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The Real Work

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Adam Gopnik

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.

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