Remember when you started driving and everything felt like it was happening so fast? Remember that first time you got on the highway and went 100 km an hour? It felt like so much was going on at once. You tried to watch the speed of the car and make sure that you didn’t run into any of the other cars changing lanes.

Plus you had an exit to make.

When you started driving you were an apprentice. You were barely grasping the fundamentals of driving. Now with years of experience, you can comfortably carry on a conversation and safely navigate the roads.

Our careers have a similar progression. I remember one of my first months programming. I was sitting in tears in front of my monitor because I had spent hours trying to solve a problem. Despite those hours I still wasn’t sure what questions I should be asking to get to the answer.

Now, 10 years in, my Google-fu is strong and I can usually narrow down the answer I need in a few hours max.

This progression from apprentice to master is what Mastery by Robert Greene is going to address.

Consider Mastery as an invaluable tool in guiding you through this transformative process. The book is designed to lead you from the lowest levels to the highest.

According to Greene there are three phases in the move from apprenticeship to mastery.

1. Apprenticeship

…we stand on the outside of our field, learning as much as we can about the basic elements and rules.

Here is where we all start. We don’t know what we don’t know yet. We’re questing to get enough knowledge to start to explore the topic well.

Greene spends most of the time in the book here using chapters 2, 3, and 4 to deal with what apprenticeship means.

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2. Creative Active

…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.

This second stage is where we start to stretch our wings a bit. We have enough knowledge to work in our field well and not follow the rules that others put in place.

The crucial part of the Creative Active phase is that we need to put our ideas and work out in the world so that others can see them. We need to test our ideas against the world and reality to see if they are correct.

Greene uses Chapter 5 to cover the Creative Active phase of our push towards mastery.

3. Mastery

…our degree of knowledge, experience, and focus is so deep that we can now see the whole picture with complete clarity.

This is where we all want to get one day. We want to put in our 10,000 hours and become masters. Master writers. Master programmers. Master business owners.

Here we know our chosen field so well that we can ignore the rules of others. We can break them knowing that we’re breaking them and we’ll have a reason why we’re breaking them.

Greene devotes Chapter 6 to exploring what mastery looks like.

If all of us are born with an essentially similar brain, with more or less the same configuration and potential for mastery, why is it then that in history only a limited number of people seem to excel and realize this potential power.

Before Apprenticeship

Before we look at apprenticeship though, we need to make sure that we’re pointing our life in the right direction. Simon Sinek calls this your WHY. Jeff Goins calls it your Purpose and in Mastery, Greene calls it your Life’s Task.

Chapter 1 helps you find that Life’s Task. This means that you can work on your apprenticeship knowing that you’re heading in the right direction.

This feels like much of the ‘find your passion’ writing out there and I’m not sure I agree with that argument. In an upcoming post we’ll look at Greene’s ideas against Cal Newport’s ideas (in So Good They Can’t Ignore You) around passion in your career. In short, it may not be passion that wins the argument.

Nor do I think that Greene does the best job with helping you find your ‘passion’. Jeff Goins does a better job in The Art of Work (my review) at helping you find your calling.

Putting that aside for now, according to Greene there are three stages to recognizing your Life’s Task.

First you most connect or reconnect with your inclinations, that sense of uniqueness.

Here is specifically where Goins does a better job of giving you tools to explore your past to find what you were always drawn towards.

Second, with this connection established, you must look at the career path you are already on or are about to begin.

In the second stage of recognizing your Life’s Task you must ask yourself if the current career trajectory you’re on does in fact match up with what you were always meant to do.

Finally, you must see your career or vocational path more as a journey with twists and turns rather than a straight line.

Here Newport and Greene match up in their ideas. Both of them say that despite our wish, and what many blogs or Hollywood may say, the path to a fulfilling career and Mastery is not some arrow-straight line. You will not read any book and then see your whole path laid out before you. With that vision of the future you will not walk the straight path to success.

Now that we are familiar with Greene’s three phases of recognizing your Life’s Task we can move on to his five strategies you can try and use to find out what your Life’s Task is.

1. Return to your origin story.

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.

This is the stuff that you ‘got’ as a kid. Maybe you always wrote or loved to draw. Look to those things to see what your Life’s Task may be.

2. Occupy the perfect niche (the Darwinian strategy).

In Greene’s second strategy you keep pursuing work that you’re best at and only you can do. By continual refinement of what you do, you become the only player in the field and find that thing that brings you immense joy.

Keep specializing.

3. Avoid the false path (the rebellion strategy).

A false path in life is generally something we are attracted to for the wrong reasons — money, fame, attention, and so on.

Parents are awesome, and not so awesome. They can be the pushers of a false path, like wanting their children to become doctors when the kids really want to be artists or social workers. Sure, doctors can make a bunch of money, but that may not be a job that’s not lined up with a child’s Life’s Task.

In this strategy we make sure we make decisions for the right reasons. Not to chase money, attention or fame and by avoiding those traps we are honing in on our Life’s Task.

