Self-Mastery: The Origin of Excellence

Buck Sia is a celebrated Cebuano architect, the founder and principal of Zubu Design Associates (Zubu DA). Sia is the recipient of the 2019 Good Design Awards (Red Award) for Placemaking. In the same year, Zubu DA in collaboration with renowned designer Kenneth Cobonpue made it to the World Architecture Festival (WAF) shortlist for the Cor Jesu Oratory in Cebu. The said collaboration stirred controversy among some Filipino architects. A controversy that Buck was born to conquer no less. It was also the birthplace of our friendship and mentorship. 

Sia posing at the 2019 Good Design Awards Night in Makati after receiving his Red Award trophy (an Arturo Luz original that is inspired by a paper clip).

Sia and Cobonpue prepping a night before they face the WAF jury at the 12th World Architecture Festival Awards Programme in Amsterdam.

The first lesson –actually it was a dare –Buck gave me and continues to challenge me to this day, was to practice self-mastery. One of our past times (imagine two busy people taking a break) is tossing difficult questions to each other and self-mastery is one constant topic. Almost two years after these hyper intellectual conversations or a.k.a. critical thinking exercises (and a bunch of crazy twists and turns during the pandemic) I finally reached a deeper understanding of what self-mastery is. This is very special and valuable lesson, and I strongly believe those of you who are also seeking self, and all sorts of improvements will see its value just as much! That is why, I was so motivated to do this interview with Buck on Self-Mastery and share it to all of you!


Story by: Nana Cabales
Photos courtesy of: Buck Sia and Zubu DA

Nana: What is self-mastery? 

Buck: It is basically the development of your craft; a development of yourself; and very objectively a development of your skill set. And from such development there should be a certain goal or a target you aim to achieve. This is something I want to challenge as well, when you are in a certain profession, whether as an accountant, in sales, [or like us] architects and designers: this is not just about a job or about making money. Because I strongly believe if you really want success –which by the way, I define success as what comes later or a product, an output, an end result –self-mastery is very crucial especially in the foundation and in your evolution as a designer and as a person.

Cor Jesu Oratory 
Mandaue City, Cebu
12th World Architecture Festival Shortlist for Religion - Completed Buildings Category

Why is Self-Mastery very crucial in design or as you always say, in everything that we do and are?

Because you get to find yourself. That is why I think it is very crucial. Because as you practice self-mastery you will find yourself not within comfort level [rather] it is when you are pushed to really find and chase after your full potential. It [The absence of self-mastery] is precisely why many of our colleagues or people in general do not find satisfaction in what they do. Because they are not able to really find themselves.

Now when you practice self-mastery and begin to find yourself, you also see that all of us in everything that we do have frustrations especially when we are just starting. That is when we realize that “we do not have it” and that humbles us a lot. We must be humble enough to admit to ourselves that we lack and begin the challenge of skills, craft, and self-improvement. And I think I have that gift –a strong and constant self-evaluation, always thinking and making ways to get there. It is a humbling and crucial experience for me.

For example, when you are in the [design] profession the foundation really is to have a mentor. But mentoring is not linear and there is so much to it than just receiving. Being mentored is not a one-way street and self-mastery is also happening there. Now to you being mentored, you must do your part. You must commit to learning. And you must commit to applying [the learnings] as well. Application most of the time is where we lack or the one that is missing. You really must learn how to apply because when you are applying you will experience a very essential part of the process that you have to really go through first –and must also learn to admit –and that is: you are not good yet and that you really suck! And that is very defining for me as a person. The moment you experience this is also when you will know where you really want to go. And that is why self-mastery, a two-word statement, is very crucial for me!

When I started my organizational transformation, I met Weng[1] . We are very aligned, and she shared something to me: for you to truly know what you want or to surface what you truly want you need a certain part of excellence. Aiming for excellence whether in a personal or organizational level involves a lot of self-mastery. Because [the results of self-mastery are] you will become more self-confident; you will become a contributor; you will become a good decision-maker and risk-taker; and you will become accountable. These are traits that are very crucial to step ahead.  

Every aspect of what you are aspiring to do or the things you want to improve and develop, any kind of skill set, perhaps design or communication, all of it that you chose to prioritize –when you improve, master, and excel [in these things] your purpose will surface. And you will know for sure because you will find yourself spending more energy and time there.

When you improve, master, and excel [in these things] your purpose will surface. And you will know for sure because you will find yourself spending more energy and time there.

As I was listening to you explain I started seeing a picture or diagram of the anatomy of self-mastery and its cycle. And it is clearer to me now that it all starts and re-starts with brutal honesty every time. It always starts with admitting: “I am not good enough yet.”  or “I can be better.”   

Oh, yes! Definitely!

We all have hobbies, right? Now, whatever the chosen hobby is, when you are practicing it you always realize that you are not good enough in the beginning, but you push through because you have a strong interest. And as you pursue it, practicing, mastering, and investing your time into it you start to really improve drastically. That is the cycle. Now the difference in our [design] profession is these improvements are very minute. Improvements are very little in months’ time you must look at it with a sense of a longer time frame. The saddest and most unfortunate part is when you, a designer, become impatient.

The Line Graph
2019 Good Design Awards (Red Award) Winner for Placemaking Category

Now to move forward you must always project a result and persevere with the process. First, be humble, you must know you are not good yet or you can be better; next you identify your interests; then you must prioritize, know that you cannot master everything; apply consistency; then always do honest and critical self-evaluation.

And that is how you excel!


This is only part 1 of 4. Stay tuned for Part 2: Buck Sia on his die-hard passion and stubborn convictions


[1] Ma. Clara Rowena Ebdani Suarez, Certified HeartMath Trainer, Resilience Teacher, Organizational Learning Facilitator, founder of Seeds of Transformation

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