What does it take to become a master at your craft? Is genius innate, or can it be learned?
In his book, “Mastery,” Robert Greene draws from the latest research, interviews modern masters, and examines the lives of former greats like Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and Mozart to discover what it takes to achieve excellence.
He argues that success is within anyone’s reach, if they have discipline, patience, and follow a number of important steps.
With permission from Greene, we’ve excerpted the following tips for mastering anything from his book:
1. Find your life’s task.
Many people have an intense feeling about what they’re best at. Too often, they’re driven away from it by other people. The first step is to trust yourself and aim your career path at what’s unique about you.
Leonardo da Vinci didn’t come into his own as an artist alone, but when he followed his childhood curiosity about everything, he became an advisor and expert in subjects from architecture to anatomy for his patrons.
2. Rather than compete in a crowded field, find a niche where you can dominate.
Legendary neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran was at once a restless and dissatisfied professor of psychology. What was supposed to be a calling felt like a job. When he began the study of phantom limbs and anomalous brain disorders, he found questions about the brain and consciousness that fascinate him to this day.
Find your perfect niche, and stand out.
3. Rebel against the wrong path, and use that anger as motivation.
Mozart was a child prodigy on the piano. At a very young age, his domineering father toured Europe with him. When he discovered a talent for unique composition, his father suppressed it. It wasn’t until he rejected his father entirely that he became a master.
We are often attracted to the wrong things, whether it be money, fame, or approval.
4. Love your subject at a very basic level.
The things that transfixed you as a child, that you found most exciting was not a passing fancy, but a message about what you’re supposed to do. For Marie Curie, it was wandering into her father’s laboratory and being fascinated by his instruments.
5. Find the ideal apprenticeship.
Charles Darwin was a mediocre student. He scraped by in school, more interested in specimens than classes. When the chance to join an expedition to the Americas came, he almost didn’t go. What he saw on that boat lead to his life’s work, and one of the most influential theories of all time.
We are often raised as dependents then given over to teachers. It’s experience and exploration that can transform us and lead to mastery.
6. Engage in deep observation, practice incessantly, and experiment.
You don’t need to impress people. You need to watch them. By learning the rules, you can dominate.
Practice, practice, practice
Our brains are set up to master skills. By repeating one thing over and over again, neurons are recruited, hardwired, and mirrored. That’s one of the reasons you never forget how to ride a bike.
You don’t know if you’re a master until you test it. Do it before you’re ready so you actually learn.
7. Value learning over money so you’re not a slave to everyone’s opinion.
Instead of a more lucrative, time-consuming commercial job, Martha Graham took a poorly paying teaching job that allowed her time to train and develop the innovations in dance that made her as revolutionary as Picasso was for painting.
Training, learning, and mentorship don’t come from the highest-paying, highest-pressure jobs. Those lead you down a conservative path of pleasing others.
8. Revert to a feeling of inferiority in order to truly learn.
Daniel Everett, a gifted linguist, was failing to learn the language of the Paraha tribe in the Amazon, which stumped researchers for years. He failed because he approached it as a linguist and Christian missionary, from a position of superiority.
He didn’t master the language until he learned it like one of the Paraha’s children, dependent on the tribe, and subject to the same restraints, inferiority, and need for support that they were.
Entering a new place or path you need to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible. Lingering prejudices and feelings of superiority hamper that.
9. Engage in intense practice and lean toward resistance and pain.
Hall of Famer Bill Bradley was suited for basketball only in height. He was slow, couldn’t jump, and had no feel for the game. He practiced three or more hours after school, on weekends, put weights in his shoes, and taped cardboard to the bottom of his glasses so he could dribble without seeing the ball. That was just the beginning of his regimen.
Intense practice with resistance can be twice as effective as what’s easy.
10. Rely on trial and error more than anything.
Paul Graham was always fascinated by computers. He eventually found that he learned by tackling problems, failing, and trying again, not by being taught. That experience eventually lead to the creation of YCombinator, which gives entrepreneurs the support to do what he did.
Now, apprenticeships are less likely to be formal. You have to make your own based on your unique style of learning.
11. Absorb a master’s power.
The right mentor-protege relationship is the most efficient and fastest way to learn; you focus on one excellent source of knowledge instead of casting about for many. You can learn a masterful way of thinking that takes a lifetime to develop in a fraction of the time.
But the goal must always be to surpass them.
12. Choose a mentor who will intensely challenge you.
Carl Jung worshiped Freud as a pioneer in his field, but was ambivalent about certain parts of his theory. By using him as a mentor, even though they eventually split, he better understood where he disagreed with Freud, learned a great deal, and sharpened his own core ideas and identity.
The more your mentor challenges others, the more they’ll challenge you.
13. Absorb your master’s knowledge completely — and then transform it.
Glenn Gould was his legendary teacher Alberto Guerrero’s most promising piano student. Gould would take what Guerrero taught him and quickly move it in an entirely different direction. At 19 he went out on his own, but years later, Guerrero could still see the things he taught Gould, totally absorbed, but utterly transformed by his genius.
It is almost a curse to learn form somebody brilliant; it can be very intimidating. But overcome this by absorbing everything, and then going beyond.