4. Let go of the past (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.

If your job doesn’t seem to match up with what you are called to do, then what about your job is awesome? Maybe you hate programming, but you love helping clients speak to their customers and you happen to write code as well.

Then it’s possibly time to pursue less code and more marketing focus with your job as you head towards your Life’s Task.

5. Finding your way back (the life-or-death strategy).

No good can ever come from deviating from the path that you were destined to follow. You will be assailed by varieties of hidden pain. Most often you deviate because of the lure of money, of more immediate prosperity.

This last one is a position I don’t wish on anyone. Here you’re looking at that fridge box as a viable home because you can’t afford what you’ve got now. You’re dead emotionally and physically.

Something has to change because you’re at rock bottom. In many ways this gives us the courage to pursue some wild idea, but it’s so hard on us and those around us.

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 it later in life.

With the topic of finding our Life’s Task out of the way, Greene can now dive into the core of the book. How do we move from being an Apprentice to a Master in our field?

Apprenticeship phase

Apprenticeship is the starting point of anything. You start running and you don’t even know what you don’t know yet. What’s a 0 drop shoe or what does it mean if you have a 12 mm drop shoe?

It’s the phase where most people finish as well. It’s a lot of work to be an apprentice. You have to follow all the rules. You have little freedom as the bottom person on the totem pole. It’s unlikely your ideas are going to carry any weight. You get all the grunt work.

Too many people believe that everything must be pleasurable in life, which makes them constantly search for distractions and short-circuits the learning process. The pain is a kind of challenge your mind presents – will you learn how to focus and move past the boredom, or like a child will you succumb to the need for immediate pleasure and distraction?

If you want to master a field, then you need to put in the work and start working through being that apprentice.

Greene sees that there are three steps of apprenticeship — Deep Observation, Skills Acquisition, and Experimentation. To successfully complete an apprenticeship and get to move on to the next level, you must spend time in each of these steps.

1. Deep Observation (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.

To me this idea sounds counter-intuitive. We want to live that Hollywood story of starting something and on day one, with a single insight, we rocket from the bottom to the top of our field. We find some hidden talent that we have and we become the genius everyone seeks.

Nope that’s not where we start, it’s all Hollywood fooling us.

You are not there to change that culture; you will only end up being killed, or in the case of work, fired.

When you’re getting started, put your head down and learn all those questions you don’t even know you should ask. Put your ego to the side and realize you know nothing. Put the time in to learn about your field.

If you want to read more about how ego can hurt you read Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday (my review)

2. Skills acquisition (practice mode)

The second step you must take in mastering a subject is to acquire the actual skill. You don’t become a better runner by reading about running. You get faster by putting in the hard work on the trail or the road.

You get out there and do the work.

That means for many of the digital ‘natives’ out there, you need to get out from behind your safe monitor. Less consuming information and more doing some work that others will see.

According to Greene, the place to start is with one skill you can master. Don’t go hog wild on 10 things and sort of learn them all, dive into one thing and fully grasp it.

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.

How many give up before you even get to that one skill which is mastered? The frustration of the mundane tasks you must perform to master a task is at odds with the brilliance you’ve built up for yourself in your head.

Second, the initial stages of learning a skill invariably involve tedium. Yet rather than avoiding this inevitable tedium, you must accept and embrace it.

You don’t get that instant success and you feel you’re better than those mundane tasks.

You’re not and I’m not. We have to do the damn work if we want to gain mastery.

[Tweet “We have to do the damn work if we want to gain mastery.”]

That means doing the work in a focused way. Not flitting around between a bunch of stuff, but putting total focus on the task we’re trying to master.

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.

Cal Newport wrote a whole book about focus and how by being focused we can accomplish so much more than those around us in less time. You can do this because you don’t let yourself get distracted, you do the Deep Work (my review) that you need to do.

3. Experimentation (active mode)

Finally there is the experimentation mode in your apprenticeship. This is where you show your work to others and invite critique.

You are observing yourself in action and seeing how you respond to the judgments of others. Can you take criticism and use it constructively?

The problem with critique for so many is that with the impossible perfection they’ve built in their heads, any critique is a personal attack.

We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion of our perfection. Embrace the quest to get better with our work via the feedback. Especially the sometimes harsh feedback, of others. It is only through this feedback that we can find our weaknesses and refine the skills we’re trying to master.

After covering his three steps Greene spends the rest of the time he devotes to apprenticeship trying to get us to invest in the process. To get us to do the hard work, especially when it gets really hard and frustrating.

What separates masters from others is often something surprisingly simple. Whenever we learn a skill, we frequently reach a point of frustration – what we are learning seems beyond our capabilities. Giving into these feelings, we unconsciously quit on ourselves before we actually give up.

He tell us that masters dig in again and again and when things get really hard, they dig in more.

He encourages us not to become lopsided in our practice. Don’t drift towards those aspects of our work that come the easiest and thus mastered with ease.

