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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mastery: by George Leonard

Book Review Time!

Even though I’m a big reader, doing a book review is just something that never occurred to me for “This is How I Roll”… I have been planning on doing a review of the Roller Derby work-out video, and product reviews are a misnomer, and I know there are a couple Roller Derby books out there, (like the one Whip It was based on: Derby Girl, and this one: Down and Derby) but I haven’t read them and don’t really have any interest in doing so. The book I just finished reading however has so many valuable lessons that I think every skater who is serious about refining their skill and developing their talent should read. It’s called Mastery, and even though it doesn’t have anything to do with skating, it does. It’s entirely about mastering a skill, any skill, and you can make it whatever you wish.

I read it in College when a childhood friend recommended it to me. He is a professional trumpet player and he read it at a time when he was discouraged and experiencing little progress in his playing. The book helped him learn to love the long plateaus of non-growth for the sake of the pursuit of mastery. He and I had discussed books in the past, including a shared appreciation for the book The Celestine Prophecy, and he thought I’d appreciate Mastery. Though I did read the whole thing in College, I don’t have that much recollection of it. It certainly didn’t resonate with me at the time the way it had with my friend Phil. Perhaps it was because I was not really on the path of mastery yet with anything and I couldn’t relate.

Now that I have made a conscious choice to move in a direction towards skating, and possess an urgent desire to learn anything and everything I can on wheels, (the other night at the roller rink after looking around I remarked to myself, “Wow. I want to skate like EVERYBODY here. I want to learn EVERYONE’S skating style!”…) and I’m reading it a second time, this book is really powerful to me. Every page is loaded with wisdom and a new gem that either forces me to look at my situation in a different light and accept my circumstances, or it reinforces to me everything I already believe and ascribe to. The author of the book is an aikido expert, but I can’t stop thinking about roller skating with every word I read. Because I am now relating the book to skating, the book is no longer what it once was to me. It’s suddenly like I’m an attentive student at the front of a classroom, in awe of a teacher who is affirming everything I ever have believed and I’m furiously nodding my head in agreement, hanging on every word saying “uh huh, uh huh, yes, go on…”

I have recommended this book now three times to a roller derby coach friend, insisting to him that it will relate to his coaching and his philosophy on skating, but the more I keep jotting notes down frantically as I read and thinking to myself, “this is a good lesson” and “this is SO true!”, it occurred to me that EVERY roller derby skater should read this book. Fuck stupid fictional stories about tough chicks and narratives about what goes on on the track. If you really want to read a book that will make you truly think about your skating and help you to improve, read Mastery and just apply it to your skating. It will change your life, if you want it to.

I’ll share with you some of the excerpts/themes that I have particularly appreciated upon reading it a second time, though you may get something entirely different out of the book. Again, I encourage you to go pick up your own copy.

“How long will it take me to master aikido?” a prospective student asks.
“How long do you expect to live?” is the only respectable response. (79)

I used to think if I got injured playing roller derby I wouldn’t be able to play anymore. Not because I’d be physically unable to, but because the idea of it scares the shit out of me so much that I’d quit. One time after falling in the street while a semi-truck passed by, I went home and cried as my heart nearly pounded out of my chest at the thought of how close I came to dying. I’m not squeamish really, but sometimes the sight of my own blood in those instances, (or in that case, the image of my own head being squashed by a Mac truck like a pumpkin) remind me of my mortality in a way that is a little too close for comfort.

But then I remember I have broken a bone. Skating too, and three separate times in fact! None of the injuries were incurred while playing roller derby, but still, I could have let those instances deter me. I think what scares me about getting hurt in roller derby is the idea that someone could do that TO me. Every other time I got hurt, there was no one to blame but myself. If it might look like someone else’s fault, I’m just not sure I could get over it.

Nonetheless, it never even occurred to me to stop skating all three of those times I broke my wrist. After all, skating doesn’t kill people, people kill people. In other words, I knew it was my own lack of skill that had caused the injuries, nothing more. And that was something that could be remedied. Why quit? I knew a roller derby ref who refused to roller blade ever again because he fell once really bad as a kid. His logic always eluded me. (Couldn’t he see that it was him that sucked, and not the rollerblades?)

