The Mastery Curve

Creativity and, indeed, mastery, is a process, a journey—not a destination or accomplishment. Learning occurs in stages—with growth spurts, plateaus and even times of great frustration when we feel like we’ve taken a step backwards. The key to surviving those down times is to anticipate, expect and acknowledge them, and know that you’ll get through them with a little perseverance.

In his book, Mastery, George Leonard talks about the “Mastery Curve”—a rhythm of learning and activity in which growth spurts are followed by slight declines to a plateau that is, hopefully, a little higher than your last plateau.

I see fluctuations even in the weeklong workshops that I teach. Students often come to a workshop because they’ve reached a plateau, are feeling stale, and want to move on to the next level. During the first couple of days of class, the learning curve is high and they love showing off some of their new work. They are being exposed to new ideas, new techniques and other photographers’ work. But as they continue to work with these new ideas, they get some mixed results. To be honest, they usually take at least a few terrible photos. That’s because they are learning how to apply these new techniques in different situations, and it is something they haven’t mastered yet. It's like those wobbly periods when you're learning to ride a bike. You get good at going straight, but things get a little tricky again when you start to go around curves.

Remember, falling is not the same as failing. It is just part of the process. We’ve got to be willing to push beyond our comfort zones and make some mistakes before we reach that next plateau. But if we do try new things, and practice them until we’re good at them, we do indeed reach that next plateau. In other words, know that you may get worse before you get better. By the end of the week, workshop participants begin to get the hang of their new techniques and have a great final show of images. They may not have mastered their new techniques yet, but they head home with a few new tricks in their bag that they feel confident about, as well as a few new images for their portfolio.