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Robert Greene’s 3 Levels of Mastery, Part 1: Newbie to Pro

Let’s look deeply at the three levels of mastery proposed by Robert Greene, who analysed many great people in a slew of fields and their journey towards extreme creativity and breakthrough discoveries. He found they all underwent a three-step process to reach mastery, one that is simple and reproducible.

If you want to reach world-class levels in your field or pursuit and be the one to change its trajectory, knowing about Robert Greene’s three levels of mastery will be crucial for your success.

Huge thanks to Robert Greene for his wonderful insights, and do read his book Mastery for in-depth knowledge of this process.

So that we’re on the same page, let’s sum up how Robert Greene views mastery and his three levels of mastery.

Quick Summary of the Levels of Mastery

Mastery is a combination of expert performance and high-level creativity, in which we feel greater control over ourselves and our environment. We have interiorised our discipline so much that it’s completely reflexive to us. This enables us to focus on creating unique work and making discoveries.

Mastery is the source of the greatest achievements in history. Though those who excel in their field experience this state continually, we all have glimpses of it, and with dedicated effort can regularly access it.

Robert Greene stresses that at the core of the path to mastery is an innate, genetic quality. This isn’t talent, but a deep, firm inclination for certain aspects of life. We all have innate preferences for activities or topics of study. They seem to come from nowhere and are part of our uniqueness, and we ought to follow these inclinations if we want to do incredible work. It’s precisely in those areas that we’ll excel and be able to reach mastery.

And while there exist countless false ideas and misconceptions about mastery, the path to it is simple. There are three levels of mastery in this process as Robert Greene presents it: learning of the trade, the creative–active phase, and mastery.

Robert Greene’s Levels of Mastery: Phase 1 Overview

The first phase of mastery is where we learn the trade. We’re out of our comfort zone, learning all we can about the basic rules and elements. We’ve all experienced this in new hobbies and jobs. When we start, we’re strangers to it and are incompetent. We have a partial image of the pursuit, and our ideas are based on fears and skewed judgements. To overcome this state of vunerability, we have to spend time acquiring the core skills.

Levels of Mastery: Phase 2 Overview

If we persist in our observation and imitation of others, we come to learn the rules and the connections between the parts, getting into the machinery of our craft. We acquire fluency, can get creative, take on greater challenges, and see things that were totally invisible to us before. We trust in our ability to solve problems and to succeed through further persistence.

If we take this far enough, we go from being students to professionals. We use our knowledge creatively, put our ideas to the test, and receive feedback from clients and colleagues. We begin to find our own style and express our individuality.

Robert Greene’s Levels of Mastery: Phase 3 Overview

In the third phase, our level of knowledge, experience and concentration is so deep that we see the entire field with supreme clarity. We have access to the heart of life: human nature and natural phenomena. Undiscovered gems of truth come to us from nowhere. Most remarkably, our knowledge now helps us penetrate the nature of life and reality itself. This is why great work touches us: it points to deep truths and connects us with our humanness.

We’ve interiorised the skill until it’s part of our nervous system, meaning we can take quick and highly creative decisions. We’ve learned the rules so well that we can rewrite them.

We also develop high-level intuition. This goes far beyond logical processes – it’s a mixture of the instinctive and the rational, the conscious and unconscious, the human and the animal. Robert Greene reiterates that masters return to a childlike state of spontaneity while drawing on years of practice and experience.

Those are the levels of mastery Robert Greene proposes – simple, right? But if it’s so simple, why do so few of us reach this state? Let’s begin to answer this question.

Barriers to Mastery and the Modern World

One reason is that over the centuries we’ve erected barriers around mastery. We’ve called it genius and considered it a result of privilege, innate talent or the correct alignment of the stars. But these barriers are imaginary and destroy our chances of reaching it.

