“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became “geniuses” (as we put it), through qualities the lack of which no one who knew what they were would boast of: they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
The Ultimate Power
We imagine that creativity and brilliance just appear out of nowhere, the fruit of natural talent, or perhaps of a good mood, or an alignment of the stars. Let us call this sensation mastery—the feeling that we have a greater command of reality, other people, and ourselves. Although it might be something we experience for only a short while, for others—Masters of their field—it becomes their way of life, their way of seeing the world. (Such Masters include Leonardo da Vinci, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, and Martha Graham, among many others.). And at the root of this power is a simple process that leads to mastery—one that is accessible to all of us.
The process can be illustrated in the following manner: Let us say we are learning the piano, or entering a new job where we must acquire certain skills. In the beginning, we are outsiders. Our initial impressions of the piano or the work environment are based on prejudgments, and often contain an element of fear. When we first study the piano, the keyboard looks rather intimidating—we don’t understand the relationships between the keys, the chords, the pedals, and everything else that goes into creating music. In a new job situation, we are ignorant of the power relationships between people, the psychology of our boss, the rules and procedures that are considered critical for success. We are confused—the knowledge we need in both cases is over our heads.
Although we might enter these situations with excitement about we can learn or do with our new skills, we quickly realize how much hard work there is ahead of us. The great danger is that we give in to feelings of boredom, impatience, fear, and confusion. We stop observing and learning. The process comes to a halt.
If, on the other hand, we manage these emotions and allow time to take its course, something remarkable begins to take shape. As we continue to observe and follow the lead of others, we gain clarity, learning the rules and seeing how things work and fit together. If we keep practicing, we gain fluency; basic skills are mastered, allowing us to take on newer and more exciting challenges. We begin to see connections that were invisible to us before. We slowly gain confidence in our ability to solve problems or overcome weaknesses through sheer persistence.
At a certain point, we move from student to practitioner. We try out our own ideas, gaining valuable feedback in the process. We use our expanding knowledge in ways that are increasingly creative. Instead of just learning how others do things, we bring our own style and individuality into play.
As years go by and we remain faithful to this process, yet another leap takes place—to mastery. The keyboard is no longer something outside of us; it is internalized and becomes part of our nervous system, our fingertips. In our career, we now have a feel for the group dynamic, the current state of business. We can apply this feel to social situations seeing deeper into other people and anticipating their reactions. We can make decisions that are rapid and highly creative. Ideas come to us. We have learned the rules so well that we can now be the ones to break or rewrite them.
In the process leading to this ultimate form of power, we can identify three distinct phases or levels. The first is the Apprenticeship; the second is the Creative-Active; the third, Mastery. In the first phase, we stand on the outside of our field, learning as much as we can of the basic elements and rules. We have only a partial picture of the field and so our powers are limited. In the second phase, through much practice and immersion, we see into the inside of the machinery, how things connect with one another, and thus gain a more comprehensive understanding of the subject. With this comes a new power—the ability to experiment and creatively play with the elements involved. In the third phase, our degree of knowledge, experience, and focus is so deep that we can now see the whole picture with complete clarity. We have access to the heart of life—to human nature and natural phenomena. That is why the artwork of Masters touches us at the core; the artist has captured something of the essence of reality. That is why the brilliant scientist can uncover a new law of physics, and the inventor or entrepreneur can hit upon something no one else has imagined.
We can call this power intuition, but intuition is nothing more than a sudden and immediate seizing of what is real, without the need for words or formulas. The words and formulas may come later, but this flash of intuition is what ultimately brings us closer to reality, as our minds suddenly become illuminated by some particle of truth previously hidden to us and to others.
Intuitive powers at the mastery level are a mix of the instinctive and the rational, the conscious and the unconscious, the human and the animal. It is our way of making sudden and powerful connections to the environment, to feeling or thinking inside things. Often in life we have glimpses of this power—for instance, when we have an inkling of what will come next in a particular situation, or when the perfect answer to a problem comes to us out of nowhere. But these moments are ephemeral and not based on enough experience to make them repeatable. When we reach mastery, this intuition is a power at our command, the fruit of working through the lengthier process. And because e the world prizes creativity and this ability to uncover new aspects of reality, it brings us tremendous practical power as well.
Over the centuries, people have placed a wall around such mastery. They have called it genius and have thought of it as inaccessible. They have seen it as the product of privilege, inborn talent, or just the right alignment of the stars. They have made it seem as if it were as elusive as magic. But that wall is imaginary.
