Let’s continue looking at the three stages of mastery proposed by Robert Greene. He 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 the top stages of mastery in your field or pursuit and be the one to change its trajectory, it’s crucial you know about these Robert Greene’s three stages of mastery.
Huge thanks to Robert Greene for his wonderful insights, and do read his book Mastery for in-depth knowledge of this process.
Also read Part 1: From Newbie to Pro to get a full understanding of these three stages of mastery.
Robert Greene Stages of Mastery – 3: Mastery
Mastery is a superior form of intelligence that enables us to see more in the world, predict tendencies, and respond with precision and speed to any circumstance. We cultivate it by deeply immersing ourselves in a field of study and being loyal to our inclinations, however strange others consider them. After an intense immersion in our pursuit, we interiorise its complex elements and obtain an intuitive sensitivity for it.
When we blend this intuitive sense with rational processes, our mind starts approaching its potential. We can see the secret essence of life and obtain the instinct animals possess, but supplemented with the additional powers of human consciousness. Our brain has a natural propensity for this power, and we can reach by following our inclinations to their ultimate conclusion.
The Big Picture of Supreme Competence
Thousands of Hours & Expert Intuition
Reaching the highest stages of mastery is a matter of time and immersion. Though we can reach a world-class level of performance after 10,000 hours of practice, Robert Greene claims that the faculties of mastery come after 20,000+ hours, at the highest stages of mastery.
With this much immersion, the brain makes connections between all kinds of knowledge. Masters gain a notion of how everything interacts organically and can intuit patterns or solutions instantly. This fluid form of thought isn’t a product of a step-by-step process, rather it arrives in sudden flashes discernments, as we’ll see.
Though Robert Greene champions rationality and created these stages of mastery, he insists we can’t reduce masters’ intuitive intelligence to rational, step-by-step deduction. These intuitions occur too quickly for the thinker to distinguish the steps. Even Einstein couldn’t retrace the steps he took to deduce the theory of relativity. We must trust the experience and description of the masters and conclude that this thinking is post-rational.
Is the 10,000-hour rule all it’s made out to be? How does it relate to the stages of mastery? Check out my video on the 10,000-hour rule.
On the other hand, it’s wrong to think that masters simply follow their intuition, dispensing with rational thinking altogether. First, they reach this superior form of intelligence through arduous work, building a deep reserve of knowledge and honing their analytical skills. Second, when they experience that intuition or discernment, they invariably submit it to a high level of reflection and reasoning.
We often judge rationality and intuition to be mutually exclusive, but at the high stages of mastery they operate together perfectly. Masters’ reasoning is guided by intuition, which stems from their intense rational concentration. The two faculties blend together and are essentially inseparable.
Marcel Proust and In Search of Lost Time: Robert Greene uses Proust as a reference throughout his work on the stages of mastery. When Proust started writing his giant three-volume novel, memories and ideas flooded his mind. The novel had a dynamic, pulsing life, and it breathed inside of him. He penetrated the subject of his novel – friends, family, acquaintances and the French aristocracy – so profoundly that he considered himself a spider that could feel the lightest touch on its web. And when you read this book, it’s as though you experience his thoughts and feelings from within. He achieved this thanks to the intuitive faculties he had obtained after almost thirty years of perpetual work and analysis.
Overcoming the Obstacles on The Path to High Stages of Mastery
The desire for ease and comfort infects us all, and it can destroy our attempts to reach the highest stages of mastery. Have you noticed that everything is advertised to be quick, easy, and effective? Know that the path to mastery is the opposite. On the journey, you must patiently acquire the core skills, never looking too far ahead. In crisis moments, you must develop the habit of maintaining your serenity, knowing that eventually your hard work will bear fruit. Don’t look for shortcuts, and don’t expect ease and comfort.
We also face the obstacle of technology, which increases the quantity of information available to us while slowly degrading our ability to retain it. Tasks that our brain used to do, like simple calculations, are now done for us. And like any other part of the body, the brain atrophies from lack of use, debilitating our memory.
To keep the brain sharp throughout life, we can adopt hobbies like games, instruments and languages, ones which are pleasurable and strengthen our memory. By doing so, we’ll learn to effortlessly process large quantities of information, a critical skill for the path.
A solution to any obstacle is to remember what we’ll gain from the mastery process. If we follow it, we’ll be rewarded with intuitive faculties. The living, breathing, pulsating animal that is our field will live inside us. What before seemed chaotic now seems like a fluid situation with a particular dynamic, to which we’re sensitive and can manage with relative ease. This power will distinguish us from the rest.
