The Making of The 5 Keys to Mastery

In 1987 I read an Esquire magazine article about mastery, by best-selling author George Leonard. During 30 years of teaching the Japanese martial art of Aikido, Leonard observed that students who rose to the top and stayed there did so using five common tools. He called these “the keys to mastery.” Leonard demonstrated his thesis with examples of top professional athletes who reached and maintained peak performance by applying the five keys.

I remember being startled by the implications of this idea and thinking, “Whoa! This guy is onto something!”

In the wake of overwhelming response to the article, Esquire urged Leonard to write a book on the subject. I read Mastery in 1994 and immediately called George. He graciously gave his permission for me to adapt the concept to video.

For 30 years I had made my living as a news and documentary cameraman. Every few years I’d become obsessed with an idea and make a documentary. (See Dave’s biography at

For 27 of those years, my wife Susan Burgess-Lent has been my business partner. (See Susan’s biography at  Together we wrote a business plan and began identifying potential interview subjects. Owning high-end production equipment made it easy to start shooting the program as we looked for a financial partner.
While listening to an interview with singer Koko Taylor on a Washington, D.C. blues station, I heard what I was looking for. I called the station and was put on the line with Coco. She agreed to an interview the following Saturday night after her show at Wolf Trap.

On Thursday I called John Dunlap, Wolf Trap’s PR Director, to find out when Coco would be on stage.  “Sorry, she’s canceled,” he said. 

Disappointed, I asked, “So who else is on the bill?”
“Let’s see. There’s BB King ”

I jumped in. “Can you give me BB’s agent’s number?”

“Are you kidding?” he laughed, “You’ll never get BB King.”

Two nights later, Susan and I were on BB’s fabulous bus, shooting an interview with this amazingly humble man.  He was our first big “get.”

I found Paul Reed Smith on NPR, talking about his passion for making guitars.  Then I heard Carlos Santana say that playing a PRS guitar was like not having a guitar at all – the music just flowed out.  It took some convincing but Paul agreed to an interview.

Once we had a half-dozen subjects on tape, we edited a sales tape entitled The Secrets of Mastery and shopped it to cable networks with no results.  Looking back, I realize that the way to an understanding of how to translate Leonard’s concept of mastery to video was still a mystery to me.  I took a three-year hiatus to produce a documentary in the Balkans called Hotel Macedonia.

In 2002, while continuing my day job as a news cameraman, I pulled The Secrets of Mastery off the back burner, changed the title to The 5 Keys to Mastery, wrote a new business plan, and, most importantly, decided to consciously apply the 5 keys to mastery to THE 5 KEYS TO MASTERY.  Did these techniques really work?  Was I willing to put my faith in them?  They did and I did.  Now we were navigating with clear vision.

Once I had surrendered to the 5 Keys, doors started to open. Big doors. 

Here’s how they work: for example, Key #4 is “Visualize the Outcome.”  I went to Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Tower Records looking for DVDs that fell into the yet-unnamed genre of THE 5 KEYS TO MASTERY. Most of what I liked was distributed by Wellspring Media. I put their logo on my desk - visualizing them as my distributor - and began calling and emailing. Two weeks passed with no results.  I drove to a local video store and asked the manager, “Can you give me the name and number of the person from Wellspring who sells you DVDs?”  I was soon pitching THE 5 KEYS TO MASTERY to Marty Johnson, Wellspring’s East Coast sales rep. Marty, in turn, pitched me to Al Cattabiani, Wellspring’s co-founder and longtime CEO who had recently sold the company.  Within weeks, I had a financial partner to complete production, and Wellspring came aboard as our distributor.

Nils Torvalds - one of my news clients  and a good friend – is the father of Linus Torvalds, inventor of the Linux operating system.  Nils asked Linus to sit down for an hour with Susan and me at his home near Portland, Oregon.  Linus – the “anti-Bill Gates” - is worshipped by computer nerds the world over.  Some predict that in 15-20 years he may be the most famous person in the world.  Now we were definitely “in the zone.”

My daughter Nikole is a snowboarder so I am interested in the sport and watched Kelly Clark win gold at the Salt Lake City Olympics. Nikole interviewed Kelly in Central Park in NYC – bringing home what became my favorite sound bite in the program.

Carlos Santana signed on because Paul Reed Smith was already a part of the project, and Carlos speaks reverently of Paul’s guitars.  Carlos’s participation was, of course, huge.

I met Eric Kandel, Ivana Chubbuck, and Stephen Tobolowsky while shooting documentaries for my clients.  Wendy Rieger is a longtime family friend, and Susan’s colleague at WRC in Washington. Dana Chladek is the wife of my Avid Guru, Thierry Humeau.

My business model for THE 5 KEYS TO MASTERY was Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People,” which sold 10 million copies.

I thought to myself that Steven Covey ‘named that tune’ in 7 notes, while George Leonard named it in 5.  So, I’m visualizing sales of more than 10 million DVDs for THE 5 KEYS TO MASTERY. THE 5 KEYS TO MASTERY was never a matter of if, only of when and how many.
THE 5 KEYS TO MASTERY was 8 years in the making.  Several things kept me going.  Not since my first documentary (Life Without Inside San Quentin) have I known so viscerally and with such certainty that what I have in my hands is a powerful force.  And that whoever it touches will be lifted and transformed – to the good.

I believe that George’s articulation of the 5 Keys is an enormous accomplishment. And when it is fully understood and widely adopted, he will be remembered alongside the most celebrated human beings of our time.


Postscript: George Leonard was a Mill Valley neighbor when Susan and I lived in California. I’d see him jogging past our house, dining on sushi at the Samurai restaurant, saying hello at the post office.  I was keenly aware of his accomplishments and read many of his books and articles.  I’d see him and think to myself, “Now that’s what I want to look like when I’m his age.” And “I would love be to be involved in a project with him.” The first goal may be unreasonable for me, but Key #4 delivered the second one beyond my wildest dreams.

David Lent
7 November 2005