Mastery - Robert Greene
Notes & Quotes
mastery—the feeling that we have a greater command of reality, other people, and ourselves.
In the first phase, we stand on the outside of our field, learning as much as we can of the basic elements and rules. We have only a partial picture of the field and so our powers are limited. In the second phase, through much practice and immersion, we see into the inside of the machinery, how things connect with one another, and thus gain a more comprehensive understanding of the subject. With this comes a new power—the ability to experiment and creatively play with the elements involved. In the third phase, our degree of knowledge, experience, and focus is so deep that we can now see the whole picture with complete clarity.
Intuitive powers at the mastery level are a mix of the instinctive and the rational, the conscious and the unconscious, the human and the animal. It is our way of making sudden and powerful connections to the environment, to feeling or thinking inside things.
When we take our time and focus in depth, when we trust that going through a process of months or years will bring us mastery, we work with the grain of this marvelous instrument that developed over so many millions of years. We infallibly move to higher and higher levels of intelligence. In following this path we become Homo magister, man or woman the Master.
Natural talent or a high IQ cannot explain future achievement.
The basic elements of this story are repeated in the lives of all of the great Masters in history: a youthful passion or predilection, a chance encounter that allows them to discover how to apply it, an apprenticeship in which they come alive with energy and focus. They excel by their ability to practice harder and move faster through the process, all of this stemming from the intensity of their desire to learn and from the deep connection they feel to their field of study. And at the core of this intensity of effort is in fact a quality that is genetic and inborn—not talent or brilliance, which is something that must be developed, but rather a deep and powerful inclination toward a particular subject.
This inclination is a reflection of a person’s uniqueness.
Our levels of desire, patience, persistence, and confidence end up playing a much larger role in success than sheer reasoning powers. Feeling motivated and energized, we can overcome almost anything. Feeling bored and restless, our minds shut off and we become increasingly passive.
Today we have the kind of access to information and knowledge that past Masters could only dream about.
First, you must see your attempt at attaining mastery as something extremely necessary and positive.
We must create our own world or we will die from inaction.
Second, you must convince yourself of the following: people get the mind and quality of brain that they deserve through their actions in life.
Finally, you must not see this process of moving through levels of intelligence as merely linear, heading toward some kind of ultimate destination known as mastery. Your whole life is a kind of apprenticeship to which you apply your learning skills.
Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became “geniuses” (as we put it), through qualities the lack of which no one who knew what they were would boast of: they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.
You possess a kind of inner force that seeks to guide you toward your Life’s Task. It directed you toward activities and subjects that fit your natural inclinations, that sparked a curiosity that was deep and primal.
“Just as a well-filled day brings blessed sleep, so a well-employed life brings a blessed death.”
This primal uniqueness naturally wants to assert and express itself, but some experience it more strongly than others. With Masters it is so strong that it feels like something that has its own external reality—a force, a voice, destiny.
Let us state it in the following way: At your birth a seed is planted. That seed is your uniqueness. It wants to grow, transform itself, and flower to its full potential. It has a natural, assertive energy to it. Your Life’s Task is to bring that seed to flower, to express your uniqueness through your work. The stronger you feel and maintain it—as a force, a voice, or in whatever form—the greater your chance for fulfilling this Life’s Task and achieving mastery
The process of following your Life’s Task all the way to mastery can essentially begin at any point in life.
First, you must connect or reconnect with your inclinations, that sense of uniqueness. The first step then is always inward. You search the past for signs of that inner voice or force.
Second, with this connection established, you must look at the career path you are already on or are about to begin. Instead you want to see your work as something more inspiring, as part of your vocation.
Finally, you must see your career or vocational path more as a journey with twists and turns rather than a straight line. You begin by choosing a field or position that roughly corresponds to your inclinations. You don’t want to start with something too lofty, too ambitious—you need to make a living and establish some confidence. Once on this path you discover certain side routes that attract you, while other aspects of this field leave you cold. You adjust and perhaps move to a related field, continuing to learn more about yourself, but always expanding off your skill base.
Eventually, you will hit upon a particular field, niche, or opportunity that suits you perfectly. You will recognize it when you find it because it will spark that childlike sense of wonder and excitement; it will feel right.
Our times might emphasize equality, which we then mistake for the need for everyone to be the same, but what we really mean by this is the equal chance for people to express their differences, to let a thousand flowers bloom. Your vocation is more than the work that you do. It is intimately connected to the deepest part of your being and is a manifestation of the intense diversity in nature and within human culture.
the ancient Greek poet Pindar wrote, “Become who you are by learning who you are.” What he meant is the following: You are born with a particular makeup and tendencies that mark you as a piece of fate. It is who you are to the core. If you allow yourself to learn who you really are by paying attention to that voice and force within you, then you can become what you were fated to become—an individual, a Master.
The misery that oppresses you lies not in your profession but in yourself! What man in the world would not find his situation intolerable if he chooses a craft, an art, indeed any form of life, without experiencing an inner calling? Whoever is born with a talent, or to a talent, must surely find in that the most pleasing of occupations! Everything on this earth has its difficult sides! Only some inner drive—pleasure, love—can help us overcome obstacles, prepare a path, and lift us out of the narrow circle in which others tread out their anguished, miserable existences!
—JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE
Obstacles you will face: the voices of others infecting you, fighting over limited resources, choosing false paths, getting stuck in the past, and losing your way. Pay attention to all of them because you will almost inevitably encounter each one in some form.
Primal Inclination Strategy. For Masters, their inclination often presents itself to them with remarkable clarity in childhood. Sometimes it comes in the form of a simple object that triggers a deep response. Sometimes this inclination becomes clear through a particular activity that brings with it a feeling of heightened power.
You must understand the following: In order to master a field, you must love the subject and feel a profound connection to it. Your interest must transcend the field itself and border on the religious. For Einstein, it was not physics but a fascination with invisible forces that governed the universe.
You must dig for signs of such inclinations in your earliest years. Look for its traces in visceral reactions to something simple; a desire to repeat an activity that you never tired of; a subject that stimulated an unusual degree of curiosity; feelings of power attached to particular actions. If you reconnect with this core at any age, some element of that primitive attraction will spark back to life, indicating a path that can ultimately become your Life’s Task.
The Darwinian Strategy. The more people there are crowded into a space, the harder it becomes to thrive there. The game you want to play is different: to instead find a niche in the ecology that you can dominate. In the beginning you choose a field that roughly corresponds to your interests (medicine, electrical engineering). From there you can go in one of two directions.
The first is the Ramachandran path. From within your chosen field, you look for side paths that particularly attract you (in his case the science of perception and optics). When it is possible, you make a move to this narrower field. You continue this process until you eventually hit upon a totally unoccupied niche, the narrower the better.
The second is the Matsuoka path. Once you have mastered your first field (robotics), you look for other subjects or skills that you can conquer (neuroscience), on your own time if necessary. You can now combine this added field of knowledge to the original one, perhaps creating a new field, or at least making novel connections between them. Ultimately you create a field that is uniquely your own. This second version fits in well with a culture where information is so widely available, and in which connecting ideas is a form of power.
The Rebellion Strategy. Because the field we choose does not correspond with our deepest inclinations, we rarely find the fulfillment that we crave. Your strategy must be twofold: first, to realize as early as possible that you have chosen your career for the wrong reasons, before your confidence takes a hit. And second, to actively rebel against those forces that have pushed you away from your true path. Scoff at the need for attention and approval—they will lead you astray. It is a healthy part of your development to follow a path independent of your parents and to establish your own identity. Let your sense of rebellion fill you with energy and purpose.
The Adaptation Strategy. In dealing with your career and its inevitable changes, you must think in the following way: You are not tied to a particular position; your loyalty is not to a career or a company. You are committed to your Life’s Task, to giving it full expression. It is up to you to find it and guide it correctly. It is not up to others to protect or help you. You are on your own.
You don’t want to abandon the skills and experience you have gained, but to find a new way to apply them. Your eye is on the future, not the past. Often such creative readjustments lead to a superior path for us—we are shaken out of our complacency and forced to reassess where we are headed. Remember: your Life’s Task is a living, breathing organism. The moment you rigidly follow a plan set in your youth, you lock yourself into a position, and the times will ruthlessly pass you by.
The Life-or-Death Strategy.
It struck him that people suffered more from sameness, from the inability to think of doing things differently, than from nonconformity.
No good can ever come from deviating from the path that you were destined to follow. Most often you deviate because of the lure of money, of more immediate prospects of prosperity. Because this does not comply with something deep within you, your interest will lag and eventually the money will not come so easily. You will search for other easy sources of money, moving further and further away from your path.
You cannot have everything in the present. The road to mastery requires patience. You will have to keep your focus on five or ten years down the road, when you will reap the rewards of your efforts. Make your return to the path a resolution you set for yourself, and then tell others about it. It becomes a matter of shame and embarrassment to deviate from this path. In the end, the money and success that truly last come not to those who focus on such things as goals, but rather to those who focus on mastery and fulfilling their Life’s Task.
Some people do not become aware of inclinations or future career paths in their childhood, but instead are made painfully aware of their limitations.
When you are faced with deficiencies instead of strengths and inclinations, this is the strategy you must assume: ignore your weaknesses and resist the temptation to be more like others. Instead, like Temple Grandin, direct yourself toward the small things you are good at. Do not dream or make grand plans for the future, but instead concentrate on becoming proficient at these simple and immediate skills. This will bring you confidence and become a base from which you can expand to other pursuits.
Understand: Your Life’s Task does not always appear to you through some grand or promising inclination. It can appear in the guise of your deficiencies, making you focus on the one or two things that you are inevitably good at. Working at these skills, you learn the value of discipline and see the rewards you get from your efforts.
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.
Sooner or later something seems to call us onto a particular path. You may remember this “something” as a signal calling in childhood when an urge out of nowhere, a fascination, a peculiar turn of events struck like an annunciation: This is what I must do, this is what I’ve got to have. This is who I am… Extraordinary people display calling most evidently. Perhaps that’s why they fascinate. Perhaps, too, they are extraordinary because their calling comes through so clearly and they are so loyal to it…. Extraordinary people bear the better witness because they show what ordinary mortals simply can’t. We seem to have less motivation and more distraction. Yet our destiny is driven by the same universal engine. Extraordinary people are not a different category; the workings of this engine in them are simply more transparent….
After your formal education, you enter the most critical phase in your life—a second, practical education known as The Apprenticeship. Every time you change careers or acquire new skills, you reenter this phase of life.
“My second life will then commence, and it shall be as a birthday for the rest of my life.”
Without thinking of it, he had developed a taste for adventure that would have shocked his family and friends.
As the journey progressed, Darwin noted some obvious changes in himself. He used to find almost any kind of work boring, but now he could labor all hours of the day; in fact, with so much to explore and learn, he hated wasting a single minute of the voyage.
He would observe something, read and write about it, then develop a theory after even more observation, the theories and observations feeding off one another. Full of details about so many facets of the world he was exploring, ideas were sprouting up out of nowhere.
His whole manner was different—a seriousness of purpose and sharpness could be read in his eyes, almost the opposite look of the lost young man who had gone to sea years before. Clearly, the voyage had transformed his son in body and spirit.
In the stories of the greatest Masters, past and present, we can inevitably detect a phase in their lives in which all of their future powers were in development. This part of their lives—a largely self-directed apprenticeship that lasts some five to ten years—receives little attention because it does not contain stories of great achievement or discovery.
The apprenticeship, by its very nature, must be conducted by each individual in his or her own way.
The principle is simple and must be engraved deeply in your mind: the goal of an apprenticeship is not money, a good position, a title, or a diploma, but rather the transformation of your mind and character—the first transformation on the way to mastery.
You must choose places of work and positions that offer the greatest possibilities for learning. Practical knowledge is the ultimate commodity. This means that you move toward challenges that will toughen and improve you, where you will get the most objective feedback on your performance and progress. You do not choose apprenticeships that seem easy and comfortable.
