“You must engrave deeply in your mind and never forget: your emotional commitment to what you are doing will be translated into your work. If you go at your work with half a heart, it will show in the lackluster results and in the laggard way in which you reach the end.”― Robert Greene, Mastery
I am currently reading the book Mastery by Robert Greene. In the past, I have enjoyed reading Greene’s work, especially his book The 48 Laws of Power.
Greene is masterful at transforming events and ideas into important insights through historical storytelling.
In this book along with other great ideas, Greene points out the important differences between what he calls the Original mind, the Conventional mind and the Dimensional mind. Greene also shows you through engaging stories how certain mindsets are better suited to achieve creative mastery in a field.
The original mind can be best described as the experience of childhood and how you viewed the world as a child. Greene says that we were still completely open-minded and we allowed and engaged in ideas that were original.
I agree that as children we had a deep sense of awe and wonder as we perceived and made meaning of the life around us. We were still unclouded by judgment and we did not bear the burden of excessive conditioning.
Greene points out that since we were still mastering language, we were naturally inclined to think in images. In fact, images and sensations took centerfold in our thinking process.
I believe that is the reason why children can sign before they can learn to speak.
Greene says that the above qualities will allow you to look at the world in a direct way. We perceive the world through originality and not by means of language and recycled or received ideas.
As we grow older, we perceive the world through the lens of language, the meaning of words and opinions that we have formed over the years.
Slowly, we set up our defenses and build walls of assumptions and beliefs. We get rattled when someone challenges those assumptions.
Greene calls this principle of mind The Conventional Mind.
“Under pressure to make a living and conform to society, we force our minds into tighter and tighter grooves. We seek to retain the spirit of childhood here and there, playing games or participating in forms of entertainment that release us from the Conventional mind.”
The example that Greene gives here is one that most of us have experienced at some point of our life or another. He says that traveling to a new country where nothing is familiar anymore transforms us back into the child like original state of newness and wonder.
But these events are few and far between and because of their shortness in length and our lack of engagement, they are not inherently rewarding.
Mastery according to Greene involves the coming together of this original mind spirit with training and focus. In masters, this happens regardless of the stress and demands of adult life.
This is where Masters differ from children whose open creative power and wonder is amazing.
A child’s creativity does not usually lead to inventions and great pieces of art.
Masters bring the original thinking of the child to their training that they have gained over their apprenticeship period.
Mastery involves the engagement of the original mind while being able to focus and engage with a problem on a deep level.
I believe what Greene is saying is that we all have the original mind but are at the risk of losing it through the dust gathered over time.
But if you want to be masterful, you have to seize and re-engage your original mind while bringing to it a deep ability to focus and implement ideas.
Green says that this brings about a “high-level creativity.”
This creativity involves deep and impactful knowledge in your own field.
It also demands the willingness to experiment and see different ideas and approaches. In a nutshell, I believe that Greene has hit the problem on the head with his keen and astute hammer of observation.
“Become who you are by learning who you are.” ― Robert Greene, Mastery
Mastery according to Greene involves:
- Great knowledge while being open to alternate ideas
- Capacity to ask seemingly simple questions that get passed over.
- The discipline and perseverance required to follow through to the end.
- Willingness to maintain a child like enthusiasm and bringing the element of play to their work
- Rediscovering the child-like skill of engaging in thought beyond words.
Greene says it best:
“Like children, they are capable of thinking beyond words-visually, spatially, intuitively- and have greater access to preverbal and unconscious forms of mental activity, all of which can account for their surprising ideas and creations.”
Greene calls this blending of discipline and a child like original mind and spirit as the Dimensional mind. As the name itself suggests, this mind does not limit itself by walls of experience or habitual instincts.
A Dimensional mind seeks to transcend limitations of the conventional mind. It seeks to branch out in many directions.
The Dimensional mind seeks to seeks to access and discover new dimensions.
It refuses to corner itself into thinking in a particular way. All these elements give the dimensional mind a creative edge.
“The Dimensional mind is active, transforming everything it digests into something new and original, creating instead of consuming.”― Robert Greene, Mastery
Greene gives the example of the life of Mozart.
Mozart was a child prodigy and displayed exceptional talent in music. But he also displayed an unusual amount of intense focus for a child of his age.
Encouraged to practice the piano from 4 years of age, Mozart had already clocked the amount of time equal to someone twice his age by the age 6.
