The Three Stages of Skill: Magic, Craft, Mundane

Last night I wrote about how being a maker can improve your experience as a consumer. I want to take the same idea into how we talk about new skills.

I think there are three fundamental mindsets or stages of relating to skilled work. To illustrate those three, let’s talk about an example from my own life: how I learned to use computers.



When I first started my job, everything done with computers was magical. The design pieces and software programs that my coworkers were producing using computers were mysterious and deeply impressive to me. I did not know the theory or the practice that undergirded all of the digital products that I used in everyday life, and that ignorance only enhanced my sense that computer skills were magical skills reserved only for the elite.

What’s useful about this stage? This stage is what captures your interest and fascination with a skill. It shows you all of the great final products which a skill can produce – enough to draw you into learning that production process.


Over time, through trial and error, I learned how to use my computer to produce many of the same things that I had previously thought magical – webpages, graphic designs, edited videos. I entered the craftsmanship phase of understanding of computer skills. I still had a lot to learn, but I was now a practitioner and participant in the skill working to master it. The skill no longer scared me or awed me, but it intrigued me enough to draw my time and interest.

What’s useful about this stage? Your practical need for knowledge at this stage will hone your mind to sharpness and help you detect the patterns that make up skill-learning, while also helping you find better ways of doing things.


Eventually, using my computer to put together graphic designs, web pages, or even scripts will become dead simple for me to do. Like many of my developer colleagues currently, I will come to view the creation and automation of complex computer tasks as something to be taken for granted. My learning will hit a plateau, and I will either choose to go on or choose to remain. If I remain where I am in the understanding of the skill, it will become just another mundane part of the background of my life.

What’s useful about this stage? Mundane-ness (or routine) is not necessarily a bad thing. Riding bikes, walking, eating – all of these are almost automatic trained skills that we don’t think about or “practice.” When you reach this stage, you have either hit the ceiling of the skill level you really need (relative “mastery”), or you have ceased to feed your creative fires as a craftsman. This failure to feed curiosity is one reason this stage can be the end of the skill-learning cycle for many people. Avoid it!


Do you see how these ways of viewing skills break down? They’re stages we all go through, regardless of our places in our careers or the type of skill involved. Everyone views a skill as magic before they encounter it. Everyone engages with the craft of a skill if they put in enough work. And all crafts can become mundane when their practitioners reach a plateau.

These mindsets of skill rotate in a circular process. You can easily revert from the mundane to the magical mindset if you suddenly thrust yourself into a new level of challenge with a skill. You can also easily go from the magical mindset to the craftsman mindset by actively practicing the skill. And you can find the sharpness of the craftsman mindset dulled to the mundane.

Try to situate yourself in the craftsman space as much as possible and for as long as possible. Here is where the creative magic and discipline of routine can coexist, leading to all kinds of benefits in work and life.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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