Mastery Book Cover Mastery
Robert Greene
Business & Economics
October 29, 2013

This came recommended by multiple people that I follow. Honestly, it was a "meh" for me. Lots of mini-biographies of "masters" like DaVinci, Darwin, Mozart, Proust, Goethe, Wright Brothers, Einstein, Coltrane, Martha Graham, etc. Lessons dissected from their successes, and categorized. Not a big impact for me. I will read his "48 Laws of Power" at some point but I think Ryan Holiday has perfected this style.


Thinking can be slow, and in its slowness can become ineffective. So much of our obsessive, internal thought process tends to disconnect us from the world. Intuitive powers at the mastery level are a mix of the instinctive and the rational.

Mirror neurons: the ability to think inside everything around, make decisions rapidly and effectively, having gained a complete understanding of their environment.

When we take our time and focus in depth, when we trust that going through a process of months or years will bring us mastery, we work with the grain of this marvelous instrument that developed over so many millions of years.

We dismiss our thoughts without notice, because they are ours. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts.

A quality that is genetic and inborn – not talent or brilliance, but rather a deep and powerful inclination toward a particular subject. This inclination is a reflection of a person’s uniqueness.

Desire, patience, persistence, and confidence end up playing a much larger role in success than sheer reasoning powers. Feeling motivated and energized, we can overcome almost anything. Feeling bored and restless, our minds shut off and we become increasingly passive.

The moment that 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.

“Geniuses” all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well.

Leonardo da Vinci: His mind worked best when he had several different projects at hand, allowing him to build all kinds of connections between them. He didn’t care so much about the finished product; it was the search and process in creating something that had always excited him.

Your Life’s Task is 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.

Your desire and interest slowly wane and your work suffers for it. You come to see pleasure and fulfillment as something that comes from outside your work. Because you are increasingly less engaged in your career, you fail to pay attention to changes going on in the field – you fall behind the times and pay a price for this. At moments when you must make important decisions, you flounder or follow what others are doing because you have no sense of inner direction or radar to guide you. You have broken contact with your destiny.

You are your own Master.

Equality, which we mistake for the need for everyone to be the same, is really the equal chance for people to express their differences.

You must see your vocation as eminently poetic and inspiring.

Connecting to your inclinations and Life’s Task requires a good deal of planning and strategizing.

Deal with the main obstacles in your path: the voices of others infecting you, fighting over limited resources, choosing false paths, getting stuck in the past, and losing your way.

In order to master a field, you must love the subject and feel a profound connection to it. Your interest must transcend the field itself and border on the religious.

Return to your origins:
For Einstein, it was not physics but a fascination with invisible forces that governed the universe.
For Bergman, it was not film but the sensation of creating and animating life.
For Coltrane, it was not music but giving voice to powerful emotions.
These childhood attractions are hard to put into words and are more like sensations.

An attraction that is not infected by the desires of other people – a desire to repeat an activity that you never tired of.

The more people there are crowded into a space, the harder it becomes to thrive there. Working in such a field will tend to wear you out as you struggle to get attention, to play the political games, to win scarce resources for yourself. You spend so much time at these games that you have little time left over for true mastery. You are seduced into such fields because you see others there. Instead, find a niche in the ecology that you can dominate.

Actively rebel against those forces that have pushed you away from your true path.

If you rigidly follow a plan set in your youth, you lock yourself into a position, and the times will ruthlessly pass you by.

(suicide:) You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to Universe.

You are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others.

People suffered more from sameness than from nonconformity.

Learn the lessons and follow the path established by the greatest Masters – a kind of Ideal Apprenticeship that transcends all fields. In the process you will master the necessary skills, discipline your mind, and transform yourself into an independent thinker, prepared for the creative challenges on the way to mastery.

The goal of an apprenticeship is the transformation of your mind and character.

Transform yourself from someone who is impatient and scattered into someone who is disciplined and focused, with a mind that can handle complexity.

Constantly look for challenges, pushing yourself past your comfort zone. Use danger and difficulties as a way to measure progress.

Three essential steps in your apprenticeship, each one overlapping the other:
Deep Observation (The Passive Mode)
Skills Acquisition (The Practice Mode)
Experimentation (The Active Mode)

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.

Keep in the background as much as possible, remaining passive and giving yourself the space to observe.

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. Reaching this cycle is the goal you must set for yourself.

Begin with one skill that you can master, and that serves as a foundation for acquiring others.

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.

The pain and boredom we experience in the initial stage of learning a skill toughens our minds, much like physical exercise.

This process of hardwiring cannot occur if you are constantly distracted, moving from one task to another.

Gain as much feedback as possible from others, to have standards against which you can measure your progress so that you are aware of how far you have to go.

When you practice and develop any skill, you transform yourself. Your sense of pleasure becomes redefined. 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.

Find a way to work with your hands, or to learn more about the inner workings of the machines and pieces of technology around you.

