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2018.12.12 – How to Recognize a Great Master – and a Mentor

One of the biggest leaps forward you can make in life is to find a great mentor.

I never had one, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

The right mentor can propel you forward much faster than sheer grit can.

The problem is that there aren’t very many masters who are also good mentors. And few people can recognize them in the unlikely event that they meet one.

Here is a story that might help you build discernment.

Some months ago, I was at the shop of Yo-Yo Ma’s luthier for a cello tune-up. The cello is probably my favorite instrument, and I must have spent thousands of hours listening to some of the best music ever written and recorded for cello.

Here’s the deal.

In half an hour with the Master Luthier that day I learnt more about the instrument than I had in a lifetime of deliberate listening and studying.

I also got to experience true Mastery: what it feels like, what it looks like, what it sounds like.

The shop is located on a major shopping street, but occupies the top floor of the building. Think rents as high as rents can go.

But there’s little indication at the street-level entrance that there is anything noteworthy on the upper stories.

It’s not just borderline impossible to get an appointment with the Master. The shop’s location works to deter visits by the uninitiated, yet signals class and means aplenty.

Stepping in from the unpresuming concrete stairwell, you are transported into a 19th century house-museum. Everything from carpet to ceiling is cozy, soft and mellow. Instruments, tools & pictures are exhibited on the walls and in special vitrines.

Most of the pictures show some manner of a cruel joke. My favorite is a boy bent over a washbasin and soaping up a violin with a washcloth. The drawing is pithily titled “Keep your instruments clean”. Or something to that effect.

The entry hall is somehow bustling with people and the dedicated receptionist is busy, but that’s for regular customers.

Someone else meets us and leads us into a cozy room deep inside, where we wait for the Master Luthier.

I assume the business makes most of its revenue from selling instruments. The six- and seven-figure kind. As far as I’m concerned, everything is extremely well-organized, yet unpresuming. A well-oiled machine – oiled, not perfumed.

The tune-up takes less than 10 minutes and the cello is unrecognizable. Now it just makes sense when played.

It’s a fantastic instrument to begin with, made in the 1730s in Italy, which had been essentially out of tune for at least six months, but still used as principal at a major orchestra. They simply don’t make instruments like that anymore because you can’t source wood that old. One reason that cello could fetch $400,000 on the market.

With all its quality, after the Master’s touch-up, the cello sounded like it had been completely reinvented. Like it had never been played competently before. It’s an intoxicating feeling to be able to hear that difference, so soon and so clearly.

With all his skill, the Master asked permission every time he touched the instrument, and with everything he did to it. The actual physical tuning itself probably took less than a couple of minutes.

The other half-hour of the sit-down was taken by a very understandable – and altogether unsolicited – explanation of what had just happened.

The Master laid out both the technical tricks to it and the physics involved. He talked about the knobs and the tweaks, the resonance of the wood at different humidities and temperatures, even about the bow.

Sometimes he almost spoke in equations, and you’d still understand everything. I had a hard time not laughing out loud while he was talking or asking questions just because everything he said as so clear and made so much sense. It felt like a celebration.

That conversation – mostly wistening on my part – was eye-opening.

Not so much because of all the delicious things I learnt about one of my favorite musical instruments.

Every moment of the interaction from the instant we first shook hands, I was aware of – and enjoying – the fact that I was dealing with a true Master. Not because of reputation or credentialing, but because of the Master’s demeanor and his command (and love) of the subject matter.

It felt like flying.

I don’t know if you’ve ever practiced lucid dreaming and flying adream, but this felt very much like it.

The encounter taught me a few things about how you can spot a true Master regardless of the field of expertise.

First, a true Master doesn’t care what you think. All those pictures of plebs destroying instruments? Well, a Master takes that as a fact of life. It happens, and it happens all the time.

Which doesn’t mean you won’t get kicked out on the curb if you do something stupid.

Second, a true Master doesn’t need to show off in any other way than his practical Mastery itself. He abides in what he does. He is consumed by his craft and doesn’t really care about “what the community thinks”.

The only reverence implied and observed was the Master’s own reverence towards the instrument.

Third, the Master explained everything he did without prompting. He elaborated on why he asked every question he had asked. His talk wasn’t laden with incomprehensible jargon, nor was it patronizingly simplistic.

If you knew nothing about classical instruments, let alone cello, you would have felt more comfortable during this brief impression than in your mother’s womb.

And all along, in every word and in every gesture, you knew one thing.

That he knew his stature and his craft, and he did not take himself too seriously.

There is a lesson in there, and more than one.

Perhaps the most important thing you need to remember is that people who make great mentors don’t beat their chest about their Mastery or intellect or accomplishment, and don’t look for public recognition – in large part because they have no fracks to give for it.

Good mentors don’t look to be mentors as a way of showing superiority or as a manifestation of other people’s respect for their skill and accomplishment.

They do it because they can and because they see potential in you.

With or without a mentor, you can take away a lot from that attitude. To be your own great mentor, you must set aside your ego and approach your “self-mentorship” with the same humility. And recognize your potential for what it is – something that requires loads of work.

Then commit your grit to manifesting that potential.

One way to make a commitment like that is to become a supporter on Patreon. Do it as a pledge to yourself to adapt and apply every bit of content to improving yourself and improving your life, not because of the exclusive benefits patrons get.

Here’s the link:

The choice is yours.


Your Daemon

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