For a satisfied life, become a god of small things | Robert Twigger

Tackling too big a challenge can be daunting. The secret is to be a ‘micromaster’

Life can be overwhelming. We want to do as much as we can, see the world, learn new things – and it can all get a bit too much. I reached a point when I felt that I could no longer be interested in everything. I had to shut some of life out, and I didn’t like that. I was living under the assumption – the false assumption, as it turned out – that to know anything worthwhile took years of study, so I might as well forget it.

But something inside me rebelled. I still wanted to learn new things and make new things. They didn’t have to be big things – I was happy to leave that until later. Start small, start humble. Start with an egg.

So I was thinking about how long it would take to learn how to cook really well. I recalled a chef telling me that the real test is doing something simple – like making a perfect omelette. Everything you know about cooking comes out in this simple dish. So I decided to switch the order around. Instead of spending hours learning the basics of cookery and then showing my expertise in omelette making, I’d start with just making an omelette. I really focused on making that omelette. I separated it from the basic need that cooking usually fulfils – filling my stomach – so that it now occupied a special, singular place in my life. It had become a micromastery.

A micromastery is a self-contained unit of doing, complete in itself, but connected to a greater field. You can perfect that single thing or move on to bigger things – or you can do both. A micromastery is repeatable and has a successful payoff. It is pleasing in and of itself. It’s the way we learn as kids. You never absorb all the fundamentals straight away – you learn one cool thing, then another. You learn a 360 on a skateboard or how to make a crystal radio. Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written about “flow” – a state in which time seems to be suspended because our interest and involvement in what we’re doing are so great. A micromastery, because it is repeatable without being repetitious, has all the elements that allow us to enter a flow state, which produces great contentment and enhances physical and mental health.

But let’s get back to starting with an egg – or two. A chef gave me a tip about using the fork to bulk up the omelette. I kept practising. I went online and found more tips. Then a French woman told me about separating the yolk from the egg, which allows your omelette to double in thickness and softness. When it’s served, people simply go: “Wow!”

This is what I call “the entry trick”. Every micromastery has one. It is a way, in one stroke, to elevate your performance at that task and get an immediate payoff – a rush of rewarding neurotransmitters, which is a nice warm feeling.

We envy the person who has a perfect French accent, who can roll a kayak, or compose a poem that isn’t laughable, who can draw something well, do a magic trick or lay a brick wall that doesn’t fall down. These are perceived as hard things to learn that signify a greater mastery of the field concerned. But with micromastery you start with the test piece and then – and only then – do you go back upstream to explore more.

Seeing the world in terms of micromasteries makes anything seem possible. Fancy bookbinding? Yoga? Tap dancing or tank driving? All have their micromasteries. It’s very liberating – you no longer have to feel trapped in your day job. You will start, in a small way, to get your life back from the idea that the world seems to push on us that we should do just one thing all our lives.

Micromastery by Robert Twigger is published by Penguin Life, £12.99. Order it for £11.04 at

Robert Twigger

The GuardianTramp

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