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Reading time: 10 minutes

The Power of Mastery

You wake up early in the morning, for today is the day that you present your ‘masterpiece’ to the gathered guild masters. You can’t remember how long you spent as a novice apprentice under your master, and the time spent as a journeyman has all melded into what can only be described as an age, an epoch of your life in learning. But all of that has led you to this moment, where you can prove your mastery of your craft to all the masters in the guildhall. Each experience has built on top of the last, hopefully making you better, no, you know that you have become better, you have mastered. And after you present your piece, you too will be a master in the guild.

This is how you would likely have experienced the journey to mastery if you chose a craft in the Middle Ages. Many apprentices would start as a novice and after a great many years become a journeyman who travelled the lands to learn and experience more of the craft. Finally, after yet more years, they would be allowed to present their ‘masterpiece’ to the guild masters, who if they found your skill adequate and worthy would promote you and bestow the title of (guild) master on you.

Mastery is essentially where knowledge is gained and then built upon with ever-increasing levels of depth, difficulty and challenge. This knowledge is then known rather than regurgitated. What I mean by ‘knowledge is known’ in the context of mastery, is that the knowledge gained should be internalised and not be ‘thought about’. For example, a chef should’ve learned to chop fast and safely and not be thinking about how to avoid cutting their fingers.

A mastery journey aims to provide and/or gain learning, the aim is not the teaching itself. In other words, it is to ensure that the individual on the journey learns and masters the knowledge, is competent with it and isn’t simply succumbing to Goodhart’s Law and being taught-to-the-test so that they can pass a test.

What I want to briefly explore with you in this piece is the different levels of mastery that exist nowadays in our complex and ever-changing world. How these levels are measured, shown and depicted, and what the benefits are of engaging in a mastery journey.

The different levels of mastery

To understand the mastery journey properly, we need to know what the different levels of mastery are. As we already know, in the Middle Ages there existed three levels, novice, journeyman and master. But in today’s world with all its complexities, I feel we need more than just three to reflect that. Within the AEX Design methodology and its change-/engagement theory framework, I have put together six levels of mastery that I feel encompass the various levels of competence that an individual needs to work through to go from being a novice to a master.

The description of the six levels below is broad and only surface level in terms of what each level represents. After this, we’ll explore how mastery can be measured, how an individual moves between these levels, and how the progress is shown.

  • Novice: A novice is the starting point for any individual, they have a basic understanding of the material and can complete basic tasks. They may be able to define terms, identify concepts, and complete simple problems.
  • Learner: A learner can demonstrate a deeper understanding of the material and can complete more complex tasks. They may be able to explain concepts, apply knowledge to new situations, and solve problems with some guidance.
  • Journeyman: A journeyman is characterized by the ability to apply the knowledge and skills learned to new situations. They can solve problems independently and work effectively with others. They may be able to teach others or mentor less experienced students.
  • Experienced: This level is for those who have a mastery of the material and can apply it in a variety of contexts. They can think critically and creatively and can mentor others. They may even be able to publish their work or present their findings to others.
  • Expert: This is commonly the highest level of mastery. An expert has a deep understanding of the material and can apply it to solve complex problems. They can also teach others and share their knowledge. They may be able to conduct research, develop new theories, or make significant contributions to their field.
  • Master: A master is a rare individual who has achieved a level of mastery that is unparalleled. They can see the big picture and understand the interconnectedness of different concepts. They can also teach others at the highest level and inspire others to achieve their full potential.


Now as mentioned these are broad descriptions and definitions of each level, so that we have a foundation to work from when we consider a mastery journey for an audience. The real applicability of these levels is only realised once we explore and understand how they are measured.

How to measure a mastery journey

Mastery is only really valuable if it can be applied independently and competently. But how do we measure whether a person is at that point? With the guilds, it would be a presentation of a masterpiece. That was fine for then, and might still be fine for certain professions in today’s world, but we can’t have people spend years or even decades moving through one or two tiers of mastery to get to that point. As with the levels mentioned, we need more tiers for people to move through, so that they showcase their competence, earn a living, and can continue to improve. All of this needs to be measurable in some form so that continued education, improvement, change and progress can be tracked.

Now the setup with mastery learning follows these steps:

  • Clear (learning) objective(s) – what is to be learned, these must follow either SMART or better yet the EPICQ goals methodology from AEX Design.
  • Mastery thresholds – these are clear points where the person moves from one level to the next, mastering the (learning) objective(s)
  • Process of demonstrating mastery – what does the person need to do to show that they have mastered that level and are capable of moving to the next
  • Process for mastery assessment – how does the master assess the lower-tiered person to determine whether that can move up, this is directly linked to the objectives, and why they need to be clear and explicit.
  • Organise and display data about the mastery-based system – however you determine your mastery journey for your audience, you need to be able to display it to them and they need to also be able to display it to the rest of the world. Be it through a grading system, a certificate or a badge.


