== kensho ==

the real work

Finished reading: The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery by Adam Gopnik 📚

This is not an airport non-fiction book with steps on how to ‘master anything’. It is an exploration of the mystery of mastery which is wrapped in beautiful prose. How do we learn anything?

Brick by Boring Brick

“… that life drawing was just like everything else you learned to do, a slow carpentering of fragments into the illusion of a harmonious whole”.

Apparent mastery always starts by building up from small steps. A series of composite actions that combine to create an edifice which is more than the sum of its parts.

The trick is to forget the grand goal of mastery, and focus on the brick in front of you and only very occasionally stop to look up or down.

“Accomplishment … was a composite of small steps. There is no straight line that you can draw around a circumstance to take its shape away; there are only marks, made underhand, tilts in time that you erase and adjust and erase again, over and over, until the black dog barks and the afternoon ends and you close your pad, and call it life.”


Membership in a guild is a commonality amongst ‘masters’. Surrounding yourself with those who are in the pursuit of excellence and learning from them each step of the way.

The master learns as much from the student as the student does from the master. It’s a mutual contract.

Teaching is the best way to learn.

Scientists, it’s said, are forever four years old, wide-eyed and self-centred; writers are forever eight, over-aware and indignant.

Do and Don’t Think

Dread is always the product of imagination.

A continual theme was to just do. Put the brick down. Maybe a degree of reflection is required, but just start doing whatever you are aiming to master.

The first 1000 times are unsatisfactory. The 1001th may be adequate. The 10,000th may be good.

“This is the ultimate, or the final truth of mastery. After all the preparation, all the work, all the double blinds and the doubling backs and the misdirections and the breaking down and building back up, we have to confront the thing itself, the fact of necessity, the leap of performance, the need to act.”

“If you surrender to allow the simple pattern to imprint itself on your mind, an inordinate gift will blossom. At least, that is the promise of mastery.”

Learning Changes Perception

Learning to drive changed my perception of the city.

Learning to dance reveals new elements of your body and its relationship to the world.

Learning to play an instrument teaches you to listen to the silence in between the notes.

Learning to draw teaches you to look for the hidden subtleties in the mundane.

Whatever you learn fundamentally changes the way you interact and see the world. It also reveals to you the depths of any skill. We don’t know what we don’t know until we dip our toe into a world, and find a whole ocean below.

Feeling expands only as our attention widens.

Intrinsic Motivation with a Hint of Extrinsic Is Needed

“Our interior expression of accomplishment and mastery matter… We lost the public race to be the best long ago…. But the last runner need compete only with herself”

When we learn from a place of internal motivation, curiosity is naturally the driver.

“Let the standard of reward be interior, the chosen expenditure of your own heartbeats.”

Hard and Easy at the Same Time

Learning is hard. Putting the brick down when first learning a skill is full of conscious effort. But this lengthens time: “by making each step fully self-conscious, we live within the moment as we otherwise rarely do”.

The cave you fear to enter, holds the treasure you seek.

And once we hit the right ‘sweet spot’, we lose that feeling and just enter flow. We lose our sense of self.

What makes something interesting to do is that - through repetition, coordination, perseverance – it stretches time.

But this is not ‘easy’. “Repetitive simplicity feels neither repetitive nor simple…but feels instead like an entry into another world of possible patterns.”

Masters Are Everywhere

We are all more varied and capable than we are often allowed to seem.

We perform for an invisible audience.

We usually have an invisible audience we are performing for when creating. That is ok. We engage in perpetual play with the invisible other.

We know ourselves only by staring into the eyes of another.

There is no magic without a mastery. But also, no magic without a mark.


This is a book filled with beautiful prose. Many would find it frustrating for its lack of concrete ‘steps’ but that is the point. It is exploring the mystery of the process, and it’s full of wondrous paradox.