Success Versus Mastery

Magic superstar Brad Nelson meditates on the fleeting hollowness of success, the lasting rewards of mastery, and how he went from chasing the first to seeking the second.

My first love was golf. I remember cherishing the set of children’s clubs my father bought for me, but I was always in love with his Big Bertha driver. It just always looked so powerful to me. Even the sound it made when it made contact with the ball was exhilarating. More than anything, I wanted to grow tall enough to use it.

Eventually that happened, and once it did I was launching ball after ball off the tee. You should have seen me, I was an animal! Soon after he saw my affinity for the club, my father gifted it to me, and all I wanted to do from there on out was practice with it. Hours of my life spent on the driving range until I was driving 300 yards down the middle every time. Eventually my high school coach took an interest in me but wanted to direct my attention towards the short game. Spending time in the sand traps wasn’t something I was willing to do, and while I was always a decent golfer, I’ll never know if I was a great one due to this.

Summed up, my golf career was merely a test of dedication that I failed. Even though I spent countless hours on my craft, I could never get myself to truly work on my shortcomings. Instead, I would always lean on what I was already good at in hopes that would make me happy. I chose instant gratification over true mastery time and time again.

Golf taught me that working towards being great at something wasn’t glamorous. I knew this all along, but sadly I lied to myself just long enough to never really try to reach my full potential. This very same struggle still rages on, but recently I experienced yet another wake-up call. One that hopefully didn’t come too late.

Hall of Fame season used to be fun for me. At first, I got to root on my favorite pros who were on the ballot. If elected, I got to watch their acceptance speeches and at the time there really wasn’t much video content. That’s why it was always such a special treat. Eventually I got the privilege to vote for them. You know, be a part of history! That was just so cool, and I rooted for them even harder. Then I even got onto the illustrious list, but everything did not play out as I expected it to.

I’m not going to lie – last year’s Hall of Fame season wasn’t easy for me. I had to eat a lot of pride, but also a large heap of unexpected crap. It was messy, and frustrating, and really took a toll on me. I learned a lot about myself and even more about my priorities.

I used to think that getting into the Hall of Fame would be my proudest accomplishment as, to me, it would be the culmination of all my successes. All those hours spent grinding away at my computer, on airplanes, and in hotels condensed into a ring wrapped around my finger. A ring that when looked at would remind me that it was all worth it. But why? What made this achievement mean so much to me? After months I still couldn’t find the answer to this question, but luckily it found me. And right where I left it – in my father’s garage.

Success is a complex subject. It’s a metric, yes, but also a state of mind. It creates inner peace, but also can stagnate growth if one isn’t careful. In essence, success is a moment. One that can ripple through time but will always fleeting by nature. The pursuit for it will never end. The lust for it can, though.

What does winning mean to you?

A question I’ve been asked many times throughout my life and one I’ve answered in multiple different ways. As a young competitor, winning meant everything to me. It was a compulsive pursuit for success with no real understanding of what it would achieve for me. It meant everything to me, because the possibilities felt endless. Evan Erwin might put me on The Magic Show. Maybe these good results would turn into a writing gig on one of the big websites. Maybe I could get on one of those sweet pro teams! I was so excited because I had no understanding of what a successful finish was worth besides the “X” amount of dollars and Pro Points.

As time went on, the question became boring. I had already Top 8’ed many events, wrote for Star City Games, and was on the best team in the world. Honestly, winning didn’t mean much to me, as I already had everything I wanted and enough successes were coming in that it didn’t matter. I became content, egotistical, and ultimately extremely lazy. The feeling of being successful completely consumed me.

Then came a string of bad finishes lasting eighteen months. During that time, I lost most of my confidence, became an extremely irritable person, and lost all sight of who I was and why I played Magic in the first place. It took more time to break these weak and selfish habits than it did to form them. During that time I was easily the worst version of myself and one I’m still ashamed of to this day.

