For those that don’t know, Robert Greene is an international best seller. Widely known for The 48 Laws of Power, Greene’s book ‘Mastery’ is an outline for anyone wanting to achieve greatness in their field.
Being a musician and composer, I love books like this, that outline different approaches to becoming great. Any path to achievement is slow, and these books serve as nice reminders to help keep you on track.
Reading through Mastery, I found some key ideas to guide me and interestingly, I read about some of my own experiences – which was vindicating of past decisions!
Robert Greene keeps a loose tone, writes in an captivating manner and draws on biographies from different Masters throughout the ages, including some of histories greatest musicians and composers.
What is ‘Mastery’?
While Greene describes Mastery as The Ultimate Power.
Most of us experience it at some point, a period of exceptional creativity and focus, that allows us to penetrate to the core of something real.
… the feeling that we have a greater command of reality, other people and ourselves.Robert Greene, Mastery
For most of us, this feeling is fleeting, maybe confined to a single piece of work that we once did. But for Masters, this feeling is a way of life, a way of being.
Now, I’m not sure I would agree 100% with Greene’s slightly poetic approach to the topic, but I do agree with the following key statement that he makes in the introductory chapter:
… at the root of this power is a simple process that leads to mastery – one that is accessible to all of us.Robert Greene, Mastery
From my own studies with the electric guitar and music, to having taught students over the years, I agree that Greene hits a key point here, one that most people miss – Mastery is a process.
Our ‘modern’ culture is obsessed with events:
- The ‘musician’ who has a hit record today and is gone tomorrow
- The reality TV shows where someone just happens to get discovered
- The latest hysteria cooked up by the media
And rarely do we read about the process that goes into creating a great piece of art, or music, or scientific discovery.
Mastery is all about unravelling the process that leads to greatness.
Not popularity, greatness.
Greene gives a step by step guide to the stages to becoming a master, but also includes some key points and ideas around the concept of Mastery:
The Three Stages to Becoming a Master
Stage 1) The Ideal Apprenticeship
When it comes to mastering a subject, we all start at the same place – the bottom.
Greene draws attention to the process element of Mastery, stating that many Masters spent 5-10 years in the apprenticeship phase, which is broken roughly into three parts:
And we are also given strategies for completing an apprenticeship:
- Value learning over money
- Keep expanding your horizons
- Revert to a feeling of inferiority
- Trust the process
- Move towards resistance and pain
- Apprentice yourself in failure
- Combine the how and the what
- Advance through trial and error
Value Learning Over Money
When starting out it is vital to get the best education you possibly can. This means learning has to be a financial priority for you. You want to get the best resources and teachers you possibly can.
Can you move nearer to a great teacher so that you can study with them?
Can you cut back on some luxuries so that you can attend courses on the subject you’re interested in?
You have to do whatever you can.
Keep Expanding Your Horizons
It is important to be exposed to a variety of influences. For musicians, this can be as simple as listening to a broad range of music and analysing it, to find the reasons for why two genres sound different.
Revert To a Feeling of Inferioty
It is important to be continuously willing to learn, to try new things and find a fresh challenge.
Trust The Process
Tony Robbins has a great quote on this:
We overestimate what we can do in one year, and under estimate what we can accomplish in a decadeTony Robbins, paraphrased
The great motivational book, Think and Grow Rich, refers to this as ‘Faith’.
As humans, we are incredibly bad at accurately visualising our own potential development across a period of several years.
We have to trust and have faith in the process. The process is slow. The process is mundane.
Sometimes, the process can be boring.
But it is vital that we just get on with it and do it, because the process works.
In a post on ‘Do you need natural talent to be a great guitar player?‘, I talked about how Michael Angelo Batio put two years into practising his alternate picking, for hours a day.
He had faith in the process. And it worked for him.
And it will work for you.
Move Towards Resistance and Pain
I’m currently testing out a new course with a few guitar players I know. The course is designed to help them increase their picking accuracy, speed, and also the dexterity with which they can handle complex pieces.
Talking to one of them today, they mentioned how challenging they were finding having to change some of their old technique and habits with playing.
I replied saying that I have a pet theory, that the place of maximum learning is the place of maximum frustration with practice.
Everything in life has a cost, including growth. By definition, when we practice, we are working on things that we cannot currently play correctly (at least, you should be if you are practising guitar properly).
It is going to be frustrating and painful. Your weaknesses will be thrown in your face and you will be painfully aware of your shortcomings.
But that is how you improve.
That is the only way you can improve.
Devise a practice routine for yourself that is gruelling. One that makes you want to quit.
Challenge yourself to stick it, for a few years.
Then bask in your results.
Apprentice Yourself in Failure
In this mini-section, Greene uses the often cited examples of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.
Edison had to run 1000s of experiments in order to perfect the electric light bulb.
