Mastery by Robert Greene

🎧 Podcast version

I first read this book a few years ago. It took me a few months to get through: the first half was slow going, but the last half I read in a few days.

Now I’m reviewing it as I write up these notes, because it’s one of those books that would go on a Most Influential Books list, if I had one of those.

Good shit.

Greene talks about finding your main thing in life. He calls it your life’s task. Frankly, I’m wary of this type of philosophical approach to work. It feels a lot like opting-out of responsibility (that is, making a choice) and bowing to some vague idea  of destiny. Who is assigning these tasks? Why do we all have one? And how can you ever be sure you figured out what your life’s task really is?

Maybe we should take a look at how Greene actually defines a life’s task, instead of me criticizing what I think he might mean:

“All of us are born unique. This uniqueness is marked genetically in our DNA. We are a one-time phenomenon in the universe–our exact genetic makeup has never occurred before nor will it ever be repeated. For all of us, this uniqueness first expresses itself in childhood through certain primal inclinations.

…How can we explain such inclinations? There are forces within us that come from a deeper place than conscious words can express. They draw us to certain experiences and away from others. …This primal uniqueness naturally wants to assert and express itself… It has a natural, assertive energy to it. Your Life’s Task is to…express your uniqueness through your work.”

To Greene, fulfilling your destiny, or accomplishing your life’s task, is to allow your uniqueness to grow and express itself as fully as you can…. which may sound very fluffy, like bad career advice along the lines of just-follow-your-passion-and-it-will-all-work-out. But Greene is clear about the amount of work you have to put in. He’s also clear about what happens if you’re not willing to put in the work and you settle for some mundane course of life:

If you lose contact with this inner calling, you can have some success in life, but eventually your lack of true desire catches up with you. Your work becomes mechanical.

And then he comes around with statements like this:

We must create our own world or we will die from inaction.

And this:

The passive ironic attitude is not cool or romantic, but pathetic and destructive.

He goes on to talk about what might keep us from doing our own work, following our inner voice and unique force:

“What weakens this force, what makes you not feel it or even doubt its existence, is the degree to which you have succumbed to another force in life–social pressures to conform. This counterforce can be very powerful.”

Check that. It’s tough to trust the internal voice of your own unique individuality over all the combined external voices of… pretty much everybody else.

But overcoming social pressures and the call to conformity is key to becoming what Greene calls a Master:

“Some people never become who they are; they stop trusting in themselves; they conform to the tastes of others, and they end up wearing a mask that hides their true nature. If you allow yourself to learn who you really are by paying attention to that voice and force within you, then you can become what you were fated to become–an individual, a Master.”

The entire first section of the book is dedicated to helping you define (or discover) your life’s task. A few points stand out:

  1. Work is more than work.

“[This inner voice] emanates from your individuality. It tells you which activities suit your character. And at a certain point, it calls you to a particular form of work or career. Your work then is something connected deeply to who you are, not a separate compartment in your life. You develop then a sense of your vocation.”

2. It’s not going to be straightforward.

“…you must see your career or vocational path more as a journey with twists and turns rather than a straight line.”

3. This is practical success advice, not feel-good fluff.

“It is a globalized, harshly competitive environment. We must learn to develop ourselves. At the same time, it is a world teeming with critical problems and opportunities, best solved and seized by entrepreneurs–individuals or small groups who think independently, adapt quickly, and possess unique perspectives. Your individualized, creative skills will be at a premium.”

4. It’s biology, and it’s good for everyone.

“Feeling that we are called to accomplish something is the most positive way for us to supply this sense of purpose and direction. …Our evolution as a species has depended on the creation of a tremendous diversity of skills and ways of thinking. We thrive by the collective activity of people supplying their individual talents. Without such diversity, a culture dies. Your uniqueness at birth is a marker of this necessary diversity. To the degree you cultivate and express it, you are fulfilling a vital role. “

So, look: no pressure, but the preservation of our species depends on you finding your life’s task and mastering it. Right? We better get to work.

The second section of the book discusses apprenticeship. There are lots of ways to be an apprentice. The key is to choose opportunities that “offer the greatest possibilities for learning” and “move toward challenges that will toughen and improve you, where you will get the most objective feedback on your performance and progress.”

A key point of growth–often accomplished in one type of apprenticeship or another–is the refusal to give up when learning becomes very difficult.

“What separates Masters from others is often something surprisingly simple. Whenever we learn a new 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. …The difference is not simply a matter of determination, but of trust and faith….filled with trust in the process, [Masters] trudge on well past the point at which others slow down or mentally quit.”

The third section is about finding guidance from mentors. We might use the word expert instead: seeking out those who are experts, who excel in some particular way that is important to the work you want to do, is important for two reasons. First, it helps us learn the skills needed to raise our quality of work–to truly operate at a level of master. Second, it’s a shortcut to success:

“When we learn something in a concentrated manner it has added value. We experience fewer distractions. What we learn is internalized more deeply because of the intensity of our focus and practice. Our own ideas and development flourish more naturally in this shortened time frame.”

