Frontiers of Psychotherapist Development

At the Bleeding Edge of Development, Reaping Benefit for Our Clients.

Tag: excellence

Mastery Learning for Therapists: Figure Out the What Before the How

“I always wanted to be someone. Now I think I should have been more specific.”

~Comedian Lily Tomlin

One of the most rudimentary, yet the most difficult thing to do in your professional development is to be specific.

As a culture, we are obsessed with “How to’s” . Do a search on Amazon, and you’d yield close to 100,000 self-help books like “How to Change Your Life in the Next 15 minutes,” the classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” and “How to Be Happy,” etc.

The unresolved problem is, we fail to identify What to work on before the How

Skipping this step of well-defining and specifying the component parts of what to work on that has leverage on improving our situation is like trying to be a writer without knowing how to spell. Sal khan, founder of Khan Academy shines a light at the inherent issue:  We go after complex techniques and so-called advanced skills, and lose sight of  working at the grammar i.e., fundamentals.

Sal speaks on this issue regarding standardised testing in education:

On that test, maybe I get a 75 percent, maybe you get a 90 percent, maybe you get a 95 percent. And even though the test identified gaps in our knowledge, I didn’t know 25 percent of the material. Even the A student, what was the five percent they didn’t know? 

Even though we’ve identified the gaps, the whole class will then move on to the next subject, probably a more advanced subject that’s going to build on those gaps. It might be logarithms or negative exponents. And that process continues, and you immediately start to realize how strange this is. I didn’t know 25 percent of the more foundational thing, and now I’m being pushed to the more advanced thing. And this will continue for months, years, all the way until at some point, I might be in an algebra class or trigonometry class and I hit a wall. And it’s not because algebra is fundamentally difficult or because the student isn’t bright. It’s because I’m seeing an equation and they’re dealing with exponents and that 30 percent that I didn’t know is showing up. And then I start to disengage.

To appreciate how absurd that is, imagine if we did other things in our life that way. Say, home-building

So we bring in the contractor and say, “We were told we have two weeks to build a foundation. Do what you can.”

So they do what they can. Maybe it rains. Maybe some of the supplies don’t show up. And two weeks later, the inspector comes, looks around, says, “OK, the concrete is still wet right over there, that part’s not quite up to code … I’ll give it an 80 percent.”

In our field of psychotherapy, with over 400 models therapy, there are so many aspects to learn and get distracted by. Again, here is the problem : We lose sight and remain vague, abstract, and overwhelmed in our definition on what to work on. Instead, we go broad, and sacrifice deep. And when we go deep, we go into rabbit holes that make us none the wiser.

I worry we are barking up the wrong tree. We work on things that have suboptimal leverage on impacting our interpersonal therapeutic skills. Instead, we think that content knowledge will get us to there.

Here’s what Carl Rogers has to say about this, almost 78 years ago:

“The experience of every clinic would bear out the viewpoint that a full knowledge of psychiatric and psychological information, with a brilliant intellect capable of applying this knowledge, is of itself no guarantee of therapeutic skill.” (Rogers, 1939, in The Clinical Treatment of the Problem Child)

NO GUARANTEE of therapeutic skill?? Good grief. Then what should I be working on? Here’s my best estimates at this point in time. It’s not in the domain of content or clinical knowledge. It’s got something more to do with process knowledge and conditional knowledge. (See my previous post on this topic, Three Types of Knowledge).


Before we can adopt a philosophy of mastery learning, we first have to learn the art of being specific.

I remember during my primary school days, when we were first introduced to science lessons, we were given a little magnifying glass. Armed with this little contraption, I took it around with me during recess. We ended up skipping meals, and ran to the edge of the fences to burn things. Leaves, paper, even our textbooks or whatever we could get our hands on. The simple trick, as we applied our science lesson, was to find the sweet spot and focus the sun’s rays and slowly ignite the object. To discover smoke and fire. What a primitive delight.

magnifying glass

Figure out what to work on that has the biggest leverage to improve your performance before you begin working at your craft.

Fast forward a few decades, we are still playing with a different sort of magnifying glass. Scott Miller and I to created what we call a “Taxonomy of Deliberate Practice Activites (TDPA; Chow & Miller, 2015*). This is aimed at guiding practitioners and supervisors in the art of leveraging and being specific. Stay tuned. In an upcoming APA book, edited by David Prescott, Cynthia Maeschalck, and Scott Miller, I’ve got a chapter related to the topic that speaks about the taxonomy, as well as  issues on the practice and the practicals of deliberate practice.


Here’s a question you can begin to ask yourself: “At this point of my professional development, What is the one thing I can to work on to get better at my craft?” Hint: Seek the advice of someone who is willing to know you work, and go back to the fundamentals.

Best wishes, 

Daryl Chow, MA, Ph.D. (Psych)


*You can email me at  if you would like to receive a copy of the taxonomy. 


Scenius vs. Genius



Who Are These Chefs hanging out with Brian Eno?

Not only does his brilliance shine in his collaborations,  he’s also good at coming up with words.

