In all human endeavors, there are four levels of accomplishment:

1. Incompetence

Regardless of how smart or gifted you are, to learn a new skill you must go through a period of not knowing — of taking the baby steps and stumbling. This is the very necessary stage of incompetence. Being incompetent is nothing to be ashamed of. Not trying to learn something because you are afraid to show incompetence is.

2. Competence

If you persist in your learning, you will eventually arrive at a level of skill that is competent for most situations. For example, you will be able to play the piano at parties, dance at weddings, or write an effective business letter. It takes time to become competent. I’ve suggested, half seriously, that it’s always the same amount of time regardless of the skill: 1,000 hours (with a 30% discount if you are lucky enough to have masterful instruction).

3. Mastery

Most people stop learning after they achieve competence. They know enough not to get fired, laughed at, or rejected (in other words, enough to avoid pain), but they have no desire to go beyond that. The few people who are not satisfied with merely “good” push on and continue to practice and learn for years and years. At some point (and my guesstimate for that is after about 5,000 hours), because of all that extra work and especially because of that extra attention, they achieve a level of accomplishment that distinguishes them from their competent peers. They become masters of their skill. One person out of a hundred competent people achieves mastery.

4. Virtuosity

The virtuoso is not only extremely focused, determined, hardworking, and persistent, but also divinely gifted. He is the one master out of a hundred masters that has a genius for the skill that allows him to be a world-class performer. Even so, the virtuoso must put in the time — I’d guess a minimum of 25,000 hours — working at it. Like Michael Jordan, Fred Astaire, Bill Clinton (well … maybe not Bill Clinton), and others of that ilk. Back to you. If you want to keep your job, you need to become competent at a skill that is valuable to your business.

If you want more than that — if you want to become extremely successful, make a lot of money, have control over your future and influence over your peers — you must step up to the next level: You must become a master at your valuable skill.

So today, ask yourself two questions:

1. “What is the valuable skill I am developing that is contributing to my company’s goals?”

2. “What do I need to do to achieve mastery of that skill?”

Break the necessary tasks down into years, months, and weeks. Then put them on your daily “to-do” list and start to feel the progress you are making.

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