Personal Mastery – Envisioning Our Part Creatively within The System


(Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 1st Edition, p. 141)

States Senge,

“Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively”.  People with a high level of personal mastery are able to consistently realize the results that matter most deeply to them – in effect, they approach their life as an artist would approach a work of art.  They do that by becoming committed to their own lifelong learning.

Surprisingly few adults work to rigorously develop their own personal mastery.  When asked what they most want from their lives, most adults often talk first about what they’d like to get rid of: “I’d like my back problems to clear up” or they say, “I’d like my mother-in-law to move out”.

The discipline of personal mastery, by contrast, starts with clarifying the things that really matter to us (of knowing ourselves and being able to hold the creative tension) and being generative in the service of our highest aspirations.

Few organizations encourage the growth of their people in this manner.  This result in vast untapped resources: Senge offers that an organization’s commitment and capacity for learning can only be no greater than that of its members.

This discipline of aspiration involves formulating a coherent picture of the results people most desire to gain as individuals (their personal vision), alongside a realistic assessment of the current state of their lives today (their current reality).  Learning to cultivate the tension between vision and reality (represented in this icon by the rubber band) can expand people’s capacity to make better choices, and to achieve more of the results that they have chosen.


Practice Sheet

Take 10 minutes.   Read the following article.   Then answer the following questions personally and then discuss in pairs for 10 min:

  • What have I learned?
  • What strikes me?
  • What concerns or questions do these raise for me?

Your Level of Fantasy

Some people fantasize nearly nonstop, others rarely do, and the majority of people fall somewhere in between.  Imagination and the ability to create alternate realities are the two factors that determine whether or not a person is capable of having a highly colorful fantasy life.  However, not everyone who can fantasize does.  For example, if two strangers who were both capable of fantasizing were sitting next to one another on a bus, one might still spend the whole ride thinking about paying their bills and formulating their next to-do list, while the other could be envisioning taking a siesta on a tropical island.  Having a high level of fantasy involves both having the mental tools necessary to fantasize and putting them to use.

Being prone to fantasy can be thought of as a spectacular gift.  Fantasy can give one the ability to create a made-up world much more captivating and pleasurable than the usual day-to-day realities.  This can be a wonderful asset as you go though life – a free form of entertainment that you can use any time.

Some people look at those who are fantasy prone in a derogatory way.  They feel that the more realistically a person thinks, the saner they are.  Indeed, most definitions of “abnormal” refer to what is “unusual” or “not frequent”.  Clinical experts sometimes look at fantasy as a means of trying to escape reality, rather than face what’s there.

Regardless of how one feels about fantasy, its value is heavily dependent on how it’s used.  If you use fantasy to visualize improvements in your life without ignoring important realities, then fantasy can be a useful talent.  It can help you maintain your optimism and even to devise novel solutions to your problems.  However, if fantasy is something you retreat into as a way of denying reality, then you might want to reconsider your use of it.

Experts found that one is certainly capable of fantasizing and may even enjoy keeping oneself entertained that way.  However, our first reaction to stress probably isn’t to create an alternate universe or to imagine things differently than they actually are.  In fact, one may appear to have the nice balance of having the gift of fantasy at our disposal without having the tendency to overly rely on it.  In other words, when it comes to fantasy, we typically use it, but don’t abuse it.

Fantasy is a technique frequently employed by people living under harsh conditions in order to ease their stress.  In this way, imagination can be a vital tool for prison inmates who live in depressing, restrictive conditions day in and day out.  Using the power of fantasy can also be a profound relief for people living in poverty and in war zones.  In fact, there are many people who live in adverse situations or deal with other painful circumstances that could benefit from occasional relief through fantasy.

Fantasy only becomes a problem when you ignore something you need to deal with because you have the ability to fantasize it away.  For example, imagine you have a problem with an aunt of yours.  Perhaps this aunt says something that upsets you almost every time you talk with her.  As a result, after a while you stop listening to her in favor of pretending that you’re someplace else entirely.  The fantasy you create for yourself might be more exciting – and far less annoying, but it doesn’t change this detrimental pattern between you and your aunt.  A better response might be to put your fantasies aside for a while to address your aunt’s poor communication style head-on.

At it’s worst, fantasy can keep you from making important lifestyle choices.  For instance, if you fantasize that you have boundless energy and are a wonderful athlete, and in the meantime sit on your couch eating potato chips and playing video games, there will eventually come a time where you won’t be able to deny what is really happening to your body and you will have to tend to the reality of your deteriorating health.  However, there’s no reason that you have to let fantasy affect you in these negative ways.  So long as you pay attention to the aspects of your life that need addressing, like your health or your career, you should be able to use fantasy and creative visualizations to bolster your happiness and success, not impede them.