As with apprenticeships, there are lots of ways to find and learn from and work with mentors. And it’s important to note that, given time and effort, you will outgrow your mentors. At that point, it’s time to move on with gratitude, or transform the mentor relationship into something more like a partnership.

Moving on.

Section four is all about social intelligence, which is really learning how to see people as they are, not as we imagine them to be.

“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. The most dangerous types are those who repress their desires or deny the existence of them…You are an observer of the human comedy, and by being as tolerant as possible, you gain a much greater ability to understand people and to influence their behavior when necessary.”

There’s a great deal of insight here, and strategies for increasing your social intelligence, but we could sum up by saying: watch the patterns. Trust what people do, over time, rather than what they say or the identity they present:

“What you want is a picture of a person’s character over time…restrain yourself from the natural tendency to judge right away… your goal is to identify and pierce through to what makes people unique, to understand the character and values that lie at their cores.

Discard the exterior and focus only on their actions and you will have a clearer picture.”

At the same time, remember that–most of the time–you won’t be given that same degree of attention over time. People will judge, and they will judge quickly, and they “will tend to judge you based on your outward appearance.” Greene’s advice is to be aware of this tendency, and work with it:

“…turn this dynamic around by consciously molding these appearances, creating the image that suits you, and controlling people’s judgments. …In this diverse, multicultural world, it is best that you learn how to mingle and blend into all types of environments, giving yourself maximum flexibility. You must take pleasure in creating these personas–it will make you a better performer on the public stage.”

Section five explores how to take the knowledge gained through apprenticeship, mentors, and your own study and skill-building, and apply it in new and original ways to the work you want to do. It’s all about creative action, and success in creative action requires  two things:

“First, the task that you choose must be realistic. The knowledge and skills you have gained must be eminently suited to pulling it off. …Second, you must let go of your need for comfort and security. Creative endeavors are by their nature uncertain. You may know your task, but you are never exactly sure where your efforts will lead.”

Section six is about fusing your intuition with your rational thinking process.

Those who reach mastery gain what Greene calls an intuitive feel for the whole. It’s not a mystical or miraculous thing; it’s the result of all that learning, work, skill-building, and study that you do as you reach for mastery:

“The ability to have this intuitive grasp of the whole and feel this dynamic is simply a function of time….With this much practice and experience, all kinds of connections have been formed in the brain between different forms of knowledge. Masters thus have a sense of how everything interacts organically, and they can intuit patterns or solutions in an instant.”

Intuition, or at least the kind of intuitive knowing that masters demonstrate, is a function of information that has been absorbed to the degree that it is resting in our subconscious, and can be called up when needed to help solve a problem, answer a question, or make something:

“Intuition, primitive or high level, is essentially driven by memory. When we take in information of any kind, we store it in mnemonic networks in the brain. The stability and durability of these networks depends on repetition, intensity of experience, and how deeply we pay attention.”

Throughout the book, Greene shares stories and challenges of Masters and pithy little observations about, oh, psychology and evolutionary tendencies and human behavior and failure and success and creativity and tiny subjects like that.

For example:

A natural response when people feel overwhelmed is to retreat into various forms of passivity. If we don’t try too much in life, if we limit our circle of action, we can give ourself the illusion of control. The less we attempt, the less chances of failure. If we can make it look like we are not really responsible for our fate, for what happens to use in life, then our apparent powerlessness is more palatable. For this reason we become attracted to certain narratives…

Boy, do we ever become attracted to certain narratives.

Anyway.

This book is all about achieving mastery in your work, or vocation. But it applies in much larger arena, I think. I feel like, in one sense, I’ve failed Greene’s first requirement for mastery: finding your life’s task. I’m almost 40 years old and I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up… except for learn, and explore, and keep learning and exploring, and get deep with people who also want to learn and explore, because there’s really nothing more infinite to explore than the inner workings of humanity, and relationships are a great way to go exploring.

To me, that’s the most exciting aspect of being alive: discovering what’s out there–or what’s in here–and understanding as much as I can, and sharing that process with others, and allowing what I learn to transform me and to actively create a life that is as fluid and vast and delightful and unpredictable as the human spirit.

“This desire for what is simple and easy infects all of us, often in ways we are mostly unaware of. The only solution is the following: we must learn how to quiet the anxiety we feel whenever we are confronted with anything that seems complex or chaotic. …What we are doing is gaining a tolerance and event a taste for chaotic moments, training ourselves to entertain several possibilities or solutions. Faithfully pursuing this course over enough time, we will eventually be rewarded with intuitive powers. …Possessing even a part of such power will instantly separate us from all of the others who find themselves overwhelmed and straining to simplify what is inherently complex. What seemed chaotic to us before will now seem to be simply a fluid situation with a particular dynamic that we have a feel for and can handle with relative ease.”