Mastery by Robert Greene

Mastery by Robert Greene


In Mastery, Robert Greene outlines the path to greatness. He explains how Albert Einstein became the greatest scientist of the 20th century; how John Coltrane was able to revolutionise jazz music; and Henry Ford, the entire motor industry (to name just a few). Through years of insight, Greene is able to distill the journey to Mastery into a roadmap for his readers to follow and absorb.

He describes three distinct phases along the way: the Apprenticeship, the Creative-Active and Mastery itself. By navigating through each stage correctly; following our deepest inclinations; and continuously questioning the status quo, Greene breaks down how we can, each, discover our Life’s Task and see it to fruition.

The Three Phases

1. The Apprenticeship

During the Apprenticeship, one must master a foundational set of skills as well as transform their mind and character. This is the period in which we establish a foundation to later build upon. The important aspect is that we position ourselves in an environment that promotes opportunities for learning and growth, rather than immediate validation. Here, we seek out mentors who can streamline the process of our development; read extensively in our field; and work to develop our independent thinking.

2. The Creative-Active

The Creative-Active refers to a period of experimentation where we seek to expand our knowledge into related fields. We must awaken, what Greene refers to as, the Dimensional Mind – a child-like spontaneity, free from rules and procedures, yet balanced by discipline and an arsenal of well-developed skills. It is during this phase that we become increasingly bold with our ideas and introduce a greater sense of individuality to our work.

3. Mastery

Finally, Mastery is the point where one develops an intuitive feel for their field as a whole. Greene refers to this as ‘masterly intuition’. He explains that, through this heightened sense of understanding, Masters are able to perform at the outer limits of their potential. In his own words, they are able to anticipate trends and respond with speed and accuracy to any circumstance.

Key Lessons

Patience & Humility

“The great danger is that we give in to feelings of boredom, impatience, fear, and confusion. We stop observing and learning. The process comes to a halt.”

Along the journey to Mastery, it’s of vital importance that one cultivates, both, patience and a sense of humility. These two traits directly shape how we approach and interact with our work. One cannot achieve mastery without years of rich study and experimentation, serving as the roots to support their growth. Greene argues that, if we try and rush the process, we produce lackluster results which become more pronounced over time.

For this reason, we must adopt a certain modesty towards the process. In Greene’s words, “You must come to embrace slowness as a virtue in itself.” On that note, we must strive to negate our ego where it proves unhelpful in our development. For example, mistakes and failures should be seen as a means of education rather than a label of permanent inadequacy. Rather than avoid our weaknesses, Greene argues, we ought to give them precedence in our practice, moving through periods of tension with the belief that they hold a larger purpose to our work.

Ultimately, these two traits hinge on the idea that we value learning above all else. Greene explains, “It is a simple law of human psychology that your thoughts will tend to revolve around what you value the most.” By adopting this mindset, we recognise that, at any stage, there is always more we can learn. As a result, we become more likely to make the ‘right’ career decisions – namely, decisions with our development in mind. In this way, we resist instant gratification (e.g. money, a title, or a diploma), favouring, instead, opportunities for growth. Greene writes, “people get the mind and quality of brain that they deserve through their actions in life.”

Openness & Adaptability

Another key aspect is that we remain open and adaptive throughout the entire process. For example, a smooth transition from the Apprenticeship to the Creative-Active requires that we are able to see things in a new light. As Greene explains, “if we feel like we know something, our minds close off to other possibilities.” In this sense, we forgo new opportunities, preferring to keep our ego intact.

In the Creative-Active we must avoid the ‘technical lock’. This is where the numerous rules and procedures we utilised during our Apprenticeship become like a prison that we, then, struggle to detach ourselves from. Greene explains this further: “unconsciously, you will veer toward repetition – reusing the same ideas and processes as a kind of shortcut. Unfortunately, the creative process requires continual intensity and vigor. Each exercise or problem is different.”

And so, we must seek to continuously challenge our beliefs and expand our horizons; always hungry for new and alternative thoughts. To do this, Greene suggests several different methods, such as cultivating Negative Capability (i.e. “[the] ability to endure and even embrace mysteries and uncertainties.”); seeking means to alter our perspective (e.g. exploring and learning from the anomalies in our work); and allowing for serendipity by continuously jotting down any new thought or idea.

This mindset extends beyond solely how we interact with our work, but also to how we behave in different environments and with different people. Greene suggests that, like a chameleon, we “learn how to mingle and blend into all types of environments, giving [us] maximum flexibility.” He stresses that the journey to mastery requires us to develop our social intelligence just as much as the skills unique to our Life’s Task.

Final Thoughts

Mastery is an incredibly valuable read. Not only is Greene a fantastic researcher, he is also a great story teller; able to very succinctly express his ideas through a combination of psychological insight and historical anecdote. The book gives a thorough overview on the topic of Mastery, describing the nuances to each stage in the journey and noting the common pitfalls one ought to avoid. Greene goes into every little detail. He explains how to properly learn new skills; how to choose a mentor; and how to better read people. This is a great book for every ambitious and aspiring individual.