What Is Mastery? The Ingredients for Excellence

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Mastery" by Robert Greene. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is mastery? What roles do experience, intuition, and practice play when it comes to mastering a discipline?

Robert Greene describes mastery as creative power and excellence that shows you’ve fully grasped your discipline. It involves technical proficiency and social know-how. He believes that you achieve mastery when you bring those skills together with reason, intuition, and experience.

Here’s Greene’s take on what mastery means.

What Is Mastery?

What is mastery, exactly? Robert Greene explains that mastery is the highest level of creative excellence, and it means that you’ve fully grasped your discipline or field. 

Masters are experts who make breakthrough discoveries, innovate new forms of art, or shift the paradigm in their fields. For example, William Shakespeare masterfully shaped English literature through his now-acclaimed playwriting, poetry, and innovative uses of prose and narrative.

(Shortform note: In Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, George Leonard defines mastery as a continual journey, and there’s no end or “perfection” of the skill—rather, the practice is the point in and of itself. This contrasts with Greene, who suggests that there is an end of sorts—a point at which your mastery has reached the highest level.) 

According to Greene, mastery has two components: technical proficiency and social know-how

Component #1: Technical proficiency. Greene says that thoroughly grasping the established skills and knowledge of your field enables you to break new ground. In other words, technical proficiency lets you explore the limits of your field, break conventions, and experiment with new forms, methods, and ideas. Think of how jazz musicians start with established music and then experiment to create unique styles.

(Shortform note: In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin demonstrates the boundary-breaking power of a master. After mastering the art of tai chi, he developed new techniques by recording sparring sessions and studying actions that he and his partner performed from instinct. Waitzkin then systematized these actions, turning them into new techniques in his repertoire—and he went on to become the world champion with those very techniques.)

Component #2: Social know-how. Greene argues that since other people can make or break your career, a “true” master learns how to read, understand, and make use of people. He uses social know-how to gain supporters, defuse conflicts, and navigate to the top of his field. Without this skillset, Greene asserts that you can’t maintain your position long enough to reach mastery.

(Shortform note: In How to Talk to Anyone, Leil Lowndes corroborates Greene’s assertion that social aptitude is crucial to success. To succeed socially, she suggests learning to interact comfortably with anyone. This involves learning common nonverbal signals (such as body language and eye contact), as well as how to create rapport and turn casual interactions into meaningful conversations.)

Achieving Mastery

After spending years developing your creative independence, you’ll eventually achieve mastery. According to Greene, mastery comes about when you merge rational thinking with sophisticated intuition—using your experience and learned skills as well as your openness and intuition to explore novel ideas and thoroughly work them out.

However, Greene argues, Western culture often fails to recognize this powerful combination because it esteems rationality above other forms of thinking and mythologizes high-level intuition:

  • Rational thinking involves laying out the steps you took—showing your work so that others can scrutinize your process and conclusions. We consider this valid thinking because it’s easy to show how you got from A → B and replicate the process.
  • However, high-level creative insights can’t be explained so easily. They depend on complex, nonlinear intuition and lack clear steps from A → B. As a result, people attribute such insights to mystical forces like genius or talent.
Intuition Is Fallible

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman argues that we have two cognitive systems: System 1 represents quick, intuitive judgments, and System 2 represents slow, deliberative reasoning. This model mirrors Greene’s articulation of how masters create—they use both the instinctive snap decisions of System 1 and the meticulous reasoning of System 2. 

However, Kahneman emphasizes that these systems are prone to error. System 1 functions on heuristics—that is, it references known patterns and solutions to help us make judgments, but these often shortcut the full complexity of a situation. If System 2 uncritically accepts System 1’s input, you’re likely to err. Keep this in mind, and try to reason through your ideas when you’ve had plenty of rest—stress makes System 2 more prone to biased thinking. 

In this section, we’ll explain how a master reaches this high-level mental skillfulness, and how it gives him a broader perspective of his field.

Intuition Comes From Experience

Greene explains that high-level intuition is a result of the brain’s ability to develop new instincts. Like other animals, humans used to depend on our instincts to swiftly and effectively navigate the world. As we evolved, we began to use reason and abstract thinking to learn more about our environments. 

Unlike instinct, knowledge gained through reasoning is at first slow and ineffective—you’ll make mistakes when, for instance, you learn to shoot a bow or track deer. However, learned skills gain the speed and accuracy of instincts with enough experience. When you study a field or skill for a long time, you develop an intuitive feel for it—gaining “instincts” for math, art, or writing. With that intuition, you can make quick, accurate judgments and freely explore the environment in which you think, work, and create. 

(Shortform note: In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin explains that once you’ve practiced a skill for long enough, it becomes second nature. He calls this “form to leave form”: Start with a single element of your skill, such as dribbling a soccer ball. Practice it in isolation—doing that and nothing else. Start slowly and develop good form, then repeat it slowly until you can execute the skill with ease. Gradually speed it up, and you’ll master that element of the skill. Then, you can combine it with others.)

Reason Can Validate Intuitions

While her insights come from this well-developed intuition, the master also uses reason to work them out. Greene writes that coming to the insight is the first step—validating it is the second.