With the principle outlined above guiding you in your choices, you must think of three essential steps in your apprenticeship, each one overlapping the other. These steps are: Deep Observation (The Passive Mode), Skills Acquisition (The Practice Mode), and Experimentation (The Active Mode). Keep in mind that an apprenticeship can come in many different forms. It can happen at one place over several years, or it can consist of several different positions in different places, a kind of compound apprenticeship involving many different skills
Step One: Deep Observation—The Passive Mode
The greatest mistake you can make in the initial months of your apprenticeship is to imagine that you have to get attention, impress people, and prove yourself.
If you impress people in these first months, it should be because of the seriousness of your desire to learn, not because you are trying to rise to the top before you are ready.
First, you will observe the rules and procedures that govern success in this environment—in other words, “this is how we do things here.” You must pay attention to these and observe them, but what is of more interest are the rules that are unstated and are part of the underlying work culture.
The second reality you will observe is the power relationships that exist within the group: who has real control; through whom do all communications flow; who is on the rise and who is on the decline.
Every task you are given, no matter how menial, offers opportunities to observe this world at work. No detail about the people within it is too trivial. Everything you see or hear is a sign for you to decode. Over time, you will begin to see and understand more of the reality that eluded you at first.
the ability to observe any unfamiliar environment will become a critical lifelong skill.
Step Two: Skills Acquisition—The Practice Mode
At some point, as you progress through these initial months of observation, you will enter the most critical part of the apprenticeship: practice toward the acquisition of skills.
In acquiring any kind of skill, there exists a natural learning process that coincides with the functioning of our brains.
The natural model for learning, largely based on the power of mirror neurons, came from watching and imitating others, then repeating the action over and over. Our brains are highly suited for this form of learning.
Even with skills that are primarily mental, such as computer programming or speaking a foreign language, it remains the case that we learn best through practice and repetition—the natural learning process. We learn a foreign language by actually speaking it as much as possible, not by reading books and absorbing theories. The more we speak and practice, the more fluent we become.
Once you take this far enough, you enter a cycle of accelerated returns in which the practice becomes easier and more interesting, leading to the ability to practice for longer hours, which increases your skill level, which in turn makes practice even more interesting. Reaching this cycle is the goal you must set for yourself, and to get there you must understand some basic principles about skills themselves.
First, it is essential that you begin with one skill that you can master, and that serves as a foundation for acquiring others. You must avoid at all cost the idea that you can manage learning several skills at a time. You need to develop your powers of concentration, and understand that trying to multitask will be the death of the process.
Second, the initial stages of learning a skill invariably involve tedium. Yet rather than avoiding this inevitable tedium, you must accept and embrace it.
This process of hardwiring cannot occur if you are constantly distracted, moving from one task to another. It is better to dedicate two or three hours of intense focus to a skill than to spend eight hours of diffused concentration on it. You want to be as immediately present to what you are doing as possible.
It helps also to gain as much feedback as possible from others, to have standards against which you can measure your progress so that you are aware of how far you have to go.
If you take this far enough, you will naturally enter the cycle of accelerated returns: As you learn and gain skills you can begin to vary what you do, finding nuances that you can develop in the work, so that it becomes more interesting. As elements become more automatic your mind is not exhausted by the effort and you can practice harder, which in turn brings greater skill and more pleasure.
Learning any kind of skill deeply prepares you for mastery. The sensation of flow and of being a part of the instrument is a precursor to the great pleasures that mastery can bring.
Real pleasure comes from overcoming challenges, feeling confidence in your abilities, gaining fluency in skills, and experiencing the power this brings.
Although it might seem that the time necessary to master the requisite skills and attain a level of expertise would depend on the field and your own talent level, those who have researched the subject repeatedly come up with the number of 10,000 hours
Although the number of hours might seem high, it generally adds up to seven to ten years of sustained, solid practice—roughly the period of a traditional apprenticeship. In other words, concentrated practice over time cannot fail but produce results.
Step Three: Experimentation—The Active Mode
As you gain in skill and confidence, you must make the move to a more active mode of experimentation. This could mean taking on more responsibility, initiating a project of some sort, doing work that exposes you to the criticisms of peers or even the public. The point of this is to gauge your progress and whether there are still gaps in your knowledge.
Most people wait too long to take this step, generally out of fear. Often you must force yourself to initiate such actions or experiments before you think you are ready.
You will know when your apprenticeship is over by the feeling that you have nothing left to learn in this environment.
The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways. And the process of learning skills, no matter how virtual, remains the same.
In the future, the great division will be between those who have trained themselves to handle these complexities and those who are overwhelmed by them—those who can acquire skills and discipline their minds and those who are irrevocably distracted by all the media around them and can never focus enough to learn.
When we work with our hands and build something, we learn how to sequence our actions and how to organize our thoughts. In taking anything apart in order to fix it, we learn problem-solving skills that have wider applications. Even if it is only as a side activity, you should find a way to work with your hands, or to learn more about the inner workings of the machines and pieces of technology around you.
In general, no matter your field, you must think of yourself as a builder, using actual materials and ideas. You are producing something tangible in your work, something that affects people in some direct, concrete way. To build anything well—a house, a political organization, a business, or a film—you must understand the building process and possess the necessary skills. You are a craftsman learning to adhere to the highest standards.
1. Value learning over money
Train yourself to get by with little money and make the most of your youthful energy. For the next few years she would work as a dance teacher, keeping her hours to the minimum for survival. The rest of the time she would train herself in the new style of dancing she wanted to create.
Instead, you must value learning above everything else.
If your apprenticeship is to be mostly on your own time, you will choose a place that pays the bills—perhaps one that keeps your mind sharp, but that also leaves you the time and mental space to do valuable work on your own. You must never disdain an apprenticeship with no pay. In the end, by valuing learning above all else, you will set the stage for your creative expansion, and the money will soon come to you.
2. Keep expanding your horizons
No one is really going to help you or give you direction. If you desire an apprenticeship, if you want to learn and set yourself up for mastery, you have to do it yourself, and with great energy. When you enter this phase, you generally begin at the lowest position. Your access to knowledge and people is limited by your status. If you are not careful, you will accept this status and become defined by it, particularly if you come from a disadvantaged background.
Reading books and materials that go beyond what is required is always a good starting point.
Be relentless in your pursuit for expansion. Whenever you feel like you are settling into some circle, force yourself to shake things up and look for new challenges,
3. Revert to a feeling of inferiority
What prevents people from learning, even something as difficult as Pirahã, is not the subject itself—the human mind has limitless capabilities—but rather certain learning disabilities that tend to fester and grow in our minds as we get older. If we feel like we know something, our minds close off to other possibilities.
When you enter a new environment, your task is to learn and absorb as much as possible. For that purpose you must try to revert to a childlike feeling of inferiority—the feeling that others know much more than you and that you are dependent upon them to learn and safely navigate your apprenticeship. You have no fears. You interact with people and participate in the culture as deeply as possible. You are full of curiosity. You are reverting to a feeling of dependence, so that within five to ten years you can learn enough to finally declare your independence and enter full adulthood.
4. Trust the process
Among the dozens of pilots in Rodriguez’s class who never made the cut, almost all of them had the same talent level as he did. The difference is not simply a matter of determination, but more of trust and faith. Many of those who succeed in life have had the experience in their youth of having mastered some skill—a sport or game, a musical instrument, a foreign language, and so on. Buried in their minds is the sensation of overcoming their frustrations and entering the cycle of accelerated returns. In moments of doubt in the present, the memory of the past experience rises to the surface. Filled with trust in the process, they trudge on well past the point at which others slow down or mentally quit.
When it comes to mastering a skill, time is the magic ingredient. Assuming your practice proceeds at a steady level, over days and weeks certain elements of the skill become hardwired. Slowly, the entire skill becomes internalized, part of your nervous system. The only real impediment to this is yourself and your emotions—boredom, panic, frustration, insecurity.
Frustration is a sign of progress—a signal that your mind is processing complexity and requires more practice.
5. Move toward resistance and pain
He spent hours at both of these exercises, well past any feelings of boredom or pain.
To continue his education, he would return to his school in his off-hours and read as many books as he could in the library.
but lacking any kind of instructor or literary circle he could frequent, the only way he knew to teach himself to write was to read the works of all of the greatest poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Never again would he suffer from writer’s block—he had trained himself to write past any obstacle. He had acquired now the habit of writing quickly, with intensity and focus—concentrating his work in a few hours.
Once we grow adept at some aspect of this skill, generally one that comes more easily to us, we prefer to practice this element over and over. Our skill becomes lopsided as we avoid our weaknesses.
To attain mastery, you must adopt what we shall call Resistance Practice. The principle is simple—you go in the opposite direction of all of your natural tendencies when it comes to practice. First, you resist the temptation to be nice to yourself. You find a kind of perverse pleasure in moving past the pain this might bring.
Second, you resist the lure of easing up on your focus. You train yourself to concentrate in practice with double the intensity, as if it were the real thing times two. You invent exercises that work upon your weaknesses. You give yourself arbitrary deadlines to meet certain standards, constantly pushing yourself past perceived limits. In this way you develop your own standards for excellence, generally higher than those of others.
In the end, your five hours of intense, focused work are the equivalent of ten for most people. Soon enough you will see the results of such practice, and others will marvel at the apparent ease in which you accomplish your deeds.
6. Apprentice yourself in failure
When a machine malfunctions you do not take it personally or grow despondent. It is in fact a blessing in disguise. Such malfunctions generally show you inherent flaws and means of improvement. You simply keep tinkering until you get it right. The same should apply to an entrepreneurial venture. Mistakes and failures are precisely your means of education. They tell you about your own inadequacies.
There are two kinds of failure. The first comes from never trying out your ideas because you are afraid, or because you are waiting for the perfect time. This kind of failure you can never learn from, and such timidity will destroy you. The second kind comes from a bold and venturesome spirit. If you fail in this way, the hit that you take to your reputation is greatly outweighed by what you learn. Repeated failure will toughen your spirit and show you with absolute clarity how things must be done. In any case, to apprentice as an entrepreneur you must act on your ideas as early as possible, exposing them to the public, a part of you even hoping that you’ll fail.
7. Combine the “how” and the “what”
Scientists and technicians live in their own world, focusing mostly on the “how” of things. Others live in the world of appearances, using these things but not really understanding how they function. Just before this split occurred, it was the ideal of the Renaissance to combine these two forms of knowledge.
We must make ourselves study as deeply as possible the technology we use, the functioning of the group we work in, the economics of our field, its lifeblood. We must constantly ask the questions—how do things work, how do decisions get made, how does the group interact? Rounding our knowledge in this way will give us a deeper feel for reality and the heightened power to alter it.
8. Advance through trial and error
The process of learning through trial and error was immensely satisfying. He could discover things on his own, without having to follow a rigid path set up by others. (This is the essence of being a “hacker.”) And the better he got at programming, the more he could make it do.
There seemed to be no real design or direction to his life. It was like the “cheesy hacks” he did in high school, patching things together, figuring things out through constant trial and error, finding out what worked by doing it. Shaping his life in this haphazard way, he learned what to avoid. He liked the process of making things. What really mattered to him in the end was having possibilities. Over the years he had undergone an apprenticeship, it was almost by default.
We are now in the computer age, with computers dominating nearly all aspects of commercial life. Although there are many ways in which this could influence the concept of apprenticeship, it is the hacker approach to programming that may offer the most promising model for this new age.
You want to learn as many skills as possible, following the direction that circumstances lead you to, but only if they are related to your deepest interests. Like a hacker, you value the process of self-discovery and making things that are of the highest quality. Avoid the trap of following one set career path. You see what kind of work suits you and what you want to avoid at all cost. You move by trial and error. This is how you pass your twenties. You are the programmer of this wide-ranging apprenticeship, within the loose constraints of your personal interests.