By nature, we humans shrink from anything that seems possibly painful or overtly difficult. We bring this natural tendency to our practice of any skill. 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.

He encourages us not to take the easy way, but to invest fully in the apprenticeship phase of our career. This despite the fact that we don’t want to hear it’s going to take years before we master a field.

There are no shortcuts or ways to bypass the apprenticeship phase. It is the nature of the human brain to require such lengthy exposure to a field, which allows for complex skill to become deeply embedded and frees the mind up for real creative activity. The very desire to find shortcuts makes you eminently unsuited for any kind of mastery

As you work to master anything, take pride in doing the hard work. Don’t let yourself jump out of the apprenticeship phase just as things get hard because you’ll never become a master that way. You’ll be an apprentice at 20 things and master of none.

Developing discipline through challenging situations and perhaps suffering along the way are no longer values that are promoted in our culture.

True masters push themselves through the hard work. They relish the pain that comes with it. They wrestle with their ideas for decades as the come to terms with their field.

Now with the bulk of the book out of the way Greene can turn his attention to the second phase in Mastery, The Creative-Active Phase.

Awaken your Dimensional Mind: The Creative-Active

As you move out of the apprenticeship phase of your work you are starting to have real benefit to offer. Now the biggest setback for most is that they got beat down during their apprenticeship. Because of this beating they stick to the standard practices of their work.

Feeling anxious and insecure, you will tend to turn conservative with your knowledge, preferring to fit into the group and sticking to the procedures you have learned.

This is exactly the opposite of what is required of you in the Creative-Active phase of your journey. Here you must continue to dive in and keep learning, but feel free to put your own twist on it.

Another pitfall you can encounter on your journey towards Mastery, is that you think you’ve mastered your field and thus start putting in less effort.

If you go at your work with half a heart, it will show in the lacklustre 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. You may not see this, but you can be sure that the public will feel it and that they will receive your work in the same lacklustre spirit that it was created in.

As you see above Greene alludes to your Life’s Task again in the Creative-Active phase of your journey. He contends that without this Life’s Task in clear focus you will fall into this laggard trap. You won’t produce the quality work you seek to produce.

Instead of this life sucking blandness to our actions, we need to stick to the creativity that first interested us in our field.

Creativity by its very nature is an act of boldness and rebellion. You are not accepting the status quo or conventional wisdom. You are playing with the very rules you have learned, experimenting and testing the boundaries.

We need to be bold. Put our ideas out there in the world and have them tested. We need to ignore comfort and complacency and forge forward towards mastering our field.

Understand: the greatest impediment to creativity is your impotence, 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.


This is where we long to be. Coming to our work with effortlessness so that we can turn our real brain power towards the harder questions.

We want to make intuitive leaps that leave others astonished. We want to pull ideas from various fields together to the amazement of those around us.

The hard part is that it takes decades to get here. Decades of hard work, of training our brain. Decades of mundane work that puts off most of those that try.

But since we found our Life’s Task and that purpose is tied up in our work we pushed through. We became the Masters we wanted to be.

Through intense absorption in a particular field over a long period of time, Masters come to understand all of the parts involved in what they are studying.

One clear idea threaded throughout Mastery is that of focus. Cal Newport would call it Deep Work (my review) though Greene doesn’t name it any further than to say that the Master uses intense focus. Greene sees a problem with accomplishing that focus today though. A problem which is preventing those amongst us that crave mastery, from accomplishing it.

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. Tasks that used to exercise the brain – remembering phone numbers, doing simple calculations, navigating and remembering streets in a city – are now performed for us, and like any muscle the brain can grow flabby from disuse.

If you want to be a master, you need to be careful with how you leverage those digital tools at your fingertips. If you want to develop the focus it’s going to take to truly master your field, you’ll need to close down social media and other distractions. You’ll need to clear out your calendar so you have the time to focus on what’s important to you.

So my final question to you is…are you ready to put in the hard work it’s going to take to get to mastery? Are you going to deal with the less-than-fun work that needs to get done when you’re an apprentice?

Are you going to put your work out there as you’re in the middle Creative-Active phase? Are you willing to have your work judged and critiqued by those around you?

In the final phase, are you willing to only use tools that provide true benefit. Will you have the will power to not jump on whatever is most popular currently?

If you can do those things, then maybe you can be come the master you want to be.


Greene started his book by saying:

Consider Mastery as an invaluable tool in guiding you through this transformative process. The book is designed to lead you from the lowest levels to the highest.

That begs the question, did Robert Greene teach us how to move from being an Apprentice to a Master when he wrote Mastery?

While the pinnacle of your field may still feel elusive after reading Mastery, I’m not sure it could be any other way. Greene does give readers lots of direction as they forge their way towards becoming the Masters they aspire to be.

Yes, I do recommend that you read Mastery. Add it to your toolkit of career success.

Get Mastery on Amazon

photo credit: pasukaru76 cc

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