I have not delved so much into a book recently as I have into Robert Greene’s Mastery. It’s an unbelievably resourceful book.
In my opinion, a book is not worth its cover price if the reader doesn’t take away at least a few lessons from it. And, Mastery, fortunately, teems with life-altering lessons.
Greene’s deep study of the lives of historical greats such as Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, the Wright brothers and many more, throws up many interesting insights about what goes into the making of a true master.
I have collected and curated 15 incisive insights from Mastery that together help address the knotty question: how to become a genius?
Some of these 15 lessons may sound counterintuitive and some a little harsh to you, but the end goal is to start the fire inside you to take massive action towards your life’s task:
#1. They start early
Most geniuses start early in their life. Albert Einstein was only 26 when he propounded four seminal papers on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, Special relativity, and the mass-energy equivalence.
Such an intellectual dispaly can make anyone’s head spin, but when you consider the fact that Einstein started working on his theories at the tender age of 16 and by that virtue, he had 10000 hours or more of deliberate practice behind him, everything starts to make sense.
One great benefit of starting at a young age is that you have lots of time to learn from your failures. Even if you are in your 30s or 40s, I implore you to keep the creative fire inside you burning by engaging deeply in whatever your life’s pursuit is.
#2. They immerse themselves in details
One thing that sets all brilliant minds apart is that they don’t become victims of confirmation bias. Instead, they run in the opposite direction and work rigorously to prove their own hypotheses wrong.
They shift their focus from macro to micro and immerse themselves in details. This allows them to remove whatever holes are left in their theories.
Take the example of Charles Darwin. He devoted 8 years of his life to the meticulous study of barnacles in order to ensure his theory was watertight. It was only later that he went to the broader study of the origin of species.
#3. They repeatedly practice their craft
When you are learning a new skill, you often run into mental roadblocks. Let’s say you are learning French which is not your mother tongue. Where do you think, you’d be if you practice your French only on weekends? Not far, right? To become a master in any field, you have to practice your craft every single day of your life.
Practice and repeat. That should be your mantra. A great example, in this case, would be that of the French Physicist, Andre Marie Ampère.
After discovering electricity and magnetism, Ampère became obsessed with finding out the exact phenomenon. He worked like a man possessed, day and night – doing, failing, and repeating numerous times. Nothing else distracted him until his quest for electromagnetism was complete.
Robert Greene describes that repetitions allow us to hit a cycle of accelerated returns. The more you practice, the better you become. It doesn’t matter which craft you want to take up, hitting accelerated returns is the goal you must set for yourself.
#4. They curb their ingrained inclinations
All geniuses embrace what Robert Greene terms Resistant Practice. This practice implies rejecting your own ingrained inclinations.
When you appraise yourself, ask – what are the entrenched habits in you that are holding you back? It could be your inability to devote yourself to deep work. Once you have established what it is, think consciously about how you can overcome it and then, act accordingly.
Reining in your tendencies is not easy, it can drive you nuts. So when you hit the wall of frustration, tell yourself, “I am making progress“. Frustration is a subliminal signal that your brain is aligning itself with your renewed focus and intensity.
#5. They think visually
Most historical geniuses – scientists, mathematicians, and artists – also underlined the importance of adding a visual element to their work.
It is well-documented that Einstein spent his days visualizing and daydreaming as he worked on consolidating his ideas into theories. He dropped out of school at age 15 because his teachers failed to wrap their heads around his use of visual imagination for learning.
“The words of the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought.” – Albert EinsteinTweet
The Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev visualized the structure of the periodic table in a dream. To Leonardo da Vinci, drawing and thinking were inseparable.
Michael Faraday, imagined the electromagnetic lines of force in his mind before he wrote about them.
Robert Greene makes a great suggestion in the book, he writes, “Even if thinking in this way is not natural to you, using diagrams and models to help further the creative process can be immensely productive.”
#6. They take a dispassionate view of their work
Robert Greene avers, “Confidence is important, but if it is not based on a realistic appraisal of who you are, it is mere grandiosity and smugness.“
One common trait that almost all geniuses share is their ability to overcome the emotional inclination towards their work. They can switch to aloof mode when required and can be ruthless in their own evaluation.
Constant self-criticism can bring you closer to reality. It can help you plug holes in your theories, products or whatever it is you are working on. However, being critical of your own work doesn’t come easy, and requires practice.
Switch to the dispassionate mode for one day and you are bound to feel fatigued. Give it a shot.
#7. They learn through pain and suffering
Schools teach us a lot of lessons, but learning through suffering and pain is not one of them.
The self-help literature and motivational gurus also paint honeyed pictures – that all of us have it in us what it takes to succeed and all we have to do is to trigger an eruption by following a few steps.
Brilliant minds make suffering a part of their life. Criticism by others doesn’t affect them. Bad experiences and setbacks don’t waver them, because they are highly focused on the end goals.
Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, the Wright brothers – all faced super-tough times, but they enjoyed the rigor, and emerged victorious at the other end.
#8. They have infinite patience
In the present culture of immediate gratification and success, people’s patience runs thin. Everybody wants to be successful right away, without deeply investing themselves into a field. It’s like everybody’s in a hurry to make a splash.