[End of article]


  • Personal Mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying our personal vision (a picture of the future reality) that we truly care to create
  • People with high levels of personal mastery are continually expanding their ability to create the results in life they truly seek.
  • It means approaching one’s life as a creative work, living life from a creative as opposed to reactive viewpoint.
  • When personal mastery becomes a discipline, it has two movements:
    • First is continually clarifying what is important to us
    • The second is continually learning how to see current reality more clearly
  • Learning in this context does not mean acquiring more information, but expanding the ability to produce the results we truly want in life.
  • People with a high level of personal mastery are more committed. They take more initiative.   They have a broader and deeper sense of responsibility in their work.   They learn faster.


Check out what is the most expensive violin.  Antonio Stradivarius started hearing the sound of a very special violin.  Pursuit of that sound became his life’s passion.  In his lifetime, he created one thousand violins, all of them sounding just as amazing and therefore command today, after hundreds of years the prices that they fetch for violin collectors.  At the age of 92, he finally crafted the violin that carried the very special sound that he had been carrying in his head.  He died at the age of 93.  Without visions, people perish.


Which comes first:  Passion or Vision?


How to Use Chevreul’s Pendulum:



Balancing the Peacock Feather Exercise:



Video production by Robert Fritz.  Titled Poem

Next to each category please list what you truly want, keeping in mind the two criteria: do not concern yourself with what you think is possible and express your affirmation (“I want” or “I care to bring forth into reality” not “I don’t want”)

Category Wants

  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Spiritual

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Work Associates

  • Nature or type of work
  • Achievements
  • Team or unit
  • Work environment
Personal Growth

  • Characteristics or Quality
  • Skill or Ability
Pastimes or Hobbies
Life Accomplishments
Other important wants


Step 2 is required to establish the Structual Tension (energy) necessary to drive a change and movement in the direction of your vision.  A learder also often has to deal with cynicism and skepticism and will gain credibility only by his courage in “facing the truth” about the way things are now.

Practice in Establishing Structural Energy

From your list of “wants”, select three to focus your practice on.  Write the want on the left side of the page and the corresponding description of the current reality relevant to that want on the right side of the page.

Wants Current Realities
1.  __________________________________________ 1.  __________________________________________
     __________________________________________      __________________________________________
2.  __________________________________________ 2.  __________________________________________
     __________________________________________      __________________________________________
3.  __________________________________________ 3.  __________________________________________
     __________________________________________      __________________________________________



  • STEP 1: Become aware that we do hold beliefs on limits (money, time, help, etc.) that affect our ability to visualize our futures – let these beliefs go … briefly
  • STEP 2: If you doing this for the very first time, begin with a list of all the things that you said that you would want, do, create or build when you have the time.   You may find on your list, items that are things that you wish to see removed (e.g.  repay debts, mortgages, service loans, pay for our children’s education, perhaps donate to charities, for our parents, etc.).   Keep listing and go beyond these to see anything if there might be something that you care to do because it truly is something that you want (and not just a problem you wish to see removed, e.g.  enjoy a good time with family and friends, being excellent, have a beautiful dream house that meet your real needs, perhaps a time away where you can enjoy a new culture, nature, etc.)
  • STEP 3: Share the list with a friend or a colleague and begin to shortlist one item on the list that truly matters to you.   Notice your expression or tone when you describe this item.
  • STEP 4: Perhaps, if you wish, find someone who may share in a similar vision.   Share your picture and notice similarities or differences.   Invite him or her if they would help in coaching out your vision.
  • STEP 5: Either with the help of your friend or by exercising a little amount of discipline, begin to detail your vision (right down to the color of the curtains in the guest washroom!).   Not a detail to be missed!  Draw or color it, or list the qualities or pictures that you see.  Extend the vision to other aspects of your life?  Your significant others?  What do you see happen?  What are they saying?  Not doing (saying)?
  • STEP 6: Notice as you detail your vision, what did you like most?  What excited you?  Does this vision strike with your identification?  Can you own it?  (This step is best done perhaps a day or two later).  Think about it briefly for now.
  • STEP 7: Think about the steps you may need to consider helping you bring yourself closer to your vision.   What do you need to do?   List them out.   Detail a transition plan.   Be smart in building in delays and other persons’ visions into it!  If you don’t, you may get distracted or discouraged as you do not realize the vision, only because these have not been realistically factored in.   Don’t let it happen to you!
  • STEP 8: Let the vision go!  Yes, don’t cling on to it … the more you do cling on to it, the less powerful it becomes.   Just begin to prepare yourself so that in the event the thing that needs to happen do come along, you are ready for it!  Prepare to get ready to take a ride up to your vision!  Enjoy the journey.



