The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery
"[W]ise, companionable, and often extremely funny.” —Oliver Burkeman, The Atlantic
Best-selling author and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik investigates a foundational human question: How do we learn—and master—a new skill?
For decades now, Adam Gopnik has been one of our most beloved writers, a brilliantly perceptive critic of art, food, France, and more. But recently, he became obsessed by a more fundamental matter, one he had often meditated on in The New Yorker: How do masters learn their miraculous skill, whether it was drawing a museum-ready nude or baking a perfect sourdough loaf? How could anyone become so good at anything? There seemed to be a fundamental mystery to mastery. Was it possible to unravel it?
In The Real Work—the term magicians use for the accumulated craft that makes for a great trick—Gopnik becomes a dedicated student of several masters of their craft: a classical painter, a boxer, a dancing instructor, a driving instructor, and others. Rejecting self-help bromides and bullet points, he nevertheless shows that the top people in any field share a set of common qualities and methods. For one, their mastery is always a process of breaking down and building up—of identifying and perfecting the small constituent parts of a skill and the combining them for an overall effect greater than the sum of those parts. For another, mastery almost always involves intentional imperfection—as in music, where vibrato, a way of not quite landing on the right note, carries maximum expressiveness. Gopnik’s simplest and most invigorating lesson, however, is that we are surrounded by mastery. Far from rare, mastery is commonplace, if we only know where to look: from the parent who can whip up a professional strudel to the social worker who—in one of the most personally revealing passages Gopnik has ever written—helps him master his own demons.
Spirited and profound, The Real Work will help you understand how mastery can happen in your own life—and, significantly, why each of us relentlessly seeks to better ourselves in the first place.
Praise for The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery
Gopnik, a longtime New Yorker critic, isn’t the first author to emerge victorious from the American tournament of achievement only to discern its spiritual emptiness. But his contribution to an antidote feels original, and mercifully within reach. We need to refamiliarize ourselves, he thinks, with the profound and enlarging experience of truly mastering things, or at least attempting to do so . . . wise, companionable, and often extremely funny.
— Oliver Burkeman - The Atlantic
Charming . . . some of its pleasures are Gopnik’s excursions into professional jargon—he takes his title from magicians’ shoptalk—and techniques . . . a collection of axioms defining what we might really mean by ‘mastery’ begins to crystallize for Gopnik . . . it’s lovely to see these rules emerge from a random assortment of disciplines—for instance, in the way the reader gradually discovers a structure of repeated sequences common to jazz, magic and boxing . . . The book’s final axiom is its most profound, all the more so for also being unexpected . . . The true mystery of mastery, he speculates, may be found not in a technique that must be learned, but, rather, in the infinitely renewable moment of performance.
— Adam Thirlwell - New York Times Book Review
Adam Gopnik’s captivating book The Real Work honors perseverance . . . While Gopnik admires the masters around him, he makes clear that we need not strive for perfection in all that we do . . . Mastery has its place, but so too does joy.
— Barbara Spindel - Christian Science Monitor
Gopnik is a writer with a keen, warm eye and a generous heart. In The Real Work he draws attention to what he calls the ‘asymmetry’ of mastery: ‘we overrate masters and underrate mastery,’ he says . . . Gopnik is such an affable guide, truthful about his own foibles, that the reader is happy to reflect with him . . . Near the end of The Real Work he conquers another terror, a very private one; that he reveals it, and shares his process, his setbacks and triumphs, is extremely moving. The joy of this book is its honesty. ‘The real work’ is a term magicians use to define who’s really got the chops. Gopnik may not be able to handle a deck of cards, but he is a magician, all the same.
— Erica Wagner - Financial Times
[F]ascinating . . . because of the fluidity and incision of his prose, his ranging interest and knowledge, his capacity for deploying profound koans with casual verve . . . one of Gopnik’s salutary aims here is to demystify—and democratize—mastery.
