Definition of Mastery LO28237

From: Fred Nickols (
Date: 04/15/02

Responding to part of what At de Lange wrote in LO28219 --

At begins his post by noting Ray Evans Harrell's earlier definition and

> >mastery = zero complexity = virtuosity.
> >Virtuosity is the beginning of mastery in the creative.
> >That was what I meant. Obviously I didn't make the
> >point well.

At then remarks:

>When I read it the first time in LO28186, I thought you had an ax to grind
>against complexity ;-) That I do not mind because I myself have found that
>complexity is most intimidating. Should we not be aware of this
>intimidation and find ways to overcome it, we will become victims rather
>than masters of complexity.

I'm curious, At. I don't find complexity at all intimidating; instead,
for reasons I am about to spell out, I find it demanding and sometimes
tedious but not intimidating. Could you say some more about why you see
complexity as intimidating?

>One of the problems with the word complexity is that only 50 years ago it
>was seldom used. Some pretty standard dictionaries in those days did not
>even list it. The word complex itself had in those days two main meanings.
> (1) Numerous different parts integrated consistently into one whole.
> (2) Complication or perplexity involved when fitting parts together.
>The meanings of complex nowadays are anybody's guess since
>complexity has become one of those hype words. But let us stick
>to the two traditional meanings of complex above.

Well, your remarks above drove me to my dictionaries again (Websters 1861,
1868, 1910 and 1989). For what it's worth, my dictionaries all list
"complexity" (adjective and noun) and "complex" (adjective and noun).
>From 1861 on they are also remarkably consistent: complexity refers to the
state of being complex and complex (as an adjective) refers to (1) of many
parts and (2) intricate or complicated -- so much so as to be difficult to
understand. (Complex as a noun refers to an assemblage.)

So, when I think of complexity, I think of intricate and complicated. I
also think of a morass of details and difficult to detect elements,
connections and relationships. As an analyst and diagnostician (which is
what I am), making your way through that morass can be devilishly
difficult; it is also extremely time-consuming and, on occasion, tedious
to the point of being absolutely boring.

I think I do what many people do when confronted with complexity: I
simplify matters. I "go up a notch" or I eliminate irrelevancies, or I
"cut to the chase" or I "drive straight to the heart of the matter." I do
not try to deal with anything in all its complexity; it's too much, it's

Some of us are better than others at simplifying matters. This ability
varies from situation to situation. Thus, you might be better than I at
dealing with some situations and I might be better than you at dealing
with other situations. In both cases, I believe our ability owes in large
measure to (1) the range and nature of the so-called "mental models" we
have at our disposal and (2) our method for matching model(s) with
situation(s). In short, our tools and our use of them.

At continues:

>When I think of the Hammerklavier sonata of Beethoven, (1) will fit a
>description of it like a glove. In this sonata Beethove used his more than
>30 years of mastery to weave thousands of different parts into one
>incredible masterpiece.
>When I think of a young pianist attemting to play this sonata the first
>time, (2) as a description comes to my mind. But give that pianist enough
>time to practice and rehash it, (2) will become (1)
>So I now want to ask -- did you have
> >mastery = zero complexity = virtuosity
>"mastery = zero complications = virtuosity"
>in mind?

I think I follow your example and question above and I also think it's a
good fit with Ray's definition of mastery but I'll wait to see what Ray
says in reply. I have some different yet related questions for Ray (and,
by the way, I like his definition of mastery).

Here are my questions to Ray:

         At's example brings to mind the old adage that "practice makes
perfect" and, in the context of a virtuoso (and virtuosity), I can see how
practice could yield a smooth, integrated, masterful performance where
before only complexity and difficulty existed. However, it also seems to
me that this kind of mastery ties to what I will call psychomotor
abilities. In the case of a soloist, there is only the artist and the
instrument, be it a piano or the artist's voice. So here are my

         How does mastery = zero complexity = virtuosity differ on an
individual level, such as a soloist, and on a system level, such as is the
case when the musician is not a soloist but a member of a band or
orchestra playing with others and under the direction of a leader or

         Or, is there any difference?

         Does the zero complexity that marks mastery owe to the master's
ability to see the situation differently from the non-master or does it
owe to the kind of situation to which At refers in his examples, the
development of proficiency over time owing to practice and, also owing to
practice over time, the integration of what were previously many parts
into an integrated whole?"


Fred Nickols
"Assistance at A Distance"


Fred Nickols <>

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