Recall a time when you have attended a presentation and thought “I get that.” Then, after hearing the speaker, you try to relay the content to a colleague or a friend only to realize that you strugle to articulate the full message. That moment where you struggled is usually a sign that you have not mastered the material.

Such experiences demonstrate just how easy it is to mistake familiarity for mastery. For good reasons, many of us think we have mastered things we haven’t. We’re continuously exposed to content and it’s all too easy to say, “I knew that”. We spend a lot of time at conferences, workshops, and lectures. We meet new people, get introduced to new ideas, and learn about emerging trends within our industry. Things often repeat themselves, they become familiar to us and we say to ourselves, “I know this” and switch off. We confuse familiarity with mastery.

High performers hijack the ‘illusion of familiarity’ and understand that mastery requires ongoing effort.


There are many skill levels, ranging from beginner to master. Few people can be said to have mastered anything. Research tells us not only that we are hard-wired to make errors in judgement, but that we are poor at judging our own learning. Cognitive Scientist have also taught us that the effects are at their worst when presenters do a good job of distilling complex ideas into digestible chunks.  So, the better the job of the presenter, the more likely you are to think you know the content and switch off.

In our work, we educate high performers to take a different approach. To increase the value of the time spent attending events, you need a system or process in place to integrate new ideas and concepts into your workplace. High performers hijack the ‘illusion of familiarity’ and understand that mastery requires ongoing effort.

Before we talk about how high performers integrate learning into their workplaces, it’s important to talk about the word hijacked. We’re all susceptible to cognitive traps, blind spots, hidden biases and mental hijacks. I like the word hijack because it best illustrates how automatic processes in our brains get in the way of our thinking. One of the most popular examples of a mental hijack is Confirmation Bias.

For example, in North America, if you ask drivers to rate themselves, most people rank themselves above average. It’s statistically impossible for everyone to be above average, yet most North Americans rate themselves as above average in most skill categories. This tendency to think our skill level is higher than most is just one bias in a long list of cognitive traps that often hijack our brains.

At The Covenant Group, we teach high performers approaches to developing radical focus and continuous improvement. The goal is to work with entrepreneurs and professionals to teach them how to minimize the effects mental hijacks have on their performance.

Of all the cognitive biases that exist, we have come to realize the importance of distinguishing between familiarity and mastery. Recent research by Kardas and O’Brien (2018) has found that the more people watch others perform a task, the more confident they are in their own ability to perform that task. We overestimate our competence simply by watching a video. It may seem obvious that watching someone perform a task won’t improve performance, but the cognitive traps of our brain convince us that we will be better at performing the task after having observed it being performed several times. These mental hijacks steer us towards confounding familiarity and mastery.

How then do we avoid the trap of mistaking familiarity for mastery?


1. High performers understand that learning is improved by testing.

We all need reliable reference points. In our approach, we follow a model of intention, process, and measurement. We teach professionals to start with intention and commit to measurement. Measurement allows you to get feedback on your performance and limits the possibility that mental hijacks will affect your activity.

2. We learn best when we have an instructor or coach.

We describe our work as educating and coaching professionals and entrepreneurs to achieve and sustain peak performance, as they define it. We use a coaching model because we know that having a coach or judge improves performance. Having someone who can give you feedback, hold you accountable, and identify potential blind spots goes a long way in improving performance. 

3. We learn by practicing and perfecting.

What matters most is that you take time to practice and perfect the skills you care about. No one gets to the top of their game without practice. Whenever you hear a new idea or concept, schedule time in your calendar to either implement the idea or practice whatever the skill may be. When you apply structure and discipline to your learning you get closer to mastery.

4. We learn by testing and retrieval. 

Having learned something means you can retrieve it at a moment’s notice. I often explain concepts to clients and I sometimes forget step three of four-step process. This is a sure sign I haven’t mastered the concept. This experience tells me I need to practice so I can fully retrieve the information next time. The more I’m able to retrieve the relevant information when I need it, the more I have mastered the material.

5. Most learning that takes our performance to another level requires effort.

Learning that improves performance involves struggle. It also involves some level of frustration. If you find yourself comfortable most of the time, you’re likely not pushing your boundaries. Learning that improves performance challenges us.  It requires us to move out of our comfort zones.