As I was tumbling downward, fear kicked in and it was time for me to grab onto something. Anything. No longer did I think I was capable of winning matches, so I started to explore other avenues in the game. I was still producing content, which was nice, but I started looking into commentary and streaming as other possible avenues.

I did this for a while but never really got into it. I mean, it was fine, but not what I wanted to be doing. I just didn’t know what I was capable of doing. All I knew was that I was an imposter and eventually my audience would realize the fraud I had become and stop respecting my opinion. I’d then be forced to move home with my tail between my legs, knowing that I had failed.

Then I watched the very first small-field World Championship. It was the best of the best and many of the people I used to spar with. At the time, I had fallen all the way to Silver status and was having to find my qualification on a case-by-case basis. I was nowhere near the caliber of player that they were. For some reason, though, that didn’t matter when coverage started. I didn’t look on with jealousy or spite. In that moment I realized what winning meant to me.


Winning meant absolutely nothing to me when I saw that field of players start Round 1. This came to me as a shock as I was extremely bitter up until this point, because if this tournament launched a year earlier, I would have been invited due to my early success. It didn’t bother me, though, because I knew that I was no longer as good as I once was. Just like my pro status slipped, so did my ability to play the game on a high level. And in that moment, all I wanted was to get back what I previously lost.

This is the first time I became a student of mastery. I quickly realigned my priorities and began working on getting my game back. No, getting my game to an even higher level than it previously was. I didn’t want to just be good, I wanted to be great. The streaming ended and so did the commentary. I no longer had time for it if I were to completely dedicate myself to becoming the best Magic player I could be.

Success is winning a tournament, but mastery is knowing it means nothing if you can’t do it again and again and again.

It took me a long time to realize this, but once I did, the results started rolling in. I was once again a successful Magic player, but no longer did I rest on my laurels. Instead, I continued working hard, understanding that past accomplishments did not yield advantages in future events. I stayed humble, but more importantly, I stayed hungry. I worked hard and was disciplined for years until I finally earned a seat at the World Championships.

I then went back to that tournament again, and again, and again.

Last year, I sadly lost sight of this mindset when it was finally time for me to be on the Hall of Fame ballot. Being inducted meant everything to me. Day after day, I scoured social media hoping people would talk about the stats that made me look good, and day after day I was left disappointed. I became frustrated, bitter, and, you know, all-around salty. In reality, it should’ve meant very little to me. Not because it’s a hollow achievement, but because the celebration of success should not be yearned for nor should one feel entitled to it – both of which I felt.

I felt this way because deep down I didn’t think I was capable of achieving it the “honest” way. There was a chance that my previous accomplishments were enough if things broke my way, but deep down I knew my current achievements weren’t enough for this awesome accolade. I wasn’t a Hall of Fame player and I knew it.

Not much has changed in that department over the year, except for my mindset. I’m not afraid of missing Hall of Fame, nor am I afraid of talking about it. Last year, I buried my head in the sand hoping for the best, but this year I have a completely different mindset. I don’t need Hall of Fame. I just need to be the best Magic player I can be and let the cards fall as they may. Ultimately, that’s all I can control, so I owe it to myself to do so.

I know the allure of success is appealing, as I’m also aware that it’s easy for me to say this from my ivory tower. I reap the benefits from years of successful finishes while many of you think that you’re still on a quest for your first. That’s not entirely true, though. You’ve all had many successes in your Magic career; it’s just that the bar has been continuously raised each time. Some of you still want to win your first FNM, while others do that on the regular. Some of you want to finally make Day 2 of a Pro Tour, while others just want to earn their seat to Day 1.

You may feel like success constantly eludes you, but the truth is that you allowed the idea of success to consume you. Success is always relative and always fleeting. The pursuit of mastery is not. A near-miss will crush one lusting for success, while a student of mastery will be motivated by it.

Mastery is knowing that I’ll eventually get that ring, and when I do, it will not mean anything to me unless I’m able to get it again, and again, and again.

It’s time to get in that sand trap.