Mastery by Robert Greene


RATING: 6/10…READ: December 10, 2012

Mastery breaks down the “Experts” in history’s paths to achieving amazing success from Mozart, Darwin, to Paul Graham with numerous strategies from discovering your calling, skill acquisition, apprenticeship, creativity, and much more. This book takes a shotgun approach and packs so many principles in one book that it left my head spinning. I found So Good They Can’t Ignore You much more helpful.

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Our dominance, our mastery does not stem from our hands but from our brains, from our fashioning the mind into the most powerful instrument known in nature—far more powerful than any claw. And at the root of this mental transformation are two simple biological traits—the visual and the social—that primitive humans leveraged into power.

To the extent that we believe we can skip steps, avoid the process, magically gain power through political connections or easy formulas, or depend on our natural talents, we move against this grain and reverse our natural powers. We become slaves to time—as it passes, we grow weaker, less capable, trapped in some dead-end-career. We become captive to the opinions and fears of others. Rather than the mind connecting us to reality, we become disconnected and locked in a narrow chamber of thought. The human that depended on focused attention for its survival now becomes the distracted scanning animal, unable to think in depth, yet unable to depend on instincts.

The basic elements of this story repeated the lives of all of the great Masters in history: a youthful passion or predilection, a chance encounter that allows them to discover how to apply it , an apprenticeship in which they come alive with energy and focus. They excel by their ability to practice harder and move faster through the process, all of this stemming from the intensity of their desire to learn and from the deep connection they feel to their field of study. And a the core of this intensity of effort is in fact a quality that is genetic and inborn—not talent or brilliance, which is something that must be developed, but rather a deep and powerful inclination toward a particular subject.

If we don’t try too much in life, if we limit our circle of action, we can give ourselves 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 us in life, then our apparent powerlessness is more palatable. For this reason we become attracted to certain narratives: it is genetics that determines  much of what we do; we are just products of our times; the individual is just a myth; human behavior can be reduced to statistical trends.

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. This is a power and intelligence that must be continually renewed or it will die.


At your birth a seed is planted. That see is your uniqueness. It wants to grow, transform itself, and flower to its full potential. It has a natural, assertive energy to it. Your Life’s Task is to bring that seed to flower, to express your uniqueness through your work. You have a destiny to fulfill. The stronger you feel and maintain it—as a force, a voice, or in whatever form—the greater your chance for fulfilling this Life’s Task and achieving mastery.

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.

What we lack most in the modern world is a sense of a larger purpose to our lives. In the past, it was organized religions that often supplied this. But most of us now live in a secularized world. We human animals are unique—we must build our own world.

For Bergman, it was not film but the sensation of creating and animating life.



Your power and future can depend on reconnecting with this core and returning to your origins. 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 you all along.


In the beginning you choose a field that roughly corresponds to your interests (medicine, electrical engineering). From there you can go in on of two directions. From within your chosen filed you look for side paths that attract you. You continue this process until you eventually hit upon a totally unoccupied niche. The narrower the better.

OR once you mastered a field (robotics), you look for other subjects or skills that you can conquer (neuroscience) on your own time if necessary. Combine added filed of knowledge with current one making connections—can never stop expanding.


Scoff at the need for attention and approval—they will lead you astray. Feel some anger and resentment at the parental forces that want to foist upon you an alien vocation. It is a healthy part of your development to follow a path independent of your parents and to establish your own identity. Let your sense of rebellion fill you with energy and purpose. If it is the father figure, the Leopold Mozart, that is blocking your path, you must slay him and clear the way.


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. It is up to you to find it and guide it correctly. It is not up to others to protect or help you. You are on your own. Change is inevitable, particularly in such a revolutionary moment as ours. Since you are on your own, it is up to you to foresee the changes going on right now in your profession. You must adapt your Life’s task to these circumstances. You do not hold on to past ways of doing things, because that will ensure you fall behind and suffer for it. You are flexible and always looking to adapt.


The road to mastery requires patience. You will have to keep your focus five or ten years down the road, when you will reap the rewards of your efforts. The process of getting there, however, is full of challenges and pleasures. Make your return to the path a resolution you set for yourself, and then tell others about it. It becomes a matter of shame and embarrassment to deviate from this path. 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.

