Mastery

By

Robert Greene

My Thoughts

A comprehensive guide to realising your Life's Task—Greene does a great job of shattering the myth of iconic people being destined for success by birth or some wild genius feat.

Highlights & Summary Notes

The first move toward mastery is always inward—learning who you really are and reconnecting with that innate force.

The Life's Task

Just as a well-filled day brings blessed sleep, so a well-employed life brings a blessed death. — Leonardo da Vinci

Let us state it in the following way: At your birth a seed is planted. That seed is your uniqueness. Your Life’s Task is to bring that seed to flower, to express your uniqueness through your work.

The process of realising your Life’s Task comes in three stages:

  1. First, you must connect or reconnect with your inclinations, that sense of uniqueness.
  2. You search the past for signs of that inner voice or force. You clear away the other voices that might confuse you—parents and peers.
  3. You look for an underlying pattern, a core to your character that you must understand as deeply as possible.
  4. Second, with this connection established, you must look at the career path you are already on or are about to begin. The choice of this path—or redirection of it—is critical.
  5. Finally, you must see your career or vocational path more as a journey with twists and turns rather than a straight line. You begin by choosing a field or position that roughly corresponds to your inclinations.

Strategies for Finding Your Life's Task

1. Return to your origins

  • You must understand the following: In order to master a field, you must love the subject and feel a profound connection to it.
  • You must dig for signs of such inclinations in your earliest years. Look for its traces in visceral reactions to something simple; a desire to repeat an activity that you never tired of; a subject that stimulated an unusual degree of curiosity; feelings of power attached to particular actions. It is already there within you. You have nothing to create; you merely need to dig and refind what has been buried inside of you all along.

2. Occupy the perfect niche

  • In the beginning you choose a field that roughly corresponds to your interests. From there you can go in one of two directions.
  • (1) From within your chosen field, you look for side paths that particularly attract you.
  • (2) Once you have mastered your first field, you look for other subjects or skills that you can conquer, on your own time if necessary.

3. Avoid the false path

  • A false path in life is generally something we are attracted to for the wrong reasons—money, fame, attention, and so on
  • If it is money and comfort that dominate our decision, we are most often acting out of anxiety and the need to please our parents.
  • Scoff at the need for attention and approval—they will lead you astray.

4. Let go of the past

  • In dealing with your career and its inevitable changes, you must think in the following way: You are not tied to a particular position; your loyalty is not to a career or a company. You are committed to your Life’s Task, to giving it full expression.
  • You don’t want to abandon the skills and experience you have gained, but to find a new way to apply them.

5. Find your way back

  • The road to mastery requires patience. You will have to keep your focus on five or ten years down the road, when you will reap the rewards of your efforts.
  • In the end, the money and success that truly last come not to those who focus on such things as goals, but rather to those who focus on mastery and fulfilling their Life’s Task.

Reversal

When you are faced with deficiencies instead of strengths and inclinations, this is the strategy you must assume: ignore your weaknesses and resist the temptation to be more like others.

Do not envy those who seem to be naturally gifted; it is often a curse, as such types rarely learn the value of diligence and focus, and they pay for this later in life.

The Ideal Apprenticeship

You must choose places of work and positions that offer the greatest possibilities for learning. Practical knowledge is the ultimate commodity, and is what will pay you dividends for decades to come.

The Apprenticeship Phase

Step 1: Deep Observation (Passive Mode)

Observe the rules and procedures that govern success in this environment (“this is how we do things here.”)

Of more interest: the rules that are unstated and are part of the underlying work culture. These concern style and values that are considered important. They are often a reflection of the character of the man or woman on top.

The second reality you will observe is the power relationships that exist within the group: who has real control; through whom do all communications flow; who is on the rise and who is on the decline.

No detail about the people within it is too trivial.

Understand: there are several critical reasons why you must follow this step. First, knowing your environment inside and out will help you in navigating it and avoiding costly mistakes.

You will see in any encounter what most people miss because they are thinking of themselves.

