We know mastery, we like to think, when we see it in action: the kinetic poetry of Lionel Messi dancing through defenses; Whitney Houston crushing the notoriously difficult national anthem at the Super Bowl. Explaining mastery, however, is more elusive. We tend to romanticize it (reaching for phrases like “God-given talent”) or instrumentalize it (positing it as the product of those 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” espoused by sociologist K. Anders Ericsson and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers”).
One major problem is that masters themselves can rarely disentangle the alchemical process that has gotten them to where they are, in part because of a fundamental disconnect between “declarative knowledge” — knowing about something — and “procedural knowledge” — knowing how to do something. One can theoretically learn all there is to know about how to ride a bike without being able to do it; conversely, you can ride a bike really well and struggle to explain it. The philosopher Gilbert Ryle theorizes this divide as “knowing that” vs. “knowing how.”
Adam Gopnik, a longtime staff writer and critic for the New Yorker — one of those rare literary figures of sufficient authority to play himself on-screen, in Todd Field’s “Tár” — notes that he was inspired to write his latest book, “The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery,” as an effort to bridge the “knowing that” and “knowing how” gap.
That phrase, “the real work,” comes from Gopnik’s fascinating glimpse into the world of magic, a trade in which the normal obscurities of skill acquisition are rendered even more opaque; first, because its participants don’t want to give away the game (“it is considered a cardinal sin to reveal methods,” Gopnik notes); second, because mastery in magic is often defined by its seeming absence (“the better it is done,” he writes, “the harder it is to see that anything has happened”). The real work — the phrase becoming a sort of stand-in for mastery itself — isn’t just knowing the trick or inventing the trick, it “is the complete activity, the accumulated practice, and the total summing up of traditions.” Mastery “is what makes a magic effect magical.”
Gopnik’s impetus was a professional crisis of faith. After a few decades of work as an art critic, judging “other people’s drawings,” he decided to finally try to learn to draw himself. “We miss the whole,” he writes, “if we don’t attempt to grasp, in however limited and even feeble a form, what the real work feels like for other people as they do it.” Sound out some Gershwin on the piano, however clumsily, and you’ll have a new appreciation for what Erroll Garner does. Gopnik writes, “Fingers know, or rather don’t know, things that ears cannot.”
Guided by that same ethos, he decides to plunge into the pursuit of other skills that have long eluded him, from boxing to dancing to driving a car. He brings some noticeable baggage. He is, for one thing, in late middle age. After his first, less-than-impressive drawing lesson, “filled with feelings of helplessness and stupidity and impotence that I had not experienced since elementary school,” he concludes, “Much of what feels like mastery in adult life is actually the avoidance of a challenge.” He is a bit of a luftmensch. “A print addict since I was 4,” he writes, “by now words have insidiously repopulated my ganglions and synapses.” Meaning: He likes reading — and writing — about many pursuits more than doing them.
Which works in this book, a lot of the time, because of the fluidity and incision of his prose, his ranging interest and knowledge, his capacity for deploying profound koans with casual verve: “Activities that are interesting to read about (science experiments) are probably dull to do, while activities that are dull to read about (riding a bike) are interesting when you attempt them.” At other times, however, it all feels a little too low-stakes and languorous, the lessons too oblique. “I’ve tried not to sum up too neatly the point or moral of each adventure as it happened,” he writes, in an all-too-anticipatory disclaimer. Like the magicians he is so taken with, he sometimes employs a touch of sly misdirection, but without ever quite arriving at an aha moment. The chapter on driving, for example, starts with throat-clearing declarations of what it’s not going to be, without settling on a notion of what it is, in the end revealing very little about mastery — driving itself an arguably odd choice to explore the subject, since it’s a skill acquired so widely and so easily.
Then again, one of Gopnik’s salutary aims here is to demystify — and democratize — mastery. “Everybody’s good at something,” he writes. “Being bad at something reminds us of how we ever got good at anything.”
Tom Vanderbilt’s most recent book is “Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning.”
The Real Work
On the Mystery of Mastery
By Adam Gopnik
Liveright. 241 pp. $30
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