Now, what are the key characteristics of mastery according to Robert Greene? How can we distinguish it from other forms of competence? Here are the key pointers.
Robert Greene and the Highest Stages of Mastery: The Key Features
Let’s go deeper into this mental faculty and uncover why it’s so much more than rational deduction.
Robert Greene claims that human beings have ended up recognising only one form of intelligence: rationality, which is sequential. We see a phenomenon A and deduce a cause B, anticipating perhaps a reaction C. Under this scheme, we attempt to reconstruct the various steps involved in a conclusion or answer.
We developed this form of thinking to make sense of our world and achieve a certain control over it. It’s effective, has given us remarkable power, and is repeatable and verifiable. It fits with our preference for ideas that can be reduced to a formula and described with words.
But the intuitions of masters usually can’t be reduced to a formula, and the steps involved can’t be reconstructed. We can’t enter into Einstein’s mind and experience his sudden understanding of the relativity of time. And since we recognise rationality as the only legitimate form of intelligence, we conclude that these experiences of “seeing beyond” must be modes of rational thinking that simply happen more rapidly or are miraculous.
But high-level intuition, the supreme sign of mastery, involves a process that’s qualitatively different from rationality, yet more exact and perceptive. It accesses deeper parts of reality. It’s more than legitimate, but needs to be understood for its own sake. When we understand it, we can start seeing that it’s not miraculous, but intrinsically human and within the reach of all.
This post-rational faculty creates the impression that masters have special powers, which is another of their typical traits. Let’s see why, using the example of three superstars Robert Greene admires, starting with chessmaster Bobby Fischer.
Over his career, he experienced so many chess situations and witnessed the diverse movements and reactions of opponents that eventually deep marks were carved in his memory. At a certain point, this experience blended into a sensitivity for the general dynamic of the game.
Fischer didn’t simply see movements on the board or remember defensive plays from the past, but was capable of seeing and remembering long sequences of possible moves. These presented themselves as force fields that swept the board in its totality. This enabled him to trap his opponents long before they knew what was happening and efficiently finish them off.
The pianist Glenn Gould no longer had to concentrate on notes or parts of the music he played, rather he saw the entire architecture of the piece and could express it. And Einstein was suddenly capable not only of comprehending the solution to a problem, but seeing the universe in a completely new way, contained in the visual images he intuited.
In all these examples, practitioners of several skills describe a sensation of seeing more. Suddenly they were capable of capturing an entire situation through an image or idea, or a combination thereof. They experienced this power as intuition, or like a feeling in their fingertips. Robert Greene calls this the fingertip feel.
After understanding of all the parts of their pursuit through a long, intense immersion, masters reach a point where they no longer see the parts, but acquire an intuitive sense of the whole. They literally see or feel the dynamic. They see beyond.
Robert Greene uses the word dynamic to describe the life force that operates in everything we study or do. In a game, the dynamic is not just the movements of the pieces. It engulfs the entire situation, including the psychology of the players, their strategies in real time, their past experiences and their influence on the present. The dynamic is everything that affects the game. This can’t be reduced to rational thinking.
Let’s drill deeper into the fingertip feel and the faculty of seeing beyond.
Patterning and Chunking
Let’s touch on an experiment that helps us explain this higher-level processing. In 1973 William Chase and Herbet Simon conducted an experiment that shows us how experience alters attention and memory.
They took two groups, one of chess masters, the other of chess novices, and briefly showed each subject a board with twenty to twenty-five pieces set up as they would be in normal games. The subjects were asked to recall the positions of the pieces. Nothing surprising – the chess masters were able to recall the positions of all pieces, while the non-players could only recall four or five.
But then they repeated the procedure, this time with the chess pieces set up randomly. Once again, the novices were only able to remember four or five pieces. But shockingly, the experts fared no better. They could only remember four or five pieces. What’s going on here?
In his book Bounce, Matthew Syed explains why. The trick is that when chess masters see pieces arranged in a familiar pattern, they don’t just see letters, but words. They chunk the pattern, in the same way that we chunk letters into words after long exposure to a language.
But when pieces are arranged randomly, the chess words are disrupted, and masters simply see a jumble of letters. The same finding applies to other games, memory tests, and many other pursuits.
Clearly Bobby Fischer didn’t have superior memory, rather a superior ability to identify familiar chess patterns. This also shows us that the amazing abilities of experts are not innate gifts but rather skills drawn from years of dedication. And this explains why masters seem to see beyond or be one step ahead.