When I initially found out my friend Estro Jen has metal plates and screws in her leg from a skating injury I was shocked at first. (My gut reaction was, if a doctor tells you not to do something, you shouldn’t do it). But when I instinctively asked her, “you didn’t give up skating?” she looked at me quizzically and a little disappointed that I wasn’t one of the ones that understood, and I was immediately embarrassed. Without missing a beat she said, “What? And just stop LIVING?” My cheeks turned red. I mean DUH. I know how that is, why did I act like I didn’t get it?

(A friend said to me recently “I think that the truly successful in life are restless because of some crazy insane drive that can seem bizarre and alienating to other people.” Insert Estro’s need to skate, or well, perish).

There’s a quart of milk on the table- within your reach. But you’re holding a cup of milk in your hand and you’re afraid to let go of the cup to get the quart. (84)

This reminds me of a mural on La Brea that I pass on a regular basis. Since I have moved to Hollywood for skating I have often passed by it and reflected on my own journey. “Every passion has a risk” the painting reminds us, and I’ll laugh and think to myself, “I’ll say!”  It brings to mind a number of other thruthisms,  “sometimes you’ve just got to take a leap of faith”, “I’m working without a net” and of course “Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome”.  I thought the parable was a good reminder that you’re not always going to have everybody’s approval, (“you can’t please everyone all of the time”) and I liked the visual, because there is a brief but scary moment between dropping the cup, and grabbing that quart, in which your hand is empty. It leads us to another age-old lesson Leonard brings to light: that sometimes, you have to get worse before you get better.

The fine art of playing the edge in this case involves a willingness to take one step back for every two forward, sometimes vice versa. It also demands a determination to keep pushing, but not without awareness. (115)

“The edge” in which Lenoard refers to, is “the courage of the master [to] invoke the spirit of the fool” (81) while still having the presence of mind, (the “awareness”) and confidence not to negate “your own physical and moral center or passively accept teachings that would be bad for you” (81). In essence, there is a fine line between surrendering to your teacher and staying true to yourself. There is a time for abandoning all that you ever knew and a time for holding fast to what has always worked for you. I wrote about this in a blog where I mentioned the flute player Ian Anderson who has a unique stance. Sometimes it is okay to just do what works for you, as long as you are willing to try something new from time to time. We often hear people referring to this as learning how to play by the rules before learning how to break them. Leonard speaks of this giving up of control in order to gain with an analogy of two experts.

The story of two karate experts- Russell and Tony- trying to learn aikido… From the moment Russell stepped on the training mat, he revealed that he was a trained martial artist…I could see that Russell was finding it hard to let go of his expertise, and because of this failing to get the most out of his aikido training. After the first four weeks, he was falling behind some of those who had never done any martial art, and it was at this point that he finally surrendered his prior competence and got on a path of mastery…Tony’s approach was different. From the beginning, he never made a move, not even a gesture that might reveal he was an expert in another art. Without any ostentation, he showed more respect than did any of the other students for his teachers- this in spite of his high rank. He carried himself with an air of calm sincerity…Just by the way he walked, Tony revealed himself as a fellow traveler on the path of mastery.” (87-88)

This story is a prime example of why all the top notch skaters seem to migrate to each other at all the skating clinics and workshops. As an amateur skater or as fresh meat, it is hard to break into a clique of already established friends who have bonded as a team, on and off the track. But how do you explain the phenomenon of all the best skaters, from all different leagues, somehow finding each other at RollerCon, Red Red and March Radness when they’ve never met? How do they always just end up eating lunch together? Why don’t they mingle? Simple. They are on the same wavelength. They are sending the same messages out into the universe. They recognize each other as being on the same path of mastery, and no matter how hard you try, it’s a clique you cannot penetrate. To enter that circle, you must first understand that your quest for mastery may very well be a lonely one, and that you are not embarking on the path “for the sake of achieving an external goal [but] as simply for its own sake”. (117).  You have to be willing to dedicate yourself to lifelong learning. And you have to be willing to go it alone. But you see, if you already have this understanding, then you are already in the circle. It’s quite the paradox, isn’t it?

