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Mastery Paperback – October 29, 2013
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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"Greene’s specialty is analyzing the lives and philosophies of historical figures like Sun Tzu and Napoleon, and extracting from them tips on how to manipulate people and situations—a cutthroat worldview that has earned him a devoted following among a like-minded readership of rappers, drug dealers and corporate executives."—The New York Times
About the Author
Robert Greene has a degree in classical studies and is the author of several bestselling books, including The 48 Laws of Power, The 33 Strategies of War, The Art of Seduction, and Mastery. He lives in Los Angeles.
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Achieving Mastery in life is a lot of work but it is the way to a flourishing life (a life of self-fulfillment). Spinoza's quote "All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare" came to mind several times as I read the book. The author provides ideas and strategies that can improve the process for those willing to expend the effort. I plan to re-read and work with the ideas and strategies covered in this book and apply them to my personal context. I also plan to purchase copies of the book for my wife and 2 teenage sons so they can benefit from this material as well.
The work begins by discussing how to discover one's purpose in life. This is unique to each individual and needs to be well thought through. The author gives 5 strategies for finding your life's task and illustrates these strategies with historical and contemporary figures. Two of the strategies he discusses that really gave me a lot to think about are:
1. ) Occupy the perfect niche - the Darwinian strategy. In this strategy you need to find the career niche that best fits your interests and talents and then evolve that niche over time. I found the eaxample of V.S. Ramachandran very interesting
2.) Let go of the past - the adaptation strategy. The following quote from this section that really resonated with me:
"You must adapt your Life's Task to these circumstances. You do not hold on to past ways of doing things, because it will ensure you will fall behind and suffer for it. You are flexible and looking to adapt."
The author then covers the Apprentice Phase which he breaks into 3 steps:
1.) Deep Observation - the Passive Mode
2.) Skills Acquisition - the Practice Mode
3.) Experimentation - The Active Mode
There are detailed strategies for completing the ideal appenticeship. These are illustrated by examples. 2 of my favorites in this section were "move toward resistance and pain" as illustrated by the example of Bill Bradley and "apprentice yourself in failure" as illustrated by Henry Ford. All 8 strategies are worth thinking about in detail.
The next section covers learning through a Mentor and is one of the best parts of the book. The example of Michael Faraday is used as a great illustration. There are strategies discussed for finding the appropriate mentor(s), knowing when to break away from the mentor and what to do if you cannot find a mentor (the example here is Thomas Edison and there is an interesting tie-back to Faraday). Having a mentor is the most effective way to gain deep knowledge of a field in the least amount of time - it greatly accelerates that path to Mastery.
The next section deals with social intelligence and seeing people as they are. Benjamin Franklin is used as an example. There are 7 deadly realities covered in this section (envy, conformism, rigidity, self-obsessiveness, laziness, flightiness and passive aggression) as well as strategies for acquiring social intelligence.
The fifth section is on awakening the dimensional mind. This is where you see more and more aspects of reality and develop ways to become more creative (and not get stuck in the past). There are several strategies on creativity discussed in detail. I found the discussion on ways to alter one's perspective especially illuminating. These include avoiding:
* Looking at the "what" instead of the "how"
* Rushing to generalities and ignoring details
* Confirming paradigms and ignoring anomalies - (key quote: "...anomalies themselves contain the richest information. They often reveal to us the flaws in our paradigms and open up new ways of looking at the world")
* fixating on what is present, ignoring what is absent (Sherlock Holmes example)
The section continues with strategies and examples for this "creative-active" phase. My favorite was a section on Mechanical Intelligence with the Wright Brothers as an example.
The Final Section is on Mastery as the fusing of the Intuitive with the Rational. The strategies in this section are very powerful and I will be returning to them again and again. Here are the 7 strategies:
1.) Connect to your environment
2.) Play to your strengths (this is very important - see further thoughts on this below)
3.) Transform yourself through practice
4.) Internalize the details - the life force (Leonardo Da Vinci example)
5.) Widen your vision
6.) Submit to the other - the Inside Out perspective
7.) Synthesize all forms of knowledge
This is a very powerful book filled with a lot of good ideas and strategies. There are ideas I plan to continue to "chew" on and think more deeply about while I work to integrate these ideas and strategies into my personal context.
