The Hard Stuff is the Good Stuff

Aerobic exercise is an example of hard stuff that leads to good stuff. The hard stuff is the aerobic exercise: a minimum of 15 minutes of continuous cardiovascular exercise at least 3 times a week. The good stuff is that aerobic exercise correlates with increased brain health and decreased risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia ( So don’t get discouraged if you do aerobic exercise but don’t lose weight – you’re still making your brain healthier!

Learning to achieve mastery is another example of hard stuff that leads to good stuff. Learning to master a new skill or new subject requires help from other masters and disciplined practice. Getting help from others, and practicing both well and often are the hard stuff of learning. The good stuff is improving self-efficacy, the genuine belief that we can learn and tackle challenges. Self-efficacy, in turn, improves our ability to learn and the cycle continues.

The hard stuff can only be the good stuff with the right attitude. In the case of aerobic exercise, if you do the aerobic exercise only half-heartedly, then you’re not going to get your heart rate up high enough or long enough to realize the benefits of cardiovascular exercise. You need to approach the aerobic exercise with the genuine belief that it is good for you and that you will feel good after a challenging work-out. For example, I set the goal of burning at least 400 calories during my 40-minute elliptical work-out which means a minimum pace of 140 steps per minute.

Similarly, when learning to achieve mastery, you need the genuine belief that intelligence can be increased through effort and learning. Dr. Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, calls this belief a growth mindset ( Dr. Dweck also describes the opposite of a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. You need to approach skill development with the attitude that mistakes and imperfections are an opportunity to learn something, not a failure to perform. In fact, Dr. Dweck calls those with growth mindsets learning-oriented and those with fixed mindsets performance-oriented.

An example of learning to achieve mastery is singing with a quartet in the Sweet Adelines International (SAI) organization. It is common practice for a quartet to work with one or more coaches. The coach helps the quartet understand how to improve the unity and quality of their sound. Quartet members with a growth mindset welcome the input from the coach because they understand that acting on that input will make them a better singer. However, quartet members with a fixed mindset, the opposite of a growth mindset, get defensive and can make up excuses when the coach tries to provide input to improve their singing skills. Coaches also help the quartet develop practice routines that will build the new skills needed. SAI coaches understand all too well that perfect practice makes perfect. In order to improve towards mastery, one must practice good technique. If you practice bad technique, then you must work to unlearn the bad technique before you can get back on the path of improvement towards mastery.

Dr. Albert Bandura, another psychologist at Stanford University, has shown that a learning-orientation, or growth mindset, is something you can learn through a technique called guided mastery ( Some of us are fortunate enough to have experienced guided mastery as children either through our parents or some other important adult figures in our lives. However, guided mastery can be used at any point in your life to develop a learning-orientation towards a topic of choice. Dr. Bandura has also found that guided mastery builds self-efficacy.

Guided mastery is a specific technique in which you are working with a master on the topic of interest to guide you through the right kind of practice and experiences needed to gain mastery. Dr. Keith Sawyer, a creativity expert at The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, also talks about the importance of others in developing mastery as part of the skills needed to improve creativity (see the book Zig Zag by Dr. Keith Sawyer). Dr. Sawyer explains that a master can provide structured learning to help the learner establish a strong foundation. A strong foundation is needed for the learner to be able to apply valid knowledge to new situations. It is the ability to apply valid knowledge to new situations that is the basis for mastery. Dr. Sawyer also talks about a deliberate approach to learning which speaks to the practice needed. The goal of deliberate practice is to challenge yourself enough to enable skill improvement but not so much that you get stuck.

A learning-orientation or growth mindset takes being open to the perspectives and knowledge of other people – it also takes a willingness to be helped by other people. A performance-orientation or fixed mindset does not rely on others: a performance-orientation fits in very well with the American ethic of independence. A learning-orientation means a natural concern for both the “why” and “what” of life and the world around you. A performance-orientation means a focus on the “what.” Fulfillment and success in life takes a balance of both the “why” and the “what,” of both process and content, of both how you do things and what you do, of working with others and working alone, of present-moment awareness and a dream-state, and of consciousness and unconsciousness.

Dr. Martin Seligman, psychology professor at University of Pennsylvania, describes the science of well-being using the PERMA model ( Three of the five components of this model are directly related to mastery. These are active constructive relationships such as with a master in guided mastery, serving something bigger than yourself which comes from having a learning orientation, and self-discipline which is key to productive practice and has been found to be two times more important than IQ in predicting academic achievement. The other two ingredients are increasing the ratio of positive to negative emotions and finding ways to use our natural strengths.

The hard stuff of working to achieve mastery produces the good stuff of well-being. Working to achieve mastery takes a strong work ethic. I believe a strong work ethic is sacred because we each have a societal responsibility to use the gifts and talents we have been endowed with to make contributions that enable our species to survive and thrive. It doesn’t matter how seemingly small or insignificant our gifts are or how seemingly oversized our gifts are – we can all make a difference for the better in someone else’s life, from a simple smile to financial well-being. All gifts are needed – no one’s gift is more important than anyone else’s gift because the ingredients to well-being are multi-faceted.