The common explanations for a Mozart or a Leonardo da Vinci revolve around natural talent and brilliance. How else to account for their uncanny achievements except in terms of something they were born with? But thousands upon thousands of children display exceptional skill and talent in some field, yet relatively few of them ever amount to anything, whereas those who are less brilliant in their youth can often attain much more. Natural talent or a high IQ cannot explain future achievement.
Basic elements are repeated in the lives of all of the great Masters in history: a youthful passion or predilection, a chance encounter that allows them to discover how to apply it, an apprenticeship in which they come alive with energy and focus. They excel by their ability to practice harder and move faster through the process, all of this stemming from the intensity of their desire to learn and from the deep connection they feel to their field of study. And at the core of this intensity of effort is in fact a quality that is genetic and inborn—not talent or brilliance, which is something that must be developed, but rather a deep and powerful inclination toward a particular subject.
With those who stand out by their later mastery, they experience this inclination more deeply and clearly than others. They experience it as an inner calling. It tends to dominate their thoughts and dreams. They find their way, by accident or sheer effort, to a clear path in which this inclination can flourish. The intense connection and desire allows them to withstand the pain of the process—the self-doubts, the tedious hours of practice and study, the inevitable setbacks, the endless barbs from the envious. They develop a resiliency and confidence that others lack.
In our culture we tend to equate thinking and intellectual powers with success and achievement. In many ways, however, it is an emotional quality that separates those who master a field from the many who simply work at a job. Our levels of desire, patience, persistence, and confidence end up playing a much larger role in success than sheer reasoning powers. Feeling motivated and energized, we can overcome almost anything. Feeling bored and restless, our minds shut off and we become increasingly passive.
In the past, only elites or those with an almost superhuman amount of energy and drive could pursue a career of their choice and master it. These social and political barriers, however, have mostly disappeared. Today we have the kind of access to information and knowledge that past Masters could only dream about. Now more than ever, we have the capacity and freedom to move toward the inclination that all of us possess as part of our genetic uniqueness.
Although we may find ourselves at a historical moment rich in possibilities for mastery, in which more and more people can move toward their inclinations, we in fact face one last obstacle in attaining such power, one that is cultural and insidiously dangerous: The very concept of mastery has become denigrated, associated with something old-fashioned and even unpleasant. It is generally not seen as something to aspire to.
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 can make it look like we are not really responsible for our fate, for what happens to us in life, then our apparent powerlessness is more palatable. For this reason, we become attracted to certain narratives: it is genetics that determines much of what we do; we are just products of our times; the individual is just a myth; human behavior can be reduced to statistical trends.
If you are not careful, you will find this attitude infecting you in subtle ways. You will unconsciously lower your sights as to what you can accomplish in life. This can diminish your levels of effort and discipline below the point of effectiveness. Conforming to social norms, you will listen more to others than to your own voice. You may choose a career path based on what peers and parents tell you, or on what seems lucrative. If you lose contact with this inner calling, you can have some success in life, but eventually your lack of true desire catches up with you. Your work becomes mechanical. You come to live for leisure and immediate. Pleasures. In this way you become increasingly passive, and never move past the first phase. You may grow frustrated and depressed, never realizing that the source of it is your alienation from your own creative potential.
Finally, you must not see this process of moving through levels of intelligence as merely linear, heading toward some kind of ultimate destination known as mastery. Your whole life is a kind of apprenticeship to which you apply your learning skills. Everything that happens to you is a form of instruction if you pay attention. The creativity that you gain in learning a skill so deeply must be constantly refreshed, as you keep forcing your mind back to a state of openness. Even knowledge of your vocation must be revisited throughout the course of your life as changes in circumstance force you to adapt its direction.
The moment that you rest, thinking that you have attained the level you desire, a part of your mind enters a phase of decay. You lose your hard-earned creativity and others begin to sense it. This is a power and intelligence that must be continually renewed, or it will die.
Discover Your Calling: The Life’s Task
You possess a kind of inner force that seeks to guide you toward your “Life’s Task”—what you are meant to accomplish in the time that you have to live. In childhood this force was clear to you. It directed you toward activities and subjects that fit your natural inclinations, that sparked a curiosity that was deep and primal. In the intervening years, the force tends to fade in and out as you listen more to parents and peers, to the daily anxieties that wear away at you. This can be the source of your unhappiness—your lack of connection to who you are and what makes you unique. The first move toward mastery is always inward—learning who you really are and reconnecting with that innate force. Knowing it with clarity, you will find your way to the proper career path and everything else will fall into place. It is never too late to start this process.