Step 2: Skills Acquisition (Practice Mode)

In acquiring any kind of skill, there exists a natural learning process that coincides with the functioning of our brains. This learning process leads to what we shall call tacit knowledge—a feeling for what you are doing that is hard to put into words but easy to demonstrate in action.

We learn best through practice and repetition.

Once you take this far enough, you enter a cycle of accelerated returns in which the practice becomes easier and more interesting, leading to the ability to practice for longer hours, which increases your skill level, which in turn makes practice even more interesting.

First, it is essential that you begin with one skill that you can master, and that serves as a foundation for acquiring others.

Too many people believe that everything must be pleasurable in life, which makes them constantly search for distractions and short-circuits the learning process.

When you start something new, a large number of neurons in the frontal cortex are recruited and become active, helping you in the learning process.

You develop patience. Boredom no longer signals the need for distraction, but rather the need for new challenges to conquer.

Step 3: Experimentation (Active Mode)

You are observing yourself in action and seeing how you respond to the judgments of others.

You will know when your apprenticeship is over by the feeling that you have nothing left to learn in this environment.

The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways.

Do not think that what is hard for you to master is humanly impossible; and if it is humanly possible, consider it to be within your reach. — Marcus Aurelius

Strategies for Completing the Ideal Apprenticeship

1. Value learning over money

  • Opt for the situation that will give you the most opportunities to learn,

2. Keep expanding your horizons

  • In each learning situation you will submit to reality, but that reality does not mean you must stay in one place.
  • Reading books and materials that go beyond what is required is always a good starting point.

3. Revert to a feeling of inferiority

  • Understand: when you enter a new environment, your task is to learn and absorb as much as possible. For that purpose you must try to revert to a childlike feeling of inferiority—the feeling that others know much more than you and that you are dependent upon them to learn and safely navigate your apprenticeship.

4. Trust the process

  • Whenever we learn a skill, we frequently reach a point of frustration—what we are learning seems beyond our capabilities. Giving in to these feelings, we unconsciously quit on ourselves before we actually give up.
  • What you can do is have faith in the process. The boredom will go away once you enter the cycle. The panic disappears after repeated exposure.

5. Move toward resistance and pain

  • To attain mastery, you must adopt what we shall call Resistance Practice. The principle is simple—you go in the opposite direction of all of your natural tendencies when it comes to practice.
  • (1) Become your own worst critic. See your work as if through the eyes of other. Recognize your weaknesses, precisely the elements you are not good at.
  • (2) Resist the lure of easing up on your focus. Train yourself to concentrate in practice with double the intensity, as if it were the real thing times two.

6. Apprentice yourself in failure

  • Mistakes and failures are precisely your means of education. They tell you about your own inadequacies.
  • Repeated failure will toughen your spirit and show you with absolute clarity how things must be done.

7. Combine the “how” and the “what”

  • We must constantly ask the questions—how do things work, how do decisions get made, how does the group interact?

8. Advance through trial and error

  • When that happens, all of the skills you have accumulated will prove invaluable.

The Mentor Dynamic

The right mentors know where to focus your attention and how to challenge you. Their knowledge and experience become yours.

Understand: all that should concern you in the early stages of your career is acquiring practical knowledge in the most efficient manner possible. For this purpose, during the Apprenticeship Phase you will need mentors whose authority you recognise and to whom you submit.

You can learn what you need through books, your own practice, and occasional advice from others, but the process is hit-and-miss.

Mentors observe you at work and provide real-time feedback, making your practice more time efficient.

Do not shy away from anything menial or secretarial. You want person-to-person access, however you can get it.

If your circumstances limit your contacts, books can serve as temporary mentors.

Your goal is to get as much out of them as possible, but at a certain point you may pay a price if you stay too long and let them subvert your confidence

Strategies for Deepening the Mentor Dynamic

1. Choose the mentor according to your needs and inclinations

  • The right choice can perhaps provide what your parents didn’t give you—support, confidence, direction, space to discover things on your own.

2. Gaze deep into the mentor’s mirror

  • Masters are those who by nature have suffered to get to where they are.

3. Transfigure their ideas

  • To learn from mentors, we must be open and completely receptive to their ideas. We must fall under their spell. But if we take this too far, we become so marked by their influence that we have no internal space to incubate and develop our own voice, and we spend our lives tied to ideas that are not our own.

4. Create a back-and-forth dynamic

  • Evolve a more interactive dynamic with the mentor. If they can adapt to some of your ideas, the relationship becomes more animated.

Reversal

If you are forced onto this path, you must follow Edison’s example by developing extreme self-reliance. Under these circumstances, you become your own teacher and mentor. You push yourself to learn from every possible source. You read more books than those who have a formal education, developing this into a lifelong habit.

Social Intelligence

Social intelligence — the ability to see people in the most realistic light possible. By moving past our usual self-absorption, we can learn to focus deeply on others, reading their behavior in the moment, seeing what motivates them, and discerning any possible manipulative tendencies.

Naïve Perspective — viewing people as we viewed our parent growing up—stronger, more capable, and more selfless than they are in reality. Our view of people becomes saturated with various emotions—worship, admiration, love, need, anger.

We think we understand people, but we are viewing them through a distorted lens.

The most effective attitude to adopt is one of supreme acceptance. The world is full of people with different characters and temperaments. We all have a dark side, a tendency to manipulate, and aggressive desires.

This intelligence consists of two components:

  1. Specific knowledge — Namely the ability to read people, to get a feel for how they see the world, and to understand their individuality.
  2. General knowledge of human nature — Accumulating an understanding of the overall patterns of human behavior that transcend us as individuals, including darker qualities.

Specific Knowledge (Reading People)

Pay less attention to the words that people say and greater attention to their tone of voice, the look in their eye, their body language.

Resist the temptation to interpret what they say or do as somehow implicitly involving you—this will cause you to turn your thoughts inward and close off the immediacy of the connection.

Try to imagine that you are experiencing the world from their point of view, placing yourself in their circumstances and feeling what they feel.

Actions say much more about their character, about what is going on underneath the surface.

You must avoid the common mistake of making judgments based on your initial impressions of people. People have trained themselves to appear a certain way; they have a persona they use in public that acts like a second skin to protect them.

Keep in mind, however, that people are in a state of continual flux. You are continually observing them and bringing your readings of them up to date.

General Knowledge (7 Deadly Realities)

Most of us have these negative qualities—Envy, Conformism, Rigidity, Self-obsessiveness, Laziness, Flightiness, and Passive Aggression.

Envy: It is our nature to constantly compare ourselves to others.

Conformism: When people form groups of any type, a kind of organisational mind-set inevitably sets in.

  • Be careful in what you say—it is not worth the bother of freely expressing your opinions.

Rigidity: Whenever we humans face a situation that seems complicated our response is to resort to a kind of artificial simplicity, to create habits and routines that give us a sense of control.

  • It is often against human nature, particularly as we get older, to consider alternative ways of thinking or doing things. (Status Quo Bias, see Thinking Fast & Slow)

Self-obsessiveness: In the work environment, we almost inevitably think first and foremost of ourselves.

  • When it is time to ask for a favour or help, you must think first of appealing to people’s self-interest in some way.
  • In general, in your interactions with people, find a way to make the conversations revolve around them and their interests, all of which will go far to winning them to your side.

Laziness: We all have the tendency to want to take the quickest, easiest path to our goals, but we generally manage to control our impatience; we understand the superior value of getting what we want through hard work.

  • Discouraged by the thought that it might take months or years to get somewhere, they are constantly on the lookout for shortcuts.

Flightiness: We like to make a show of how much our decisions are based on rational considerations, but the truth is that we are largely governed by our emotions, which continually colour our perceptions.

Passive Aggression: The root cause of all passive aggression is the human fear of direct confrontation—the emotions that a conflict can churn up and the loss of control that ensues.

