How to Become a Master of Your Work

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that you either are, or you want to be, good at what you do. I’m going to take that even further and assume that you either are, or want to be, great at what you do.

But are you committed to becoming an absolute master? Possibly one of the greatest of all time? And, if so, how do you get there?

My brother-in-law Steve has a Ph.D. in musicology. He’s one of the world’s foremost Beethoven scholars. [An aside: There’s nothing quite like touring Beethoven’s birth house in Bonn, Germany in the company of one of the world’s foremost Beethoven scholars! Someday I’ll have to return the favor and take Steve to Liverpool.] In addition, he also wrote the definitive biography of French composer Erik Satie. So, when I asked him who he thought was the greatest composer of all time, I was a little surprised when he answered, without hesitation, “Bach, of course!”

Johann Sebastian Bach is, arguably (very arguably), the greatest composer of all time. He was inarguably a complete master of his art. Which brings me to an article I was just reading about Bach which talks about how diligently he studied everything that had come before. The article sums it up beautifully this way:

“Bach became an absolute master of his art by never ceasing to be a student of it.”

(By the way, art historians would probably say the same about Picasso.)

You become a master of your art/craft/occupation/calling by never ceasing to be a student of it.
And, because you’re a leader, you need to be a continuous student of two disciplines:

Your industry.
Leadership itself.

If you want to be a master leader in the widget industry (the one that they’ll be writing articles about 267 years after your death), you need to be a voracious student of both widgets and leadership. Which means you subscribe to Widgets Monthly as well as Harvard Business Review. You read Widget Design in the 1800s as well as Maxwell, Cialdini, and Bill George.

The point is that what came before matters. Bach knew it. Picasso knew it. And you should know it too. Yes, you need to stay on top of current trends. But only by studying what came before can you put the present into context. And it’s from within that context that you can see the patterns (if you look for them) that can help you predict the future.

Bach made musical breakthroughs because he was a student of music. Picasso made artistic breakthroughs because he was a student of art.

And, as a leader in your field, you will make breakthroughs-and become a master-only when you become a student of both leadership and your field.