Many of the greatest Masters in history have confessed to experiencing some kind of force or voice or sense of destiny that has guided them forward. For Napoleon Bonaparte it was his “star” that he always felt in ascendance when he made the right move. For Socrates, it was his daemon, a voice that. He heard, perhaps from the gods, which inevitably spoke to him in the negative—telling him what to avoid. For Goethe, he also called it a daemon—a kind of spirit that dwelled within him and compelled him to fulfill his destiny. In more modern times, Albert Einstein talked of a kind of inner voice that shaped the direction of his speculations.
Such feelings can be seen as purely mystical, beyond explanation, or as hallucinations and delusions. But there is another way to see them—as eminently real, practical, and explicable. It can be explained in the following way:
All of us are born unique. This uniqueness is marked genetically in our DNA. We are a one-time phenomenon in the universe—our exact genetic makeup has never occurred before nor will it ever be repeated. For all of us, this uniqueness first expresses itself in childhood through certain primal inclinations. For Leonardo da Vinci it was exploring the natural world around his village and bringing it to life on paper in his own way. For others, it can be an early attraction to visual patterns—often an indication of a future interest in mathematics. How can we explain such inclinations? They are forces within us that come from a deeper place than conscious words can express. They draw us to certain experiences and away from others. As these forces move us here or there, they influence the development of our minds in very particular ways.
This primal uniqueness naturally wants to assert and express itself, but some experience it more strongly than others. With Masters it is so strong that it feels like something that has its own external reality—a force, a voice, a destiny.
What weakens this force, what makes you not feel it or even doubt its existence, is the degree to which you have succumbed to another force in life—social pressures to conform. This counterforce can be very powerful. You want to fit into a group. Unconsciously, you might feel that what makes you different is embarrassing or painful. Your parents often act as a counterforce as well. They may seek to direct you to a career path that is lucrative and comfortable. If these counterforces become strong enough, you can lose complete contact with your uniqueness, with who you really are. Your inclinations and desires become modeled on those of others.
At all cost you must avoid such a fate. Too often we make a separation in our lives—there is work and there is life outside work, where we find real pleasure and fulfillment. Work is often seen as a means for making money so we can enjoy that second life that we lead. Instead you want to see your work as something more inspiring, as part of your vocation. The word “vocation” comes from the Latin meaning to call or to be called.
You must see your career or vocational path more as a journey with twists and turns rather than a straight line. You begin by choosing a field or position that roughly corresponds to your inclinations. This initial position offers you room to maneuver and important skills to learn. You don’t want to start with something too lofty, too ambitious—you need to make a living and establish some confidence. Once on this path you discover certain side routes that attract you, while other aspects of this field leave you cold. You adjust and perhaps move to a related field, continuing to learn more about yourself, but always expanding off your skill base. You take what you do for others and make it your own. Eventually, you will hit upon a particular field, niche, or opportunity that suits you perfectly. You will recognize ti when you find it because it will spark that childlike sense of wonder and excitement; it will feel right.
Some 2,600 years ago, the ancient Greek poet Pindar wrote, “Become who you are by learning who you are.” What he meant was the following: You are born with a particular makeup and tendencies that mark you as a piece of fate. It is who you are to the core. Some people never become who they are; they stop trusting in themselves; they conform to the tastes of others, and they end up wearing a mask that hides their true nature. If you allow yourself to learn who you really are by paying attention to that voice and force within you, then you can become what you were fated to become—an individual, a Master.
In order to master. A field, you must love the subject and feel a profound connection to it. Your interest must transcend the field itself and border on the religious. For Einstein, it was not physics but a fascination with invisible forces that governed the universe; for Bergman, it was not film but the sensation fo creating and animating lfie; for Coltrane, it was not music but giving voice to powerful emotions.
The career world is like an ecological system: People occupy particular fields within which they must compete for resources and survival. The more people there are crowded into a space, the harder it becomes to thrive there. Working in such a field will tend to wear you out as you struggle to get attention, to play the political games, to win scarce resources for yourself. You spend so much time at these games that you have little times left over for true mastery. You are seduced into such fields because you see others there making a living, treading the familiar path. You are not aware of how difficult such a life can be.
The came you want to play is different: to instead find a niche in the ecology that you can dominate. It is never a simple process to find such a niche. It requires patience and a particular strategy. In the beginning you choose a field that roughly corresponds to your interests (i.e. medicine, electrical engineering). From there you can go in one of two directions.