Paired Sharing Exercise

  • Find a partner
  • Sit facing each other
  • Pick an “A” & a “B”
  • “A” shares items from their list that they really care about for 2 minutes
  • Only pick items you feel comfortable sharing
  • “B” listens fully. Only comments if A is focusing on what they don’t want or trying to get away from
  • Stop when time called
  • Switch roles and repeat for 2 minutes

Take a moment and reflect on the conversation you just had with your partner

  • How would you characterize the conversation?
  • Did you notice any similarities in your lists of wants?
  • How often do you engage in this type of conversation at work?

Then ask these questions that matter …

How much on a scale of 1 to 7, do I care for the outcome of the conversation?

On a scale of 1 to 10, how much risk am I willing to take?

What cross-roads am I at?

Why does it mean so much to me?

What possibilities are there?

What is the dissent or refusal am I denying?  If I cannot say “no” then my “yes” has no meaning.

What promise am I willing to make for the success of this possibility?

What is the price that I am willing to pay for the success of the whole effort?

What is the gift that I bring to that possibility?

(extracted from “The Fifth Discipline” by Dr Peter Senge)




1. Traditionally, there was a contract; an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s labour.   Work is an instrument for generating income. There is a basic shift in attitude in the workplace.   People, apart from the instrumental use they serve, they are valued for themselves.   It rests on a shared commitment to ideas, issues, values, goals and to management processes. 144
2. It is “soft” based in part on unquantifiable concepts such as intuition and personal vision. They are the by-product of a lifetime of fitting in, of coping, of problem-solving.   We therefore grew up believing that unless we measure, there is no way of knowing if things are working well. 145
3.          There is cynicism.   The human potential (HRD) movement over promised itself.   This prompted executes to idealize each other and expect grand, instant, human transformations. Remember this can never happen.   Also know the source of cynicism – most cynics are frustrated idealist.   Don’t over-romanticise people so that they don’t feel the great psychological stress when people let them down. 146
4. Fear it will threaten the established order of a well-managed company.   If people do not share a common vision, and do not share common “mental models” about organizational reality will only increase organizational stress and the burden of management to maintain coherence and direction. This is why this discipline must always be used with the remaining four disciplines of Learning Organisation.   It would be naïve and foolish if leaders lacked the capabilities of building shared vision and shared mental models to guide local decision-makers. 146
5. Most adults have little sense of real vision.   We have goals and objectives but these are not visions.   When asked what we want, we will say what we want to get rid of. They are the by-product of a lifetime of fitting in, of coping, of problem-solving. 147
6. A subtler form of diminished vision is “focusing on the means and not the result”. Means might change in particular circumstances.   The ability to focus on ultimate intrinsic desires, not only on secondary goals, is a corner of personal mastery.   On another point.  Real vision cannot be understood in isolation from the idea of purpose (sense of why he is alive, i.e.  being a force of nature).   Vision without an underlying sense of purpose, no calling is just an idea – all sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Focusing on means only, further aggravates the disappointment. 147-9
7. How is vision different from purpose? Purpose is similar to a direction, a general heading.   Vision is a specific destination, a picture of a desired future and it is concrete.   Purpose is being the best we can be.   Vision is “breaking four minutes in the mile”.   Yes, purpose without vision has no sense of appropriate scale. 149
8. Vision is often confused with competition. Vision is intrinsic not relative (it is not about “keeping up with the Joneses”).   Competition is one of the best structures invented to bring out the best in each other.   But after the competition is over, after the vision (or has not) been achieved, it is one’s sense of purpose that draws you further, that compels you to set a new vision. 149
9. Is vision is multi-faceted?  Yes!! They may span these and more:

1.       Material facets (as where we want to live,  and how much money we want in the bank)

2.       Personal facets such as health, freedom, and being true to ourselves

3.       Service facets such as helping others or contributing to the state of knowledge in a field.

It takes courage to hold visions that are not in the social mainstream.   It is exactly that courage to take a stand for one’s vision that distinguishes people with high levels of personal mastery.



