Rating: 8 / 10
Want to learn how to attain mastery? This is the book for you.
Being absolutely absorbed into something - feeling more inspired and more creative while under a deadline. That power is mastery.
The process that leads to mastery is accessible to all.
When we start to learn something new, we know nothing. We may be excited, but then we see how much work is necessary to get better, and there, danger occurs: giving in to boredom, impatience, fear, or confusion. If we do so, we stop observing and learning. The process stops.
If we persevere however, we will become better.
The three phases
Apprenticeship Creative - Active Mastery
Basics Learning Understand inner workings Full picture
Have partial picture Comprehensive understanding Clarity
There is no easy path - no effortless path - to mastery.
We got to the top of the food-chain because of a mental transformation, which had two key parts: the visual and the social.
Our vision is powerful By focusing on an object for an extended amount of time, we observe patters, make generalizations, and think ahead. We have the capacity to think and reflect - however small the capacity was back then.
This paved the way for the conscious, reasoning mind.
Social intelligence was also important.
These two skills in combination let us develop a more complex skill; hunting.
It was found in a study in the 1990s by a group of Italian neuroscientists that in the brains of monkeys, some particular motor-command neurons would not only fire when the monkey performs a specific action (pulling a lever to get a peanut or taking hold of a banana), but these same neurons will also fire when the money observes other monkeys perform the action. This is why the neurons were dubbed mirror neurons.
In essence, the monkey would be able to put themselves in the place of the monkey actually performing the task - as if it itself were performing it.
Humans too have these neurons, but we have them on a much higher level. We can do what the monkeys could - see the action from the point of view of the performer and imagine the intention of the action -, but we can also place ourselves inside their minds and imagine what they might be thinking.
This is critical for our social skills as well as for learning.
This thinking inside lets us see tools as an extension of ourselves. It lets us have an intuitive feeling for something
Predators in nature thought of time as critical: if they do not strike as soon as possible, their prey might escape. We, however, have the benefit of time. By observing something for longer, we develop a deeper understanding of it.
When we truly take our time and focus in depth, we go through a process that may take a very long time, but we trust that the process will bring us mastery. We progress. We become able to handle complex situations or problems without being overwhelmed.
Yet, if we believe in the effortless path - that we can skip steps, avoid the process, magically gain the power some way - we go against the nature of mastery. We grow weaker and less capable. It is fallible thinking to think that this is possible. To think that you can, with your few decades of consciousness, go against the effect of six million years of development.
Why then, if we all possess the ability to achieve mastery, do only a few people truly excel and reach their potential?
Contrary to popular belief, a high IQ is not an indicator of future success. For example, Darwin, who changed our view of life, admitted that he was “a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect… I have no great quickness of apprehension… My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited.”.
These basic elements are present in the lives of all masters in history:
In the past, only few could become masters because they would either have to be a part of the elite, or be someone with an almost superhuman drive.
A lot of the necessary information was controlled by the elites. This made it nearly impossible to get a hold of.
Today, however, this is no longer the case. We have access to more information than previous masters could only dream of having.
We may find ourselves in such a period where the information is easily accessible, but there is one last obstacle here. Mastery is not seen as something to aspire to anymore. It’s become known as something ‘old-fashioned’ or unpleasant.
If we don’t try too much in life, if we limit our circle of action, we can give ourselves the illusion of control. The less we attempt, the less chances of failure. If we make it seem as if we are not responsible for our own fate, our apparent powerlessness seems more acceptable. This is why we are attracted to certain narratives: Genetics determine much of what we do, we are just products of our times, the individual is a myth, human behavior can be reduced to statistical trends.
Some even take this a step further. They make working hard and being disciplined seem bad in nature. They feel as if they are owed everything - that it is their right to have and consume whatever they want. They think that they don’t have to work, because technology will solve their problems.
