4 Characters

4 Characters

Our challenge then is to go on the journey to mastery of agility, as a 3D challenge of dynamic skills for conditions of dynamic complexity.  A long and rocky path as George Leonard captures:

“We all aspire to Mastery, but the path is always long and sometimes rocky, and it promises no quick and easy payoffs. So we look for other paths, each of which attracts a certain type of person. Dabblers, Obsessives and Hackers go through life each in their own way, choosing not to take the Master’s journey”. (Mastery: The Keys to Success & Long Term Fulfillment, George Leonard, 1992)

So there are 4 characters to look out and listen out for!

  • Masters
  • Dabblers
  • Obsessives
  • Hackers

 George Leonard goes on to say:

“There is no way around it. Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it. The curve is necessarily idealized. In the actual learning experience, progress is less regular; the upward spurts vary; the plateaus have their own dips and rises along the way. But the general progression is almost always the same.  To take the master’s journey you have to practice diligently, striving to hone your skills, to attain new levels of competence. But while doing so—and this is the inexorable fact of the journey—you also have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere.”   (Mastery: The Keys to Success & Long Term Fulfillment, George Leonard, 1992)

Most people hate the plateau!  Which is why their inner master is so susceptible to being talked off the path by their inner dabbler, obsessive and hacker!

  • Dabbler: “The Dabbler approaches each new sport, career opportunity, or relationship with enormous enthusiasm. He or she loves the rituals involved in getting started, the spiffy equipment, the lingo, the shine of the newness. When he makes his first spurt of progress in a new sport, for example, the Dabbler is overjoyed. He demonstrates his form to family, friends, and people he meets on the street. He can’t wait for the next lesson. The falloff from his first peak comes as a shock. The plateau that follows is unacceptable if not incomprehensible. His enthusiasm wanes. He starts missing lessons. His mind fills up with rationalizations. This really isn’t the right sport for him. Starting another sport gives the dabbler a chance to replay the scenario of starting up. Then it’s on to something else.”
  • Obsessive: “The Obsessive is a bottom-line type person, not one to settle for second best. He or she knows results are what count, and it doesn’t matter how you get them, as long as you get them fast. In fact, he wants to get the stroke just right during the very first lesson. He stays after class talking to the instructor. He asks what books and tapes he can buy to help him make progress faster. The Obsessive starts out by making robust progress. His first spurt is just what he expected. But when he regresses and finds himself on the first plateau, he simply won’t accept it. He redoubles his effort. He pushes himself mercilessly. He refuses to accept his boss’s and colleague’s counsel of moderation. He works all night at the office, he’s tempted to take shortcuts for the sake of quick results. He doesn’t understand the necessity for periods of development on the plateau. Somehow, in whatever he is doing, the Obsessive manages for a while to keep making brief spurts of upward progress, followed by sharp declines – a jagged ride toward a sure fall. When the fall occurs, the Obsessive is likely to get hurt. And so are friends, colleagues and stockholders.
  • Hacker: “The Hacker has a different attitude. After sort of getting the hang of a thing, he or she is willing to stay on the plateau indefinitely”. He doesn’t mind skipping stages essential to the development of mastery if he can just go out and hack around with fellow hackers. He’s the physician or teacher who doesn’t bother going to professional meetings, the tennis player who develops a solid forehand and figures he can make do with a ragged backhand. At work, he does enough to get by, leaves on time or early, takes every break, talks instead of doing his job, and wonders why he doesn’t get promoted.

“Dabblers, Obsessives and Hackers go through life each in their own way, choosing not to take the master’s journey.  The categories are obviously not quite this neat (you can be a Dabbler in one thing and a Master in another) but the basic patterns tend to prevail, both reflecting and shaping your performance, your character, your destiny”.

  • Master: “A Master understands that, if there is any sure route to success and fulfillment, it is to be found in the long-term, essentially goalless process of mastery – the path of patient, dedicated effort without attachment to immediate results. The master of any game is generally a master of practice. To practice regularly, even when you seem to be getting nowhere, might at first seem onerous. But the day eventually comes when practicing becomes a treasured part of your life. Masters are dedicated to the small incremental step and to challenging previous limits, to take risks for the sake of higher performance, exploring the edges of the envelope. The trick here is to not only to test the edges of the envelope, but also to walk a fine line between end-less, goalless practice and those alluring goals that appear along the way. The key is not either/or, it’s both/and”. 

A Master understands and anticipates the journey to mastery and the courage of our convictions that it takes to stay on the path and not veer off track as a Dabbler, Obsessive or Hacker. In particular, George Leonard identifies some key success factors:


  • Loving the Plateau:  Most of our life-long journey to mastery is spent on the plateau – these are long stretches of effort, practice and repetition with no apparent progress. But Masters know that there is invisible progress and sooner or later they know that there will be another spurt of progress. Agile leaders love the feeling of the plateau, knowing that they are brewing up a next breakthrough and that others (who are more likely to be Dabblers, Obsessives and Hackers) won’t have the staying power.
  • Plodding Along: Staying power is about continuing to put one foot in front of the other, no matter how little progress we seem to be making. Masters know that it’s about being as dedicated to the process of practice as to the product of practice. As an agile leader, sometimes the heavy lifting we have to do weighs heavily upon us, sometimes our resilience is being tested to deeper limits than ever before, sometimes our own self-belief is being assaulted by self-doubt. We know we have to just keep plodding along, knowing that Dabblers, Obsessives and Hackers won’t stay the course or go the distance. Along the way, we might lose some battles but we will win the war.
  • Waging War: We are waging war against the barrage of the quick-fix, fast-temporary-relief, bottom-line, anti-mastery mentalities which touch almost every aspect of our lives. We are under constant assault from Dabblers, Obsessives and Hackers trying to convert us to their ways and threatening to lead us astray.

About Mike Richardson

Agility-Facilitator/Mentor/Coach; Agility-Author/Speaker; Agility-Board-Member/Chairman. All-round Agility Activist in everything I do, every day, everywhere, in every way. Provocative, Profound, Practical. At Eye-Level. With Love/Hate!

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