10. Even when the visions are clear, when we are acutely aware of the gaps between our visions and reality, we often have great difficulty talking about our visions. The energy for the creative process comes from this gap.  The gap become clear  when we articulate and becoming committed to our vision and seeing currently reality more clearly.  Without the two and particularly without experiencing the gap we do not experience the creative energy to move closer to our vision.  It is dynamic.  It is a force at play.  It is to stretch it and the resolution in the stretch helps us move along.  It is a resolving-advancing structure. 150
11. Still, creative tension often leads to feelings or emotions associated with anxiety, such as sadness, discouragement, hopelessness, or worry. This happens when people easily confuse these emotions with creative tensions.   These “negative” emotions that may arise are what we call emotional tension.   We may feel a strong urge to lower our vision.   The dynamics of relieving emotional tension are insidious because they can operate unnoticed.   In organizations, goals erode because of low tolerance for emotional tension.   Nobody wants to be the messenger of bad news.   The easiest path is to just pretend there is no bad news. 151
12. It is not what the vision is; it is what the vision does. Mastery of creative tension transforms the way one views “failure”.   Failure is simply, a shortfall, evidence of the gap.   It is an opportunity for learning about inaccurate pictures of current reality, about strategies that didn’t work as expected, about the clarity of the vision.   A mistake is an event, the full benefit of which has not yet been turned to your advantage. 154
13. We are not so much drawn to what we want to create as we are repelled by what we have, from our current reality. The current reality is, for many of us, the enemy.   We fight against what is.   By this logic, the deeper the fear, the more we abhor what is, the more “motivated” we are to change.   This leads to the mistaken belief that fundamental change requires a threat for survival.   Though widespread, this theory of change is a dangerous oversimplification.   Mastery of creative tension brings out a capacity for perseverance and patience. 154
14. Commitment to the truth Mastery of creative tension leads to a fundamental shift in our posture towards reality.   Current reality becomes an ally not the enemy.
15. Taking from point 14 above, most of us see current reality as an enemy. This is made worse, when we learn to rely on our concepts of reality more than our observations.   It is more convenient to assume the reality is similar to our preconceived ideas than to freshly observe what we have before our eyes.   This is the discipline of mental models.   Both of these disciplines are equally vital to generative creative tension. 155
16. We harbour deep beliefs contrary to our visions.   We all have a “dominant belief that we are not able to fulfill our desires”. Very often, these beliefs are below the level of conscious awareness.   Where did these beliefs come from?   It is possible that it is an inevitable by-product of growing up.   Thus the closer we come to achieving our vision, the more our beliefs pull us away from it.   Three strategies we tend to use for coping with this are:

§  Let our visions erode

§  Conflict manipulation, in which we try to manipulate ourselves onto greater effort toward what we want by creating artificial conflict such as focusing on avoiding what we don’t want.   The tragedy is that these people come to believe that only through being in a state of continual anxiety and fear can they be successful.   Even when they achieve their goals, they immediately begin worrying about losing what they have gained.

§  The strategy of willpower – we simply “psych ourselves up” – to overpower all forms of resistance to achieving our goals.   The problems with this are many, but they may hardly be noticed focused narrowly on “success”.   Firstly there is little economy of means – we act without leverage.   They keep looking for “fires to put out”.   Second there are often considerable unintended consequences.   The master of willpower finds that the same doesn’t quite turn the trick at home.

For most of us, beliefs change gradually, as we accumulate new experiences – as we develop our personal mastery.

17. If personal mastery will not develop so long as we hold dis-empowering beliefs, and the beliefs will change only as we experience our mastery, how may we begin to alter the deeper structures of our lives? Here’s a simple yet profound strategy for dealing with structural conflict: telling the truth.  People often want a formula, a technique, something tangible that can apply to solve the problem.  But in fact, being committed to the truth is far more powerful than any technique.  This means a relentless willingness to root out the ways we limit or deceive ourselves from seeing what is, and to continually challenge our theories of why things are the way they are.  Once we can see and name them, they no longer have the same hold on us. 159
18. Do people with high levels of personal mastery have the ability to accomplish extraordinary complex tasks with grace and ease?  How do they do it? Implicit in the practice of personal mastery is another dimension of the mind, the subconscious.  It is through this, we deal with complexity.

Think back to the time when we first started to learn to walk.  We might not remember how much trouble we took to make the first step, but watching a new baby trying to do so would give us some idea.  Yet, we now do it effortlessly (someone once said that if we only learned to walk when we were adults, we would have given up much sooner).  This entire complex activity (another example, learning how to drive the car) is now coordinated without our conscious awareness.  As we “learn” the skills required of the task, the whole activity gradually shifts from conscious attention to subconscious control.