In fact, a study of some seventy great classical composers determined that with only three exceptions, all of the composers had needed at least ten years to produce their first great work.
What in fact separates Mozart and Einstein from others is the extreme youth with which they began their apprenticeships and the intensity with which they practiced, stemming from their total immersion in the subject. It is often the case that in our younger years we learn faster, absorb more deeply, and yet retain a kind of creative verve that tends to fade as we get older.
There are no shortcuts or ways to bypass the Apprenticeship Phase.
The very desire to find shortcuts makes you eminently unsuited for any kind of mastery.
you must follow the example set by Masters throughout the ages and find the proper mentor.
Once you have internalized their knowledge, you must move on and never remain in their shadow. Your goal is always to surpass your mentors in mastery and brilliance.
When he was not doing errands and chores for his mother, he would wander the streets of central London, observing the world around him with utmost intensity. Nature, it seemed to him, was full of secrets that he wanted to ponder and unravel. Because he was taught that the divine presence was everywhere, everything interested him, and his curiosity was limitless.
He had never met someone quite so intense at such a young age.
The owner encouraged him to read whatever he liked in his off-hours, and Faraday obliged by devouring almost every single book that passed through his hands. One evening he read an encyclopedia passage on the most recent discoveries in electricity, and he suddenly felt as if he had found his calling in life. Science, it seemed to him, was a great quest to unravel the mysteries of Creation itself. Somehow, he would transform himself into a scientist.
For Watts, learning had to be an active process. He recommended not just reading about scientific discoveries, but actually re-creating the experiments that led to them.
Watts advocated the importance of having teachers and not just learning from books. Faraday dutifully began to attend the numerous lectures on science that were popular in London at the time. Watts advocated not just listening to lectures but taking detailed notes, then reworking the notes themselves—all of this imprinting the knowledge deeper in the brain. Faraday would take this even further.
he would note down the most important words and concepts, quickly sketch out the various instruments Tatum used, and diagram the experiments. Over the next few days he would expand the notes into sentences, and then into an entire chapter on the subject, elaborately sketched and narrated. In the course of a year this added up to a thick scientific encyclopedia he had created on his own.
Arriving early each time and gaining the closest seat he could find, he soaked up every aspect of Davy’s lectures, taking the most detailed notes he had ever attempted.
As an amateur scientist looking at the field from the outside, his knowledge was one-dimensional and would lead nowhere. He needed to move to the inside, where he could gain practical, hands-on experience, become part of the community and learn how to think like a scientist. And to move closer to this scientific spirit and absorb its essence, he would need a mentor.
There seemed something fateful, even magical, in this occurrence. Faraday would have to make the most of it, do whatever he could to impress the great chemist. Awestruck to be in Davy’s presence, Faraday listened with utmost intensity to every one of his instructions and did more than was asked for.
The pay was low, considerably lower than what he could gain as a bookbinder, but Faraday, hardly believing his good fortune, accepted on the spot.
His education was so rapid it shocked him; it was nothing like the progress he had made on his own.
Although Faraday did not relish the thought of acting as a personal servant, the chance to meet some of Europe’s most preeminent scientists and work so closely with Davy on his experiments was too much to pass up. It was best to be around him as much as possible and soak up his knowledge, his whole way of thinking.
But Faraday was now thirty years old, and if he were not allowed soon enough to declare his independence, his most creative years would be wasted as a laboratory assistant.
“We see,” said Goethe, “that the young man has talent; however, you should not praise, but rather blame him, for learning everything by himself. A man of talent is not born to be left to himself, but to devote himself to art and good masters who will make something of him.”
—JOHANN PETER ECKERMANN, CONVERSATIONS WITH GOET
To learn requires a sense of humility. We must admit that there are people out there who know our field much more deeply than we do. Their superiority is not a function of natural talent or privilege, but rather of time and experience.
But if we are not comfortable with this fact, if we feel in general mistrustful of any kind of authority, we will succumb to the belief that we can just as easily learn something on our own, that being self-taught is more authentic.
In fact, we come to believe that being critical of Masters or teachers is somehow a sign of our intelligence, and that being a submissive pupil is a sign of weakness.
Understand: all that should concern you in the early stages of your career is acquiring practical knowledge in the most efficient manner possible. For this purpose, during the Apprenticeship Phase you will need mentors whose authority you recognize and to whom you submit. Your admission of need does not say anything essential about you, but only about your temporary condition of weakness, which your mentor will help you overcome.
The reason you require a mentor is simple: Life is short; you have only so much time and so much energy to expend. Your most creative years are generally in your late twenties and on into your forties. You can learn what you need through books, your own practice, and occasional advice from others, but the process is hit-and-miss. The information in books is not tailored to your circumstances and individuality; it tends to be somewhat abstract. When you are young and have less experience of the world, this abstract knowledge is hard to put into practice. You can learn from your experiences, but it can often take years to fully understand the meaning of what has happened.
Mentors do not give you a shortcut, but they streamline the process.
What took you ten years on your own could have been done in five with proper direction.
When we learn something in a concentrated manner it has added value. We experience fewer distractions. What we learn is internalized more deeply because of the intensity of our focus and practice. Our own ideas and development flourish more naturally in this shortened time frame. Having an efficient apprenticeship, we can make the most of our youthful energy and our creative potential.
If he had stayed on the path of self-apprenticeship out of fear or insecurity, he would have remained a bookbinder—miserable and unfulfilled.
To initially entice the right Master to serve as your mentor, you will want to mix in a strong element of self-interest. You have something tangible and practical to offer them, in addition to your youth and energy. Before he had ever met him, Davy was aware of Faraday’s work ethic and organizational skills. That alone made him a desirable assistant. Considering this, you may not want to go in search of mentors until you have acquired some elementary skills and discipline that you can rely upon to interest them.
Almost all Masters and people of power suffer from too many demands on their time and too much information to absorb. If you can demonstrate the ability to help them organize themselves on these fronts to a degree that others cannot, it will be much easier to get their attention and interest them in the relationship. Do not shy away from anything menial or secretarial. You want person-to-person access, however you can get it.
If you work on yourself first, as Faraday did, developing a solid work ethic and organizational skills, eventually the right teacher will appear in your life.
You will want as much personal interaction with the mentor as possible. A virtual relationship is never enough.
Although one mentor at a time is best, it is not always possible to find the perfect one. In such a case, an alternate strategy is to find several mentors in your immediate environment, each one filling strategic gaps in your knowledge and experience.
Similarly, if your circumstances limit your contacts, books can serve as temporary mentors. In such a case you will want to convert such books and writers into living mentors as much as possible. You personalize their voice, interact with the material, taking notes or writing in the margins.
In a looser sense, a figure from the past or present can serve as an ideal, someone to model yourself after.
You must not allow yourself to feel any guilt when the time comes to assert yourself.
As the relationship progresses, you can begin to slightly distance yourself from the mentor, perhaps taking note of some of his weaknesses or character flaws, or even finding fault with his most cherished beliefs.
You internalize the important and relevant parts of their knowledge, and you apply the knife to what has no bearing on your life.
One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.
The following four strategies are designed to help you exploit the relationship to the fullest and transform the knowledge you gain into creative energy:
1. Choose the mentor according to your needs and inclinations
He was not a teacher who told you what to do; he let you find your own way, including your own mistakes, but would lend you support when you needed it. This style suited her need for independence.
In selecting a mentor, you will want to keep in mind your inclinations and Life’s Task, the future position you envision for yourself. The mentor you choose should be strategically aligned with this. If your path is in a more revolutionary direction, you will want a mentor who is open, progressive, and not domineering.
Sometimes part of what a mentor shows us is something we will want to avoid or actively rebel against.
2. Gaze deep into the mentor’s mirror
He radiated power and self-mastery; you could read in his expression the pain he had endured to reach his current state. This man had lived and suffered.
The problem with all students, he said, is that they inevitably stop somewhere. They hear an idea and they hold on to it until it becomes dead; they want to flatter themselves that they know the truth. But true Zen never stops, never congeals into such truths. That is why everyone must constantly be pushed to the abyss, starting over and feeling their utter worthlessness as a student.
Not even enlightenment is enough. You must continually start over and challenge yourself.
Developing discipline through challenging situations and perhaps suffering along the way are no longer values that are promoted in our culture
Masters are those who by nature have suffered to get to where they are. They know deep in their bones what is required to get to the creative phase and beyond. As mentors, they alone can gauge the extent of our progress, the weaknesses in our character, the ordeals we must go through to advance. In this day and age, you must get the sharpest dose of reality that is possible from your mentor.
3. Transfigure their ideas
It became almost impossible for Guerrero to gauge how Gould would respond to his ideas.
If he listened too closely to teachers and other performers and picked up their ideas or styles, he would lose his sense of identity in the process.
It is often a curse to learn under someone so brilliant and accomplished—your own confidence becomes crushed as you struggle to follow all of their great ideas.
To learn from mentors, we must be open and completely receptive to their ideas. We must fall under their spell. But if we take this too far, we become so marked by their influence that we have no internal space to incubate and develop our own voice, and we spend our lives tied to ideas that are not our own.
We begin by gently adapting their ideas to our circumstances, altering them to fit our style and inclinations. As we progress we can become bolder, even focusing on faults or weaknesses in some of their ideas. We slowly mold their knowledge into our own shape. As we grow in confidence and contemplate our independence, we can even grow competitive with the mentor we once worshipped.
“Poor is the apprentice who does not surpass his Master.”
4. Create a back-and-forth dynamic
What immediately struck him was the intensity with which Pacquiao focused on his instructions and how quickly he caught on. He was eminently teachable, and so the progress was more rapid than it had ever been with any other fighter. Pacquiao seemed to never tire of training or to worry about overdoing it.
In theory, there should be no limit to what we can learn from mentors who have wide experience. At some point the relationship can become flat; it is difficult for us to maintain the same level of attention that we had in the beginning. We might come to resent their authority a little.
The only solution is to evolve a more interactive dynamic with the mentor. If they can adapt to some of your ideas, the relationship becomes more animated.
Such a style of interaction is more in tune with our democratic times and can serve as something of an ideal. But it should not go along with a rebellious attitude or a lessening in respect.
Gaining their respect for how teachable you are, they will fall a bit under your spell. With your intense focus, you improve in your skill levels, giving you the power to introduce more of yourself and your needs. You give them feedback to their instruction, perhaps adjust some of their ideas. This must begin with you, as you set the tone with your hunger to learn.
It is never wise to purposefully do without the benefits of having a mentor in your life. You will waste valuable time in finding and shaping what you need to know. But sometimes you have no choice.
With no schools or teachers in his life, he turned to books, particularly anything he could find on science. He began to conduct his own experiments in the basement of his family home.
He had no chance for a formal education, and nobody crossed his path who could serve as a teacher or mentor. And so in lieu of that, in every city he spent time in, he frequented the public library.
Through books, experiments, and practical experience at various jobs, Edison gave himself a rigorous education that lasted about ten years, up until the time he became an inventor.
What made this successful was his relentless desire to learn through whatever crossed his path, as well as his self-discipline. He had developed the habit of overcoming his lack of an organized education by sheer determination and persistence. He worked harder than anyone else.
Follow Edison’s example by developing extreme self-reliance. You push yourself to learn from every possible source. You read more books than those who have a formal education.
To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyze and account in detail for its effectiveness. By watching the master and emulating his efforts…the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known to the master himself.
Often the greatest obstacle to our pursuit of mastery comes from the emotional drain we experience in dealing with the resistance and manipulations of the people around us. If we are not careful, our minds become absorbed in endless political intrigues and battles. Navigating smoothly the social environment, we have more time and energy to focus on learning and acquiring skills. Success attained without this intelligence is not true mastery, and will not last.
He seemed hopelessly naïve, constantly misreading the intentions of the people around him. Thinking about this problem, he was struck by an apparent paradox: when it came to his work, he was supremely rational and realistic, always looking to improve himself.
