"It is the choice of where to direct his or her energy that makes the Master."
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Is it possible that the key to what separates the Einsteins, the Mozarts, and the Da Vincis from the rest of us has less to do with intelligence and more to do with their habits, mentors, creativity, and commitment?
That’s what Robert Greene suggests in his latest work, Mastery. In studying the path taken by such masters, Greene outlines several ways we can tap into a higher level of performance, a greater sense of satisfaction, and use our work to contribute on a much larger scale.
Whether it’s a hobby or profession, mastering anything is no small task, requiring years and years of learning, experimentation, focus, and flexibility. And while reaching the highest levels may not be attainable (or even desirable) for everyone, anyone can use the advice and guidelines in this book to boost their performance.
The Big Idea
Learning How to Learn
"The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways."
At no point in our history have we had such easy, affordable, and consistent access to the information and technology we need to study, experiment, build, and create. The masters of tomorrow will be those who can exploit and take advantage of this access.
Mastery is filled with countless stories, biographical accounts, and lessons that make one thing clear: Masters from every era, every profession, and every creative field had one thing in common – they mastered learning. More than pure knowledge, facts, and figures, they had learned how to identify the right environments, found the right mentors to support their journey, and learned to push beyond their comfort zone.
The key step in becoming a master is a commitment to learning at a deep level. Greene uses the stories of people like Mozart, Benjamin Franklin, and Paul Graham, founder of Y-Combinator, to describe just how important deep knowledge is.
Ericsson called it deliberate practice, Gladwell said it takes 10,000 hours, and Greene calls it an Apprenticeship. Regardless of the name, there is no such thing as an “overnight success.” True mastery requires focus, determination, and grit. It requires the ability to identify the right teachers, productive environments, and the willingness to take on the next challenge, the one just out of our comfort zone. The one most people shy away from.
This journey toward mastery is comprised of three distinct phases:
- Apprenticeship – Practical, hands-on experience, separate from formal education and focused on skill development and evolving into an independent thinker.
- Creative Active – Using your new skills and experience, you begin to experiment and create.
- Mastery – After years of practice and focus, your knowledge is so deep that your work has a clarity very different from anything you have previously experienced.
Greene makes it crystal clear when he says, “You must value learning above everything else.”
Choose Your Environment Wisely
"You must choose places of work and positions that offer the greatest possibilities for learning. Practical knowledge is the ultimate commodity, and is what will pay you dividends for decades to come."
To become a master, you must not merely commit to acquiring knowledge. You must also find opportunities that offer the acquisition of practical skills. Find roles where you can experiment, test, and where you’ll be surrounded by people that inspire you. Search for organizations that value innovation, divergent thinking, and creativity. Keep in mind that while these positions may not always be the most glamorous or provide the largest paycheck, they are often the greatest opportunity for learning. You cannot be, as Greene states, “seduced into fields because you see others making a living, treading the familiar path.” Be bold. Be brave.
If mastery is your goal, resist the temptation to chase money, fame, or prestige. While they undoubtedly offer their own benefits, they won’t necessarily lead to mastery. You have to carefully guide your career, making deliberate choices about how and where to focus your time and energy. You have to be your own career architect. Mastery uses countless examples from the lives of people like Da Vinci and Goethe, who had a knack for knowing when they had outgrown a role or position. This very ability to identify and take the next step played a significant role in their development, and is essential to yours.
To further accelerate the learning phase, find a mentor. As Greene states, “mentors do not give you a shortcut, but they streamline the process.” But choose this person carefully. Your mentor should come from the field you are pursuing. And even though today’s technology makes it possible to connect with virtually anyone, try to find someone where personal interaction will be possible. Look for someone who will challenge you, push you further than you would go on your own, and tailor their advice to your circumstances.
Engage and Embrace Your Creative Mind
"Creativity is by its nature an act of boldness and rebellion. You are not accepting the status quo or conventional wisdom. You are playing with the very rules you have learned, experimenting and testing the boundaries."
With so much being written about creativity and innovation today, companies large and small are constantly looking for ways to stand out and differentiate themselves. The same goes for individuals. The need for creativity – “the ability to expand [your] vision beyond conventional boundaries” – is becoming increasingly important in today’s ultra-competitive market.
Today’s “connection economy” makes it easier than ever to create something new – a blog post, a photograph, a start-up – and put it into the world. With access to nearly instant feedback, you can make changes, adapt and tailor your work to the needs of your audience almost in real time.
But this is often easier said then done. By its very nature, being creative means taking risks, exposing yourself to judgment, or worse, potential failure. The very things we as humans are conditioned to avoid. True mastery requires the willingness to break free from this fear, or as Greene states, “You must become aware of the typical patterns your mind falls into and how you can break out of these patterns and alter your perspective through conscious effort.”
To get into a creative mode, Greene offers three suggestions:
- Choose the proper Creative Task – choose activities where you can leverage your greatest skills and knowledge. It’s important you also have passion for this task.
- Use Creative Strategies to open your mind and expand your idea of what’s possible. As an example, he recommends continually “altering your perspective” as a way to prevent your current paradigms from limiting your ability to generate new ideas.
- Fostering a mindset and attitude to allow for Breakthroughs and Insights. In other words, resist the common tendencies that stifle our creative momentum: complacency, inflexibility, and impatience being just a few examples.
It’s hard to believe that we all have the natural ability to rise to the intellectual or creative levels of Mozart, Einstein, or Da Vinci. But for most of us, that’s not how we should measure our Mastery. Instead, Greene’s book should serve as a guide of best practices available to all of us. Each of us has the ability to leverage the principles and strategies used by such visionaries. Which begs the question, how much better could you be?