Strategies for Acquiring Social Intelligence

The following four essential strategies will help you to avoid the Naïve Perspective and maintain the rational mind-set necessary for social intelligence.

1. Speak through your work

  • Your work is the single greatest means at your disposal for expressing your social intelligence.
  • By being efficient and detail oriented in what you do, you demonstrate that you are thinking of the group at large and advancing its cause.

2. Craft the appropriate persona

  • People will tend to judge you based on your outward appearance.
  • If you are not careful and simply assume that it is best to be yourself, they will begin to ascribe to you all kinds of qualities that have little to do with who you are but correspond to what they want to see.

3. See yourself as others see you

  • People see our behavior from the outside, and their view of us is never what we imagine it to be. To have the power to see ourselves through the eyes of others would be of immense benefit to our social intelligence.
  • We begin this process by looking at negative events in our past.
  • In looking at several such incidents, we might begin to see a pattern that indicates a particular flaw in our character.

4. Suffer fools gladly

  • Can't win an argument with them — rationality and results don't matter to fools. You simply waste valuable time and emotional energy.
  • Learn to exploit their foolishness—using them for material for your work, as examples of things to avoid, or by looking for ways to turn their actions to your advantage.

The Creative-Active

The Original Mind — The mind we we're born with, which looked at the world more directly—not through words and received ideas.

The Conventional Mind — As we grow up we become defensive about the world we now take for granted, and we become upset if our beliefs or assumptions are attacked.

  • Passive—it consumes information and regurgitates it in familiar forms.

The Dimensional Mind — a blend of the original mind and the conventional mind.

  • Active, transforming everything it digests into something new and original, creating instead of consuming.
  • 2 requirements — a high level of knowledge about a field or subject (1); the openness and flexibility to use this knowledge in new and original ways (2)

Step One: The Creative Task

The task that you choose to work on must have an obsessive element.

Understand: it is the choice of where to direct his or her creative energy that makes the Master.

Your emotional commitment to what you are doing will be translated directly into your work. If you are excited and obsessive in the hunt, it will show in the details.

Step Two: Creative Strategies

We generally prefer to entertain the same thoughts and ways of thinking because they provide us with a sense of consistency and familiarity.

Whenever we work hard at a problem or idea, our minds naturally narrow their focus because of the strain and effort involved.

strategies for developing such flexibility

Cultivate Negative Capability

Develop the habit of suspending the need to judge everything that crosses your path. You consider and even momentarily entertain viewpoints opposite to your own, seeing how they feel.

Allow for Serendipity

The brain is constantly searching for similarities, differences, and relationships between what it processes. Your task is to feed this natural inclination, to create the optimal conditions for it to make new and original associations between ideas and experiences.

When we are in a more relaxed state, our attention naturally broadens and we take in more stimuli.

Widen your search as far as possible and maintain an openness and looseness of spirit. The moment any idea or observation comes, you note it down.

Alternate the Mind Through "The Current"

The Current is like a mental electrical charge that gains its power through a constant alternation.

By continually cycling between speculation and observation/experiment, we are able to pierce deeper and deeper into reality,

Produce a prototype and see how people respond to it. Based on the assessments you gain, you can redo the work and launch it again, cycling through this process several times until you perfect.

Such feedback will help make visible what is generally invisible to your eyes—the objective reality of your work and its flaws.

Alter Your Perspective

When an event occurs or when we meet a new person, we do not stop to consider all aspects or details, but instead we see an outline or pattern that fits into our expectations and past experiences.

  • Look at the "how" instead of the "what" — pay greater attention to the relationships between things, because that will give you a greater feel for the picture as a whole.
  • Focus on the details before rushing to generalities — to combat this pattern we must sometimes shift our focus from the macro to the micro—placing much greater emphasis on the details, the small picture.
  • Look at the anomalies before confirming the paradigm — anomalies often represent the future, but to our eyes they seem strange. By studying them, you can illuminate this future before anyone else.
  • Notice what is absent instead of fixating on the present— think more broadly and rigorously, ponder the missing information in an event, visualise this absence as easily as we see the presence of something.

