“Genius too does nothing but learn first how to lay bricks then how to build, and continually seek for material and continually form itself around it. Every activity of man is amazingly complicated, not only that of the genius: but none is a ‘miracle’.”
Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci. We’ve coined terms for people of this caliber. Some call them ‘geniuses’. Others say ‘gifted’. However, the term I like the most is the one used by Robert Greene in his book Mastery.
The word ‘genius’ in its old form referred to the presence of a spirit which accompanied an infant from birth and gave him or her some abilities. In the word ‘gifted’, the notion is that a person is given the gift of a natural talent or ability. Both terms really amplify the idea that people are good at what they do because they are inherently good at it.
The word ‘master’ tells a different story: people are good at what they do because they mastered it. Mastery is about the process of getting good at it.
While the thesis of Mastery is really already embedded in the words, the book performs the most comprehensive dissection I’ve read of the concept of mastery. It dives deep into the lives of history’s greatest masters (as well as contemporary ones) to give a blueprint of how one can transform from utterly average to exceptionally excellent.
The process, Robert Greene says, starts with finding – and devoting yourself to – your Life’s Task. This Life’s Task is a purpose, field of study, topic or topics, craft, art, or path that draws you in and stirs passion and a sense of play inside you.
After masters commit themselves to this Life’s Task, they submit to an apprenticeship with a mentor or mentoring system that subjects them to several rigorous years of training and deliberate practice in which they learn the rudiments and nuances of the field. In other words, they find the giant on whose shoulders they will slowly strive to stand on.
Then, they rise above this apprenticeship by breaking away from the norms of their field and painfully hacking their way thru. They become creative, come up with new ideas, techniques, or applications, and exert even more effort to succeed with this novel work. Eventually, this starts propelling them to fame or fortune.
Finally, their power at their craft becomes most apparent when their aptitude in performing their Life’s Task evolves into fast, reliable intuition. They’re so good at it that, to mere mortals, it seems so natural. It’s as if they were born with it…
…but now we know that is so far from the truth.
One thing I appreciate about Mastery is how it offers powerful arguments against some of the wishful thinking we have when it comes to the concept of genius.
For one, there are no shortcuts. True mastery requires years – and even decades – of complex effort and deliberate practice. The prodigies who succeeded at a young age – Mozart being the finest example of this – may have just started on their path to mastery much, much sooner than everybody else. This is why, in the first place, Greene argues that your Life’s Task should be something that really seduces you. Ultimately, it is your emotional commitment to a subject matter – rather than your initial inherent aptitude – that is the better contributor to your mastery.
Another compelling argument is the call to listen to one’s inner voice. As we grow up, we learn to listen more to our parents, our schools, the pressures of society, the expectations of others and end up listening less to that inner voice telling us what that Life’s Task could possibly be. When we can somehow make everything else go quiet and pick out what truly drives us, the next and more difficult task at hand is abandoning comfort, safety, and stability for the great unknown.
“Think of yourself as an explorer. You cannot find anything new if you are unwilling to leave the shore.”
Finally, Greene condemns the rigidity of thinking in silos. True mastery, he argues, is achieved when one’s brain can make productive connections between distant fields or schools of thought and then turns these connections into innovations. When our present educational system trains us to stay within four walls, both physically and figuratively, Greene’s advice is to break free.
I can easily admit that I am not a master in anything.
But after reading the book, I have realized that the few things I can consider myself to be relatively good at did indeed take years of deliberate practice, a great deal of passion, and the courage “to leave the shore”.
The practice of public speaking, for instance, was an uphill climb.
From infancy, the language I was most adept in was Filipino. For English, I listened and read much, much better than I could speak.
Out of chance, I joined my first English speech competition at age 9. My dad trained me then and he did not take it lightly; I recall standing up all night until my legs hurt for several weeks before the competition as I practiced. I ended up winning.
Though I attended a science-focused high school, I recall never passing up opportunities to speak in front of a crowd. Why? I started to get a high out of speaking; no matter how nervous I got, as I eased into a speech, I’d literally feel myself simply flowing. My crowning moment was a prepared speech which I presented to fellow students from all over the world gathered in New Delhi, India.
Then, in university, I worked for a non-profit organization that relied purely on donations and volunteers. I spent several hours every week speaking to different crowds of different sizes, ages, and professions; and pushing myself to tell the stories of that organization in the most compelling (and goodwill-inducing) way possible.
At the same time, I competed, too. I joined a major national speech competition in my freshman year. I lost. I joined the same competition three years after – and since I had much, much more experience by then – I won.
In the last three years of my life, I’ve had the privilege to deliver speeches on stages in Bangkok, Ottawa, New York, Brussels, Hong Kong, and Sydney. Sometimes, the crowd numbered in the thousands. Sometimes, the crowd would be a dozen high-profile guests. As I went on, I no longer competed for a prize. I only competed against myself to deliver more meaning and impact per minute of speech.
These days, though I chose to take a step back and focus on work that stays mostly behind the scenes, the relationship I have with public speaking is the same. It is a joy, a passion; but it is also an endless challenge through a sea of many possibilities. I don’t know if I’ll ever become a master at this, but what I do know is that when I speak, I can just be me.
This brings me to a personal epiphany: mastery is like a good speech.
In any great speech, the great thing about it is not the conclusion – or that last powerful statement you make to imprint on the listener’s mind. The great thing about it is the story you weave, the ride you take listeners on, the process of speaking from end to finish.
Similarly, the point of mastery is not to become a master, but to focus on the journey of mastery as it happens.
As I learn, improve, experiment, fail, and try again, the magic happens, and I become more of me – but also a little bit better each time.