Everyone admires masters.  Bach, Beethoven, Beyoncé.  We view in wonder when some people seem to effortlessly display their genius.  Mastery at this level seems to be binary: you’re born with it or you aren’t.  Michelangelo didn’t agree with this line of thinking.  He said, “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell reports that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master at a task.  How much work is 10,000 hours?  Roughly five years of 40-hour workweeks.  But do any of us feel like “masters” of the compliance profession?  No one I’ve met asserts that they have mastered the compliance world.  This makes sense because compliance changes daily.  Mastery is, therefore, an elusive and ever-shifting goal.  Prosecutors deliver new guidance, new regulations surface, follow-on regulations are written, and new enforcement actions continually update what is considered a best practice. 

When being a master feels unattainable, it’s easy to give up.  But what if the answer isn’t to give up, but instead to change our understanding of mastery itself?

A New Way to View Mastery

It is said that if you change the way you look at something, the thing itself changes.  Your perception of a situation changes when you decide to look at it differently.

Author Doug Vermeeren found himself frustrated after studying years of Jiu-Jitsu.  He had achieved his black belt but didn’t feel that he had mastered the sport.  One day he changed his perception.  He realized that “mastery…is no longer about becoming the expert.  It is more about becoming a better student.  The more you learn, the more you wish to learn.  The more you take in, the better the questions you can ask.”  He found excitement in the desire to learn and refine.  The goal then is to come to a place where continuous learning is in and of itself the definition of mastery.

Mastery of Both Yourself and Your Program

The decision to view mastery as a continuous evolution of learning and experience applies to both you and your program.  Regulators expect that your program will iterate and change over time.  In fact, DOJ’s guidance on the evaluation of compliance programs and the compliance-related ISO standards include the expectation that compliance programs be “continuously improved.”  Our programs are never finished.  They never arrive at a destination where we say they are done.  Instead, even award-winning programs must continue to evolve.

Doctors “practice” medicine and attorneys “practice” law.  Even after all that time spent attaining expensive degrees, neither doctors nor lawyers ever graduate from practice.  Perhaps we should consider ourselves budding masters if we “practice” compliance.  10,000 hours after we start, we’ll have just begun our mastery.