A Voice Of Wisdom In Creativity Quarrel: “Mastery” by Robert Greene

A Voice Of Wisdom In Creativity Quarrel: “Mastery” by Robert Greene

A Voice Of Wisdom In Creativity Quarrel: “Mastery” by Robert Greene

Many books on creativity you see on your bookshelf right now might have a lifespan of a butterfly, but this one, like every classic, will survive all the quarrels.

As The Creativity Post turns nine years old today, it is a perfect moment to take inventory, look back, and assess what we might have missed during all these years of exploring creativity. It is also a great time to highlight one notable voice in this complex and ongoing discussion.

I’m asked very often what book on creativity would I recommend? Consistently and without hesitation, I name one title: ​Mastery​ by Robert Greene. This 2012 work is, in my mind, a perfect primer for everyone interested in the field. The author, known for his comprehensive approach to any subject, draws upon a massive and diverse body of collective knowledge coming from history, arts, science, business, and practically everything in between. The result of his efforts is an enlightening read to everyone interested in the fresh conceptualization of creativity. In my opinion, the book offers something of interest to all researchers in the field, from psychologists and neuroscientists to philosophers and computer scientists. What's more unusual and important, ​Mastery​ is a book equally suitable for those who are making their first steps into studies on creativity as well as for creative practitioners who are looking for hands-on advice.

If at this point you are inclined to think that ​Mastery i​s yet another popular book loosely based on actual science, you are mistaken. Greene’s writings don’t belong with the anecdote-filled lightweight literature. Carefully constructed over the years of painstaking and extensive research, his work stands out for its broad approach and intellectual discipline. Written with an equal dose of eloquence and perceptiveness, this hefty volume is hard to summarize but easy to take in. With its far-reaching insight into basic processes and ideas, ironclad logic worthy of a classical thinker, and clear structure. ​Mastery ​feels like a cross between a deep philosophical treaty and a self-help book for those seeking the titular skill, with one notable difference: it is neither rigid like the former nor brain-numbing like the latter.

In six chapters, Greene lays down his thesis: mastery is not a personality trait but a time-consuming, laborious, and multilevel process. He defines the ultimate goal of every serious, high-level creative pursuit as the state of mind in which the accumulated skill and knowledge fuses with intuition. “Mastery [is] the feeling that we have a greater command of reality, other people, and ourselves,” we read in the Introduction:

While the ability to form new connections is inherent to all​ Homo sapiens​ as their evolutionary birthright, only some are capable of realizing their full potential. Greene’s message can be read as: “No, you cannot fake it until you make it”. The road to mastery requires deep soul-searching and determination. A quest for purpose and commitment begins with agency, humility, and razor-sharp focus. A seeker becomes an apprentice first by finding a mentor and absorbing their skill and imitating their methods – only to eventually transcend them. Mastery emerges where activation of the vast resources meets openness and fluency.

Welcome to reality

What’s interesting about Greene’s approach, he identifies independent thinking as a crucial part of transformational creative achievement. ”You are on your own,” he seems to be saying to the reader who wants to fulfill their potential. He communicates that every highly creative idea is rejected at first. Therefore, the sense of independence comes from a need to survive and thrive as an individual, and relies on flexibility and adaptability often seen in mavericks and underdogs.​ ​While highly imaginative, highly creative people are by no means hopeless romantics: they value finding a niche over blindly following unrealistic “dreams,”; they actively seek a point of practical conversion between what they know best and what is needed to advance their field and/or fulfill existing demand. They are grounded in​ reality:​ Green often uses this term, without hesitation. Instead of making grand plans, the future game-changers commit long hours to perfect their skills which will help to accomplish goals. This simple shift of attention brings confidence and proficiency, crucial in any pursuit.

An adequate sense of reality facilitates introducing new ideas to society at large. Greene refutes the ​naive perspective​, based on infantile illusions about people and mechanisms guiding society which distorts our view and constantly causes emotional reactions. To properly apply ​social intelligence​ means to move beyond idealizing and demonizing towards understanding, seeing people for who they really are... with total acceptance.

“Social intelligence is nothing more than the process of discarding the Naive Perspective and approaching something more realistic. It involves focusing our attention outward instead of inward, honing the observational and empathic skills that we naturally possess. It means moving past our tendency to idealize and demonize people, and seeing and accepting them as they are” (Mastery, p. 136)

At this point, Greene’s book can be seen as a combination of a how-to manual for personal improvement and character building – which, to me, echoes the sentiment prevalent in all virtue ethics​. In order to be a better creative, one needs to improve oneself.

Learn how to learn

Apprenticeship and mentorship are concepts underappreciated in the current model of education: we tend to forget how beneficial it is to learn from other people and experience the undivided attention of those who simply know more. There are multiple aspects of learning this way. Following instructions at the early stages is more efficient than undirected trial and error. Greene calls such practical knowledge “a commodity”, which I find particularly apt in this context. Once acquired, this commodity of practical know-how – understood as a set of factual and algorithmic knowledge – can make a long road to mastery significantly shorter. The faster one masters this aspect, the sooner they can move towards re-inventing.

Greene points out that the critical moment of active creation that happens ​after​ the period of passive observation and deliberate practice. At this point, it is necessary to reject rigid principles, and only an intimate knowledge of ​what ​works shows ​how​ to break a mold and transcend towards ​meaningful​ creativity. It hinges on an ability to question everything which one learned. As Picasso put it in his famous statement about the artist: one has to learn the rules in order to break them.