Mozart’s creative crisis unfolded during his adolescence when his family became dependent on his music for sustenance.
He was under enormous pressure from his father, the archbishop, and the court at Salzburg where he played. He had to write and cater to the non-creative needs of the audience and musicians at the court.
Luckily for Mozart, he rebelled and refused to come back to the court. He broke away on his creative own much to the dismay of the people close to him, especially his father.
The period that followed this apprenticeship was one of intense creativity for Mozart. He quickly tried to make up for the lost time.
Greene argues that Mozart was not a freak of creativity. Instead he was an exceptionally well-trained musician with a mind that was powerful force in musical training and implementation.
Greene says that the Dimensional mind that Mozart and other masters access needs two aspects.
First is having a thorough and a higher level knowledge and deep understanding of a field.
This is acquired usually through an apprenticeship and having great mentors and teachers. In rare instances such as Edison, it can also be primarily self-taught.
Second is the willingness to implement this knowledge and transform it into something novel and original.
The trap here that Greene warns is to not get attached to your ideas and become one-dimensional thinkers after the apprenticeship. This kind of thinking may gradually become a creative prison.
The Dimensional Mind needs the following three implementable steps:
The first step is to choose the correct Creative Task that involves:
- Maximizing skill.
- Using our deep knowledge.
The Second step is to help the process by having an open mind through specific Creative Strategies.
And third, we have to be able to create the appropriate mental conditions that allow insights and breakthroughs to happen.
Step One or The Creative Task
- Engage the entire self including emotions, energy etc. and not just the intellectual side.
- Choose the right subject that you are deeply interested in.
- Connect to deep inner sensibilities and have an obsessive element to it that will allow you keep at it regardless of the naysayers and the doubts. For example, Mozart loved music but he had an obsession with opera.
- Find some task that has a deep emotional meaning for you to pursue it. Greene compares this drive to “The primary law of the Creative Dynamic” where your emotional connection and commitment will be a reflection of your work.
- Find a realistic task that you can accomplish using your current level of skills and understanding. This should still provide a challenge or sound ambitious to you.
- Greene says that the more difficult the challenge or higher the goal that you use for yourself, the more you have to rise to accomplish it while discovering latent creative powers.
- Be all right with the idea that uncertainty and discomfort are inherent parts of the creative process.
“The writer Marcel Proust suffered for years as he struggled to find the right subject matter upon which to base a novel.
Finally, when he realized that his own life and his own failed attempts to write the greatest novel was actually the subject he was looking for, it all poured out of him and into one of the greatest novels ever written, in Search of Lost Time.”― Robert Greene, Mastery
This step is similar to what you may have already heard many times as going for your passion or finding your Dharma.
The underlying idea is that for sustained mastery, we need to choose a field that not just resonates on the physical level but emotionally as well.
Here are a few questions that you can ask yourself:
What is the field that you cannot put down or stop thinking about?
What skill or interest can you obsessively work on as if time is standing still?
What activities, interests or skills facilitate the feeling of flow?
Step Two: Creative Strategies
- Develop the capacity to suspend the ego and develop what the poet John Keats calls “negative capability.” Greene explains that this negative capability is the capacity to go through and embrace situations that invoke uncertainty and a sense of mystery.
- This unique ability to go against the grain of what you know and experiment with different ideas is essential for mastery.
Greene gives the example of Mozart again who after he has achieved technical excellence and late in his career came upon the work of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Instead of becoming defensive and challenge this new style, Mozart chose to study Bach and his use of counterpoint. With this new perspective, Mozart himself a master could make his style and music even richer.
Mozart is known through his illustrious career to study and incorporate different styles and allow them to make his own music richer and batter.
- Put away the desire to become defensive or judgmental without giving the new knowledge its light of the day.
- Make serendipity your friend.
- Greene says that when we focus on a creative project, we have a tendency to have a narrow and deep focus. This is like what the Heath brothers describe in their book Decisive. They suggest against the tunnel visioning of choices at an early stage of the decision making process.
- Greene advises us to increase and broaden the attention span to allow for more stuff to come in. He uses the classic 3B’s (bed, bus and bath) approach that is popular in creativity research.