It’s like that character said in that movie Art School Confidential. The guy is supposed to be some big famous artist, and he returns to his college to address the student body about his newfound fame. He says something to the effect of, “look cut the crap. What you all really want to know is what you need to do in order to turn YOU into ME. And here’s what it is, in order to be a great artist, you simply have to BE A GREAT ARTIST.” There’s nothing to learn, no classes to take, you either are it or not. Now, to some extent that is true, and to some extent not. Sure some people are born with more god given talent than others, but you have to make a conscious choice to enter onto the path of mastery for that talent to sustain you long term. “The thought, the vision, the intentionality, [is] primary” (96).

Leonard discusses this conscious choice by outlining the different personality types and how they go about pursuing a new endeavor. There are those on the path of mastery, and then there’s the dabbler, the obsessive and the hacker- all avoiding the path of mastery with their own pitfalls and shortcomings. Leonard teaches us that you have to be aware of these temptations and fight them if you want to remain on the path of mastery. One way is to “invoke the spirit of the fool”(81), and another is to “learn how to learn, that is- to change” (118). Yet another is to make clear choices, to visualize, to manifest. I have said many times in my blog that I believe in the power of attraction. Leonard references a study in his book that researched the effectiveness of visualization on karate students. Some were told to practice visualizing themselves in competition through solo meditation for weeks leading up to the actual event while others were instructed to simply practice as usual. The students who visualized success far outperformed the students who did not practice the meditation techniques.

Intentionality fuels the master’s journey. Every master is a master of vision. (96)

I know some people think it is conceited, and self-glorifying, but before every game, and before every single jam, I shut my eyes and envision myself gliding through the pack effortlessly. I repeat to myself in my head “you were born to do this. This is what you are good at. Show them how it’s done”.  I imagine my team winning. I see every girl skating without a single injury or penalty, all in my mind’s eye. Call it what you wish, but it works.

I won a trip to Disneyland on the radio, and when it came time to record my voice for the bit I tried to sound excited but I felt bad, and like it had been contrived, rehearsed, because I literally was not surprised I had won. I expected to win. I manifested it. Leonard uses a quote from the Governator to drive the idea home: “All I know,” said Arnold Schwarzenegger, “is that the first step is to create the vision, because when you see the vision there- the beautiful vision- that creates the ‘want power.’ For example, my wanting to be Mr. Universe came about because I saw myself so clearly, being up there on the stage and winning.” (96) It starts first with a dream.

“To love the plateau is to love what is most essential and enduring in your life.” (49)

What probably spoke to me THE MOST while re-visiting this book was the idea of loving the plateau. As I mentioned before, my friend Phil was REALLY into this book when he first recommended it to me. He was trying to explain to me the concept of the plateau and loving practice for the sake of practice but I couldn’t relate. –I wasn’t yet on the path of Mastery. But now that I’ve found teachers to help me learn and grow and continue on my journey and I’m realizing I’m not growing as fast as I’d like, I’m experiencing some of those struggles of feeling like I’m not going anywhere. The plateau. Reading these words about learning how to value the journey simply for the sake of the journey itself have become precious to me. Leonard breaks the concept down simply by explaining that we all have to do chores, cleaning, raking, shopping…”This is the ‘in-between time,’ the stuff that we have to take care of before getting on to the things that count. But if you stop to think about it, most of life is ‘in between.’” (142.) This was the most important lesson I took away from the book: that most of life is ‘in between’ time. Might as well learn to like it. Love it in fact.

Leonard repeats this theme throughout his book, referring to loving the plateauon page 75 as “the goalless journey” and again on page 98 as “the endless path” and reminds us yet again on page 99 that “the journey is what counts”. Before moving to LA I was so WORRIED that I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got here, but it was only once I was actually here that where I needed to be became clear to me. I just watched Capturing Reality: the art of documentary film making, where many of the film makers described being called to some remote part of the planet without any real understanding of why they were going, and each one of them described a moment in time where they were pulled in some direction and the focus of their next movie would become apparent to them. It was like that with me and LA. I kept getting signs that said I should move to LA, but was ignoring them because I didn’t know why the hell I should come here. People do this all the time. Ignore their gut because they don’t have all the answers. Forget the rest, not knowing those answers is not a reason to ignore the initial signs. Sometimes the journey IS the destination. I had to travel around aimlessly before I realized this truth however. Some older wiser people might call this stage of my life, oh I don’t know, “finding myself”.