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. Instead, like Temple Grandin, direct yourself toward the small things you are good at. Do not dream or make grand plans for the future, but instead concentrate on becoming proficient at these simple and immediate skills. This will bring you confidence and become a base from which you can expand to other pursuits.


The principle is simple and must be engraved deeply in your mind: the goal of an apprenticeship is not money, a good position, a title, or a diploma, but rather the transformation of your mind and character—the first transformation on the way to mastery.


The greatest mistake you can make in the initial months of your apprenticeship is to imagine that you have to get attention, impress people, and prove yourself. These thoughts will dominate your mind and close it off from the reality around you. Any positive attention you receive is deceptive; it is not based on your skills or anything real, and it will turn against you. Instead, you will want to acknowledge the reality and submit to it, muting your colors and keeping in the background as much as possible, remaining passive and giving yourself the space to observe.


First, it is essential that you begin with one skill you can master, and that serves as a foundation for acquiring others. You must avoid at all cost the idea that you can manage learning several skills at a time. You need to develop your powers of concentration, and understand that trying to multitask will be the death of the process.

Second, the initial stages of learning a skill invariably involve tedium. Yet rather than avoiding this inevitable tedium, you must accept and embrace it. The pain and boredom we experience in the initial stages of learning a skill toughens our minds, much like physical exercise.

It is better to dedicate two or three hours of intense focus to a skill than to spend eight hours of diffused concentration on it. You want to be as immediately present to what you are doing as possible.

What offers immediate pleasure comes to seem like a distraction, an empty entertainment to help pass the time. Real pleasure comes from overcoming challenges, feeling confidence in your abilities, gaining fluency in skills, and experiencing the power this brings. You develop patience. Boredom no longer signals the need for distraction, but rather the need for new challenges to conquer.


As you gain skill and confidence, you must make the move to a more active mode of experimentation. This could mean taking on more responsibility, initiating  a project of some sort, doing work that exposes you to the criticisms of peers or even the public. The point of this is to gauge your progress and whether there are still gaps in your knowledge. You are observing yourself in action and seeing how you will respond to the judgments of others. Can you take criticism and use it constructively.


Value learning over money—forgo the quick money opportunities for the chance to learn more.

Keep expanding your horizons—mingle with as many different types of people as possible and widen your circle.

Revert to the feeling of inferiority—childlike wonder, the feeling that others know more than you, thus a willingness to learn.

Trust the process—trudge past the point where others slow down or mentally quit.

MOVE TOWARDS RESISTANCE AND PAIN—go in the opposite direction of all natural tendencies when it comes to practice.

APPRENTICE YOURSELF IN FAILURE—repeated failures will toughen your spirit and show you clarity on how things must be done / avenues to avoid.

COMBINE THE “HOW” AND THE “WHAT”—constantly ask: how do things work? How do decisions get made? How does this group interact?

ADVANCE THROUGH TRIAL AND ERROR—keep building skills, let your enthusiasm guide you—let opportunities expand you.

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 recognize and to whom you submit. You admission of need does not say anything essential about you, but only about your temporary condition of weakness, which your mentor will help you overcome.

MENTOR: What took you ten years on your own could have been done in five with proper direction.

-You have something tangible and practical to offer in addition to your youth and energy.

-You may not wan to go in search of mentors until you have acquired some elementary skills and discipline that you can rely to interest them.

You will want as much personal interaction with the mentor as possible. A virtual relationship is never enough. There are cues and subtle aspects you can only pick up through a person-to-person interaction—such as a way of doing things that has evolved through much experience.

In selecting a mentor, you will want to keep in mind your inclinations and life’s task, the future position you envision for yourself. The mentor you choose should be strategically aligned with this. If your path is in a more revolutionary direction, you will want a mentor who is open, progressive, and not domineering. If your ideal aligns more with a style that is somewhat idiosyncratic, you will want a mentor who will make you feel comfortable with this and help you transform your peculiarities into mastery, instead of trying to squelch them.

Even as we listen and incorporate the ideas of our mentors, we must slowly cultivate some distance from them. We begin by gently adapting their ideas to our circumstances, altering them to fit our style and inclinations. As we progress we can become bolder, even focusing on faults or weaknesses in some of their ideas. We slowly mold their knowledge into our own shape. As we grow in confidence and contemplate our independence, we can even grow competitive with the mentor we once worshipped.