Seeing Beyond: Intuition and Feel
All this influences our performance in the heat of the moment. When you observe top decision-makers (medical professionals, firefighters, military commanders, and so on), they don’t seem to be making decisions at all. They contemplate the situation for a few moments and decide without considering the alternatives. They often can’t explain any supposed reasoning behind their decision. We often call this the “sixth sense” or ESP, but it’s a result of specialised expertise. Their long exposure to the field gives them mastery over a huge number of variables, enabling them to uncover patterns and relations among them, just like chessmasters.
In the firefighters’ case, their extensive experience has provided them with a set of firm patterns for how fires begin and develop. They size up the situation, comparing it to their pre-existing mental patterns. They may not be able to describe these patterns, but they rely on them to decode the situation. Nurses do the same, as do pilots, military generals, detectives, and sportsmen.
The cues are so subtle and interrelate in such complex ways that quickly the number of possibilities runs into the millions. This is called combinatorial explosion. Good decision-making comes from compressing this information overload by decoding the meaning of patterns. As we’ve seen, this emerges through practice.
My experience: Learning guitar. I started playing guitar in 2016, and from the get-go my teacher encouraged me to figure out songs by ear. This started out slow. I took one hour to figure out the Day Tripper riff, and I’m not even sure I nailed it. But now, I find my fingers instinctively know how to imitate the sounds I hear. I often don’t consciously direct the process. My knowledge of musical keys, common guitar tricks, and my improved musical ear all blend together and enable me to figure out songs quickly.
The Highest Stages of Mastery: Beyond Decision-Making
Robert Greene uses the language of intution to describe masters’ mode of decision-making. He agrees that intuition is much more effective for decision-making than rational analysis and deduction, precisely because of the information overload. The power of intuition shows up in the arts, the sciences, and all complex fields subject to combinatorial explosion.
Masters develop so many networks and memory paths over the years that their brain is constantly integrates information together. So when they face a high-level problem and seek a solution to it, they go searching in many directions, all subliminally. Yet they’re guided by an intuitive sense for the location of the answer.
In this way all kinds of brain networks activate, and ideas and solutions rapidly come to the surface, without the need for step-by-step reasoning. Those that seem particularly fruitful and appropriate are fixed in the memory then put into practice. Their thinking takes on such breadth that it appears to take on the scope and appearance of reality itself, of the underlying dynamic.
Kasparov and Deep Blue: Patterning and Decision-Making in Action
One of the most famous moments in modern chess was when Garry Kasparov, the greatest chess player ever, took on Deep Blue, a supercomputer designed by IBM.
Deep Blue had all the “talent” in the world: it could search tens of millions of moves per second, compared to Kasparov’s poultry three. Surely a forgone conclusion – the tiny human overwhelmed by the giant megaprocesser – right?
Yet in their first encounter, Kasparov emerged victorious, winning 4-2. How did he do it? This is what Kasparov said after winning the second match to level the series at 1-1.
Had I been playing the same game against a very strong human, I would have had to settle for a draw. But I simply understood the essence of the end game in a way the computer did not. Its computational power was not enough to overcome my experience and intuitive appreciation of where the pieces should go.Garry Kasparov
Kasparov, though limited to searching three moves per second, had the knowledge of real chess games, how they can be translated into wins, and the structure of defensive and offensive positions. Kasparov looks at the board, sees the patterns, and instinctively knows what to do. Deep Blue doesn’t.
Combinatorial explosion is a factor too. Chess players cut down on the load by ignoring certain moves and concentrating on better ones, according to game situations. Deep Blue can’t.
Fifteen months later, in 1997, Kasparov and Deep Blue played a second time. Famously, Deep Blue won 2-1, with three draws. The machine had been given double the processing power, capable of processing over 200 million moves per second. Crucially, it was also given more knowledge of chess, like access to a database of opening games played by chess grandmasters over the past 100 years. Perhaps it was the expert in-game knowledge that allowed it to overcome the greatest player ever.
Let’s move on to another curious aspect of mastery.
Robert Greene and Stages of Mastery: Returning to the Whole
In relation to reality, the human mind tends to follow one of two directions. It either distances itself from the interrelation of things, instead focusing on the distinctions between them, taking things out their context and analysing them like separate entities. This tendency leads to specialised knowledge. We lose the interrelation, and our ideas can become strange and disconnected from reality, according to Robert Greene.
On the other hand, the brain tends to make connections between everything. This is easier to identify in masters, but we can identify it in certain philosophies and movements too, like taoism, stoicism and Marcus Aurelius’ philosophy.
