Booknotes: Mastery

Chris Harris

Chris Harris / May 06, 2017

16 min read

Book Notes - The Concise Mastery, by Robert Greene.

This book is on the subject of Mastery - how one masters their creative work within any field, through comprehensive, analytical and active learning, consistent and bold experimentation, and steadfast, accepting perseverance. Trusting the creative process.

Each chapter opens with an short, engaging biography of a certain Master of their time and field (e.g. Leonardo Da Vinci, Michael Faraday, Benjamin Franklin). These concise biographies, entertaining and insightful, stand out in their own right, since I knew little about the progression of these great achievers before reading. Each chapter then goes on to explain an area of Mastery that the person embodied, grounding the content very naturally in real people and linking these de-constructed, abstract concepts to tangible traits and realities.

This has been one of the best books I have read in awhile - both in style and in content. The author excellently blends the factual study of Mastery with entertaining language and story.


Our levels of desire, patience, persistence, and confidence end up playing a much larger role in success than sheer reasoning powers and intellect.

You can have some success in life by just following your opportunities passively, but if you don't have a strong relationship with your inner calling, your lack of desire will make your work become mechanical. You'll then come to live for leisure and immediate pleasures, becoming increasingly passive. You may grow frustrated and depressed, not realising that the source of it is your alienation from your own creative potential.

Passive people create a mental landscape that is rather barren. Connections in the brain die off from lack of use because of their limited experiences and action.

Pushing against the passive trend of these times, you must work to see how far you can extend control of your circumstances and create the kind of mind you desire — not through drugs but through action. Unleashing the masterful mind within, you will be at the vanguard of those who are exploring the extended limits of human willpower.

The road to mastery requires patience and some sacrifice - you cannot have everything in the present. The process of getting there is full of challenges and pleasures. The money and success that truly last come to those who focus on mastery and fulfilling their Life's Task.

The 'natural model for learning' comes from watching and imitating others; we learn best through practice and repetition. Our brains are highly suited for this form of learning. We learn a foreign language by actually speaking it as much as possible, not by reading books and absorbing theories. The more we speak and practice, the more fluent we become. This holds true for all disciplines and is why an 'apprenticeship phase' to mastery (be it self instigated or formally enrolled) is so valuable.

You must avoid at all cost the idea that you can manage learning several skills at a time. You need to develop your powers of concentration, and understand that trying to multi-task will be the death of the process.

The initial stages of learning a skill invariably involve tedium. Yet rather than avoiding this inevitable tedium, you must accept and embrace it. The pain and boredom we experience in the initial stage of learning a skill toughens our minds, much like physical exercise.

Real pleasure comes from overcoming challenges, feeling confidence in your abilities, gaining fluency in skills, and experiencing the power this brings.

Can you take criticism and use it constructively? Put your work out in scrutiny of others. Most people wait too long to take this step.

The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways.

In the future, the great division will be between those who have trained themselves to handle these complexities and those who are overwhelmed by them — those who can acquire skills and discipline their minds and those who are irrevocably distracted by all the media around them and can never focus enough to learn.

Do not think that what is hard for you to master is humanly impossible; and if it is humanly possible, consider it to be within your reach. — MARCUS AURELIUS

Particularly throughout the apprenticeship phases of mastery, you must choose places of work and positions that offer the greatest possibilities for learning, choosing a place that has people and mentors who can inspire and teach you. Practical knowledge is the ultimate commodity, and is what will pay you dividends for decades to come — far more than the paltry increase in pay you might receive at some seemingly lucrative position that offers fewer learning opportunities.

Often we too readily see reflections of the truth we have already assumed. Retain that childlike spirit in moments which we must learn something, that sense of wonder and curiosity, resist the feeling like we know something already, as it closes our mind off to other possibilities.

When learning a skill -

The only real impediment is yourself and your emotions — boredom, panic, frustration, insecurity. You cannot suppress such emotions — they are normal to the process and are experienced by everyone, including Masters. What you can do is have faith in the process. The boredom will go away once you enter the cycle. The panic disappears after repeated exposure. The frustration is a sign of progress — a signal that your mind is processing complexity and requires more practice. The insecurities will transform into their opposites when you gain mastery. Trusting this will all happen, you will allow the natural learning process to move forward, and everything else will fall into place.

