Personal Mastery
Skills and Structure For Creating What Matters Most

by Bruce Elkin

June 4, 2015

"People with a high level of personal mastery are able to consistently realize the results that matter most deeply to them--in effect, they approach their life as an artist would approach a work of art. They do that by becoming committed to their own lifelong learning."
— Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

Define Yourself First

“The starting point to figuring out the future is figuring out yourself.”

So says, Nuala Beck, guru of The New Economy. Beck suggests that people fail at re-training or entrepreneurial efforts because they take on difficult challenges without clearly knowing what they want.

She cautions against making change without knowing where you want to end up, and why.

“Define yourself first,” she urges.

Before you shift to a new career or start a business, you’d do best to align your efforts with your deepest longings and your highest aspirations.

“Combine your love or hobby with a practical skill,” says Beck.

Do What You Love

Many people, though, find this advice easier heard than done.

It’s not just that they don’t know what they love and want to create, some shy away from doing what they love. They think, as did the father of one of my client, that work should be struggle. Working at what you love was, he claimed, “Silly, just playing around.”

His son heard the message, loud and clear. He tried many jobs, but could not stick with them. When I met him, he was depressed, despairing that he’d never find satisfying work.

I asked him to describe what he loved doing he said, “Just skiing.”

"So why not get a job in the ski business?”

“Because skiing is playing. It’s not real work.”

Like father like son.

This client had to learn two key lessons:

First, he needed to learn that what he wanted to do was quite different than what he felt he should do.

And, second, he needed to learn that doing what he wanted was more likely to lead to success than doing what he felt obliged to do.

During coaching, he realized he also loved the natural world. He thought he might combine his love of skiing and nature with the practical skill of landscape design, which he’d studied briefly, earlier.

He got a job with a ski area design firm. He upgraded his design skills, got a degree and eventually started his own consulting practice. Today he flies around the world designing environmentally sensitive, ski areas.

This client is typical of many I work with. At first, he forced himself to do work which was not meaningful to him and therefore not satisfying. He tried to live up to someone else’s ideals, rather than to his own deep desires. Doing so sapped his energy and motivation. Eventually he’d quit.

When he got in touch with what he loved, and built his career and business around those touchstones, work became financially rewarding and fulfilling.

How Do You Do What You Love?

Why do we shy away from what we love as a source of a career or business opportunity? Why do we spend our lives doing what we like second best, or third?

Often, it's because we're afraid. We’re afraid we don’t have what it takes, or that we might fail. There is something terribly more frightening about failing at what matters than failing at something that doesn’t.

Driven by such fear, many people find themselves stuck in dead end jobs and drudgery, doing things they don’t care about, working only for money and material rewards that never fully satisfy them.

But research into business and investment success shows that those who work simply “to make money” do not succeed as often or as well as those who work at something they love.

Robert Fritz, expert on creativity and author of numerous books on creating , worked closely with a group of founders of successful companies. He concluded that successful business creators want something much more than economic success. "They want to love their businesses, to create and build their companies, for the companies’ own sake.”

“That love for a business which doesn’t yet exist—and the drive to grow it in unexpected, perhaps unimaginable directions—is the essence of entrepreneurship. It is creativity.”

Fritz taught these entrepreneurs the skills and structure with which to focus on what mattered use that focus to motivate themselves, learn, build momentum and create high level results—regardless of the circumstances, problems or obstacles they encountered.

He taught them how and why to apply the creative process to their business and career development.

But, not all entrepreneurs or career changers are so fortunate. Most leap into the most difficult challenge they will undertake in their lifetime without the skills or framework for determining what they truly want. They end up learning by trial and, often painful, error. Many drop out of this school of hard knocks before they fully learn its lessons. They may survive, but they rarely thrive.

Even would-be entrepreneurs and ambitious careerists often are unclear about what really matters to them. These people lack what Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, also calls personal mastery.

Personal Mastery Of The Creating Process

“People with a high level of personal mastery share several basic characteristics,” says Senge.

“They have a special sense of purpose that lies behind their visions and goals. For such a person, a vision is a calling rather than simply a good idea.”

People with personal mastery craft their visions and goals around what they love and want to create. But, knowing what to want is not easy.

British author, businessman and consultant, Sir Geoffrey Vickers, says, “Learning what to want is the most radical, the most painful and the most creative art of life.”

Senge is blunter: “Most adults have little sense of real vision. We have goals and objectives but these are not visions.”

Senge says real vision arises from a sense of purpose. “The ability to focus on ultimate, intrinsic desires, not only on secondary goals,” he says, “is a cornerstone of personal mastery.”

The Power of the Creative Process

The skill of knowing what to want is highly developed in the creative process as practiced in the arts, science and technology.

In these areas people routinely produce high level results that matter — novels, paintings, scientific discoveries, technological marvels. Such creators work long and hard at difficult challenges and yet seem to have more energy when they finish than when they started.

Perhaps the most astute observer and chronicler of the principles and process that guide creative work is Robert Fritz, the entrepreneurial coach mentioned above and author of The Path of Least Resistance.

Fritz has developed an approach for teaching people in all walks of life how to create what they most want.

Fritz’s work has had such a powerful effect that Peter Senge uses his creating approach as the basis of his own work with Fortune 500 executives.