“Many of the most interesting and profound discoveries in science occur when the thinker is not concentrating directly on the problem but is about to drift off to sleep, or get on a bus, or hears a joke-moments of unstrained attention, when something unexpected enters the mental sphere and triggers a new and fertile connection.” ― Robert Greene, Mastery
- Greene says to enhance serendipity, you need to broaden your search and consider other fields and information. Then he suggests that you maintain a relaxed and open attitude that allows moments of release.
“To help yourself to cultivate serendipity, you should keep a notebook with you at all times. The moment any idea or observation comes, you note it down. You keep the notebook by your bed, careful to record ideas that come in those moments of fringe awareness—just before falling asleep, or just upon waking.” ― Robert Greene, Mastery
- Alter your perspective: I think that this is a great suggestion. I have written in the past on how some of the most innovative firms like IDEO use the power of personas and changing the perspective.
- Allow yourself to consider “how” it is going wrong instead of the “what.” When you look at “what,” you are focusing on a single source of a problem and then you try to patch it up. But when you allow the “how,” you are taking a single why and connecting it to the holistic picture.
An example of “what” would be to see what product is not working and try to make it better. An example of “how” is to look at the broader topics of organization, communications and information flow that might be causing the problem in the first place.
- Shift from the general to the tiny details:
Much like what Twyla Tharp says about being able to seamlessly move in from the big picture into the fine focus, Greene emphasizes this point too. He says that we have a tendency to form quick opinions based on pre conceived ideas and ignore the fine details. He says that it is important to counter this with a switch from the macro to the micro focus or to focus on the small details.
“The time that leads to mastery is dependent on the intensity of our focus.” ― Robert Greene, Mastery
The example he gives is of the genius Leonardo Da Vinci who wanted to create a new form of life-like and emotional painting style.
Da Vinci began with a deep and obsessive study and practice of the details. For example, he experimented with different kinds of light striking various geometrical solids.
He wanted to see how light could alter their appearance. He filled up hundreds of pages in his notebooks dedicated to the study of shadow and gradation.
Even the patterns of hair, expressions on a face and the folds of a gown did not go unnoticed and got his micro attention. From looking at his work, we may not understand or be aware of the attention to detail that the master had put in to capture reality in his paintings.
- Choosing to not ignore anomalies instead of always going with paradigms
There are established paradigms or existing ways of explaining our world that we all use to make meaning of reality. While these paradigms are invaluable, being stuck or dominated by them does not allow for mastery. While looking for patterns, we may tend to go with the paradigms while rationalizing or explaining away the anomalies.
The example that Greene gives is the discovery of radioactivity by the scientist Marie Curie. Many scientists in the late nineteen century had observed the abnormal phenomenon of heavy metals like Uranium emitting unknown luminescent rays.
This happened spontaneously and without needing a source of light for excitation. This anomaly was widely ignored until Marie Curie assisted by her husband Pierre decided to investigate the matter further.
After 4 years, she studied and coined the term radioactivity, thus altering the concept of matter as being more fundamentally complex and also volatile.
“The human mind is naturally creative, constantly looking to make associations and connections between things and ideas. It wants to explore, to discover new aspects of the world, and to invent. To express this creative force is our greatest desire, and the stifling of it the source of our misery.”- Robert Greene, Mastery
Step 3: The Creative Breakthrough that involves Tension and Insight
“What separates Masters from others is often something surprisingly simple. Whenever we learn a skill, we frequently reach a point of frustration – what we are learning seems beyond our capabilities. Giving in to these feelings, we unconsciously quit on ourselves before we actually give up.”-Robert Greene, Mastery
Greene follows up with the final step, the breakthrough. This step involving frustration and tension sounds like the insight stage of creativity.
After grappling with the problem, mastery involves successfully navigating the frustration of no results. It is in this stage that many settle but mastery involves artful forward motion and also letting go at the right time.
Greene says that after 10 years of working through the problem of general relativity, Einstein decided to give up one day. The solution came to him when he woke up the next morning.
This letting go and allowing solutions to bubble up to the surface has happened many times.
“Creative Endeavors are by their nature uncertain.” ― Robert Greene, Mastery
All the tension released gives the mind to incubate and form associations that it missed in the past.
Greene’s ideas resonate with the stages of creativity where letting go after allowing an incubation stage is critical for insights to bubble up.
“The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways.” ― Robert Greene, Mastery
I highly recommend that you read the book for a deep understanding of the process. You can buy the book here or click on the image below (affiliate link).
You can also watch Greene’s TEDx talk below: