From Development to Deepening

One of the joys of life is to try new things. In fact, it’s actually good for you. When you try something you’ve never tried before to develop a new skill, it forces your brain to make new connections in new areas. When you do this in a way that engages short-term memory, long-term memory, and other high-level cognitive processes, there is some evidence this can help your brain avoid memory loss. “Use it or lose it”, as people sometimes say.

However, there are also some detriments to always jumping to new areas every time you’ve reached a basic competency in a former area. Maybe you’ve know the person who just couldn’t ever stick with one hobby. In their garage you would find tools for mechanics, woodworking, and even blacksmithing. You’d find golf clubs, tennis racquets, an unused treadmill, and a weights machine. Inside their house would be even more forms of things they’ve tinkered with but never completely mastered.

Cultivating Our Interests

Angela Duckworth is a leading thinker in the field of Positive Psychology, and she’s done excellent original research into personal grit, and how it works. Part of this discussion is about how we go about cultivating interests. She suggests that in most people’s lives, this moves in three phases:

  1. Discovering. This is what we do in our earlier years. While we want to teach our children they can do “anything” it is also important to note that none of us can do everything. Eventually, some of your core areas of skill begin to rise to the top. You find some areas in life that seem to come naturally to you from which you derive meaning and joy.
  2. Development. This is the process of becoming proficient in an interest. You develop a skill to the point that someone might say, “Hey, you’re pretty good at that.” Maybe you get to the level that you could give a basic performance or complete standard tasks.
  3. Deepening. This is where you take an area of basic competency and decide to go deeper, pushing yourself to new depths of possibility accessible only to masters of the task.
From Angela Duckworth’s book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

The Next Step to Deepening

Unfortunately, in their interests, many people stop at stage 2. I might learn to play golf well enough not to embarrass myself. I learn to communicate and plan well enough not to get fired, and occasionally to do a decent job. I dabble enough in something to be able to engage in it when necessary and to get an average result. But unfortunately, with many areas, once we develop a basic skill set, we are tempted to abandon it and start over with a new area.

So here’s a challenge:

Think of an area of your life where you have a basic proficiency and challenge yourself to go deeper, into the nuances of your area that only a master really could. Rather than picking a new activity altogether, stick with what has already interested you and find a new aspect of it to which you can apply yourself vigorously. It may be as gratifying as learning a new skill, but the end result could be even more useful.

Moving to Mastery

I’ll share negative and positive personal examples.

First the negative:

I am a sucker for acquiring new skills. Even in the last year, I’ve done a fairly in-depth study of website development, online marketing, Google, Bing, and Facebook ads, and Search Engine Optimization. I’ve also learned how to memorize lengthier strings of numbers (I can pretty easily memorize 50 digits or more in 3-4 minutes) as well as how to memorize a card deck (I’m a lot slower at this one). There are several ways these skills can be useful.

I’ve bumped up our church website ranking on Google. I’ve developed better functional memory. I’ve found several areas in which I’m capable of helping other people with their businesses’ online presence.

The downside? I don’t think I’m likely to take any of these interests much farther than I already have. SEO work is like the ditch-digging of the internet. Though potentially lucrative, it’s not fun or gratifying. I have no intention of ever pursuing memory skills to the point of entering a competition with them. It’s not bad that I’ve learned any of this, but especially with a child on the way, it’s likely that much of these will fall to the backburner of my interests, perhaps to the point that I remember little about them.

On a more positive note, as a teenager, I took a strong interest in music. I had really excelled in my school band, but ultimately decided a guitar was a cooler instrument to play than a baritone, so I shifted gears. At several points in time, I had people encourage me, “You know, you’re pretty good at guitar…have you thought about picking up another instrument, too?”

I really thought about it, but ultimately decided that I was already so far into guitar both in time and money that I was going to make this the hobby that I kept going in my life. I was going to specialize and be as good as I could possibly get. As I went, I continued cultivating my skill to the point that I can comfortably say I’m a “better than average” player. Because I sought to go beyond proficiency into some level of mastery, this has opened numerous doors in my life:

  • When I needed a ministry internship in undergrad, I was trying to find a church to work with. The Central Church in Sarasota, Florida was not seeking an intern, but I had gone on a spring break campaign there. The preacher, a guitar enthusiast, remembered that I was “the guitar player” and wanted so much to get to have me around, he created an opening so I could spend the summer there.
  • I ended up marrying my wife because she watched me perform at a coffee shop and decided I was a cooler person than the nerd I came across as in class, therefore giving me a chance.
  • When I moved to Corpus Christi, several members at my church had been in a band together for many years and were quick to recruit me, providing me with an easy way to fit in with some of the members. In fact, when the church brought me down for an interview, one of the public questions I received was, “What kind of guitar do you play?” My reputation preceded me, and in many ways has helped me.
  • In the last couple of years, I got to knock a major item off my bucket list when a military friend of mine invited me to perform the National Anthem at his change of command ceremony.

I say all this not to brag–ok, perhaps a little to brag–but mostly to make the point that one of the best ways we can contribute to the people around us is to find areas of our life that we are willing to pursue to the point of excellence. It isn’t necessary to be famous in order for your life to benefit from your mastery of some area of interest.

Rather than leaping to a new thing, why not take an existing thing to a new level?

A Simplified Church

I believe the same principle works well for churches. Especially when a church is medium-sized, it may try to offer too much in too many areas. When everything is done in a range between mediocre to average, it actually inhibits the church’s future growth prospects. Churches that increase generally have an area or two they do not only with proficiency, but with excellence, and in ways that truly inspire.

Even though developing great skill sounds complicated–and it has its complexities–by focusing more resources into fewer areas, the church may actually accomplish more good than it would if it were only an average generalist, spread too thin.

People are more willing to commit to a clear mission than to a general membership. When someone joins your church, what does it mean they are committing to specifically? What is the cause that you accept with gut-level passion, into which you are willing to pour your lives? For what kinds of people are you going to search diligently and engage in ways that are relevant and meaningful to them?


  • Where are you on the journey toward your life goals?
  • Are you actively engaging with your life goals?
  • What are your core areas of interest and skill?
  • How could you take one of these areas to a deeper level of mastery?
  • If you did this, how might it benefit you and the people who know you?

Other Posts of Interest


  1. This is something to think about. Thank you for that, Mark. (Enjoyed your playing of the national anthem; had watched awhile back right after the Change of Command, but had to listen again.)

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