Mastery: Self Help or Just Opinion?


MasteryRobert Greene’s new book has me somewhat flummoxed. It’s not at all like his previous books. The other books of his I have were all ‘meta’ books – books about what others thought on various subjects: power, leadership, war, seduction, politics.* Mastery combines biography with exhortations to raise one’s self up to the level of mastery. We are all potential geniuses.

It strikes me as an overly-intellectualized self-help book. So far, anyway. I’m still only mid-book. But the little editorial conceit of capitalizing “Life’s Task” throughout the book already annoys me. That and it’s preachy, moralizing and somewhat condescending tone.

He also writes that, “No good can come from deviating from path you were destined to follow.” Destiny is a flimsy religious concept, not a psychological, developmental or scientific one. I find appeals to “destiny” as convincing as the claims of self-described “psychics.”

I personally don’t care for the usual lot of self-help books any more than I care to share motivational pictures or inspirational quotes attached to cute pictures of kittens and puppies, as often appear on Facebook. If you can be motivated more by a photograph of people rowing together than actually doing it, you’re not really motivated at all (and I’d hazard a guess that 85-90% of all the quotations posted on Facebook are either wrongly attributed or just plain wrong).**

Maybe it’s just me; but my experience as a publisher’s sales rep selling a seemingly endless stream of insipid self-help books on every topic has made me cynical towards the genre. I’m okay with do-it-yourself guides that offer tips and hints to help you work through a project or goal. But a lot of self-help books strike me as faux-psychological or saccharinely pseudo-spiritual. Plus a lot of them are mere flimflammery: become a psychic with these easy lessons, homeopathy in your kitchen, seven steps to crystal therapy or how to cure yourself with prayer instead of medicine.***

Greene’s book is a detailled (and highly subjective) look at how a lot of famous and not-so-famous people achieved their self-mastery. The famous include Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Darwin, John Coltrane and Martha Graham and others – an eclectic mix. The not-so-famous include… well, you probably won’t know them until you read this book, so I won’t spoil it be revealling their names right away. The common threads among them are are, at least from my perspective, tenuous.

Malcolm Gladwell – whose works I generally don’t like and many of whose conclusions I disagree with – wrote in his book, Outliers, about the “10,000-hour rule.” It postulates that to become a master at any art, craft, or science, you need to do it constantly and consistently for at least 10,000 hours. It was one of the few things of his I accept.

In other words, if you want to learn to play the ukulele, the secret is simple: practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice.

Every day, every possible moment. Keep at it. You get better through doing, not reading about it, not meditating on it, not watching a TV show about it. Yes, they can help, just like taking classes or attending jam sessions can help. But you need to practice every day, alone or with others, to improve.

On the ukulele forums I frequent, I often see beginners posting comments and questions like, “how do I form a D chord?” “I can’t get my fingers to bend,” “Is there an easier way for make a Bb?” “I don’t understand how to strum” and so on. I offer every one of them the same advice: practice.****

There simply is no substitute for it. Chord shapes and strumming patterns become easier when you have practiced playing songs with them in it often enough for them to become automatic. Greene would have you apprentice with a master to learn the skills – and I agree that apprenticeship is an excellent form of training. Practice is usually part of the program. But masters are not always available (how, for example, does one apprentice with an astronaut when you live in a small town in Canada?)

Greene never mentions Gladwell, although there is an oblique reference to the 10,000-hour rule in the copy on the book’s dust jacket, suggesting that Greene extends his perspective in a one-upmanship of 20,000 hours. As Lucy Kellaway of the LA Times notes in her review:

Readers may spot that his new thesis is the same as that put forward in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” only Greene has improved it in three ways.

First, he has doubled the number of hours that must be put in to master anything from Gladwell’s 10,000. Second, he has enlisted Goethe, Mozart, Wagner, Rembrandt, John Coltrane, Marcel Proust and a couple of dozen other great masters to show how it can be done.

And finally he has come up with a step-by-step guide, which includes finding something that is more vocation than job, working like crazy at it, getting a top mentor and using social networks.

The process to mastery, Greene writes, is simple, accessible to anyone, and follows five “easy” steps:

  1. Discover your calling
  2. Apprentice with intensity
  3. Gain social intelligence
  4. Awaken creative energy
  5. Develop high–level intuition

Seems simple enough, even if the steps are themselves big challenges and rather vaguely stated. But not everyone concurs. In his review of the book, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes,

On the one hand, Greene’s book is a neat integration of many of the key issues underlying the human capacity for self-improvement: eg, values, willpower, self-knowledge, creativity and soft skills – the stuff that personality psychologists have explored quite relentlessly over the past 100 years or so. The author draws from evolutionary theory, philosophy classics and romantic literature to present a motivational account of mastery… On the other hand, many of the central claims of this book are in stark contrast to the academic research evidence (sadly omitted by the author). For instance, Greene’s claim that mastery begins with an intra-personal orientation (looking inward to find out who you really are) is inconsistent with anthropological, evolutionary and social psychological evidence indicating that our identity is essentially outside of us – if we want to know who we ‘really’ are, we need to ask others. Indeed, from Herbert Mead to Charles Horton Cooley and Jacques Lacan, sociologists and psychologists have agreed that the only relevant meaning about ourselves comes from others (or the symbolic world we live in).