But with people it was virtually the opposite: he would inevitably become swept up in his emotions and lose all contact with reality.
In all of his future interactions with people, he would force himself to take an initial step backward and not get emotional. From this more detached position, he would focus completely on the people he was dealing with. He decided he would also have to adopt a new philosophy: complete and radical acceptance of human nature.
Better to accept such people as one accepts the thorns on a rose. Better to observe and accumulate knowledge on human nature, as one accumulates knowledge in the sciences.
But what the critics and public did not realize was that wherever he went he assumed the look, the outward morals, and the behavior of the culture at hand, so that he could better make his way.
To become indignant at [people’s] conduct is as foolish as to be angry with a stone because it rolls into your path. And with many people the wisest thing you can do, is to resolve to make use of those whom you cannot alter.
Our view of people becomes saturated with various emotions—worship, admiration, love, need, anger. Then inevitably, often in adolescence, we start to glimpse a less-than-noble side to many people, including our parents, and we cannot help but feel upset at the disparity between what we had imagined and the reality. In our disappointment, we tend to exaggerate their negative qualities, much as we once had exaggerated the positive ones.
Let us call this the Naïve Perspective.
Social intelligence is nothing more than the process of discarding the Naïve Perspective and approaching something more realistic. It involves focusing our attention outward instead of inward, honing the observational and empathic skills that we naturally possess. It means accepting them as they are. It is a way of thinking that must be cultivated as early as possible.
To be truly charming and socially effective you have to understand people, and to understand them you have to get outside yourself and immerse your mind in their world. Men and women everywhere fell under his spell because of his ability to attune himself to their energies.
Instead of obsessing over himself and what other people were not giving him, he thought deeply of how they were experiencing the world, what they were feeling and missing.
By making yourself aware of the distorting process of the Naïve Perspective, you will naturally grow less comfortable with it. You will realize that you are operating in the dark, blind to people’s motivations and intentions, vulnerable to the same mistakes and patterns that occurred in the past. You will feel your lack of real connection to other people.
First, there is what we shall call specific knowledge of human nature—namely the ability to read people, to get a feel for how they see the world, and to understand their individuality.
Second, there is the general knowledge of human nature, which means accumulating an understanding of the overall patterns of human behaviour that transcend us as individuals, including some of the darker qualities we often disregard.
Because we are all a mix of unique qualities and traits common to our species, only the possession of both forms of knowledge can give you a complete picture of the people around you.
Specific Knowledge—Reading People
What this means is that when we are not inward-directed but attending more deeply to another person.
To begin this process, you need to train yourself to pay less attention to the words that people say and greater attention to their tone of voice, the look in their eye, their body language. If you can get people to become emotional, they will reveal a lot more.
As an exercise, after you have known people for a while, try to imagine that you are experiencing the world from their point of view, placing yourself in their circumstances and feeling what they feel.
This intuitive form of reading people becomes more effective and accurate the more you use it, but it is best to combine it with other, more conscious forms of observation. Your goal is to figure out the hidden motives behind them, which will often revolve around power.
People will say all kinds of things about their motives and intentions; they are used to dressing things up with words. Their actions, however, say much more about their character. If they present a harmless front but have acted aggressively on several occasions, give the knowledge of that aggression much greater weight than the surface they present. In a similar vein, you should take special note of how people respond to stressful situations.
What might seem like small issues—chronically being late, insufficient attention to detail, not returning any favors on your part—are signs of something deeper about their character.
General Knowledge—The Seven Deadly Realities
Most of us have these negative qualities—Envy, Conformism, Rigidity, Self-obsessiveness, Laziness, Flightiness, and Passive Aggression—in relatively mild doses. But in a group setting, there will inevitably be people who have one or more of these qualities to a high enough degree that they can become very destructive.
Envy: It is our nature to constantly compare ourselves to others.
People who praise you too much or who become overly friendly in the first stages of knowing you are often envious and are getting closer in order to hurt you.
If you have a gift for a certain skill, you should make a point of occasionally displaying some weakness in another area, avoiding the great danger of appearing too perfect, too talented. If you are dealing with insecure types, you can display great interest in their work.
You must be particularly careful to never make people feel stupid in your presence
Conformism: When people form groups of any type, a kind of organizational mind-set inevitably sets in.
If you have a rebellious or naturally eccentric streak, as is often the case with those who are aiming for mastery, you must be careful in displaying your difference too overtly, particularly in the Apprenticeship Phase. Let your work subtly demonstrate your individual spirit.
(Reserve your most interesting and colorful thoughts for your friends, and for those whom you can trust outside work.)
Rigidity: People do not advertise their rigidity. You will only trip up against it if you try to introduce a new idea or procedure.
If you press your case with logic and reason, you will tend to make them even more defensive and resistant. If you are an adventurous, open-minded type, your very spirit will prove disruptive and upsetting
It is useless to fight against people’s rigid ways. You will only waste time and make yourself rigid in the process. The best strategy is to simply accept rigidity in others, outwardly displaying deference to their need for order.
Self-obsessiveness: In the work environment, we almost inevitably think first and foremost of ourselves. Many people go out of their way to disguise their self-interest. Often those who are the most self-absorbed will surround their actions with a moral or saintly aura.
When it is time to ask for a favor or help, you must think first of appealing to people’s self-interest in some way. (You should apply this to everyone) You must give them something valuable in exchange for helping you—a return favor that will save them time, a contact they need, and so on.
In general, in your interactions with people, find a way to make the conversations revolve around them and their interests, all of which will go far to winning them to your side.
Laziness: We all have the tendency to want to take the quickest, easiest path to our goals; but we understand the superior value of getting what we want through hard work.
If you are not careful and talk too much, they will steal your best ideas and make them their own.
Your best defense is your prudence. Keep your ideas to yourself, or conceal enough of the details so that it is not possible to steal them. If you are doing work for a superior, be prepared for them to take full credit and leave your name out (this is a part of everyone’s apprenticeship and must be accepted as such). Secure your credit in advance as part of the terms of working together.
In general, be wary of people who want to collaborate—they are often trying to find someone who will do the heavier lifting for them.
Flightiness: The truth is that we are largely governed by our emotions, which continually color our perceptions. What this means is that the people around you change their ideas by the day or by the hour. You must never assume that what people say or do in a particular moment is a statement of their permanent desires.
It is best to cultivate both distance and a degree of detachment from other people’s shifting emotions. Focus on their actions, which are generally more consistent, and not on their words
Passive Aggression: The root cause of all passive aggression is the human fear of direct confrontation—the emotions that a conflict can churn up and the loss of control that ensues.
Procrastinating on a project, showing up late, or making offhand comments designed to upset people are common forms of low-level passive aggression.
You have one of two options: either get out of their way and leave their presence, or return the attack with something equally indirect, signaling in some subtle way that messing with you will come with a price.
Look at the example of Benjamin Franklin. With people, he cultivated the ability to home in on the details that made them unique and to connect to their experience and motivations. He made himself uncommonly patient and open-minded in his dealings with people from many different cultures and backgrounds.
To develop your intellectual powers at the expense of the social is to retard your own progress to mastery, and limit the full range of your creative powers.
The following four essential strategies, developed by Masters past and present, will help you to meet these inevitable challenges and maintain the rational mind-set necessary for social intelligence.
1. Speak through your work
And so, thinking deeply about people’s natural reluctance to accept new ideas, he decided to do the following: he delayed publishing the results of his findings, waiting until he had firmed up his theory and amassed more evidence. In the meantime, he involved his colleagues in further experiments and dissections, always eliciting their opinions. As he had foreseen, with the strength of his position and with the great amount of evidence he had accumulated, his theory slowly gained acceptance.
Harvey’s success, on the other hand, was greatly due to his social agility.
He understood that even a scientist must play the courtier. He involved others in his work, making them emotionally attached to his theory. He published his results in a thoughtful, well-reasoned, and easy-to-read book. He allowed his book to speak for itself, knowing that by asserting himself after its publication, he would merely call attention to the person and not the work.
Your work is the single greatest means at your disposal for expressing your social intelligence. By being efficient and detail oriented in what you do, you demonstrate that you are thinking of the group at large and advancing its cause. By making what you write or present clear and easy to follow, you show your care for the audience or public at large. By involving other people in your projects and gracefully accepting their feedback, you reveal your comfort with the group dynamic.
2. Craft the appropriate persona
Besides the cooler air, working at night had other advantages—with few people around, the studio was quite peaceful and conducive to serious work. She could focus deeply. She could experiment with her pieces, make mistakes that no one would see. She could be fearless and take chances.
Because few people had seen her at work, it appeared that these sculptures flowed out of her effortlessly—as if she had some unusual gift. This drew attention to her personality.
As she was one of the few female artists working in heavy steel, people naturally projected onto her all kinds of preconceptions and fantasies. The discrepancy between her slight, feminine appearance and her large-scale, imposing works was quite glaring, and people would wonder how she managed to make such work, and who she really was.
it would be a mistake to deflate the powerful effect her work had on others by suddenly revealing to everyone how many hours she had applied herself to these sculptures, and how they were really the product of intense labor and discipline. What you do not reveal to people is all the more eloquent and powerful. She would create an air of mystery around her, making sure not to talk about her process, keeping details of her life hidden, and allowing people to project onto her their own fantasies.
If she had merely kept to herself and focused exclusively on her work, she would have found herself defined by others in a way that would have hindered her progress. If she had boasted about all the hours of practice that went into training herself in metalwork, people would have seen her as a mere laborer and craftsman. People will tend to judge you based on your outward appearance.
Your only protection is to turn this dynamic around by consciously molding these appearances, creating the image that suits you, and controlling people’s judgments. At times you will find it appropriate to stand back and create some mystery around you. At other times you will want to be more direct and impose a more specific appearance. Never settle on one image or give people the power to completely figure you out.
You must see the creation of a persona as a key element in social intelligence. By creating a persona that is mysterious, intriguing, and masterful, you are playing to the public, giving them something compelling and pleasurable to witness. You are allowing them to project their fantasies onto you. In your private life, you can let the mask fall.
3. See yourself as others see you
It seemed to her that there was nothing she could do about her awkwardness with people. What she could control, however, was her own work. She decided she would make herself so efficient in whatever job she had that her social handicap would not matter. She realized that this was completely unrealistic.
Ever since she was a child, Grandin had the peculiar ability to see herself from the outside, as if she were looking at another person. She realized she could use this gift for practical effect, by looking at her past mistakes as if watching another person in action.
Her realization of what had gone wrong did not stem from empathy as it might have for other people—it was an intellectual exercise. But because her emotions were not so deeply involved, it was easier to go through the process and make the necessary corrections.
People see our behavior from the outside, and their view of us is never what we imagine it to be. To have the power to see ourselves through the eyes of others would be of immense benefit to our social intelligence.
4. Suffer fools gladly
As a confirmed realist in life, however, he found it useless to complain about what he could not change. And so, accepting his fellow courtiers as his companions for the next few years, Goethe devised a strategy, making a virtue out of necessity: He would talk very little, rarely venturing an opinion on anything. He would get his interlocutors to go on and on and about this or that subject. He would wear a pleasant mask as he listened, but inwardly he would observe them as if they were figures in a stage play. They would reveal to him their secrets, their petty dramas, and their inane ideas, and all the while he would smile and always take their side.
They seemed less interested in the truth and more concerned with making him look bad. He could hear their possible criticisms in his head, and he addressed them one by one in his subsequent writings. This made him a better writer and thinker. In the end, he came to welcome the attacks of his enemies for how much they had improved his work and toughened him up.
We can classify people as fools by the following rubric: when it comes to practical life, what should matter is getting long-term results, and getting the work done in as efficient and creative a manner as possible. But fools carry with them a different scale of values. They place more importance on short-term matters. They are ruled by their ego and insecurities.
