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Book Review | Mastery

A phenomenal book. A tour de force that will help you find your True North
4 out of 4 stars

Some books are hard to review. As a book reviewer, I should not be saying this, but it’s an honest admission. Some books pack so much wisdom that reviewing them becomes hard and I mean that in a good way.

“Mastery” happens to be one such book.

Mastery abounds in timeless wisdom, thanks to its illustrious author, Robert Greene. It examines the lives of great historical figures such as Charles Darwin, Mozart, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci and distills the traits and universal ingredients that made them masters.

He states that the book’s objective is to lead you from the lowest levels to the highest.

As you read the book, Greene becomes your personal guide to help you find your Life’s Task – your true calling. Along the way, he adds a wealth of knowledge to your repertoire.

He shares incredible insights into how to extract the best from your apprenticeship period, how to find good mentors, how to cultivate your social intelligence, and, how to decide that it’s time to strike out on your own leaving the comforts of monthly salary or apprenticeship.

In the early chapters, he alludes to a feeling that we all have had at some point in our lives. The famous psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it “flow” in his eponymous book. When we feel the flow we become so engrossed in the task at hand that everything else ceases to exist for us.

Greene argues, however, that as we grow older we increasingly become divorced from this preverbal feeling and fall in love with conformity.

If your calling is writing, then you will the flow when you are at it

Individuals who understand and work to explore those feelings further live a life full of contentment; those who ignore them end up with an underwhelming life.

Worse, more times than not, people even fail to locate the reason for emptiness in their lives. To hammer his point home, Greene asks thought-provoking questions of the reader:

“If all of us are born with an essentially similar brain, with more or less the same configuration, why is it then only a small number of people seem to truly excel and realize their true potential?”

Robert Greene
Jetpack

Who are Masters?

Masters are people who go through a deep learning process, who are so connected to what they are studying that they absorb lessons faster, they learn quicker and they reach that summit called mastery.

“Mastery is not a function of genius or talent. It’s a function of time and intense focus applied to a particular field of knowledge.”

Robert Greene
Leonardo da Vinci, Mastery
Leonardo da Vinci, (image Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

Greene lambasts the myths surrounding mastery. He declares that it’s not due to superior genetics or sheer luck or other such abstract reasons. The only reason why a few people become icons whereas a large majority ends up doing drudgery is the former’s ability to realize their true calling.

Greene on Apprenticeship

Greene emphasizes a lot on the apprenticeship phase. In fact, he spends almost one-third of the book detailing on various dos and don’ts of apprenticeship. After all, this is the period when you learn the ropes and hone your skills in a particular business or activity.

He notes, “the goal of apprenticeship is not money, a good position or a title, but rather the transformation of your mind and character. You don’t choose apprenticeships that are easy and comfortable.

The essential idea of working your face off during the apprenticeship period is to hit the ‘cycle of accelerated returns‘. Greene instructs the reader to focus on one skill at a time and practice it like a fiend.

Repetition helps you overcome the tedium that usually comes with learning a new skill. Gradually, the flywheel effect kicks in and you take your first big step towards Mastery.

Greene on Mentors

Greene advocates the significance of having mentors in one’s life. A good mentor can set you on an accelerated path to growth. However, finding someone who stays invested in your future with no strings attached is difficult.

Greene establishes the complications of a mentor-mentee relationship through the story of British scientist Michael Faraday and his chequered ties with Humphry Davy, his mentor.

Davy had taken Faraday under his wings because he saw the determination and hunger for learning in him. Over time, when Faraday became able and started to come into his own, Davy saw him a potential threat. Not resigned to spent his most creative years as a lab assistant, Faraday severed ties with Davy and struck out on his own.

This sounds like a one-off case, but it is not. Many mentors become dependent on their disciples and unconsciously hinder their growth. Here’s Greene’s blunt advice to tackle this:

“Your goal is to get as much out of them as possible, but at a certain point you may a price if you stay too long and let them subvert your confidence.”

And, in case your search for a good mentor doesn’t end well, there are always temporary mentors out there – books.

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Greene on Social Intelligence

The best part about Robert Greene is that he is not scared of calling a spade a spade. Sometimes, he come across as cynical, but that’s alright. You’d rather have someone show you the mirror and point out your inadequacies than someone who promises fake results.

The world is a ruthless place for sure. And, our failure to assess the true selves of people can set us back. Greene cites the story of Benjamin Franklin and how he learnt about his naive perspective the hard way. One-upped by his own brother, Franklin’s road to success was rather bumpy.

He advises the reader to take a dispassionate view of things and not jump to conclusions – for or against.

He also recommends accepting people – even the insufferable fools – as they are. Again, the idea is to extract what you can, even out of people you don’t like. Here’s him on fools:

“It is all part of the human comedy and it’s nothing to lose sleep over. You must accept fools as a part of life, like rocks or furniture.”

Greene on Awakening the Dimensional Mind

Though learning remains pivotal to most of our life endeavors, this knowledge becomes stale as we grow up. We become passive consumers of knowledge.

We stop paying attention to counter-beliefs and opposing facts – anything that threatens to expose our ideas – and always look for confirmation. This is our undoing.

He exhorts the reader to engrave it in his/her mind: “Think of yourself as an explorer. You cannot find anything new if you are unwilling to leave the shore.”

Unless we retain the childhood’s curiosity and compound it with the discipline and knowledge gained in the adulthood, our chances of exploiting our dormant potential are grim.

Conclusion

Greene’s concerted effort to dig deep into the lives of ancient masters like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Michael Faraday etc., uncovers something rarely excavated ever before. He tracks down the precise reasons why these gentlemen became the renaissance men of their respective eras.

Ultimately, he blows to bits the theory that Mastery is the bailiwick of the chosen few – those with exceptional congenital talent. Greene proves that Mastery is open to achieve for everyone provided they recognize their inherent calling.

It’s easy to pigeonhole Robert Greene’s book into genres such as self-help or personal development. But a discerning reader would understand that Mastery goes way beyond that. It’s an encompassing book which straddles both psychology of success and personal development. You’d literally find it hard to put it down. Slot it into your TBR today.


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