Resistance Practice, an import aspect of attaining mastery - going in the opposite direction to natural tendencies when it comes to practice, constantly pushing yourself past perceived limits, inventing exercises that work upon your weaknesses, giving yourself arbitrary deadlines and developing your own standards for excellence.

Understand: we live in the world of a sad separation that began some five hundred years ago when art and science split apart.

Almost all Masters and people of power suffer from too many demands on their time and too much information to absorb. If you can demonstrate the ability to help them organize themselves on these fronts to a degree that others cannot, it will be much easier to get their attention and interest them in the relationship.

(On social intelligence and recognising the true intentions of others, and acting with the advantageous knowledge of such.)

Certain he had read this correctly, he decided to quietly turn the tables.

Move past our tendency to idealize and demonize people, seeing and accepting them as they are.

You are an observer of the human comedy, and by being as tolerant as possible, you gain a much greater ability to understand people and to influence their behaviour when necessary.

Most of us have these negative qualities—Envy, Conformism, Rigidity, Self-obsessiveness, Laziness, Flightiness, and Passive Aggression—in relatively mild doses.

When it is time to ask for a favour or help, you must think first of appealing to people’s self-interest in some way. You must look at the world through their eyes, getting a sense of their needs.

Negative Capability - Suspending the need to judge everything in your path. In times of uncertainties, mysteries, doubts - not reaching after fact and reason. Seeking out and observing what is unfamiliar. Giving up the sense that you already know the truth and experiencing, enduring, and even embracing other ways of seeing and thinking from which you are accustomed to.

You cannot find anything new if you are unwilling to leave the shore.

As children we had a powerful desire to turn everything around us into a game, to play with circumstances, as adults we often grow into more rigidity.

Masters, and those who display a high level of creative energy, are simply people who manage to retain a sizeable portion of their childhood spirit despite the pressures and demands of adulthood.

We maintain our Negative Capability and a degree of detachment. What we are doing is gaining a tolerance and even a taste for chaotic moments, training ourselves to entertain several possibilities or solutions. We are learning to manage our anxiety, a key skill in these chaotic times.

To cultivate this Negative Capability, this creative patience -

In our spare time we should not simply look for entertainment and distractions. We should take up hobbies — a game, a musical instrument, a foreign language — that bring pleasure but also offer us the chance to strengthen our memory capacities and the flexibility of our brain. In doing so, we can train ourselves to process large amounts of information without feeling anxious or overtaxed.

The Current is a constant dialogue between our thoughts and reality.

The Current describes the alternation between our speculations and our observations, we need to speculate on their meaning and continue to observe and experiment, being bold and audacious with our ideas, confirming or disconfirming our theories - through which piercing deeper into reality.

I like this analogy of Current, true to a point made earlier - analogies are good tools for relating and conveying meaning, especially suited for explaining a new concept through existing imagery in peoples minds.

When an event occurs or when we meet a new person, we do not stop to consider all aspects or details, but instead we see an outline or pattern that fits into our expectations and past experiences. We fit the event or person into categories. Creative people are those who have the capacity to resist this shorthand.

Immersing yourself in details will combat the generalizing tendencies of the brain and bring you closer to reality.

Creative people do not simply think in words, but use all of their senses, their entire bodies in the process.

The use of images to make sense of the world is perhaps our most primitive form of intelligence.

Explaining information via imagery, a model, a diagram can overcome the limitation of the amount of pieces of information that can be in the human working memory, satisfying our need to see and feel ideas with our senses.

In the beginning of a creative endeavour the mind teems with rich associations, later it seems condemned to a narrow track. Masters realise they have been through this before so don't give up or settle where other's might. They plough on past their doubts and strained efforts, accepting that the frustration and creative blocks are part of the natural process of reworking an idea.

Think of yourself as your own Zen Master. Such Masters would often beat their pupils and deliberately lead them to points of maximum doubt and inner tension, knowing such moments often precede enlightenment.

This mounting frustration and tightness from single-minded devotion naturally leads to breaking point. When we realize we are getting nowhere, such moments are signals from the brain to let go, for however long a period necessary.

Creativity is by its nature an act of boldness and rebellion. You are not accepting the status quo or conventional wisdom.

The world is dying for bolder ideas, for people who are not afraid to speculate and investigate.

Understand: The greatest impediment to creativity is your impatience, the almost inevitable desire to hurry up the process, express something, and make a splash.

The best way to neutralize our natural impatience is to cultivate a kind of pleasure in pain — like an athlete, you come to enjoy rigorous practice, pushing past your limits, and resisting the easy way out.

