s constant practice.

And they are not just obsessed with skills which obviously and directly helps their vocation – though those are vital. No, they want to learn and pick up useful skills at every opportunity. Someone who is very important to me asked me about the value of trying different career paths before settling on one. I agreed with this but told her to focus on learning skills from each one she tried. Many skills are transferable and can be useful in unexpected ways in the future.

  1. Masters are obsessed with failure

Heyne quotes an exceptional idea that is worth noting – “the master has failed more times than the apprentice.” This is so true. I’ve seen so many people sail through life with no problems but then experience one setback, and they give up whereas others, like me, who have failed time and time again, have picked themselves up, learned their lessons, and improved.

Failure is your friend. There are so many examples of people who have come back from failure or adversity to be better players, writers, speakers, business people, and so on. Let’s think about some greats – Abraham Lincoln went to war as a Captain and returned as a lowly private. He failed. Churchill failed even harder during the Great War. He started as a Minister and ended up demoting himself and fighting in the trenches. Let’s look at a few more – one of my icons as a kid, Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. J.K. Rowling was unemployed and a single mom when she wrote Harry Potter. 

There is one difference though from someone who rose out of failure to do well and a truly great master. The truly great master is obsessed with failure. And they will have a very different idea of failure than most people because doing ok is not enough for them. Treading water is a failure. Not growing or improving on their last performance is a failure. We can let failure define us by giving up or by being so scared of it we never start, or we can use it as the spur to make us truly great.

Let me know in the comments section what you think of these five traits of becoming a master. Do you agree with them? Are there others?