Games are incredibly good at measuring a player’s progress through their mastery journey. Most of the time this is done through a quest journal that tracks progress by ticking off completed quests, or it does by an experience bar that slowly fills up. And very often game assesses mastery by giving the player a Boss Fight. Before the Boss Fight, the player will have gone through a lot of repetition with a great many obstacles that likely represent an aspect of the Boss Fight. Once the player defeats the Boss, they will have irrevocably proven that they have understood everything up to that point, otherwise, they wouldn’t have been able to defeat the Boss.

One of the best examples of a better game analogy for real-world application would be one of the many games from FromSoftware. These games are incredibly punishing and difficult, they challenge the player at every turn. What this facilitates though is that the player is forced to learn and improve every moment, repeating a variety of moves, understanding what various aspects do and increasing their awareness of the environment. And when they finally decide to face the Boss, they have hopefully mastered enough of what is needed to defeat the Boss and continue onward. This method is called gating, and it is a threshold that a player must cross to go to the next level of mastery.

The beauty of the game is of course that the objective is to learn enough techniques to defeat the Boss. The Boss is the gatekeeper of the mastery threshold. The demonstration of mastery is the act of defeating the Boss, and the assessment is the success or failure to defeat the Boss. This is incredibly simplified, but it does offer you a good foundation to work from when considering how and where to start if you are creating your mastery journey.

The final point is that within a game a depiction of gaining a level of mastery is very visual and often visceral. The elation of having finally defeated a difficult boss in a FromSoftware game is incredible, and you likely receive an achievement depicted by a trophy and/or badge that symbolises that victory.

Showing and depicting mastery

Visual representations are in my opinion the best way to depict an earned level of mastery. As much as the PBLs (points, badges, leaderboards) have been denigrated, they have become a heuristic shorthand for a variety of things, thanks to the proliferation of digital games.

However visual representations of mastery have existed throughout human history. The military, regardless of nation and culture, has always had a method of showing progress. Within the modern world, this is done via chevrons, pips or stars. With guilds, it was done with a seal, a certificate, a license and an emblem on the workshop that they were now allowed to open. In martial arts in Asia, the coloured belt system is a way of showing mastery and the levels that the students have achieved.

It is a very important aspect of the mastery journey to be able to show the depiction of your level of earned and attained mastery. And it must be earned, there must be a value behind it, otherwise, the depiction is worthless. The importance of the value behind it is not only for the person who receives it but also for all of those who see it receive it.

Within a real-world setting, this may also include a ceremony of sorts, but the result is that the person has the depiction of their mastery. This should motivate them to continue to aim for even higher levels, and in turn, it should also motivate those around them to achieve higher themselves, surpass and continue onwards on their journey. If nothing else humans don’t want to miss out, are envious and for the most part want to prove themselves. That’s why such a system has been so successful throughout the ages.

This feedback on their progress gives the audience a positive hit of dopamine (among other things). A great example of this is/was in World of Warcraft, where the sound and visual fireworks of levelling up become an obsession for many players in the beginning years of the game. Players would spend hours going through the game to level up, so that could get that visual and audio hit of getting to the next level. It would make them feel good and they could see that they were progressing through the game.

Benefits of measuring mastery

Providing clear feedback on progress is the main benefit of being able to measure a mastery journey. It is one of the core aspects of what motivates people, seeing that their efforts and investments offer a return and that forward movement empowers them to continue.

Empowerment is another benefit that mastery offers. The individual is in control of their own life, they know what the objective is, they know what they need to learn to achieve the next level of mastery, and this knowledge helps to stay motivated and engaged with the activity and experience. And because of this, they are assessed on their level of mastery in moments when they are in full control. They have either directly or indirectly chosen a moment where they are likely to be the most proficient and competent to move on to the next level.

This control over their mastery journey also inspires the individual to continue to learn, as they choose the agency for improvement. As I mentioned before, the feedback of getting better and seeing others progress adds to this sense of agency. The individual is the one who decides to keep pushing. They are quite literally the master of their fate.

Final Thoughts

Being the master of your destiny, being empowered and knowing a clear objective and obstacle to overcome and master is a great feeling.

To summarise, in today’s complex world, we do need six levels of mastery to accurately rate a person’s level of skill and competence.

To do this you need clear learning objectives that relate to the various levels and thresholds. These objectives need to have a way for the person to be able to demonstrate their skill and competence, and you need to be clear on how you assess this so that you as the ‘master’ can promote them to the next level.

And once they are promoted, you need to award them with a depiction of their mastery level, so that they can show it to the world, and be proud of their achievement.

This feedback on their efforts will loop back and motivate them and others to continue the mastery journey laid out before them.

If you would like to learn more about the field of audience engagement, gamification, change engagement and more, then go ahead and sign up to our email list below.

Very soon aeStranger will be releasing a beginner’s course on AEX Design, through which you can also gain a variety of mastery levels, and learn how to craft, develop and implement your audience engagement strategy.


I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Do check out the other posts on æ, and do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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