NO MENTOR: 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. As much as possible, you try to apply your knowledge in some form of experiment or practice. You find for yourself second-degree mentors in the form of public figures who can serve as role models. Reading and reflecting on their experiences, you can gain some guidance. You try to make their ideas come to life, internalizing their voice. As someone self-taught, you will maintain a pristine vision, completely distilled through your own experience—giving you a distinctive power and path to mastery.


To be truly charming and socially effective you have to understand people, and to understand them you have to get outside yourself and immerse your mind in their world.

You should take special note of how people respond to stressful situations—often the mask they wear in public falls off in the heat of the moment.

In general, you are reading and decoding every possible sign—including the clothes they wear and the organized or disorganized nature of their workspace. The choice of mate or partner can be quite eloquent too, particularly if it seems slightly inconsistent with the character they try to project. In this choice they can reveal unmet needs from childhood, a desire for power and control, a low self image, and other qualities they normally seek to disguise. What might seem like small issues—chronically being late, insufficient attention to detail, not returning any favors on your part—are signs of something deeper about their character. These are patterns you must pay attention to. Nothing is too small to notice.

You must be careful not to boast of any success, and if necessary, to ascribe it to just good luck on your part. It is always wise to occasionally reveal your own insecurities, which will humanize you in other people’s eyes.

RESTRAINT: Think of the workplace as a kind of theater in which you are always wearing a mask. Reserve your most interesting and colorful thoughts for your friends, and for those whom you can trust outside work. Be careful in what you say—it is not worth the bother of freely expressing your opinions.

The best strategy is to simply accept rigidity in others, outwardly displaying deference to their need for order. On your own, however, you must work to maintain your open spirit, letting go of bad habits and deliberating cultivating new ideas.

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.

In general, be wary of people who want to collaborate—they are often trying to find someone who will do the heavier lifting for them.

It is best to cultivate both distance and a degree of detachment from other people’s shifting emotions so that you are not caught up in the process. Focus on their actions, which are generally more consistent, and not on their words.

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.


SPEAK THROUGH YOUR WORK: Understand 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 demonstate that you are thinking of the group at large and advancing the cause. By making what you write or present clear and easy to follow, you show your care for the audience or public at large. By involving other people in your projects and gracefully accepting their feedback, you reveal your comfort within the group dynamic.

CRAFT THE APPROPRIATE PERSONA: In general, you never settle on one image or give people the power to completely figure you out. You are always one step ahead of the public.

SEE YOURSELF AS OTHERS SEE YOU: We can also elicit opinions from those we trust about our behavior, making certain to first reassure them that we want their criticism. Slowly, in this way, we can develop increasing self-detachment, which will yield us the other half of social intelligence—the ability to see ourselves as we really are.

SUFFER FOOLS GLADLY: In dealing with fools you must adopt the following philosophy: they are simply a part of life, like rocks or furniture. All of us have foolish sides, moments in which we lose our heads and think more of our ego or short term goals.


The Dimensional Way has two essential requirements: one, a high level of knowledge about a field or subject; and two, the openness and flexibility to use this knowledge in new and original ways


The task that you choose to work on must have an obsessive element. Like the Life Task, it must connect to something deep with you.

This is the primary law of creative dynamic that you must engrave deeply in your mind and never forget: your emotional commitment to what you are doing will be translated directly into your work. If you go at your work with half a heart, it will show in the lackluster results and in the laggard way in which you reach the end.



The need for certainty is the greatest disease the mind faces. To put Negative Capability into practice, you must 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. You observe a person or event for a length of time, deliberately holding yourself back from forming an opinion. You seek out what is unfamiliar—for instance, reading books from unfamiliar writers in unrelated fields or from different schools of thought. You do anything to break up your normal train of thinking and your sense that you already know the truth.


The first step is to widen your search as far as possible. In the research stage of your project, you look at more than what is generally required. You expand your search into other fields, reading and absorbing any related information. If you have a particular theory or hypothesis about a phenomenon, you examine as many examples and potential counterexamples as humanly possible.

Keep an ideas notebook.


Alternating between ideas and artifacts will help you to create something compelling and effective.