  • In the sciences, a master would use tests and other methods to gather evidence, investigate her hunches, and develop a valid explanation of what she first understood intuitively.
  • In the arts, a master would take his insight and see if it’ll work in reality. Until he works that out, it’ll remain an idea. For example, a musician might hear beautiful music in his head, but then he needs to figure out how to play it.
Testing Is the Key to Validating Ideas

Greene stops short of explaining specifically how to use reason to validate your ideas, but in Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed offers a few techniques. In his view, the key is to thoroughly test your ideas with reliable methods that give you objective feedback:

In the sciences: A randomized control trial (RCT) is the gold standard for testing a hypothesis. An RCT isolates the effect of an experimental variable by comparing it with a control group—for instance, you’d give coffee to one group and a coffee-like placebo to a second group, not telling them which is which. The difference between the groups’ results tells you what the coffee did.

In creative fields such as art or entrepreneurship: Creators can test their ideas by releasing a minimum viable product (MVP) to the public. An MVP is a cost-effective, bare-bones prototype of your idea that’s meant to demonstrate its potential. Use an MVP to gather feedback, and you’ll know whether to scrap or improve your ideas.

Masters See the “Flow” of Their Fields

Greene argues that with high-level intuition and reason, a master grasps her field as a whole, and she becomes attuned to its “dynamic.” In other words, she sees how the parts fit together and flow as one whole, and she intuitively senses the dynamic, evolving form of it all. 

The master develops this sense by spending long years working hard at her craft. She studies and absorbs all aspects of the field—the leading mental models and paradigms of thought, the procedures and techniques, the social and power dynamics, as well as the history and present state of things.

Imagine a seasoned copywriter who’s been at it for two decades. She knows it all—she’s mastered the fundamentals, plus all the nuances and subtleties of writing good copy. She understands human psychology and the various roles and styles of copywriting. She knows where the field has been, she can see where things are going, and she understands how she fits into the overall business landscape. Altogether, she’s tuned in to the dynamic, evolving state of the field—that is, she sees the forest and the trees, and she navigates them with ease.

Greene argues that as your brain comes to encompass more and more of the patterns and parts that make up your field, your inner landscape of mental models comes to reflect the full complexity of reality. In his view, this means you’re attuned to the “essence” of reality, and you see it more truly than a non-master would. 

Ericsson’s “Mental Representations” and Greene’s “Dynamic”

In Peak, K. Anders Ericsson discusses an experiment in which professional and amateur soccer players were asked to predict how a soccer match would develop. They were shown video footage of the match and, when it was paused and hidden, the experimenters asked each player to recount the positions of the players and describe what would most likely happen next. 

As expected, the experienced players could make reasonably accurate predictions, while the amateur players were less accurate. Much like Greene describes, the professionals could read the field like a book, tuning into the dynamic, flowing patterns of play. Ericsson attributes this ability to the professionals’ super “mental representations”—in short, they had internalized thorough knowledge of the principles and patterns of soccer, so they could mentally model the flow of play far more accurately than less experienced players, who lacked these mental models. 

Mastery Is a Lifelong Journey

Attaining mastery is a lifelong process of growth and discovery. Throughout life, the master continually expands her horizons by challenging her set habits and assumptions, and she always pursues what makes her feel most alive.

(Shortform note: In Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, George Leonard agrees, and he emphasizes that the point is the process itself. Leonard explains that much of mastery comes from learning to love the inevitable plateaus. Progress comes in short spurts, but you’ll spend most of the time working hard with little evidence of improvement. As Leonard says, embracing these moments is the essence of mastery—fulfillment is the intrinsic pleasure of practicing your chosen craft, rather than the temporary, extrinsic rewards it may yield.)

Greene explains that time and effort inevitably yield mastery—he asserts that it takes around 20,000 hours. In other words, you’ll get there guaranteed if you put in the hours. (Shortform note: Greene doesn’t provide any research to support this number. In contrast, it simply doubles Malcolm Gladwell’s popular “10,000-hour rule,” which he explains in Outliers.)

However, the time you spend developing mastery must be intense and committed. You can’t just go through the motions, because half-hearted practice yields half-hearted results. Show up with vigor and verve, putting everything you’ve got into your work and taking every opportunity to learn, and you’ll reap far fuller rewards. 

(Shortform note: In Peak, K. Anders Ericsson further explains that how you practice makes all the difference—it must be purposeful and deliberate. Like Greene, he stresses the importance of intense focus. He also advises setting clear, specific goals, getting immediate feedback, and stretching your comfort zone in a continual effort to improve.) 

In the end, masters actually become “spiritually” younger by living in accord with their creative drive. Such a master has developed his potential and his brain so thoroughly that, as Greene puts it, he comes into contact with reality. In other words, he understands the full complexity of life, growth, and what it takes to master a field, craft, or discipline.

(Shortform note: In Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, George Leonard explains that part of the master’s youthfulness comes from allowing himself to act the fool—not to be stupid, but to allow and embrace his childlike sense of wonder and “foolish” naivete. Thus, the master is free to make mistakes, explore and experiment with what fascinates him and, over time, remain in contact with that sense of wonder that brings joy and fulfillment to life.)

What Is Mastery? The Ingredients for Excellence

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  • The clear path anyone can follow to achieve mastery
  • An explanation of the three stages of mastery
  • How learned conventions and familiar ways of thinking reduce creativity

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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