Notes on “Mastery” by Robert Greene

Note: These notes are off the back of listening to the audio book of Mastery by Robert Greene and have been posted as an aide to my article on How to Listen to Audio Books and Actually Remember the Content.


  • Mastery is learned, not genetic
  • Many ‘geniuses’ earned this title via qualities most people would consider ‘normal’ and not through being born a genius
  • Story of Darwin
  • The human brain has great plasticity and so able to learn and adapt due to millions of years of evolution
  • Passivity is the dying of the brain
  • We need to create our world or die of inaction

Chapter One – Discover Your Calling: The Life’s Task

The Hidden Force

Leonardo da Vinci story:
  • devoted to learning
  • BECAME a master, wasn’t born one (born into adversity)
  • followed his calling and purpose when he could have made a much better living as a painter
Follow on points:
  • Real, Latin meaning of vocation – means to follow a calling
  • Falling to social pressure and taking a more lucrative or accepted role will leave you bored and, eventually, unable to continue to put real effort in
  • We are born with tendencies to be more interested in certain things
  • These are obvious to us in childhood, but we override them in adulthood in pursuit of money, etc
  • Connecting with these childlike tendencies and interests is what will make us happy and fulfilled
  • The first step is inward
  • Know yourself, know your vocation/passion/purpose
  • When you understand that inner voice and follow what is right for you, you just KNOW

Keys to Mastery | Strategies for Finding Your Life’s Task:

#1 Return to your origins – primal inclination strategy
  • Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Ingmar Bergman, Martha Graham, Daniel Everett, John Coltrane
  • Return to what you knew was right for you in childhood
  • More like sensations than words
  • What visceral reactions do you get with certain tasks, jobs or activities? Do you want to repeat it over and over? Where does your fascination lie?
#2 Occupy the perfect niche – the Darwinian strategy
  • VS Ramachandran, Yoky Matsuoka
  • Start in a general area of interest and either branch off into specific areas of interest (VS) or learn a new area and combine the two to create your own entirely (Yoky).
  • The key is to find an area of speciality or expertise that is not overcrowded.
#3 Avoid the false path – the rebellion strategy
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Learn from parents, teachers and mentors. But do not allow them to dictate your path.
  • One of the most self-destructive things we can do is fall into a path for fear of not making enough money or displeasing a loved one.
  • Do not follow the false path that promises fame, money and public approval. Follow the path that has you excited about the path itself, about the journey, about the doing of the activity.
#4 Let go of the past – the adaptation strategy
  • Freddie Roach
  • You are on your own and it is up to you and you only to find and develop your life’s task.
  • Do not hold onto the past or old ways of thinking or doing. You are always open to adapt, change and improve.
#5 Find your way back – the life or death strategy
  • Buckminster Fuller (severely near sighted/visually impaired architect)
  • Let the inner voice guide you and don’t ignore it in the name of money and fame!
  • Chasing money and security at the expense of your life’s task will leave you bored and unhappy, while needing to fill an empty hole with materialistic things, money, drugs or approval from others.
  • Listen to the message of this pain if it does occur and do not accept it. This means you have deviated from your true path and change needs to happen.
  • Delayed gratification is required and everything cannot be had in the present.
  • Temple Grandin (suffered with autism and learning disabilities)
  • Life’s task doesn’t appear to you in a grandiose vision.
  • Diligence and focus is learned and more valuable than natural talent.
  • Focus on small strengths and improving them, rather than worrying about weaknesses.
  • Takes failure and overcoming obstacles to find out life’s task.

Chapter Two – Submit to Reality: The Ideal Apprenticeship

The First Transformation

Charles Darwin Story:
  • Don’t expect to be a master instantly.
  • Transformation from book learning to real world.
  • Darwin devoted a large portion of his life to learning and being an ‘apprentice’ in his field.
  • Find your way of learning.