Senge says, “The principles and processes presented in The Path of Least Resistance have become the cornerstone in my work to help leaders and managers deal productively with complexity and change.”

Unless individual employees have “a well-developed capacity to create, it is unlikely that the organization as a whole will have the capacity to create.

The creative process is a powerful force that would-be entrepreneurs and careerists can master and apply in the service of their highest visions and their most practical goals.

“Creativity is the motor force of history," says Fritz. … "Creativity is the father of artistic, scientific and business innovation. Creation is what makes life worth living.”

Seven Skills for Creating Almost Anything

Mastering the following skills can greatly increase your chances of creating what you most deeply want.

1) Conceive: What do you want to create? Play around with ideas in your mind. Why do you want this? What will it do? What is unique about it?

Do not worry, at first, whether your idea is realistic or doable. Let your imagination soar. You will ground it in reality later. Ask yourself, “What truly matters to me?”

2) Focus Your Concept Into A Clear, Compelling Vision: Concepts are a good place to start but they are too vague and fuzzy to energize or guide your creative process.

Coaching clients often say they want to be “successful,” but do not, at first, know at what, or in what area of business. Nor do they know what success would look like to them if they created it.

To tap into the power of creating, narrow your focus. From the many possibilities it could be, which one will you create? What will it look like. Create a clear image of the end result you want — an image that is specific and tangible enough that you would recognize it if you created it.

3) Assess what you already have, and what you lack: Don’t leap into action or start planning, yet. First, look at where you are starting from and objectively describe what you already have.

Be honest. Don’t make reality out to be better than it is or worse. Don’t distort or exaggerate. Describe reality, don’t judge it. Note how close you are to the result you want. Ask yourself what’s missing?

The discrepancy between what you want and what you have sets up a useful creative tension — a tendency to move. Creators use the energy in this tension to take actions, not results, make adjustments and move steadily toward their vision.

4) Start slowly. Take small steps. Small steps are more likely to build patterns of success and increase self-confidence. Small mistakes are easier to learn from.

During this stage creators experiment, innovate, try things. Step by step, “poco a poco,” results emerge. Create the pieces and the parts, then tie them together. Let your creation grow.

5) Create-evaluate-learn-adjust-create: If the creative process is anything it is a learning process. Creators create results, evaluate them against their vision, then adjust their next steps based on what they learned.

Creating is a little like sailing; you’re always finding yourself off course. But to creators, that is not a problem. They simply re-establish where they are relative to where they want to be and set a new course. Create and adjust!

Failure, in the creative process, is simply feedback. As drawing teacher, Nicoliades, says, “The sooner you make your first 5000 mistakes the sooner you’ll learn to draw.” The same is true in business.

6) Complete your creation: It is important to know when you’re done, to recognize the end of your creative process. And move on to your next creation. Picasso, when asked what his favorite painting was immediately answered “My next one.”

In business you cannot rest on your laurels. If you create a successful product or service, create another. And another. Keep stretching and creating.

7) Let go. Live with your creation: Once created, your creation is best seen as a creature unto itself. Let it go. Don’t insist that it say something about you.

In this stage, you shift from being the creator to part of the audience for your creation. You become a critic, evaluating the creation objectively, as if someone else created it. There is much to learn from this shift in perspective that will help you grow in mastery and can be applied to your next creation. Graciously receive the rewards of creation.

One Last Word

Many people believe that before they can begin creating a new business or career, they must fix their problems or develop a good self-image. You don’t.

Although a good self-image is a desirable, in the creative process your opinion of yourself is much less important than what you think about what you are creating. Too much focus on yourself and how you are doing detracts from your ability to focus on your creation — your business, your new product, your career — and how it is doing.

Don’t waste your time trying to psych yourself into an upbeat, phony, positive sales pitch to yourself. Focus instead, on what you want to create, on its value and benefit to you and to the world. The vision of the result will motivate you.

Besides, C.J. Jung, the psychologist, said that when people get caught up in a purpose greater than themselves all their neuroses seem to magically disappear. So focus outside yourself, on your creation.

Finally, creating is best seen as a discipline to be practiced and developed. It is not an intellectual process. As Tom Hanks said about humour, “If it was, intellectuals could do it.”

Creating is a skill, like skiing, playing the cello, or public speaking. It improves with practice. And the best time to practice is when you are feeling overwhelmed with difficulties.

Those moments when you are most likely to backslide and feel sorry for yourself are strategic moments. They are opportunities to re-focus on your vision, re-assess reality and take small, careful steps regardless of what is happening around you.

Remember that consistency of effort is more important than dramatic breakthroughs. With practice, personal mastery of the creative process — and its rewards — is within your grasp.

Such mastery could greatly up your odds of succeeding. Developing master of the creating process is an excellent investment in taking responsibility for your own success and for that of your business or career. And if you don’t master it?

Let’s give the last word to Draper L. Kaufman, author of Systems One: “Those who do not create the future they want, must endure the future they get.”

The Pursuit of Mastery

Bruce Elkin is the author of three books — Simplicity and Success, THRIVE! and The ABCs of Emotional Mastery. He is an internationally known Personal Life Coach, and Professional Success Coach. Find out more about Bruce.