Heard of the term “ambient music“? He came up with it.

Heard of the word “Scenius”? Probably not. He came up with it.

Genius is individual, scenius is communal

Brian Eno, highly acclaimed ambient musician and producer of such major artists as Talking Heads, David Bowie, and U2, coined this term to debunk the notion of genius.. He explains,

 “I was (previously) encouraged to believe that there were a few great figures like Picasso and Kandinsky, Rembrandt and Giotto and so on who sort-of appeared out of nowhere and produced artistic revolution. As I looked at art more and more, I discovered that that wasn’t really a true picture. What really happened was that there was sometimes very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people – some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists, people who were fashionable and knew what the hip things were – all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent (emphasis mine). And out of that ecology arose some wonderful work…I thought that originally those few individuals who’d survived in history – in the sort-of ’Great Man’ theory of history – they were called ’geniuses’. But what I thought was interesting was the fact that they all came out of a scene that was very fertile and very intelligent.” (Eno, 2009)

Eno’s point is to help us look beyond ourselves as standalones, but rather as individuals within context that can facilitate creativity and growth.


U2, with the man behind some of their best albums.

Transporting from music to therapy, while solitary deliberate practice  is necessary, it isn’t sufficient. If the voluminous amount of self-help books published each year is a reflection of our appetite, we are certainly persuaded that we got to “make it on our own.”  The pursuit of excellence is not a solo endeavor. As such, the development of a psychotherapist is not an individual enterprise.

Here’s How:

1. Surround yourself with people who inspires and brings life to you. Seek them out;

2. Open yourself to the scrutiny of watching your therapy session recordings. Do likewise with your colleagues;

3. Seek out therapists (maybe even non-therapists) whom you admire. Talk to them. Find out what inspires them, and what sort of sweat, blood and tears they go through to get good at their craft. Don’t just scrutinise their outputs (i.e., performance). Zoom in on their inputs (i.e., practice routines, systems, what they read, what they work on, how they work on it).

I am a better version of me when I’m surrounded by a community of folks who add life to life. These people don’t have to think like you, share the same ideas, or may not even be likable by others. If we all think alike, no one thinks at all.

We can’t change those who are around us, but we can change who are around us.

Seek out to be part of an ecology of talent – a scenius community that fosters excellence. No therapist is an island.

So I would like to know how do you become part of  such a forward moving community? How do you get to surround yourself with people who draw out the best in you?


Daryl Chow, Ph.D.


Further Readings:

1. Check out one of my favorite thinkers of our times, Kevin Kelly’s take on Brian Eno’s notion of on Scenius. If you want to step out of the world of therapy and take a glimpse of what the future hold, listen to this guy. He’s one of the pioneers of the internet. I highly recommend his latest book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future

2. If you are trying to break out of your comfort zone and put your work out these in the work, check out Austin Kleon’s book, Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered . He also wrote about the idea of Scenius in this book, &

3. The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert PerformanceDeeply embedded in  this seminal edited handbook , there a good chapter on this topic of the role of social encouragement in the development of expertise. Much of the ideas on deliberate practice in various fields are illuminated in this handbook as well.


The Pursuit of Excellence is Not the Pursuit of Perfection

the pursuit of perfection vs the pursuit of excellence

“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”

-Niels Bohr, Danish physicist and Nobel Prize winner.

The pursuit of getting better at our craft in therapy requires us to make fine distinctions. One of them is to make the distinction between  the pursuit of excellence vs. the pursuit of perfection.

The pursuit of perfection has no room for mistakes. Failing = Failure. The pursuit of excellence treats errors and blunders as grist for the mill. It is where the ordinary magic of growth happens. Failing ≠ Failure.

The pursuit of perfection is rigid, exacting, clinical and cold. The pursuit of excellence is flexible, warm and humanistic in the emotionally charged interpersonal encounter of two persons coming together to co-create a better life for one party. In turn, the giver is moved to be a better person in return as well.

The pursuit of perfection is self-centered. The pursuit of excellance is others-centered. It uses the self in service of the other. It doesn’t use the other to enlarge the self.

The pursuit of perfection sees therapy as a performance. As if held within the judging gaze of another, it’s ego is at stake, thus it confines to it’s comfort zone. The pursuit of excellance seeks to re-form the status quo, seeking to reach beyond our comfort zone.

The pursuit of perfection suffers chronic anxiety. The pursuit of excellence embraces uncertainty, and accepts the uncontrollable force of life circumstances. It treats the turn of each event as teachable moments for the inner life. Its antidote to worry is to believe that the most perfect thing to do is to embrace imperfection.

The pursuit of perfection wears a fixed mindset hat. The pursuit of excellence wears a  growth mindset hat, which promotes receptivity in learning, and learning to take feedback seriously and not personally.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the pursuit of perfection thinks it is pursuing excellence.

May we make room for the pursuit of excellence in the new year ahead!

– Daryl Chow, Ph.D.

*imperfect image above hand drawn with Paper & Pencil  on iOS device