Mastery by Robert Greene ($28.95, Viking) is the latest book from the bestselling author of The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, The 33 Strategies of War, and The 50th Law.
Greene answered a Q+A via email with The Huffington Post about the nature of mastering a craft in the style of Charles Darwin and Henry Ford -- and how he used Zen meditation to write this book.
Why tackle this theme?
Prior to beginning work on Mastery I had spent over twelve years researching power in all of its social and intellectual forms. I had noticed that most of the people I had researched (historical and contemporary) possess a superior level of intelligence. After years of practice and experience in their fields, they have an almost sixth sense for divining cultural trends, for discovering some new aspect of the physical world or reality, for picking out opportunities that are invisible to everyone else. They can make the most creative associations between ideas. They have an intuitive grasp of their subject that allows them to think on a higher dimensional plane, and with great speed. This can be Napoleon Bonaparte in warfare, Albert Einstein in physics, Thomas Edison in technology and business, FDR in politics, Picasso in art, Steve Jobs in computers and design. I concluded that they are masters in their various fields, that they have mastered something highly complex and that this inevitably leads to achievements that inspire us with awe.
Normally we tend to think of such superior intelligence as stemming from something genetic, an innate gift, or perhaps good fortune—helpful parents and a great education—all factors that are beyond our control. My conclusion, after years of studying the phenomenon, was the opposite. This intelligence is the result of a process these Masters go through, one that transcends their various fields. The process entails years of hard work, a lot of persistence and resilience, plus a great deal of love for the subject. But this process could be discussed and revealed in depth—from choosing the right career path in life, to moving through an ideal apprenticeship, to working under mentors, to developing social intelligence, and finally to distilling all of this experience into creative energy. Knowing this process could make it much easier for anyone to master his or her field.
The reason there are so few Masters in the past is because the ability to choose a profession that suited one’s inclinations and interests was largely impossible for most people. High–level professions were only open to those who were of the right social class and ethnicity. Access to information that was necessary for mastery was tightly controlled. We are now living through a radical, revolutionary period in time in which these various social, political and technical barriers are disappearing. Mastery can finally become democratic—our culture greatly benefitting from an extreme diversity of voices and creative energies.
I wanted to share all of this with the reading public—to make the process towards mastery explicitly clear, to debunk elitist notions of genius, and to inspire people to aim higher, to push past their perceived limits, and to follow such a path as far as they want to take it.
Do you believe that everyone has the possibility of becoming a master in their field?
It depends. If for instance a person in his or her formative years listens to parents and feels nervous about the future and decides to take a comfortable, prescribed route to money, such as becoming a lawyer, he or she has chosen a field for reasons that will make mastery almost impossible to attain. Because they are not fully engaged emotionally and intellectually with the subject, such people will not pay deep attention. They will tend to go through the motions, learning precisely what is necessary for success. This might require years of training and if they are ambitious they can have some success early on. But eventually, as the years go by, they will pay a price for this lack of personal connection. They will often become conservative and careful with the knowledge they have acquired; they value comfort too highly to step beyond certain boundaries. Their goal is to maintain what they have. They begin to place greater importance and interest in their leisure time. Not focusing deeply, they lose contact with the changes going on in their field. Often in their late 30s or 40s they find themselves increasingly irrelevant, replaced by someone younger and cheaper. They are unable to adapt to these changes because they have not developed the fluidity and adaptable spirit that these times require.
If, however, people manage to incorporate their natural inclinations, to merge their genuine interests with a career path, then there is no possible reason why they cannot attain mastery. It will of course require hard work; they will face setbacks and will take wrong turns here and there. The path upward is never straight. But knowing who they are, what makes them unique and the importance of staying true to that as far as possible, they will inevitably hit upon the right choices and go through the process that leads to mastery.
