Mastery and Value – Part 1

The Fahkee – Symbol for the Path of Mastery

Mastery of some skill is a type of project we all take on multiple times during our life. If we chart our progress towards that mastery, it follows an interesting pattern.  There is first that long, slow, boring, frustrating, humiliating period of building foundational skills. During this time there is little growth and return on investment. Then one day, almost magically, it all gels, everything falls into place, and our progress skyrockets … at least for a while.

TLDR

  • The beginning phases of mastering a skill is a long stretch of tedium with little evident progress. But you must have faith and patience that things will gel at some point.
  • It’s better to be expert at a few related skills than a master of one.
  • Learning is an iterative process, not a sequence of progressively more advanced topics.
  • The world is in constant change, so yesterday’s master is today’s dinosaur.

The Fahkee

In this blog, we’ll dive into the pattern of learning and mastery as conveyed by the fahkee. The Eternal Fishnu says the Neanderthals realized that learning how to learn is the primary skill of sentient beings of Earth. They created a symbol for that pattern they call a fahkee. Fahkee was their word for “learning”.

Fahkee.
This symbol is called a Fahkee. It’s a long lost Neanderthal symbol for learning. At least according to The Eternal Fishnu.

The fahkee starts out like a sigmoid function (s-curve shown below), from the start at the left to the peak around half way. In contrast, the sigmoid function shown below points outwards to the right, straight ahead forever.

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Shapes of graphs we use to communicate progress of some project or phenomenon.

But systems on Earth don’t quite work that way. Life on Earth is a complex system of interacting phenomena, each playing a part in regulating wanton growth. The nature of Nature is its self-policing through a a web of interaction. Otherwise the world we know would be a big ball of mud.

The fahkee illustrates that as it continues on from the peak of mastery into a decline. It ends pointing slightly downwards suggesting a slow but eventual end.

mastery_path
The fahkee has four distinct phases. It starts out with the characteristics of a sigmoid function, but continues further.

The fahkee – like linear lines, hockey sticks, and s-curves – is a 2D graph. Along the x-axis (horizontal, left to right) is the Path of Mastery itself. The further we go right, the further along we are on the path.

Along the y-axis (vertical line, top to bottom) is a composite value consisting of Master of the Art, Value towards your Spirit, Value to society. Mastery of the Art, of course, refers to your level of skill. Value towards your Spirit refers to your spiritual growth. Tony Robbins says, “growth is happiness”. Value to society refers to your “marketability” in the world of jobs.

There are distinct phases we pass through on the Path to Mastery. Starting at the far left is the first phase of mastery. This is a time of preparing, filling your mind from the fire hose. Obviously there isn’t much mastery. Without that mastery, there is no value to society. But maybe there is value for your spirit.

Moving right, we see the curve take an abrupt turn upwards. At this point, we’re prepped enough to actually practice what we’re attempting to master. When we’re properly prepped, our mastery rises along with value to your own spirit, and the value of that mastery to society.

Moving further right our mastery and value are at its height – pun intended.

At the right, the last major phase shows a decline in mastery/value. In a nutshell, the world changes over time. Things that were at one time very important and worthy of mastery will eventually fade into the past. For example, sword fighting was once a very practical Zen Art. As I often mention, software development is my Zen Art, and one that seems to be in more demand.

In the next section, we’ll dive deeper into the structure of the fahkee, the Path of Mastery. We’ll use what is roughly the belts of judo as labels for those phases. And we’ll use my recent learning experience with Apache Spark as an example.

My Apache Spark Path of Mastery

About three years ago I began my Path of Mastery for Apache Spark. Spark is the center of the universe of my specialty, Business Intelligence. It has the potential to integrate the major aspects of an enterprise system – databases, processes, data scientists and business folks.

White – The Very Beginning, the Noob

The first belt in most martial arts that use belts to signify progress is white. Standing at the beginning of the Path, you may not even have a reasonable idea of what you’re getting yourself into. But you at least have some idea for why you sought out the gateway to this Path:

  • Software Development: “I heard Spark is the thing to know.”
  • Judo: “I want to learn to defend myself.”

For all roads to mastery, there are prerequisites. This initial white belt phase of the Path of Mastery is for ensuring we meet these requirements.

For judo, this means you meet some level of fitness, you can fall properly, you know how to execute moves such that you prevent injury to yourself and others in the dojo, know how to properly warm up, you have some level of physical fitness.

For Spark, there’s the matter of setting up an environment to play in. There’s the matter of being clear about the value of Spark.

There’s also a matter of having at least somewhat of an understanding about databases and how we will interact with Spark. You need to feel at least comfortable with Python or Scala and SQL. If you don’t know any, you should probably take a sidetrack to another Path of Mastery to learn at least Python and SQL to an intermediate level.