What prevents people from learning is a sense of smugness and superiority whenever we encounter something alien to our ways, as well as rigid ideas about what is real or true.

Children are dependent upon adults for their survival and naturally feel inferior. This sense of inferiority gives them a hunger to learn. Through learning, they can bridge the gap and not feel so helpless. Their minds are completely open; they pay greater attention. This is why children can learn so quickly and so deeply.

Go in the opposite direction of all of your natural tendencies when it comes to practice. Resist the temptation to be nice to yourself.

Give precedence to the elements you are not good at.

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.

Invent exercises that work upon your weaknesses.

Give yourself arbitrary deadlines.

Develop your own standards for excellence, generally higher than those of others.

To an entrepreneurial venture, mistakes and failures are precisely your means of education. They tell you about your own inadequacies. It is hard to find out such things from people, as they are often political with their praise and criticisms. Your failures also permit you to see the flaws of your ideas, which are only revealed in the execution of them. You learn what your audience really wants, the discrepancy between your ideas and how they affect the public. Pay close attention to the structure of your group – how your team is organized, the degree of independence you have from the source of capital. These are design elements as well, and such management issues are often hidden sources of problems.

To apprentice as an entrepreneur you must act on your ideas as early as possible, exposing them to the public, a part of you even hoping that you’ll fail.

Study as deeply as possible the technology we use, the functioning of the group we work in, the economics of our field, its lifeblood.

When we learn something in a concentrated manner, 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.

Nostalgia for the intensity with which we used to experience the world: As the years pass, this intensity inevitably diminishes. We come to see the world through a screen of words and opinions; our prior experiences, layered over the present, color what we see. We no longer look at things as they are, noticing their details, or wonder why they exist. Our minds gradually tighten up.

Ask the kinds of simple questions that most people pass over, but have the rigor and discipline to follow your investigations all the way to the end.

The human mind is naturally creative, constantly looking to make associations and connections between things and ideas. It wants to explore, to discover new aspects of the world, and to invent. To express this creative force is our greatest desire, and the stifling of it the source of our misery. What kills the creative force is not age or a lack of talent, but our own spirit, our own attitude.

To think more flexibly entails a risk – we could fail and be ridiculed.

You must have faith that what you are doing will yield something important.

The choice of where to direct creative energy makes the Master.

Choose something that appeals to your sense of unconventionality and calls up latent feelings of rebelliousness.

In opting for something that has deep personal appeal to you, you will naturally move in an unorthodox direction. Try to ally this with a desire to subvert conventional paradigms and go against the grain.

Strategies to loosen up the mind: feel doubt and uncertainty for as long as possible. Your thoughts will be more real than if you had jumped to conclusions and formed judgments early.

Confirmation bias: what you will often end up expressing is an opinion rather than a truthful observation about reality.

The need for certainty is the greatest disease the mind faces.

Suspend the need to judge everything.

Adopt a kind of humility toward knowledge.

Negative Capability should not be a permanent state of mind. In order to produce work of any sort we must create limits on what we’ll consider; we must organize our thoughts into relatively cohesive patterns, and eventually, come up with conclusions. In the end, we must make certain judgments. Negative Capability is a tool we use in the process to open the mind up temporarily to more possibilities. Once this way of thinking leads to a creative avenue of thought, we can give our ideas a clearer shape and gently let it go, returning to this attitude whenever we feel stale or blocked.

The essence of the creative mind: every stimulus that enters the brain is processed, turned over, and reevaluated. Nothing is taken at face value.

Perception itself becomes a stimulating exercise in thinking.

If we had failed to speculate on the meaning of what we had observed, we simply would have had an observation that led us nowhere. If we had speculated without continuing to observe and verify, then we simply would have had some random idea floating in our heads. But by continually cycling between speculation and observation/experiment, we are able to pierce deeper and deeper into reality.

Become aware of the typical patterns your mind falls into and how you can break out of these patterns and alter your perspective.

Anomalies themselves contain the richest information. They often reveal to us the flaws in our paradigms and open up new ways of looking at the world.

Focus your attention on some need that is not currently being met, on what is absent. This requires more thinking and is harder to conceptualize.

Emotions influence how you perceive the world. If you feel afraid, you tend to see more of the potential dangers in some action. If you feel particularly bold, you tend to ignore the potential risks.

Alter your mental perspective, but reverse your emotional one as well. For instance, 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. These difficulties will make you tougher and more aware of the flaws you need to correct.

If you see setbacks as opportunities, you are more likely to make that a reality.

Language locks you into certain forms of logic and ways of thinking.

If there are no words for certain concepts, you tend to not think of them.

When you attempt to sketch something you must observe it closely, gaining a feel through our fingers of how to bring it to life. Such practice can help you think in visual terms and free your mind from its constant verbalizations.

Detect flaws and difficulties in your original idea that you had not foreseen.

Lesser types would simply give up or settle for what they have – a mediocre and half-realized project. But Masters understand that they must plow forward, and that the frustration, or the feeling of being blocked, has a purpose.