What distinguishes people with high levels of personal mastery is they have developed a higher level of rapport between their normal awareness and their subconscious – have never given careful thought to how we mastered skills.  What most of us exploit haphazardly, they approach as a discipline.  Visions are fuel for the subconscious as food is for our stomachs.

19. How do we work productively with the subconscious? In our normal highly active state of mind, the subconscious is deluged with a welter of contradictory thoughts and feelings.  In a quieter state of mind (through contemplative prayer, or other methods of simply “quieting” the subconscious e.g. regular meditative practices), when we then focus on something of particular importance, some aspect of our vision, the subconscious is undistracted.  It is then highly subject to direction and conditioning – and takes on special significance to the subconscious. 164
20. What else do people with high personal mastery do to focus their subconscious? Making clear choices and focusing on the results (not the “process” or means they assume are necessary to achieve that result) allow the subconscious to be brought fully into play.

For most of us, not focusing on the “process” is not as easy.  As soon as we think of some important goal, almost immediately we think of all the reasons why it will be hard to achieve it.  While this is very helpful for thinking through alternative strategies for achieving our goals, these thoughts crowd out our focus on the outcomes.  We must work at learning how to separate what we truly want, from what we think we need to do in order to achieve it.  When we are unclear between interim and more intrinsic (vision – the “deeper” issues lying behind the goal) goals, the subconscious has no way of prioritizing and focusing.

21. Is there anything else? Yes, commitment to the truth.  This is important for developing subconscious rapport.  For the same reasons lie-detectors work, deceiving ourselves of the current reality creates distracting input to the subconscious.  Also it prevents the subconscious from having accurate information about where we are relative to our vision.  The principle of creative tension recognizes that the subconscious operates best when it is focused clearly on our vision and our current reality. 165
22. So we have all the pieces, what is next? Having cleared through all the above, we are now set to:

  • Focus the subconscious through imagery and visualization – “Mental Rehearsal” of complex feats has become routine psychological training for diverse professional performers (think world class swimmers & runners)
  • Knowing what you want and a genuine caring for a desired outcome – the deep feeling of it being the “right” (and not just ‘keeping up with the Joneses’) towards which to aspire.  The subconscious seems especially receptive to goals in line with our deeper aspirations and values.


23. Integrate reason and intuition The ancient story of Sufi.  People with high levels of personal mastery do not set out to integrate reason and intuition.  It happens naturally.  However, in management, intuition is often opposed to rationality.  This mainly arose out of the conflict experienced between intuition and linear, non-systemic thinking.  As managers gain facility with systems thinking as an alternative language, they find that many of their intuitions become explicable! 167-9
24. Seeing our connectedness to the world A neglected dimension of personal growth lies in “closing the loop” – in continually discovering how apparent external forces are actually interrelated with our own actions.  For most of us, this closing of loop was arrested sometime early in life (nature is a unique teacher on this aspect, and as we distanced ourselves from it, we lost an important lesson!).  As we get older, our rate of discovery slows down and we see fewer and fewer links between our actions and external forces – a kind of optical delusion that we, our thoughts and feelings are separate from the rest.  This is increasing connectedness is one the subtlest aspects of personal mastery (Einstein). 170
25. Compassion Most of the structures (inter-relationships) within which we operate are invisible and are of our own creation.  As people “see” more of the systems within which they operate, and as they understand more clearly the pressures influencing one another, they naturally feel less so as victims or find fault with one another.  Instead, they gradually develop more compassion and empathy. 171
26. Commitment to the whole The sense of connectedness and compassion characteristic of individuals of higher personal mastery, naturally leads to a broader vision.    Without it, all the subconscious visualizing in the world is deeply self-centred – simply a way to get what I want.  Individuals committed to a vision beyond their self-interest find they have energy not available when pursuing narrower goals, as well as organizations that tap this level of commitment. 171


  1. Remember no one can be forced to develop his or her personal mastery.  It is guaranteed to backfire.  It is a matter of personal choice.
  2. Leaders can work relentlessly to foster a climate in which the principles of personal mastery are practiced in daily life.  That means building an organization where it is safe for people to create visions, where inquiry and commitment to the truth are the norm, and where challenging the status quo is expected – especially when the status quo includes obscuring aspects of current reality that people seek to avoid.
  3. The most positive action involve working to develop all five disciplines in concert (developing a more systemic worldview, learning how to reflect on tacit assumptions, expressing one’s vision and listening to others’ visions and joint inquiry into different people’s views of current reality).
  4. The core leadership strategy is simple: be a model.  Actions always speak louder than words.  There is nothing more powerful you can do to encourage others in their quest for personal mastery than to be serious in your own quest!

PersonaltoShared Vision