For anyone lucky enough to be passionate about something, much of our time is spent in the pursuit of….what? There are infinite things to pursue, but I think the pursuit of mastery is central to activities that give me most pleasure and satisfaction. What's important is enjoying the pursuit, not so much the level of mastery achieved (I might have thought differently in my 20s, but I'm wiser now).
For a long time my primary pursuit was climbing. Then it spun into other sports, and most recently it's been wilderness travel and a resurgent interest in climbing. It doesn't matter at all whether I am pushing the frontier of what's being done by the best outdoor athletes. What matters is that I'm interested in pushing my frontier, whatever that may be. The process of that pursuit puts me into nourishing places and provides physical and mental challenges that I relish. I find it immensely satisfying.
The gradual progress towards mastery is a side effect of that process of exploring the edges of your capability. That growth of skill or technique or confidence is universally enjoyed by humans, no matter what the pursuit. Being able to feel that growth, while also enjoying the process is one of the true joys of life. For me, to be able to handle the problems, judge the risks, move across rock or mountain, breathe the air, see the water, listen to the wind, that is the mastery I seek.
Recently I wrote about the pleasures of being a relative beginner at mountain bike racing, and the freedom that comes with beginnerdom. Having that beginner's mind is liberating and joyful. There have been long periods - years even - when I've been in the relaxed zone - not really pushing myself. But the deep joy of trying to master my deepest passions will always pull me back to the rock and mountains and wild places, and have me thinking about what I can do better - what new avenue can I explore within my chosen realm.
I may never be satisfied with the level of mastery I achieve. But I will get immeasurable pleasure from the process, and that makes all the difference.