Notes: Mastery, Robert Greene

Published on Sep 8, 2019

I'm re-reading Mastery, one of my favorite self-help book. The following document is an attempt at synthesizing its essence to avoid forgetting it. I hope it will also entice you to read it in its entirety.



Definition of mastery : "the feeling that we have a greater command of reality, other people, and ourselves"

The three phases of mastery : student (apprenticeship) -> practitioner (creative-active, journeyman) -> master (mastery)

Mastery is not only accessible to us all, it's the meaning of life itself.


Our mind is what led us to reach the top of the food chain. Its growth was triggered by our sense of sight and our needs for socialization.

Our visual system is built to think ahead to avoid predators: "the emergence of the conscious, reasoning mind". Not to merely see, but to focus.

Our social intelligence stemmed from a higher attention to details: mirror neurons and our abilities to be inside someone else's mind or to introspect/retrospect.

Mastery was already about making efficient decisions quickly by developing an understanding of the surrounding environment.

"The body could decay but the mind would continue to learn and adapt. Using time for such effect is the essential ingredient of mastery. [...] when we trust that going through a process of months or years will bring us mastery, [...] we infallibly move to higher and higher levels of intelligence." There is no shortcut to mastery, you have to go through and trust the process. Technology is merely a tool, it can't put in the work for you.


We are born with the same capabilities, and yet few of us reach mastery. Why is that? 

It's not about IQ or natural talent, there is no relation between mastery and intelligence. It's about your personal inclination (the original meaning of the word "genius" - your unique innate qualities), an interest in a particular topic pushing you to practice harder and faster.

This intense connection is the lifeline keeping you afloat amidst the hardship. The more you nurture it, the more resilient you become.

It used to be much harder to become a master because of social reproduction. Now, knowledge is widely accessible and we have much more freedom to choose.

Refuting our individuality is an attempt at freeing ourselves from our responsibilities. We become passive, because it's easy and it gives a false sense of control. Effort and discipline are pushed away to idolize self-destructiveness and instant gratification. It's the contrary, your depression stems from your alienation from your own creative potential. 

You need to feel emotionally connected to your work to strive. Mastery is about defining our own destiny, power over ourselves. We are responsible for our own actions.

The first part of the book is about finding your inner calling and how to embrace it by starting your apprenticeship. Then, the author describes how to navigate on your own to, one day, reach mastery based on the examples of established masters. Robert Greene warns the reader about mastery not being a destination but a process.



Mastery is a work of introspection, first and foremost. You have to trust the hidden force within you to do things your way, not how others do it.


Our DNA is unique, so are we as individuals. It is only logical to think we all have an inner vocation related to our uniqueness, things we are naturally attracted to from birth. We can either pursue it - it's our fate - or fall for the social pressure to conform.

Three steps: reconnect with your natural inclinations, find a corresponding career path, find your niche.

Your work shouldn't be separated from your "regular" life: it should act as a positive force and an integral part of your vocation.

Learn from others but make it your own. Don't hesitate to stray away from the way. A career is not a straight path.

Once you find your own niche, you become your own master.

We live in a world where we no longer can rely entirely on the institutions to protect us, we have to develop our own strength by pursuing our life's task. You need your uniqueness to strive.

We have to believe we have something to accomplish, no one else can give meaning to our lives. Our species evolves thanks to diversity: if we don't nurture our own, we are bound to fade away.


Five strategies to find your vocation. It needs planning to overcome the obstacles and keep your course.

Return to your origins. As a child, you tend to be attracted to specific things. Revisit them. (Einstein => a compass, Marie Curie => her father's laboratory, Ingmar Bergman => a cinematograph, Martha Graham => a dance performance and her inability to express herself with words, Daniel Everett => a different culture => Mexican migrants, John Coltrane => another master => Charlie Parker) You need a primal connection to the subject to master it.

Occupy the perfect niche. Ramachandran => sea shells (origins) => anomalous neurological disorders (niche), Yoky Matsuoka => sport and maths (origins) => neurobotics (niche). Find a niche in your own ecology to dominate by experimenting and combining several apparently unrelated paths.

Avoid the false path. Mozart => composing (inclination) > performing (wrong path) => his father (obstacle). False path = following the wrong reasons (not according to our inclination). Realize you are on the wrong path, then rebel to overcome the obstacles.

Let go of the past. Freddie Roach => boxing (past success) => training. Don't be tied to a title, commit to your life's task. Always be adapting.

Find your way back. Buckminster Fuller => business failure, contemplating suicide => decided to pursue his own ideas no matter what. Listen to your frustration and make a radical change.

Temple Grandin found her Life's Task by focusing on her weaknesses: "ignore your weaknesses and resist the temptation to be more like others". A life's task isn't always obvious, but you will eventually stumble upon it if you find the confidence to pursue what you like.


 Apprenticeship is a practical education following the formal one.


Darwin's apprenticeship was a voyage he undertook in South-America.