— Tom Vanderbilt - Washington Post
Via memoir, analysis and criticism, [Gopnik] assembles a celebration of the flaws that make us human . . . Gopnik is at his most moving when addressing the limited time we have on Earth; the roughly established number of heartbeats we are given to achieve whatever means most to us. In this context, he writes, mastery may have nothing to do with impressing some great portion of the public; instead, what counts is ourselves and a few people close to us. Mastery, he concludes, is ‘emphatically not transcendent.’ Instead, in Gopnik’s conception it is thoroughly democratic—something we all can achieve, and in many cases already have.
— Matthew Cantor - The Guardian
Gopnik is consumed by the business of shaping sentences, and in The Real Work his dabbling in new skills, and observing those who’ve mastered them, unsurprisingly offers a way of reflecting on his own vocation . . . Among the uplifting pleasures of Gopnik’s writing is the range and ardour of his enthusiasms. If his only truly fanatical pursuit is making sentences, he seems to intuit that his best ones—his truest—are those that are unselfconsciously committed to their subject, and vitalised by the passionate curiosity that also reins them in.
— Lola Seaton - New Statesman
Perhaps you’ll recognize Adam Gopnik from his cameo in Tár; perhaps you’ve read one of his many articles or books before now. His latest book, The Real Work, explores what it means to be at the top of one’s field, and finds Gopnik exploring professions from driving instructor to dancer to see what it means to be great at something. It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at what it takes to become skilled at a certain kind of work.
— Tobias Carroll, InsideHook, “The 11 Books You Should Be Reading This March”
Gopnik, a longtime writer for The New Yorker, is at the top of the nonfiction essay game. I suspect that he could write about almost any subject (and he writes about many), and the reader will find value in the pages.
— Joshua Kim - Inside Higher Ed
Like Malcolm Gladwell, Gopnik makes even the seemingly workaday or mundane compelling . . . Gopnik’s book is aptly named, being his own exemplary example of the essayist’s craft.
— Bill Thompson - Post and Courier
A delightful, discursive discussion of what constitutes achievement . . . Gopnik makes a specific distinction “between accomplishment and mere achievement, the assigned work.” He sees modern life as a push to rack up achievements, to check a box in order to move to the next box in a stack of boxes. In contrast, accomplishment is a loving, or at least mindful, commitment to doing a thing for its own sake — or for yours.
— Jennifer Bort Yacovissi - Washington Independent Review of Books
A tour de force . . . In a similar vein as Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Gopnik’s book approaches the art of mastery of singular skills with the diligence of a researcher, the soul of a philosopher, and the heart of the everyday man.
— Shannon Carriger - Portland Book Review
A masterful speculation on the nature and art of mastery. Gopnik, a longtime critic for the New Yorker and a librettist, tells us 'the real work' is a term used by magicians to refer to the 'accumulated craft, savvy, and technical mastery that makes a great magic trick great....' To fully appreciate the real work in others means gaining some sense of how it feels for them to do it, so Gopnik apprenticed himself to masters in various fields—magic, drawing, boxing, dance, etc.—to grasp their singular attainments, strategies, and styles.... Gopnik builds his book around Seven Mysteries of Mastery, deciphering these matters with shrewd but self-effacing skill... [his] intelligence gleams on nearly every page.... Like Malcolm Gladwell, he has a gift for forging connections and making even the seemingly mundane compelling. In top form, Gopnik makes his subject intellectually and viscerally thrilling.
— Kirkus Reviews, starred review
[J]oyous and insightful . . . Through observation and deduction, Gopnik grasps much about the meaning of mastery . . . [Gopnik’s] unusual analysis of expertise and accomplishment includes his own charming moments and can-do attitude.
— Tony Miksanek - Booklist
A masterful speculation on the nature and art of mastery... Gopnik’s intelligence gleams on nearly every page... like Malcolm Gladwell, he has a gift for forging connections and making even the seemingly mundane compelling. In top form, Gopnik makes his subject intellectually and viscerally thrilling.
— Kirkus Reviews, starred review