Good books will connect a few dots that you never knew were related. Mastery does this in spades, creating an entire framework around learning how to learn—and how to do it on your own terms.
Ever wondered how Leonardo Da Vinci or Benjamin Franklin became the best at what they did? Ever wondered how star athletes pull off complex maneuvers through muscle memory, or how Einstein revolutionized physics?
That is exactly what Robert Greene explores in his book, Mastery. He makes case studies out of these masters of craft to identify the patterns between their lives as well as the “X factors” that each one leveraged to succeed in life (something we can all do in our own way, too).
If you’re interested in learning how to learn or becoming “so good they can’t ignore you,” then you need to read this book.
Pro tip: you can’t extract the full value of Mastery just by reading this review, or even skimming the book. Absorbing the lessons and insights—really internalizing them—to connect the dots with your own life is where the value of this book truly lies. Don’t cheat yourself out of that value.
Here’s what you need to know.
Finding your life’s calling
The book starts with a hurdle that every master in the book had to clear at one point or another: finding a calling, or, as Greene labels it more formally, the “life’s task.” Some masters spent hours per week contemplating it while others stumbled into it—but they all figured it out before becoming masters in their own right.
That calling isn’t always specific or even clear for every story in the book. These can and often do take shape somewhat gradually, narrowing or expanding while exploring new ideas or disciplines.
In every case, though, that calling is what kept the masters coming back to their crafts or problem spaces.
What’s interesting is that the calling isn’t just a straight analogy for motivation—that can wax and wane with time. Instead, finding the life’s task also instilled a deeply personal sense of expression within each master.
That could mean different things to different people.Sometimes they would feel duty to the field, or a responsibility to share world-shattering knowledge. In addition to loving the craft, that craft also become a vehicle to achieve or discover something greater than themselves.
Reviving the medieval apprenticeship
Greene spends some time outlining the apprentice system of the middle ages, priming the reader to engage with the actual concept of a modern-day apprenticeship as he envisions it.
As a history grad I loved the shout-out to the middle ages.
Knowing (from outside the book) that literacy rates in the middle ages sat somewhere between 5-10%, and knowing how rare and expensive vellum was (modern paper had yet to be invented), Greene’s appreciation for the apprenticeship system was immediately clear to me.
This was a time when people achieved and transferred deep knowledge through practice rather than reading. We could learn a lot from that kind of lifestyle.
In fact, you might even argue that the book is a sort of lifestyle roadmap for active learning and deep learning rolled into one.
I’m glad Greene spent some time exploring this concept because it showed me a model of how to understand all of the case studies he explores further in the book. This made everything much easier to grasp.
The 3 steps of an apprenticeship
Greene goes beyond the basic apprenticeship model from the middle ages, adapting it into a new model with three phases for his interpretation of reaching mastery. These aren’t rigid by any means, but they act as essential landmarks along the path of deep and personal learning, which every master in the book also experienced.
Those phases are:
- Creative experimentation
These exclude mastery itself, which acts as a kind of fourth stage that I’ll cover further into the review.
Observation is straightforward: it’s a time of passive engagement in which we watch how others do something to learn the fundamentals. We also tend to observe the political landscape, such as the office culture in a new job or the political leanings of your partner’s family during a holiday gathering.
Practice is the most straightforward of all. This is where we spend time repeating and refining skills that we pick up from others—but it’s based on second-hand knowledge of whatever you’re learning, like practicing a passing move in basketball or making proper measurements as a carpenter.
Creative experimentation is where things get interesting. Instead of just repeating the same old forms or motions for 10,000 hours, successful apprentices begin to try new things with what they’ve learned. They bend the rules creatively to accomplish something bigger than before, or they combine skills in ways they weren’t taught before.
This experimentation and cross-pollination in the third phase of an apprenticeship actually lends itself quite well to the creative explorations of generalists as outlined in Range by David Epstein (which I highly recommend that you read).
Together, these 3 phases make up the apprenticeship for any craft, which you can expect to last 5-10 years. Greene shows us that this is not so different from the 7-year apprenticeships seen in the middle ages.
Using creative experimentation to become a master of craft
Creative experimentation is probably the most interesting part of deep learning because, as Greene explains, it’s where true masters of craft are made.
This is the phase of life in which people move from “proficient” to “inspired.” You can’t just repeat what others have taught you.
It’s also where we—as professionals, artists, or athletes—find our voice when we work in our respective crafts. You begin to bend the rules you were taught in a way that not only works, but achieves something new. It’s the expression of individualism through our work.
