Mastery - Open to all, attained by few

One line summary:

Anyone can become a master but your burning sense of destiny must come from within and the practice of nurturing it will take all that you can give and more!

Mastery Book


I guess I've been fascinated by genius all my life. The seemingly effortless artistry of Picasso or Mozart, the daunting intelligence of Einstein and Da Vinci, the world-changing impact of Fleming or Galileo. Measured against these titans I've always felt my contribution to civilisation to be negligible, at best. I know that I'm not alone in this insignificance but still; such outstanding achievement feels far out of reach.

So I picked up Mastery by Robert Greene with the expectation that I would finish the book feeling much the same way. Armed with a few extra tips and tactics, sure, but still convinced that destiny wasn't on my side. More fool me. Greene does a pretty fine job of debunking this line of thought and the assumptions behind it: that success is all down to genes or fortuitous circumstance or knowing the right people or being in the right place at the right time.

His argument is that mastery, and by extension genius, can be explained (and replicated) by the application of a few simple strategies:

  1. Follow your inclination
  2. Complete an apprenticeship
  3. Locate an effective mentor
  4. Learn everything and always be learning
  5. Communicate effectively
  6. Never give up

Sounds easy? Absolutely until you factor in the 10,000 or more hours (roughly ten years) that you need to spend as an apprentice; this to be followed by a constant diet of failure and disappointment as you push at the boundaries of your field; then, for dessert, you need to be prepared to be misunderstood and perhaps attacked by people who don't understand, and feel threatened, by your work. Which would be most people.

There's nothing easy about becoming a master and Greene doesn't pretend that there is. Even worse attaining mastery doesn't mean that you'll automatically become a success or rich or famous throughout the known world. What is guaranteed though is that you will be fully immersed in a discipline that speaks to you on every level and that you will be more prepared than anyone else to grasp opportunity when it presents itself.

I like this.

What is the book all about?

Superficially Mastery is a little like Who's Who; full of mini-biographies arrayed to flesh out the person behind the personality. What's different here is the emphasis on dissecting the qualities, actions and circumstances that enabled these people to attain dizzying heights of success from very ordinary beginnings. In pursuit of explaining these achievements Greene posits that there are six key areas worth concentrating on:

Discover your calling: The life's task

The suggestion that there is a calling, or a niche, to which we are individually suited is one of the most striking in Mastery. In all of the biographic examples the subjects choose a path that resonates deeply inside them; some internal urgency compels them to follow this vocation rather than dismiss or suppress it. Which is not to say that such a path is fixed and immutable but each master remains true to their inner spirit rather than renounce it at the first sign of opposition.

These captivations are not necessarily what you appear to be good at, especially in an academic context, but they are activities that you have a natural feel for and an inner sense of connection with. If a destiny doesn't come to mind Greene suggests looking to infancy for clues as to your most fundamental interest; what did you endlessly obsess over when you had the all of the time in the world? I'm not convinced that this approach is the best, or only, answer but it is a starting point for self-examination.

Submit to reality: The ideal apprenticeship

Once you've found your vocation, the subject that crowds out all others, you need to face up to a truth; there are no shortcuts. If you intend to master this field, and you do, then you're looking at 10,000 hours or more of practice. No one gets free pass; not even Mozart. The rub is that this isn't just any old practice either. Copying out the alphabet for a decade won't win you the Pulitzer Prize (although you may well have phenomenal handwriting by the end of it!).

Instead you need to undertake what is known as deliberate practice. The key to this is that you don't concentrate on the skills that you're already good at; instead you mercilessly beat out your weaknesses, the gaps in your knowledge, the fundamentals that elude you. Then you focus on them twice as hard as anyone else until these too fall under your control. Then you repeat the whole painful process through years of grinding effort, crushing boredom and existential despair. Sounds wonderful doesn't it?

Now if you're really talented you might consider it a waste time to sign up as an apprentice or perhaps even an admission of stupidity. Neither of these reservations is accurate. Instead the point of living as a rookie is that it takes time and practice to make knowledge tacit and to turn yourself into someone who can achieve a transcendental state of flow when immersed in an activity. Essentially your aim is to modify the physical structure of your brain and this simply cannot happen overnight.

Absorb the master's power: The mentor dynamic

There is however a shortcut to this process. Well not a shortcut exactly but a way to expedite the learning process and hone your intellect: find a mentor from whom you can draw knowledge, who will use their experience to determine where you should focus and what study will benefit you the most. If you can bind yourself to such a master then your job is to make yourself indispensable to them, to watch them like a hawk and anticipate their needs, to do all they suggest and ultimately to surpass and discard them.

I think that this is an under-appreciated angle to personal success. In any field there is a corpus to consume and comprehend before you can begin to engage in creative destruction; in other words to become an outsider you need to start on the inside. This makes a lot of sense as I always learn more quickly when working with an expert and if they're kind enough to objectively comment on my weaknesses, and how I might address them, then so much the better.

That said plenty of people have progressed by trial and error, without a guide, because they simply don't think like anyone else. This process works but it's also lengthy as you end up learning everything from scratch. Even so if circumstance forces you to toil without a mentor then you must read voraciously, work harder than anyone you know, with absolute determination, and search out public figures who you can leverage via their published thoughts or writings.

See people as they are: Social intelligence

A slight diversion in Mastery, in my view, takes us into the arena of emotional intelligence and judging others by their actions and behaviour. Strictly speaking this isn't a skill required to become an expert in the first place; but it is useful if you'd like to maximise your odds of success once you've put in all of the hard work. The reason for this is two-fold. If you're of the intense mind-set required to become a master in the first place then it's likely that you don't suffer fools gladly to the extent of appearing brusque and insensitive. At the same time other experts in your field are likely to feel threatened by your novel and disruptive ideas and may well seek to diminish your contributions and destroy you personally.