The first is to look for side paths that particularly attract you from within your chosen field. When it is possible, you make a move to this narrower field. You continue this process until you eventually hit upon a totally unoccupied niche, the narrower the better. In some ways, this niche corresponds to your uniqueness.
The second path: once you have mastered your first field (i.e. robotics), you look for other subjects or skills that you can conquer (i.e. neuroscience), on your own time if necessary. You can now combine this added field of knowledge to the original one, perhaps creating a new field, or at least making novel connections between them. You continue this process as long as you wish. Ultimately you create a field that is uniquely your own. This second version fits in well with a culture where information is so widely available, and in which connecting ideas is a form of power. In either direction, you have found a niche that is not crowded with competitors. You have freedom to roam, to pursue particular questions that interest you. You set your own agenda and command the resources available to you in this niche. Unburdened by overwhelming competition and politicking, you have time and space to bring to flower your Life’s Task.
A false path in life is generally something we are attracted to for the wrong reasons—money, fame, attention, and so on. If it is attention we need, we often experience a kind of emptiness inside that. We are hoping to fill with the false love of public approval. Because the field we choose does not correspond with our deepest inclinations, we rarely find the fulfillment that we crave. Our work suffers for this, and the attention we may have gotten in the beginning starts to fade—a painful process. If it is money and comfort that dominate our decisions, we are most often acting out of anxiety and the need to please our parents.
Your strategy must be twofold: first, to realize as early as possible that you have chosen your career for the wrong reasons, before your confidence takes a hit. And second, to actively rebel against those forces that have pushed you away from your true path. Scoff at the need for attention and approval—they will lead you astray. Feel some anger and resentment at the parental forces that want to foist upon you an alien vocation. It is a healthy part of your development to follow a path independent of your parents and to establish your own identity. Let your sense of rebellion fill you with energy and purpose. It is the father figure, the Leopold Mozart, that is blocking your path, you must slay him and clear the way.
In dealing with your career and its inevitable changes, you must think in the following way: You are not tied to a particular position; your loyalty is not to a career or company. You are committed t oYour Live’s Task, to giving it full expression. It is up to you to find it and guide it correctly. It is not up to others to protect or help you. You are on your own. Since you are on your own, it is up to you to foresee the changes going on right now in your profession. You must adapt your Life’s Task to these circumstances. You do not hold on to past ways of doing things, because that will ensure you will fall behind and suffer for it. You are flexible and always looking to adapt.
If change is forced upon you, you must resist the temptation to overreact or feel sorry for yourself. You don’t want to abandon the skills and experience you have gained, but to find a new way to apply them. Your eye is on the future, not the past. Often such creative readjustments lead to a superior path for us—we are shaken out of our complacency and forced to reassess where we are headed. Remember: your Life’s Task is a living, breathing organism. The moment you rigidly follow a plan set in your youth, you lock yourself into a position, and the times will ruthlessly pass you by.
No good can ever come from deviating from the path that you were destined to follow. You will be assailed by varieties of hidden pain. Most often you deviate because of the lure of money, of more immediate prospects of prosperity. Because this does not comply with something deep within you, your interest will lag and eventually the money will not come so easily. You will search for other easy sources of money, moving further and further away from your path. Not seeing clearly ahead of you, you will end up in a dead-end career. Even if your material needs are met, you will feel an emptiness inside that you will need to fill with any kind of belief system, drugs, or diversions.
The way back requires a sacrifice. You cannot have everything in the present. The road to mastery requires patience. You will have to keep your focus on five or ten years down the road, when you will reap the rewards of your efforts. The process of getting there, however, is full of challenges and pleasures. Make your return to the path a resolution you set for yourself, and then tell others about it. It becomes a matter of shame and embarrassment to deviate from this path. In the end, the money and success that truly last come not to those who focus on such things as goals, but rather to those who focus on mastery and fulfilling their Life’s Task.
Understand: Your Live’s Task does not always appear to you through some grand or promising inclination. It can appear in the guise of your deficiencies, making you focus on the one or two things that you are inevitably good at. Working at these skills, you learn the value of discipline and see the rewards you get from your efforts. Like a lotus flower, your skills will expand outward from a center of strength and confidence. Do not envy those who seem to be naturally gifted; it is often a curse, as such types rarely learn the value of diligence and focus, and they pay for this later in life. This strategy applies as well to any setbacks and difficulties we may experience. In such moments, it is generally wise to stick to the few things we know and do well, and to reestablish our confidence.
