Mastery: How to Become Great (Robert Greene)

mastery book cover

Mastery (2012) is a book-guide on how to achieve mastery at anything you choose.

Bullet Summary

  • Mastery is achieved with a set of replicable steps:
    • Follow your natural inclination
    • Go through an apprenticeship
    • Get a mentor
    • Master your craft
    • Set your creative energy free

Mastery Summary 

About The Author: Robert Greene is a best-selling author of books on power and strategy.
He has also written “The 48 Laws of Power”, “The Art of Seduction“, “The 50th Law“, “33 Strategies of War” and “The Laws of Human Nature“.

Mastery Is A Simple Path

Robert Greene says the path leading to mastery is a simple process accessible to everyone.

He says there are three major distinct faces: the apprenticeship, the creative-active and then mastery.

Greene mentions Darwin.
He says that what was specific for Darwin is actually common to everyone who achieved mastery: a passion and inclination for a subject, an encounter allowing them to apply their passion, and an apprenticeship.

Masters often move ahead quickly because they are driven by their passion.
So to master a specific field, you must love it first.

Greene says it’s mostly emotional qualities that drive people forward. Desire, persistence and confidence play a much bigger role than reasoning powers.

Chapter 1 – Discover Your Calling: The Life’s Task

Robert Greene says you have an inner force guiding you guiding you towards your life’s task.

It was obvious in your childhood, and your first step towards mastery is actually always inward first: reconnecting with that innate inclination.

We are all born with a unique seed, and your life task is to find that uniqueness and bring it to fruition.
The force is there, and you can start moving towards it at any point in life.

But some people, says Greene, never end up who they really are.
They stop trusting themselves, they conform to the expectation of the people around and start wearing a mask.

When that happens, we end up in fields we don’t really like, and we try to fill ourselves with the love of public approval.
The author says that when we do it for money and comfort, it’s out of anxiety and to appease our parents. And our parents, in turn, push us into more stable and lucrative position out of (misguided) care.

Greene gives us five strategies to find again our calling:

  • Return to Your Origins: sometimes the inclination becomes clear while performing an activity. It’s often visceral, nonverbal
  • Occupy the Perfect Niche: overcrowded fields are attractive because everybody’s there, but you get lost in politicking and can’t focus on mastery. Find a niche you can dominate instead. Two strategies: start large and branch out till you’re on your own or find connections between different fields
  • Avoid the False Path: Realize you’re in the wrong line of business. Rebel against the forces that got you there. If it was a father figure, you have to slay it
  • Let Go of the Past: you don’t have to fully abandon what you’ve done so far, but you can learn new ways to apply the skills and experiences
  • Find Your Way Back: sometimes you deviate for the lure of money. But even if you get the money, you’ll be unfulfilled. Going back to your inclination is your way to fulfillment

Robert Greene says that when facing your weaknesses resist the temptation to become like others and keep working on what you do well.

Don’t think about grand plans for the future, but focus on the immediate strengths in front of you.
It will give you confidence and a strong base from which to branch out on future pursuits.
Keep going and you’ll eventually hit your life task.

Indeed, the author says, your life tasks won’t always be obvious to you.
But don’t envy those who seem born with a gift in the meanwhile: it’s often a curse because they don’t learn to work hard at it.

Being born with a gift is a curse if you don’t learn to work hard at it

Chapter 2 – Submit To Reality: The Ideal Apprenticeship

After formal education most of us enter a second practical education known as apprenticeship.

You will keep re-entering apprenticeships every time you switch fields.

Don’t focus on the money or “piece of paper”: the goal of an apprenticeship is the transformation of your mind and character.
Look for challenges, move past your comfort zone:  this is when you plant the seed for greatness and mastery.

My Note:
you absolutely need a Growth Mindset in this phase (check my guide to get it

Robert Greene says there are three essential steps in a successful apprenticeship:

  1. Deep Observation: learn the social and power dynamics, the unspoken rules. Don’t try to impress people showing you want to get to the top. If anything, impress for your eagerness to learn
  2. Skills Acquisition: focus a skill at a time, don’t multitask. Embrace the boring and tedium and be fully present. 2-3h of intense focus are better than 8h of distracted work. Concentrated practice over time cannot fail to produce results.
  3. Experimentation: initiate to put into practice and creative endeavors the skills you’ve built. Some people never experiment out of fear. Force yourself to do it before you feel ready and you’ll know where you stand, get precious feedback, thicken your skin and develop a key skill: the detachment between your ego and your work.