By adopting such an attitude, you are infecting yourself in subtle ways. You’ll (unconsciously) lower your ambitions. You’ll lower your levels of effort and discipline.
You have to change your views. You can in fact make the passivity of our times work in your favor, and serve as a motivating device in two ways.
In the first part of this section of the book, a story is told about how Leonardo da Vinci would look back upon his life while at his deathbed. I will not summarize the story, but I will tell you that Leonardo was curious. He liked to search and process creating something - that’s what excited him.
A short part of the story is of when he was given the task of creating a giant sculpture of a horse out of bronze. He spent a lot of time on it, perfecting the methods to do so. Yet, war broke out, and the bronze had to be used for weapons. This meant that the horse was never built. Leonardo was taunted by Michelangelo himself - but Leonardo enjoyed the process more than the finished product.
“Just as a well filled day brings blessed sleep, so a well employed life brings a blessed death” - Leonardo da Vinci
Many great masters have experienced some kind of force that drives them forward. Sometimes, it’s a voice inside of the master.
It may seem odd, but it can be explained like so:
We are all born unique. We have our set of DNA - never seen, and never to be seen again. We also have our own attractions towards certain activities or things. You may love doing something that another dislikes.
We’re simply drawn to do what we like to do. Some experience this draw more powerfully than others. Masters feel it so strongly that it almost feels like some external reality - a voice, force, or the likes.
When we perform a task that we have a natural inclination towards, we become inspired.
What weakens this effect is to succumb to another force - social pressure to conform. This is a very powerful force, because we want to fit into groups.
You can lose your contact with your uniqueness if you are to take on the desire that others place upon you. This is why you may chose a career that doesn’t really suit you. You are not engaged in your career, and therefore you are less likely to keep up with trends and stay on top of your game. This ends with you having to follow others, because you have no sense of inner direction.
To find your life’s task:
When faced with deficiencies instead of strengths and inclinations, this is what you do:
Ignore your weaknesses and resist the temptation to be more like others. Instead, direct yourself towards small things that you are good at. Don’t set huge goals - focus on the small wins. Doing this, you will, step by step, reach your Life’s task eventually.
This story is about Charles Darwin and his ‘coming up’ story. He never loved school very much, but he loved to learn about and observe nature. His father wanted him to actually ‘become something’, so he got Darwin a job at a church. This job required Darwin to have a degree, so he went to Cambridge. While at Cambridge, he became friends with a professor, who recommended Darwin to go on a journey with HMS Beagle. He went, and doubted his choice very much on the way there. But once they arrived in Brazil, Darwin’s wonder of the place ‘took over’. He spent all of his time exploring, taking notes, and observing nature and its wild-life. After a while, they returned home - making a quick stop at the Galapagos Islands before that. There he observed what would be the foundations of his theory…
In every story of a great Master, it’s observed that they had about five years of development - a kind of ‘self-directed’ apprenticeship. They do not accomplish much in this period, but do not be mistaken, this period is where the seeds for their success is planted.
Principle: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 - the first transformation on the way to mastery.
Do not pick an apprenticeship that seems easy and comfortable.
Your only job is to observe and absorb as deeply as you possibly can.
Do not make this mistake of trying to impress or draw attention to yourself. Acknowledge reality, and submit to it. Keep in the background so that you are able to observe.
If you impress anyone in these first months, it’s because of your serious desire to learn - not because of your eagerness to rise to the top, for you are not ready.
You will be observing two essential realities:
You must only understand these rules, not moralize or complain about them. Once you have attained power and mastery, you will be the one to write or destroy these rules.
Everything you observe is something to decode and learn from.
You must first learn how to fit in and thrive.
After the observation phase, you enter the most critical part of the apprenticeship: practice toward the acquisition of skills.
Every human activity involves the mastering of skills. You will need to reduce these skills to something that captures the core of what you want to get good at.
The natural model for learning, primarily based on the power of mirror neurons, came from watching and imitating others, and then repeating the action over and over.