Keys to Mastery

The Apprenticeship Phase – The Three Steps
#1 Deep Observation – the passive mode
  • Spending time just observing.
  • Understanding and gaining deep knowledge of the task or field.
#2 Skills Acquisition – the practice mode
  • Beginning the process of doing.
  • Under the guidance still of mentors or teachers.
#3 Experimentation – the active mode
  • Beginning the creative phase.
  • Taking what you’ve learned and carving out new directions or ideas with it.
  • You will know when this phase occurs.
Strategies for Completing the Ideal Apprenticeship
#1 Value learning over money
  • Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Martha Graham, Freddie Roach
  • Taking time to learn and not chase after money.
  • Choose the path of greatest learning in desired field, not the most instantly gratifying or lucrative one.
#2 Keep expanding your horizons
  • Zora Neale Hurston (African American novelist)
  • Continually look for and take new opportunities.
  • Aim to learn from many different situations and experiences.
#3 Revert to a feeling of inferiority
  • Daniel Everett (Amazon tribe)
  • Think like a child.
  • Do not presume what you already know is definitely true or right.
#4 Trust the process
  • Cesar Rodriguez (Air Force pilot)
  • Trust that your learning and devotion to apprenticing will pay off.
#5 Move towards resistance and pain
  • Bill Bradley (basketball), John Keats
  • Embrace the hard things and identify your weaknesses.
  • Work on your weaknesses.
  • Do not presume that if you are not very good or struggle that you cannot become a master.
#6 Apprentice yourself in failure
  • Henry Ford
  • Look at failure as learning curves.
  • Failure is an opportunity to detect what went wrong and to self-correct
#7 Combine the ‘how’ and the ‘what’
  • Santiago Calatrava (artist, architect, engineer)
  • Know the inner workings of how, what and why things work the way they do.
  • Take a holistic or 360 degree view of learning about your field.
#8 Advance through trial and error
  • Paul Graham (computer programmer)
  • Learn, try, correct, repeat.
  • Some people point to Mozart & Einstein as examples of people overcoming the apprentice phase.
  • But there is no reversal possible here, you cannot skip the apprentice phase.
  • Mozart & Einstein still had apprentice phase, but started it much sooner than most other people.

Chapter Three – Absorb the Master’s Power: The Mentor Dynamic

The Alchemy of Knowledge

Michael Faraday story:
  • Scientist who started out as book binder
  • Read ‘Improving the Mind’
  • Actively sought out his perfect mentor and worked towards being accepted to work under him as an assistant

Keys to Mastery | Strategies for Deepening the Mentor Relationship

#1 Choose the mentor according to your needs and inclinations
  • Frank Lloyd Wright, Carl Jung, VS Ramachandran, Yoky Matsuoka.
  • Find the mentor who matches your tastes, style and personality.
  • Falling into any mentor can be dangerous and counter productive.
  • Refrain from having a mentor who just emulates the qualities your parents have.
#2 Gaze deep into the mentor’s mirror
  • Hakuin Zenji (Zen Buddhism).
  • Get your mentor to really challenge you to the point it becomes uncomfortable.
  • Do not settle for a mentor who just praises or validates your current thoughts and beliefs.
#3 Transfigure their ideas
  • Glenn Gold (Classical pianist).
  • Take in the teachings of your mentor.
  • But bring them to life in your own way.
  • Give the mentor’s ideas your own brand and own them yourself.
#4 Create a back and forth dynamic
  • Freddie Roach (with Manny Pacquiao).
  • Allow mentor and mentee relationship to bounce off one another.
  • Do not allow it t be a one way stream, especially in its advanced stages.
  • Thomas Edison
  • Edison had no opportunity for a real life mentor.
  • If needs be, use books and historical figures.
  • But allow the mentor to assume some form of life force, as opposed to just being reading from a book.
  • Think “what would this mentor do?” in different situations.

Chapter Four – See People As They Are: Social Intelligence

Thinking Inside

Benjamin Franklin story:
  • Benjamin Franklin was a smart, witty and intelligent person and writer growing up, but came upon a problem when dealing with other people.
  • Pissed off his brother, misjudged the governor who sent him to London and created tension with his co-workers when not paying ‘beer money fee’.
  • He learned that if he wanted to get ahead, he needed to understand people better.
  • Decided that he would begin taking a step back and truly analysing people in certain situations in order to truly begin understanding their intentions towards him.
  • Got a job with his old boss when back in America and applied this tactic to great success when he discovered his boss was being extra nice to him due to harbouring a plan to exploit him after holding a grudge from their previous time together.
  • Franklin became one of the most socially intelligent people in history after learning this, with the ability to read, understand and empathise with people and groups around him.
  • Mainly, he was patient and took time to understand the nuances and intricacies of a culture or person on a deep level, so he could imitate and embrace this.
  • The Naive Perspective – humans depending on parents, etc for a relatively long period of time in their youth and so picking up social traits from this, as opposed to basing decisions about themselves, people and the world on pure logic.

Keys to Mastery | Specific Knowledge: Reading People

  • Specific knowledge on social intelligence refers to reading individuals on a person-by-person basis.
  • Pay attention to the actions and demeanour of others around you and attempt to decipher what their intentions are.
  • Non verbal communication is important to pay attention to. How is someone acting around you? What cues are they giving off?
  • Attempt to decipher common emotional experiences you both may have had, or at least to understand what the person may have gone through in order to empathise and establish some common ground.
  • It’s also important to not take first impressions at face value as these often include ‘masks’ that people put on to prevent the real them coming out (both in a good and bad way).
  • Learn to read people over a period of months in order to gauge the reality of their intentions.