Know that your levels of desire, patience, persistence and certainty play a much greater role than your mental faculties. Robert Greene insists on this throughout his work. If we feel envigorated and motivated, we can overcome almost anything. When we develop these qualities, we’re able to put up with self-doubt, setbacks and long hours of study and practice.

Another problem is the belief that learning and skill building is an exotic relic from the past. More and more we feel that machines should do the work. Technology lets us do any number of things without us needing to practice, repeat and interiorise. Under this view, the craftsman model is obsolete, and it’s not necessary to spend long hours learning things.

Be careful this view doesn’t infect you. Mastery is a transformative process. As we teach ourselves to do new things and break previous limits, we change – down to the neurological and physical level. Besides, reliance on technology makes us meek and lazy, dumbs us down, and prevents us from developing serious skills.

According to Robert Greene, there will be a great divide between those who have learned to manage modern complexities and those who haven’t, between those who can acquire skills and discipline their mind and those who endlessly distract themselves with technology and can’t concentrate. Put simply, those who become masters will leave behind those who disteem the process of mastery.

It’s time to look closely at the levels of mastery.

Levels of Mastery #1: The Apprenticeship, Learning The Trade

The journey to mastery begins when we first change profession or begin acquiring new skills. This period usually lasts five to ten years, and Robert Greene calls this the Apprenticeship phase. Though the surface details change from field to field, this phase has universal characteristics. On the way we master the necessary skills, discipline our mind and develop our own opinions.

When you start a profession, your mind is full of false ideas, dreams and fantasies. Your knowledge is based on emotions, insecurities and limited experience. Over time you learn the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in that field. Eventually you master yourself and your skills, and become a successful professional.

Robert Greene is keen to point out that though we idealise the great masters, we can see always this phase in their story. There was a time when they were newbies, and since they weren’t creating amazing work or making earth-shattering discoveries, we never pay attention to this phase. At this point, they’re the same as all of us, but under the surface their mind transforms. This is the first transformation they experience on their journey through the levels of mastery.

The Apprenticeship sounds pretty, but it’s challenging and fraught with danger. There’s no guarantee we’ll succeed. We may succumb to insecurities, get caught up in problems and emotional conflicts, or develop fears and learning deficiencies. It’s critical we master our mind as we undertake this journey, and knowing about the levels of mastery is a great advantage.

Levels of Mastery and Skill Acquisition

A core part of the Apprenticeship is skill acquistion. To illustrate this phase, Robert Greene draws on the medieval apprenticeship system, in which young men between 12 and 16 years old would sign seven-year contracts with a master. At the end they had to pass a master test or produce a masterpiece. They then ascended to the rank of craftsman and could practice their occupation.

At that time there were few books or drawings, so apprentices learned the trade by observing the master and imitating them as best they could. There was lots of repetition and hands-on work, with little verbal feedback. They worked with the materials they’d use for the final product, so had to focus and avoid committing errors.

You’ll pass through an apprenticship whether you want to master business, languages, sport, or piano. And even if your journey is self-directed, one day you’ll look back and realise you’ve passed through the levels of mastery, including an apprenticeship.

Master Key: Observe and Repeat

In the modern day, we often rely on wordy explanations and complicated diagrams. But in many cases, it’s easier to observe and copy than go by instructions. Verbal teaching can even get in the way, confusing us and moving our attention from the touch and feel of the activity.

Language is a recent invention – long before it, our ancestors already learned a range of skills, like tool-making, pottery, and hunting. They relied on the power of mirror neurons, observing and imitating others and repeating the same actions again and again.

So repetition is the key to learning. The more we correctly repeat a task, the easier it gets. Even with highly mental activities, like computer programming or speaking a foreign language, we learn best through practice and repetition. We repeat, repeat, repeat until it becomes ingrained and effortless.

The Early Levels of Mastery

The main danger in the Apprenticeship phase is that skill acquisition always starts out boring and emotionally difficult. The key is to accept it and see this period as a growing process. Like physical exercise, the pain and boredom we experience here strengthen our mind. Don’t seek constant distraction and shortcuts. Don’t turn on your phone instead of studying or practicing – meet your resistance head on.

