Mastery: Or “How to Become a Genius”

The premise of this book is that everyone has the potential to become a genius. Robert Greene argues that everyone has a “Life Task”, a thing they’ve been put on this Earth to accomplish and that “many of the greatest Masters in history have confessed to experiencing some kind of force or voice or sense of destiny that has guided them forward.”(p. 25).

The real reason that most people don’t become masters is because one, we’re turned off by all the time it will take and two, many of us get convinced by our parents or society that our natural gifts aren’t worth practicing so we settle for something less than our Life Task.

Greene describes three phases that we need to go through in order to become masters and gives strategies of how to get the most out of each phase. I’ve picked 3 strategies out of each phase that stuck out to me and I’m gonna briefly apply them to myself so you can see what they would look like.

Phase one: The Apprenticeship Phase

    After you find your Life Task, Green advises to find a mentor to mentor you in your particular field. He argues to spend as much time practicing and learning the basics so that once they’re engrained in you, your brain is freed up to think about new ways of doing things and you can move on to the creative phase. This is the holy grail of mastery that he repeats over and over again throughout the book. He makes the case that it takes up to 10,000 hours of concentrated practice to become a master at something—which, if done about 8 hours a day, adds up to about 7 years. Here are some methods of maximizing the apprenticeship phase…

   1. Value learning over money

    “You must value learning above everything else.”(p. 67)

      Green argues that when you’re in this phase, it’s important to want to learn more than to want to make money. When you’re focused on learning, you’ll be willing to take positions that don’t pay well, but offer invaluable training. Einstein took a job at a patent office that paid terribly. But it gave him the time and learning opportunities to conduct thought experiments that would eventually lead to him coming up with the theory of relativity.

2. Trust the process

  “Filled with trust in the process, [masters] trudge on well past the point at which others slow down or mentally quit.”(p. 77)

   Time is your friend when it comes to mastery. We can’t become masters overnight or by microwaving the process. Unfortunately, we want the magic formula or the radioactive spider-bite to become overnight sensations. But Greene argues that the key to mastery is concentrated practice over an extended period of time. And this will be the hardest to live out while you’re being an apprentice under someone. But it will be worth the wait.

    3. Move towards resistance and pain

     “Invent exercises that work upon your weaknesses.”(p. 81)

     We naturally avoid things that are difficult and this is why we usually fall short of mastery. Greene argues that during the apprenticeship phase, we have to dive straight into things that make us uncomfortable so that we can strengthen our weaknesses. Early on in John Keats’ career, he decided that he would write a 4,000 line poem about the Greek myth Endymion and , even though he eventually hated the process, he pushed through and the lessons he learned shaped him into one of the greatest Romantic poets in English literature.

   

   For me, the apprenticeship phase would look like reading copious amounts of novels written by the writers I want to write like. So I should read everything by C.S. Lewis, Ted Dekker, Robert Ludlum, and James Patterson until I can internalize their styles then add an Emmanuelean flare to them.

Phase two: The Creative-active Phase

Once you’ve internalized the skills needed in your field, you are now freed up to do other more innovative things with those skills that you couldn’t before. Here are a couple methods of maxing out your productivity in this phase…

1. The high end method

“Your project or the problem you are solving should always be connected to something larger—a bigger question, an overarching idea, an inspiring goal.”(p. 231)

    Always keep the bigger picture in mind and attach your project to something bigger than yourself. Why are you doing what you’re doing? What deeper questions will your project answer about life? This will keep you from getting stuck repeating the same techniques of problem solving in your field and also help you get inspired again when your motivation starts to dwindle.

   For me, I believe that God can use stories to bring revival. My big picture motivation is to write novels that convey Christ in such a way that people see Him in ways they’ve never seen Him before and are moved to want a relationship with Him. Bigger picture. Bigger why.

  

2. The open field method

   “Sensing the possibility of a new language or a way of doing things, you must make the conscious decision to play against the very conventions that you find dead and want to get rid of.”(p. 228)

    Pay attention to the things in your culture that you want to change or get rid of and let them be reference points to guide your creativity. Don’t try to be different in a vacuum—study and understand what’s popular and why then turn them upside down. This is the method Martha Graham used to revolutionize ballet and give birth to modern dance. And Mozart, after a 20-year apprenticeship phase under his father, revolutionized the world of music by composing pieces that conveyed ranges of emotions no one was expressing at the time.

     For me this would look like studying the best-selling novels and blockbuster movies like Twilight, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games and understanding why they’re so popular, what themes are being conveyed, and try to flip those themes upside down.

3. Dimensional thinking

“You are not in a hurry. You prefer the holistic approach. You look at the object of study from as many angles as possible, giving your thoughts added dimensions.”(p. 242).

   Take your time when solving problems and don’t try to oversimplify—see how everything is connected. This was the method Jean-Francois Champollion used, who spent 20 years studying ancient languages in order to finally translate the Rosetta Stone.

    For me, I need to be willing to put in the work of studying various methods of storytelling, reading books, and doing my research on how writing has evolved throughout history and let that knowledge impact the way I write now.

 

Phase three: Mastery

   When you’ve internalized your skills and explored new ways of using them in your field, you’re now moving into mastery. Here are a couple ways of achieving mastery at this point…

Play to your strengths

   “Mastery is like swimming—it is too difficult to move forward when we are creating our own resistance or swimming against the current. Know your strengths and move with them.”(p. 285).

  

Focus your energy on what you’re good at and what brings you joy. Temple Grandin, a woman wth autism, devoted her energy into her strength of understanding animals to ultimately lead to breakthroughs in understanding autism.

   

2. The fingertip feel

“The whole complex skill is now inside us and at our fingertips. We are thinking, but in a different way—with the body and mind completely fused.”(p. 288).

   Practice until you can think with your body and not just your mind. Greene didn’t use this example, but dancers who knew Michael Jackson described him as being able to “feel” the music when he danced as opposed to simply counting beats like regular people. Instead of dancing to the music, it was like he was dancing inside the music.

    As a writer, the goal for me is to be able to feel a story as I’m writing it so it flows out of me instead of me mechanically thinking about creating a beginning, climax, and resolution.

   

3. Synthesize all forms of knowledge

“The design of the human brain—its inherent need to make connections and associations—gives it a will of its own.”(p. 309)

   Don’t limit yourself to just focusing on your own field. Study other fields as well that are wildly different and discover the connections between them all because everything is connected. This will bring deeper insight into your field when you go back to writing your novel, studying planets, or teaching your students. Johan Wolfgang Van Goethe was a writer who devoted himself to the arts and sciences including history, economics, politics, and poetry. Because of his wide range of study, not only were his novels rich with scientific accuracy and his science filled with poetic insight, but he was able to predict the French Revolution, the rise of the United States as a global superpower, and the invention of the internet, all in the 1700s. Everything is connected.

   For me, this will look like not just studying writing, but studying things like psychology, history, and chemistry and seeing how they connect to storytelling.

So there you have it. Anyone can be a master. What’s your Life Task? How can you use the methods I described above to become a master?

I hope you were inspired.

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