Mastery, shmastery

This Title is Good Enough

Violin Hanging on the Wall (1912) by Picasso

“Perfection is the enemy of progress.” This is an old saying about mastery versus productivity. I am not saying that the concept of mastery is overrated. Hear me out — I am NOT saying that mastery is unneeded, unnecessary, or irrelevant. What I am saying is that “in theory” or “kind of knowing it” sometimes is good enough.

Here’s what I mean. My father taught me to drive stick shift without knowing how to drive the stick shift himself, because he knew and understood the concept “in theory.” By teaching me the mechanics, as he understood them, my dad actually did a pretty decent job of making me understand how to do it. He was learning the subject as he was teaching it, and so was I.

On the other hand, my father’s mastery in math only got in the way of trying to teach me mathematical theories and formulas. He used to be a design engineer working first in a Soviet refrigerator factory, then at Gates Rubber Company in Denver, Colorado. And he always loved math, and using math to design stuff that worked. For him, a calculator was a toy he would get excited about. It was all so very easy and simple for him, that he could not understand how I was struggling with a math problem and “not getting it.” What was completely obvious to him was completely impenetrable to me. In mastering the subject, he was unable to impart his knowledge of the subject.

My love is writing, and I want to become the best possible writer I can become. That means that I still practice writing exercises, that I still do 750 Words every day, and that I want to write stronger, better, and more visual sentences today then I did yesterday. This is a much more subjective thing than, for example, if I wanted to become the best possible walker. If today I walked 10,000 steps, then tomorrow my aim is to take 10,001 steps. Then, objectively, I become a better walker. But how do I measure and demonstrate marked improvement in the word choice, content and flow of a story? Who is a master writer? Opinions on writers are still very subjective. I can say Stephen King, and you can say Herman Melville. And we both can be correct. Yet still, mastery in writing is as likely elusive as mastery in abstract painting. I mean, I honestly have no idea when an abstract painting is finished, and wouldn’t know an unfinished work from a finished one. What if there are just a few too many brushstrokes? What about the idea that I have too many words in my story or in this blog? Would one more word be superfluous — like putting a period after the period after The End? Would that be like the scene in the movie Amadeus, when the king says to Mozart in a dismissive tone, “too many notes”?

Well, I suppose sometimes, like finishing a story or a painting, it is really just good enough to finish the work. I am not saying that prior to finishing it and releasing it into the world, it should not be reviewed and edited (or whatever is the painters’ equivalent of editing would be). I mean, I suppose that I can write and write and never be good enough for mastery, or I could simply choose to stop, and practice beauty and discernment by leaving it alone, by letting it be good enough. I am comforted by this concept and also knowing that one person’s ceiling is another person’s floor.

Art is subjective. Mastery in art is subjective. And so it is with writing. Even music with its structure and meter and “on key” notes can be subject to taste and whim. “That band needs more polish. They were a little ‘off’.” versus “They are so slick and over-produced. I think their early stuff was better — when they were raw and unbridled.”

All I am saying (maybe to myself as much to you) is that mastery is not the be-all-end-all. I can work toward mastery and allow room for good enough.

I can, however, think of one exception to this rule of good enough — and that would be with a violin. In this artistic endeavor, anything less than mastery is painful to hear … and needs to be punished severely.




Writer and storyteller, immigrant, wife, mom, knitter, collector of jokes, lover of cheap, sweet wine.

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Elena Tucker

Elena Tucker

Writer and storyteller, immigrant, wife, mom, knitter, collector of jokes, lover of cheap, sweet wine.

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