How to make a samurai sword.

Both are about Japan. And both helped me to understand what mastery is.

If it’s a nothing day and I have some time I’ll end up watching one of three things: Brazilian jiu-jitsu, stand up comedy or documentaries. At the end of June, I watched two documentaries. Building without Nails: The Genius of Japanese Carpentry and The Secret World of the Japanese Swordsmith

I’ve read a fair share of books about learning. Greene’s Mastery, Waitzkin’s The Art of LearningMusashi and several more. I knew what mastery was. I knew that devotion and sacrifice of an extraordinary kind were necessary to achieve it.

But I didn’t understand it.

There’s a common misconception about knowledge. Intellectually knowing is not the same as understanding. It is not the same as absorbing a truth into your being, feeling it. Perhaps some truths, like the Buddhist koans and the form of mastery, are not absorbed until the mental realisation hits us with physical force?

I’ve just started Edmund Hillary’s autobiography. He has this great passage where he describes reaching the summit of Mount Everest. “I continued cutting a line of steps upwards. Next moment I had moved onto a flattish area of exposed snow with nothing but space in every direction. Tenzing quickly joined me and we looked around in wonder. To our immense satisfaction, we realised we had reached the top of the world!”

Is that what achieving mastery feels like?