How to Become a Master

Concentrated practice over time cannot fail but produce results

  • Robert Greene, Mastery

THEORY OF MASTERY

The Theory of Mastery presented in the book that the quote above is taken is best understood as a rejection of the “Romantic Genius” ideal.

It’s a harmful ideal really, one that divides the world in two: the creative geniuses with natural talent are all over THERE while I (who is, naturally, assumed to have no natural talent) am forever stuck HERE.

This is not only destructive, but false.

Past masters and those still living, as Greene shows, were obsessive practitioners of their craft (often exceeding 10,000 hours) and practiced that craft with an intense focus.  Repeat this over time and that’s how you become masterful.

Practice involves both the active doing of some activity as well as a more passive observing of others within the environment. The importance of the latter pulls us deep into our evolutionary past and has been recently brought to the fore with the study of mirror neurons.

This neuronal firing meant that these primates would experience a similar sensation in both doing and observing the same deed, allowing them to put themselves in the place of another and perceive its movements as if they were doing them. … A monkey or primate can see an action from the point of view of the performer and imagine its intentions, but we can take this further. Without any visual cues or any action on the part of others, we can place ourselves inside their minds and imagine what they might be thinking. … After years of studying particular animals, they could identify with and think like them, anticipating behavioral patterns and heightening their ability to track and kill prey. This thinking inside could be applied to the inorganic as well. In fashioning a stone tool, expert toolmakers would feel as one with their instruments. The stone or wood they cut with became an extension of their hand.

PRACTICE OF MASTERY

Mastery is broken up into 3 stages:

  1. Apprenticeship
  2. Creative-Active
  3. Mastery

Through diligent practice, emotional stability, and time, anyone can progress through these stages and become a master.

Study of a Fetus by Master Leonardo da Vinci. Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Study of a Fetus by Master Leonardo da Vinci. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The first step is always inward.

The goal is to connect with your own sense of uniqueness, perhaps through rebellion, but more often and more strongly through the practice of avoiding false paths and returning to origins. Find a deep Why-To-Live and stick that deep in your brain as you develop yourself through practice.

STAGE 1 – APPRENTICESHIP

“We stand on the outside of our field” as Robert Greene writes about the Apprenticeship Stage, “learning as much as we can of the basic elements and rules. We have only a partial picture of the field and so our powers are limited.”

The focus during this time is on the transformation of mind and character through these three things:

  1. Deep Observation

This more passive stage is when you have a single mentor, preferably alive, or a few mentors, some alive and some dead, who can help guide you. The relationship developed is based off reciprocity; it’s vital to respect your mentor/s and focus intensely on the details of their teachings.

  1. Skills Acquisition

This practice stage is when you focus on acquiring practical knowledge in an efficient manner. Feedback from a mentor, repetitive practice (thousands of hours), and a hell of a lot of failure is essential for a good outcome. Through intense absorption, one can eventually master the basics.

  1. Experiment

This active stage comes after one is steeped in the basics of the craft through thousands of hours of practice, repetition and feedback, and is focused on forging one’s own path and surpassing the master. You develop what Greene calls Resistance Practice. “The principle is simple” as he writes:

you go in the opposite direction of all of your natural tendencies when it comes to practice. First, you resist the temptation to be nice to yourself. You become your own worst critic; you see your work as if through the eyes of others. You recognize your weaknesses, precisely the elements you are not good at. Those are the aspects you give precedence to in your practice. .. Second, you resist the lure of easing up on your focus. You train yourself to concentrate in practice with double the intensity, as if it were the real thing times two. In devising your own routines, you become as creative as possible. You invent exercises that work upon your weaknesses. You give yourself arbitrary deadlines to meet certain standards, constantly pushing yourself past perceived limits. In this way you develop your own standards for excellence, generally higher than those of others.

STAGE 2 – CREATIVE-ACTIVE

After you’ve mastered the necessary basic skills, you can focus on creating… and creating … and creating. The modus operandi of this stage is: curiosity has its own reasons.

Seattle Cloud Cover by living Master Teresita Fernandez. Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Seattle Cloud Cover by living Master Teresita Fernandez. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

During this time it’s good to cultivate what Greene terms Negative Capability, or the ability to be OK with uncertainty and mystery. Suspend judgement and keep notebooks nearby, with an eye focused on anomalies in the paradigm.

All the suffering and doubt that will come into play is necessary, for “without suffering and doubts” as Greene writes, “the mind will come to rest on cliches and stay there, until the spirit dies as well.”

These necessary doubts and sufferings can arise spontaneously within oneself but can also be imposed on one by others, which can have a negative effect. The thing that one is seeking to master doesn’t exist within a vacuum, therefore it’s important to develop Social Intelligence in order to navigate the inevitable politics of human groups.

Stand firm in both a General Knowledge and a Specific Knowledge of human behavior. The former composed of the “7 Deadly Realities” as Greene calls them: envy, conformism, rigidity, self-obsessiveness, laziness, flightiness, and passive aggression. Develop strategies for dealing with them (self-deprecating humor is a god one; emotional detachment and the crafting of one’s own persona). The latter is simply the ability to “read people”, to discern body language and eye looks and whatnot.

Social intelligence is the ability to see people in the most realistic light possible. By moving past our usual self-absorption, we can learn to focus deeply on others, reading their behavior in the moment, seeing what motivates them, and discerning any possible manipulative tendencies. Navigating smoothly the social environment, we have more time and energy to focus on learning and acquiring skills. Success attained without this intelligence is not true mastery, and will not last.

STAGE 3 – MASTERY

Living Master Freddie Roach (L) training Manny Pacquiao.
Living Master Freddie Roach (L) training Manny Pacquiao.

The stage of Mastery is simple to understand and hearkens back to the opening quote.

Mastery = Time + Intense Focus on a Particular Field of Knowledge

Through this intense absorption, “Masters come to understand all of the parts involved in what they are studying” and as Greene continues, “gain an intuitive feel for the whole.”

This high level of functioning:

…is essentially driven by memory. When we take in information of any kind, we store it in mnemonic networks in the brain. The stability and durability of these networks depends on repetition, intensity of experience, and how deeply we pay attention.

One knows the environment inside and out, with one’s entire body doing the thinking. An open and loose spirit that allows for serendipity is maintained because of the emotional stability and self-control gained through thousands and thousands of hours of practice.

There’s not much more to say about it and it’s much more instructive to let the work of masters say it for them. So check out some of the masters that Greene highlights.