Byron and Kelly showed up at my house this week to replace our 38-year-old furnace. As I watched with fascination, they removed the old beast from a very tight spot and installed the new unit. Then came the process of fabricating the sheet metal plenums that attach the new furnace to the air conditioner and the exhaust stack. Each time they do this, which must be a hundred times per year, they have to visualize how the two units need to be joined together and then shape the metal duct-work, so everything fits snugly. All of this is done on site, using a series of hand tools. It is laborious work, but with a craftsmanship in which they take pride. Throughout the day, Byron, with 16 years’ experience, coached Kelly, with two years’ experience, on how each piece needed to be laid out, cut, bent and assembled. While we may take this kind of work for granted, it was a display of mastery in action.

It’s one thing to learn a skill, trade or craft. It’s quite another to master it. That’s where the quality, pride and, in many cases, money become the reward. I keep wondering where this mastery has gone. As a society, we have misled many in the most recent generations into thinking that once you’ve learned how to do something you must be proficient. But as George Leonard pointed out in his ground-breaking book, mastery consists of endless practice interspersed with incremental improvement. You can’t accomplish it with an app or by taking a class.

The same is true of every-day decision making. I’ve had countless employers complain to me about young employees who believe they’re competent simply because they passed a test or earned a degree. If I think they’re open to it, I ask these employers what they’ve done to sell their employees on the value of developing mastery. When I do, I get a blank stare in response a lot of the time.

Mastery is a combination of focus, patience, perseverance, self-discipline and sometimes a bit of talent mixed in. The key is selling those you supervise that it’s worth the investment, especially when things are not going well. As baseball star Vernon Law once observed, “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.” When I’ve asked the best decision makers how they got to be the best, most give an answer that has mastery interspersed throughout. When I ask for more specifics, they tell me stories of how they learned to overcome obstacles. You can do the same thing with the people you supervise. Sure, you can provide the steps. But it’s so much more effective to tell a story or two that serve as both illustration and inspiration. If you look for it, you’ll find mastery all around you. Encourage them to do the same. There is no better way to arouse a desire for smart decision making.

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