This is where the fun starts. Here’s what it looks like in real life:
- Copywriters trying brilliant new ad writing.
- Graphic designers creating radically new concepts.
- Teachers creating new pedagogical tactics.
The list could go on, and you can find examples of mastery in all kinds of places.
Learning this framework caused me to see examples of this outside of the book, and I realized that mastery can look different for every field and individual. A great everyday example of this from outside the book would be Fraser Smith, a Vancouver-based financial advisor, who came up with an elegant financial strategy that shortens the length of a mortgage while also making its interest tax-deductible—and he did it in a field with a reputation for being rigid and unchanging.
Examples like that one litter the final chapters to illustrate how these celebrated people merged their deep field knowledge with their intuitive and artistic minds to achieve new heights. It’s kind of inspiring.
The book also comes with strategies that such high-functioning people used to awaken the creative sides of their brains. Each strategy follows 1-2 masters in a narrative arc to exemplify the strategy—and they’re convincing.
Absorbing knowledge from existing masters
Overlaid on Greene’s apprenticeship framework are some common themes shared between most of the book’s case studies, the first one being mentorship.
This part doesn’t come after the apprenticeship. It’s a part of the apprenticeship itself; it’s a professional relationship that underpins the entire process.
Essentially, just about every successful “master” learned from another master. The case studies don’t end with masters simply emulating their mentors, though. They accelerated their learning and absorbed as much as they could before re-expressing it all in their own ways.
And it comes to an end.
That’s what fascinated me most about this chapter: the moment when master and apprentice part ways. I should have been more interested in how to find a mentor (something with which I’ve always struggled), but the breakup fascinates me to no end.
While not universal, it’s clear that some mentors aren’t ready for their students to become peers. What is universal in Greene’s case studies is the recurring theme of the apprentice finding his or her individuality, which can’t live in the mentor’s shadow forever.
Understanding how these masters navigated their mentorship relationships will probably capture your attention for a while—especially since some of them crash and burn spectacularly, as Greene explores with the lives of Benjamin Franklin and Michael Faraday.
The chapter on social mastery is filled with high achievers who struggled to gain acceptance for their ideas, or even just basic support from within their own social circles. Learning to remove social friction was a key step in unlocking new opportunities or disseminating their works into the wider world.
My favorite story here belonged to Ignaz Semmelweis, the person who discovered “washing your hands in a hospital saves lives.” His discovery could have saved tens of thousands of additional lives (or more) if he had worked to prove his discovery to his peers in the medical community.
Instead, he alienated everyone around him, even after moving to another region, and died without much appreciation in his time.
Merging practice with intuitive knowledge
I expected reaching mastery to be the destination of the book, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that in fact it is not—it’s more like a new level where you can push the boundaries of yourself and your craft.
Pushing those boundaries looks different for everyone, but every master in this book developed their skills to the point of intuition—and that’s where Greene begins tackling mastery itself.
Masters in the book practiced their craft so thoroughly and creatively that they could do incredible things without even thinking about it. In fact, their actions become so intuitive that they might not even remember exactly what they did after the fact.
The best example is the pilot known as “the last American ace,” who escaped an ambush by pulling off Hollywood-level flying skills during Operation Desert Storm. He couldn’t even remember most of what he did after the fact because he was so dialled into the encounter. He also couldn’t sleep for 3 days because his adrenaline coursed so strongly through him, interestingly enough.
He only reached that level of mastery after years of practice, initially he didn’t possess the innate talent to be a pilot at all. His dedication, practice, and intuition were all mashed together in a moment of intense focus, yielding a moment of mastery.
It’s clear from reading this chapter that achieving mastery means synthesizing knowledge, practice, and creativity—sometimes intense environmental factors, too. Beautifully, this looks totally different for everyone who reaches that level of skill.
Mastery is an excellent book that you should read. More than that, it identifies crucial signposts that tell you where you are in your own life’s journey, yet it rarely—if ever—prescribes specific or restrictive actions.
Mastery doesn’t push a specific process or self-help formula. It doesn’t fall in love with itself. It falls in love with the challenge of deep learning, identifying the common threads running through various stories and celebrating the unique factors that differentiate them.
This shows readers how to identify the same elements in their own journeys at an intuitive level, and this is the source of so much value in the book. That’s why consuming and internalizing the stories of these masters line by line is the best way to read it.
Books like these are rare. Don’t cheat yourself out of its value with a summary.