Mastery through persistence and gradual learning

Who of us haven't wistfully recalled the scenes in The Matrix trilogy where facts and skills were modularized into chunks of data that could be dropped into the human brain within a matter of seconds?

Real life doesn't work that way. Taking an example from the trilogy: Kung-Fu requires individual neurological paths to be gradually awakened, certain muscle groups to be conditioned, and a particular mindset to be adopted. Mastery of Kung-Fu lies far beyond going through its motions. One may "know Kung-Fu" but one cannot master it without persistence; Mastery involves learning many small things over time while conditioning your body and mind to perform all of the physical and mental tasks necessary to the art.

Shift the subject from Kung-Fu to something many readers of HiR can likely relate to: system administration. It's not an individual skill or a trait. It's a mindset that requires a combination of critical thinking and knowledge of tens of thousands of little facts.

  • Locations of hundreds of little pieces of configuration data
  • Names of scores of system commands
  • Hundreds of collective options for those system commands
  • Syntax of aforementioned configuration data and system commands
  • Menu options and other madness for dozens of popular applications and services such as Apache, sendmail, MySQL and ssh to name just a few.
If you work (or play) in a heterogenous environment such as one where AIX, Solaris, Windows, and Linux are all in use, you can see how the system administration mindset can encompass a dauntingly massive array of skills and a mounting behemoth of facts and knowledge. That's where critical thinking comes in. Sysadmins must be resilient and versatile, adopting an attitude of perpetual, gradual learning. Keep this in mind when you decide to meet your challenges with mastery instead of mere performance. No matter what your challenge is, mastery requires the same persistence and gradual learning.

This post was an inevitable one. I've been mulling over the topic for weeks now, and some conversations on Twitter combined with two awesome articles on Staying Sharp and Fake Achievement sealed the deal. Mastery comes only through hard work. It takes practice, dedication, and frequent use of the skills to maintain. Sometimes that maintenance, the "staying sharp" part does seem quite mundane, but it's very important. Use it or lose it.

The person I was talking to admitted lack of command-line skills (hence the reliance on crutch tech), but I happen to know he's got a good head on his shoulders and could choose mastery. Let's say you have a Linux server running Apache and you really want to host 10 different sites on it. You need to use Apache's VirtualHost feature. Will you settle for performing the task with a crutch and move along, or will you put in the effort to truly master Apache (even if only its VirtualHost feature) so that you can do it again easily in the future?

Learning by example is one way to do it. The Twitter conversation that happened yesterday was about the merits of "crutch technology" system management tools such as cpanel, plesk, webmin and virtualmin. By extension, you could include any easy-to-use "wizard" GUI or web app that ultimately makes simple changes to flat configuration files or performs certain changes that could be done by executing system commands: smit (on AIX), Manage Computer (On Windows) and the like.

Crutch tech can be leveraged in the name of learning by example. Tools like smit and virtualmin make changes that can be observed. By simply figuring out what the tools do for a given action, you can extrapolate how the process works. By building on the crutch's examples and reading the documentation, one can master the skill and lose the crutch.

The ones you look up to might make things look easy, but you rarely get to see the years of hard work that went into what they are. This goes for athletes, hackers, racers, physicists and everyone else who has put in the work to master something.

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