The 5 Levels of Mastery

triple bullseye

Excellence and mastery are two very different things.

About ten years ago, I came across some writing by a master guitar teacher named Philip Toshio Sudo, creator of the Zen Guitar Dojo.  He has a unique approach to teaching guitar that is built on a very ancient philosophy of mastery.  I’ve internalized Sudo’s ideas over time, and I’ve adapted them below to apply generally to the area you wish to master.


Imagine a time several centuries ago when a student would travel miles to a dojo in order to receive training from a martial arts master.  If the student is accepted into the dojo, that student would receive one uniform with one white belt.  The student would put in the time, training, and effort until he saw his belt getting so soiled that it eventually turned black of its own accord.  The sensei, or master teacher, would then ask the student to redouble his training until the belt became so worn and frayed it began to lose color and return to white. Only through completion of that circle (from white to black to white) can a student know the depth of his education.

Level 1

At this stage, you establish the proper mindset for beginning the path of a master student. This is the stage of humility. You do not reach this first level by simply paying for services or by joining a class or by finding a sensei. Joining a class is more like a zero-level pre-beginner’s process. You truly become a beginner when you adopt the humility to learn. Adopting the beginner’s mind means making a commitment to be open and responsive and dedicated to the journey. Having a beginner’s mind means remaining teachable. This mindset must be maintained throughout the process.  The combination of humility, dedication, responsiveness, and openness is called the beginner’s mind.  

Level 2

At this stage, you are taught the types of training and discipline required to progress along the path of mastery. This is the stage of discipline in which the work ethic that must be maintained throughout the process of growth. If you were learning a martial art, this is the stage where you learn to punch, kick, and block with proper form. But learning how to do these things with proper form doesn’t mean you’re done with this level. The idea here is to punch thousands of times, kick thousands of times, and block thousands of times. This is the stage where you learn the foundational skills of your field, but this is also the stage in which you pay your dues and put in the time (think of Gladwells 10,000-hour requirement). In this stage, you are also warned about the common external obstacles that often lead you astray despite your well-intentioned efforts. The largest obstacle at this stage is your own ego. Many students at this stage feel they have practiced enough and try to move too soon away from this stage. Remember that this stage is about discipline, and one of the things you must also practice is disciplined patience. Once upon a time, a student finally arrived at a dojo to learn from the greatest master in the land. “Master,” he said, “Thank you for taking me on as a student. How long will it take for me to become a black belt?” The master looked at the young man for a long moment and said, “It will take you ten years.” The student said, “But master, I will be your best student. I will practice twice as hard as everyone else. I will put in twice the hours as everyone else. I will read and learn more than anyone else. You will see. I will work faster and longer than your other students. Now how long do you think it will take for me to become a black belt?”  The master said, “Then it will take you twenty years.” Remember to be fully present at each stage of your journey. Forget about the past and don’t worry about the future. Remain in the now and put in your work while also practicing patience. Remove the ego that impatiently wants to achieve greatness immediately.  

Level 3

At this stage, you learn the many characteristics of excellence, the requirements for excellence, and the responsibilities of excellence. You learn the kind of thinking, feeling, and attitude required of a black belt. This is the stage of production in which the body, the mind, and the spirit become one. Suppose the area you wish to master is the guitar. If you practiced three hours per day, every day for ten years, you will have acquired over 10,000 hours of practice. After the countless hours of disciplined practice, you should be able to produce good music 100% of the time at a level that surpasses most musicians. This is the black belt level, and unfortunately, this is where many people stop. It’s true that they have achieved much more than most others, and at this level, they consistently produce good work. But excellence is not mastery. Black belt excellence means demonstrating consistent production of a desired outcome.

Level 4

At this stage, you explore the wall that separates you from your purpose and your legacy. This is the stage of identity in which you examine how inextricably linked you are to the area you wish to master. This is a difficult stage because you must journey beyond the complacency of excellence and into a wisdom that surpasses technical excellence. This stage is more than high scores, good grades, great results, or tons of knowledge. In this stage, you learn how your talents, passions, and strengths are pointing you toward your life’s true purpose. For you, this stage may take on a different form. For you, this wall may take the form of haters, people who criticize your journey or try to convince you that it’s the wrong path. For you, this wall may take the form of self-doubt in which you battle with your own criticisms. For you, this wall may take the form of financial struggle in which the time and effort needed to achieve mastery is battling with the need to pay for expenses. This was a difficult stage for me. I had been working as an educator for nine years, producing good results, and changing the lives of many students…and I was still wondering at this point if the education field was right for me. I considered making career changes even after receiving amazing feedback on my excellence as a teacher. My wall involved working on my confidence in my abilities, working on my belief that I was on the correct path, and working on how I would be viewed (and how I viewed myself) as an educator. These were all ways in which my area of expertise began to fuse with my identity.

Level 5

This is not necessarily when you become a master. Think of this stage a little differently. This is the stage of transformation. It is important to avoid thinking of this stage as the master level. If you think that, then unfortunately you’ll be tempted to stop learning, and this stage is all about continuing to learn (after all, it is called the beginner’s mind). At this stage, you learn how to continue transforming in the absence of the sensei. A very important aspect of this stage involves the relationship you have with other people as it relates to the area you’re mastering. Some will seek you out for your services, some will seek you out for your wisdom and insight, and some will seek you out for your lessons and teaching. This stage is less about being a master, and more about practicing mastery. (It’s an important but subtle difference.) You begin to learn from your inner teacher while discovering the responsibilities that come with mastery. Similar to stage one, this fifth stage is also referred to as the beginner’s mind because you realize that another journey begins down a new path…the continued lifelong learning of new lessons.

One final thought…

Practicing mastery is a truly unique feeling that is a bit difficult to describe. It’s an interesting mix of humility and confidence. I did not wake up one day and say to myself, “I have completed my training, so now I am a master teacher.” It was more subtle and fluid, like the current of a very slow moving river. I looked around one day and slowly realized I was much further down the river than I thought. It was hindsight that helped me realize my mastery. And here’s the important piece for you. Once you slowly come to that gradual realization, that’s exactly the moment when you take on the responsibility of what that realization means.

Sometimes gaining knowledge also comes with gaining the responsibility of doing something with that knowledge.

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