To love the plateau is to love the eternal now, to enjoy the inevitable spurts of progress and the fruits of accomplishment, then serenely to accept the new plateau that waits just beyond them. (49)

Learning to love the days and days of seemingly no progress is such a prevalent theme in the book that there is a whole chapter dedicated to practice. Interestingly, Leonard draws on the studies of Johan Huizinga and what he calls “play communities”, or rather humans’ partialness to game play. “The play community, he points out, is likely to continue even after the game is over, inspired by ‘the feeling of being ‘apart together’, in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms.’’” (116).  Basically, being on a sport’s team brings people together. It made me think of roller girls and the bond that many of them share as a sisterhood. Sure games are a lot of fun, but we spend most of our time together practicing, collaborating, fundraising, and socializing, not playing roller derby. Leonard asks facetiously, “if winning, as the saying goes, is the only thing, does that mean that even the climactic hours achieve their worth merely through victory?” (142). Of course not. It’s the collective effort leading up to the event that matters.

In a nation obsessed with the achievement of goals, (“it doesn’t matter how you score; the score is all that counts.” “Don’t tell me how you are going to sell the ad, just sell it.” “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”), devotion to the goalless journey might seem incomprehensible if not bizarre. But behind the slogans you read on the sports page and in the business section there’s a deeper reality: the master goes along with the rhetoric about scoring and winning (in today’s media climate, who would listen to anything else?), but secretly cherishes those games filled with delicious twists and turns of fortune, great plays, close calls, and magical finishes- regardless of who wins. (75)

This is true for me anyhow. Before games I say this silent prayer: “I don’t care who wins or who loses because I know I am going to give it my all no matter what. I just hope that no one gets hurt.” And the truth is, the losing team has just as much fun at the after party as the winning one does. If you still think the final score is the only thing that matters, ask anyone who has ever planned a wedding which is more important, the actual day, or the months and months leading up to the wedding consisting of countless intricate tiny details that need to be arranged and planned.

“To practice regularly, even when you seem to be getting nowhere, might at first seem onerous. But the day eventually comes when practicing becomes a treasured part of your life. You settle into it as if it’s your favorite easy chair, unaware of time and the turbulence of the world. It will still be there for you tomorrow. It will never go away.” (79)

One reason why Leonard’s words about loving practice are so heartwarming is because they affirm to me my life’s work. Of course, I didn’t know it was my life’s work until I had accumulated more than 15 years of skating experience and realized it was actually a marketable skill, but still- it’s good to know all those years of being called a lesbo, fruit booter paid off. It’s not hard for me to get in practice time, I love skating. The other day while I was “treading water on skates”, (which is essentially, keeping my feet moving like they are on an elliptical while I’m standing talking to someone, kind of like jogging in place) the guy said, “Man, I see women doing that for hours on end at the gym and they sure don’t look like they’re having fun. And you do it all day long and you probably don’t even realize you’re staying in great shape.” (First of all, I fucking realize it bro but that’s not the point)… He’s right. I don’t exercise. I don’t have to work out. Oh ya, sure I spend 2 to 5 hours a day on skates, but what’s that really? That’s just something that I like to do for fun.

Recently at roller derby practice I overheard two girls talking about jumping. One of them reflected, “ya, I used to be so scared to try it, but it’s like it’s almost fun now.” I laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it. “It’s like it’s almost fun now?!?” WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING HERE ANYWAY? Of course it’s fun.

“There’s another secret: The people we know as masters don’t devote themselves to their particular skill just to get better at it. The truth is, they love to practice- and because of this, they do get better at it.” (75)

Before the game on April 22 with the Long Beach Roller Girls, Quadzilla asked “is anyone NOT nervous before a game?” He was trying to teach a lesson about a little bit of anxiety being a good thing, (side note: did you know it’s been scientifically proven you make better decisions when you have to pee?) but Estro Jen smiled sheepishly as if to say, “I never get scared!”.  Zilla wanted to make his point but I knew where Estro was coming from.