In general, try approaching a problem or idea with a much more open mind. Let your study of the details guide your thinking and shape your theories. Think of everything in nature, or in the world, as a kind of hologram—the smallest part reflecting something essential about the whole. Immersing yourself in the details will combat the generalizing tendencies of the brain and bring you closer to reality. Make sure, however, that you do not become lost in the details and lose sight of how they reflect the whole and fit into a larger idea. That is simple the other side of the same disease.

If you are experiencing a lot of resistance and setbacks in your work, try to see this as in fact something that is quite positive and productive.


Using diagrams and models to help further the creative process can be immensely productive. Early in his research, Charles Darwin, who was normally not a visual thinker, came up with an image to help him conceptualize evolution—an irregularly branching tree.

You must expand as well your notion of thinking and creativity beyond the confines of words and intellectualizations. Stimulating your brain and senses from all directions will help unlock your natural creativity and help revive your original mind.


The feeling that we have endless time to complete our work has an insidious and debilitating effect on our minds. Our attention and thoughts become defused. Our lack of intensity makes it hard for the brain to jolt into a higher gear. The connections do not occur. For this purpose you must always try to work with deadlines, whether real or manufactured. Faced with the slenderest amount of time to reach the end, the mind rises to the level you require.


COMPLACENCY: Regain the sense of wonder. Remember everything started from nothing.

CONSERVATION: Make creativity rather than comfort your goal.

DEPENDENCY: Break free of the Master (including books), let go of public opinion

IMPATIENCE: like an athlete, you come to enjoy rigorous practice, pushing past your limits, and resisting the easy way out.

GRANDIOSITY: don’t become a whor to praise.

INFLEXIBILITY: avoid emotional extremes and find a way to feel optimism and doubt at the same time.


“Don’t think about why you question, simply don’t stop questioning. Don’t worry about what you can’t answer, and don’t try to explain what you can’t know. Curiosity is its own reason. Aren’t you in awe when you contemplate the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure behind reality? And this is the miracle of the human mind—to use its constructions, concepts, and formulas as tools to explain what man sees, feels, and touches. Try to comprehend a little more each day. Have holy curiosity.” –Albert Einstein


By spending so long learning structure, developing technique, and absorbing every possible style and way of playing, Coltrane built up a vast vocabulary. Once all of this became hardwired into his nervous system, his mind could focus on higher things.

Understand the greatest impediment to creativity is your impatience, the almost inevitable desire to hurry up the process, express something and make a splash. What happens in such a case is that you do not master the basics; you have no real vocabulary at your disposal. 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.

Anyone who would spend ten years absorbing the techniques and conventions of their field, trying them out, mastering them, exploring and personalizing them, would inevitably find their authentic voice and give birth to something unique and expressive.


The more experienced, wiser types, such as Ramachandran, are opportunists. Instead of beginning with some broad goal, they 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. This bit of evidence sticks out and grabs their attention, like the elongated rock. They are not sure of their goal and they do not yet have in min an application for the fact they have uncovered, but they are open to where it will lead them. Once they dig deeply, they discover something that challenges prevailing conventions and offers endless opportunities for knowledge and application.


The principles behind mechanical intelligence can be summarized as follows: whatever you are creating or designing, you must test and use it yourself. Separating out the work that will make you lose touch with its functionality. Through intense labor on your part, you gain a feel for what you are creating. In doing this work, you see and feel the flaws in the design You do not look at the parts separately but at how they interact, experiencing what you produce as a whole.


First, it is essential to build into the creative process an initial period that is open-ended. You give yourself time to dream and wander, to start out in a loose and unfocused manner.

Second, it is best to have wide knowledge of your field and other fields, giving your brain more possible associations and connections.

Third, to keep this process alive, you must never settle into complacency, as if your initial vision represents the endpoint. You must cultivate profound dissatisfaction with your work and the need to constantly improve your ideas, along with a sense of uncertainty—you are not exactly sure where to go next, an this uncertainty drives the creative urge and keeps it fresh.

Finally, embrace slowness as a virtue in itself. Time is your greatest ally.


She took their conventions and turned them upside down. Following this strategy will give your work a kind of reverse reference point and a way to shape it.


