A master in his own lifetime
Management books, by their nature, slip quietly on to the shelves without much hype. The launch of Robert Greene’s latest book, Mastery, however, was accompanied with a video promo that could be likened to a Hollywood movie trailer.
Greene is certainly big business. His first title The 48 Laws of Power, sold a reported 1.2 million copies in the US alone and achieved a strong following with entrepreneurs, celebrities and the rap community, among others. He has followed through with four titles.
Greene is an unassuming and affable character, belying his best-seller power guru status. He jokes, for example, about his Jewish mother visiting bookshops and moving his titles to more prominent positions.
A common theme in his work is understanding the dynamics of power. The 48 Laws of Power addresses it explicitly but it also features in his other titles, The 33 Strategies of War, The 50th Law, co-written with rap artist 50 Cent, and The Art of Seduction.
Mastery takes things to a different level. It is a big read, stretching to more than 300 tightly packed pages. Achieving mastery is not an easy feat, he agrees, but it is something that most people can achieve if they put in the effort. The book provides a road map for how to do this and in distilling the stories of famous masters from the worlds of art, science and business, shows the common themes running through the lives of those who have achieved it.
Greene claims to have spent 20,000 hours researching the book and says he had an epiphany in 2007 when the themes came together. The starting point for mastery is to have a deep and abiding passion for a subject. This needs to be followed by an apprenticeship, then a creative period where we experiment and make necessary mistakes before achieving mastery.
“Masters don’t necessarily have a high IQ but they do have radar that guides them like a north star. If they take wrong turns, it pulls them back,” he observes.
Mastery, he adds, is about having an inner calling; those who follow it can withstand the pain of the process – the self-doubts, the long hours of practice, the setbacks and criticisms from the envious. It is as much a matter of emotional resilience as what is commonly perceived as intelligence.
Being a maverick, not fitting in with the establishment and taking divergent paths emerge as common themes. Academic achievement is not a precursor for mastery as many have demonstrated over the years, Greene says. Having a good mentor is more important, he adds.
Did anything really surprise him on this journey of discovery? The case of Temple Grandin did, he says. Born in 1947 in Boston, Grandin was diagnosed with severe autism at the age of three. Through special mentoring with a therapist, she mastered the language skills necessary for a college psychology degree.
Grandin had an early affinity with animals, especially the cattle she became familiar with on her aunt’s ranch in Arizona. She became fascinated with a squeeze chute used to relax the animals before vaccination shots, something she found calming herself.
The obsession with cattle chutes and animal psychology led her eventually to design more humane slaughterhouses and systems for managing farm animals. She returned to university as a professor and is now acknowledged as an authority on both animals and autism.
“It is fascinating and inspirational to see how she overcame such huge hurdles to hit upon her life task,” Greene notes. He adds that gender, race, disability, background or age should not be barriers to mastery.
The collaboration with 50 Cent proved interesting for Greene. The rap artist had a difficult upbringing in Queen’s in New York, in contrast to Greene’s comfortable middle-class background in Los Angeles, yet they found much common ground. There was a mutual interest in strategy and power and they found a lot more similarities than differences.
“I hung out with him a lot and it was like having a living laboratory. He has a Zen-like quality, an inner calm unlike anyone I’ve ever met. Nothing seemed to faze him. There was an issue with a rapper who had fallen out with him – you could liken it to a Lucifer experience. He talks about his response to this strategically, without letting go of his emotions.”
50 Cent, he says, has built a successful business empire on the strength of this emotional intelligence, specifically on his lack of fear. “It’s a model based on getting feedback from the street, experimenting and adapting all the time. Most businessmen are afraid to do this – to get that close to their customers.”
Greene’s work has proved popular with the rap community, coming on the back of their interest in Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Empowerment is the issue here. Green says his books have proven popular with the artists’ managers more so than the artists themselves.
“People who have not had the opportunity of a MBA, let’s say, now want to know what drives success, what strategies work. I’ve been fortunate in my timing there, I guess,” he acknowledges.