As individuals, we can approach the latter simply by moving towards the highest stages of mastery, which we can view as process of uniting many parts. In our apprenticeship we start acquiring the parts and making distinctions: the correct way to proceed, the individuals skills and their particular techniques, the diverse rules and conventions.
In the creative-active phase we start dissolving these distinctions by experimenting with these conventions and altering them to suit our purposes. At the highest stages of mastery we close the circle, returning to a notion of the whole. We intuit the relationships among the elements and embrace the natural complexity of life, making the brain widen until including all the dimensions of reality. This is the inevitable result of deep immersion in a field.
My experience: learning Spanish. When I began learning Spanish, I started by learning all the separate chunks: vocab, verb endings, sentence structures, and so on. After mastering these elements individually, I noticed I could bring them together and make sentences. And now I’ve reached the later stages of mastery, I rarely think about the separate parts. I think and hear in phrases rather than words. I can also go beyond the phrases and deduce hidden meanings, emotions, and sarcasm, taking into account context, body language, and other factors. I see the whole, not the parts.
Robert Greene and Stages of Mastery: Strategies for Attaining It
I hope by now you know that mastery doesn’t depend on genius or talent. It depends on how much time and intense concentration we apply to a particular field or skill. And Robert Greene claims that masters possess another key element, an X factor. Let’s explain.
Whatever our field, there already exists an accepted path to the top. Others have covered this route, and since we’re conformist creatures, the majority of us opt to follow them. But masters see it differently. Along with a solid internal guidance system, they have heightened self-awareness. They realise that what suited others in the past doesn’t suit them, and that fitting into a conventional mould will diminish their spirit.
So as they progress in their profession, they inevitably take a decision to forge their own route. Others often consider it weird, but it suits their spirit and takes them closer to discovering hidden truths. This key decision indicates self-certainty and self-awareness, the crucial X factor for reaching mastery. Keeping this in mind, let’s look at five further strategies for reaching the highest stages of mastery.
1. Relate to Your Environment: Primary Faculties
The ability to deeply relate to your environment is the primary form, and in many senses the most effective, of mastery the brain provides. We obtain this power by becoming consummate observers, seeing everything as a possible sign to interpret and avoiding surface-level interpretations. Over the years, we start blending our knowledge of the diverse components of our field into a general sensitivity for our environment. We know it from within and can sense changes before they occur, like the Proustian spider, as Robert Greene describes Proust’s sensibility for French society and human psychology.
2. Exploit Your Strengths: Extreme Focus
It comforts us to think that masters like Einstein had remarkable innate faculties, but Robert Greene believes his greatest discoveries actually depended on two simple decisions he took in youth. First, at age 20 he realised he would be a mediocre experimental scientist. And though a deep immersion in maths and experimentation was the conventional route in physics, he decided to follow his own path. Second, he considered his rejection of authority and conventions to be a huge advantage. This would let him attack from outside and get rid of the Newtonian assumptions that tortured scientists at the time.
By thinking in terms of images, Einstein could mull over a problem over and over again and consider them from all different angles as he walked, talked, or sat at his desk in the patent office. Later he would explain that his imagination and intuition played a greater role in his discoveries than his knowledge of science and maths.
Robert Greene believes that he Einsten did have any extraordinary qualities, they were his patience and extreme tenacity. After more than 10k hours of contemplation, he reached a point of transformation. His two theories of relativity should be considered the greatest intellectual feats in history, results of intense labour, not of genius.
You won’t reach the highest stages of mastery if your work doesn’t satisfy you or you spend your time battling against your weaknesses. There are many paths to it, and if you’re tenacious you’ll find one that suits you. A key component of the process is to identify your mental and psychological strengths and work with them.
3. Transform Yourself Through Practice: Fingertip Feel
When the top pilot Cesar Rodriguez participated in field campaigns, he no longer focused on the various physical elements of the flight or the components of his skills. Rather he thought about and felt the campaign as a whole. He also noticed that his gifted colleagues had spent too long trusting in their natural abilities. They hadn’t cultivated the level of concentration he had. In many ways he had exceeded them.
When Rodriguez saw a rerun of his efforts in Operation Desert Storm, he couldn’t remember anything. Though the encounter had lasted a few minutes, it passed in the blink of an eye. He couldn’t remember deciding to get rid of his gas tanks, but it probably saved his life. The evasive maneuvers he performed were very rapid and effective. Though unable to recall his actions, he remembered feeling a huge adrenaline rush and little fear.