Robert Greene also details 8 effective strategies for a perfect apprenticeship:

  1. Value Learning Over Money: learning is the N.1 priority over everything else. If you can afford, work even for free as people will be more likely to teach you and divulge their secrets
  2. Keep expanding your horizons: take responsibility for your own learning. Don’t accept the status quo and any limitations you might have. Whenever you feel in a rut, shake yourself up and look for new challenges
  3. Revert to a feeling of inferiority: to protect our ego you might be tempted to tell yourself you’re good and better than your teachers. Don’t. You’re there to learn from them
  4. Trust the process: it takes time. Push through the pain and frustrations with trust and faith
  5. Move towards resistance and pain: our natural tendency is to avoid pain and difficulties. Do this instead: go in the opposite direction of your natural tendencies. Don’t be nice to yourself, go against the tendency to lose focus
  6. Apprentice yourself in failure: look at failures as learning opportunities (read Sometimes You Win Sometimes You Learn)
  7. Combine the ‘how’ and the ‘what’: learn deeply about your field.
  8. Advance through trial and error: don’t follow a linear path. Learn as many different skills as you can in the area that interests you.

Robert Greene says that nobody can skip the apprenticeship phase.

Mozart and Einstein, two examples often bandied as natural talents, also took 10 years before coming up with a great piece of work. The only difference is that they started very early and with full immersion.

Chapter 3 – Absorb The Master’s Power: The Mentor Dynamic

Robert Greene says we live in an iconoclastic culture, we like to attack and dismantle all forms of authority.

Some of us believe that criticizing is a sign of intelligence and learning as a submissive pupil is a sign of weakness.
That is a terrible mindset to reach mastery. To learn we have to let go of the fear of submitting and accept and acknowledge there are people much further ahead in our field than we are.
And their position is not due to friends or luck, but it’s based on skills and knowledge.

Robert Greene says that books are generic and not tailored to your situations, but they can serve as mentors as well.
You can idealize a figure of the past and ask yourself what they would do in your exact same situation.
Napoleon Hill had a whole team of great figures from the past he would turn to for suggestion (read Think and Grow Rich).

How to Deepen Mentor Relationships

  1. Choose Mentor Based On Your Needs: refrain from looking for someone like your parents and don’t just pick someone.
  2. Push Them to Give You Tough Love: everyone’s so PC and soft today, even self help books tell you what you want to hear. That’s damaging: you need your mentor to tell you the harshest truths even if that makes you uncomfortable
  3. Transfigure their Ideas: take their teachings, but breath your own personality into them
  4. Create Back and Forth Relationship: don’t only passively receive information, build a relationship of back and forth

Mentors Turning Sour

I particularly loved the psychological analysis Greene brings to mentor-mentee relationship.

He says that good mentors will want you to become independent and will let you free once you’re ready while remaining friends.

But poor mentors will want to keep you subjugated.
They will see your moves towards independence as an affront to their authority. They might come to envy you and your growing skills, your youth or your drive.

You can’t let them hinder you: your mentee position is in no way permanent.
Your goal is to absorb as much as possible and then moving on. If needed, start to resent him and use the emotions to break yourself free.

The mentor-mentee relationship often resembles that of a son-father figure, and sometimes you need to slay the father to burst your cocoon.

Once you internalized the knowledge you must move on. Your goal is to surpass your mentor.

Your goal is to surpass your mentor

Chapter 4 – See People as They Are: Social Intelligence

Robert Greene says that social intelligence is key for any kind of mastery you’re aiming for.

Why?

Because, Greene says, success without social intelligence is not real and will not last.

The author says that social intelligence is about seeing people for who they really are, what motivates them and what their manipulating tendencies are.
We’re all different, but we all also have a dark side and a tendency to manipulate.

Robert Greene says the best approach is one of supreme acceptance.
He quotes Schopenauer in saying that your goal is not to judge people and to change them, but to take them for whom they really are.