A lot of the book stresses the importance of self-discipline, persevering through difficult challenges, the importance of an adaptive and active mind, independent thinking and integrating all of one's knowledge. Here are a few recommendations I would make to augment the material covered in this book:
1.) For Self-Displine and Willpower (and perseverance):
Willpower by Tierney and Baumeister
The Power of Habit by Duhigg
Grit (see TED Talk by Angela Duckworth and the GRIT assessment as well - Grit Assessment can be found at: available at [...])
2.) For an adaptive/active mindset (and recovering from failure)
Mindset by Carol Dweck
Apapt by Tim Harford
3.) For a great fictional example of many of the ideas covered in the book, I would recommend Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (Roark as a positive example; Keating as a negative example of what the author calls "the false self")
4.) Other Real world examples
Richard Feynman (see his books "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman" and "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out"
5.) Finding your strengths
Strengthsfinder 2.0 by Tom Rath
VIA Survey of Character Strengths (available at [...])
Greene starts out by tackling a simple, yet often overlooked concept: we each have a "life task" yet many of us deviate from this task because of pressure from family members, concerns about money, etc. We thus jump into a rat race in which we fail to make progress, ultimately finding ourselves in a job we merely tolerate and having given up on our dreams. If you are not excited to get up each morning and go to your job, then this book is for you.
Greene aptly points out that we will spend the lion's share of our waking lives at our job. That being the case, we shouldn't resign ourselves to the notion that our jobs are merely a hassle we endure to get to the weekends. Rather, we should engage in some soul-searching to find our life's task: something we are naturally inclined to do, even if we weren't being paid to do it. We are all unique, so no one can tell you your life's task. In fact, you might not even know what your life's task is, and Greene suggests re-examining activities from your childhood to find something that you never grew tired of doing.
Once you've identified what your life's task is, it's time to go after it. If you say, "Hey, I'm already in a career and have invested all this time" Greene's is that you will never be truly successful and happy by doing something that isn't your life's task. To get ahead in any field requires massive commitments of time and energy, and you seem won't have the motivation for this in the long haul if the path you've chosen isn't your life task. But once you've mustered the courage to go after this life task, Greene suggests you pick an area that roughly corresponds to this interest. This job should be viewed more as a learning experience, and as you come to know the field better you'll identify side-paths that appeal more closely to your particular interests.
After identifying your life task and jumping into a related field, the next step is to find a mentor. A good chunk of the book is dedicated toward finding the right mentor, and the information Greene provides is invaluable. Greene avoids spewing vague platitudes and gives the reader concrete direction about how to obtain a mentor, why a mentor is important, and how to interact with the mentor.
The second half of the book is where I found myself losing interest. Greene is famous for his mini-biographies of historical figures, and in his previous books he does an excellent job weaving these stories seamlessly into his life lessons. This time, however, I felt like I was reading a laundry-list of stories one after the other as I delved into the latter half of the book. I would read several pages about this person and then several pages about that person, and I wasn't quite sure what the key takeaway was. In the previous books each chapter had a clear, succinct point, but as I wound my way toward the end of Mastery I found myself struggling to remain engaged with the material. Perhaps the best way to summarize it is this: if someone were to ask me what I took away from the first half of the book, I could launch into a long, informed discussion of the salient points; but if someone were to ask me what I took away from the second half of the book, I would have to fire up my Kindle and go back to dig up something that wasn't useful enough for me to bother committing it to memory.
Other reviewers have mentioned that Greene forgoes his usual style of quotes in the margins, etc. and this is correct, but I found that to be less of an issue. Who cares what format he chooses for delivering information if the material is useful and engaging?
If you are not excited to get up and go to work tomorrow, if your job is just "so-so," if you're lacking a clear sense of purpose in your life, buy this book and take its advice seriously-- it might help you make better use of the time you have to live. If you get bored with the second half of the book, just put it down and rest easy knowing that you've identified your life task and are going after it.