Greene says there are directions in our lives – inclinations – towards which we develop as children, but as adults we tend to ignore as we try to follow the social norms. In that, we agree. But children glom onto things that are not necessarily their “life’s goal” – and may be fascinated or attracted to something simply because of culture, peer pressure and popular fashion. Should all young girls have made it their “life’s task” to become Spice Girls simply because they had a passion for the pop group? Hardly.

And we can’t all grow up to be astronauts or paleontologists simply because they fascinate us as children. There are not enough places in the space program for all the would-be space jockeys. Someone has to stay behind and push the buttons on Earth. And as romantic as it seems, paleontologists are not in great demand in the workplace.

True, Darwin (and other of Green’s subjects) achieved his goals by following his personal dreams rather than pursuing the profession of cleric he was expected to follow (and the world would have been much poorer in science, had he done so). We live under enormous peer pressure to accomplish life goals based on social norms. Darwin (and the rest of the world) was fortunate that the rare opportunity to sail on a ship to collect specimens suddenly rose at the exact moment he was ready to leave home.

Great geniuses, scientists, athletes and artists have overcome that tendency to conform, Greene says, by following their dreams. We agree to a point. They also have to follow the 10/20,000-hour rule, too. But face it, there are people who have a natural gift towards some skill, some craft; they understand both intellectually and subconsciously, their art.

There are those who can compose a musical work effortlessly, understanding the nuances of tone, the relationship of sounds without intellectualizing it. There are those who can put words on a page that sing, that make us laugh or cry, while others sweat blood trying to write a simple email response. Innate skills cannot be overlooked. Those innate skills blend conscious and subconscious understanding in a way that cannot be taught or learned. Greene, however, seems to believe that we all share the same potential for “mastery.” *****

Greene allows that, to achieve mastery, people need to commit themselves to a “rigorous apprecnticeship with mentors who could initiate them into the hidden knowledge that comes from years of experience.” Um, in some cases, yes. But not all.

Darwin spent five years on the Beagle learning to observe and analyse without any mentor. Mozart, although tutored by his father at age four, was writing music from age five, before he had any significant time to apprentice. Einstein worked as a postal clerk while he crafted his theory of special relativity, alone in his spare time.

Greene delves deep into the lives of his subjects and their social skills, their networks of compatriots, supporters and objectors, their continuing explorations. Mastery is not a goal or an end, but rather a journey that never finishes. Like Shakespeare’s plays, there is no plateau of art that you reach then coast; you keep exploring, keep challenging the strictures and the rules, keep trying something new and different. Oddly, Greene does not use the Bard as a model for anything.

Greene is a polymath with many skills and talents, not least of all as a synthesizer of ideas and concepts. But he isn’t a psychologist and, despite his passion for learning, I question some of his statements about human development and psyche. Some of his statements read like Deepak Chopra or these other self-help gurus: lofty but vague pablum. For example:

“Do not envy those who seem to be naturally gifted; it is often a curse, as such types rarely learn the value of diligence and focus, and they pay for this later in life.”

This curious statement is not backed by an example to prove it. It sounds a trifle too Biblical.

I’m still reading the book, so perhaps I’m not being fair to Greene by commenting before I have finished. Perhaps, too, I will arrive at the end more fulfilled and regret my dismissal. I will carry on reading it, regardless of my trepidation. Still, there’s this nagging voice in my head that keeps muttering, “codswallop” to me as I turn the pages.

* One of my favourite books of all time is Greene’s 48 Laws of Power, which inspired me to rewrite Machiavelli’s The Prince last year. It is well written, well designed and very thought-inducing. All politicians should read it. As a writer and former book editor myself, I have great respect for Greene’s work.
** Facebook is a lot like TV: it has great potential to create social networks, communities and to share information. But, like TV, it generally devolves to the lowest common denominator and is mostly a vehicle for irrelevancies and pointlessness. Facebook may, in fact, be making people more stupid and less capable of critical thinking.
*** Diet books are the same. There is no magic cure, no magic diet that will melt away fat. Like smoking, you need the willpower to quit bad habits before you can accomplish something. Self-control is more important than the recipes and ingredients. There’s no magic formula, just effort.
**** Practice is one reason I write blog posts: to keep trying to develop and hone my writing skills. Even after more than four decades writing, I still work at the craft. Use it or lose it.
***** For example, I have played music since the mid-1960s. I understand it, I appreciate it, I can analyze and dissect it, I know enough music theory and technique. I lack the innate understanding that would make me a good musician. Yet I love playing music, passionately enjoy it. In contrast, I can’t always quote the rules of English, or chapter and verse from Fowler or Strunk and White, but I write reasonably well because language is more innate with me than music. Writing is perhaps the only greater pleasure for me than playing music.

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Ian Chadwick
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