A few good tips in the book are that:

  • Too big praises or too much friendliness upon first meeting are signs of envy and you should be guarded
  • To avoid envy ask for advice, self deprecate, show some weakness
  • Hide your rebellious streak in the beginning -until you’re at the top-
  • Accept your boss will take credit, it’s part of the apprenticeship but don’t let colleagues do it

When you are getting too emotional when dealing with people, do the following to keep your edge:

  1. Speak through your work:
  2. Craft the appropriate persona: lean good public behavior
  3. See yourself as others see you: we have a tendency to ignore criticism or fight it. Don’t let it happen to you. Analyze the feedback you receive and your interactions as if you were analyzing a third person
  4. Suffer fools gladly: fools are governed by their ego and are more interested in public approval and their personal career than in the truth. Do not lower yourself to their value

Chapter 5 – Awaken the Dimensional Mind: The Creative-Active

Coming out of apprenticeship the tendency might be to relax or fit in and stay safe.

You must resist that urge and go the opposite side instead.

Expand knowledge with different fields, experiment and challenge the same rules you learned.
Developing and embracing originality will take you to new heights.

We often hear about how children are creative and open-minded. Well, Robert Greene says children never invent or discover anything life-changing.

Masters then DO retain the spirit of the child’s mind, but they also add years of apprenticeship, knowledge and a strong and deep focus on their ideas.
The key then is to blend the knowledge, the focus and mind-openness to explore new routes.

The author also goes into what are the most common pitfalls stifling our creativity:

  • Complacency: we take everything for granted and feel like we know everything
  • Conservatism: we stick to what worked in the past and we want to fit in. But if we worry about failure and what others think we’ll never do anything creative (also check Linchpin on the fear of showing your work)
  • Dependency: you have to distance yourself from your own work and art so that you can discern helpful feedback from useless hatred
  • Impatience: the creative process requires constant focus and intensity, not hurrying and easy ways out. Tenacious application is required, what Da Vinci called “ostinato rigore”
  • Grandiosity: praise does harm. We will start working to attract praise and as our ego inflates we’ll come to believe it’s our natural brilliance that pushed us up. What must motivate you is the process and the work itself.
  • Inflexibility: it’s about paradoxes and holding two thoughts at once. For examples doubts about what you know and trusting yourself

Robert Greene ends the chapter with a helpful reminder: the myth of creative power fueled by drugs is… A myth.
Don’t fall for that cliche’. Any work of mastery requires discipline, emotional stability and self control. Plus enduring hard work, doubts and obstacles.

Chapter 6 – Fuse the Intuitive With the Rational: Mastery

Robert Greene says that mastery is not fully rational but a combination of knowledge, skills and intuition.

Intuition needs both knowledge, skills and experience and can take up to 20 years to reach.

My Note:
this reminded of when Tim Grover spoke of “trusting your guts” for the very top performers in Relentless.

But it’s never a point at which you stop and call yourself a master.
Mastery is a never ending process.
You will never stop facing setbacks and situations that challenge you, and those are your blessing to keep going up and up on the never ending road of mastery (read The Obstacle is The Way for the best mindset on dealing and using obstacles).

Reversal of Mastery

Robert Greene here tackles the critics of mastery.

Those who say there’s no point in striving, because masters are genius who were born lucky. Some others say it’s immoral and only for the ambitious. Or a game of luck.

Mastery is not a function of genius, it’s a function of time and focus, says Robert Greene.
And, last but not least, setting yourself on the path of Mastery is a favor you do the world.

Setting yourself on the path of Mastery is a favor you do the world

mastery book cover

Real Life Applications

  • Breadth of Experience before Depth

Learn as many skills as possible, follow your circumstances, but only if they’re in the path of what interests you.
A wide range of experience will make you better suited at deciding what to stick with later on.

And I invite you to read Grit by Angela Duckworth for more on the importance of many experiences.

  • Do not lower yourself to fool level

Fool are those looking for short term gain, being right, their own career and public approval. Accept them as a part of life but do not lower yourself to their level.

CONS

  • Games, Games, Games

Robert Greene seems to often resort to his combative, “48 Laws of Power mindset” with a heavy focus on games people play and you playing back.
It feels like Greene is obsessed in seeing the world as a big chessboard where defection is more common than cooperation.

  • Bullet Points Book.. Without Practical Steps

Robert Greene uses a lot of list and steps in Mastery.
However, those bullet points didn’t always seem like actionable steps. One example: the step “craft the appropriate persona” doesn’t say much about how to do that, so it feels like those lists don’t always deliver on their promise.

Mastery Review

Mastery is another great book by Robert Greene. I’m constantly amazed by Greene’s depth of insight into human nature.

There’s a point in which he suggests you become your worst critic.
That’s true, just make sure you develop a growth mindset and an antifragile ego, or your risk bringing your mood an self esteem way too low.

Get Mastery on Amazon.

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