Book Review: Mastery by Robert Greene
“The misery that oppresses you lies not in your profession but in yourself! What man in the world would not find his situation intolerable if he chooses a craft, an art, indeed any form of life, without experiencing an inner calling? Whoever is born with a talent, or to a talent, must surely find in that the most pleasing of occupations! Everything on this earth has its difficult sides! Only some inner drive—pleasure, love—can help us overcome obstacles, prepare a path, and lift us out of the narrow circle in which others tread out their anguished, miserable existences!”
Previous I reviewed a book of the same title by George Leonard. Since Robert Greene covers some of the same ground as George Leonard, it is useful to compare and contrast them.
Both authors emphasize the need for instruction and downplay the success potential of the autodidact. Both authors emphasize the need to surrender to the instructor in the early stages. Both emphasize the need for enormous amount of practice with intentionality. Both emphasize benig highly selective about the pursuit and the instructor.
In many ways, the books are more similar than different, and I would have expected to see Leonard cited in Greene’s book, but that was not the case. That said, there are differences that will make one of the two books better depending on the individual and their needs.
First, Greene specifically separates out and emphasizes social intelligence as a key tool of a Master. I suspect that this would be a point of agreement between the two authors, but Greene makes an entire chapter of it. He compares the long hard road Ignaz Semmelweis made for himself in getting other doctors to wash their hands. Despite anticipating the revolutionary germ theory of disease he is not necessarily numbered among the greats of the medical profession, and he did not see his theories adopted broadly within his lifetime. On the other hand William Harvey adroitly involved others and worked behind the scenes to revolutionize our understanding of the function of the heart, seeing within his own lifetime an about-face in accepted medical theory.
Greene emphasizes social intelligence because the lack of it causes drama and distraction that prevent Masters from realizing their visions: it is a key differentiator. “Seeing people as they are” avoids two errors. The error of the child is in idealizing those around them, which leads to being let down or surprised by competitive self-interest. The error of the adolescent is to overemphasize the flaws, which hinders cooperative efforts. The socially mature individual does not feel the need to rush to judgment and allows their judgments, when formed, to be changed by new evidence. [Game theory on selection of cooperative and competitive strategies would have much to add to Greene’s discussion, but it is not mentioned.]
A second difference is that Greene recommends specific preparation for the eventual break with your initial instructor, be it clean or messy. He recommends picking out character flaws and even dwelling on them early on, during the surrender phase, to mentally prepare. This may sound cruel or Machievellian, but many future Masters get to the point where they have established themselves, and further submission to their old instructor will only hold them back.
A third difference is Greene’s case studies tend toward the intellectual while Leonard’s case studies tended toward the physical and athletic worlds.
Fourth, Greene breaks up the Path to Mastery into phases, each with their unique angles. For example, the Apprentice surrenders and submits to their Master and internalizes their approaches exactly. The practitioner of the Creative-Active phase specializes, finds the most profitable problem to work on and improving their weaknesses. The final step to attain Mastery involves playing to strengths, broadening their perspective, and developing “fingertip feel.”
Fifth, Greene has a more brutal, frank, and Machiavellian feel. Leonard’s writing leans optimism and idealism. Someone may be turned off by one and relate better to the other.
[This 3-stage model is quite similar to the shu-ha-ri concept from The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership.]
Those acquainted with Greene’s work will know that after advocating a certain approach he will end with a Reversal. The Reversal usually describes a situation in which the principle does not apply. Reversals are included in Mastery, but they are much weaker than in previous books. Greene states in several places that there are no Reversals and then reiterates the consequence of failure to comply with the key principles. The book would have been better if Reversals had been excluded and the content integrated back into the chapter.
Either Mastery would be a most worthwhile investment. As I mentioned, which one is better will depend on the individual. Each author brings a unique angle to the subject, and most of the truly “core” principles are quite similar. [My personal, complete notes include many cross-references.]