Blue – Hello World

hill_blue-3
At blue, we’re ready to start learning. But there’s a cloud obscuring the path. We can’t see how far there is to go

The journey to blue belt is the most tedious, thankless phase on the Path of Mastery. Many people give up before this point experiencing just tedium, seeing practically no progress. But you made it through the tedium, which means you’re well prepped to begin the real training.

For Spark learning, you’ve reached Blue when you’ve successfully executed your “Hello World” example. Your dev/learning environment is set up.

Standing at Blue looking towards Green, there is a cloud obscuring our view of what is yet to come. You don’t know what you don’t know – and at this point you don’t know much. However, you should know enough to decide whether continuing on this path is worthwhile.

At this stage of Blue, we must remember not to equate this early phase as being simple. In fact, Blue will take you from beginning topics through advanced topics several times.

For example, my Blue phase with Spark mostly consisted of going through four Spark courses, all starting from “Hello World” through a “make it real” project. Having a day job, it took at least a couple of months to get through each. Between Udemy, EdX, Youtube, etc, it was very easy to find fantastic courses.

You may ask, “If those courses were so ‘fantastic’, why did you need to go through four of them?” Learning is an iterative process. Think about having a trainer delivering a week-long course to your team, say on Dynamics 365. By Friday, you’re pretty good – you hit “Very Satisfied” on the survey. But if you don’t apply what you learned the coming Monday, by that next Friday, it’s vaporized out of your head.

It takes a few iterations for a skill to really etch into your brain. It’s not that different from carving a petroglyph into a rock canvas – one scratch isn’t going to do it.

Additionally, each instructor has a different take and teaching methodology. Seeing the same material from different angles creates deeper meaning. It reminds me of how our stereoscopic vision paints a literally deeper picture of what we’re seeing.

Instead, we’re used to learning through a sequence of topics, once, from one point of view. Each topic is checked off never to be seen again. We take a test at the end of the semester and that’s it. Most of it will be forgotten a few days after finals.

Multiple iterations of training on the same subject forms the more links with other subjects. It’s the quality of the relationships between things we know that forms intelligence. Those connections don’t happen after just one iteration of learning.

Towards the end of the Blue phase, you may even have a shot as passing a certification test. At the time of this writing, I have yet to take the Databricks Spark exam. Looking back at my Blue phase, I think I would have failed, but I’d probably come respectably close to passing.

It’s during the Blue phase that the bulk of people will quit. That’s because in this McGoogle world we’ve learned to seek instant gratification. The nature of the long period of little growth is a fundamental principle of Life on Earth. Therefore, it strongly suggests that the mindset of delayed gratification is a fundamental skill.

However, it’s OK to quit during this Blue phase if you’ve given this a mindfully sincere try. Your heart will know whether you’ve exercised the skill of delayed gratification enough to determine how important this is. At the very least, if your skill of delayed gratification has been exercised it was time well spent.

Some skills are critical enough where we almost have no choice but to endure this initial death march. For me, Spark is certainly is a skill for which enduring this phase and beyond is worthwhile.

Blue is the phase where “persistence” is the most important word. My most important advice is not to worry at all if it seems like you’re just banging your head against the wall. That’s what defines this Blue phase.

This is where faith and patience is key. Trust that the reward for your persistence is that it will all magically gel. It’s weird how that works. Trust that while sleeping, your 80 billion neurons are at working sorting it all out. One day you’ll be studying and realize something clicked. That’s when you’re at Green.

Siddhartha Gautama spent years seeking his Truth – suffering broken hearts, failures, and the end of many dead ends. Finally, one day he had enough and plopped under the Bodhi Tree – emaciated, completely broken … and awoke one morning looking at life from the other shore.

Green – Completed Bootcamp

green-mastery
Standing at Green, as we look ahead towards brown, we see we’re at the bottom of a steep cliff.

At Green we’re at the point where we can start work on an actual enterprise-grade project at a junior level. This is where we “make it real”. Blue was about lectures and labs. Now you’re working on a live production system. In judo, at green you’re good enough to be worthy fodder for the brown and black belts and knowledgeable enough to fully benefit from their instruction.

As you look to the next level you’re heading towards, Brown, you see that the Path of Mastery takes a steep turn upwards. The persistence of the Blue phase pays off. The rate of Mastery and value accelerates. The pace of your Mastery picks up because you’ll be out in the real world now where you don’t have full control over the throttle.

We see too that the cloud of obscurity has lifted a bit. We can see that we’re standing at the bottom of a really steep slope. But the cloud of obscurity hasn’t lifted enough to see how high that steep mountain rises.

Although we’re ready to do some real work, we’re caught in the Catch-22 trap of needing experience to land a gig while having no real-world experience.

