“Mastery is not a function of genius or talent. It is a function of time and intense focus applied to a particular field of knowledge.” Robert Greene

Art critic and Harvard lecturer, Sarah Lewis, published her book entitled The Rise in 2014 where she explores the difference between success and mastery. Lewis writes about an American university women’s archery team who remained dedicated and motivated in every training session and competition to consistently hitting the Ten-Ring. For them, mastery in archery was a constant pursuit or a bridging of the gap between where one is now and where one strives to be.

Artist Paul Cezanne often thought that his works were incomplete and therefore, he would deliberately leave them aside with the intention of returning to them at some point in the future. At the end of his life, only 10% of his paintings were signed because there were so many of his artworks which he had determined were incomplete.

Musician, Duke Ellington said that the favourite song from his repertoire was always the one he had yet to compose.

The motivation in mastery

The 2021 Olympic Games reminded me of how those involved at the elite level in sport can be motivated by a near-miss or a near-win. For example, the Australian Mens’ Basketball team provides an insight into their continued pursuit of a medal in spite of near-win’s in previous Olympic Games.

We all felt enormous pride when Lauriston Girls’ School alumna, Jessica Morrison and her coxless four crew won Gold at the Tokyo Olympics this year. This was a wonderful win, but Jessica and her team- mates had been through both near-misses and failures prior to this significant achievement.

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Jessica was a member of the Australian Women’s Eight that initially missed qualification for the Olympics and then found themselves rowing at the competition with limited team preparation. The Eight came last in their repechage.

In 2019, Jessica and her coxless pair team-mate won Silver and Gold at Rowing World Cup events in Europe. At the Tokyo Olympics they were ranked overall 7th place.

This small part of Jessica’s journey in Rowing demonstrates the importance of the near-miss in looking forward to what more can be done.

Mastery is thus in the reaching, not the arriving. It is in constantly wanting to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be. Success can motivate individuals but the near-win can propel those individuals on an ongoing quest for mastery. These are individuals who thrive not on what they have done, but rather they know there is still more they have to do.

Seeking mastery to create deep learning experiences

This leads me to question whether we should be asking our students to focus on achieving success or mastery. I would suggest that mastery is the goal to pursue because this will enable each one of us to remain motivated and understand that we can set goals and continue to strive for our preferred outcome.

Educational researcher and author, Michael Fullan, has been considering how we can re-imagine education in a Post-COVID world. He writes that to build higher cognitive, social emotional and technical skills and attributes, we need to cultivate the intrinsic motivation of students to learn, individually and together. The essence of this learning is fostered by a student’s sense of purpose, meaning, belonging and a desire to make a contribution to society. Deep learning experiences produce learning that remains for life.

In the future job market, most professions will require strong cognitive abilities in numeracy, literacy, problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. The complexity and nature of tasks will demand increasing and deeper interactions between workers, thus elevating the need for social-emotional skills.

From my perspective, our young women need to thrive on deep learning and seeking mastery in their subject disciplines and co-curricular activities in order to prepare themselves for tertiary studies and future employment.

Learning from failure

Mastery will open the way for learning from our failures and near-wins. A student who achieves less than an A grade, therefore, should see the result as a motivating force which will propel her to the next assessment. The focus on mastery applies to sport, music and other co-curricular interests our students may pursue. Regardless of whether there is a win, a near-win or a failure, our young women need to consider what they have learnt and what more they want to achieve.

For Lauriston students about to participate in our Year 9 Howqua program, I would suggest that their current concerns such as not being able to keep up with their peers when undertaking fitness runs or not being able to manage a hike are the product of not having tried such activities before. Instead, it would be more productive to consider each fitness run in terms of the near-win. The focus should not be on achieving immediate success but on mastery which allows each person to set goals and think about what more they can still do.

For those students about to complete their Year 9 Howqua program I would suggest that they will look to the final challenges of six- day hike and the final run as another step along their path towards mastery. They have become more understanding that Outdoor Program and Fitness Runs are sequential in their nature and hence this provides an inbuilt mechanism for each girl to reflect on where they have been and what more they still have to do. These final activities are not the conclusion of their journey to mastery because they will have further opportunities both at school and in their external pursuits to continue to strive for mastery.

When students transition to a new year level, they may feel concern about achieving success in academic studies, co-curricular activities and making social connections. I often hear girls say they are not very good at Mathematics, or they are not very good Netball players. I would argue that achieving mastery in learning, both academic and co-curricular, is about the journey and the achievement of deeper understanding and skill development.

As humans we have a tendency to focus on the flaws and failures in our own work. We often have this inbuilt system by which we compare our academic skills or our co-curricular skills with other people and our instinct is to find fault in ourselves. For others, our tendency to see our work as ‘not good enough’ can lead to giving up entirely, or a type of paralysis where we either cannot make a start with our work or we find it difficult to conclude. We become fearful of allowing others to assess our work or to participate in an activity because we have already decided that we will fail or not reach the standard we have set for ourselves.

An acceptance of the near-win or the failure enables each person to understand that they may not yet have achieved mastery but there is more they can do. We can look at our work and actions more pragmatically, finding value in what we have achieved and noting what we can continue to improve and work on.

Susan Just
Principal Lauriston Girls’ School