Your project or the problem you are solving should always be connected to something larger—a bigger question, an overarching idea, an inspiring goal. Whenever your work begins to feel stale, you must return to the larger purpose and goal that impelled you in the first place.


The lesson is simple—what constitutes true creativity is the openness and adaptability of our spirit. When we see or experience something we must be able to look at if from several angles, to see other possibilities beyond the obvious ones.


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. You assume that the parts if any whole interact with one another and cannot be completely separated. In your mind, you get as close to the complicated truth and reality of your object of study as possible. In the process, great mysteries will unravel themselves before your eyes.


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.

You look at society at large and the various contractions that are rampant—for instance, the way in which a culture that espouses the ideal of free expression is charged with an oppressive code of political correctness that tramps free expression down. In science, you look for ideas that go against the existing paradigm, or that seem inexplicable because they are so contradictory. All these contradictions contain a rich mine of information about a reality that is deeper and more complex than the one immediately perceived.


Proust himself complained endlessly about the time that he had wasted as a young man and how little he had accomplished, but these complaints cannot be taken at face value, because he never gave up.

Like Proust you must also maintain a sense of destiny, and feel continuously connected to it. You are unique, and there is a purpose to your uniqueness. You must see every setback, failure, or hardship as a trial along the way, as seeds that are being planted for further cultivation, if you know how to grow them. No moment is wasted if you pay attention and learn the lessons contained in every experience. 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 those seeds to take root.

THE TAO, LOGOS, ETC: The ultimate distinction you make is between yourself and the world. There is the inside (your subjective experience) and there is the outside. But every time you learn something, your brain is altered as new connections are formed. Your experience fo something that occurs in the world physically alters your brain. The boundaries between you and the world are much more fluid than your might imagine. When you move toward mastery, your brain beocmes radically altered by the years of practice and active experimentation. It is no longer the simply ecosystem of years gone by. The brain of a Master is so richly interconnected that it comes to resemble the physical world, and becomes a vibrant ecosystem in which all forms of thinking associate and connect. This growing similarity between the brain and complex life itself represents the ultimate return to reality.


You must see your environment as a physical entity and your connection to it as visceral. If there is any instrument you must fall in love with and fetishsize, it is the human brain.


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 always of thinking and for perspectives that are unique to use. A deep level of empathy for animals or for certain types of people may not seem like a skill or an intellectual strength, but in truth it is.

The peculiarities to our makeup is precisely what we must pay the deepest attention to and learn on in our rise to mastery.


If we are learning a complex skill, such as flying a jet in combat, we must master a series of simple skills, one on top of the other. Each time one must master a series of simple skills, one on top of the other. Each time one skill becomes automatic, the mind is freed up to focus on the higher one. At the very end of this process, when there are no more simple skills to learn, the brain has assimilated an incredible amount of information, all of which has become internalized, part of our nervous system. The whole complex skills is now inside us and at our fingertips. We are thinking but in a different way—with the body and mind completely fused. We are transformed. We possess a form of intelligence that allows us to approximate the instinctual power of animals but only through a conscious, deliberate, and extended practice.


He was not interested in creating surface effects. He was animated by a hunger to understand life forms from the inside out and to grasp the force that makes them dynamic, and to somehow express all of this on a flat surface. And so, not fitting in, he went on his own peculiar path, mixing science and art.

Most people don’t have the patience to absorb their minds in the fine points and minutiae that are intrinsically part of their work. They are in a hurry to create effects and make a splash; they think in large brush strokes. Their work evitable reveals their lack of attention to detail—it doesn’t connect deeply with the public, and it feels flimsy.


In dealing with any problem, you must train yourself to look at how it inevitably connects to a larger picture. If your work is not having the desired effect, you must look at it from all angles until you find the source of the problem. 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.


Through continual exposure to people and by attempting to think inside them we can gain an increasing sense of their perspective, but this requires effort on our part. Our natural tendency is to project onto other people our own beliefs and value systems, in ways in which we are not even aware. When it comes to studying another culture, it is only through the use of our empathetic powers and by participating in their lives that we can begin to overcome these natural projections and arrive at the reality of their experience. To do so we must overcome our great fear of the Other and the unfamiliarity of their ways.


Draw insights from numerous fields and put it all together.