Revert to Primal Forms of Intelligence

Those who are truly creative have developed the ability to think beyond language, to access the lower chambers of consciousness, to revert to those primal forms of intelligence that served us for millions of years.

Step Three: The Creative Breakthrough

At a particular high point of tension, masters let go for a moment (e.g. stopping work and going to sleep, deciding to take a break, temporarily working on something else). What almost inevitably happens in such moments is that the solution, the perfect idea for completing the work comes to them.

The feeling that we have endless time to complete our work has an insidious and debilitating effect on our minds.

Emotional pitfalls of the creative-active:

  • Complacency — unknown to ourselves, the mind slowly narrows and tightens as complacency creeps into the soul, and although we may have achieved public acclaim for our past work, we stifle our own creativity and never get it back.
  • Conservatism — you begin to fall in love with the ideas and strategies that worked for you in the past. Why risk changing your style in midstream, or adapting a new approach to your work?
  • Dependency — instead of relying on the Master for evaluation of your work, you—ever insecure about your work and how it will be judged—come to rely on the opinions of the public.
  • Impatience
  • Grandiosity — praise generally does harm. Ever so slowly, the emphasis shifts from the joy of the creative process to the love of attention and to our ever-inflating ego.
  • Inflexibility — you must regularly doubt that you have achieved your goal and subject your work to intensive self-criticism.

Strategies for the Creative-Active Phase

1. The Authentic Voice

  • The greatest impediment to creativity is your impatience, the almost inevitable desire to hurry up the process, express something, and make a splash.
  • What you mistake for being creative and distinctive is more likely an imitation of other people’s style, or personal rantings that do not really express anything.

2. The Fact of Great Yield

  • Instead of beginning with some broad goal, go in search of the fact of great yield—a bit of empirical evidence that is strange and does not fit the paradigm, and yet is intriguing.
  • You must not allow your mind to become tethered to this discipline. Instead you must read journals and books from all different fields.

3. Mechanical Intelligence

  • Whatever you are creating or designing, you must test and use it yourself. Separating out the work will make you lose touch with its functionality.

4. Natural Powers

  • (1) Build into the creative process an initial period that is open-ended — time to dream, wander and start loose in an unfocused manor
  • (2) Have wide knowledge of your field and other fields, giving your brain more possible associations and connections.
  • (3) Never settle into complacency, as if your initial vision represents the endpoint.
  • (4) Embrace slowness as a virtue in itself. The longer you can allow the project to absorb your mental energies, the richer it will become.

5. The High End

  • In many fields we can see and diagnose the same mental disease (technical lock).
  • In order to learn a subject or skill, particularly one that is complex, we must immerse ourselves in many details, techniques, and procedures that are standard for solving problems.
  • If we are not careful, however, we become locked into seeing every problem in the same way, using the same techniques and strategies that became so imprinted in us.

6. The Evolutionary Hijack

  • What constitutes true creativity is the openness and adaptability of our spirit.

7. Dimensional Thinking

  • You are not in a hurry. You prefer the holistic approach. You look at the object of study from as many angles as possible, giving your thoughts added dimensions.

8. Alchemical Creativity and the Unconscious

  • Our desires and experiences do not fit neatly into these tidy categories.
  • Your task as a creative thinker is to actively explore the unconscious and contradictory parts of your personality, and to examine similar contradictions and tensions in the world at large.
  • To create a meaningful work of art or to make a discovery or invention requires great discipline, self-control, and emotional stability.

Mastery

Humans have come to recognise only one form of thinking and intelligence—rationality.

But the types of intuitions discussed by various Masters cannot be reduced to a formula, and the steps they took to arrive at them cannot be reconstructed.

The problem we are facing here is that high-level intuition, the ultimate sign of mastery, involves a process that is qualitatively different from rationality, but is even more accurate and perceptive. In understanding this intelligence, we can begin to see that such power is not miraculous, but intrinsically human and accessible to us all.

