Mastery by Robert Greene

MasteryMastery by Robert Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Drawing lessons from the lives of accomplished people, this book offers practical, organized advice for how to realize your own Life’s Task.

If a friend had not recommended this book to me, I doubt I would ever have given it a look. I bought Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power a few years ago but quickly found it to be repugnant. It struck me as being a manual for psychopaths: handsome, well laid out, well thought out—and chilling. I wondered what sort of a person Robert Greene must be.

I probably still don’t know the answer to that, but I have now finished reading one of his books, and it is written from what feels like a different point of view. For while the earlier book was about how to gain and hold control of other people, this one is about how to find, develop, and fully realize one’s own Life’s Task. There is still one section of the book devoted to the politics of “mastery”—how to deal with the envious, the lazy, and the clueless—but most of the advice concerns how to apply one’s own effort.

The author’s method was to study the biographies of those who have achieved mastery—command of a particular discipline or skill. The masters he looks at range from the historical, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Michael Faraday, to the contemporary, such as the architect Santiago Calatrava, the boxer and coach Freddie Roach, and the autistic animal psychologist Temple Grandin. To get material on the contemporary masters, of whom there are nine in the book, Greene conducted in-depth interviews with each. The book is laid out as a step-by-step sequence of explicit rules, each illustrated with case studies from the lives of the masters. The structure is clear, effective, and engaging. Indeed, I was impressed when I first opened the book to its table of contents, which is laid out as a miniature outline of the whole, with text summarizing the flow of the argument. Nice.

So what exactly is mastery, and how do you achieve it? Greene defines mastery as a heightened form of power and intelligence which any of us can attain, and which almost all of us experience from time to time under suitable conditions, such as the urgent need to solve a problem or to meet a deadline. A master is someone who, through long training and discipline, has acquired the ability to enter this state of mind at will, and whose work therefore has a characteristic stamp of authority and innovativeness. According to Greene, such mastery represents the fullest realization of our human potential in the world, and all of us, whether we know it or not, aspire to it and are capable of it.

But not without a great deal of effort, of different kinds, over a long period. My first awareness of this book came a couple of years ago when I heard the soundbite that it takes 10,000 hours of practice at something to achieve mastery of it. Greene does mention this figure (it’s not original with him), but notes further that those 10,000 hours must be of a certain quality in order to count toward mastery. The effort must be focused, disciplined, and goal-oriented. In general this can’t be achieved on one’s own; one needs the guidance of a mentor.

Greene breaks the whole process down into 6 steps:

1. Discover your calling
2. Undergo your apprenticeship
3. Accept training from a mentor
4. Develop “social intelligence” to cope with people
5. Expand your knowledge beyond your own field
6. Fuse the intuitive with the rational to perform at peak

He breaks these into specific subtasks or “strategies,” each illustrated with case studies from the lives of real masters. Curious about how to find your life’s task? Greene gives 5 separate strategies. The emphasis though at this stage is self-knowledge. You can’t become who you truly are unless you know—or in some way intuit—who you truly are. The good news is that there are abundant clues in our lives as to who we truly are. If we don’t know who we are, it is because we have not cast off the brainwashing that each of us undergoes in the process of growing up.

Such casting off is easier said than done. I think back to a conversation I had in my mid-20s with a former schoolmate. I had dropped out of university to pursue a career (I cringe now to type that word) as a writer. He said that that was what he had wanted to do, but instead, under pressure from his parents, he had gone through law school. He did become a lawyer—a prominent and successful one—but I think back to our conversation in 1986 and wonder whether he has second thoughts (God knows I do).

Greene implies that the path of mastery is only for the few. This is not due to the rarity of innate talent, the importance of which Greene downplays. For what we call prodigious ability or genius is most often the product of long, diligent effort—Edison’s “one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” (and Thomas Edison is one of the masters profiled in the book). The child Mozart by age 10 had probably already amassed his 10,000 hours of focused practice due to his early monomania with music. The bigger obstacles are fear and conformism, and we all have fear, and we all have some desire to conform. It is these obstacles that lead the great majority of us through our lives of quiet desperation.

Here too, though, there is good news, for Greene says more than once that it is never too late to start on the path to mastery. At a couple of points I felt that he might be contradicting himself when he stresses how long it takes to get through the steps to mastery. But that might just mean that while you can always start, you might not be able to finish the path to mastery before the clock runs out.

The idea of a Life’s Task brought to mind a comparison with Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential by Caroline Myss, which is also concerned with helping one find one’s life mission. The contrast between these writers is great. Myss’s point of departure is the spirit: she sees human life as fundamentally a spiritual journey, and whatever careers or tasks we might undertake must be part of that spiritual journey, if we are to find them fulfilling. Greene’s outlook, in contrast, is worldly. He does speak of world problems and acknowledges the importance of solving them, but he sees the human enterprise as a result of evolution, and mastery as the most enjoyable state for a human brain to be in.

There is no real conflict between these points of view, but they are distinct. Greene’s chapter on social intelligence might just as well have been called “dealing with dickheads in the workplace.” Here there is a taste of the Machiavellian tone of The 48 Laws of Power. But if human beings really are just naked apes, then Machiavelli is exactly whom you need to get to the top of the pile.

Greene writes in an authoritative, even apodictic style, as though he really does see himself as a latter-day Machiavelli or Sun Tzu. Time will tell, I suppose. For my part I enjoyed this book and I respect it. Furthermore, it has inspired me to take courage in my own Life’s Task, and I expect to turn to it again and again on that lonely but rewarding journey.

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