The pain is a challenge your mind puts to you. Will you learn to concentrate and overcome the boredom, reaping the rewards in time, or will you succumb like a child to immediate pleasure and distraction? Many people expect results for free – you have to take the opposite approach. Try to even derive a perverse pleasure from this early part of the journey, knowing the benefits to come.

My experience: learning Mandarin. I started learning Mandarin Chinese back in 2020. As I made my way to my first class on a wet January night, I looked ahead to my future. I could see a distant day in which I could freely use the language, but it seemed a long way away, and I knew a lot of pain and hard work awaited me. But previous learning experience had shown me that the Beginner’s Hump was always the most challenging part, so I made the commitment to persist until I succeeded. I’m now at intermediate level, and the day I master Mandarin seems less and less distant.

It’s useful to know what happens in the brain when we learn a new skill. Here the brain deals with large amounts of new information, which is stressful and overwhelming for the brain if only a limited area of it is engaged. So a huge number of neurons in the frontal cortex activate to assist – this area even increases in size. This is why we feel struggle and tedium.

Once the task is repeated enough, it becomes fixed and automatic, with a stable brain program created for it. The neural paths assigned to that activity are delegated to other areas of the brain, and the frontal cortex retains its size.

By this point, you’ve experienced transformation. You acquire a sense of scope, learn to be self-critical, and come to terms with the difficulty of learning. You become fully conscious of your insufficiencies yet are inspired by the possibilities.

Watch my video on The Beginner’s Hump to overcome the obstacles you’ll meet in the early levels of mastery.

The Later Stages of Learning

Now we take our learning further. Having automated some skills, we can now observe ourselves as we practice, taking note of our weaknesses and defects. At this point it’s useful to have feedback and points of reference.

With further practice, we enter an accelerated learning cycle. We have greater mental space, can vary what we do, and explore the nuances. What was once a single skill now opens up like a flower, revealing a slew of possibilities. We can practice longer, which increases our skill level, bringing us more pleasure. We can seek new challenges and new areas to conquer while maintaining a high level of interest.

When the cycle accelerates, our mind will sometimes become totally absorbed in the practice and enter a flow state. All other incoming stimuli are blocked out, and you become one with the instrument, tool or object of study. Your skill is now beyond words, imbibed in the body and nervous system: it becomes tacit knowledge. This sense of flow and of being part of the instrument are some of the great pleasures that mastery offers.

In the first of the levels of mastery, you transform. You discover previously latent skills, which emerge as you practice. You develop emotionally, and your sense of pleasure is redefined. Immediate pleasure seems like a distraction or empty entertainment to pass the time. You see that real pleasure comes from overcoming challenges, attaining fluency in your skills and experiencing the power this brings. And you develop patience – boredom no longer signals the need for distraction, but for new challenges to overcome.

Experimentation: Beyond Skillbuilding

Later in the Apprenticeship phase, you can move to an active, experimental mode. This may mean assuming greater responsibility or starting a project that exposes you to criticism. The goal is to measure your progress and find out if there are still holes in your knowledge. You observe yourself in action to see how you react to the judgements of others. Can you accept the critcism and use it constructively?

Most people wait too long to do this, usually out of fear. It’s easier to keep learning the rules and stay in your comfort zone. Often you need to force yourself to do this before you feel ready. In doing so, you test your character, overcome your fears and develop a detachment from your work, seeing it with fresh eyes. This is a taste of the later levels of mastery.

Levels of Mastery: Moving to the Creative–Active Phase

The Apprenticeship is over when there’s nothing left for you to learn. It’s time to declare your independence or continue learning elsewhere to widen your skillset. Now, whenever you face a career change or the need to learn skills, this process will be second nature for you. You’ve learned how to learn.

