How do we become exceptional in our pursuits? How do we avoid all the traps and pitfalls of the learning journey?
In this article, we’re going to look at four types of learners – one exemplary, and three questionable. Together they’ll give you a spookily accurate assessment of whether or not you’re on the path to true competence and expertise.
These four learner types serve as archetypes that you can use to improve almost any area in your life, from your relationships, hobbies and career, to your approach to life as a whole.
The four learner types are The Dabbler, The Obsessive, The Hacker and The Master. Think of these as archetypes, as profiles. You aren’t just doomed to one of them, unable to change course. Rather, you most likely float in and out of them all. You may resemble The Hacker in your hobbies and The Master in your career. On a frustrating day, you might be in the Dabbler mindset and then wake up the next as an Obsessive.
The key here is that the first three explain why you fail to become exceptional. They’re contrasted with the ideal, The Master. This is the learning avatar that will lead you to excellence in your pursuits.
These learning types come from the writings of author, teacher and aikidoist George Leonard, who has been an enormous influence on me. I highly recommend his work.
Great, let’s unpack these four learner types, then – beginning with The Dabbler.
Learner Type 1: The Dabbler
You’re alive in the 21st century, so I can guarantee you’ll resonate with this avatar.
The Dabbler is characterised by constant seeking and a lack of stick-to-it-iveness. This is the person who has experimented with many hobbies, interests or specialities but has never seriously committed themselves to any of them. This means they don’t build up any true competence.
When The Dabbler embarks on a learning journey, they’re filled with excitement. They love buying new equipment. They show up early to classes, do extra work at home, and share their exploits with friends and family. They’re just so in love with their new pursuit.
If you’ve dedicated years or decades to certain fields or pursuits, you’ll be well aware that the initial excitement always wanes. Learning is never a constant high. Past a certain point, whether we’ll learn deeply and stay in the game long-term depends more on our levels of consistency and diligence than our excitement.
The Dabbler doesn’t get that. Rather than sticking through the learning plateaus and obstacles on their path, they jump ship and opt for the shiny new option on the horizon, convinced that it’s a better option. After a few months, they realise it wasn’t all it was made out to be, so they go off in search once again.
We see this archetype professionally in people who have done dozens of careers. Though bursting with energy at the outset, after a few months they become restless and start looking around. After years of repeating that mechanism, they have no specialised expertise to offer, no career capital, and no rudder guiding their career boat.
In modern times, we all dance with the Dabbler mentality. There is a plethora of stimuli and shiny new options all around us. We’re bombarded with news. New career opportunities, new hobbies and new romantic partners are all made out to seem greater than those we currently have. These options tempt The Dabbler inside us.
Push our comfort zone and boundaries? Always. Explore the life and find the career, hobby and spouse that work best for us? Of course. Do so at the expense of long-term commitment and diligence? Never.
Check out this article, where I look deeply at how to manage the early phases of the learning journey.
Learner Type 2: The Obsessive
While The Dabbler has commitment issues, The Obsessive has the opposite problem. This learner type taps into our impatience and over-ambition.
The defining trait of The Obsessive is a gung-ho approach to endeavours. They set unrealistic goals and work night and day to achieve them. Though able to cultivate diligence and work ethic, their excessive eagerness and lack of patience eventually backfire.
Plateaus – stretches involving hard work with no apparent improvement – are nothing but a nuisance for The Obsessive in us. It wants quick results, exponential growth and continual signs of progress. In an attempt to bypass those plateaus, we redouble our efforts, with diminishing returns.
In career, this looks like trying to climb from junior to partner in five years or wanting to start a six-figure business in two months.
The Obsessive eventually crumbles under their enthusiasm. Burnout and stress hit. They can’t keep up their ridiculously demanding routines. And the whole thing just caves in.
Subtle signs that The Obsessive is active in you are over-ambitious goal-setting: “I’m going to work out for one hour a day for the rest of my life”, and impatience for results: “I’ve been learning the guitar for one whole month, where are my results? I demand results!”.
Let’s not judge too much. Intensive learning can be a fast track to improvement, and from time to time we may need to do some crunching to take our projects forward. But as an overall life strategy, The Obsessive is a dangerous template to follow.
Learner Type 3: The Hacker
The Hacker is arguably even more tempting than the first two learner types.
This is a curious avatar. You see, The Hacker is a potential Master. The Hacker goes through months and years of learning and reaches a certain level of competency. They build up experience, good habits, and a positive mindset. They’ve even passed through several plateaus.
But at some point, The Hacker simply stops looking to improve and decides to rest on their laurels. They stop buying books, pushing their boundaries and targeting weak areas. They think: “I’m good enough. Fine, I’m no expert, but I’ve reached a decent level. I know what I’m doing.”
With the thirst for improvement gone, the deliberate practice falls away, leaving The Hacker stranded forever in proficiency purgatory.
In reality, this looks like improving our skills on an instrument for ten years, then sticking with the same old songs, scales and techniques for the next 30. We see it in the professional who is cushy in their current position, no longer goes to training courses and produces vanilla work.
There is some wisdom to The Hacker. We could learn a lot from its detachment from results and ability to savour what has come before. But if we want to be inspired learners and reach true competence, it won’t do.
Type 4: The Master
Now we come to the avatar Leonard considers the ideal: The Master.
This avatar has three defining features: a focus on the practice over results; dedication to lifelong learning; and a love for the plateaus.
The Master isn’t troubled by The Dabbler’s insatiable thirst for newness, The Obsessive’s hyperfocus on quick results or The Hacker’s indifference to improvement. They have realised that long-term competency requires patience, perseverance and tonnes of practice.
This avatar takes the middle ground. While dedicated to improvement, The Master is practice-oriented. And while they resist becoming overly attached to the craft, they love it as they would love a brother.
The Master continues through the plateaus, using them as opportunities to deepen their knowledge further and perform thousands of repetitions. They deliberately extend themselves regularly but realise that their effort is a long-term investment, not a one-day lottery ticket. They see talent as a myth – practice is what counts.
It’s safe to say that the greats in the fields of sport, science, music, writing and design have all adopted the Master mindset. This is the mindset that is required to dedicate years and decades to pursue and reach world-class competence or mastery.
From my experience, there are three keys to maintaining the mastery mindset over the long run. Those are deliberate practice, patience and commitment.
Deliberate practice is a technical term that gives us a framework for learning. It means splitting our goals into manageable chunks and working hard on each until we master them. We identify our weak areas and make a concerted effort to improve them.
Patience is an ointment for those challenging plateaus. And though committing to a field seems ominous at the outset, we later coast on all the early momentum we build up, and we begin to love the practice for its own sake.
So ditch The Dabbler, The Obsessive and The Hacker, and adopt the Master’s mindset. It may well be the key to success in your pursuits.
Keen to find out how to adopt The Master mindset? Check out my article on five strategies for mastering any subject.
Freelance translator and founder of The Great Updraft, where you’ll find tools for self-transformation. Obsessed with psychology, philosophy, society, human evolution and personal development.