People who are engaged with the subject of their field can learn more in three years than those who are going through the motions can learn in ten. Learning faster in this way, with intensity, leads to momentum. The practice and attainment of skill makes the work more pleasurable and challenging, which leads to more practice and experience on increasingly higher levels. People who in some way follow their inclinations might not initially make as much money as those who opted for safer bets, such as law, but they have cultivated an original spirit that they can express through work and they will make much more money in the long run.
What if someone is passionate about something in which they don't have much talent or are not genetically predisposed to being good at, eg. a very short person at basketball?
In Mastery I talk about the importance of connecting to your primal inclinations. I cite numerous examples of how these inclinations manifest themselves in early childhood. With Albert Einstein it was receiving a compass at the age of five and his subsequent fascination with unseen natural forces; for Leonardo da Vinci it was an early obsession with capturing nature on paper (without tutors or training); for the great dancer Martha Graham, it was an intense interest in body language, and how the body does not tell lies; for John Coltrane it was the raw spiritual power that could be expressed through music; for Charles Darwin it was anything having to do with beetles and unusual plants. These inclinations do not indicate a clear career path. They are pre-verbal; they are activities one is naturally drawn to. There are many ways these inclinations could be expressed and channeled through the choice of a profession. There are many alternative routes to working with these natural interests.
In the book, one of the contemporary Masters I interviewed is the great boxing trainer Freddie Roach. Freddie was essentially brought into boxing by his father, a professional fighter himself who started training all of his boys in the sport once they reached the age of six. It is hard to determine whether Freddie was naturally inclined towards boxing or was pressured into it. Probably a mix of the two. He went on to have a solid and respectable career as a professional boxer, retiring at the age of 26 because he had taken too many blows and was losing too many fights. He slowly found his way back into the profession as an apprentice trainer, eventually becoming a trainer on his own.
What he discovered along the way was that boxing per se was not his real interest. It was in fact strategy, figuring out a competitive advantage, and the teaching of the skills and knowledge he had acquired. Being a trainer was the career he was meant for, but it took a lot of pain and self–reassessment to come to this conclusion. Following this new path, he did not have to start from scratch. He could build on the skills he had acquired and channel them in a superior direction. Feeling energized and excited by this new path, he slowly elevated himself to the very top of his profession.
Life does not generally offer us simple easy paths to what we want. We have to be flexible and constantly adjust. A career we chose early on, that seemed promising, seems no longer to suit us. We know this because we are not engaged in it. It doesn’t stir our natural curiosity to learn. We move on, always in the direction of our interests and inclinations. A man who is short but has a great love of basketball must realize that his interest in the sport transcends its physical aspects. He is almost certainly intrigued by the strategic and competitive elements in the sport. If he has tried to make it in the sport and found being short is too large a barrier, he would do best to not completely discard what he has learned. A career as a coach on some level would probably be perfect. There are plenty of short coaches who never played on a high level—Jeff van Gundy, for instance. Or, if he is young enough, he could find a different sport in which height does not play such an important role. There are numerous examples of successful athletes who made such adjustments.
If the early interest is music, a lot of people are discouraged to pursue it as a career because they do not feel they are sufficiently gifted (the equivalent of being too short for basketball). But it has been proven that we humans are hardwired for musical skill, and almost all children are gifted in some aspect of music. What makes a great musician is not an innate talent, but the love of the art, which leads to a hunger to learn, intense practice and the ability to stick with it for many years. I make this point rather strongly in the book, through the examples of Mozart and John Coltrane, revealing how hard these individuals practiced and how quickly they learned because of this.
Do you believe that those who master what they love become happy?
I would answer this in the following way: you are born unique. Your DNA, the configuration of your brain mark you as a one–time phenomenon in the universe. Almost everyone has the potential to express this uniqueness through his or her work and creative endeavors. This is a natural desire for all humans. To waste this potential, to not cultivate your uniqueness in some way, I believe can lead to depression and a great deal of unhappiness. You may not be aware of the exact cause of this unhappiness because it runs so deep, but it can eat away at you.
