Ms ZiYou Mastery

Make more money at the day job – Part 2: Mastery

In the second part of my make more money at the day job series, after my number one skill of flexibility, I want to consider another key skill; namely mastery. Over the years both these skills have really helped me grow my career and income to what they are today.

But what is true mastery?

Mastery itself feels like a simple everyday word, that has a tendency to be overused. Hence how we define mastery in this context is critical. My favourite approach is looking through the lens of its origins – mastery is derived from the word master. And for a colourful example, we have the Old Masters, a very influential group of European painters, including artists such as Botticello, de Vinci and Michelangelo. Hopefully, you can agree they have all demonstrated a superior level of skill and henceforth are worthy recipients on which to bestow the title of mastery.

Personally, I’d define true mastery as follows: being known for what you do, and doing it really well. Mastery is being a top performer at one skill, and able to demonstrate this to a high standard. In the case of the old Masters, the art of painting was the skill in which they excelled. And no-one can deny Serena Williams demonstrates exceptional mastery in tennis.

What differentiates an expert and a true master?

There are different levels of expertise in the world. Hell, the internet is full of people claiming they are an expert in something. How do you know who to believe? And what is the difference between an expert and someone who has reached the level of a true master? If you were learning karate you’d have belt colours to guide you, but how do you judge this in a much more subjective way?

How do we judge true mastery?

So you are good at a skill, how do you know if you are truly great at it? Now, this is where it gets awkward. The easiest way to measure qualitative skills is by comparison with others. So the bell curve is useful here. Yes, I said it, that most hated of HR performance measures – the bell curve – can be useful. And I am stating that all mastery is relative. Therefore your mastery can only be determined by comparing you with your peers and the wider population. Which is exactly the same approach we apply to Williams and Michelangelo – they were judged to be superior to their peers.

How to get to mastery level?

Ms ZiYou MasteryThere is no easy way, and the oft-quoted 10,000 hours is not always required. If you have a growth mindset and seek out constructive criticism, you can get there quicker. However, practice does make perfect. To get to a high level of performance, you need to put your time in.

But more than adding time, you need to add complexity. You can do an “easy” task millions of times and not yet be a master. You need to undertake the more difficult “hard” task to get there. So you need to be actively volunteering and seeking out opportunities to improve your mastery. This will involve proactively asking for more work, and be offering to help out colleagues. True growth comes from hard work, completed in a smart and strategic manner.

What to get to mastery level in?

The easiest is something you are interested in and are really good at. But apart from that, you can be a master in anything. As an example, the UK has a well-known TV series called Mastermind. As well as general knowledge rounds, the contestants get to pick their own specialist subjects. They have included such diverse topics as British Steam Locomotives, Doctor Who, Henry Ford and the films of Quentin Tarantino. You can see more Mastermind facts on the wiki page. And as a useless tangent, the original host of Mastermind, Magnus Magnusson, was one of the minor celebrities I served coffee to in my low wage job. He was nice enough, but not a great tipper.

Moving on to a professional role, it’s likely there are some skills that are key to your role. You want to ensure you pick a value-adding skill if you want to increase your income. This means you need to achieve expert level in a niche skill that is essential (not a nice to have) and drives the business outcomes of your business unit. These obviously vary by organisation, from the capitalist maximising profit to the relationship building of the third sector. If you pick your mastery skill wisely, you have an opportunity to set yourself apart from your peers.

Make sure everyone knows

Ms ZiYou MasteryOnce you have polished your skills to a high level, you want to get a reputation. Of the good type. Your aim is to be known as someone who delivers and can be relied upon in your mastery niche. In a work perspective, you need to get comfortable singing your praises, and ensuring your role in projects is noted and the contribution you bring to the table fully documented.

But Don’t BS

As much as I implore you to sell your skills, there is a very important line never to cross. Being seen as overconfident or cocky is looked down upon, and impacts women more than men. If you are going to proclaim you are a master, you better have earned that skill. You need to have the skills to back yourself up, and not be over promoting. Not to mention those who are masters of everything…..that’s not the way it works, you can be a Jack of all trades, but not a master of all trades. As an example, for a role I was recruiting for, I once got the CV of someone who claimed they could program in 45 languages, which obviously went straight into the no pile.

Sell your mastery

This is where the good stuff happens. Once you have mastered the skill, and everyone knows you are the master you need to sell it. Use these abilities to get benefit yourself and your future career. From small steps like getting tasks and projects you desire – to delegating those you no longer want – being known as a master makes you the someone to please.

Then thinking bigger, you can use these skills to leverage a job move. By being able to demonstrate your mastery, you are ready to level up your career and apply for more challenging and rewarding roles. More and more opportunities will be available to you, and you may even find yourself being saught out rather than having to apply.


In summary, mastery is ace. You want to be known as a master and have picked your mastery niche so it is sought out and rewards you in the way you want to be rewarded.  To read more about the concept, the author Robert Greene also extols the virtue of mastery in his book of the same name.

And in our next instalment, we’ll look at leveraging the skills so far; flexibility, mastery and using them to think strategically.

Over to you

  • What are your thoughts?
  • Do you think mastery is a key skill?
  • How would you advise applying mastery?

Thanks for reading – please leave a comment below and join in the conversation. You can also connect on Twitter or Pinterest.

Looking forward to your thoughts and ideas – all are welcome. 


6 comments on “Make more money at the day job – Part 2: Mastery

  1. The skill you master needs to be wanted by others, that’s true. For the most part though, any skills that leads to the delivery of a project or making cost savings a reality will get recognized. You need to know what that skill is and know who needs it to find the right fit. It can be anything from a specialized programming language, making dysfunctional teams cooperative, industry knowledge…

    What skill did you master?

    1. Hi Whymances, thanks for commenting. And yes, what a good question: the skill I think that does me well, is being able to articulate what is possible with the technologies in place – it certainly got me my current contract.

  2. I became a master within my specialism, then we had a change of government and within 6 months that specialism had been almost wiped, sigh. So I had to re-learn and become an expert in another niche. Never quite mastered being a master but that was ok.

    I had a senior boss who prided himself on being able to smell BS at a thousand paces. Boy did he rip into anyone who gave him BS and tried to fluff their way through his questioning. That was good training!

    1. Yeah, that is a very good point Tuppenny. The rug can very easily be pulled from feet. So sorry to hear that happened to you, glad you managed to recover.

      That senior boss sounds equally hilarious to watch yet scary if you ended up in his firing line.

  3. I work in the construction industry, and in this latest boom market people have been floooding in to try and make a quick buck, but it is VERY obvious when someone isn’t even at the proficient level, let alone a master. The numbers are such that even they have tended to make money in this round, but the margins aren’t there for when things aren’t quite so rosy.

What do you think?