Henry Ford had venture capitalists for not one, but two failed car manufacturing companies, before finally figuring out the formula for himself and getting things right with his third company.
It is impossible to find a single success story, where the protagonist does not experience some kind of failure on the way.
What is the lesson here? Don’t fear failure, prepare for it, and when it strikes, move on.
Combine the How and the What
A perfect example of this concept for guitar players, is to not just understand good technique and being able to play proficiently, but understanding theory to a very high level.
If you can play, but don’t understand theory, you will be stuck playing covers and other peoples music for the rest of your life.
If you can play and you understand theory (whatever that may be, from common practice harmony to principles of songwriting and arrangement), you open yourself up to being able to do great things on the guitar.
Advance Through Trial and Error
They say that experience comes from having made bad decisions.
The only way we can advance, is to take a shot, make a mistake, figure out how to do it better, and try again.
What to do if you can’t find a master to apprentice under a master
We can’t all find a master in our chosen field to apprentice under or learn from, so is it still possible to complete an apprenticeship and complete the first stage towards mastery?
Greene gives several examples of people who became masters, by creating their own apprenticeship.
We can learn from books and online sources, and devise our own practice regimes. Greene gives a great example of a basketball player called Bill Bradley.
Bradley wanted to improve at basketball, so he devised intense, gruelling practice regimes where he would work on things that he found difficult.
He would practice dribbling around chairs. He would practice basketball on holiday.
The practice paid off and he became a great player.
An example from the music world would be Yngwie Malmsteen. In his biography Relentless, he talks about the hours and hours he would spend practising. He overcame not having a master to apprentice under by putting together intense practice regimes where he would spend hours just trying to figure stuff out.
So with some self discipline and grit, you can create your own apprenticeship.
Stage 2) The Creative Active
After studying for a prolonged period of time, you start to internalise the rules and build a lot of experience. You learn the basics of what does and does not work.
At this stage, self confidence is vital.
You need to continue to expand your knowledge, allowing your mind to draw new connections between ideas.
You have to take what you’ve learned and experiment with it.
Greene warns us against falling for 6 emotional ‘pitfalls’ during this stage:
The factor that hit home the hardest for me was Greene’s thoughts on dependency.
A risk from the continuous feedback we get from a mentor (ideally) is that we become dependent on that feedback. When transitioning from being an apprentice, to the creative-active, our source of feedback becomes the public.
Do they enjoy a piece of music we wrote? Are they poking holes in our theory?
The reaction of the public gives us the feedback on the weaknesses in our skills.
Greene also gives an interesting example of an apprentice choosing to leave his master when he felt that he was no longer benefiting from the apprenticeship.
This is an interesting idea that I can relate to, having done something similar. I had a teacher for several years, that I learned a lot from. But, after a few years of study, and making improvements in my skills, I felt I was no longer improving. The teacher was not willing to help me in the areas I needed to work on, and was pushing me (somewhat manipulatively) down a path I did not want to go down.
So I had to leave. At the time it was scary – I was moving into the unknown, but in retrospect it was an important decision that I have no regrets about.
Finding a master to study under is very powerful, but at some point we may have to leave. Being able to recognise that moment is key to taking the next step to mastery.
Stage 3) Mastery
Greene describes mastery as fusing ‘the intuitive with the rational’. I dislike this explanation, as it takes human knowledge and ascribes a mythical/magical status to it.
What Greene really means, is being able to work at a very advanced level, being able to work with much higher level concepts than other people can contemplate.
Being able to see connections and relationships that others can’t see. Being able to see a piece of work on a microscopic and macroscopic level.
The ‘magic’ is nothing more than having trained your mind to handle the basics of the field on a subconscious level, so you can plan further ahead and see the bigger picture with your creative work.
It’s about programming a field into your mind so deeply, that you can perform complex calculations instinctively, by emotional reflex.
Greene also points out that a big part of creativity at this level, is listening to our inner voice, our inclinations.
And what I love, is that he points out that this is a perfectly natural thing for all of us to accomplish – if we choose to.
Key Points Around Mastery
Key Point 1) Mastery is a Life Work
You could almost think of this book as an outline on how anyone in a creative field of some sort can lead a happy life.
First, we have to choose something to dedicate our lives to. A problem, an interest, a field, an instrument.
We have a voice inside us, that we listened to as a child, and sometimes, as we grow up, we learn to ignore this voice… and it slowly dies out.
As a child, doing what we wanted was the easiest thing in the world. If you are disconnected from that voice, that feeling, the first thing is to reconnect with it.
We have to find something that intrigues us. Something that we can sit and think about. Something where we can lose ourselves in the process of practising.
While we all have a lot in common, we are also all unique. As such, we all have a unique inclination towards something that captivates us.
It is important to listen to that inclination.