The key to this process is to make our years of study qualitatively rich. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to absorbing information; we should interiorise it and make it our own by giving it practical use. We also have to seek associations between the diverse elements we study. And if we experience failures or setbacks, we must learn from them. We deeply reflect, trying to understand what went wrong and discern whether our errors fall into a pattern.

After all this learning, we start to question some of the assumptions and conventions we’ve learned on the way. Soon we start experimenting and becoming more active. Behold the Active-Creative phase, as Robert Greene calls it.

Robert Greene Levels of Mastery #2: The Active–Creative Phase

After you’ve passed through the Apprenticeship, you’ll want to be more active in using your knowledge, and do so in a way that’s aligned with your inclinations. This is the defining feature of this Robert Greene phase.

But this is no easy task. If you get caught up in fear, you might find this desire waining. When you feel anxious and insecure, you’ll tend to become conservative with your knowledge, preferring to fit into the group and slavishly follow the procedures you’ve learned.

The key to truly entering Stage 2 is to be daring. Extend your knowledge to subfields, experiment, and examine problems from all possible angles. As your thinking becomes more fluid, your mind will be increasingly dimensional, seeing more and mrore aspects of reality.

With time, you’ll end up opposing the very rules you interiorised, redefining them and changing them to suit you. You’ll dare to be different, make improvements and surprass the limitations of your field. This originality gives you power.

To aid you in this process, it’s crucial we discuss the conventional mind.

The Conventional Mind

The conventional mind is passive. It consumes information and regurgitates it in known ways. It contrasts with the dimensional mind, which is active and transforms everything into something new and original, creating instead of consuming. If you find yourself endlessly copying others, it’s likely you’re stuck in the conventional mind.

Robert Greene stress that what keeps us stuck here isn’t age or lack of talent, rather our spirit, our attitude. We settle for the knowledge we gained and fear holding new ideas. Thinking flexibly brings a risk: we can fail and be ridiculed. We prefer to live with known ideas and forms of thinking, though we pay a high price for this. Our mind languishes from the lack of challenge and novelty. We reach a limit in our field and lose control of our destiny, because we become replaceable.

My experience: Writing. I see the conventional mind in the writing world. People love clinging on to the established way, and hate it when you offer reasoned alternatives. They insist their way is the best, even when it’s often useless or damaging. This is what’s so insidious about Grammarly and other automatic tools: they tie us into one way of thinking, one that is limited, biased and flawed. I have developed my own flexible style, and I believe it responds better to the realities of the written language than rigid rules and formulae do.

Levels of Mastery: The Dimensional Mind and Childlike Curiosity

The dimensional mind has two key qualities: high level of knowledge on a field or topic, and an openness and flexibility that enables us to use this knowledge in original ways. We till the ground for the dimensional mind by rigorously learning and mastering the basic skills of our field. Once the mind is freed from learning the basics, it can concentrate on more elevated and creative tasks. The problem for us all is the knowledge we acquire can become a prison, locking us into certain methods and one-dimensional ways of thinking. The mind must become active and explorative.

We can take inspiration from children, who are naturally playful. They transform everything around them, play with ideas and circumstances and surprise us with the novel things they say and do. But their natural creativity is limited. It never leads to substantial discoveries, inventions or works of art.

Masters not only preserve this childlike spirit, but add their years of learning and an aptitude for concentrating on ideas and problems. This leads to high-level creativity. Though they have deep knowledge of a field, their mind remains permanently open to other ways of viewing and tackling problems.

picture of shooting stars; metaphor for space in unified mindfulness meditation

They ask the simple questions that most overlook, while possessing the rigour and discipline necessary to follow their research through. They’re capable of thinking beyond words and of accessing preverbal and unconscious forms of mental activity, which explains their surprising ideas and creations. The childlike spirit of masters lies dormant during the Apprenticeship phase while they patiently assimilate the details of their field. It returns when they obtain freedom and have the opportunity to use their knowledge.