Key concepts are either recurring themes or strong individual points made with a fairly general application. Books with a more theoretical bent will have more “key concepts.”
- Mastery involves three phases:
- Apprenticeship is characterized by confusion, fear, excitement. One is an outsider and a student. The objective is to learn the rules that others have set. One’s vision of the field or the art is partial.
- The Creative-Active phase is characterized by experimentation. One is a practitioner. The objective is to introduce individuality into our practice. One’s vision becomes comprehensive.
- Mastery is characterized by instinctual performance. Ideas seem to come out of nowhere. The rules are so well internalized that they can be broken or rewritten to dramatic effect. One’s vision becomes transcendent. Intuitive insights are available upon demand.
- “[The] brain that we possess is the work of six million years of development, and more than anything else, this evolution of the brain was designed to lead us to mastery, the latent power within us all.”
- “The moment you rest, thinking that you have attained the level you desire, a part of your mind enters a phase of decay. You lose your hard-earned creativity and others begin to sense it.”
- Don’t search for mentors until you have acquired some elementary skills on your own. The mentors will not want to waste their time with those who will never exceed them because they do not take initiative.
- “You must not allow yourself to feel any guilt when the time comes to assert yourself. Instead… you should feel resentful and even angry about his desire to hold you back, using such emotions to help you leave him…”
- The “deadly realities” of social intelligence is that you will encounter people who are are envious, conformist, rigid, self-obsessed, lazy, flaky, and passive-aggressive.
- To acquire social intelligence, “speak through your work”, craft an appropriate public persona, learn to see yourself as others see you, and learn to suffer fools gladly.
- Strategies for the Creative-Active phase: develop your ability to live with uncertainty, look for the “open field” where you can specialize and have little competition, work on your weaknesses, and submerge your individuality in a frenzy of learning and absorption so that you can emerge later with your own unique voice.
- Strategies for Mastery: play to your strengths, broaden your perspective, and hone your skills to the point that they are “natural.”
From the dust jacket:
The ultimate form of power is mastery. After a lifetime spent studying the laws of power, Robert Greene recognized the path to mastery traveled by all the most powerful people of the past and present: the ability to focus deeply on a subject that compels them and then to pursue a challenging but clear course that is described here for the first time. It sounds so simply, yet mastery—and the power that comes with it—eludes many of us. This book shares this secret with the world, debunking once and for all our culture’s many myths about genius and showing that each of us has within us the potential to be a Master if we choose to follow this path to greatness.
As Greene discovered in his years of research for the international bestseller The 48 Laws of Power, many of the world’s most successful people were not obviously destined for achievement. As a child, Charles Darwin was a middling student at best. What did he do to become one of the most influential scientists of all time? He pursued the same path by which Leonardo da Vinci, an illegitimate son and social outcast, forged his way to becoming a Master of both art and invention. First, both were keenly devoted to their areas of interest. Like Benjamin Franklin, Henry Ford, architect Santiago Calatrava, and other Masters profiled here, they committed themselves to rigorous apprenticeships with mentors who could initiate them into the hidden knowledge that comes from years of experience.
Then they absorbed the Master’s power. Through analyses of the lives of Michael Faraday, Frank Lloyd Wright, Carl Jung, robotics pioneer Yoky Matsuoka, and others, Greene shows how these Masters internalized their mentors’ knowledge but pushed beyond to surpass them in brilliance. Next, like Benjamin Franklin, they mastered the art of social intelligence, navigating smoothly the networks needed to make allies and avoid unnecessary battles.
Yet those who have conquered their fields do not become complacent. Instead they expand their knowledge to related subjects, fueling their minds with the ability to make new associations between ideas. Like Mozart, the Wright brothers, and computer-engineering guru and tech entrepreneur Paul Graham, such pursuit has enabled them to upend the rules of their fields, shaping those fields in radical and profound ways. Finally, those who continue on this path attain such a high level of intuition that they are able, like Albert Einstein, boxing coach Freddie Roach, and U.S. Air Force ace fighter pilot Cesar Rodriguez, to become true Masters.
