Excerpt from MASTERY

Something is Missing

You know the feeling.  It hits you an hour before dawn.  You’re lying awake in the darkness.  A nagging uneasiness has settled on you like a fever.  You can’t put a name to it or locate the source of the feeling.  You only know that something isn’t right.  

Something is missing.

Life ought to be sweet.  You’re retired.  On permanent vacation.  Life is supposed to be carefree.  And it is, sort of.  You can’t help worrying about money.  Or, more precisely, running out of money.  Two recessions, an imploded real estate market, and a capricious stock market have done a number on your net worth.  Your income stream has dwindled. 

And your health. . . well, it’s on a par with your contemporaries.  Same elevated blood pressure, cholesterol, joint problems.  Standard senior stuff.  That’s what meds are for, right?  It gives you something to talk about at lunch.

You passed on the hardball stuff—running, free weights, singles tennis, high-energy aerobics.  Had to preserve the knees, shoulders, heart.  A few rounds of golf and a Sunday walk are enough.  Granted, that paunch and jowly jaw weren’t in the photo the day you handed in the ID card, peeled your name from the office door, drove out of the parking lot. 

You headed into retirement like a stranger into a strange land.  The mantra was stay busy.  Keep yourself occupied.  Take the obligatory cruise, visit the relatives, hit the parks, see the shows, spend time with the grandkids.  Your days filled with busyness—errands, social events, yard work, games, lunch with friends, fixing things around the house, checking email, forwarding stuff to friends.  It was a shared joke:  Before you retired, how did you ever find time to work? 

One day folded into the next, leaving scarcely a trace.  Months passed.  Years.  Time swept around you like the water of a fast-running stream.  And sometimes in a reflective moment you wondered:

Where did it go? 

What did it mean?

Why do I have this feeling that something is missing?

It’s more than a feeling.  The uneasiness you sense is real and justified.  Something is missing.  You haven’t identified it because it’s an intangible, nearly indefinable part of the life that you left behind. 

It’s called mission.  Without a mission, your energy, brainpower, and creative spirit are being dispersed like chaff in the wind.  You are operating on a level far below your optimum plateau.

To have a mission is to have purpose.  Direction.  A set of goals.  Human beings of every age and disposition—civic volunteers, soldiers,  greeters, teachers, astronauts, corporate chiefs, caregivers, truck drivers, writers—function at their highest level when they have a mission. 

And so will you.  With a mission—and a mission plan—you will attain a new level of performance.  You will learn new skills, become physically and mentally stronger, perform at a level higher than you ever believed possible.  You will become an advanced human being.  You will be on the road to Mastery.

That Old Feeling 

The road to Mastery is a long and winding route.  The path is lined with waypoints, forks, obstacles.  Along the way choices must be made, commitments honored, promises kept.  Particularly the promises you make to yourself.  As you progress on this journey, you will observe changes in yourself.  You may discover that you can do things you thought were out of your reach. 

These might include:

          —  recapturing the physical fitness and mental agility you believed were lost forever. 

          —  starting a business that provides a steady income stream and restores your               creative spirit.

  becoming fluent in the foreign language you believed only kids could learn.

  recovering muscle mass that you’ve lost as you’ve aged, despite what you’ve been told.

  writing the novel, memoir, or how-to book you’ve secretly dreamed about—and see it published and sold.

  learning to meditate, recharge, and revitalize your brain and body. 

 acquiring new skills: photography, computers, martial arts, oil painting, chess, cooking.

  running, riding road bikes, swimming in the ocean, climbing a mountain.

  learning the piano, guitar, saxophone, or any musical instrument you choose.

  reading 1000+ words a minute and retain what you learn.

  learning to fly, scuba dive, dance, juggle, kick box.

  memorizing entire pages of text, strings of numbers, lists of names.

And at some point in your journey a realization will strike you.  That nagging uneasiness that used to settle over you in the pre-dawn darkness?  It’s gone.  It’s been replaced by another sensation.  One you’d almost forgotten.  That old feeling.  It’s the feeling from years ago when the world was fresh and nothing seemed beyond your reach.  It’s that ready-for-action surge you had when your feet hit the floor in the morning.  That kickass feeling when you headed out the door for a five mile run.  That heady, take-no-prisoners exultation you sensed when you knew you were going to close the deal before you walked into a meeting.  The blissful satisfaction that warmed your tired body when you crossed the finish line of the long race.

You remember it.  The feeling of empowerment.  Independence.  Self-determination.  Fulfillment.  It’s still there, and you can get it back.  

But you have questions, you say.  Let’s get them out of the way.

FAQs About Mastery

Q:  Learning a language, an instrument, a new skill is hard.  I’m retired.  Why should I spend my energy doing something hard?

A:  Because doing that which is hard, whether it’s mental or physical, is how you grow.  In exercising you gain strength only by stressing your muscles.  Likewise, your cognitive powers grow only when they are challenged.  Given no challenge, your body and brain atrophy.

Q:  Why should I risk heart attack, injury, or joint damage at my age?