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 diffused. 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.

Every day represents an intense challenge, and every morning you wake up with original ideas and associations to push you along.

Our work is now more public and highly scrutinized. We might have the most brilliant ideas and a mind capable of handling the greatest intellectual challenges, but if we are not careful, we will tumble into emotional pitfalls. We will grow insecure, overly anxious about people’s opinions, or excessively self-confident. Or we will become bored and lose a taste for the hard work that is always necessary. Once we fall into these traps it is hard to extricate ourselves.

The six most common pitfalls:

Fight this by upholding the value of active wonder. Constantly remind yourself of how little you truly know, and of how mysterious the world remains.

You begin to fall in love with the ideas and strategies that worked for you in the past. You also will have a reputation to protect. Creativity is by its nature an act of boldness and rebellion. The world is dying for bolder ideas. As the creative spark leaves you, you will find yourself clutching even more forcefully to dead ideas, past successes, and the need to maintain your status. Make creativity rather than comfort your goal.

Internalize the voice of your Master so that you become both teacher and pupil.

You will convince yourself that your work is essentially over and well done, when really it is your impatience speaking. You will veer toward repetition – reusing the same ideas and processes as a kind of shortcut. Cultivate a kind of pleasure in pain – like an athlete, you come to enjoy rigorous practice, pushing past your limits, and resisting the easy way out.

Praise generally does harm. Slowly, the emphasis shifts from the joy of the creative process to the love of attention. We alter and shape our work to attract the praise that we crave. What must ultimately motivate you is the work itself and the process. Public attention is actually a nuisance and a distraction.

You must regularly doubt that you have achieved your goal and subject your work to intensive self-criticism.

Avoid emotional extremes and find a way to feel optimism and doubt at the same time.

The greatest impediment to creativity is your impatience, the almost inevitable desire to hurry up the process, express something, and make a splash.

Read journals and books from all different fields. Sometimes you will find an interesting anomaly in an unrelated discipline that may have implications for your own. You must keep your mind completely open – no item is too small or unimportant to escape your attention. If an apparent anomaly calls into question your own beliefs or assumptions, so much the better. You must speculate on what it could mean.

If what you have discovered seems to have profound ramifications, you must pursue it with the utmost intensity. Better to look into ten such facts, with only one yielding a great discovery, than to look into twenty ideas that bring success but have trivial implications.

Wright Brothers: Two men from a completely different background. For them, the pleasure and excitement of design was in doing everything themselves. Their model depended not on superior technology, but on the highest number of test runs, creating an optimal learning curve. This revealed flaws to be worked on and gave them a feel for the product that could never be had in the abstract.

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.

Have wide knowledge of your field and other fields, giving your brain more possible associations and connections.

Cultivate profound dissatisfaction with your work and the need to constantly improve.

The longer you can allow the project to absorb your mental energies, the richer it will become.

For creative types: Begin by looking inward. Something you want to express that is unique. Not something that is sparked by some trend. A sound you are not hearing in music, a type of story not being told. A new way of doing business. Play against the very conventions that you find dead and want to get rid of. Following this strategy will give your work a kind of reverse reference point.

Think of the overall purpose of your work, of the larger question at hand. Thinking on such a high level frees the mind up to investigate from all different angles.

The microprocessors that made the microcomputer possible had originally been developed to run traffic lights and vending machines. They had never been intended to power computers. The first entrepreneurs to attempt this were laughed at; the computers they had created looked hardly worthy of the name – they were so small and could do so little.

The peculiar process that led to these inventions: generally, the inventors had a chance encounter with the available technology; then the idea would come to them that this technology could be used for other purposes; and finally they would try out different prototypes until the right one fell into place. What allows for this process is the willingness of the inventor to look at everyday things in a different light and to imagine new uses for them.

We come upon something by accident. This accidental encounter will spark some interesting associations and ideas in us.

Actively explore the unconscious and contradictory parts of your personality, and to examine similar contradictions and tensions in the world at large.

These contradictions contain a rich mine of information about a reality that is deeper and more complex than the one immediately perceived.

After some 20,000 hours, Masters thus have a sense of how everything interacts organically, and they can intuit patterns or solutions in an instant.

Make our years of study qualitatively rich. We don’t simply absorb information – we internalize it and make it our own by finding some way to put this knowledge to practical use.

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.

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. In our journey from apprenticeship to mastery we must patiently learn the various parts and skills that are required, never looking too far ahead.

We must do whatever we can to cultivate a greater memory capacity – one of the most important skills in our technologically oriented environment.

Take up hobbies – a game, a musical instrument, a foreign language – that bring pleasure but also offer you the chance to strengthen your memory capacities.

To become such sensitive observers, you must not succumb to all of the distractions afforded by technology.

It is easy to become enamored with the powers that technology affords us, and to see them as the end and not the means.

The Ideal of the Universal Man – a person so steeped in all forms of knowledge that his mind grows closer to the reality of nature itself and sees secrets that are invisible to most people.