With any skill, the case is that we learn best through practice and repetition.
You will reach a point where practice becomes easier because you find it more interesting. You’ll then spend more time on it, get increasingly better, which makes it even more interesting… and so on. Reaching this cycle is a goal in itself. These are the principles you must learn about skills:
When starting to learn something new, a large number of neurons in the frontal cortex become active and help you in the learning process. The brain has to deal with a lot of new information, and it would be stressful and overwhelming even if only you used a limited part of the brain to handle it. The frontal cortex even expands in this initial phase as you focus on the task. However, after enough repetition, it becomes hardwired and automatic. The neural pathways for the skill are delegated to other parts of the brain father down the cortex. Now the neurons in the frontal cortex are free and are ready to help in learning something else - and it goes back to normal size again.
This process, however, cannot occur if you are constantly distracted by moving from one task to another.
When performing a task becomes automatic, you are able to observe yourself as you practice. Use this to take note of your flaws - analyze yourself. One thing is to receive feedback from yourself, another is to receive it from another. Try to do that as much as possible as well.
10.000 hours seems to be an almost magical number for achieving mastery. Therefore, constant practice over time will not fail but produce results.
As the name suggest; experiment.
The future belongs to those how learn more skills and combine them in creative ways. And the process of learning skills, no matter how virtual, remains the same.
“Do not think that what is hard for you to master is humanly impossible; and if it is humanly possible, consider it to be within your reach” - Marcus Aurelius
There is no reversal. No one can bypass the Apprenticeship Phase.
A story about the rise of Michael Faraday. He was taken under the wing of Humphry Davy, and become a great scientist, but Davy kept Faraday under his thumb. When Faraday made something great, Davy would attempt to ‘block’ it. In the end, Faraday became great anyway.
Learning requires a sense of humility. We have to realize that there are others than know more than we do.
During your Apprenticeship Phase, you need mentors whose authority you recognize and to whom you can submit.
You can learn by yourself, but that will take exponentially longer than by using a mentor. Mentors are like shortcuts.
Having one mentor is the ideal situation, but it’s not always possible to find the perfect one. If that’s the case for you, try to find several mentors near you - each one contributing and filling any gaps you may have.
You should remain active in the relationship between you and your mentor. This is how you exploit the relationships that you have with your mentors to the fullest:
It’s not wise to do without a mentor - but sometimes you do not have a choice. This is what Thomas Alva Edison had to do.
If you are forced upon a path of self-learning, you must develop extreme self-reliance. Become your own teacher and mentor.
Read more books than anyone with a formal education. Try to apply the knowledge in practice. Find second-degree mentors in the form of public figures who can serve as role models. Reflect on their experiences and read about them.
The story told here is about Benjamin Franklin. How he started in his brothers printing shop to when he becomes a prominent political figure.
Along the way, Franklin is taught a whole lot about the laws of human nature. Most importantly, to take a step back after each conversation and carefully analyze what the intentions of the other person is. Franklin had been burned one too many times, and had to find a way to stop that from happening. So the step back is how he did it - which saved him a great deal of trouble.
Social intelligence is the process of discarding the way of seeing the world through the emotional eyes of a child, and instead approaching something more realistic. It’s about focusing your attention outward instead of inward, being more observant and empathic. Not idealizing or demonizing people, but seeing them as they are.
You must realize that you are seeing the world through the emotional eyes of a child. To remove these lenses - reaching awareness of them being there - you must review your past, pay attention to any specific points (battles, mistakes, tensions, or disappointments) on the social front. Looking at these events through the lenses, you focus on what others have done to you. Instead, you must look inward - what did you do to cause this? What did you oversee in their character that led you to perform an action that would cause tension or the likes?
Now that you know, you must act upon this. Learn from what you see. Apply your knowledge.
And now that you’re aware, you will need to learn two new skills:
Train yourself to pay less attention to the words people say and greater attention to their tone of voice, the look in their eye, their body language - signals that might reveal nervousness or excitement that isn’t revealed verbally.