A:  Life is a risk at any age.  You may have an accident.  You could crash your bike, break a bone, overstress your body.  Certain exertions may not be appropriate for your joints or your back or your heart—regardless of your age.  You should consider the merits of any undertaking, seek counsel, listen to your physician—and then make your own decision.  You—and no one else—have the final say about risk.  Once you embrace that precept it becomes an energizing, sometimes scary, liberating life force. 

Q:  Life is short.  At my age, why should I waste my remaining time learning a new—[fill in the blank:  language, musical instrument, sport . . .]?

A:  Because life is short.  The days will pass at exactly the same rate whether you grow your repertoire of skills or allow your brain and body to remain idle.  You can make each day count by striving toward a goal, whether it’s becoming stronger, smarter, or just more fulfilled.

Q:  My wife, my friends, my kids tell me to “act my age.”  What is the appropriate response?

A:  Smile.  You know something they don’t know.  You are acting your age, which, for your purposes, happens to be a state of mind, not a number.

Q:  My life is already busy.  Where would I find more time for learning a language or training for a sport?

A:  You have the same amount of time you’ve always had:  twenty-four hours per day.  The way it’s spent is your choice.  The first step toward Mastery is identifying your mission.  The next step is committing to that mission.  Eliminate what’s not important and reallocate.  More about that later.

Q:  How will I know when it’s time to quit— [fill in the blank: running, traveling, flying . . .]?

A:  “Quit” is an absolute, implying a fixed demarcation between doing something and not doing it.  The bias of Mastery is toward doing.  With all passions and pursuits, you will tailor what you do to match your evolving reality.  Quit flying?  Not so fast.  The time will come when you step down from the cockpit of a high performance aircraft—but you can still go flying in a light sport airplane.  An Ironman competition?  Maybe not realistic for your age and condition—but perhaps you can train for a sprint triathlon.  Or a 10K run.  Or a cross-state bike ride.  Climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro?  Perhaps not, but you could make the trek to Machu Picchu.  Or hike the Appalachian Trail.  Take our word for it, the view is just as spectacular.  

What is Mastery?

In its simplest definition, Mastery is the process of becoming an advanced human being.  Though Mastery is an ageless concept, it has special implications for the vast segment of our population we call “seniors.”  That broad category includes the eighty-five million Boomers—the post-World War II generation now entering elderhood—as well as their predecessors from the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s.  The principles of Mastery also have meaning for the Gen-Xers—post-Boomers embarked on their second half-century.

Mastery is about making the rest of your life meaningful.  It is a state of being, not a curriculum.  The pursuit of Mastery means growing, exploring, advancing.  It can also mean leaving an old life behind.

And this, we fully understand, is not for everyone.  A sizeable number of seniors will declare in a loud voice that their current life suits them just fine, thank you.  No change requested or required.  They happen to be living precisely the life style they always anticipated for their golden years, coasting out in sublime, stress-free bliss.  Never mind challenges, explorations, advancements.  Life is sweet and ought not to be changed.

To them we say, God bless.  We salute you and suggest that you gently close this book and resume living a joyful existence.  What follows is for the rest of you—a minority who sense that life may be slipping past you.  That something truly is missing.

 In the chapters to come you will find a compendium of methods and suggestions to insert purpose into your daily life.  Not all will be suitable for you.  Some you will find unacceptably difficult or beyond your comfort level or simply not to your taste.  The eighty-year-old athlete may not choose the same fitness regimen as her fifty-year-old running mates.  The financially secure retiree may not be interested in founding a new micro-business.  The physically handicapped senior may quite understandably opt out of high-intensity weight training.

Their reasoning is correct.  The purpose of Mastery is not to compromise your health, place you in danger, or sacrifice your quality of life.  Precisely the opposite.  The core principle of Mastery is to expand your personal envelope in the pursuit of sensible, executable missions.  As you achieve your objectives you will be rewarded with the knowledge that you and you alone are the master of your fate.  

The Mission  

mission: (noun)  1. an important goal or purpose that is accompanied by strong conviction.  —Oxford Dictionary  

The journey to Mastery begins with a mission.  Defining your mission is the first step in declaring your independence.  It is the concept of mission that puts purpose and structure back into your daily existence.  When life’s inevitable storms throw you off course, your commitment to your mission will steer you back to your true direction. 

But what, precisely, is a mission? 

In recent times the classic word “mission” has received fuzzy new meanings.  When applied to a corporation or agency, it usually implies some long term result or condition.  In consultant-speak a mission plan is a statement of direction and values.  A mission plan can serve as an institutional compass.

For you, a traveler on the road to Mastery, mission means something else.  It is a process of achievement.  The operative word here is process.  Your focus is on doing rather than being.

A mission has a beginning and an end.  It has a strategy, measurable stages of accomplishment, and a time frame.  A mission requires a commitment you make to yourself. 

A mission isn’t a vague, mystical path to some higher plateau.  It’s not answering a call to serve God or save the planet or seek higher meaning, though those can be aspects of any mission.  A mission can be grand in scale—to become President, found a new industry, find a cure for cancer—but the missions we describe in Mastery are more finite and available to everyone:  learning a language; achieving an athletic benchmark; writing a book; learning a new culture through travel; starting a micro-business. 