In dealing with fools you must adopt the following philosophy: they are simply a part of life, like rocks or furniture.
Unable to tolerate this, he came up with his own solution: as much as possible, he would avoid any environment that involved politicking. This meant sticking to doing startups on the smallest scale—a constraint that made him disciplined and creative.
If, like Graham, you simply do not have the patience that is required for managing and mastering the more subtle and manipulative sides of human nature, then your best answer is to keep yourself away from those situations as best as possible.
Your conscious attempt to opt out of the system will retard your apprenticeship in social intelligence and can make you vulnerable to the worst forms of naïveté, with all of the disasters that are likely to ensue.
As you emerge from your apprenticeship, you must become increasingly bold. Instead of feeling complacent about what you know, you must expand your knowledge to related fields, giving your mind fuel to make new associations between different ideas. You must experiment and look at problems from all possible angles.
If the piece was new and hard to figure out, he would attack it day and night with such tenacity that it would soon become part of his repertoire. At night, his parents would have to force him to stop practicing and send him to bed. This love of practice only seemed to increase with the years.
…sensing that his time was short and that he had almost too much to express, he threw himself into his music with an intensity that was even greater than what he had displayed in childhood. As if all of his ideas had been pent up for too long, he exploded in a creative outburst unprecedented in the history of music.
Under pressure to make a living and conform to society, we force our minds into tighter and tighter grooves. We may 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. Sometimes when we visit a different country where we cannot rely upon everything being familiar, we become childlike again, struck by the oddness and newness of what we are seeing. But because our minds are not completely engaged in these activities, because they last only a short while, they are not rewarding in a deep sense. They are not creative.
Masters and those who display a high level of creative energy are simply people who manage to retain a sizeable portion of their childhood spirit despite the pressures and demands of adulthood.
They actively transform everything around them, play with ideas and circumstances, and surprise us with the novel things they say or do.
Masters not only retain the spirit of the Original Mind, but they add to it their years of apprenticeship and an ability to focus deeply on problems or ideas. This leads to high-level creativity. Although they have profound knowledge of a subject, their minds remain open to alternative ways of seeing and approaching problems. They are able to ask the kinds of simple questions that most people pass over, but they have the rigor and discipline to follow their investigations all the way to the end.
Some people maintain their childlike spirit and spontaneity, but their creative energy is dissipated in a thousand directions, and they never have the patience and discipline to endure an extended apprenticeship. Others have the discipline to accumulate vast amounts of knowledge and become experts in their field, but they have no flexibility of spirit, so their ideas never stray beyond the conventional and they never become truly creative. Masters manage to blend the two—discipline and a childlike spirit—together into what we shall call the Dimensional Mind.
To express this creative force is our greatest desire, and the stifling of it the source of our misery. What kills the creative force is not age or a lack of talent, but our own spirit, our own attitude.
In truth, his genius and creativity is eminently explicable, which does not at all diminish his achievements.
The Dimensional Mind has two essential requirements: one, a high level of knowledge about a field or subject; and two, the openness and flexibility to use this knowledge in new and original ways. The knowledge that prepares the ground for creative activity largely comes from a rigorous apprenticeship in which we have mastered all of the basics. Once the mind is freed from having to learn these basics, it can focus on higher, more creative matters.
To awaken the Dimensional Mind and move through the creative process requires three essential steps: first, choosing the proper Creative Task, the kind of activity that will maximize our skills and knowledge; second, loosening and opening up the mind through certain Creative Strategies; and third, creating the optimal mental conditions for a Breakthrough or Insight. Finally, throughout the process we must also be aware of the Emotional Pitfalls—complacency, boredom, grandiosity, and the like—that continually threaten to derail or block our progress.
Step One: The Creative Task
You could have the most brilliant mind, teeming with knowledge and ideas, but if you choose the wrong subject or problem to attack, you can run out of energy and interest.
The task that you choose to work on must have an obsessive element. Like the Life’s Task, it must connect to something deep within you.
With such a deep-rooted interest, you can withstand the setbacks and failures, the days of drudgery, and the hard work that are always a part of any creative action. You can ignore the doubters and critics. your emotional commitment to what you are doing will be translated directly 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. If you are doing something primarily for money and without a real emotional commitment, it will translate into something that lacks a soul and that has no connection to you
If you are excited and obsessive in the hunt, it will show in the details. If your work comes from a place deep within, its authenticity will be communicated.
To aid in this process, it is often wise to choose something that appeals to your sense of unconventionality and calls up latent feelings of rebelliousness. Perhaps what you want to invent or discover is being ignored or ridiculed by others. The work that you envision will stir up controversy and ruffle some feathers. In opting for something that has deep personal appeal to you, you will naturally move in an unorthodox direction.
There are two things to keep in mind: First, the task that you choose must be realistic. The knowledge and skills you have gained must be eminently suited to pulling it off. To reach your goal you may have to learn a few new things, but you must have mastered the basics and possess a solid enough grasp of the field so that your mind can focus on higher matters.
Second, you must let go of your need for comfort and security. Creative endeavors are by their nature uncertain. You may know your task, but you are never exactly sure where your efforts will lead.
Step Two: Creative Strategies
A. CULTIVATE NEGATIVE CAPABILITY
The only solution for an enlightened person is to let the mind absorb itself in what it experiences, without having to form a judgment on what it all means. The mind must be able to feel doubt and uncertainty for as long as possible.
Truly creative people in all fields can temporarily suspend their ego and simply experience what they are seeing, without the need to assert a judgment, for as long as possible. The need for certainty is the greatest disease the mind faces.
To put Negative Capability into practice, you must develop the habit of suspending the need to judge everything that crosses your path. You consider and even momentarily entertain viewpoints opposite to your own, seeing how they feel. You seek out what is unfamiliar—for instance, reading books from unfamiliar writers in unrelated fields or from different schools of thought. You do anything to break up your normal train of thinking and your sense that you already know the truth.
B. ALLOW FOR SERENDIPITY
Your task is to feed this natural inclination, to create the optimal conditions for it to make new and original associations between ideas and experiences. And one of the best ways to accomplish this is by letting go of conscious control and allowing chance to enter into the process.
Many of the most interesting and profound discoveries in science occur when the thinker is not concentrating directly on the problem—moments of unstrained attention, when something unexpected enters the mental sphere and triggers a new and fertile connection. Such chance associations and discoveries are known as serendipity and although by their nature you cannot force them to happen, you can invite serendipity into the creative process by taking two simple steps.
The first step is to widen your search as far as possible. You expand your search into other fields, reading and absorbing any related information. If you have a particular theory or hypothesis about a phenomenon, you examine as many examples and potential counterexamples as humanly possible. The second step is to maintain an openness and looseness of spirit. In moments of great tension and searching, you allow yourself moments of release. You take walks, engage in activities outside your work (Einstein played the violin), or think about something else, no matter how trivial.
For instance, the writer Anthony Burgess, trying to free his mind up from the same stale ideas, decided on several occasions to choose random words in a reference book and use them to guide the plot of a novel, according to the order and associations of the words.
To help yourself to cultivate serendipity, you should keep a notebook with you at all times. 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. In this notebook you record any scrap of thought that occurs to you, and include drawings, quotes from other books, anything at all.
C. ALTERNATE THE MIND THROUGH “THE CURRENT”
We observe something in the world that strikes our attention and makes us wonder what it might mean. In thinking about it, we devise several possible explanations. When we look at the phenomenon again we see it differently as we cycle through the various ideas we had imagined to account for it. Perhaps we conduct experiments to verify or alter our speculations. Now when we look at the phenomenon yet again, weeks or months later, we see more and more aspects of its hidden reality. If we had failed to speculate on the meaning of what we had observed, we simply would have had an observation that led us nowhere.
Instead, you must follow the route of all creative thinkers and go in the opposite direction. You then not only speculate, but are bold and audacious with your ideas, all of which forces you to work hard to confirm or disconfirm your theories, piercing into reality in the process.
Early in his career, Fuller noticed that many people have great ideas, but are afraid to put them into action in any form. They prefer to write about their fantasies but never playing them out in the real world. To set himself apart from these dreamers, he created a strategy of forging what he called “artifacts.” Working off his ideas, which were sometimes quite wild, he would make models of things he imagined, and if they seemed at all feasible, he would proceed to invent prototypes of them. By actually translating his ideas into tangible objects, he could gain a sense of whether they were potentially interesting or merely ridiculous
D. ALTER YOUR PERSPECTIVE
When an event occurs or when we meet a new person, we do not stop to consider all aspects or details, but instead we see an outline or pattern that fits into our expectations and past experiences. We fit the event or person into categories. As with vision, for us to have to think deeply about every new occurrence or perceived object would exhaust the brain. Unfortunately, we transfer this mental shorthand to almost everything—it is the main characteristic of the Conventional Mind.
Creative people are those who have the capacity to resist this shorthand. They can look at a phenomenon from several different angles, noticing something we miss because we only look straight on. Sometimes, after one of their discoveries or inventions is made public, we are surprised at how obvious it seems and wonder why no one else had thought of it before. This is because creative people are actually looking at what is hidden in plain sight, and not rushing to generalize and label.
The following are several of the most common patterns or shorthands, and how you can subvert them.
Looking at the “what” instead of the “how”:
Let us say that something goes wrong in a project of some sort. Our conventional tendency is to look for a single cause or a simple explanation, which then reveals to us how to fix the problem. If the book we are creating is not working out, we focus on the uninspired writing or the misguided concept behind it.
To look at the “how” instead of the “what” means focusing on the structure—how the parts relate to the whole. With the book, it may not be working out because it is organized poorly, the faulty organization a reflection of ideas that have not been thought out. Thinking in this way, we are forced to go more deeply into the parts and how they relate to the overall concept; improving the structure will improve the writing.
In general you want to pay greater attention to the relationships between things, because that will give you a greater feel for the picture as a whole.
Rushing to generalities and ignoring details:
Our minds are always hurrying to generalize about things. We do not pay great attention to the details. To combat this pattern we must sometimes shift our focus from the macro to the micro—placing much greater emphasis on the details, the small picture.
Confirming paradigms and ignoring anomalies:
We routinely look for patterns in the world that confirm the paradigms we already believe in. The anomalies tend to be ignored or explained away. In truth, anomalies themselves contain the richest information. They often reveal to us the flaws in our paradigms and open up new ways of looking at the world.
Fixating on what is present, ignoring what is absent:
In business, the natural tendency is to look at what is already out there in the marketplace and to think of how we can make it better or cheaper. The real trick is to focus our attention on some need that is not currently being met, on what is absent. One interesting way to begin such a thought process is to look at new and available technology in the world and to imagine how it could be applied in a much different way, meeting a need that we sense exists but that is not overly apparent. If the need is too obvious, others will already be working on it.
As you work to free up your mind and give it the power to alter its perspective, remember the following: the emotions we experience at any time have an inordinate influence on how we perceive the world. What you must do then is not only alter your mental perspective, but reverse your emotional one as well.
E. REVERT TO PRIMAL FORMS OF INTELLIGENCE
With the invention of language, the intellectual powers of our ancestors were vastly enhanced. Thinking in words, they could imagine more possibilities in the world around them, which they could then communicate and act on. The human brain thus developed along these evolutionary lines as a multiuse, immensely flexible instrument that is able to think on various levels, combining many forms of intelligence with all of the senses. In the process, we lost our connection to the senses—sight, smell, touch.
Linguists have enumerated the high number of concepts that have no particular word to describe them in the English language. If there are no words for certain concepts, we tend to not think of them. And so language is a tool that is often too tight and constricting, compared to the multilayered powers of intelligence we naturally possess.
If you think too hard, you will come up with something too literal. Let your attention wander, play around the edges of your concept, loosen up your hold on consciousness, and allow images to come to you.
For instance, we hear a particular sound and it makes us think of a color. Studies have indicated that synesthesia is far more prevalent among artists and high-level thinkers. Creative people do not simply think in words, but use all of their senses, their entire bodies in the process.