To become a master, one needs the ability to expand knowledge into different fields and make associations between ideas, even those drawn from seemingly unrelated fields. Greene correctly assumes that dealing with complexity actually requires more knowledge, not less. We tend to think that technology and access to information makes things easier to understand, while in fact, the opposite is true:

“A businessperson must have a command of a much larger picture than in the past, which means more knowledge and skills. The future of science does not lie in increased specialization, but rather in the combining and cross-fertilization of knowledge in various fields.”(​Mastery,​ p.63)

The key to mastery lies in the courage to experiment and look at things from different angles – including those that might seem unlikely to work at first glimpse. Yet, there is a method to this madness. The process of distilling a large set of possibilities into one groundbreaking solution is not a matter of luck or randomness. A solid background gives us an upper hand by allowing us to eliminate all noise from our divergent thinking and pick the pieces that will make sense. According to Greene, the ultimate tool of a master required to revolutionize any discipline is ​The Dimensional Mind.

The Dimensional Mind

What is characteristic for people with the ability to create on a high level is what Greene calls The Dimensional Mind. He says:

"The Dimensional Mind has two essential requirements: one, a high level of knowledge about a field and subject; and two, the openness and flexibility to use this knowledge in new and original ways” (Mastery, p. 178).

The Dimensional Minds are able to avoid the so-called ​technical lock​ so prevalent in minds of many professionals who are not necessarily creative. With expertise comes a danger of developing tunnel vision. The lack of big-picture thinking often reinforces being stuck in this state when one is narrowly focused on technicalities and minor disputes on high levels. Often when one studies hammers one starts to see nails everywhere. This type of attitude prevents many competent minds from developing highly creative solutions to problems. The Dimensional Mind pairs with certain social skills: first the ability to face reality as it is (which is often unpleasant), then the ability to let go of certainty and comfort/security - creative endeavors are by definition uncertain. Creative people can make broader and deeper connections; they also don’t rush with labels and generalizations - the opposite is true - they are looking for connections that are often hidden in plain sight.

Mastery is, therefore, a fusion of intuitive and rational process, but explained by Greene in a slightly different way:

“It would be a misconception (...) to imagine that masters are simply following their intuitions and moving beyond rational thinking. First, it is through all their hard work, the depth of knowledge, and the development of their analytical skills that they reach this higher form of intelligence. Second, when they experience this intuition or insight, they invariably subject it to a high degree of reflection and reasoning” (...) we find intuition and reasoning mutually exclusive, but in fact, in this high level, they operate together in a seamless fashion." (Mastery, p. 259).


In the field of studies on creativity, progress often gets stymied by epistemological chaos: Mastery makes an attempt to systematize critical aspects of high-level creativity by looking at the subject matter with a fresh eye and philosophical consistency. Greene introduces his own terminology not to confuse but rather to paint a more coherent and broader picture of all aspects important in understanding hi-level creativity. He does it successfully.

In my opinion, his book is a testimony to the fact, that when it comes to very complex phenomena (and creativity is one of them) knowledge gathered by studying the subject deeply and taking into consideration all accessible insides from multiple perspectives might be less capricious and more systematic than approaching the same subject via fragmented, often unsolid data. In that context, Robert Greene should be viewed as a philosopher of creativity and his voice should be heard loud and clear. Let’s remember that we often don’t need to fully agree with philosophers at wholesale, yet reading comprehensive approaches like Aristotle’s, Hume’s, or Nietzsche’s often sheds light on some aspects of phenomena missed if looked at from a less general perspective.

Some timely and very important lessons might be drawn from Greene’s approach.

Perhaps psychology will not be able to unveil and understand the phenomenon of human creativity by simply comparing the results of studies on personality traits. Divergent and convergent thinking is essential for cognition, but what makes creativity different? Too much focus on single personality traits like grit (conscientiousness) or imagination (openness to experience) might miss some unique traits necessary for understanding the personality of a creator (if indeed there is one). A less reductionistic concept of character used by Greene captures more subtleties here.

Perhaps those who study the creative process rather than a creative person omit another important point by Greene: creativity is essentially an “evolutionary hijacking”- it is a constant reconfiguration of existing ideas and patterns to fit the reality of a current situation. The author says: “creativity and adaptability are inseparable” (Mastery, p. 236). Creative ideas are born and perfected in the environment of current circumstances, hi-level creators have a deep understanding of things. To replicate it in vitro (either in a computer system, algorithm, or any simple 5 steps training methodology) might be farther away than we are hoping for. Meaningful creativity comes from a fusion between intuitive and rational. Yet intuitive is forged by deep, intimate, and tacit knowledge about the subject. If he is right an algorithmic replication of that intuition would require computer systems to have a semblance of understanding, or at least the ability to transfer knowledge from one discipline to another.

Robert Greene is unbaffled by modern trends of catchy jargon, premature conclusions from minuscule studies, or any other staples of pop-psychology. He just methodically paints a complex and intriguing picture of the phenomenon of hi-level creativity (aka mastery). We used to call that approach - wisdom - a type of practical knowledge which is not only perceptive but also highly informed by a deep level of understanding. Many books on creativity you see on your bookshelf right now might have a lifespan of a butterfly, but this one, like every classic, will survive all the quarrels.

Mastery by Robert Greene

Robert Greene is the author of the international bestsellers The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, The 33 Strategies of War, and The 50th Law. His fifth book, Mastery, examines the lives of historical figures such as Charles Darwin, Mozart, Paul Graham, and Henry Ford and distills the traits and universal ingredients that made them masters. Greene’s most recent volume, The Laws of Human Nature (2018), examines the human behavior that offers tactics for success, self-improvement, and self-defense against the conscious and unconscious drives and cognitive biases.

comments powered by Disqus