Masters have a sense of how everything interacts organically, and they can intuit patterns or solutions in an instant.

The key to attaining this higher level of intelligence is to make our years of study qualitatively rich. We don’t simply absorb information—we internalise it and make it our own by finding some way to put this knowledge to practical use.

Marcel Proust did not simply read books—he took them apart, rigorously analysed them, and learned valuable lessons to apply to his own life. He did not merely socialise—he strained to understand people at their core and to uncover their secret motivations.

Maintain a sense of destiny and feel continuously connected to it. You are unique, and there is a purpose to your uniqueness.

By constantly applying yourself to the subject that suits your inclinations and attacking it from many different angles, you are simply enriching the ground for these seeds to take root.

The Roots of Masterly Intuition

Learn how to quiet the anxiety you feel confronted with anything that seems complex or chaotic. In our journey from apprenticeship to mastery we must patiently learn the various parts and skills that are required, never looking too far ahead.

If the situation is complex and others are reaching for simple black-and-white answers, or for the usual conventional responses, we must make a point of resisting such a temptation.

Do whatever you can to cultivate a greater memory capacity—one of the most important skills in our technologically oriented environment.

Do not simply look for entertainment and distractions. Take up hobbies—a game, a musical instrument, a foreign language—that bring pleasure but also offers the chance to strengthen memory capacities and the flexibility of the brain.

The Return to Reality

The mind tends to move away from interconnectedness and focus instead on the distinctions between things, taking objects out of their contexts and analysing them as separate entities.

On the other hand, there is the opposing tendency of the brain to want to make connections between everything.

Taoism: the Way, and in Stoicism: the Logos (the ordering principle of the universe that connects all living things).

“Keep reminding yourself of the way things are connected, of their relatedness. All things are implicated in one another and in sympathy with each other. This event is the consequence of some other one. Things push and pull on each other, and breathe together, and are one.” — Marcus Aurelius

We can define intelligence as moving toward thinking that is more contextual, more sensitive to the relationships between things.

Strategies for Attaining Mastery

1. Connect to your environment

  • To become such sensitive observers, we must not succumb to all of the distractions afforded by technology; we must be a little primitive.

2. Play to your strengths

  • Look deep within and find your particular strengths and weaknesses, being as realistic as possible.
  • Achieving mastery in life often depends on those first steps that we take. It is not simply a question of knowing deeply our Life’s Task, but also of having a feel for our own ways of thinking and for perspectives that are unique to us.

3. Transform yourself through practice

  • It is time to reverse this prejudice against conscious effort and to see the powers we gain through practice and discipline as eminently inspiring and even miraculous.
  1. Internalise the details
  • Absorb your mind in the fine points and minutiae that are intrinsically part of your work.

5. Widen your vision

  • In any competitive environment in which there are winners or losers, the person who has the wider, more global perspective will inevitably prevail.
  • Such a person will be able to think beyond the moment and control the overall dynamic through careful strategising.
  • Train yourself early on to continually enlarge your perspective. Remind yourself of the overall purpose of the work and how this meshes with your long-term goals.
  • You must not merely observe the rivals in your field, but dissect and uncover their weaknesses. “Look wider and think further ahead” must be your motto.

6. Submit to the other

  • Going deeper into their Otherness, feeling what they feel, we can discover what makes them different and learn about human nature.

7. Synthesise all forms of knowledge

  • Strive to be a part of this universalising process, extending your own knowledge to other branches, further and further out. The rich ideas that will come from such a quest will be their own reward.

Reversal

This reversal leads to enslavement to what we shall call the false self.

Your false self is the accumulation of all the voices you have internalized from other people—parents and friends who want you to conform to their ideas of what you should be like and what you should do, as well as societal pressures to adhere to certain values that can easily seduce you.

It is in fact the height of selfishness to merely consume what others create and to retreat into a shell of limited goals and immediate pleasures.