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The Hero & Mastery Paradox

We need a hero, sung Bonnie Tyler in the 80’s; the age of movie star muscle men and super cops. Whereas now, in the two thousand teens we see a resurrection of the Marvel heroes; because we don’t believe new heroes can exist anymore or just a byproduct of the studio packaging system? This is likely a question for another time. And, Bonnie sing, “He’s got to be strong and he’s got to be fast and he’s got to be fresh from the fight.” At this point Ms. Tyler appears to be looking more for a romantic assignation than a model of integrity, compassion, moral courage, and enhanced social awareness. So where-when-who-why-how is the hero on song?

It is whispered that a hero is what a hero does when no one is looking. The unsung hero is excellent romantic convention for gripping novels, but not terribly applicable to real life. Let us say, then, that more realistically, a hero is a snapshot of action. A hero is a person looked at for one moment when they made the right choice, sacrificed for others or achieved a lofty goal. They were not born heroes; they are not perfect super beings without blemish or foible. A hero is a hero in the moment they are heroic.

Even the famous Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey admits immediately that a “hero” is not a static state, but a journey to which heroism in its public form is just one component of the overall story.

Heroes are not lifelong members of the hero’s club; they have heroic moments. Again, setting aside the supposed Mother Theresa’s, the long suffering parent who holds down three jobs for 30 years and the career soldier putting their life on the line to protect their values – the hero that makes the headlines is the hero caught in the liquid amber of time.

Going beyond the heroic moment to the heroism of persistence, requires a squinting view of decades of dedication to a particular goal, ignoring the conflicting details a more granular analysis might reveal. Brad gave a million to charity every year (after cheating retirees out of billions). Simon volunteered anonymously in the soup kitchen every Sunday (after getting drunk Saturday night and beating his wife). Or, more likely, Deborah worked with the homeless every weekend and worked as an administrative assistant during the week for 50 years.

How does this all relate to Mastery? We have an implicit societal goal; master things. Does it originate from our societal need to dominate other societies, species, planets, cultures, or each other? Sound about right. The need is two way, as royalty and religion reveal, we also crave a master at some level – at the very least a father figure we can count on for reward, punishment and guidance.

We even seek out Masters Degrees, but now – more than any other time in history- the idea of becoming a Master of any discipline is at least as elusive as that of being a hero. It is possible to be recognized as the leader in a particular field, it is possible to know more than most folks about a topic, even to be the one who is pushing the boundaries of knowledge in a subject area, but Mastery? Consider what that would require. Mastery requires that the person know absolutely every fact, skill and concept related to the subject with absolute and perfect skill, recall and application.  What field is so static as to allow for this even for a few days?

Mastery is a moving and elusive target, so what can a professional hope for? Expertise. An expert knows an extraordinary amount about their area of expertise – in fact; they are referred to as a subject matter expert (not master). An expert can wear all the trappings of a master without the fallacy of taxonomy.

Like a hero, one can strive for moments of Mastery. Playing a singular game with extraordinary skill, performing a feat of physical, mental or emotional prowess which is orders of magnitude above expectation, but that is expertise, not mastery. Mastery would be the ability to always have complete comprehension of all concepts and execution of all skills related to the topic for now and for always. 

The moment you 

accept the mantle of Master, 

you become immune 

to new ideas 

and cease behaving 

like a Master.