Mark Bao's Reviews > Mastery

Mastery by Robert Greene
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Mar 25, 2013

it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites

4.5/5, rounding up. Best book I've read in a while, mainly because it's one of the few books I've found on long-term skill and personal development for excellence. The main thing I got from this book is: Mastery is the process of gaining knowledge in the right ways, in a field that you feel closely connected to, while in the process arranging support structures that increases your propensity of gaining that knowledge (especially mentors), then applying what you've learned to certain projects, with the ultimate goal of attaining a deep, intuitive understanding of your field from which you make progress. The intuition part is essential: his theory is that we gain deep knowledge about a field, so when we face new problems, we are able to activate the disparate parts of our deep memory that turn things up. That's why, say, Jane Goodall is so good with animals: given a lot of situations, she's faced similar ones before, and can apply her knowledge and experience.

What I got from that is that the process of mastery is a long one, and most take a long time to gain the raw knowledge and intuition necessary for mastery. But there is a path that we can take to do so, to gain that key knowledge and intuition, and for each of the steps along that path there are ways to do it right. From the biographies of the Masters that are profiled in the book, you get to see the amount of bullshit and the trials and tribulations that they went through to gain mastery—and you also wonder about the ones who, in the same position, understandably gave up.

I've always been one that has wanted to identify the inefficiencies and get to mastery faster without those inefficiencies, but this book made me think that there are key things that we just have to do to attain the level of knowledge and excellence necessary. It's really not easy to gain mastery or be excellent, but it can be attained.

Key ideas from each section:

1. Find your calling. Society (Society! —Alexander Supertramp) leads us away from this calling. And a lot of the time, our origins give us the right answer for what this might be—that is, what we are naturally drawn to.

2. Apprenticeship is necessary. When you've figured out this calling, you have to learn as much as possible. What you are gaining from this stage is not only knowledge but also character. (Knowing how to work, in a way.) The necessary tasks during this are: deep observation (understanding the environment), skill acquisition (getting the tacit knowledge), and experimentation (trying out what you've learned). The goal of this is to gain the raw knowledge; this can be a long process, and to want to skip it is folly. To want to gain recognition and whatnot at this stage is also a distraction (which is something I disagree with: gain as much recognition as you can, that is legitimate, and make sure it isn't overblown. Don't be quiet.) Understandably, he calls part of this stage "Submit to Reality", and that's what you're doing: submitting to the idea that you are unexperienced, naive, and don't know jack shit, and you're here to learn so you aren't as clueless later on. That's a hard and humbling pill to swallow, but essential, I think. There are no shortcuts.

3. Mentorship helps a lot. The right mentors will allow you to gain the knowledge of other Masters. Developing these skills in a vacuum is difficult, and mentors are like catalysts. Key aspect: it should be an *active mentor–protégé dynamic*. It's not a one-way: take their ideas, challenge them. Mentorship education is a fast-track, and it gives you *direction* from someone who knows the lay of the land. Key passage:

The reason you require a mentor is simple: Life is short; you have only so much time and so much energy to expend. Your most creative years are generally in your late twenties and on into your forties. You can learn what you need through books, your own practice, and occasional advice from others, but the process is hit-and-miss. The information in books is not tailored to your circumstances and individuality; it tends to be somewhat abstract. When you are young and have less experience of the world, this abstract knowledge is hard to put into practice. You can learn from your experiences, but it can often take years to fully understand the meaning of what has happened. It is always possible to practice on your own, but you will not receive enough focused feedback. You can often gain a self-directed apprenticeship in many fields, but this could take ten years, maybe more. (p. 103)


4. Social intelligence is essential. To win mastery, you have to play the game, which sometimes involves dealing with politics and other bullshit. Know how to read people, and avoid the seven deadly realities that he talks about ("envy", "self-obsessiveness", "conformism"), etc. Deal with the politics—don't be idealistic and try to avoid them. Be like Benjamin Franklin in his famous book-borrowing thing. Let your work show your excellence.

5. Creative phase. Apply your learnings. But the problem with this is that when we internalize a way of thinking, it becomes a lot harder to think in different ways (the curse of knowledge, also the subject of a blog post I'm working on). His solutions are: 1) cultivate negative capability, and don't fight the feeling of the unknown or uncertain—see it as beneficial, so you don't try to erase the unknown with some justification quickly; 2) allow for serendipity, by being open to serendipitous things (and perhaps engineering the space for serendipity), 3) use what he calls "the current", an alternating idea–application cycle where you come up with a new idea, then try it out, then refine it, and etc.—an iterative process; 4) alter your perspective, by getting out of paradigms, seeing negative cues, seeing details, seeing the "how" behind things; 5) using primal forms of intelligence.

6. Mastery. Intuition is absolutely necessary for mastery. A great example of this is Bobby Fischer, who "spoke of being able to think beyond the various moves of his pieces on the chessboard; after a while he could see "fields of forces" that allowed him to anticipate the direction of the entire match" (p.271). Understanding your environment is key, as is building the core skills (such as focus) that go beyond natural ability, since those core skills are more sustainable.

It's hard to portray the gestalt of this book, but it's worth reading. A caveat: like with all nonfiction books, and particularly with Robert Greene, you have to take the ideas with a grain of salt. Many ideas are presented without serious evidence or scientific backing, and rely on a lot of anecdata (especially with the author biographies he bases his ideas on). He relies too much on the unsubstantiated 'science' of mirror neurons. As such, we should look at the ideas in this book as just that, and not as hard-set rules, and really consider whether they are legit yourself.

On the whole, this was an excellent book that presented some good ideas and also gave me a feeling of how the lives of other masters went, which both makes me feel a bit more comfortable about where I am, as well as makes me feel motivated to become more excellent like they were. It's inspiring but it also gives you a path forward. And despite the deficiencies in the strength and defensibility of its arguments, the ideas in this book and the long, longitudinal view of the importance of gaining skills, knowledge, intuition, and character to build mastery is what makes this a great book.
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Reading Progress

March 25, 2013 – Shelved
January 4, 2015 – Started Reading
January 4, 2015 –
24.0% "Not too bad so far and some inspiring stories. The ideas around apprenticeship and learning intently and the strategies to do so are pretty solid."
January 5, 2015 –
36.0% "This is shaping up to be a pretty damn good book, honestly. Exceeding expectations. It's making me think about taking a slower, more comprehensive approach to studying a field, not going it alone and doing it fast, but for the long-term result of mastery, it's necessary to immerse oneself and enlist the help of mentors. I like the former approach, but this is an interesting argument for the latter"
January 8, 2015 –
50.0% "Solid. The section on social / emotional intelligence is pretty good and has some good Stoic-esque prescriptions. It seems like Greene prefers to perpetuate the status quo instead of make waves, which makes sense for the goals he sets out."
January 11, 2015 –
61.0% "Sustained thumbs up. Lots of references to the thing I've been thinking about late, the curse of knowledge."
January 12, 2015 –
77.0% "Still good. Wish there was more evidence, as always, since Greene makes a lot of assertions without backing them up with solid evidence. His ideas on intuition are interesting, arguing that mastery is in part intuition from the knowledge we gain while gaining mastery, and has a theory of memory knowledge activation to explain it."
January 13, 2015 – Finished Reading
January 17, 2015 – Shelved as: favorites

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Diana (new) - added it

Diana thanks for the review! its been on my list to read for a while. I have been thinking about mastery in software engineering and maybe this book will provide some more ideas.


Lion Thanks Mark! Great review. I will definitely give this a read.


message 3: by Kevin (new) - added it

Kevin Elliott Great review.


message 4: by Betty (new)

Betty Thanks for this review!


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