In my case, when I reached the green level with Spark, I was also brown or black with a few other adjacent technologies. For example, SQL Server and Azure Data Factory. In fact, these days, it’s pretty tough to be effective with just one skill.

If you can’t get onto a project to apply your new skill, there are a couple of options.

I’ve always enjoyed practicing my new skills on my own ideas I usually don’t get to explore at my day job. Although it’s a very effective way to hone your skills, there are aspects of working on a fully-staffed, fully-managed project that this garage band approach doesn’t duplicate.

Additionally, at this point, if there is a certification, this is the time to get it.

Brown – All Grown Up

brown-mastery
Standing at Brown, looking back and ahead, we see that we’re only halfway up a steep incline.

At this point, you have completed a fairly hefty real-world project. At this stage of Brown, you’re a bonafide practitioner.

The focus of the Brown phase, at least for my pursuit of Spark mastery, is to get a few more projects under my belt. Preferably, these projects will be different from the ones worked on during the Green phase. The idea is to explore other use cases for Spark, deeply exploring other aspects, filling in the holes.

I feel at the time of this writing this is where I am – brown. However, I do have a few more projects under my belt covering a diverse array of domains. I think I’m about half way between brown and black. Part of the reason I don’t think I’ve reached the expert (black) level yet is because my work has spread out across a wider scope.

Looking upwards to black, I can see there’s still a cloud obscuring the visibility of what is at the top of the Spark world. But in my role of data architect/engineer, I feel I know Spark well enough at this point. At this time, I don’t think becoming a Spark Expert or Master is the best way to progress as a data architect/engineer.

Black – Expert

black-mastery
Standing at black, we’re relieved to be at the top. But it’s a long way to mastery.

At Black, we’re just about there, pretty near the summit. We still have a little way to go, but the top is well within reach. We’re confident we can digest whatever awaits us further on the Path of Mastery.

We’ve gone through more than a few projects, diving deeply into a variety of domains. Our sphere of knowledge have no wide holes, but many little ones we’ll patch up on the way to Red. Almost as important, we also have a sense of the limitations of the product. At this point we could lead a very high-end, innovative project.

It’s important to remember that the slighter incline at this point in no way suggests the intensity of the work eases up. In fact, it’s not really a “good” thing. It means that gains to your mastery and value are tougher to come by.

At Black, there are no clouds to obscure the rest of the path. For the most part, we’re aware of most of what we don’t know. But we’re wise enough to keep our minds open.

The section of the Path to Mastery from Black to Red is a long road in itself. In judo there are eight degrees of black before hitting red at 9th dan.

This slight but long part of the path involves digging into some things a bit deeper. For example, for my case of Spark:

  • Dive into math to a deeper level than would normally be necessary for a software developer.
  • Learn more about some machine learning hyper-parameters.
  • Develop systems for troubleshooting, reference architectures, etc.
  • Keep up with the evolution of the subject area – not just Spark but the Cloud, AI.

That last point is very important. Things are always changing. As the expert, you’re now the “tech lead”. It’s your responsibility to ensure development follows the changing best practices. Similarly, in judo, black belts take on more teaching responsibility.

As a data architect/engineer, this is probably the farthest I should travel on this path. There is a huge world beyond Spark for an architect. That’s probably true for most fields.

The big consideration on the Path of Mastery is that at this level, the expended energy versus return on investment ratio isn’t very good.

A mentor of mine long ago taught me that I have a tendency to shoot for an A+ and it’s much better to be an A at many things. With all the effort I expended back then trying to be “the best programmer”, she could become competent at many adjacent skills. She would have what Scott Adams calls a “skill stack”. At the time I thought it was the stupidest thing I ever heard.

Red – Mastery

red-mastery

At Red, we are an “A+”, a Master. The subject is now ingrained in your DNA and you’ve become the thing you’ve been mastering. A good sign that you’ve reach the Red level is that you have very few peers.

In judo, red belts (9th, 10th dan) are of course quite elderly. It takes decades to reach these levels. These ranks aren’t awarded for winning tournaments, but for their contribution to the art. The equivalent of red belts in the Spark world could be the few major originators and continued contributors towards the evolution of Spark.

The Path of Mastery from this point heads downhill. But it’s not your mastery that diminishes. That’s yours forever. Remember? You’ve become that thing you mastered. However, the value to ourselves diminishes as we no longer grow. But more importantly, the value to society may diminish as the skill antiquates.

Inescapable Change

I don’t think I’ve ever reached Red in anything. So what am I doing talking about mastery when I myself don’t think I’ve ever achieved it? Maybe there’s no such thing as mastery for humans.

In all modesty, I think I’ve reached the mid-black dan levels at least a few times over my long 40-year software development career, my 60-years of life. Having taken at least a few skills to an expert level, I’ve been close enough to see what mastery looks like, what it takes to achieve, and what it means to get there. I’ve also had the privilege of knowing and observing many people who were very advanced experts – more advanced in their realms than I was at mine.