Though your mission will have a defined objective, your primary focus of attention will be on the journey to that objective, not on the ultimate condition.  Mastery may be considered the sum total of all your missions.

For example, assume you have assigned yourself the mission of learning Spanish.  Fulfilling the mission—in this case attaining fluency in Español—is not an end in itself.  It’s not a checked-off credential like a school diploma that you hang on your wall to impress visitors.  For you this completed mission is an entry point for a new mission.  With your freshly acquired skill you are prepared to explore new countries, understand foreign cultures, learn another language, acquire knowledge in a way that was not possible before.  Your mission is a waypoint on your journey to becoming an advanced human being. 

Defining the Mission 

The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River & such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purpose of commerce.— PRESIDENT THOMAS JEFFERSON, June, 1803, defining the mission of Lewis and Clark   
Your mission, should you choose to accept it. . .—from the 1980’s television series “Mission Impossible.”

As a kid you had dreams.  Big dreams.  You indulged in fantasies.  Some were so over the top you kept them to yourself like a secret treasure.  Nothing was beyond the limit of your imagination.  If you were a boy you flew spaceships, fought crime, punched out thugs, won the heart of the pig-tailed girl in the row ahead of you in the fifth grade, saved the world from aliens, pitched a no-hitter in the World Series.  If you were a girl you trounced your classmates (boys and girls) in sports as well as academics, appeared in heart-wrenching cinema epics, ran a mega-business from your glamorous penthouse, took dawn rides on your prize stallion along a Mediterranean beach, wrote a best-selling novel about love in the apocalypse, played the violin to a spellbound audience at Carnegie Hall.

Dreaming was fun and harmless.  No stigma attached.  You could insert yourself into any role and see yourself being a winner.  A superstar.  You were your own hero. 

And then something happened.  Years passed.  The dreams faded.  You grew up.  Your grand imaginings were shunted into a dark closet of your mind like a stack of forbidden comics.  Too far-fetched, too embarrassing, too phantasmagorical for the adult world. 

It’s time to revisit those dreams.  Let’s dig through your closet of nearly-forgotten fantasies.  What was that feat you imagined accomplishing before the image faded away like an illusion?  What was that fondest daydream, the one that kept inserting itself into your idle thoughts?  Keep digging.  You may be surprised to discover that some of those childhood yearnings are still alive. 

In them lie the foundation for your mission.

Begin the search for your mission by tapping your inner core.  Enter a relaxed, meditative state (more about his technique later).  Be a child again.  Dust off your long-suppressed dreams, identify your oldest, most urgent yearnings, give them a fresh viewing.  You may find that at least one of those old fantasies still smolders inside you, beckoning like an ancient spirit. 

That childhood dream you had about writing the great American novel?  Is the dream still there?  In real life you didn’t write the novel, or anything else.  Time and self-doubt and the demands of making a living got in the way.  But there it is, still residing in your core like a hidden yearning. 

Is this a valid mission?

Consider your other old fantasies.  Perhaps you imagined sprinting across the finish line at the Olympics, winning a gold medal.  It was pure silliness, of course, because you never competed in a race, Olympic or otherwise.  You had neither the body type or the inclination for such activity.  But there it is anyway, that old kernel of a dream, nestled in your memory.  How does it make you feel?  Does getting into shape, hitting the road, setting yourself the goal of competing in a future event appeal to you? 

Are you sensing a mission?

Or that violin performance at Carnegie Hall.  As it turned out you never actually picked up a violin, or any other instrument.  Someone—a parent, teacher, friend—told you that you had no gift for music.  You believed them.  The fantasy joined your other forgotten fantasies in the darkened closet.  Life marched on.  But here you are several decades later, digging through the bin of discarded dreams, and you discover—voila! — that secret fantasy.  There it lies, like a forgotten photograph.  And something about it stirs that old yearning inside you. 

Could this be a mission?

Your mission can be a grandly ambitious, long-haul project, such as founding a business enterprise that will continue to grow after you’re gone.  Or it can be a short-range, attainable objective like training for and completing a 10-K race.  Or learning a new skill such as juggling or woodworking.  What’s critical is that you define the mission.  Do the homework.  Determine the steps required, the waypoints you intend to pass.  Ask questions, consult experts, gather the information you need before you begin.

Let’s say your mission is to learn a language.  First set the bar.  Establish what level of competency you seek.  Do you want to communicate on a conversational level with native speakers?  To read and write the language?  To learn enough to travel within a foreign country without speaking English?  To pass a competency test for academic credit?  To qualify for an overseas-based job?

Okay, you’ve chosen your target level.  Now check out the available ways to learn the language.  You could sign up for formal classes.  You could hire a private tutor.  You could choose one of the many interactive computer or software courses.  You could immerse totally by living in a country while taking language instruction.  Or you could put together a package of several of these options.  Pick your method, and you’ll have accomplished the first step of your mission.