Every master underwent a self-directed apprenticeship. Self-directed = "intuitive grasp of what is most important and essential in their development". All apprenticeship share common patterns => "ideal apprenticeship".

From childhood to adulthood, parents and teachers tell us what to do. Then we are thrown against reality. From a passive position we are forced to become active and independent. How to go about it? Naive approach = follow what others do, but an apprenticeship is about finding your own way.

"the goal of an apprenticeship is not money, a good position, a title, or a diploma, but rather transformation of your mind and character - the first one on the way to mastery [...] you will transform yourself from someone who is impatient and scattered into someone who is disciplined and focused, with a mind that can handle complexity. [...] you will master yourself"

Choose jobs offering the biggest learning opportunities where you can measure your progress, not comfortable ones.


- Deep Observation (passive mode)

When you begin a career, you enter a culture going beyond your individual aspirations. The objective is to make it yours, to understand it at a fundamental level, not to impress and make a name for yourself, but to learn.

Observe the rules, the power relationships, and follow them. It's not about judging and changing things, it's about *really* understanding them. Breaking the rules is the master's privilege. No menial task is trivial, everything is an opportunity to learn. "Submit to and absorb reality". It's about developing observational skills that will help you navigate throughout new environments.

- Skills Acquisition (practice mode)

Every human venture is about mastering skills. Skills can be more or less abstract, so you want to focus on those that can be practiced.

Tacit knowledge ("hard to put into words but easy to demonstrate in action") is the result of a learning process. During Middle Age, the apprenticeship system was designed as a learning process to acquire tacit knowledge.

An apprentice learns by watching and repeating what a master does. Example: gothic cathedrals realized without blueprints or books: tacit knowledge is transmitted "with the hands".

The natural model for learning is based on mirror neurons - watch and imitate others, then do the task repetively. Practice and repetition, leading to a "cycle of accelerated returns": it becomes more interesting, so we practice more and become better, without end.

Rules for practice: 1) don't multitask, learn to develop your focus ; 2) embrace the initial pain/boredom, it's part of it ; 3) practice till it becomes automatic, it means you are ready to analyze yourself because you know what it takes, and you can start adding nuances

- Experimentation (active mode)

Do work in public, confront yourself to reality and improve thanks to the critics you receive. It's about testing your character and developing a thick skin. 

Your apprenticeship is over in one location once you don't have anything new to learn. It's time to move on to new challenges.

"The future of science does not lie in increased specialization, but rather in the combining and cross-fertilization of knowledge in various fields. [...] The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways."


8 strategies to complete your apprenticeship

1) Value learning over money

If you choose the biggest paycheck, you will spend your time pleasing others instead of acquiring skills, and it will be addictive. Learn to live with less and spend your time developing your expertise.

2) Keep expanding your horizons

Don't define yourself by your status, break through your limits, meet a variety of people, expose yourself to new ideas.

3) Revert to a feeling of inferiority 

Learn like a child, without any feeling of superiority, live the knowledge. Don't act like a snob and always remember you know nothing, that's how you become hungry for more studies.

4) Trust the process 

Don't be afraid to fail. There is always a point during the process where you don't feel like you're enough. Shut down this inner voice and don't quit. Practice some more, till it becomes an integral part of yourself. "Frustration is a sign of progress".

5) Move toward resistance and pain

Don't pass over the painful aspects of your craft, embrace the pain. Recognize your weaknesses, resist distractions and become creative with your own routine to overcome them. Push past your limits by settings impossible objectives.

6) Apprentice yourself in failure

Failures are opportunities for improvements. Keep tweaking. Act early and confront yourself to reality right away. If you fail, you are just learning.

7) Combine the "how" and the "what"

The What is the part we can see with our eyes, the How is the way it works. We always distinguish the two (front-end vs back-end, art vs science), but if we learn to overcome those divisions to combine them, we gain a much deeper insight on reality. "We must constantly ask the questions - how things work, how do decisions get made, how does the group interact?"

8) Advance through trial and error

The hacker way = learn by experimenting. Expand your possibilities by trying out new things. 

There are no shortcuts to bypass your apprenticeship, it takes years of time. Even "geniuses" (Einstein, Mozart) needed more than 10 years to come up with their first great work. 


Time is limited, use the knowledge of your predecessors, then surpass them.


Story of Faraday from his humble beginnings to his mentorship with Davy.


"To learn requires a sense of humility." We have to remember there are always more experienced people out there who can teach us something. In a master/apprentice relationship, submissiveness is not a sign of weakness, it's common sense.

Mentors tailor the process to your individuality. They give you the right resources to absorb, the right direction leading to fewer distractions.

Mentors are emotionally invested in your education. They have to gain something from it: ego boost, cheap work... a form of self-interest. You need leverage to convince them to take you in: basic skills and/or strong work ethics.

A mentor is your philosophical stone.

"Intensify your level of engagement with what you are learning."

"Books can server as temporary mentors" but you have to make them come alive by actively interacting with them: take notes, synthesize, change the support, spin it off...