If other books have described what happens to the brain after 10,000 hours of study, Mastery reveals what happens after 20,000 hours—the level reached by Einstein, Darwin, and the nine contemporary Masters interviewed for this book. These contemporary Masters are men and women from all socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities. As Greene argues convincingly, the potential for Mastery lies within each of us. Learn the secrets of the path you must follow. Unlock the passion within you and become a Master.
Table of Contents
The Ultimate Power
The Evolution of Mastery
Keys to Mastery
I. Discover Your Calling: Your Life’s Task
The Hidden Force
Keys to Mastery
Strategies for Finding Your Life’s Task
- Return to your origins—The primal inclination strategy
- Occupy the perfect niche—The Darwinian strategy
- Avoid the false path—The rebellion strategy
- Let go of the past—The adaptation strategy
- Find your way back—The life-or-death strategy
II. Submit to Reality: The Ideal Apprenticeship
The First Transformation
Keys to Mastery
Strategies for Completing the Ideal Apprenticeship
- Value learning over money
- Keep expanding your horizons
- Revert to a feeling of inferiority
- Trust the process
- Move toward resistance and pain
- Apprentice yourself in failure
- Combine the “how” and the “what”
- Advance through trial and error
III. Absorb the Master’s Power: The Mentor Dynamic
The Alchemy of Knowledge
Keys to Mastery
Strategies for Deepening the Mentor Relationship
- Choose the mentor according to your needs and inclinations
- Gaze deep into the mentor’s mirror
- Transfigure their ideas
- Create a back-and-forth dynamic
IV. See People as They Are: Social Intelligence
Keys to Mastery
Strategies for Acquiring Social Intelligence
- Speak through your work
- Craft the appropriate persona
- See yourself as others see you
- Suffer fools gladly
V. Awaken the Dimensional Mind: The Creative-Active
The Second Transformation
Keys to Mastery
Strategies for the Creative-Active Phase
- The Authentic Voice
- The Fact of Great Yield
- Mechanical Intelligence
- Natural Powers
- The Open Field
- The High End
- The Evolutionary Hijack
- Dimensional Thinking
- Alchemical Creativity and the Unconscious
VI. Fuse the Intuitive with the Rational: Mastery
The Third Transformation
Keys to Mastery
Strategies for Attaining Mastery
- Connect to your environment—Primal Powers
- Play to your strengths—Supreme Focus
- Transform yourself through practice—The Fingertip Feel
- Internalize the details—The Life Force
- Widen your vision—The Global Perspective
- Synthesize all forms of knowledge—The Universal Man/Woman
Contemporary Master Biographies
Key Terms from the Index
adaptability, alienation, ancestors (early human), animals, anomalies, apprenticeship, Apprenticeship Phase, architecture, autism, books, brain, Calatrava (Santiago), career path, childhood, Christianity, Creative-Active Phase, creative process, creative thinking, criticism, dance, Darwin (Charles), detachment, Dimensional Mind, dreams, Edison (Thomas Alva), Einstein (Albert), electromagnetism, emotions, empathy, entrepreneurs, Everett (Daniel), evolution (theory of), failure, Faraday (Michael), Fernández (Teresita), focus, Franklin (Benjamin), Futch (Eddie), Goethe (Johann Wolfgang von), Grandin (Temple), hands, Harvard University, human behavior, human beings, identification, inclination, independence, intelligence, internalization, intuition, knowledge, language, Leonardo da Vinci, Life’s Task, Literature, masks (social), mastery, mentoring, mentors, Mozart (Wolfgang Amadeus), nature, neuroscience, observation, parents, persistence, political behavior (politicking), practice, Proust (Marcel), Ramachandran, Roach (Freddie), science, self, self-apprenticeship, serendipity, skills, social intelligence, technology, thinking, time, transformation, visual thinking, Zenji (Hakunin)