Keys to Mastery | General Knowledge: The Seven Deadly Realities

  • There are also certain ‘general traits’ to be aware of in others:
  • Envy – be careful not to gloat. Self-deprecating humour and showing vulnerability can go a long way.
  • Conformism – do not show your rebellious streak too obviously (especially during apprentice phase) as this creates tension. Be ‘quietly rebellious’ until your success dictates a time you can be more open about this. Essentially, be rebellious with a track record of success with it or others will think you’re a wannabe douche!
  • Rigidity – do not openly challenge anyone’s rigidity and unwillingness to embrace change.
  • Self-obsessiveness – understand how everyone has a need to want something for themselves. Consider this when asking for favours or wanting others to do anything for you. What’s in it for them?
  • Laziness – be aware of people’s desire to take credit for your work or not put in effort before considering any kind of joint venture or task. Look at the tehr person’s track record.
  • Flightiness – rely upon yourself to get things done where possible and not others as people are alyways liable to say they want to collaborate or help and then not follow through.
  • Passive aggression – we all have this to a degree, but high level passive aggressive people can be spotted by their actions and how other people in their life act around them. Either avoid them or respond with something similar to show them not to mess with you!
Social Intelligence & Creativity
  • Ability to ‘think inside’ objects and phenomena is an integral part of scientific creativity.
  • Becoming too focused on detail and rigidity can help get you far in a field, but will stifle the creativity and outward expression needed to move towards mastery.

Keys to Mastery | Strategies for Acquiring Social Intelligence

#1 Speak through your work
  • Ignanz Semmelweis, William Harvey
  • Semmelweis had amazing discovery about saving women from infection during childbirth, yet was so stubborn he antagonised his peers and mentors. Harvey made groundbreaking discoveries in human circulatory system, yet built up evidence of his theory and was welcoming and hospitable to others when they criticised him.
  • Expect challenges to your work, speak your truth and empathise deeply with challengers.
#2 Craft the appropriate persona
  • Terresita Fernandez (Cuban-American metal sculpture artist)
  • Know ways of behaving ‘in public’ that will serve you, your work and your success well.
#3 See yourself as others see you
  • Temple Grandin (autistic behaviour and ‘overly logical’ thought process antagonising other people)
  • We tend to get too wrapped up in emotions when ir comes to criticism or confrontation and don’t actuallt take it on board. A lot of the time choosing to ignore and ‘fight back’.
  • Learn to analyse your previous confrontations and arguements so you can see how YOUR OWN behaviour may have been the cause. Think rationally about how you could behave or react differently the next time. See yourself as a third person.
#4 Suffer fools gladly
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (staying quiet when talking with people in his new upper class world), Josef von Sternberg, David Everett (linguist challenging some work of Noam Chomsky).
  • Fools focus on short term and desire to be right, ego driven, fame, money. Always want to criticise without a fully rational hat on or any thought for the long term good that can come.
  • Don’t try to change them. They will always be around. Focus on your goals.
  • Exploit their foolishness. Use their criticisms as fuel and to learn from and make your arguments and performance better.
  • Paul Graham
  • Decided he didn’t want to master social intelligence to a high degree and so placed other, better suited people in the situations that required doing this in his businesses and ventures.
  • Still had to understand, be aware of and use it to some degree.
  • An understanding of its necessity was needed in order for Graham to get others to focus on it. Otherwise, he would have just ignored it and tried to move on regardless.

Chapter Five – Awaken the Dimensional Mind: The Creative Active

The Second Transfromation

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart story:
  • ‘Boy genius’ who was paraded around by his father to make money fr the family.
  • Mozart was forced to play and compose ‘boring’ pieces of music to please the masses.
  • He made money and then got a semi-lucrative job in Salzburg, but was forced to continue to create and play this ‘people pleasing’ music by his father and employers.
  • One day, with all the incredible skills, experience and practice he had accumulated throughout his ‘apprenticeship years’, he exploded with creativity.
  • He created what he really wanted to and, finally free of everyone holding him back, created masterpiece after masterpiece. He changed how people thought about symphonies, orchestral music and operas.