Spending years absorbing the techniques and conventions of a field, trying them out, personalizing them, inevitably allows you to find your authentic voice and grants you a larger vocabulary with which express something unique.

The Creative Process

The initial stage is open-ended, with time to dream and wander. Starting out in a loose and unfocused manner, the project associates itself with your powerful natural emotions. Only later on should we make the project increasingly realistic and rational, we don't want to stifle the associative powers of the brain.

Having a wide knowledge of your field and other fields allows your brain more possibilities and connections here.

Your initial vision does not represent the end-point. Embrace uncertainty as room to be creative. Any kind of obstacle or resistance is yet another chance to improve your work.

Whether your project takes months or years to complete, you will always experience a sense of impatience and a desire to get to the end. Embracing slowness is the single greatest action you can take for cultivating creative power.

Imagine yourself years in the future looking back at the work you have done. From that future vantage point, the extra months and years you devoted to the process will not seem painful or laborious at all. It is an illusion of the present that will vanish. Time is your greatest ally.

The desire for what is simple and easy infects all of us, often in ways we are mostly unaware of. The only solution is the following: We must learn how to quiet the anxiety we feel whenever we are confronted with anything that seems complex or chaotic. In our journey from apprenticeship to mastery we must patiently learn the various parts and skills that are required, never looking too far ahead. In moments of perceived crisis, we must develop the habit of maintaining our cool and never overreacting.

Creativity and adaptability are inseparable.

Stay mindful of the bigger idea, it governs your smaller paths of investigation, and opens up many more such paths for you to look into.

Masters subject their intuition or insight to a high degree of reflection and reasoning.

In science, they must spend months or years verifying their intuitions. In the arts, they must work out the ideas that come to them intuitively and rationally shape them into a form.

Learn from our mistakes, spend time analysing what went wrong.

The key, to attaining a higher level of intelligence is to make our years of study qualitatively rich. We don’t simply absorb information — we internalize it and make it our own by finding some way to put this knowledge to practical use.

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift. — ALBERT EINSTEIN

Know your strengths and move with them.

Masters have a strong inner guiding system and a high level of self-awareness. What has suited others in the past does not suit them, and they know that trying to fit into a conventional mould would only lead to a dampening of spirit, the reality they seek eluding them. And so inevitably, these Masters, as they progress on their career paths, make a choice at a key moment in their lives: they decide to forge their own route, one that others will see as unconventional, but that suits their own spirit and rhythms and leads them closer to discovering the hidden truths of their objects of study. This key choice takes self-confidence and self-awareness — the X factor that is necessary for attaining mastery.

Lessons / Internalization

Below are a couple of key lessons in addition to the memorable highlights above, that I've taken away immediately from this book, no doubt I'll continue to find and internalize new perspectives of Mastery as my journey progresses.

When learning skills - narrow the focus.

I've spent many hours in the past struggling to keep up with an onslaught of new information. In order to free up creative room, I already abstain from reading most outlets of public news but I do consume a lot of technology related developments. I'll bare in mind I might have to ignore more of the latest developments across a very wide sphere of software development to focus more on creating what matters to me, not disconnecting from the big picture overall, but narrowing my focus and increasing my creative power. A hard task for a generalist!

Embrace the creative struggle.

I can remember countless times where I've been consumed by frustration and anxiety upon reaching a point in a project of creative struggle. I'll try now to make the connection that this is a natural part of the process and it shouldn't be overwhelming, have faith and allow room for the struggles to rise and pass. Taking a break where necessary, returning to the practice with passion.

Maintain a bias towards creative action and learning.

This is a lesson I'm already really big on but it's great to hear it echoed - For the majority of the time at least, free time spent learning and creating is so much more rewarding than spent in search of instant gratification and hedonistic leisure.

Have faith in ones own path.

I've often done things unconventionally after some degree of deliberation. The recurring theme of roads to Mastery involving experimenting with your own ways of doing things, gives me further faith and encouragement to continue when I feel at times I'm deviating fom the standard path.


After Don Quixote, this is my most highlighted book so far, at 93 highlighted passages.

I’d highly recommend anyone slightly interested in the topic to get this book. The notes above are only my personal digest of some of these points and much of the eloquence of the author and entertainment of the journey is lost.

I'd love for us all (myself included) to spend more time creating and practising our Mastery.

Collecting future co-conspirators

for conversations not 'content'