Step Three: The Creative Breakthrough—Tension and Insight
In the creative lives of almost all Masters, we hear of the following pattern: They begin a project with an initial intuition and an excitement about its potential success. Their project is deeply connected to something personal and primal, and seems very much alive to them.
As the process begins to become more conscious and less intuitive, that idea once so alive in them starts to seem somewhat dead or stale. This is a difficult feeling to endure and so they work even harder, trying to force a solution. The harder they try, the more inner tension and frustration they create. The sense of staleness grows. In the beginning, their mind teemed with rich associations; now it seems condemned to a narrow track of thought that does not spark the same connections.
They have been through this before, and on an unconscious level they understand that they must plow forward, and that the frustration, or the feeling of being blocked, has a purpose.
At a particular high point of tension, they let go for a moment. What almost inevitably happens in such moments is that the solution, the perfect idea for completing the work comes to them.
If we remained as excited as we were in the beginning of our project, maintaining that intuitive feel that sparked it all, we would never be able to take the necessary distance to look at our work objectively and improve upon it. Losing that initial verve causes us to work and rework the idea. It forces us to not settle too early on an easy solution.
The key is to be aware of this process and to encourage yourself to go as far as you can with your doubts, your reworkings, and your strained efforts, knowing the value and purpose of the frustration and creative blocks you are facing.
The feeling that we have endless time to complete our work has an insidious and debilitating effect on our minds. Our lack of intensity makes it hard for the brain to jolt into a higher gear. The connections do not occur. For this purpose you must always try to work with deadlines, whether real or manufactured. If you don’t have such deadlines, manufacture them for yourself.
After we pass through a rigorous apprenticeship and begin to flex our creative muscles, we cannot help but feel satisfaction in what we have learned and how far we have progressed. Slowly, we stop asking the same kinds of questions that plagued us earlier on. We already know the answers. Fight this downhill tendency as much as you can by upholding the value of active wonder. Constantly remind yourself of how little you truly know, and of how mysterious the world remains.
You begin to fall in love with the ideas and strategies that worked for you in the past. Creativity is by its nature an act of boldness and rebellion. You are not accepting the status quo or conventional wisdom. Make creativity rather than comfort your goal and you will ensure far more success for the future.
In the Apprenticeship Phase you relied upon mentors and those above you to supply you with the necessary standards of judgment for your field. But if you are not careful, you will carry this need for approval over into the next phase. Instead of relying on the Master for evaluation of your work, you come to rely on the opinions of the public.
What you want in the end is to internalize the voice of your Master so that you become both teacher and pupil. If you fail to do so you will have no internal gauge as to the value of your work, and you will be blown here and there by the opinions of others, never to find yourself.
This quality continually haunts you, no matter how disciplined you might think you are. You will convince yourself that your work is essentially over and well done, when really it is your impatience speaking and coloring your judgment. The best way to neutralize our natural impatience is to cultivate a kind of pleasure in pain—like an athlete, you come to enjoy rigorous practice, pushing past your limits, and resisting the easy way out.
Praise generally does harm. Without realizing it, we alter and shape our work to attract the praise that we crave. What must ultimately motivate you is the work itself and the process. Public attention is actually a nuisance and a distraction. Such an attitude is the only defense against falling into the traps set by our ego.
Being creative involves certain paradoxes. You must know your field inside and out, and yet be able to question its most entrenched assumptions.
In any event, you must avoid emotional extremes and find a way to feel optimism and doubt at the same time—a difficult sensation to describe in words, but something all Masters have experienced.
We are all in search of feeling more connected to reality—to other people, the times we live in, the natural world, our character, and our own uniqueness. Our culture increasingly tends to separate us from these realities in various ways.
In the end, however, the most satisfying and powerful way to feel this connection is through creative activity. Engaged in the creative process we feel more alive than ever, because we are making something and not merely consuming, Masters of the small reality we create. In doing this work, we are in fact creating ourselves.
Don’t think about why you question, simply don’t stop questioning. Don’t worry about what you can’t answer, and don’t try to explain what you can’t know. Curiosity is its own reason.
As future Masters emerge from their apprenticeships, they all face the same dilemma: no one has ever really instructed them about the creative process, and there are no real books or teachers to turn to.
1. The Authentic Voice
Coltrane was not sure how he could reach such heights, but he knew that Parker practiced the instrument harder than anyone.
This wandering existence suited him well—he felt as if he needed to internalize every conceivable style of music. Coltrane was now like an alchemist, involved in an almost impossible quest to discover the essence of music itself, to make it express more deeply and directly the emotions he was feeling, to connect it to the unconscious. And slowly, it seemed he was getting closer to his goal.
Musicians are expressing something deep about their nature, their particular psychological makeup, even their unconscious.
By spending so long learning structure, developing technique, and absorbing every possible style and way of playing, Coltrane built up a vast vocabulary. Once all of this became hardwired into his nervous system, his mind could focus on higher things. With all that he had learned and mastered, he could combine ideas and styles in unique ways. By being patient and following the process, individual expression flowed out of him naturally. His authentic voice—with its anxious, urgent tone—was a reflection of his uniqueness at birth, and came to him in a lengthy, organic process.
The greatest impediment to creativity is your impatience, the almost inevitable desire to hurry up the process, express something, and make a splash. What happens in such a case is that you do not master the basics; you have no real vocabulary at your disposal. What you mistake for being creative and distinctive is more likely an imitation of other people’s style, or personal rantings that do not really express anything. The best route is to follow Coltrane and to love learning for its own sake.
2. The Fact of Great Yield
This opportunistic bent of the human mind is the source and foundation of our creative powers, and it is in going with this bent of the brain that we maximize these powers.
And yet when it comes to creative endeavors, so often we find people going at them from the wrong end. This generally afflicts those who are young and inexperienced—they begin with an ambitious goal, a business, or an invention or a problem they want to solve. This seems to promise money and attention. They then search for ways to reach that goal. Such a search could go in thousands of directions, each of which could pan out in its own way, but in which they could also easily end up exhausting themselves and never find the key to reaching their overarching goal. There are too many variables that go into success.
Instead of beginning with some broad goal, they go in search of the fact of great yield—a bit of empirical evidence that is strange and does not fit the paradigm, and yet is intriguing. This bit of evidence sticks out and grabs their attention,
Although you are beginning within a particular field that you understand deeply, you must not allow your mind to become tethered to this discipline. Instead you must read journals and books from all different fields. Sometimes you will find an interesting anomaly in an unrelated discipline that may have implications for your own. You must keep your mind completely open—no item is too small or unimportant to escape your attention.
3. Mechanical Intelligence
As Wilbur knew, the key to building anything right is repetition.
Because the designers of the flying machines could not fly for more than a minute, they were locked into a vicious cycle—they were never airborne long enough to learn how to fly and properly test out their designs, or get a feel for what might work. They were doomed to failure.
Instead of beginning with a grandiose device to test out their ideas, they would have to slowly evolve the perfect design, just as they had done with the printing press and the bicycle.
In the year 1900 alone they were able to perform more test flights than Lilienthal had attempted over many years
Their model depended not on superior technology, but on the highest number of test runs, creating an optimal learning curve. This revealed flaws to be worked on and gave them a feel for the product that could never be had in the abstract. The emphasis was not on the parts, but on the overall flying experience; not on power, but on control. Since money was a factor, supreme importance was placed on ingenuity in getting the most out of the least.
The principles behind mechanical intelligence can be summarized as follows: whatever you are creating or designing, you must test and use it yourself. Separating out the work will make you lose touch with its functionality. You gain a feel for what you are creating. In doing this work, you see and feel the flaws in the design. You do not look at the parts separately but at how they interact. What you are trying to create will not magically take off after a few creative bursts of inspiration, but must be slowly evolved through a step-by-step process as you correct the flaws.
4. Natural Powers
Because the creative process is an elusive subject and one for which we receive no training, in our first creative endeavors we are most often left to our own devices, to sink or swim. And in these circumstances we have to evolve something that suits our individual spirit and our profession.
First, it is essential to build into the creative process an initial period that is open-ended. You give yourself time to dream and wander, to start out in a loose and unfocused manner. In this period, you allow the project to associate itself with certain powerful emotions, ones that naturally come out of you as you focus on your ideas.
Second, it is best to have wide knowledge of your field and other fields, giving your brain more possible associations and connections.
Third, to keep this process alive, you must never settle into complacency, as if your initial vision represents the endpoint. You must cultivate profound dissatisfaction with your work and the need to constantly improve your ideas, along with a sense of uncertainty—you are not exactly sure where to go next, and this uncertainty drives the creative urge and keeps it fresh. Any kind of resistance or obstacle that crosses your path should be seen as yet another chance to improve your work.
Finally, you must come to embrace slowness as a virtue in itself. When it comes to creative endeavors, time is always relative. Whether your project takes months or years to complete, you will always experience a sense of impatience and a desire to get to the end. The single greatest action you can take for acquiring creative power is to reverse this natural impatience.
5. The Open Field
She would never have this chance again. With age comes conservatism and the need for comfort.
The work elicited extremes of reaction, a sign of its power.
To avoid this dance turning into yet another convention, she would constantly struggle to upset people’s expectations, never going over old ground, and constantly changing the subject matter of the dances,
The process goes as follows: You begin by looking inward. You have something you want to express that is unique to yourself and related to your inclinations. You must be sure it is not something that is sparked by some trend or fashion, but that it comes from you and is real.
Like Graham, you must not mistake newness with wild spontaneity. There is nothing that becomes repetitive and boring more quickly than free expression that is not rooted in reality and discipline. You must bring to your new idea all of the knowledge you have acquired in your field, but for the purpose of reversing it, as Graham did with the Denishawn method.
6. The High End
In many fields we can see and diagnose the same mental disease, which we shall call technical lock. What this means is the following: in order to learn a subject or skill, particularly one that is complex, we must immerse ourselves in many details, techniques, and procedures that are standard for solving problems. If we are not careful, however, we become locked into seeing every problem in the same way, using the same techniques and strategies that became so imprinted in us.
Your project or the problem you are solving should always be connected to something larger—a bigger question, an overarching idea, an inspiring goal. Whenever your work begins to feel stale, you must return to the larger purpose and goal that impelled you in the first place.
7. The Evolutionary Hijack
Oddly enough, they discovered that what really makes successful entrepreneurs is not the nature of their idea, or the university they went to, but their actual character—their willingness to adapt their idea and take advantage of possibilities they had not first imagined. This is precisely the trait—fluidity of mind—that Graham had identified in himself and in other inventors. The other essential character trait was supreme tenacity.
Creativity actually resembles a process known in nature as evolutionary hijacking. In evolution, accidents and contingencies play an enormous role.
Human creativity generally follows a similar path, perhaps indicating a kind of organic fatality to the creation of anything. Ideas do not come to us out of nowhere. Instead, we come upon something by accident—in the case of Graham, a radio announcement that he hears, or questions from the audience after a lecture. If we are experienced enough and the moment is ripe, this accidental encounter will spark some interesting associations and ideas in us.
The lesson is simple—what constitutes true creativity is the openness and adaptability of our spirit. When we see or experience something we must be able to look at it from several angles, to see other possibilities beyond the obvious ones. We imagine that the objects around us can be used and co-opted for different purposes. We do not hold on to our original idea out of sheer stubbornness, or because our ego is tied up with its rightness.
8. Dimensional Thinking
The moment he began to study the ancient Egyptians, he experienced a vivid identification with everything that had to do with the civilization
For Champollion, it was the opposite. He was fueled by a genuine hunger to understand the origins of mankind, and by a deep love of ancient Egyptian culture. He wanted to get at the truth, not gain fame. Because he saw the translation of the Rosetta stone as his Life’s Task, he was willing to devote twenty or more years to the job, or whatever it took to solve the riddle. He did not attack the problem from the outside and with formulas, but rather went through a rigorous apprenticeship in ancient languages and Coptic.
