The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery

  • By Adam Gopnik
  • Liveright
  • 256 pp.

A delightful, discursive discussion of what constitutes achievement.

The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery

Several years ago, on a lark, my husband and I signed up for a fencing class. I’d always been fascinated with fencing, loved watching Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone (always the villain), the Douglas Fairbankses, and even Gene Kelly and his Musketeers cross sabers and epees. When I saw the class listed at my local community college, I thought, “Ooh. That’s something I’d like to try.”

We and perhaps a dozen other people of at least age 30 — and well above, in our case — showed up before a grumpy, stumpy instructor of about 50 and his young, tall, athletic assistant. The instructor spent most of that first class berating us for thinking we, ancient as we were, could ever credibly participate in a sport that takes a lifetime to master. If we were serious, he told us, our parents would have started us on soccer at age 3, for the footwork, and there would’ve been years of ancillary drills (think, “Paint the fence, sand the floor”) before we ever touched a foil.

When the majority of us nevertheless showed up for week two, the instructor dryly observed to his assistant, “Look at that. They actually came back.”

Fencing is not one of the areas of expertise that New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author Adam Gopnik explores in The Real Work: The Mystery of Mastery, but the book touches on ideas that my curmudgeonly coach would embrace. Anathema as it may be to our culture of instant gratification and easy viral fame, the true mastering of a skill requires the basic, exhausting, and time-consuming grind of practice-practice-practice. (In which case, is there much mystery?)

Of course, we love the idea of hard work and practice-practice-practice. We eat up the training montages in “The Karate Kid,” “Dirty Dancing,” “Star Wars,” and “Rocky” (1 through 57), knowing that the hero must dedicate him or herself fully in order to triumph over the bad guy, the odds, or — yikes — the parents.

But, really, how willing are we to make that kind of commitment ourselves when we know life demands so much more than the movies? (Besides, have you ever noticed how little actual time elapses between Mr. Miyagi’s beat-down of the Cobra Kais and Daniel-san’s big tournament? It’s like a month. Please. Regular people are more like Tiffany and Pat in “Silver Linings Playbook,” who train pretty hard to eke out a just-good-enough score of five in a dance contest.)

Never fear. Gopnik is also here to remind us that, even if we weren’t lucky enough to discover our natural talents or interests early on, it’s never too late to try our hand at it — whatever “it” is — as long as we’re willing to be bad at it (possibly for a long time) before we get better, or maybe even good.

He notes, “Much of what feels like mastery in adult life is actually the avoidance of a challenge.” Grownups hate to suck at things, especially if there are witnesses; it reveals to the world our long-suspected inadequacy. “[W]hat we fear most in life is being embarrassed.” So, we miss out on finding the joy of something new.

One area of mastery that seems naturally to appeal to young kids, boys especially, is magic, and it’s a subject that Gopnik explores here at length. The attraction has to do with being read into the secret of the trick — thus entering into a privileged, mysterious clan — and the sense of true accomplishment that comes from successfully pulling it off the first time. 

Magicians often discuss among themselves who it is who has “the real work” on a particular illusion: That is, who figured out the optimum way to present it; who pulled it together to best effect; who truly mastered it.

The famous duo Penn & Teller — the former large and voluble, the latter small and, onstage, mute — share the real work on a number of illusions but are also famous for deconstructing illusions for their audiences, effectively giving away the secret yet still eliciting amazement. (In one delightful passage, Gopnik describes Teller offstage as “voluble, articulate, opinionated, and exact. Small and curly-haired, he looks like Harpo Marx released from his vow of silence and given tenure.”)

But Gopnik talks about the real work in other places, too, nowhere more affectingly than in the chapter “Baking.” The author, who is the daily cook for his family, suddenly feels an urge to learn the art of breadmaking and realizes that, if he’s serious, he should learn from the best — his mother.

Truly, if Gopnik had wanted to shorthand his investigation of mastery, he could’ve started and ended with her. “One of the first women in North America to earn a Ph.D. in mathematical logic,” he writes of his mom, “she became a notable linguist and (she would be the first to tell you) also reared six kids, for whom she cooked a big French-ish dinner every night.” And all that bread. She obviously mastered time-management in a way that eludes most of us.

Gopnik soon rediscovers that his wife is a bread-maker, too. He’d completely forgotten that the gift she brought over the first time she met his parents was a beautiful homemade loaf in a basket tied with ribbon. Unfortunately, it was promptly lost within the Parisian bakery that was his mother’s own kitchen.

When Gopnik’s wife finally consents to make the same loaf for her family, they are amazed. “‘Mom, this is, like, such a big bread,’ my daughter, Olivia, said. ‘It’s like bread you would bring to Jesus.’”

One of the mysteries of mastery, it turns out, is that mastery is all around us; it just gets hidden within the folds of daily life. (Haven’t we all been stunned at one time or another to find out that, say, Ted in Accounting is a killer classical guitarist? Who would’ve guessed?)

Besides baking, the author learns how to drive, studies life drawing, takes boxing lessons, works with a therapist to relieve himself of a long-held phobia, and, with his daughter, learns to dance.

Gopnik makes a specific distinction “between accomplishment and mere achievement, the assigned work.” He sees modern life as a push to rack up achievements, to check a box in order to move to the next box in a stack of boxes. In contrast, accomplishment is a loving, or at least mindful, commitment to doing a thing for its own sake — or for yours. As he tells his son:

“It is very hard to do a difficult thing, it is very important to learn to do a difficult thing, and once you’ve learned how to do it, you will always discover that there is someone else who does it better.”

What of it? Ignore the embarrassment. Find the joy.

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny reviews regularly for the Independent and serves on its board of directors as president. She has served as chair or program director of the Washington Writers Conference since 2017, and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.

Believe in what we do? Support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus