Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Review: Mastery by Robert Greene

Robert Greene has always fascinated me. His ideas and knowledge shared in ‘The 48 Laws of Power’ and ‘The Art of Seduction’ thrilled me. I wouldn’t say that I actually followed the ideas in the book as I had never been mad about power or had the need to seduce someone. However, I enjoyed reading the book as it is a voyage into human psychology and how it all works together. So, when I saw ‘Mastery’ on the shelves at Connexions (Chennai), I picked it up immediately. One, I admire Greene’s books. Two, Connexions is my most favourite bookshop and it is one of the traditions I uphold during every Chennai visit – each family member picks up at least one book there. (I know it is cheaper to shop at or or at least Crossword or Landmark. Still, I do this because all the stand alone book shops around the country are slowly disappearing and I am disappointed at that!)

The book far surpassed all my expectations. It was enlightening and inspiring. Greene speaks about how we can gain mastery over whatever life’s task we choose for ourselves.

“We are merely born with the capability to do it. The skill to mold the material into what we want must be learned and attentively cultivated.”

“Whoever is born with a talent, or to a talent, must surely find in that the most pleasing of occupations! Everything on this earth has its difficult sides! Only some inner drive – pleasure, love- can help us overcome obstacles, prepare a path, and lift us out of the narrow circle in which others tread out their anguished, miserable existences!

– Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

With any skill we want to acquire, there is always a period of excitement in the beginning and then we realize how much hard work is there ahead of us. The great danger is that we give in to feelings of boredom, impatience, fear and confusion. We stop observing and learning. The process comes to a halt.

Greene explains the steps to mastery:

1) Discover your calling: The Life’s Task
2) Submit to Reality: The Ideal Apprenticeship
3) Absorb the master’s power: The Mentor Dynamic
4) See People as they are: Social Intelligence
5) Awaken the Dimensional Mind: The Creative-Active

Out of all the steps, I loved the second one the most. Now days, the principle of Apprenticeship is slowly dying away. No one wants to accept that someone is better than them. No one wants to live with and serve another just to watch and learn their skill. However, this is not how we can attain mastery. The Gurukul system advocated the principle of learning by observing and repeating with humbleness and discipline. How wonderful it would be if we had some such skill transference programme for writers too??!

Greene says that there are three essential steps in apprenticeship, each one overlapping the other. They are

1) Deep Observation (The Passive Mode)
2) Skills Acquisition (The Practice Mode) and
3) Experimentation (The Active Mode).

In the Practice Mode, Greene says apprentices of yester years worked on materials for a time that would amount to more than 10,000 hours. This was enough for them to establish exceptional skill level at the craft. This seems to be the amount of quality practice time that is needed for someone to reach a high level of skill and it applies to composers, chess players, writers, and athletes, among others. This generally adds up to 7 to 10 years of sustained, solid practice – roughly the period of traditional apprenticeship.

Greene makes some interesting observations about the basic principles of skills themselves. Firstly, you must begin with one skill that serves as foundation for acquiring others. You must not multitask. Secondly, the initial stages of learning a skill invariably involve tedium. You need to accept and embrace this. Too many people believe that everything must be pleasurable in life, which makes them constantly search for distractions and short-circuits in the learning process. However, you need to cultivate the ability to handle the tedium with discipline. In the end, our brain gets hard-wired and we can perform the task with less conscious control. Hardwiring cannot occur if you are constantly distracted, moving from one task to another. It is better to dedicate two or three hours of intense focus to a skill than to spend eight hours of diffused concentration on it.

Greene has described a challenging but clear course that we can pursue to achieve mastery in our chosen field. He makes the path interesting by sharing the stories and behaviours of Einstein, Darwin, Mozart, Da Vinci, Keats, Ford and many others.

A must read.

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