Try to put yourself in another person’s shoe. Try to truly understand their situation.
Nothing is too small to notice - read and decode every possible sign.
Do not judge a person based on your first impression.
Comparing ourselves to others and being upset that they are more successful than we are.
You can detect envy if people praise you too much or become overly friendly in the beginning of getting to know you.
You should try not to make people envious by occasionally displaying weakness (in other areas than your primary talent) so to avoid seeming too perfect.
If you are dealing with someone who is insecure, try to take interest in their work and ask them for advice.
Be careful to brag and remember to reveal your insecurities now and then - it humanizes you.
Envy is sparked by standing out too much. Blend in with the group until you are so successful that it no longer matters.
There are certain standards in communities and small groups. Be careful of displaying your difference too overtly.
Humans prefer what is familiar because it is comforting. People do things, not knowing why, but simply because they’ve worked in the past.
It is almost impossible to change others, but on your own; be open minded and cultivate new ideas.
If you need to ask a favor, think first of appealing to the other person’s self-interest. Understand their needs.
When interacting with others, find a way to make the conversations revolve around them.
Others are lazy and will gladly take credit for your work. Combat this with prudence. Keep your ideas to yourself.
This may happen if you are working for a superior, but do not let equals steal from you.
Never assume that what people say or do in a moment is a statement of their permanent desires. We constantly change emotions, which color our perceptions.
People’s actions are usually more consistent than their words.
Do not take other people’s promises too seriously. Rely on yourself.
Procrastination, showing up late, offhand comments designed to upset others. Avoid people who are passive aggressive.
If you do not have the patience that is required for managing and mastering the more subtle and manipulative sides of human nature, then your best answer is to keep yourself away from those situations as best as possible.
This chapter begins with the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his separation from his apprentice years and to the next stage. He had felt caged and wanted to get out. So, when in Vienna, he decided to stay there - against the wishes of his father. He truly made amazing work there - one being his opera Don Giovanni.
The Original Mind: The mind looked at the world more directly - not through any framework given to you by others.
The Conventional Mind: Our mind is now tainted by a framework; opinions and perceptions that shape the way we see the world.
Masters blend the two into The Dimensional Mind. The dimensional mind is active. Transforming everything it digests into something new and original - creating instead of consuming.
The Dimensional Mind has two requirements.
There are three steps to awakening The Dimensional Mind
We must also be aware of the emotional pitfalls that threatens our progress.
It is the choice of where to direct his or her creative energy that makes the Master. Your task must be connected to something deep within you. You must be obsessed.
The task must be realistic. Your knowledge and skills must be suited to pulling off completing the task. Maybe you will have to learn some new things, but you should already have a solid grasp of the basics and the field.
Also choose a task that is ambitious. Slightly above you. The Law of the Creative Dynamic - the higher the goal, the more energy you will call up from deep within.
Let go of your need for comfort and security. If you worry about what others might think and how your position in a group might be jeopardized, then you won’t really create anything.
Think of yourself as an explorer; you cannot find anything new if you are unwilling to leave the shore.
The ability to endure and even embrace mysteries and uncertainties is what Keats called negative capability.
Develop a habit of not needing to judge everything you see. Do something to break from your normal train of thoughts and your sense that you already know the truth. Read books from unfamiliar writers in unrelated fields or from other schools of thought etc.
Negative capability is to only be used temporarily. It is used to open up the mind to more possibilities.
A lot of great thoughts are made when the thinker is not concentrating on the problem directly. Instead, when he or she is doing something else. They make a connection and suddenly a discovery is made. That is called serendipity. There are two steps to allow for this:
To aid in cultivating serendipity, bring a notebook with you everywhere you go. If any thought, idea, or observation stands out to you, write it down.
Thinking in analogies and metaphors can also help you. Constantly look for analogies to expand your ideas.
