Somewhat recently, a bizarre concept has emerged and been so often repeated, that it seems worth wrestling with conceptually.  The idea is that one can achieve mastery in their chosen art after 10,000 hours, or some other pre-ordained duration, chained to one’s practice. This statement can not possibly be the truth, or perhaps it is a half-lie at best.  It pre-supposes that all attention to the art making act is equivalent across all people and all disciplines.  It ignores the vast amounts and sources of attention-deficit-inducing distractions that are all too common in this new technocratic millennium.  Most importantly, it reduces the quality of attention and experience with a purely quantitative definition of mastery, a concept which evades most concrete definitions if we truly look into them.

Mastery can be loosely grasped as an ideal state of perfect union with craft; a motivation, a meditation, an experience of graceful unity, but not a final destination.  When an artist desires to achieve mastery, what is the source of the desire that perpetuates such an investment of time and effort?  Is it success and recognition?  Or is there a far more subtle, far more valuable potential?  . . .perhaps one that can, and should, never be arrived at, regardless of seemingly endless hours spent in the presence of the great work. 

The same scenario presents itself in spiritual practice.  If one is mindlessly reciting sacred syllables in order to reach a predetermined number of repetitions, and it is sheer quantity which defines the resulting enlightenment, then we are truly living in a materialist illusion.  It is certainly the quality of attention to the utterance of the sacred syllables, in the meter, the breath, posture, and mind-focusing presence that defines the quest for illumination; all embodied parallels to the practices of art and craft.

In geometry, perfect forms are known to be idealized concepts, not physical realities. That is, they belong to a higher order of being than the realm that we mortals inhabit.  It is well established that our attempts to render these forms will never be truly perfect, but close approximations of the ideal.  A line, in the truest sense of the concept, is one-dimensional, and any rendering by even the most finely sharpened tool will always have some weight to it in order to make it visible to the human eye.  Here, inherent in the process, is imperfection.  Yet the geometer strives to come ever closer to perfection, while always knowing it will never be fully apprehended.  As adjacent numbers in the Fibonacci sequence approximate the golden ratio at each iteration, they never fully arrive, but endlessly, infinitely strive toward greater perfection.

The same idea may be appropriate in relation to the ideal realm of artistic mastery.  Let it be a guiding light of a higher order, not a firefly to be captured and ultimately extinguished once the novelty has worn off, and night gives way to the light of day..  The mastery that can be held in the hand, tallied by a rote collection of hours, can not possibly be true mastery.  Find someone who you consider to be a true master, and see if they have simply finished growing and striving.  Are they merely counting the hours since their graduation into the hallowed halls of mastery, or further, counting the hours until their next level of success?

Mastery is a humbling concept toward which we continue to strive; toward ever greater quality in our relationships with art, with craft, with self.   If the journey ends, so does the artist, and so does their art.  To stop counting hours, and start observing ourselves, there is a chance for meaningful growth.  As it is an inner transformation that is sought, it may be completely divorced from financial or social success.  Those indicators belong to a material order.  If one is seeking mastery as a means to the end, one’s time would be well spent in marketing and self-promotion.  There is certainly nothing wrong with striving toward these, or achieving them, but they in no way whatsoever reflect or indicate mastery in itself.  Novelty, creativity, savvy, luck, social prowess, even skill and dedication; yes.  But mastery belongs to a realm beyond us, and we can never judge ourselves impartially or accurately when it comes to this ideal.  At best, we would be signaling the end of our own growth, at worst, totally delusional.