You are not in a hurry. You prefer the holistic approach. You look at the object of study from as many angles as possible, giving your thoughts added dimensions. You assume that the parts of any whole interact with one another and cannot be completely separated. In your mind, you get as close to the complicated truth and reality of your object of study as possible
9. Alchemical Creativity and the Unconscious
To imagine that something can be intellectual and sensual, pleasurable and painful, real and unreal, good and bad, masculine and feminine is too chaotic and disturbing for us. Life, however, is more fluid and complex; our desires and experiences do not fit neatly into these tidy categories.
Those who think in dualities—believing that there is such a thing as “real” and such a thing as “unreal,” and that they are distinct entities that can never become blended into a third, alchemical element—are creatively limited, and their work can quickly become dead and predictable.
Your task as a creative thinker is to actively explore the unconscious and contradictory parts of your personality, and to examine similar contradictions and tensions in the world at large.
By delving into the chaotic and fluid zone below the level of consciousness where opposites meet, you will be surprised at the exciting and fertile ideas that will come bubbling up to the surface.
Understand: to create a meaningful work of art or to make a discovery or invention requires great discipline, self-control, and emotional stability. It requires mastering the forms of your field. Drugs and madness only destroy such powers. Do not fall for the romantic myths and clichés that abound in culture about creativity—offering us the excuse or panacea that such powers can come cheaply. When you look at the exceptionally creative work of Masters, you must not ignore the years of practice, the endless routines, the hours of doubt, and the tenacious overcoming of obstacles these people endured.
Our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits have long been at work, and it is the task of art to undo this work of theirs, making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to the depths where what has really existed lies unknown within us.
Haunted by the sense that he would not live long, he would have to hurry this process and do all that he could to develop his writing powers. Despite his propensity for being alone, he was incredibly sociable and a real charmer. He knew how to flatter and ingratiate himself.
He had long thought of life as an apprenticeship in which we are all slowly instructed in the ways of the world. Some people learn to read the signs and heed the lessons from this apprenticeship, developing themselves in the process; others do not. He had served an elaborate twenty-year apprenticeship in writing and in human nature, and it had altered him deeply. Despite his ill health and his failures, he had never given up. This must mean something—perhaps a destiny of sorts. All of his failures had a purpose, he decided, if he knew how to exploit them. His time had not been wasted.
In all of these instances, these practitioners of various skills described a sensation of seeing more. They were suddenly able to grasp an entire situation through an image or an idea, or a combination of images and ideas. They experienced this power as intuition, or a fingertip feel.
We prefer things that can be reduced to a formula and described in precise words. But the types of intuitions discussed by various Masters cannot be reduced to a formula, and the steps they took to arrive at them cannot be reconstructed.
This unseen element that constitutes the animal’s entire experience, and that makes battle a fluid, organic entity, can be called various things. To the ancient Chinese, who understood this very well, it was known as the Tao or Way, and this Way inhabits everything in the world and is embedded in the relationships between things. The Way is visible to the expert—in cooking, carpentry, warfare, or philosophy. We shall call it the dynamic, the living force that inevitably operates in anything we study or do.
It is not the moves of the pieces on the chessboard but the entire game, involving the psychologies of the players, their strategies in real time, their past experiences influencing the present, the comfort of the chairs they are sitting in, how their energies affect each other—in a word, everything that comes into play, all at once.
The ability to have this intuitive grasp of the whole and feel this dynamic is simply a function of time. Since it has been shown that the brain is literally altered after approximately 10,000 hours of practice, these powers would be the result of a transformation that happens in the brain after some 20,000 hours and beyond. With this much practice and experience, all kinds of connections have been formed in the brain between different forms of knowledge. Masters thus have a sense of how everything interacts organically, and they can intuit patterns or solutions in an instant.
It would be a misconception, however, to imagine that Masters are simply following their intuitions and moving beyond rational thinking. First, it is through all of their hard work, the depth of their knowledge, and the development of their analytical skills that they reach this higher form of intelligence. Second, when they experience this intuition or insight, they invariably subject it to a high degree of reflection and reasoning. In science, they must spend months or years verifying their intuitions.
The reasoning of Masters is guided by intuition; their intuition springs from intense rational focus. The two are fused.
Although time is the critical factor in attaining Mastery and this intuitive feel, the time we are talking about is not neutral or simply quantitative. It is not a matter of studying a subject for twenty years, and then emerging as a Master. The time that leads to mastery is dependent on the intensity of our focus.
The key, then, to attaining this higher level of intelligence is to make our years of study qualitatively rich. We don’t simply absorb information—we internalize it and make it our own by finding some way to put this knowledge to practical use. We look for connections between the various elements we are learning, hidden laws that we can perceive in the apprenticeship phase. If we experience any failures or setbacks, we do not quickly forget them because they offend our self-esteem.
He was tireless and tenacious. These moments of self-doubt were his way of propelling himself forward and reminding himself of the short amount of time remaining to him. He had a deep awareness of a sense of destiny, of an overall purpose for his strangeness, that he was called to fulfill through his writing.
What made those twenty years qualitatively different from those of an ordinary person was the intensity of his attention. He did not simply read books—he took them apart, rigorously analyzed them, and learned valuable lessons to apply to his own life. He did not merely socialize—he strained to understand people at their core and to uncover their secret motivations. He did not just analyze his own psychology, but went so deeply into the various levels of consciousness he found within himself that he developed insights about the functioning of memory that foreshadowed many discoveries in neuroscience.
Like Proust, you must also maintain a sense of destiny, and feel continuously connected to it. You are unique, and there is a purpose to your uniqueness. You must see every setback, failure, or hardship as a trial along the way, as seeds that are being planted for further cultivation, if you know how to grow them.
Never losing your connection to your Life’s Task, you will unconsciously hit upon the right choices in your life. Over time, mastery will come to you.
If we are half listening to a vocabulary lesson in a foreign language, we are not likely to retain it on any level. But if we are in the country where the language is spoken, we will hear the same words repeated in context; we will tend to pay deeper attention because we need to, and the memory trace will be that much more stable.
This high-level intuition, like any skill, requires practice and experience. At first, our intuitions might be so faint that we do not pay attention to them or trust them. But over time they learn to notice these rapid ideas that come to them. They learn to act on them and verify their validity. Some lead nowhere, but others lead to tremendous insights. Over time, Masters find that they can call up more and more of these high-level intuitions, which are now sparking all over the brain.
What happens to many of us when faced with such complexity is that we feel subtly discouraged before we even try anything. More and more people in this overheated environment will be tempted to opt out. They will develop a greater taste for ease and comfort; they will increasingly settle on simplified ideas of reality and conventional ways of thinking; they will fall prey to seductive formulas that offer quick and easy knowledge.
We must learn how to quiet the anxiety we feel whenever we are confronted with anything that seems complex or chaotic. In our journey from apprenticeship to mastery we must patiently learn the various parts and skills that are required, never looking too far ahead. In moments of perceived crisis, we must develop the habit of maintaining our cool and never overreacting. If the situation is complex and others are reaching for simple black-and-white answers, or for the usual conventional responses, we must make a point of resisting such a temptation.
To go along with this self-control, we must do whatever we can to cultivate a greater memory capacity—one of the most important skills in our technologically oriented environment. The problem that technology presents us is that it increases the amount of information at our disposal, but slowly degrades the power of our memory to retain it.
To counteract this, in our spare time we should not simply look for entertainment and distractions. We should take up hobbies—a game, a musical instrument, a foreign language—that bring pleasure but also offer us the chance to strengthen our memory capacities and the flexibility of our brain. In doing so, we can train ourselves to process large amounts of information without feeling anxious or overtaxed.
What is interesting to note is that many Masters who come to possess this high-level intuitive power seem to become younger in mind and spirit with the passing years—something that should be encouraging to us all. They do not need to expend a great deal of energy in order to understand phenomena, and can think creatively with increasing speed.
The Return to Reality
the mind tends to move away from this interconnectedness and focus instead on the distinctions between things, taking objects out of their contexts and analyzing them as separate entities. At the extreme this tendency leads to highly specialized forms of knowledge. In the world today, we can see many signs of this tendency—the microscopic divisions between fields in our universities, the narrowest of specializations in the sciences. In the culture at large, people will make the finest distinctions between closely related or overlapping subjects, and argue endlessly about the differences.
On the other hand, there is the opposing tendency of the brain to want to make connections between everything. This generally occurs among individuals who pursue knowledge far enough that these associations come to life.
“Keep reminding yourself of the way things are connected, of their relatedness. All things are implicated in one another and in sympathy with each other. This event is the consequence of some other one. Things push and pull on each other, and breathe together, and are one.”
In our apprenticeships, we naturally begin by learning the parts and making various distinctions—the right and wrong way to proceed, the individual skills to master and their particular techniques, the various rules and conventions that govern the group. In the Creative-Active we begin to melt these distinctions as we experiment with, shape, and alter these conventions to suit our purposes. And in mastery we come full circle, returning to a sense of the whole.
When you move toward mastery, your brain becomes radically altered by the years of practice and active experimentation. It is no longer the simple ecosystem of years gone by. The brain of a Master is so richly interconnected that it comes to resemble the physical world, and becomes a vibrant ecosystem in which all forms of thinking associate and connect. This growing similarity between the brain and complex life itself represents the ultimate return to reality.
Mastery is not a function of genius or talent. It is a function of time and intense focus applied to a particular field of knowledge. But there is another element, an X factor that Masters inevitably possess, that seems mystical but that is accessible to us all
And so inevitably, these Masters, as they progress on their career paths, make a choice at a key moment in their lives: they decide to forge their own route, one that others will see as unconventional, but that suits their own spirit and rhythms and leads them closer to discovering the hidden truths of their objects of study. This key choice takes self-confidence and self-awareness—the X factor that is necessary for attaining mastery. The following are examples of this X factor in action and the strategic choices it leads to.
1. Connect to your environment—Primal Powers.
Understand: the ability to connect deeply to your environment is the most primal and in many ways the most powerful form of mastery the brain can bring us. It applies equally well to the waters of Micronesia as it does to any modern field or office. We gain such power by first transforming ourselves into consummate observers. We see everything in our surroundings as a potential sign to interpret. Nothing is taken at face value.
We can immerse ourselves in every aspect of our field, paying deep attention, for example, to the economic factors that play such a large role.
To become such sensitive observers, we must not succumb to all of the distractions afforded by technology; we must be a little primitive. The primary instruments that we depend on must be our eyes for observing and our brains for analyzing.
The information afforded to us through various media is only one small component in our connection to the environment. It is easy to become enamored with the powers that technology affords us, and to see them as the end and not the means. When that happens, we connect to a virtual environment, and the power of our eyes and brain slowly atrophy
2. Play to your strengths—Supreme Focus
This school used a method developed by the Swiss educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi, which emphasized the importance of learning through one’s own observations, leading to the development of ideas and intuitions. Even mathematics and physics were taught in this manner. There were no drills or facts to memorize; instead, the method placed supreme importance on visual forms of intelligence, which Pestalozzi saw as the key to creative thinking.
He would have to blaze his own path, but this could be an advantage. He would not be burdened by the need to fit in or adhere to the standard paradigm.
But free to continue on his own, he worked with unbelievable tenacity at this one problem. Even while apparently on the job at the patent office, he would focus for hours on the theory that was forming in his mind; even when out for a walk with friends, he would continue to ponder his ideas—he had the unusual ability to listen on one track and think on another. He carried with him a little notebook and filled it up with all kinds of ideas.
Although we like to assume that a genius like Albert Einstein had powers far beyond our capabilities, his great discoveries depended on two very simple decisions he made as a young man. First, at the age of twenty he determined that he would be a mediocre experimental scientist. Even though a heavy immersion in mathematics and experimentation was the conventional route in physics, he would go his own way—a daring decision. Second, he would consider his primal distaste for authority and conventions as a great strength. He would attack from the outside and unburden himself of all the assumptions that were torturing scientists in relation to Newton. These two decisions allowed him to play to his strengths.