Happiness is relative. We generally associate the emotion with something fleeting—a particular day or week in which we felt mostly happy. I would rather enlarge the framework here to feelings of overall fulfillment. Such a sense of fulfillment comes to all of us when we have accomplished or made something meaningful. To accomplish this might require a great deal of pain along the way, some sacrifices and many setbacks, but once completed we have a profound feeling of achievement that nothing can take away from us. We also feel like we are fulfilling the promise that we had from childhood, our own dreams, our own potential. As the writer Balzac put it, “An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.” Certainly there are other ways to feel fulfilled—raising a family, spiritual work, etc. But I believe Masters generally experience this fulfillment on a very high level for long periods of time. In the book I quote Leonardo da Vinci to this effect: “Just as a well–filled day brings blessed sleep, so a well–employed life brings a blessed death.”
Are you a master author?
I make the case that mastery generally involves some 15,000 to 20,000 hours of intense labor, practice and experience. This time is not the only ingredient necessary for mastery but a very important one. Studies have shown that there is a qualitative change in the human brain after 10,000 hours of work—whether in chess, music or any field that requires high skill levels. I maintain there is an equal qualitative change when that number approaches 20,000. It is manifest in the undeniable intuitive powers that come to people with that level of experience. For myself, since 1996 I have been researching and writing about one subject, with several variations on the same theme. The hours spent on these five books would easily surpass the 20,000–hour mark since I tend to put in long hours on each project. That does not count the years before 1996 that I worked as a writer in journalism, television and film.
Near the end of working on Mastery I also had an interesting experience. Under a very tight deadline to finish the last two chapters on creativity and high level intuition, I found myself working with such intensity and focus that ideas were coming to me out of nowhere, a mirror of what I was writing about in the book. In the end, however, it is up to the public to determine whether I have mastered this subject by how they respond to the book. I think more highly of the public’s judgment than my own.
Tell us about the meditation/endurance techniques you used to write the book.
In contemplating work on this book I realized it presented quite a challenge. I would be reading over two hundred books for research—bios on the greatest Masters in history, books on creativity, the psychology of learning, neuroscience, etc. In addition, I would be interviewing nine contemporary Masters. This would require a lot of work in scheduling, travel, going over the transcripts of the interviews, transforming the interviews into notes that I would then have to incorporate with the book research. On top of that I would have to find a way to sew all of this material together into a cohesive whole.
I had known form previous books that this could often resemble a long–distance race and that near the end of the writing process I could often become so exhausted that the writing could suffer. I believe many writers tend to peter out half way through their projects, overwhelmed by the complexity and the lack of organization of their material. I really wanted to avoid the slowing–down dynamic on this book. I decided to treat this like a marathon and to find a way to build up endurance for the long slog. First, I decided to up my exercise routine. I normally exercise every day, but I would increase the times and distances ever so slightly. At a certain point I knew I would reach a plateau in which I did not feel any more tired with these increases. I would stay at the plateau level for the entire length of the project. In sports such as long–distance cycling this kind of training helps build up endurance levels. It is better to stay at the plateau for a period of time rather than keep increasing the workout. I wanted to see if this would translate to more consistent energy levels in my work.
Second, I took up a meditation routine—one half–hour every morning of Zen meditation. I wanted to be able to completely empty the mind, to focus better, and to gain access to looser, more unconscious levels of thinking that can come from deep meditation.
I kept to these two routines without fail. Not even travel or feeling under the weather could stop me. I did not miss a day. In the last few months, when the looming deadline made me work even harder than before, I noticed that I was considerably calmer, better able to handle the stress, and that I had reservoirs of energy to draw upon for the long hours. I am certain these routines paid incredible dividends in the long run. I came to the conclusion that the mind and the body are so intertwined that it is impossible to separate out their effects on us. Feeling energized influences our mood, which influences our work in very direct ways. And feeling confused or disorganized in our work can have a terrible effect on us physically as well. This is probably not an earth–shattering discovery but for me it went beyond an intellectual concept to one that I felt on the deepest level.