There are master plumbers, master preachers, master teachers, master sales clerks, master anglers, master chefs, master ... anything.
"People mistakenly tend to think of masters as the very best, the smartest, the most gifted, sort of demigods in a class by themselves like Picasso or Babe Ruth," said H. Rick Moody, a philosopher, ethicist, author and director of academic affairs at AARP.
Mastery -- the combination of knowledge, skill, experience and understanding that offers a deep command of a topic or activity -- comes with intention and practice, say those who teach it.
In an accompanying article, the first of an occasional series, triathlete Dave Voss describes his path to mastery, begun at age 40. Each installment will offer a master's lessons that could help others seeking excellence.
Most masters aren't famous. You've never heard of most of them, "but they're all around you," Moody said. "If you stop and think right now, you probably can name three. They're the ones who are really, really good [at something] and having a whale of a good time doing it."
Even the young can achieve a level of mastery, but it more often is a pursuit of people once they reach middle age, said life coach and author Richard Leider of Edina, who counsels corporations and executives around the world. "That's a time when you may look more closely at your life, a time when you might ask, 'Is this all there is?' In many ways, this is about creating a joy-filled life," he said.
Confusion about how to achieve mastery is why so many people struggle with diets, exercise, New Year's resolutions and even relationships, he said.
Choosing yes or no
Many people prefer not to put in the time and effort to achieve mastery, "and that's fine. Life is about choices," Leider said. "But if you choose yes, if you are called to break out of the ordinary, making the decision is only the first step. Then comes the work."
Leider leads a team that has developed a new online tool for AARP called Life Reimagined, at www.lifereimagined.org. It is designed to help people explore what they're passionate about, and how they can make that a core part of their lives.
Experts offer many paths to mastery. Here are some common steps:
The calling: Everyone has a gift, maybe several skills or attributes. Combining that gift with a sense of purpose and life values can lead to your calling, the thing you become passionate about, that pulls you out of bed in the morning eager to go.
Developing the practice: You will come to love the plateaus, because that's where you will spend most of your days in study and training, the basics of your calling, punctuated by bumps up in skill. Those who tire of the routine and concentrate on the lofty goal -- such as losing 100 pounds -- are likely to fail.
Surrender: Find a coach or mentor, become a lifelong student and develop a pool of confidants who listen to you while you chart your path. Isolation will kill mastery, and perpetual curiosity will fuel it.
Create change: Make your own good luck by pushing forward. Your journey may seem to move up and down, swing between good and bad. In fact, your mastery advances as long as you remain engaged. The biggest leaps may come from what seems to be adversity.
"This is serious business, making your life mean something, count for something," Moody said. "It is serious business, but it's the business of joyful living."