If he had any qualities that were extraordinary they were his patience mixed with his extreme tenacity. After what can only be considered as well beyond 10,000 hours of contemplation of one problem, he reached a transformation point.
There are many paths to mastery, and if you are persistent you will certainly find one that suits you. But a key component in the process is determining your mental and psychological strengths and working with them. To rise to the level of mastery requires many hours of dedicated focus and practice. You cannot get there if your work brings you no joy and you are constantly struggling to overcome your own weaknesses. You must look deep within and come to an understanding of these particular strengths and weaknesses you possess, being as realistic as possible. Knowing your strengths, you can lean on them with utmost intensity. Once you start in this direction, you will gain momentum. You will not be burdened by conventions, and you will not be slowed down by having to deal with skills that go against your inclinations and strengths. In this way, your creative and intuitive powers will be naturally awakened.
Although it might seem as if luck or blind fate led her there, even as a child she intuited her natural strengths—her love and feel for animals, her visual powers of thinking, her ability to focus on one thing—and leaned on them with all of her energy.
Understand: achieving mastery in life often depends on those first steps that we take. It is not simply a question of knowing deeply our Life’s Task, but also of having a feel for our own ways of thinking and for perspectives that are unique to us. A deep level of empathy for animals or for certain types of people may not seem like a skill or an intellectual strength, but in truth it is. Empathy plays an enormous role in learning and knowledge. A deep level of empathy for animals or for certain types of people may not seem like a skill or an intellectual strength, but in truth it is. Empathy plays an enormous role in learning and knowledge.
The problem is that we humans are deep conformists. Those qualities that separate us are often ridiculed by others, or criticized by teachers. People with a high visual sense are often labeled as dyslexic, for example. Because of these judgments, we might see our strengths as disabilities and try to work around them in order to fit in. But anything that is peculiar to our makeup is precisely what we must pay the deepest attention to and lean on in our rise to mastery.
3. Transform yourself through practice—The Fingertip Feel
The golden boys would ace these maneuvers in no time. For Rodriguez, it would require a lot of repetition and intense focus every time he entered the cockpit. He noticed sometimes that his body would get there ahead of his mind; his nerves and his fingers would intuit a sense of what command of the maneuver should feel like; he would then consciously aim to recreate that feeling.
He could tune everything out and immerse himself completely in the moment. This made every new skill set a little easier to master.
He also noticed a slight gap between himself and the golden boys. They had relied for so long on their natural skills that they had not cultivated the same level of concentration that he now possessed. In many ways, he had surpassed them.
If we are learning a complex skill, such as flying a jet in combat, we must master a series of simple skills, one on top of the other. Each time one skill becomes automatic, the mind is freed up to focus on the higher one. At the very end of this process, when there are no more simple skills to learn, the brain has assimilated an incredible amount of information, all of which has become internalized, part of our nervous system. The whole complex skill is now inside us and at our fingertips.
In our culture we tend to denigrate practice. We want to imagine that great feats occur naturally—that they are a sign of someone’s genius or superior talent. Getting to a high level of achievement through practice seems so banal, so uninspiring. Besides, we don’t want to have to think of the 10,000 to 20,000 hours that go into such mastery. These values of ours are oddly counterproductive—they cloak from us the fact that almost anyone can reach such heights through tenacious effort, something that should encourage us all.
As individuals we must resist such a trend, and venerate the transformative powers we gain through practice.
4. Internalize the details—The Life Force
He simply drew what he saw, and he began to notice that in trying to capture these things on paper, he had to think deeply. He had to focus on the details that the eye would often pass over.
In going so deeply into their details, he had fleeting intimations of what animated these plants from within, what made them distinct and alive. Soon, thinking and drawing became fused in his mind. Through drawing things in the world around him, he came to understand them.
He must have also spent a great deal of time studying the composition of human flesh itself. What this also revealed was the incredible patience of Leonardo, who must have felt a great deal of love for such detailed work.
His mind operated differently. He would find himself beginning with a keen focus on details—the various shapes of noses, the possible turnings of the mouth to indicate a mood, the veins in a hand, the intricate knots of trees. These details fascinated him. He had come to believe that by focusing on and understanding such details he was actually getting closer to the secret of life itself, to the work of the Creator who infused his presence into every living thing and every form of matter.
During the day he would take endless walks through the city and countryside, his eyes taking in all of the details of the visible world. He would make himself notice something new in every familiar object that he saw. At night, before falling asleep, he would review all of these various objects and details, fixing them in his memory.
To other artists, Leonardo seemed insane for all of this attention to detail, but in the few paintings that he actually completed, the results of such rigorous practice can be seen and felt.
It went against his grain in two ways—he hated the feeling of having to hurry with anything, and he loved immersing himself in details for their own sake. He was not interested in creating surface effects. He was animated by a hunger to understand life forms from the inside out and to grasp the force that makes them dynamic, and to somehow express all of this on a flat surface. And so, not fitting in, he went on his own peculiar path, mixing science and art.
To complete his quest, Leonardo had to become what he termed “universal”—for each object he had to be able to render all of its details, and he had to extend this knowledge as far as possible, to as many objects in the world as he could study. Through sheer accumulation of such details, the essence of life itself became visible to him, and his understanding of this life force became visible in his artwork.
In your own work you must follow the Leonardo path. Most people don’t have the patience to absorb their minds in the fine points and minutiae that are intrinsically part of their work. They are in a hurry to create effects and make a splash; they think in large brush strokes.
A character in a novel, for instance, will come to life for the reader if the writer has put great effort into imagining the details of that character. The writer does not need to literally lay out these details; readers will feel it in the work and will intuit the level of research that went into the creation of it.
Seeing your work as something alive, your path to mastery is to study and absorb these details in a universal fashion, to the point at which you feel the life force and can express it effortlessly in your work.
5. Widen your vision—the Global Perspective
As someone who enjoyed practicing and training, the number of hours he spent in the gym as a professional boxer was much higher than that of other fighters. After retirement he stayed around the sport, working as an apprentice trainer for Eddie Futch. By the time he began his own career as a trainer, he had accumulated so many overall hours of work in the sport that he already saw boxing from a perspective that was much wider and deeper than that of other trainers. And so when he felt that there was an even higher level to aim for, this intuition was based on the depth of all those years of practical experience.
In any competitive environment in which there are winners or losers, the person who has the wider, more global perspective will inevitably prevail. The reason is simple: such a person will be able to think beyond the moment and control the overall dynamic through careful strategizing.
Moving toward mastery will naturally bring you a more global outlook, but it is always wise to expedite the process by training yourself early on to continually enlarge your perspective. You can do so by always reminding yourself of the overall purpose of the work you are presently engaged in and how this meshes with your long-term goals. In dealing with any problem, you must train yourself to look at how it inevitably connects to a larger picture. If your work is not having the desired effect, you must look at it from all angles until you find the source of the problem.
“Look wider and think further ahead” must be your motto.
6. Submit to the other—The Inside-out Perspective
Although it was not immediately apparent, this also initiated a change in his learning of the language itself. It started to come more naturally—less from the tireless work of a field researcher and more from within, from simply living inside their culture.
Everett’s theory was the fruit of years and years of deep immersion in their culture. As it came together in his mind, it explained so many things. It could not have been seen or understood in the course of a few months or years observing them from the outside.
studying from the outside, many would say, preserves our objectivity. But what kind of objectivity is it when the researcher’s perspective is tainted by so many assumptions and predigested theories?
Understand: we can never really experience what other people are experiencing. We always remain on the outside looking in, and this is the cause of so many misunderstandings and conflicts. But the primal source of human intelligence comes from the development of mirror neurons (see here), which gives us the ability to place ourselves in the skin of another and imagine their experience.
7. Synthesize all forms of knowledge—The Universal Man/Woman
When he finally left home to study at the university in Leipzig, it was as if he had been set free from prison. All of his pent-up energies, his restlessness, his hunger for women and adventures, were suddenly released and he went wild.
He had the sensation that he possessed a type of inner spirit that he named his daemon. This spirit was an incarnation of all of his intense, restless, demonic energy. It could turn destructive, as it had done in Leipzig. Or he could master it and channel it into something productive. This energy was so powerful that it made him swing from one mood or idea to the opposite—from spirituality to sensuality, from naïveté to craftiness. This daemon, he decided, was a spirit implanted in him at birth and it encompassed his whole being. How he managed this daemon would determine the length of his life and the success of his endeavors.
Second, coming so close to death at such an early age made him feel the presence of death in his bones, and this feeling stayed with him for weeks after recovering. As he returned to life, he was suddenly struck by the strangeness of being alive—of possessing a heart and lungs and brain that functioned beyond his conscious control. He felt that there was a life force that transcended the individual incarnations of life, a force not from God (Goethe would remain a pagan his entire life), but from nature itself.
He could say good-bye to the literary world and bury himself in Weimar. He could pour his energies into political work and into science, taming that damnable inner daemon.
That year initiated one of the strangest and most amazing periods of productivity in the history of the human mind, stretching from his midfifties to his late sixties. The daemon he had repressed for several decades broke loose once more, but now he had the discipline to channel it into all kinds of work. Poems, novels, and plays came pouring out of him. He took up Faust again, writing most of it in this period. His day was an almost insane medley of different studies—writing in the morning, experiments and scientific observations (which were now expanded to chemistry and meteorology) in the afternoon, discussions with friends about aesthetics, science, and politics in the evening. He seemed to be tireless, and to be going through a second youth.
The problem with most people, he felt, is that they build artificial walls around subjects and ideas. The real thinker sees the connections, grasps the essence of the life force operating in every individual instance. Why should any individual stop at poetry, or find art unrelated to science, or narrow his or her intellectual interests? The mind was designed to connect things, like a loom that knits together all of the threads of a fabric
He discussed his belief that a new science of telegraphy would connect the globe, and that people would have access to the latest news by the hour. He called this future “the velocipedic age,” one determined by speed. He was concerned that it could lead to a deadening of the human spirit.
: “The human organs, by means of practice, training, reflection, success or failure, furtherance or resistance…learn to make the necessary connections unconsciously, the acquired and the intuitive working hand-in-hand, so that a unison results which is the world’s wonder”
But Goethe felt something within him that was much stronger than the lure of fame. He did not want to be imprisoned by this one book, devoting his life to literature and creating a sensation. And so he chose his own unique and strange path in life, guided by an inner force that he called his daemon—a spirit of restlessness that impelled him to explore beyond literature, to the core of life itself.
His mastery was not over this subject or that one, but in the connections between them, based on decades of deep observation and thinking. Goethe epitomizes what was known in the Renaissance as the Ideal of the Universal Man—a person so steeped in all forms of knowledge that his mind grows closer to the reality of nature itself and sees secrets that are invisible to most people.
Today some might see a person such as Goethe as a quaint relic of the eighteenth century, and his ideal of unifying knowledge as a Romantic dream, but in fact the opposite is the case, and for one simple reason: the design of the human brain—its inherent need to make connections and associations—gives it a will of its own.
Mastery is not a question of genetics or luck, but of following your natural inclinations and the deep desire that stirs you from within. Everyone has such inclinations. This desire within you is not motivated by egotism or sheer ambition for power, both of which are emotions that get in the way of mastery. It is instead a deep expression of something natural, something that marked you at birth as unique. In following your inclinations and moving toward mastery, you make a great contribution to society, enriching it with discoveries and insights, and making the most of the diversity in nature and among human society.
Alienating yourself from your inclinations can only lead to pain and disappointment in the long run, and a sense that you have wasted something unique.
You cannot ultimately understand why you are drawn to certain activities or forms of knowledge. This cannot really be verbalized or explained. It is simply a fact of nature.
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.’