Toastmasters Speech #2: The Art of Mastery

Writing DeskWhen I was six years old, I made a choice that would shape the course of my life.

I chose my career.

I had decided that I would become an artist.

Now I had never met an artist, but two years later, I got the chance.

My parents enrolled me in the Preparatory Dance Program at Cornish College of the Arts. Suddenly, I was surrounded by professional and student artists dedicated to mastering their craft. I learned many things in my years there, but above all, I learned how to work as an artist. And I boiled this down into one oversimplified formula:

Repetition + Perseverance = Mastery

Repetition I learned from my first ballet classes in the prep program. During the previous two years at smaller studios, every class began with pliés. Now that I had hit the big time, I expected something a little more sophisticated. But it was still pliés. So I spied on the older girls’ classes. Pliés. The college students? Pliés. Rehearsals for performances? The plié.

With time, I, too, learned to love the plié.

A deceptively simple movement, the more you repeat it, the more masterful you become. And the more masterful you become, the more mindfully you practice your pliés. Far from the simple act of bending your knees, the plié warms up calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes. You gradually deepen the flexion in your ankles, knees, and hips. You square your hips, you check weight distribution over your feet, and you align the spine, neck, and shoulders—all while activating the abs and upper back, plié after plié.

But mindful repetition isn’t enough.

You also have to persevere.

I learned all about perseverance at age 11 in my first pointe class.

Pointe shoes are those magical, pink-satin shoes we all associate with ballerinas. But the reality of breaking them in is a grueling process. The toe box is a stiff, hard box to support the toes. Layers of fabric and paper are shellacked like thick papier-mâché to create an inflexible toe box. Inside the shoe, only a layer of fabric divides this papier-mâché shoe from the dancer’s foot.

When I was a student, toe pads had not yet been invented, and the only way to become adept at pointe was to first build up a thick skin. Literally. Friction leads to blisters, which pop and bleed as you dance. And then you begin to scrape off layers of skin. A new pointe student, without toe pads, can endure the pain and bleeding for perhaps ten minutes or maybe twenty minutes. But after each bloody workout, the foot heals and callouses replace the thin skin. After a year or two of this conditioning, our pointe classes lasted an hour and a half.

The only way to become skilled at pointe is to persevere through the blood and pain.

Repetition + Perseverance = Mastery

Mastery, for me, was embodied in Pat Hon, my modern dance instructor. Trained in her native Singapore, Pat Hon is an internationally recognized performer and choreographer and a professor at the college. I was lucky to step into this woman’s studio at age 13.

Hon was the most driven, exacting, and terrifying person I have ever known. Rehearsals with her were a terror because she constantly revised her choreography, even on the day of a performance. She demanded nothing short of the highest excellence from her dancers, regardless of age. Pat Hon embodies mastery for exactly this reason: Even with her vast accomplishments, expertise, and unmatched skill that are fundamental to mastery, she always set the bar higher and higher.

From her, I learned that by leaping into that space between what I can do and what I hope to do, I can experience exhilarating joy and unending growth.

The lessons I learned at the art school are applicable to us all, artists or not. Repetition + Perseverance = Mastery is a formula that serves anyone who aims for excellence. For myself, I continue to practice the lessons I learned from the dancers at Cornish every time I sit down to write. I’ve written four books, published one. But I remain a die-hard optimist.

Not for wealth or fame, but for the exhilaration of challenging myself daily—and the joy that comes from immersing myself in work that I love.

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