The Ultimate Guide to George Leonard’s Book “Mastery”

by Mike
George Leonard’s Book “Mastery”

George Leonard’s book Mastery is a must read for anyone who is serious about personal development.

Leonard maps out the process that is required to master anything. If you’re looking to lose weight, gain muscle, get better at a sport, get better grades, become more socially successful, or any other endeavor, Mastery will allow you to see the ‘big picture’ on what it will take to get there.

Being successful at ANYTHING, and I mean anything is really about engaging in the process that George Leonard maps out and terms Mastery.

Mastery by George Leonard

What makes a Grammy-winning musician, an Olympic athlete or a Nobel Prize-winner different from the rest of us? What do they know that we don’t? What makes someone who is successful with their health and fitness different from the massive amounts of people who aren’t?

Are successful people cut from a different cloth? In other words, what is behind success. Are there certain principles and processes behind success that if followed would allow anyone to become successful at almost anything they desired?

Contrary to the delusion that many people buy into, success doesn’t ‘just happen.’ People who are successful at whatever it is they are trying to accomplish follow certain principles.

They go through a process, they put in massive amounts of work and creative energy, and they fail over and over before they ‘make it.’

A Quick Note to Define Success

It’s important to define what success means. To me, success is going from point A to point B. It’s as simple as that. This can be mean financial success (going from earning $1,000/month to $10,000/month for example) or even visceral (going from a general feeling of angst about the world to a general feeling of peace about the world) and everything in between.

One of my favorite articulations of the principle of success not being arbitrary comes from James Allen in his classic book “as a man thinketh.”

“The thoughtless, the ignorant, and the indolent, seeing only the apparent effects of things and not the things themselves, talk of luck, of fortune, and chance. See a man grow rich, they say, “How lucky he is!” Observing another become intellectual, they exclaim, “How highly favored he is!” And noting the saintly character and wide influence of another, the remark, “How chance aids him at every turn!”

They do not see the trials and failures and struggles which these men have voluntarily encountered in order to gain their experience. They have no knowledge of the sacrifices they have made, of the undaunted efforts they have put forth, of the faith they have exercised, that they might overcome the apparently insurmountable, and realize the Vision of their heart. They do not know the darkness and the heartaches; they only see the light and joy, and call it “luck”; do not see the long and arduous journey, but only behold the pleasant goal, and call it “good fortune”; do not understand the process, but only perceive the result, and call it “chance.”

In all human affairs there are efforts, and there are results, and the strength of the effort is the measure of the result. Chance is not. “Gifts,” powers, material, intellectual, and spiritual possessions are the fruits of effort. They are thoughts completed, objects accomplished, visions realized.”

James Allen

Success is Mastery

Whenever someone is successful in a certain area of life, what that really means is they have mastered the laws of cause and effect in that particular area. For example, if you know someone who is successful financially, it should be pretty clear that they have mastered the ’cause’ (what effort is required) to create the ‘effect’ (the result/outcome).

If someone is successful with their health and fitness, they have mastered what it takes to create their body. Success isn’t chance, success is mastery.

So if we want to become successful at anything in life, an understanding of what it takes to master something is going to be critical. There is no other resource that I’ve found that articulates the process of mastery more perfectly than George Leonard’s book Mastery.

Overview of George Leonard’s Book Mastery

If you want to actually read the book, you can here for free. If not, the following is a quick overview of the book.

The first part of the book defines the concept of mastery in detail.

Mastery is:

  1. The process where what was difficult becomes both easier and more pleasurable;
  2. Long-term dedication to the journey – not the bottom line;
  3. Gaining mental discipline to travel further on your journey;
  4. Being goal-less;
  5. Realizing that the pleasure of practice is intensified;
  6. Creating deep roots;
  7. Knowing that you will never reach a final destination;
  8. Being diligent with the process of mastery;
  9. Your commitment to hone your skills;
  10. After you have reached the top of the mountain, climb another one;
  11. Being willing to practice, even when you seem to be getting no where;
  12. Making this a life process;
  13. Being patient, while you apply long-term efforts;
  14. Appreciating and even enjoying the plateau, as much as you do the progress;
  15. Practicing for the sake of practice;
  16. Winning graciously, and losing with equal grace;
  17. Placing practice, discipline, conditioning and character development before winning;
  18. Being courageous;
  19. Being fully in the present moment;
  20. Realizing that the ultimate goal is not the medal, or the ribbon, but the path to mastery its self (The “I am” stage);
  21. Being willing to look foolish;
  22. Maintaining flexibility in your strategy, and in your actions;
  23. A journey;
  24. and, determination

Leonard explains three character types that are in opposition of mastery: the Dabbler, the Obsessive (my general tendency), and the Hacker.

The Dabbler

The Dabbler is one who starts many new things and makes good progress initially.

However, once the Dabbler hits the first plateau he gets bored and moves onto the next greatest thing. The Dabbler’s learning curve rises very quickly, meets an obstacle and then drops to zero, since the dabbler gives up the activity and goes on to another; repeating the same curve on different activities.

The Obsessive

The obsessive lives for the growth spurt in a skill.

If he’s not constantly and actively growing he presses himself harder and faster. Eventually the Obsessive burns out and moves on to something else.

The Obsessive’s learning curve rises quickly, meets obstacles, which The Obsessive tackles by redoubling his effort, getting more books and tools and trying to figure out ways to get better results faster and cheaper, and then burns out in a short while when he finds that the curve is not a straight line upwards.

The Hacker

Once the Hacker has passed over the first major growth spurt and is on the first plateau he just stays there. He doesn’t actively spend time trying to learn and grow.

He just tinkers with the bit of skill he’s developed and remains satisfied at that level. The Hacker’s learning curve rises quickly, meets an obstacle or two and then plateaus out on a straight line. The Hacker doesn’t consider the need for more instruction or rising above that level. He is content with level reached and plans to stay at that level.

The second part of the book explains the main keys to mastery.

The first key is instruction. Leonard recommends that to be on the road to mastery the pupil needs an instructor. The second key is practice. Any music student has heard this time and time again. Without practice the instruction is wasted. The third key is surrender.

The concept of surrender refers to being willing to fail at attempts to become better. The fourth key is intentionality. This is “keeping your mind in the game” or “your eye on the prize”. The idea here is to maintain a clear vision of where you are trying to go (even if you never get there).

The final key to mastery is the “edge” or the constant urge to challenge and press the limits. This is what keeps the student from complacency and keeps the student moving forward on the path.


Having a conscious awareness of the process of mastery has helped me in every area of life, especially on my personal development quest.

After all, success in any endeavor is really just about mastery. Below is an outline of the book for anyone wanting to get the most out of it.

Outline of George Leonard’s Book Mastery

I. Part 1-The master’s Journey

A. Chapter 1-What is mastery?

  • Mastery is a journey/process, NOT a goal or destination
  • Modern Society tends to conspire against mastery by leading others to believe in the idea of instant gratification
  • Most time spent at your skill level is spent on a plateau where you do not improve and are often frustrated. Afterwards you will improve a lot then get a little worse and return to another plateau. Only this plateau is an improvement to your previous plateau
  • In order to be a master you must practice for the sake of practicing itself

B. Chapter 2-The dabbler, The obsessive and the hacker

  • The dabbler tries many things, gets improvement, plateaus and gets bored then tries something new
  • The obsessive is purely result oriented. They are inconsistent and when they hit a plateau they quit because their results aren’t increasing linearly
  • The hacker is content where he’s at. He gets good then doesn’t care to continue improving.
  • There is nothing wrong with being the dabbler, the obsessive, or the hacker. Everyone is sometimes all of them. But if you want to become a master at a certain skill. You must stay on the path of mastery.

C. Chapter 3- America’s War against Mastery

Marketing and culture tend to communicate quick fixes and instant gratification. It communicates learning being linear or instantaneous. Which is not reality.

D. Chapter 4- Loving the Plateau

  1. Find joy in regular practice
  2. Practice for the sake of practice itself, NOT for reaching a certain level

II. Part 2- Five Mastery Keys

A. Chapter 5- Key 1: Instruction

  • The good thing about no instruction is you have literally unlimited potential in the idea that there is no instructor to tell you something will not work
  • The bad thing about no instruction is it can take much longer to learn and you will not have anyone to help you along the way
  • The instructor credentials are extremely important but you should also look at how they work with students of different levels. Would a coach for a world champion boxer be the best at accelerating the learning curve of a beginner?
  • A good instructor will point out both the good and the bad of what the student is doing.
  • Do not follow a guru, instead allow yourself to be taught by a teacher.
  • Understand teachers are not perfect.
  • Know the difference between a master and a master of teaching.
  • Know when it is time to say good bye to a teacher.

B. Chapter 6-Key 2: Practice

  1. Practice is NOT something you do. It says something you HAVE, and something you ARE.
  2. For a master, the rewards are fine, but not the purpose of the journey.
  3. Love to practice.
  4. Mastery is practice, and staying on the path.

C. Chapter 7-Key 3: Surrender

  • Surrender to your teacher and the demands of your discipline
  • Be willing to look like a fool
  • Satisfaction lies in mindful repetition, the discovery of endless richness in subtle variations on familiar themes
  • There are times when it is necessary to give up hard-won competency in order to advance to the next stage. This is especially true when you are stuck at a familiar and comfortable skill level.

D. Chapter 8- Key 4: Intentionality

  1. Visualizations
  2. Thoughts, images and feelings play into your success

E. Chapter 9- Key 5: The Edge

  1. Pushing the limits for higher performance, sometime to the point of stupidity
  2. You must be able to play the edge while respecting practice

III. Part 3- Tools for Mastery

A. Chapter 10-Why Resolutions fail and what to do about it

  • Everyone resists change, good or bad. Expect some backsliding.
  • Any change may cause anxiety
  • Resistance to change is proportionally to size/speed of change, not if it is good or bad
  • Be aware of how homeostasis works
  • Be willing to negotiate with your resistance to change
  • Develop a support system. Particularly those who have gone before you.
  • Follow a regular practice
  • Dedicate yourself to lifelong practice

B. Chapter 11-Getting Energy For mastery

  1. You gain energy by using energy
  2. Maintain physical fitness
  3. Acknowledge the negative and accentuate the positive
  4. Be honest with others, it will revitalize you
  5. Honor but do not indulge your darker side
  6. Set your priorities
  7. Make your commitments, take action
  8. Get on the pathway of mastery, and choose to stay on it

C. Chapter 12-Pitfalls along the path

  1. Conflicting way of life. Your job may not be your path.
  2. Obsessive Goal Orientation. Be aware the peak is ahead, but don’t keep looking up. Keep your eyes on the path.
  3. Poor Instruction. Your teacher is a teacher, not a guru.
  4. Lack of competitiveness. Competition keeps you motivated.
  5. Over competitiveness.
  6. Laziness
  7. Injuries
  8. Drugs
  9. Prizes and medals. External validation can often stop or slow the pathway to mastery
  10. Vanity. You must be willing to look like a fool.
  11. Dead seriousness. Have fun.
  12. Inconsistency.
  13. Perfectionism.

D. Chapter 13- Mastering the common Place

  • Life is mastery
  • Seemingly ordinary chores can be viewed as something to master.

E. Chapter 14- Packing for the journey

  • Review of the book
  • Physical exercises
  • Epilogue-The Master and the Fool
  • Always be a student
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