[I would compare Serendipity to the diffuse mode that Dr. Barbara Oakley writes about in her book, A Mind for Numbers, and talks about in her course about learning].
We see something that make us curious. We think about it and find several explanations. Later on, we look at it again and may see it in a different way again. Cycle between speculation and experimentation or observation, and you will find the truth.
Scientists “must have a vivid intuitive imagination, for new ideas are not generated by deduction, but by an artistically creative imagination.” - Max Planck.
Be aware of the patterns that your mind falls into, and how to break out of them. This will unleash creative power.
A few patterns and how to break them:
Focus on the structure - how the parts relate as a whole. Our minds are a jumble, and this may be reflected in our works.
Be more mindful of details. Switch from macro to micro. Try to approach and idea or problem with an open mind.
But do not focus so much on the details that you become lost in them and forget the whole picture. That’s the other side of the same problem.
We see the world from a specific framework. We use paradigms to explain everything, we have to. Things that are set in stone, that we base our other research on. When we stumble upon an anomality, we dismiss it. But instead, remember that the biggest breakthroughs came from abnormalities.
The laws we have are not set in stone. Do not dismiss abnormalities, because they hold a breakthrough within them.
We might see something on the marketplace and look for what is already there - how do we make it better or cheaper. Instead, we should focus on a need that is not being met. A problem that hasn’t been solved.
Great thinkers, mathematicians, and scientists think in visual imagery instead of language. Nikola Tesla could supposedly visualize a machine and all of its parts and then go on to invent what he saw.
Use visual thinking: make images in your mind. Diagrams. Models.
You can also use the physical feeling of something - squeezing a ball for example - to think. Or smell. Use your senses.
Masters have high internal standards.
They are incredibly excited by a project in the beginning. After a lot of hard work, they become frustrated. They then take a break from it, and suddenly, the solution comes.
Do not ever get complacent. Remind yourself of how little you know. You are not yet a master. Your duty has not been fulfilled.
When we do something that is seen as a success or we accomplish an achievement, we tend to become set in our ways. We cling to what has worked before. However, creativity is an act of boldness. Do not become conservative - do not clutch to dead ideas or past successes.
Make creativity your goal - not comfort. You’ll be more successful for it.
In the apprentice phase, you have your mentors. Be careful not to become dependent of them. Have your own internal gauge of your own work. Become your own critic. Set standards for yourself.
To solve this, find pleasure in pain. Enjoy rigorous practice; to push past your limits; resist the easy way out.
You quickly become accustomed to praise and success. At some point, that will become your driving motivation to do your work. Do not let that happen. Remember that there are people better than you out there. Once your ego has inflated, the fall will become much more dangerous.
Avoid emotional extremes. Do not get hung up on a single frame of mind.
“The greatest impediment to creativity is your impatience”. “Love learning for its own sake”.
Specialists versus opportunists.
Being an opportunist is the foundation of human creativity.
When you begin with an ambitious goal, and start searching for ways to reach it, you’ll go in a thousand different directions - each one of them that could pan out in its own way. By chasing all of them you’ll exhaust yourself and never find success.
For example, wanting to start an online business but then see that there are many ways to do that. You’ll start chasing a lot of different business models, but never succeed in any because you don’t have time to do well in any one of them.
Instead, find something that sticks out. Look for a great yield. Dig deeply and you’ll discover endless opportunities for knowledge and application.
“Whatever you are creating or designing, you must test and use it yourself. Separating out the work will make you lose touch with its functionality”.
In the beginning of your project you must have an initial period of open-endedness. Experiment with the project - try out things.
It’s good to have a broad knowledge of your field, as well as other fields, so that you can make more associations and connections that you are using in your open-ended period.
Practice constant dissatisfaction with your work, it always needs improvement. Practice uncertainty as well. Not knowing where to go next will drive you to keep your project fresh and creative.