Key Point 2) Time and the 10,000 Hour Rule
Time is the magic ingredient to learning any skill. You can watch a 5 minute video on some music theory technique or technical exercise, but it’s the hours of practice you put into that exercise or technique that makes the difference.
Greene makes a key observation – learning anything new is frustrating… because we can’t do it! A key element of people that master a field is the ability to continuously deal with frustration.
If you can continuous handle frustration, you can continuously increase your ability.
Another vital observation with time, is the 10,000 hour rule.
In the book, Outliers, Malcom Gladwell talks about the now infamous 10,000 rule. This rule states that it takes 10,000 hours of active practice to become a master in a given field, whether you want to become a scientist or a musician.
Greene notes that a lot of people get put off by this rule. 10,000 hours is a lot of time.
However, he takes a slant on it that I absolutely love – anyone prepared to put the 10,000 hours in, will become a master. It’s a scientific fact.
You have to practice correctly, which is a vital part of having a mentor, or at least a good teacher.
With knowledge of the 10,000 hour rule:
- We all have no excuse for mastering at least one field in our lifetimes
- By working on our productivity and time management, we can start to allocate increasing amounts of time to mastering our chosen fields.
Key Point 3) The Social Side of Mastery
The social side of mastery is an easily overlooked part of the equation.
Bearing some resemblance to Steven Coveys idea of interdependence, outlined in ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People’, Greene notes that in order to not just master a field, but enjoy hard earned success in the field, we have to learn how to deal with other people.
It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you can’t deal with people, you will not be able to get very far. Any great project or work is going to involve other people, either in its creation, or in presenting the discovery to them.
Key Point 4) How Well You Focus is Vital
A key argument against the 10,000 hour rule is that there are people who practice for a long time without achieving real results.
This is an issue I addressed from a guitar perspective in “Are you practising or playing guitar?“.
Putting in the time is vital, but you have to be intensely focussed on what you do.
You don’t just want to study, you don’t just need to practice, you have to put this knowledge to use. And by putting it to use, you start to really internalise and understand the skills on a much deeper level.
For example, I was recently studying augmented sixth chords. I drew them out on some staves and I could see how to voice lead from a german augmented 6th to a V chord.
Then I figured out how to play those chords with the correct voice leading on guitar. And I made a couple of discoveries that enabled me to create some neat shortcuts for using and resolving german augmented 6ths.
Then I went and used them in a couple of short ternary form pieces.
I now understand these chords much better than when I simply looked at the voiceleading on wikipedia.
By continuously study, practising, and experimenting; you gain a very deep knowledge of your field.
And you can take this a step further. When you put your experimentation out to the public, for example releasing your new compositions on Spotify, you apply a principle coined by Jeff Goins, of practising in public.
It’s not alway my best, but I know it’s a vital step to getting better.
Key Point 5) You Are Never Ready to Take the Next Step
An interesting observation that Greene makes is that we are never really ready to take the next step along any of the stages of Mastery.
We have to take the step first and then figure out how to deal with where we are.
No-one will come along and say to us “You are ready to go do X”. As Greene demonstrated via biographical accounts, even when we have a Master sometimes we do not get this vital piece of guidance.
It is up to us to have the courage to take the necessary steps and figure out what to do once we get there.
Why Are There Not More Masters?
Looking through history, we can see that masters tend to be the exception, not the norm. So why are there not more masters, given that that the process can be laid out so simply?
In the past, most people simply didn’t have the resources or the access to the right people to be able to master a field of their choosing.
A scientist needs a lab for experiments. An artist needs paints and canvas. Until the industrial revolution, most the world was incredibly poor, and the only way to afford such things would have required being born into wealth.
However, the average person (in the Western World at least) has enough disposable income and access to information to become a master in any subject.
Even on a moderate income, most people can afford to take lessons with someone to learn something. There are plenty of online courses (or even books!) that allow us to study any subject in depth.
Many great artists and musicians hold master classes and will do lessons for a reasonable fee.
While in days gone by, the path to Mastery was blocked by poverty, the modern world suffers with a lack of dedication and focus.
We choose to fill our lives with nothing more than noise. Mindless ‘entertainment’. Scrolling on social media, binge watching on Netflix and commenting on Facebook.
What if instead, you chose a field you wanted to enter, found a Master, and chose to study with them for the next 7 years? Put aside all the trivialities we choose to occupy our time with, and focussed on progressively improving at something?
What if you went to bed an hour or two earlier, woke up an hour or two earlier, and started your day off by putting time into your new craft?
I think a lot of people would find a lot more pleasure, satisfaction and meaning from their lives.
Destiny isn’t something that is mystically revealed or handed to us, it’s a choice we make, and we only have to make it once.
And Robert Greene’s Mastery gives us a simple, albeit challenging, path that we can follow.