A bright young college senior recently asked me a compelling question. The question was “Once I graduate, how do I become an expert and thought leader in my field?”

My answer: “Seek total and complete mastery.” That led to a dialogue about what true mastery means. I realize I am starting to sound like some sort of mystical guru, which I promise you I am not. (I don’t even own a white flowing robe) However, this fascinating discussion did get me to think about a key question: Why don’t many of us seek mastery in our respective fields?

We live in a fast food age where the media is constantly crowning the latest entrepreneur wunderkind who is the overnight success. It might be the creator of some new technology, Internet application, or a new musical artist who hits it big. Infomercials promise dramatic overnight results. Contestants on The Biggest Loser T.V. show lose 15 pounds in one week. This gives the distinct impression that this is how success really happens. As most people know, this is the exception, not the rule. A career is a marathon, not a sprint; a very long run down a dusty road.

The only way to truly be successful is to seek mastery. The people that are masters in their field make the most money, are the most successful and have stability and longevity. As Alan Pease once said, “Brain surgeons earn 10 times that of a general practitioner. It pays to be an expert.”

We all know masters when we see them. Think Warren Buffet, Jack Welch, Andrew Wyeth, Willie Nelson, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, and Maya Angelou.

So how do you achieve mastery in your field? Based on my experience executive coaching and working with thousands of people across the country in the last twenty years, here is what I have learned:

 Masters have been doing their work for many, many years.  In the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, he asserts that most people who are extraordinarily successful (masters) have been practicing their craft for at least 10,000 hours to achieve that level of competence. The idea is if you do one thing for 10,000 hours you generally get pretty good at it. Many people I meet don’t have the patience or aren’t willing to invest that kind of time and effort.

Question: How many hours have you invested in mastery of your field?

 Masters keep up with the latest developments in their field. Many people discount the idea of attending trade shows, symposiums, and special training events because they are expensive and time-consuming. They don’t belong to or participate in their industry associations. They have piles of dusty trade journals on the back of their desk they never read. But they are missing the point- this is where the new ideas emerge and massive connections with other experts can be made. How can you be a master if you don’t know what other masters are doing? I recently attended a National Speakers Association Meeting. There were 400 professional speakers who gathered for three days on a weekend and on their own dime.

 Question: How do you keep up with the latest developments in your field?

 Masters are driven by their passion. They have a passion for their work and the field they have chosen. When asked they will tell you, “Even if they didn’t pay me- I would do it for free.” This kind of energy and enthusiasm drives the work and energy required to achieve mastery. They want to be a master in their field because they love it.

Question: Do you have a passion for what you do? If not, with all do respect, get out and go do something else.

One last thought- if you were seeking out a medical specialist, and I asked you what you were looking for I know what you would say: “I want the best in the region, or maybe the best in the world.” It almost goes without saying.

But it needs to be said. Isn’t it what you would want people to say about you?

Don’t you want to be that person?