The Good Life: Lessons from Robert Greene’s Mastery

mastery-by-robert-greeneTl;dr: download the Good Life guide, a 4-page PDF drawing life lessons from Robert Greene’s Mastery.

This is my 4th Good Life guide. Here are the other 3:

  • Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life [link]
  • Ben Franklin’s 13 Virtues [link]
  • Greg Epstein’s Good Without God [link]

I chose Greene’s Mastery because I feel like a “jack of all trades but master of none”. This book crystallizes why highly successful people are masters at a specific (and often narrow) discipline, and the steps they took to get there. In addition, it comes highly recommended by Tim Ferriss and I’m a fan of Greene’s 48 Laws of Power.

The Good Life guides are “CliffsNotes for personal growth”. Less comprehensive summary, more focus on how a book’s stories, themes, and facts can help us live a Good Life: one of personal fulfillment, long-term purpose, and value to society (usually all intimately-related anyway :).

It’s a 4-page PDF, free to download and share. You can also view it in Google Docs.

I’ve included below some of my favorite highlights from Mastery. This is my 4th Good Life guide – I’d love to hear how I can make them more useful for you!

If you’d like to buy the original, here’s my Amazon affiliate link.


  • Learn from existing Masters through apprenticeships

    Before it is too late you must learn the lessons and follow the path established by the greatest Masters, past and present

    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

  • There are 3 steps to the Apprenticeship:
    • Step 1: Deep Observation (observe and notice everything, especially the details)
    • Step 2: Skills Acquisition (learn to do what they do extremely well)
    • Step 3: Experimentation (learn to make those skills your own, and go beyond them!)
  • Feedback, feedback, feedback. Learn to love criticism
  • 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

    Sometimes greater danger comes from success and praise than from criticism. If we learn to handle criticism well, it can strengthen us and help us become aware of flaws in our work. Praise generally does harm. Ever so slowly, the emphasis shifts from the joy of the creative process to the love of attention and to our ever-inflating ego.


At these times, other people seem less resistant to our influence; perhaps we are more attentive to them, or we appear to have a special power that inspires their respect.

Masters return to this childlike state, their works displaying degrees of spontaneity and access to the unconscious, but at a much higher level than the child.

As a classic example, compare the lives of Sir Francis Galton and his older cousin, Charles Darwin. By all accounts, Galton was a super-genius with an exceptionally high IQ, quite a bit higher than Darwin’s (these are estimates done by experts years after the invention of the measurement). Galton was a boy wonder who went on to have an illustrious scientific career, but he never quite mastered any of the fields he went into. He was notoriously restless, as is often the case with child prodigies. Darwin, by contrast, is rightly celebrated as the superior scientist, one of the few who has forever changed our view of life.

“Why bother working for years to attain mastery when we can have so much power with very little effort? Technology will solve everything.”

What we lack most in the modern world is a sense of a larger purpose to our lives. In the past, it was organized religion that often supplied this. But most of us now live in a secularized world. We human animals are unique—we must build our own world. We do not simply react to events out of biological scripting. But without a sense of direction provided to us, we tend to flounder. We don’t how to fill up and structure our time.

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

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.

You must adopt such a spirit and see your apprenticeship as a kind of journey in which you will transform yourself, rather than as a drab indoctrination into the work

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

You will know when your apprenticeship is over by the feeling that you have nothing left to learn in this environment. It is time to declare your independence or move to another place to continue your apprenticeship and expand your skill

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.

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 become your own worst critic; you see your work as if through the eyes of others. You recognize your weaknesses, precisely the elements you are not good at.

We live in the world of a sad separation that began some five hundred years ago when art and science split apart.

We must constantly ask the questions—how do things work, how do decisions get made, how does the group interact?

What makes the mentor-protégé dynamic so intense and so productive is the emotional quality of the relationship. By nature, mentors feel emotionally invested in your education. This can be for several reasons: perhaps they like you, or see in you a younger version of themselves, and can relive their own youth through you; perhaps they recognize in you a special talent that will give them pleasure to cultivate; perhaps you have something important to offer them, mostly your youthful energy and willingness to work hard.

You will want as much personal interaction with the mentor as possible. A virtual relationship is never enough.

People often err in this process when they choose someone who seems the most knowledgeable, has a charming personality, or has the most stature in the field—all superficial reasons.

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. Roach kept waiting for the inevitable dynamic in which the fighter would begin to tune him out, but this never came. This was a boxer he could work harder and harder. Soon, Pacquiao had developed a devastating right hand, and his footwork could match the speed of his hands.

By moving past our usual self-absorption, we can learn to focus deeply on others, reading their behavior in the moment, seeing what motivates them, and discerning any possible manipulative tendencies. Navigating smoothly the social environment, we have more time and energy to focus on learning and acquiring skills.

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. —ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER

Often it is the quiet ones, those who give out less at first glance, who hide greater depths, and who secretly wield greater power.

It is always wise to occasionally reveal your own insecurities, which will humanize you in other people’s eyes.

It is not generally acknowledged or discussed, but the personality we project to the world plays a substantial role in our success and in our ascension to mastery.

This ability to endure and even embrace mysteries and uncertainties is what Keats called negative capability.

Many of the most interesting and profound discoveries in science occur when the thinker is not concentrating directly on the problem but is about to drift off to sleep, or get on a bus, or hears a joke

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.

The hand-brain connection is something deeply wired within us; when we attempt to sketch something we must observe it closely, gaining a feel through our fingers of how to bring it to life. Such practice can help you think in visual terms and free your mind from its constant verbalizations. To Leonardo da Vinci, drawing and thinking were synonymous.

The more experienced, wiser types, such as Ramachandran, are opportunists. 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.

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.

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.

Empathy plays an enormous role in learning and knowledge.

One time he learned a new word that a Pirahã explained to him meant “what is in your head when you sleep.” The word then means to dream. But the word was used with a special intonation that Pirahã use when they are referring to a new experience. Questioning further, he saw that to them dreaming is simply a different form of experience, not at all a fiction. A dream is as real and immediate to them as anything they encounter in waking life.

…for more, download the free PDF or view it in Google Docs!

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.