Obstacles are opportunities to improve your work.
“People are dying for the new, for what expresses the spirit of the time in an original way. By creating something new you will create your own audience, and attain the ultimate position of power in culture”.
In order to learn a subject or skill, especially complex ones, we must immerse ourselves in many details, techniques, and procedures that are standard for solving problems. This, however, makes us more likely to see any problem within a specific framework that we used to learn. Then we’ll solve every problem the same way.
Your project should always be connected to something bigger. An inspiring goal. Then, when your project begins to feel stale, return to the larger purpose.
“The lesson is simple - what constitutes true creativity is the openness and adaptability of our spirit. When we see or experience something, we must be able to look at it from several angles, to see other possibilities beyond the obvious ones.”
We often reduce complex ideas to analogies to better understand them. But this only paints a partial picture.
Instead, you must prefer the holistic approach. Look at the object of study from as many angles as possible - giving your thoughts added dimensions.
Assume that parts of any whole interact with one another, and cannot be completely separated. In your mind, get as close to the complicated truth and reality of your object of study as possible. In the process, great mysteries will unravel themselves before your eyes.
Your task as a creative thinker is to actively explore the unconscious and contradictory parts of your personality, and to examine similar contradictions and tensions in the world at large. Expressing these tensions within your work in any medium will create a powerful effect on others, making them sense unconscious truths or feelings that have been obscured or repressed.
In our society today, we romanticize the effects of drugs on creativity. Drugs do not contribute to creativity; in reality, it is great discipline, self-control and emotional stability that does.
People look at drugs as a shortcut to creativity, but remember that there are no shortcuts. There is only repeated practice for thousands of hours.
This chapter is about the story of Marcel Proust and his story. How he wrote In Search of Lost Time.
The time that leads to mastery is dependent on the intensity of our focus.
The key to attaining a higher level of intelligence is to make our years of study qualitatively rich. Don’t just absorb information; internalize it and make it your own by finding some way to put the knowledge to practical use.
“Intuition, primitive or high level, is essentially driven by memory. When we take in information of any kind, we store it in mnemonic networks in the brain. The stability and durability of these networks depends on repetition, intensity of experience, and how deeply we pay attention.”
Connecting to your environment is a powerful form of mastery.
“Knowing your strengths, you can lean on them with utmost intensity. Once you start in this direction, you will gain momentum. You will not be burdened by conventions, and you will not be slowed down by having to deal with skills that go against your inclinations and strengths. Inn this way, your creative and intuitive powers will be naturally awakened.”
“Mastery is like swimming - it is too difficult to move forward when we are creating our own resistance or swimming against the current. Know your strengths and move with them.”
“If we are learning a complex skill, such as flying a jet in combat, we must master a series of simple skills, one on top of the other. Each time one skill becomes automatic, the mind is freed up to focus on the higher one. At the very end of this process, when there are no more simple skills to learn, the brain has assimilated an incredible amount of information, all of which has become internalized, part of our nervous system. The whole complex skill is now inside us and at our fingertips. We are thinking, but in a different way - with the body and mind completely fused. We are transformed. We posses a form of intelligence that allows us to approximate the instinctual power of animals, but only through a conscious, deliberate, and extended practice.”
“Seeing your work as something alive, your path to mastery is to study and absorb these details in a universal fashion, to the point at which you feel the life force and can express it effortlessly in your work.”
“In any competitive environment in which there are winners or losers, the person who has the wider, more global perspective will inevitably prevail. The reason is simple: such a person will be able to think beyond the moment and control the overall dynamic through careful strategizing.”
“We can never really understand what other people are experiencing. We always remain on the outside looking in and this is the cause of so many misunderstandings and conflicts.”
We have to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes. We have to try to truly understand them.
The Universal Man / Woman: a person so steeped in all forms of knowledge that his mind grows closer to the reality of nature itself and sees secrets that are invisible to most people.
There is no reversal.