Keys to Mastery | Steps

  • Original mind -> Conventional mind -> Dimensional mind
Step One: The Creative Task
  • Altering your concept of creativity.
  • Searching for Ahab’s whale.
  • You’ve started to end the aprentice phase know how ‘everthing works’ in your field. Now you’r looking for something to rebel against and create your own version of.
Step Two: Creative Strategies
A. Cultivate negative capability
  • Pursuing a vision or idea, despite it leading to doubt, confusion or uncertainty.
  • Learn to ‘love the pain’.
B. Allow for serendipity
  • Keep an open mind and embrace serendipitous moments.
  • Edison and discovering how to record sound – be opportunistic.
C. Alternate the mind through ‘the current’
D. Alter your perspective
Typical thinking patterns to alter:
  • Looking at ‘the what’ and not ‘the how’
  • Rushing to generalities and ignoring details
  • Confirming paradigms and ignoring anomalies
  • Fixating on what is present, ignoring what is absent
E. Revert to primal forms of intelligence
Step Three: The Creative Breakthrough – Tension & Insight
  • Letting go and allowing it to happen
  • Einstein’s theory of relativity
  • Richard Wagner completing his opera in a dream
  • Blocks that precede enlightenment
  • Evariste Galois solving genius mathematical problems the night before his duel.
Emotional Pitfalls
  • Complacency
  • Conservatism
  • Dependency
  • Impatience
  • Grandiosity
  • Inflexibility

Keys to Mastery | Strategies for the Creative-Active Phase

#1 The Authentic Voice
#2 The Fact of Great Yield
  • VS Ramachandran
#3 Mechanical Intelligence
  • The Wright brothers
#4 Natural Powers
  • Santiago Calatrava
#5 The Open Field
  • Martha Graham
#6 The High End
  • Yoky Matsuoka
#7 The Evolutionary Hijack
  • Paul Graham
#8 Dimensional Thinking
  • Jean-Francois Champollion
  • Think and look at life, activities and problems from a variety of angles, not just the obvious one that may come naturally to you.
#9 Alchemical Creativity & the Unconscious
  • Terresita Fernandez
  • John Coltrane, August Strindberg
  • Can be popular to think that drugs, alcohol, etc can bring about some artistic, creative genius zone to be in.
  • But the truth is that true creativity comes from discipline and focus as well as dedication to one’s craft.
  • It’s not always army drill sergeant type of discipline. But it takes this repetitiveness and dedication to one’s task to ensure mastery is achieved.

Chapter Six – Fuse the Intuitive with the Rational: Mastery

The Third Transformation

Marcel Proust Story:
  • Proust went through many years of trying to discover his talents and produce the great work he knew he was capable of.
  • He continual failed to make the impact he knew he could make.
  • After years of physical and mental hardship, finally discovered what his ‘great novel’ could be about: the story of a writer’s search to find something to write about.
  • This basically became his own story as well as a social commentary.
  • Keys to remember are that we all have access to this higher form of intelligence, which will allow us to be, do, experience and contribute more.
  • This can be accessed by a deep dedication to a particular field and the desire to study, grow and follow the path of our inclinations, regardless of how strange or ‘wrong’ this may seem to others.

Keys to Mastery

The Roots of Masterly Intuition
  • True mastery comes from up to 20,000 hours of practice and dedication.
  • At this point, we begin to gain intuition and awareness of seemingly super human levels.
  • We just ‘know’.
  • Intuition and our primitive ancestors – how we evolved using our intuition.
The Return of Reality
  • All life is interconnected.
  • The altered master’s brain.
  • Returning to the whole.

Keys to Mastery | Strategies for Attaining Mastery

#1 Connect to your environment – Primal Powers
  • The Caroline Islanders
  • Can navigate around their island’s waters by connecting to and reading their environment.
#2 Play to your strengths – Extreme Focus
  • A. Albert Einstein, B. Temple Grandin
  • Don’t fall into the ‘usual way’ of doing things.
  • Know your strengths and play to them.
#3 Transform yourself through practice – The Fingertip Feel
  • Cesar Rodriguez – moved above the ‘golden boys’ by continuous practice.
  • Dedicate yourself to your craft and you can be a master.
#4 Internalise the details – The Life Force
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Pay attention, observation of true details of life.
#5 Widen your vision – The Global Perspective
  • Freddie Roach
  • Step back and allow yourself to think from different angles.
#6 Submit to the other – The Inside-Out Perspective
  • Daniel Everett
  • Get rid of your preconceptions, allow yourself to truly learn without being stuck in your ways or not allowing yourself to rationalise.
#7 Synthesise all forms of knowledge – The Universal Man/Woman
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – writer, scientist, politician
  • Allow your intelligence to go where you desire/it is needed.
  • Do not think you are stuck in one area.
  • You can gain mastery and apply your talents to a variety of areas.
  • To deny mastery is to deny your most meaningful contribution.
  • Many will say there’s no point or it’s too much work.
  • You owe it to yourself and to the world to attain mastery.