What’s more, Masters always possess a rebellious streak. They suffer when demanded to fit in and be conventional. And though they might try to repress this spirit, it often returns with double the force. The lesson? Be brave and become creative–active rather than conventional.

To that end, let’s talk about creativity.

The Creative Endeavour

Creativity involves our entire being: our emotions, energy levels, character, and mind. We also need time and effort to make a discovery or invent something significant. This can involve years of experimentation and many setbacks and failures. All the while, you need to maintain a high level of concentration and have faith that the process will bear fruit.

As mentioned earlier, your task must have an obsessive element and relate to something deep inside you. With such a deepset interest, you’ll be able to stand the setbacks and failures, the dark days and the intense work. You can ignore skeptics and critics, and you’ll feel personally committed to solving the problem.

To make this even clearer, let’s touch on the main law that governs success in this phase.

Levels of Mastery: The Fundamental Law of Creativity

The fundamental law is this: your emotional commitment will directly transfer to your work.

So if you do your work half-heartedly and have to drag yourself to the end, the result will be mediocre. If you do something mainly for money, it will be soulless and lack your personal stamp. People will notice and will receive your work with the same dull spirit you had.

On the other hand, if you get excited and are obsessive in your search, this will show. If your work comes from the depths of your being, its authenticity will be obvious. Try to see this law as you interact with the world: objects made with love appear as such, while soulless objects radiate a lack of love and attention. The same goes for your work.

Choose something that appeals to your originality and awakens feelings of rebelliousness. It will cause controversy and get under people’s skin – perhaps they will ridicule or ignore it. In doing so you’ll follow an unorthodox line. Even having enemies is a powerful motivation and can fill you with energy and focus.

Finally, free yourself from the need for comfort and safety: creative undertakings are uncertain by nature, and you can never know where your efforts will take you. If you’re worried by what others think, you’ll be held back by convention and never create anything. If you’re unnerved by failure or by a period of mental and financial instability, you violate the fundamental law: your worries will show up in your work! Think of yourself as an explorer – you’ll never find anything new if you’re not willing to sail.

Let’s look at strategies for becoming highly creative.

Robert Greene and the Levels of Mastery: Creative Strategies

Continue Expanding

This strategy tells us to adopt humility in the face of knowledge and continue digging further. Michael Faraday commented that scientific knowledge never ceases to advance and that the main theories of the age are eventually discredited or altered in the future. The human mind is simply too weak to have a perfect view of reality.

New ideas will inevitably be debunked or ridiculed in several decades or centuries, but how often do we take note of this? We laugh at knowledge from the past, while vehemently defending current theories and models. It’s best to take this into account and never grab too tightly to ideas. We also get locked in confirmation bias, seeking only data and facts that support our point of view, which only reinforces and entrenches it.

In reality, our senses and awareness are limited, and we’re only aware of a small portion of reality. The universe is in a state of constant change, and words and ideas can’t capture this change or complexity. To sync with this, you must suspend the need to form a judgement on everything and be willing to feel doubt and uncertainty. As you do, fresh ideas will come to you. All masters possess this capacity, and it’s the source of their creative power.

Go in the exact opposite direction from that you usually choose. Consider and accept points of view that are the opposite of your own. Observe a person or occurrence for a long time and resist forming an opinion. Seek what you don’t know. In short, do anything that breaks your normal mental procedures and the feeling that you already know the truth.

The world is crying out for more daring ideas, for people who aren’t afraid of speculating and investigating. Comfort and complacency will sabotage your search, fill you up with comfortable ideas and set a descending spiral in motion. Lacking in creativity, you’ll grab even tightly to dead ideas, past successes and the need to maintain your privilege. Make creativity not comfort your goal, and you’ll guarantee much more success in future.

Trust Sudden Sparks

Know that many great discoveries occur when the thinker isn’t concentrated on the problem. The incredible idea comes during moments of unrestricted attention – when they’re about to go to bed or get on a bus, or when they hear a joke. These moments can’t be forced. Legend has it that Paul McCartney dreamt the melody from Yesterday. Convinced he must have heard it elsewhere, he consulted his music colleagues, who didn’t recognise it. The most covered song in history had fallen into his lap.

