January 07, 2020

Three levels of mastery

I’ve never seen this concept named, or concisely articulated, anywhere else. The idea itself is not original to me, of course.

Of any skill, or any domain where expertise of execution may be gained, there are three levels of mastery.

At the zeroth level, you break the rules, because you do not know the rules. Success is accidental; failure is likely; excellence, all but impossible.

At the first level, you know the rules, and follow them. You do well enough, though excellence is unlikely.

At the second level, you know, not just the rules, but the motivations behind them; you understand why the rules must be as they are. You follow the rules or break them, as the task demands; your actions are governed by deep principles. Success is near-effortless; excellence becomes possible, and even likely.

To achieve greater mastery, you cannot skip levels. At the zeroth level, you may look at one who has achieved the second level of mastery, and note that he routinely breaks the very rules he has instructed you to follow. Are there no rules, then? But there are; and they exist for good reasons. You will not achieve the second level of mastery before the first.

Likewise, the one who has achieved the second level of mastery says to him who has yet to achieve the first: “Do as I say, not as I do”. This is not hypocrisy. One who does not understand the three levels may think: “He is allowed to break the rules, as I am not, because of some privilege of rank”. But it is only that to think outside the box, you must know the shape of the box, its contours; if you cannot see the box, you will never escape it.

And once more: you cannot explore the space of possibilities, if you do not know its dimensions. The axes of that space are not the bars of a cage, but signposts; not seeing them, you are not infinitely free—but only doomed to wander forever in a Flatland of amorphous mediocrity.


  1. May 14, 2021Oxide said...

    This is similar to Terence Tao's articulation of the pre-rigour→ rigour → post-rigour progression of mathematical maturity.

    More generally, there seem to be a lot of 3-stage progressions ‘in nature’, e.g.:

    At the first level on the path he saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. On the second level of the path he saw that mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers. And at a third level he saw once again mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers.


    When the student is ready the teacher will appear. When the student is truly ready... The teacher will disappear.

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