14. Create a back-and-forth dynamic with all of your relationships.
Freddie Roach, one of boxing’s most legendary trainers, found his greatest student in future 8 division world champion Manny Pacquiao. He was Roach’s most intense, teachable student, and over time, he learned to take Roach’s strategies and instructions a step beyond what he ever could have alone.
The best relationships are interactive.
Learning someone else’s dogma is never as effective as adapting and improving it.
15. Master social intelligence.
One of the biggest barriers to becoming a master is dealing with others. It’s far too easy to live life as a series of battles and skirmishes over power that turn out to be minor.
The idea that people can be so brilliant they don’t need to deal with society is a misleading one. Masters use social intelligence to amplify their skills, rather than turning others into an obstacle.
16. Accept criticism and adapt to power structures and society.
Ignaz Semmelweis was one of the earliest pioneers of using antiseptic techniques, something that could have and since has saved millions of lives. It was never fully adopted in his time because of the high handed, arrogant way he dealt with his superiors, and his refusal to actually prove his ideas. He died penniless and abandoned at 47.
Use those in power, don’t alienate them. Otherwise, genius goes to waste.
17. Meticulously craft your persona.
Teresita Fernandez, a sculptor and winner of a MacArthur “Genius Fellowship” could have let others define her. Sculpture, and working in metal in particular was a largely male medium, and she could have easily been perceived as as a fleeting novelty. By spending time on her persona, as well as on her art, she added to her success.
We all wear masks in society. Being aware of that rather than self conscious about it allows you to be more effective in any situation.
18. Suffer fools, and learn to exploit them.
The German poet and novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe spent a period of his youth in the court of a prominent Duke. Upon accepting it, he found himself in a claustrophobic and petty court culture. Rather than engaging, he used their behavior as the basis for later plays and novels.
There are simply too many fools to avoid. Don’t engage or sink to their level.
19. Awaken the dimensional mind, and be bold.
After emerging from an apprenticeship, the inclination is to be conservative, to work firmly within a field and established, familiar rules.
The key to mastery is rejecting conservatism and becoming increasingly bold.
20. Absorb everything, and then let your brain make connections for you.
The brain is designed to make connections. When we focus too intently on a given task, we can grow tense, and our brain closes off. Masters read and absorb everything that could be related to stimulate the brain into making a leap.
That’s how Louis Pasteur made the leap that lead to vaccines. He spent years developing germ theory, which enabled him to see the importance of a group of chickens that survived injection with an old culture of disease. As he said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.”
21. Avoid putting things into familiar categories.
The most creative minds resist one of the brain’s signature tendencies, to put things in easy categories, to use a mental shorthand to simplify everything. With an effort to alter perspective, that can change.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with the insight that made Google by seeing what seemed to be a trivial flaw, bad results in search engines that ranked pages by how often something was mentioned. One anomaly led them to a vastly more effective path.
22. Don’t let impatience derail your plans.
John Coltrane’s greatest strength, improvisation, was once a weakness. He would resort to imitation rather than innovation. After years of absorbing other’s styles and learning a vast technical vocabulary, he learned how to bend it into something intensely personal and different from everybody else.
One of the greatest impediments to creativity is impatience. Stay the course and develop your authentic voice.
23. Value mechanical and abstract intelligence equally.
The most brilliant engineers in the world failed to create a working flying machine. Orville and Wilbur Wright were bicycle mechanics. A simple insight, that a flying machine needed to be able to bank like a bicycle rather than moving in straight horizontal lines like a ship, helped them beat men who had attacked the problem for years.
Mechanical intelligence, the focus on functionality, can be equally as vital and creative as the abstract.
24. Avoid “technical lock,” or getting wrapped up in technical artistry instead of the real problem.
“Neurobotics” pioneer Yoky Matsuoka had an impossible goal, to build a robotic hand that was lifelike. To her, it wasn’t a series of mechanical puzzles, but a learning process to understand the human hand. Seemingly irrelevant anatomical details turned out to be extremely important for function.
Technical lock makes people lose sight of larger questions. By looking at the human hand, already weirdly perfect, Matsuoka surpassed people who had been absorbed in technical issues for years.
25. Fuse the intuitive and the rational.
This is the final step. Deep immersion in a particular field, experience in an apprenticeship, time under a mentor, and unlocking creative potential create an extraordinary depth of knowledge and an ability to quickly and instinctively respond to any situation.
Combining that instinct with rational processes allows people to achieve their greatest potential, to become masters.
26. Shape your world around your strengths.
Albert Einstein was a bad scientist. He hated the way physics was taught and didn’t like experiments. His greatest insights came from elsewhere. His theory of simple relativity, came partially from thinking about an image in his head of trains, beams of light, men and women.
By deciding at 20 to stray away from conventional, experimental science, and to use his distaste for authority to remove conventions that held him back, Einstein did something that felt intuitive, looked illogical, but was intensely rational.
27. Know that practice is just as important as innate skill.
Cesar Rodriguez, nicknamed “America’s Last Ace” wasn’t a naturally gifted pilot. He fell behind at first. He caught up, then passed everyone through endless practice. He knew every control in his bones, and reacted better than those who relied on talent. That helped him make three aerial kills and earn his nickname.
Achievement through thousands of hours of practice seems so ordinary somehow. But it’s how most people become masters.