In conscious daily activity, we tend to experience a separation between mind and body. And when start learning an activity with a physical component, this separation becomes even more obvious. We need to think about the various actions and steps, and we’re conscious of our slowness and clumsiness.
If we acquire a complex skill like flying a jet in combat, we must master a series of simple skills, one after the other. Each time one becomes automatic, the mind is freed up to focus on the next one. At the end of this process, when there are no more simple skills to learn, the brain has assimilated an incredible quantity of information, all of which has been interiorised and integrated into our nervous system.
At this point, the skill becomes automatic and we have the sensation that mind and body work together as one. It’s inside us and imbued in our fingertips. We think, but in a different way: with mind and body completely fused. We now possess a form of intelligence that enables us to get close to the instinctive power of animals, though only after conscious, deliberate and prolonged practice.
4. Interiorise the Details: Life Force
After becoming a famous painter, Da Vinci developed a philosophy that would guide his artwork and later his scientific work. He noticed that other artists tended to start with an image of what they planned to describe, an image with an amazing, spiritual effect. But he thought differently: he started by focusing on the details, the varied shapes of the nose, the possible folds of the mouth for expressing a mood, the veins in the hand, the intricate knots of trees. These details fascinated him.
He had come to believe that, focusing on the details and comprehending them, he was getting close to the secret of life, to the work of the Creator. The bones in the hand and the contours of human lips were as fascinating to him as a religious image. For Da Vinci, painting meant seeking the life force that animates all things.
Most people don’t have the patience to assimilate the fine points and minutiae that are an intrinsic part of their labour. They rush to create effects and call people’s attention. Their work inevitably reveals a lack of attention to detail and they don’t communicate profoundly with the public. If they get attention, it’s temporary. So see everything you produce as something with its own life and presence. It can be vibrant and visceral or dead and lifeless.
The character in a novel comes alive if the author has taken the time to imagine their details. It’s not necessary to show them literally. The reader will feel them, and intuit the level of research it took to create them. Seeing your work as alive, your path to the highest stages of mastery consists in studying and assimilating these details, until you feel the life force and can express it effortlessly in your work.
5. Synthesise All Forms of Knowledge: The Universal Man
Goethe concluded that all forms of human knowledge are manifestations of the one life force that he had intuited during his near-death experience in his youth. He believed our problem is that we erect artificial walls around interconnected topics and ideas. The true thinker sees the relationships, capturing the dynamic that operates in each case.
The mind was conceived to relate things, like a loom that weaves together all the threads in a cloth. If life exists as an organic whole that can’t be divided into parts without losing the notion of the whole, then thought must be on the same level as the whole. Why would an individual need to stop at poetry, or judge that art is dissociated from science, or restrict their intellectual interests?
After his success with The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe realised he’d have to give up all the attention he was receiving. He felt something much stronger than the pull of fame and didn’t want the book to imprison him. So he opted for a strange and unique path in life, guided by an inner force that he called his daemon, a restless spirit that impelled him to explore beyond literature and penetrate to the marrow of life itself.
Goethe is the epitome of what was known in the Enlightenment as the universal man: a person so soaked in all forms of knowledge that his mind approaches the reality of nature and sees secrets that are invisible to the majority.
Robert Greene and the Stages of Mastery: Reversal
According to Robert Greene, the reverse of mastery is to deny its existence or importance and the necessity to seek it. It leads to the service of what we’ll call the false self. The false self is the accumulation of all the voices you’ve interiorised from other people. It also includes the voice of your ego, which unceasingly tries to protect you from painful truths about yourself.
Robert Greene claims this self speaks in clear words, telling you things like “The highest stages of mastery are for geniuses, the exceptionally talented, freaks of nature”, or “Mastery is repulsive and immoral. It’s for ambitious or egoic people. It’s better to accept my luck in life and spend my time helping others rather than doing well.”
Or it may say: “Success is a question of luck. Those we call masters are no more than people who were in the right place at the right time. I could easily be in their position with a bit of luck.” Or: “why take the pains to work for so long on something that demands so much sacrifice and effort? It’s better I enjoy my short life and do what I can to make it pleasurable.”
Your true self doesn’t speak in banal words or phrases. It comes from the depths of your being, from something that’s physically encrusted in you. It emanates from your uniqueness and it communicates through feelings and strong desires that seem to transcend you.
In the end, it’s impossible for you to comprehend why certain activities and forms of knowledge attract you. What’s certain is that this can’t be put into words or explained. It’s simply a fact of nature. By following this voice you fulfil your potential and satisfy your deepest yearning to create and express your uniqueness. This voice exists for a reason and your job in life is to make it flourish.
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