One problem I’ve faced is that my business of software development changes faster than most other fields, so it’s nearly impossible to spend enough on time on a subject to achieve such mastery.

Some would say that’s nonsense. “Coding is coding! If you know say, Java, you can pick up C# or Python or Ruby.” That’s true to an extent, as I’ve shared in my blog about my career reinvention. But each language has its own syntax, its own environment, its own strengths and weaknesses. There are countless idiosyncrasies that you need to stumble upon over the course of thousands of hours. Mastery exists in the entire tree of knowledge – the roots, trunk, and those very numerous high, little branches.

A changing world is faced by all people of all jobs. Mastery is mostly a target to shoot towards. Perhaps the definition of mastery should involve some element of elusiveness.

Maybe for humans, there is no mastery of skills. Our shtick as the human species is our ability to adapt to the ever-changing world. Lions and tigers and bears are indeed masters at being lions and tigers and bears. They don’t even need to worry about mastering anything because they are already that thing. But they’re not good at crossing oceans and flying into space and farming food and fixing our physical wounds.

In a world of constant change, the only thing we humans must master is the Path of Mastery itself. Mastering the Path of Mastery is the foundation of the Teachings of the Eternal Fishnu captured in the Three Zen Stories:

  • The Empty Cup – We must be open and sensitive to changes.
  • Is That So? – We must accept that change is forever.
  • The Man with the Bag – We travel the path, with focus on where we’re at.

In Part 2 we explore letting go of our cherished mastery when the time comes.

Faith and Patience to you,

Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku

Zen of the Pink Donut Enso

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His Holiness, the Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet, displaying an enso medallion. The enso, the black circle, represents a journey. There is a beginning, an end, and a gap reminding us there is more to go.

The enso represents the cycles of the Universe. Our lives are an enso. The cycle of learning new things is an enso. The food we eat, digest, then shit is an enso. Our friendships are an enso.

It is the phenomenon of cycles that upholds just enough order for the Universe to Be. Too much order and it’s just a rock. Too little order and it’s merely horribly boring chaos. With just the right amount and kind of order, the interacting patterns of Life emerge.

The end of each enso cycle must be a return to the beginning, so the cycle plays out again. The gap of an enso illustrates that the cycle may be over but the journey is not.

However, although the beginning and the return to the beginning look pretty much the same, they are always at least little bit different. As Heraclitus observed, we never step in the same river twice. That little difference means the beginning of the new cycle will be familiar but different. It will be familiar enough so can make use of things we learned before. We can also notice what things we no longer need and put them aside. Sometimes someone else on the journey may find it useful.

The Universe evolves, it’s in constant change. It evolves through endless links of cycles. Does an unchanging Universe even make sense?

Cycles are processes of phenomena coalescing from nothing then disintegrating into a soup of no thing. This soup of no thing is the seed from which the next cycle coalesces into phenomena. Our Life on Earth exists as we experience it because it evolves in such linked cycles.

pink-donut-enso
The Pink Donut Enso. How delicious it is. How foolish one would be to worry about too few green clover sprinkles.

The most wonderful enso is the pink donut above. It is an abundant enso. It’s really the enso for all our lives. But we kind of see the enso as just the superficial sprinkles, disregarding the bulk of the donut that is the blessing of this dynamic Universe we find ourselves in.

The course of each of our lives is an enso, but it’s in turn composed of little ensos and interactions with other ensos. For each of those ensos, qualities change over its course. For all sentient creatures of Earth, some parts of the course we deem pleasurable by our animal brains. But the bigger part of its course would be deemed unpleasurable by our animal brains, ranging from uncomfortable to seemingly unbearable.

The entire point of Zen is to transcend how the human animal brain sees only problems to be solved, down in the weeds here on Earth. That’s as opposed to the frame of what is really “out there” that our human minds don’t see. Think of the bacteria in our guts dying and beginning life by the billions every day. They quickly evolve in short, interacting, chains of birth and death as an intricate part of the bigger picture of a human life.

I sign off each post with “Faith and Patience to you”. But there’s a little bit more after that. It’s the mantra I say to myself when the green clover sprinkles of my pink donut enso are too sparse: “Faith and Patience keeps me calm so I can focus on the moment … then the next moment … then the next moment.”

Each of us, and every other living creature for that matter, is an amazing assemblage of atoms where every one of those atoms plays a specific part. All of life is precious beyond the ability of our human brains to adequately express. Meditate on that because that’s hard to remember when we see things from the perspective of normal human life.

The Eternal Fishnu has witnessed humanity heading in the right direction, the direction towards Oneness with the Universe, for hundreds of thousands of years. Especially the last couple hundred. And we still are!

 

Faith and Patience to you,

Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku