What it takes to master our craft (part 1)

This is the introduction to my masterclass series that focuses on seven key areas I found helped develop my technique, performance, and delivery. In this post I share the thinking about what we mean by the terms ‘master‘, ‘masterclass‘, and what it takes to master our ‘craft‘. I use that term, rather than profession or discipline, as it is the broadest way of describing what we do to earn a income.

In the remaining posts I look at how we need to be masters of our purposerelationships, behaviour, professional development, frameworks, service mindset, and ourselves; and then how to develop a personal action plan and goal map that ensures we can progressively master whatever we choose to do.

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, and so on.

For our purposes here, though, a master is not just someone who excels in their chosen craft, they also need to be able and willing act as a mentor, a teacher, or a guide … someone who is aware enough of the development stages to be able to help others through.

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 craft — from medieval craft guilds (apprentice, journeyman, master), through martial arts (shu, ha, ri), to modern management and people development thinking.

You are probably familiar with the ‘stages of competence‘:

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

The model originally stopped at four levels; 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.

  1. reflective competence

This fifth stage reflects what we mean by mastery. Masters guide apprentices through the latter stages by asking them 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 masterclass 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.

What is a masterclass?

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

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 something takes about around 10,000 hours of practice. That’s 10 years at 3-4 hours a day, every day! (Malcolm Gladwell, 2008)

Some top-level professional accreditations — such as project management professional (PMP) or certified business analysis professional (CBAP) — require 7,500 hours. Those of us who have achieved one of those accreditations need to be humble enough to admit that we still have some way to go to truly master our craft! Hence this masterclass series.

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! (the struggle continues, stay strong)


This series is based on the material I developed for a half-day masterclass delivered in May 2012, as part of the third BA Masterclass conference. For the purposes of publishing this as a series, I have tried to broaden it out to be applicable to anything we might do. There will be an ebook to follow that brings this all together.

Walk with me

In this series of masterclass 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.


  • Yaaqub Mohamed (Yamo)

    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

      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 🙂

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