You see, when I scrimmage against Estro Jen, I forget I’m not supposed to be cheering her on. She is just such a JOY to watch. For me, as someone who loves skating as much as I do, whether I’m competing against Estro or not, it’s hard for me not to watch her and be in awe. She is so fun to watch, she just radiates a love for skating. She has what Leonard calls, the “look on the master’s face”. An excerpt:

In preparing the Esquire special on mastery, I decided to see if I could illustrate The Face of Mastery. I went through hundreds of prints and transparencies from the major photo agencies, and there, scattered among the “thrill of victory/agony of defeat” shots, was just what I was looking for: Steven Scott making the last turn in a mile race, his face serene, his body relaxed; Greg Louganis at the edge of the diving board, his face a study in calm concentration; Peter Vidmar doing floor exercises, his body an impossibly strenuous position, his face reflective and composed; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar launching his “sky-hook” basketball shot over the hand of an opposing player, his face a revelation of inner delight. Abdul-Jabbar is not a man of small ego. I’m sure he loved the money, the fame, the privileges his career brought him. But he loved the sky-hook more.

Sure a certain amount of adrenaline pumping through your veins, the little butterflies, nerves, those can be good when you’re about to play a competitive sport. But Estro smirked at Zilla when he asked if she gets nervous because it’s too much fun for her. When it comes down to it, Estro’s love for skating trumps her fear of losing a trivial game. When you see her gliding through the pack and spinning turns, she does not look worried or scared, she looks happy. She’s grinning from ear to ear. She’s exactly where she wants to be. You can’t create that, you can’t coach that, it just is.

“‘The master,’ an old martial arts saying goes, ‘is the one who stays on the mat five minutes longer every day than anybody else’” (76)

Even after a long, strenuous game last Friday, Estro Jen spent a good 20 minutes skating the banked track while everyone else disembarked to change and get ready for the after party. Even after giving her all on the track while competing, she took off her pads and began rolling around on the track doing tricks and stunts. Why? Because it is just that fun to her. She loves to practice. Leonard describes this phenomenon with the story of a visit he made to the Seattle Seahawks in 1988.

When the morning practice session was over, the players shambled off the field to the dressing room- all of the players except two, that is. One of the two kept running out, then wheeling suddenly to take a pass from the other. Again and again, he ran the same pattern, caught the same pass. The field was empty; the other players were inside taking their showers, getting dressed. The coaches, too, were gone and the spectators had drifted away. I remained there on the sidelines, fascinated. Who was this eager pass receiver? Surely it was some brand new rookie, someone trying to get good enough to make the team. No, it was Steve Largent, not only the premier pass receiver of the Seattle Seahawks but the leading receiver in the history of the National Football League.” (77)

So there you have it. The answer is simple, love what you do and do what you love and it will show through. If it’s not showing through, then maybe you are not on the path of mastery and you need to make a more serious commitment to your skill. Perhaps you are not doing what you love to begin with and you need to assess that and change course. One of the motivational quotes hanging on my wall amid game posters and pictures of me skating reads, “you have to know why you were born before you can really start living.” I interpret that to mean you have to lead the life you were meant to live, and no one but you can tell you what that is. If you are not on the path of mastery with skating then own that. Realize where you stand and accept the reasons why you are not in that inner circle. You have an inner circle of mastery somewhere else. And if you don’t, find out what that is for you.

Like I said in the beginning of this review, Mastery is not about roller skating. I just used it as a springboard to motivate me in my life. You might get an entirely different message from the book, or like me the first time I read it, you might not get anything from the book. Maybe you are not ready to read it. But if you are interested in what the book has to say, here are some other themes that were touched on that I found interesting but chose not to go into depth on:

• The dabbler, the obsessive and the hacker
• Why resolutions fail
• Mastery in relationships
• Channeling your anger
• Resistance training

There you have it. My hope was that if you do not choose to go out and buy the book, that my synopsis was at least a little enlightening and a tad helpful.

Hugs N Shoves, 

p.s. Upon meeting Quadzilla recently, he said all his skaters are required to read Mind Gym. Of course having just read this book I was fascinated by another book that could help me with my skating, and especially one that was recommended by such a respected and esteemed skater. I vowed to pick the book up, and also to send Zilla a copy of Mastery.


  1. What a cool book. The approach he uses here can be applied to any passion or hobby you have. Slow steady mastery. Just perfect advice in this ADD get-rich-quick society. Get it. You'll love it.

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