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Mastery & Levels of Learning

You may already be familiar with the work of Bert Dreyfus. He is well known for his decades-long critique of Artificial Intelligence that culminated in his classic, What Computers Still Can’t Do (translated into twelve languages), as well as for making the work of continental philosophers accessible to analytically-trained philosophers. He developed what has since become the ‘standard’ for understanding Levels of Learning, which gives us a powerful, actionable definition of Mastery.

By establishing a Master as someone who reinvents a discipline, he gives us a path to Mastery, a way to set direction for ourselves around our own Level of Learning on our path to be a Beginner, an Advanced Beginner, Competent, a Practitioner, a Virtuoso or a Master.

Here’s the thing, though – you can’t be masterful at everything. It is hard to be masterful at many things. Many people consider ‘mastery’ a daunting prospect, but the value of having Levels of Learning is that you can also deliberately choose NOT to be masterful in certain domains. You can choose to be a Beginner, an Advanced Beginner or simply Competent.

Once you’ve identified your chosen area of mastery, you can begin to see how to use tools and practices from others’ domains of mastery in support of your own pursuits. You will, most likely, not choose to become masterful in their domains as well as your own, but you can certainly appropriate their tools and practices. For example, if my chosen domain of mastery is ‘perception’ in robotics, I might leverage the tools & practices of ‘agile’, ‘coding’, and ‘product management’ as the pillars that support my journey toward mastering perception.

I love the expression “That is not mine to do.” To me, this means that the speaker does not see themselves as the Swiss army knife of all work. It means instead that I am speaking to someone who distinguishes between their own mastery and that of others. Wouldn’t you rather be operated on by a surgeon who uses a surgical instrument rather than a Swiss army knife? Someone who sees all other tools and practices in service to their own mastery?

Another possible pitfall arises when we confuse hyperspecialization with mastery; in actuality, these two things are very different. Someone who is committed to hyperspecialization commits to knowing ‘everything there is to know’ about a certain topic – obviously an impossible standard to uphold, not to mention it misses the point of mastery.

Someone who commits to Mastery in a certain domain commits to reinventing the discipline. This demands that you live in a constant state of inquiry, of humble beginner mind, of passionate learning, because you are constantly scanning the horizon – as far as you can see – for where the next perturbation is going to come from, a perturbation that might lead to the next moonshot, to the next breakthrough innovation. And you are honest enough to know that you don’t know where it will come from. You may have a sense or a hunch – have the courage to follow that!

I’ll leave you with 3 simple questions that can help you define & pursue your mastery:

  1. What is the domain in which you commit to developing mastery for yourself? (Declare it! You can always change your mind later.)

  2. What are the tools and practices from masters in other domains that will serve you in pursuit of your mastery?

  3. What level of learning do you wish to attain in the tools and practices that support your own mastery?

I encourage you to discuss these with your community – you never know where overlaps arise that indicate how we can better support one another. Life is truly easier and a lot more enjoyable when you are surrounded by others who are exploring their own domains of mastery—and it gives you a newfound respect for others’ commitment as you realize how big a lift it is for you!

Jennifer Kenny helps senior executives ignite a culture of innovation that leads to more valuable solutions, optimal processes, and increases the innovative capabilities of technology teams.

For more on her Human Innovation programs please contact her at

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