Causal discoveries are also common in science and technology – Edison, Rontgen, Fleming, and Gutenberg all benefitted from them. Edison was working intensely to improve the mechanics of the paper roll that ran through the telegraph and registered the points and lines. But the work wasn’t going well, and he was particularly annoyed by the humming sound of the paper. Over the following months, he realised he could use that same paper to record voices.

image of synapse

To exploit sudden insight, have a notebook on you at all times. Whenever an idea comes to you, write it down. Keep it next to your bed to take down ideas that come just before bed or just after waking up.

Seek Connections

Creative people are able to resist typecasting. They can examine a phenomenon from different angles, noticing things we don’t because we only look head on. Their discoveries often seem obvious and we wonder how they remained hidden for so long. But this is because creative people examine what’s hidden and don’t rush to generalise and categorise.

Everything in nature has a structure, a way in which the parts interrelate, which tends to be fluid and tricky to conceptualise. Pay more attention to these relationships to gain a greater sensibility for the overall picture. 

Try to approach a problem or idea with an open mind. Conceive of everything in nature like a hologram: the smallest part reflects something essential of the whole, so immerse yourself in the details too. This will combat your generalising tendencies and take you closer to reality. Also don’t get lost in the details and lose how they reflect the whole. This would be the other side of the same illness.

My experience: Teaching maths. My undergrad degree was in a mathsy subject, so in my later years at uni and in the years following my graduation, I did private tuition for school kids. The defining feature of my tutoring was that I helped students really understand the subject. Sure, we memorised formulae and learned certain methods, but I always made sure they were building an appreciation for the why, not just the what, because this paid dividends in my own maths journey. I continue applying this principle to everything I learn.

Continue Through The Frustration

Creativity sounds attractive and expansive, but in reality it’s often the opposite. Masters tend to experience the following pattern: they start a project based on intuition and feel enthusiasm for its possible success. Their project is deeply related to something personal and primary, and it seems alive in them.

But masters inevitably possess another quality that complicates this process: they aren’t easily satisfied with what they do. As they give form to their idea, they may feel enthusiasm but also experience doubt around the merit of their work. They have high internal standards, so start detecting faults and difficulties in their original idea.

As the process becomes more conscious and less intuitive, that original idea that was so alive starts to seem somewhat dead. This sensation is difficult to put up with, so they work even more eagerly. But the more they do, the greater their tension and frustration gets. Normal people tend to give up or settle for what they have: a mediocre, half-hearted project. But masters have already passed through this process, so they understand that they must continue and that frustration has a purpose.

Here’s the kicker. In a particularly tense moment, they let go. This could be as simple as going to sleep, stopping for a break, or temporarily working on something else. What inevitably occurs is that the solution or perfect idea comes to them by itself. The momentum of the hard work eventually leads to the end result.

Why does it work like this? If we remain enthusiastic throughout the entire process, maintaining the intuitive mindset that brought it all about, we’ll never take distance from our work to examine it objectively and improve it. Losing the initial impulse means we work and rework the idea and don’t accept an easy solution.

The frustration is a sign we need to rest, and most creative people accept this. And when we disconnect, the associations we’ve accumulated continue bubbling under the surface. Once the tension has gone, we regain the feeling of inspiration and the solution appears.

Set Deadlines

Also know that having excess time is debilitating for the mind. Our ideas and attention lose power, and new insights escape us. So always work with a deadline, whether real or invented. Faced with a limited period of time, the mind reaches the level you need. You simply don’t have the luxury of feeling frustrated. Every day represents an intense challenge, and every morning you wake up with original ideas and associations. If you don’t have an imposed deadline, invent one for yourself.

Read Part 2: Becoming The Master to get a full understanding of these three levels of mastery.