Achieving Mastery in Life

Book Review

[Greene, Robert (2012): Mastery. Viking Press.]

[Key Words: Mastery; Dimensional Mind; apprenticeship; mentor; calling; Life Task; inclinations]


Consider the field of endeavor in which you are presently engaged. Then contemplate these questions. How do you assess your skill level at what you do? Would you claim that you have mastered the work in which you are involved? If not, do you desire to achieve a skill level by which you would be considered a master of your craft? On a further note, contemplate a diverse set of career paths and consider the following question: What common ground might exist among a professional musician, a boxing coach, a fighter pilot, a highly trained linguist, a robotics engineer, a Zen practitioner, and a sculptor, among others? Moreover, what do Lenardo da Vinci, Mozart, Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, Henry Ford, and Buckminister Fuller have in common? And if we set our mind to it, could we possibly have something in common with them? Robert Greene, in his thought-provoking book, Mastery, sets out to answer such questions. In doing so, as a Classical Studies major and writer who has devoted a lifetime to the study of power, he introduces readers to power’s ultimate manifestation: becoming a master at one’s chosen craft.

The Elusive Nature of Mastery

If we can come to understand, as Greene suggests, what it takes in our lifetime to master our field of endeavor, then why does mastery appear to elude so many of us? The biographies of those who have achieved mastery that Greene explicates ring a clarion bell that such achievement is open to all of us. The strategies toward a lifetime of mastery that he delineates provide a well-lighted path that we can follow. And the keys to mastery that he shares open a secret door for all of us to enter. Yet mastery slips through the fingertips of so many hands seeking to grasp it. Although achieving mastery is simple on one level, its apparent simplicity masquerades its thorny difficulties. And as we read through Greene’s detailed account, both the simplicity and complexity surrounding such achievement become clear.

The Structure of Mastery

Greene’s masterful work (pun intended) paints a thorough and comprehensive portrait of how people have acquired high levels of achievement in their lives. In do doing, he provides a pathway to mastery through six chapters. Each chapter delineates a necessary milestone along the road toward mastering one’s Life Task. Within each of the six chapters, Greene describes in biographical form the struggles that particular individuals endured to find their way to high levels of achievement in their chosen fields. Some of these people are indeed household names, while others may be unknown to most. But one common theme among the biographical details rings clear: mastery is available for any to pursue, whether one is a child protege like Mozart, or one of common intelligence, like Charles Darwin or Freddie Roach. Greene sets out to explode the myth that mastery is attainable only to the gifted, superior, or genius. Mastery can be accomplished by those who set their mind to it. But it requires deep commitment to long, hard work.

In addition to biographical data, each chapter contains what Greene designates as “Keys to Mastery” and “Strategies” for accomplishing the tasks set by each chapter. Finally, each chapter closes with a thematic discussion of what Greene calls “Reversal”. Reversal refers to the difficulties and obstacles that individuals had to overcome on their path toward mastery. Such difficulties may be personal, familial, or social. Once again, Greene explodes the common notion, and sometimes the excuse we may use, that achievement only happens to the highly gifted, privileged, and lucky.

Chapter titles depict the task or goal to be explored that one must navigate toward a life of achievement. In addition to the “Introduction”, Greene sets out six tasks for achieving mastery: 1) Discover Your Calling: The Life Task; 2) Submit to Reality: The Idea of 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; and 6) Fuse the Intuitive with the Rational: Mastery. Greene is a realist and addresses the fortuitous events that occur in people’s lives that aid their path toward achieving mastery. But the other side of the coin is that the individual accounts that Greene provides show that they were ready for, recognized, and seized upon any luck that came their way, and put it to use for their betterment.

Navigating the Tasks toward Mastery

As stated above, each chapter provides detailed strategies for how to achieve the six tasks that make up the book’s meat. What Greene finds common among those who achieve mastery is that they follow their inclinations. That is, they discover their Life Task and do not waiver from it regardless of internal or external pressures. Secondly, in pursuing their goals, masters find an apprenticeship that allows them to learn from others who are themselves masters. However, once the apprenticeship is complete, it is equally important for the apprentice to break from the influence of the mentor and move on and surpass the mentor through innovation and creativity. Likewise, those who achieve mastery must develop the ability to measure well their social contexts. Who is good support? Who might be an enemy? How does one navigate the social milieu in which one is immersed? What battles should be fought, and which ones should not be engaged so as not to waste valuable time and creative energy? As one moves past the apprenticeship, the dimensional mind becomes paramount for the person pursuing mastery to engage in active and creative endeavors. The dimensional mind seeks to make connections among diverse experiences and phenomena, broadening one’s perspective, in addition to the detailed perspective that comes through specialization. And finally, the one who achieves mastery synthesizes the intuitive and the rational. Masters tend to intuitively know how to choose, engage, and solve important problems. Masters appear to achieve their goals, conquer problems, and continually accomplish and produce in an effortless manner. However, such apparent ease, rather than being due to magic or genius, is drawn on a bank of countless hours of practice, apprenticeship, and pursuit of endeavors in which masters experience both failure and success.


Between the covers of Robert Greene’s book, Mastery, lies a wealth of information. And it is information that we should take to heart if we desire the fulfillment in life that comes with doing things well, accomplishing tasks that speak to our self-efficacy, and providing the kind of work that contributes to others’ well being. This book review comes on the heels of another review I did of Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Both authors sound forth a clarion call for the necessity of developing and building skills, creating the craftsman’s mindset. One important contrast between the authors is Greene’s expressive  belief in a “calling”, or finding one’s Life Task. Such a concept may appear at odds with Newport’s negation of a “passion” that one must find, preceding one’s pursuit of mastery. Greene, however, likens a calling to those inclinations we have; moreover, he emphasizes that calling alone will not help one achieve mastery. Individuals must practice, apprentice, and develop their skills through thousands of hours of endeavor. Mastery provides a thorough study for anyone who wants to engage a field of endeavor and reach, through concerted effort, the level of being a master. I wish Greene would have addressed concerns for us who are older now, and how we can expect to achieve a level of mastery in our lives. However, he does state that although it’s beneficial to begin such quests early in life, the good news is that it’s never too late for anyone who sets his or her mind toward achieving mastery. And regardless of our age, background, or IQ, the path is the same: hard work. The road is clear on the one hand, but full of obstacles that we do not recognize on the other hand. We, along with proteges and geniuses, must travel the road that Greene lays out.

It’s not an easy road. But if it were that easy, there wouldn’t exist those whom we consider masters of their craft.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/March 14, 2014

THE ARTS: Literature/Book Review