According to Malcolm Gladwell, it takes even the most talented outliers in their given fields 10,000 hours to truly master their craft, “the point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.” That is the equivalent to five years of working eight hours per day, five days per week, for 50 weeks per year. Beyond pure skill and natural ability, becoming a master takes dedication and commitment to the craft. But how is mastery relevant in a substance use treatment setting? I believe that if someone has mastered or even become proficient at something earlier in life, the necessary dedication and work ethic are transferrable to the long road to recovery.
Although we understand mastery to be a vital component of our physiological and mental health, we know very little about exactly how mastery is developed during childhood and adolescence. Mastery building is often developed during adolescence; whether mastering an academic subject, a sport, or a hobby, these tasks all contribute to building confidence, resilience, and self-esteem. Adolescents are ideally encouraged to try new things in order to discover the areas for which they have aptitude as well as to determine which areas require more effort.
Studies related to mastery and recovery from substance use disorder are few and far between, but there is sufficient research in the area of mastery and mental health to be able to draw a conclusion that mastery has a positive effect on our lives and our ability to overcome negative life experiences. One such study that sought to correlate levels of education and mastery to distress found that a low level of formal education was significantly associated with a low level of mastery as well as low social support and abundant negative life events. Mastery has also been linked to abstinence self-efficacy in substance abuse treatment.
One of the most important aspects of mastery is its contribution to our self confidence and belief that we can accomplish great things if we set our minds to it and follow through with hard work. Mastery helps us stay in control of our lives and remain resilient when obstacles present themselves. One study found that “perceived control and health are closely interrelated in adulthood and old age”. As we get older, the importance of mastery developed at a young age doesn’t disappear; it only grows.
Mastery has also been scientifically linked to addiction resistance, which is assessed by the individual variation in sensitivity to the development of a substance use disorder for a given level of drug exposure. One study found that, “mastery is of particular interest in that it may reflect an ability to resist the progression of the addictive process into key life domains and to avoid loss of control of intake, even when consuming at high levels.” Our understanding of mastery tells us that not only will mastery help people to recover from substance use disorder but that it can also play a role in preventing it.
Young adults and adolescents who have experienced mastery in an aspect of their lives have a larger bank of internal resources to draw upon for recovery purposes. I can personally attest to the power of mastery as a motivator in recovery. In my teenage and adolescent years, I was a competitive equestrian who put countless hours into this passion. Knowing that I had worked so hard to hone this this ability reminded me of my potential to achieve a goal through determination and perseverance. I subsequently channeled this belief and prior accomplishment into my desire to recover. To be clear, recovery is an extremely difficult and complex process for almost everyone, and I was no exception. However, drawing on my history of dedication to a goal allowed me to move forward with the challenging stages of recovery with a greater level of confidence than I would have otherwise had. Understanding that I could approach recovery as I did other tasks in my life, I saw it as something else to master. If I could just stay sober for 10,000 hours, I would be a master. So, I set this goal and worked hard to achieve it.
The developmental tasks related to mastery are essential for building necessary life skills, and those developmental tasks are damaged by trauma, addiction, abuse, eating disorders, and mental health issues in a number of ways. Our role as parents, caregivers, medical professionals, and treatment providers is to help the youth learn how to reconnect and complete these tasks. Connecting young adults and adolescents to mentors, teachers, and spiritual counselors can help them to competently and comprehensively address each aspect of development. A positive role model can make all the difference in at-risk adolescents and can have lifelong effects on their choices. One of my employees, for instance, attributes her current substance-free existence to her high school track coach taking interest in her running aptitude and helping her work toward healthier goals. Rather than shaming her student about rumors she had heard concerning alcohol abuse, the coach challenged her to run with her every day before school on the off season and to enter road races of increasing lengths. Thirty-six years later, my employee continues to run daily and regularly thanks her coach for her role in short circuiting her prior tendencies toward abusing substances.
The developmental feeling of mastering something or even just becoming good at it can be a counterweight to the existential angst which can fill teenagers’ worlds. This could be a craft, homework, a sport, helping around the house, or being a good friend. Feeling that you are accomplished, or becoming accomplished, at something provides a sense of purpose to anyone’s life. This is why much of the work done in treatment centers is done outside of counseling sessions. It can start with tasks as simple as making your bed or following a schedule and can evolve into more challenging interests such as gardening, playing sports, or beekeeping. Most treatment centers provide these sorts of opportunities, and many strategically offer therapeutic activities such as Creative Arts Therapy or Equine Therapy with this in mind.
My personal experiences in young adulthood and adolescence have been able to guide and sustain me along this path of self-discovery and healing. By finding a passion that fit my aptitude and interests, I was able to find inner peace and develop the strength that I needed to overcome my addiction. It is crucial that mastery is brought to the forefront of the conversation regarding substance abuse prevention and recovery. Mastery may not be the only answer to recovery from substance use disorder, and it is certainly possible for those without this prior experience with mastery to recover, but we know one thing – it helps.
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