What it takes to master a discipline


Posted By

May 23rd, 2012
Buddhism USA Meditation Master

This is the first in the BA master class series, focusing on seven key areas I found helped develop my technique, performance, and delivery.

In May 2012, I was invited to deliver a half-day master class on mastering requirements analysis to follow on from the third BA Masterclass conference.

In this post I share the thinking about what we mean by the terms ‘master’ and ‘master class’ and what it takes to master a discipline. In the other posts I look at mastering our purposeour relationships, behaviour, professional development, models and frameworks, service mindset, and ourselves; and how we develop goal plans and a personal goal map to ensure we do progressively master what we choose to do.

What is a master class?

A master class is an opportunity for those already experienced to learn from a leading practitioner, to improve their technique, performance, and delivery.

What is a master?

If you conjure up an image in your mind of a ‘master’, you’re probably seeing a chess master, violin virtuoso, master stone mason, martial arts master, Zen Buddhist master, or, indeed, any of a number of possibilities.

For a master class, though, it is important that it’s not just someone who is experienced in their chosen discipline, it also needs someone who can act as a mentor, a teacher, or a guide … someone who is aware enough of the development stages to be able to guide others through them.

How do you get to be a master?

There are many models for the development stages that we move through to reach mastery of our discipline, from medieval craft guilds, through martial arts, to modern management and people development thinking.

You’re probably also familiar with the ‘stages of competence’ too:

  1. unconscious incompetence
  2. conscious incompetence
  3. conscious competence
  4. unconscious competence
  5. reflective competence

The model originally stopped at ‘unconscious competence’; however there is now considered to be an additional stage, where we become aware of how our competence has become unconscious, and so we can guide others through the same stages. This stage is known as: ‘reflective competence’.

Students are guided through the latter stages by being asked to reflect on their experience, to consider the rules, how they should be applied, and when to ignore or change them.

In Zen Buddhism, this form of reflective question is known as a ‘köan’, and you might have heard of some common examples: “what is the sound of one hand clapping”? or “if a tree falls in the forest when no-one is there, does it make a sound”?

While questions in my master class workshop were more down to earth, we still needed to explore our attitudes to our roles, our approach, and how we relate to others around us. Only by doing this, by thinking outside of our normal comfort zones, can we hope to truly develop.

How long does it take to master something?

These days, we are promised the ability to master something almost instantaneously, from books that say we can learn everything about a technique in just 24 hours, to the concentrated one-year masters in business administration courses.

It is however believed that to truly master a discipline takes about around 10,000 hours of practice. That’s 10 years at 3-4 hours a day, every day! (Malcolm Gladwell, 2008)

The CBAP requires only 7,500 hours, so those of us who have achieved that accreditation are humble enough to admit that we still have some way to go to truly master the discipline!

In fact to truly master something, we have to keep on improving ourselves! We can never stop, for if we do, we will plateau, stagnate, and eventually fail.

A luta continua! Kia kaha!

Walk with me

In this series of BA master class posts, I invite you to share my journey of the steps I have taken to be the best I can be. I too am still learning and exploring, and I invite your feedback and discussion so that we can learn from one another.

CBAP® is a registered mark owned by, and used with the express permission of, International Institute of Business Analysis.


  • […] our purpose What it takes to master a discipline […]

  • Great post, David. Thanks for enlightening me about the fifth stage. It is quite intriguing actually.

    This reflective state is almost like being in the zone and sort of an out-of-body experience where you are aware of your skill level and see yourself performing with unconscious competence consciously (if that made sense :).

    Learnt a new word: köan …

    Thanks for this wonderful post; look forward to following along through this series.


    • David Morris

      05 Jun 2012

      Yamo, Thank you so much for the positive feedback and engagement. I do get what you mean, and hopefully I didn't leave the attendees too spaced out from their reflections :)

  • […] What it takes to master a discipline […]

  • […] that our behaviour supports our ability to be effective in our role. In the other posts I look at what it takes to master a discipline, at mastering our purpose, relationships, professional development, models and frameworks, service […]

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