At some point, the mentor hinders your growth, consciously or not. Everyone has weaknesses. When the moment comes, you have to "kill the father" to find a new one.


Submit to the mentor's authority but always be proactive.

1. Choose the mentor according to your needs and inclinations

A mentor that enables your potential instead of putting it off - a sort of parental figure. If the mentor is too domineering, put a bit of emotional distance between you two.

2. Gaze deep into the mentor's mirror

Mastery is about reality, which is always harsh. Suffering is part of apprenticeship, be thankful you receive it ("tough love") from your mentor because that's how you grow. Get used to criticism.

3. Transfigure their ideas

Add your own twist to the things you learn from your mentor and overcome his weaknesses you identify, that's how you build your independence.

4. Create a back-and-forth dynamic

If you manage to reach a state where you push each other to higher heights, the relationship has endless opportunities for growth.


Emotionally draining relationships are a big obstacle to mastery. Social intelligence: the skill to see people for who they are by deeply focusing on others.


Life of Benjamin Franklin and how he used emotional intelligence to win over allies and navigate through his environment


Humans are social animals: mirror neurons to develop empathy and collaborate.

Naïve perspective: to exaggerate people's good and bad qualities, to always project our own emotions onto people, leading to petty fights

Social intelligence is about giving up this naïve perspective to become more realistic - outrospection. 

Drama gets in the way of mastery. Stop idealizing/demonizing people and reason by first principles: "the most effective attitude to adopt is one of supreme acceptance."

A. Specific Knowledge -- Reading People

Focus your thoughts outward to fully absorb your interlocutor's words and body language. 

Lower your defense mechanisms, but don't take things personally: "Resist the temptation to interpret what they say or do as somehow implicitly involving you". 

Develop a habit of empathy by putting yourself in their shoes. Note their actions and decisions, they speak louder than words. Understand their motivations, their character, their values, so that you can predict their actions and develop a fruitful relationship, but don't forget people can change.

B. General Knowledge -- The Seven Deadly Realities

Negative qualities with high destructive powers, often disguised by the people wielding them.

Envy - Don't trigger envy by displaying some weaknesses in other areas. Turn to insecure types for advice and give praise. Don't make others feel stupid.

Conformism - In any social sphere, there are unwritten rules. Don't make others feel uncomfortable by questioning their values or by appearing different. Let your work demonstrate your individuality and leave politics behind during the apprenticeship phase. Beware your words, "keep your identity small".

Rigidity - Always adapt, never follow any dogma and consider alternative ways of doing things. Accept people's rigidity: don't fight it or they will pull you in.

Self-obsessiveness - When asking for help, think of ways to trigger the individual's self-interest. Make the conversation about them first.

Laziness - Beware of people with poor work ethic. They will try to take shortcuts for everything, including stealing ideas and making others do the heavy lifting. Conceal your thoughts from them.

Flightiness - Focus on people's actions, not on their words. People's emotions change frequently, you can't trust them.

Passive Aggression - Passive aggression originates from the fear of direct confrontation. Call people off when you identify a harmful behavior, or avoid them if it's in their nature. Discard the harmless exterior to analyze their acts. Flee or reflect their attacks with an equal strength, but don't invest yourself emotionally.


Four strategies to go past the Naïve Perspective and maintain your emotional composure.

Speak through your work - Involve others in your work by creating an emotional attachment: explain your work in a simple (shows you care for your audience) yet rigorous (demonstrates your thinking process to bring a solution) manner. Don't engage in futile battles with your opposition. Solid work is your best defense.

Craft the appropriate persona - People judge you on your appearance: wear a mask mirroring your audience's desires to make your quest for mastery easier.

See yourself as others see you - Get out of your own head and welcome criticism. We all have flaws, it's hard to discern them by ourselves, which is why we need the help of others to grow and correct them. Develop self-detachment.

Suffer fools gladly - Haters are everywhere, focus on results instead. Stupidity is part of life, remain stoïc. Ignore them, use them in your work, or turn their moves to your benefit.

Reversal: If you can't handle social situations, avoid them.


Instead of remaining conservative with your knowledge, take risks by always expanding your expertise.


The life of Mozart, from his childhood as a young prodigy to his death aged 35.


The Original Mind = the way you experienced the world as a child (curiosity, intensity, playfulness, flexibility, openness, spontaneity, but incapable of deep work)

The Conventional Mind = the accumulation of past experiences tainting our view of the world, our dogmas

Master = Original Mind + years of apprenticeship + an ability for deep work, a master can keep his mind open to new perspectives and solutions = the Dimensional Mind (discipline + childlike spirit)

Don't get trapped by conformism or the comfort of the knowledge you acquired, take on harder challenges.

The Dimensional Mind requires a high level of expertise and openness. Three steps to awake it:

1) Choose the right Creative Task - an activity maximizing our expertise

2) Develop Creative Strategies - with the aim to open up your mind

3) Condition yourself for a Breakthrough -