Greene recommends that in your own work, you must follow the Leonardo path. After all, nobody understood the benefits of staying patient as well as Leonardo da Vinci did. His favorite motto was ostinato rigore – meaning constant rigor or tenacious application – and he lived his life by it.
He was someone who always strove for perfection. That careful attention to minute details reflects in his paintings; without patience and the skill of a craftsman, such time-defying work is impossible.
#9. They build prototypes before building the real thing
Maestros in any field build prototypes first before they create the real thing. In his book, Robert Greene cites the example of Buckminster Fuller – the formidable American architect and futurist designer – who over his career built numerous prototypes.
There are many advantages to building a prototype: it simulates the real product, lowers the bar, and makes the first step less dramatic. By building a prototype, you can quickly weed out the approaches that don’t work to focus on the ones that do.
#10. They don’t tether themselves to one field
When you begin in any field – science, engineering or literature – you add small knowledge blocks. Every progressive bit of information adds to those blocks and gradually, you start to develop a deep understanding of your field.
Robert Greene, however, warns that you must not adhere to one discipline in your quest for knowledge. Instead, you must broaden the pond of your knowledge by adding information from unrelated disciplines.
It may so happen that you find an interesting anomaly in an unrelated discipline that may have implications for your own. Many people may find this counterintuitive, but, Sir Isaac Newton’s work in the fields of calculus, optics, and gravity was somewhere influenced by his uncanny interest in materials science and alchemy.
#11. They always work with deadlines
Many great scientists and technologists have attested to the positive impact of working with tight deadlines. Deadlines thrust your brain into top gear and instead of ruminating over the trivialities, it goes into full throttle to solve a problem. Metaphorically, you become that archer who can only see the bull’s eye, and nothing else around it.
Greene mentions in his book the example of Thomas Edison and how he knew the importance of working on deadlines.
To attune his mind to work under pressure, Edison used to brief the press about his upcoming experiments – experiments that only existing in his thoughts at the time of meeting the press. Doing so prevented him from slacking off because he knew his reputation was at stake.
#12. They don’t conform to societal rules
Masters challenge the status quo, they blow to smithereens the orthodoxies and venerable societal norms. They carve their own niche. They often choose the path of resistance even if that means taking a long-winded road to their end goal.
The problem with paying attention to what others are saying is that after some time, you become captive to their opinions and fears.
The skills that differentiate you from the crowd gradually get subsumed under others’ imprint. Sooner than later, your perspective reduces to immediate gratifications; you’d start living for the weekends.
Geniuses don’t ever lose touch with their inner calling, they never forget what brought them to dance. Become deaf to the opinions of your friends, teachers, relatives, and peers, or run the risk of ruining your life goals.
#13. They don’t expect perfection from day one
Masters realize that attaining perfection takes times, but that doesn’t mean they sit around and wait for the perfect time to start. They start, they forge their knowledge foundations, they build prototypes, they tinker with them, they fail and they repeat until they are successful or until they are close to perfection.
Throw yourself in at the deep end. You won’t like it, your body and mind would resist the rigor. You may not still accomplish what you set out to do. However, learnings from such failure(s) would be immense – something you can build on later.
“In fact, it is a curse to have everything go right on your first attempt.” – Robert GreeneTweet
#14. They don’t wait for mentors to arrive for rescue
Having a mentor guide and supervise you can do wonders for your career or life journey. Many historic and modern-day greats had mentors – who passed on their hard-earned knowledge to their protegees. However, sometimes you have no choice.
If that’s your scenario, then you should prepare to go it alone. In his book, Robert Greene cites Thomas Edison as the greatest historical figure to ever attain mastery alone.
Edison grew up doing survival jobs and it is in those harsh times (learning through suffering) that he honed his curiosity about everyday things. But his going was always going to be difficult, especially, without anyone to mentor him, or any school teacher to answer his questions. A lesser mortal would have called it quits and moved on with their mediocre life.
But Edison had a different constitution. He never let his lack of education become a roadblock. He outworked and outread everyone else. While doing so, he became a true autodidact. If you feel life’s been unkind to you, go down Edison’s path. Once you make initial waves, people will take notice of you and the genius in you will emerge.
#15. They let their work make the noise
When you are building something big, when you are striving for greatness in your life, you are going to be judged. There will be haters, and there will be people who’d try to deflate your passion, but they can’t suppress an ignited mind – a mind that is fixated on a higher prize.
The great Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh never got any recognition of his work while he was alive. As a matter of fact, he sold only one painting called The Red Vineyard in his lifetime and that too, to a family friend for 400 Belgian Francs.
Despite any adulation, he continued to work. It won’t be wrong to say that his work immortalized him. Today his paintings are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Greene issues a word of caution to deal with negative people. He says, “Do not lose your head and become consumed with all the pettiness. Speak socially through your work, raise your level and stand out among all the others who make a lot of noise but produce nothing.“
I hope you agree with these 15 principles that were central to the DNA of most historical geniuses. If you religiously imbibe these principles into your life, you are bound to rise above the rest. Do let me know your thoughts about this post in the comments box below.
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