Thus it's important to cultivate an understanding of social forces, of emotions and of how both your friends and enemies perceive you. You must see the world through their eyes. This is necessary not only because it'll make life easier but also because effective communication is at least as important as your primary life study; if you're unable to speak with clarity, and defend or position your work effectively, then all of those years of effort may come to naught. The key message here is that mastery is a two-way street; without a receptive audience then you're not really an authority. Society is constructed on communication and you must master this field as well as your own.

Awaken the dimensional mind: The creative-active

I have to admit that this section gives me the most trouble. I'm still not sure what a dimensional mind is and the creative-active sounds a bit wishy-washy. Nevertheless I do grasp the intent: once you've become a master then how do you translate deep, broad understanding into an ability to straddle multiple fields and make connections that elude those of lesser perspicacity? Apparently even after years of strenuous application yet more effort is required, ironically, to free yourself from the knowledge you've just gained and grow beyond the artisan level.

To help you achieve this Greene comes up with a short-list of strategies designed to make you think in contrary ways and many of these make absolute sense. Key to this process is being attentive to the details, especially those which are anomalous, while being wholly aware of the gestalt and serendipitous associations to seemingly unrelated fields. In a way your mind needs to act as a creative laboratory where you're free to ponder whatever compound ideas occur to you. As a master unexpected resonances will spark in your brain and it's this synthesis that is the fruit of your hard work.

When looking into this process I stumbled across a very interesting essay by Isaac Asimov on how people get ideas. His views are very similar in that you need to be open to the cross-fertilisation of ideas without even knowing that they are connected at first; he also supports an inner restlessness so that problems remain fresh and unfinished. What I particularly like though is the proposition that to be truly creative ego must be removed from the equation; this appeals to my sense that the meek should inherit the Earth!

Fuse the intuitive with the rational: Mastery

The final instalment of Mastery deals with intuition and how this is the mark of achieving total proficiency in your field. To be honest there are long passages here that I could do without; how intuition was a skill unique to our caveman ancestors which we've foolishly discarded in the modern day world. But in reading this section I did perceive a vital fact; in all learning a key goal is to internalise and own knowledge so that your unconscious can make spatial connections that appear somehow beyond logic. This is true mastery: allowing your subconscious System 1 to do all of the heavy lifting rather than burdening yourself with System 2 procedural analysis.

I conclude that this ties in with the idea that we are designed to be pattern-matching machines; that our neural pathways are reinforced by repeated exposure to patterns and that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice amounts to a vast amount of mental training. So it makes sense that anyone can become a "genius" just so long as they have a supreme amount of dedication, an all-consuming natural inclination and a willingness to live their life out of step with humanity. I guess that this is a good thing although the corollary is that you can only blame one person for your failings in life: yourself.


Mastery is a heavyweight book for sure and you can't mistake the amount of background research Greene has put into its compilation. On the one hand his biographic sketches are interesting, and occasionally compelling, simply because of the subjects themselves; on the other hand there is a fair amount of repetition in different sections and I don't believe that all of the examples on offer underpin Greene's arguments.

That said I feel able to draw some fairly striking inferences from the text despite occasionally regretting the absence of a more decisive editorial influence. I have outlined these conjectures in the introduction but I believe that they support elaboration:

  1. Follow your inclination: you are going to spend a very long time immersed in this persuasion and so it needs to be sufficiently nourishing to sustain an appetite deep within your very soul

  2. Complete an apprenticeship: this is where you will spend roughly 10,000 hours engaged in deliberate practice. Dull, menial and repetitive it may be but this is how you internalise your education

  3. Locate an effective mentor: there aren't any short-cuts to mastery but a true mentor will highlight your weaknesses, point you in the right direction and drive you to constantly hone your skills

  4. Learn everything and always be learning: even when you surpass your mentor you'll need to continue expanding your knowledge; remain hungry, dissatisfied and open to new ideas

  5. Communicate effectively: selling paradigm-shifting ideas to the mainstream is always a tough job so you need to learn what motivates people's actions and position yourself accordingly

  6. Never give up: if there's one quality that each of Greene's subjects share it's this - every single one is stubborn, ornery and tenacious in pursuit of their vision

One conclusion of Greene's that I don't fully agree with is that luck doesn't play a part in success. My feeling is that all of his cases are lucky in one way or another and that they appear here partially as a result of survivorship bias; plenty of other individuals in history were just as driven but they died young or failed to escape a dead-end job while putting food on the table or weren't in quite the right place to make a critical connection. History remembers the winners.

My belief is that through following the suggestions in this book you can increase your luck surface area and so put yourself in a state of readiness for success. Of course the stars may never align for you and so you'll remain forever simply a master in your field, as opposed to someone who leaves their mark on human history, but at least you'll be as ready as you can be to recognise and grasp an opportunity when it crosses your path. This type of luck I can believe in.

Is it worth purchasing Mastery though and ploughing through the 368 pages? Yes but only as an adjunct to other self-help books which purport to guide you to a nirvana of self-actualisation. This particular manual feels split between trying to demonstrate how you can achieve a general mastery in life (being happy and successful in a niche) while simultaneously suggesting that your goal should be to shake up the world. Greene is not wholly successful in uniting these different ambitions but despite falling short of the mark there's plenty here to change your approach to life.

What have you got to lose?

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