In Praise of Micromastery

CC BY 2.0. mjtmail

Forget the idea that you need to be an expert. Give yourself permission to dabble if you're curious.

Seven years ago, I was invited to a knitting group. I didn’t want to go because I’d never knitted before in my life, but I was alone in a strange town, had nothing else to do, and it was my birthday. Much to my surprise, I discovered I liked the repetitive act of slipping a pointy needle under a loop of yarn. I continued to knit with the group for months, making new friends, until my schedule filled with other distractions. Although I never became a master knitter (and still struggle with mittens), the simple act of making something in a totally new way was deeply satisfying.

This story is an example of micromastery, the idea that people can (and should) engage in learning new skills just because. Forget about the 10,000 hours required to become a true master, as they say. How about one hour, or even two or three? There’s a lot one can learn in a short time, and a tremendous amount of pleasure to be gained.

This is the basic concept behind Robert Twigger’s new book, Micromastery. In an article for "The Idler," Twigger writes that micromastery is the key to having fun and enjoying learning, and yet it’s largely ignored by our work- and goal-obsessed culture:

“My beef is with a culture that prates on about learning and education until we tune it right out and at the same time is astonishingly bad at the nitty gritty of learning something new. The basic model in Britain is: you’re either talented or not. If not talented – forget it. If talented, prepare to be love-bombed by coaches who will nurture you to greatness with an appropriate-sized ego in tow.”

While there is a time and place for mastery (otherwise we wouldn’t be able to watch performances of favorite violin concerti or professional sporting events, and read erudite articles on TreeHugger!), our collective fixation on results has created a culture in which few people give themselves permission to ‘dabble’ anymore.

Dabblers/micromasters can learn such things as “making a perfect cube of wood, preparing an omelet, surfing standing up, doing a tango walk, making a perfect Daiquiri cocktail, baking artisan bread, brewing a delicious IPA craft beer, drawing a line sketch, learning to read Japanese script in three hours, [and] laying a brick wall,” to name a few of Twigger’s suggestion. They could study a new and utterly impractical language, take ukulele lessons, light an excellent fire, make homemade soap, build dollhouse miniatures, or sign up for a weightlifting course.

Micromastery is wonderful because it keeps our minds agile, our interests fresh, our curiosity piqued. It keeps our hands busy and fills us with satisfaction. It turns us into happier, more interesting individuals, which makes us better friends and partners. I’d argue it also makes us less vulnerable to unforeseen challenges, such as job loss, financial or emotional instability, and social or environmental crises, by building resilience, creativity, and problem-solving skills.

There’s a wonderful quote from author Robert Heinlein’s 1978 novel, Time Enough for Love:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Tragically, the more we fixate on a single lifetime career, without allowing ourselves the time or pleasure to explore other interests just for fun, and the more we quell our children’s natural curiosity about the world while training them intensively in a specific sport or musical instrument, the more like Heinlein’s specialized insects we become.

All of this is to say, let go! Delve into something you like for no reason other than it fascinates you. Learn the simplest building block of that practice, and then choose either to continue learning or move on to something else. Give yourself permission to be interested in everything for a change.