There is a notion in Japanese that if you are a master of one thing, then you are master of all things. The idea goes back to the thirteenth century where in Rinzai Zen monasteries you sought enlightenment by meditating on koans. A koan is, “a succinct paradoxical statement or question used as a meditation discipline for novices.... The effort to ‘solve’ a koan is intended to exhaust the analytic intellect and the egoistic will, readying the mind to entertain an appropriate response on the intuitive level. Each such exercise constitutes both a communication of some aspect of Zen experience and a test of the novice's competence” (Micropaedia 1990, Kapleau 1980).

Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki’s famous example of a koan is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” To understand it, Suzuki wrote, you should “Devote yourself to it day and night, whether sitting or lying, whether walking or standing; devote yourselves to its solution during the entire course of the [day]. Even when dressing or taking meals, or attending to your natural wants, you have your every thought fixed on the koan. Make resolute efforts to keep it always before your mind.”

The value of such an intense focus is that it allows you to master something, even if what you master is infinitesimal. The understanding of mastery can then act as a guide to tackling new tasks. For example, any child can finger paint. To paint well, however, you must learn the rules of the craft, and eventually get those rules down to a science. Japanese students of painting did not begin by trying to paint something as complex as a bamboo shoot. Instead, they began by mastering a very small technique, such as painting a straight line. Zen scholars Omori Sogen and Terayama Katsujo wrote, “The basis of Oriental calligraphy and painting is the line. Traditionally, students of both disciplines were instructed to spend a minimum of three years concentrating on the brushing of straight lines.”

Of course, just learning the rules won’t make you a true master. Painting by numbers can only take you so far. To paint a beautiful line, you have to know how to break the rules; you have to learn how to get the rules down to an art. Still, even the artful breaking of a few rules, however, does not a true master make. You can only paint an exquisite line when you achieve muga. Muga, concluded American anthropologist Ruth Benedict, is “a state of expertness in which there is no break, not even the thickness of a hair be¬tween a man’s will and his act.” You have mastered painting a line when you have left the rules behind. Or, to stretch the idiom, from first getting the rules down to a science, and then getting them down to an art, you must ultimately get them down to a religion—that is, Zen. Since Zen is the offspring of Daoism and Buddhism, it is perhaps not surprising that the ancient Daoist essayist Zhuangzi once wrote, “What I care about is the Dao, which goes beyond skill.”

Once you have reached mastery in the small matter of the straight line, you are ready to practice painting a curved line. But this time you have an advantage. It is easier. Having achieved mastery once, you have a sense of how it feels, and this sense can guide you as you tackle new tasks. When learning to paint a curved line, you know what to look for; you know that you seek muga and that you can accomplish it. You have gained a taste of excellence, a sense of mastery, a nose for expertise. As the eighteenth-century Chinese art essayist Shen Tsung-ch’ien said, “Once this is mastered, the skill so acquired can be freely applied to other objects.”

So what? While it is not true that expertise crosses domains or even that excellence in one area makes you smarter in general, it is true that the process of achieving excellence in one area helps you to understand the nature of excellence. This understanding can help you to perceive it in others and act as a guide when you seek to achieve it in new domains.

Benedict, Ruth. 1946. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.
Chuang Tzu. The Chuang Tzu. 286 bce / 1964. Translated by Burton Watson. Columbia University Press.
Kapleau, Philip. 1980. The Three Pillars of Zen. New York: Anchor Press.
Micropaedia. 1991. The New Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago.
Sogen, O, and Katsujo, T. 1983. Zen and the Art of Calligraphy. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Shen in Lin, Yutang. 1967. The Chinese Theory of Art. NY: Putnam Sons.
Suzuki, D.T. 1970. Essays in Zen Buddhism. London: Rider and Co.

Excerpted from Tad Waddington's book Lasting Contribution.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Waddington is the author of Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work, a book that has won seven prestigious awards.