Submit to Reality: The Ideal Apprenticeship
The Keys to Mastery
After your formal education, you enter the most critical phase in your life—a second, practical education known as The Apprenticeship. Every time you change careers or acquire new skills, you reenter this phase of life. The dangers are many. If you are not careful, you will succumb to insecurities, become embroiled in emotional issues and conflicts that will dominate your thoughts; you will develop fears and learning disabilities that you will carry with you throughout your life. Before it is too late you must learn the lessons and follow the path established by the greatest masters, past and present—a kind of Ideal Apprenticeship that transcends all fields. In the process you will master the necessary skills, discipline your mind, and transform yourself into an independent thinker, prepared for the creative challenges on the way to mastery.
In the stories of the greatest Masters, past and present, we can inevitably detect a phase in their lives in which all of their future powers were in development, like the chrysalis of a butterfly. This part of their lives—a largely self-directed apprenticeship that lasts some five to ten years—receives little attention because it does not contain stores of great achievement or discovery. Often in their Apprenticeship Phase, these types are not yet much different from anyone else. Under the surface, however, their minds are transforming in ways we cannot see but contain all of the seeds of their future success.
Much of how such Masters navigate this phase comes from an intuitive grasp of what is important and essential for their development, but in studying what they did right we can learn some invaluable lessons for ourselves. In fact, a close examination of their lives reveals a pattern that transcends their various fields, indicating a kind of Ideal Apprenticeship for mastery. And to grasp this pattern, to follow it in our own ways, we must understand something about the very idea and necessity for passing through an apprenticeship.
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. You enter a career as an outsider. You are naïve and full of misconceptions about this new world. Your head is full of dreams and fantasies about the future. Your knowledge of the world is subjective, based on emotions, insecurities, and limited experience. Slowly, you will ground yourself in reality, in the objective world represented by the knowledge and skills that make people successful in it. You will learn how to work with others and handle criticism. In the process you will transform yourself from someone who is important and scattered into someone who is disciplined and focused, with a mind that can handle complexity. In the end, you will master yourself and all of your weaknesses.
This has a simple consequence: you must choose places of work and positions that offer the greatest possibilities for learning. Practical knowledge is the ultimate commodity, and is what will pay you dividends for decades to come—far more than the paltry increase in pay you might receive at some seemingly lucrative position that offers fewer learning opportunities. This means that you move toward challenges that will toughen and improve you, where you will get the most objective feedback on your performance and progress. You do not choose apprenticeships that seem easy and comfortable.
In this sense you must see yourself as following in the footsteps of Charles Darwin. You are finally on your own, on a voyage in which you will craft your own future. It is the time of youth and adventure—of exploring the world with an open mind and spirit. In fact, whenever you must learn a new skill or alter your career path later in life, you reconnect with that youthful, adventurous part of yourself. Darwin could have played it safe, collecting what was necessary, and spending more time on board studying instead of actively exploring. In that case, he would not have become an illustrious scientist, but just another collector. He constantly looked for challenges, pushing himself past his comfort zone. He used danger and difficulties as a way to measure his progress. You must adopt such a spirit and see your apprenticeship as a kind of journey in which you will transform yourself, rather than as a drab indoctrination into the work world.
Keep in mind that an apprenticeship can come in many different forms. It can happen at one place over several years, or it can consist of several different positions in different places, a kind of compound apprenticeship involving many different skills. It can include a mix of graduate school and practical experience. Your task is to observe and absorb reality as deeply as possible.
The greatest mistake you can make in the initial months of your apprenticeship is to imagine that you have to get attention, impress people, and prove yourself. These thoughts will dominate your mind and close it off from the reality around you. Any positive attention you receive is deceptive; it is not based on your skills or anything real, and it will turn against you. Instead, you will want to acknowledge the reality and submit to it, muting your colors and keeping in the background as much as possible, remaining passive and giving yourself the space to observe. You will also want to drop any preconceptions you might have about this world you are entering. If you impress people in these first months, it should be because e of the seriousness of your desire to learn, not because you are trying to rise to the top before you are ready.
You are like an anthropologist studying an alien culture, attuned to all of its nuances and conventions. You are not there to change that culture; you will only end up being killed, or in the case of work, fired. Later, when you have attained power and mastery, you will be the one to rewrite or destroy these same rules.
Every task you are given, no matter how menial, offers opportunities to observe this world at work. No detail about the people with it is too trivial. Everything you see or hear is a sign for you to decode. Over time, you will begin to see and understand more of the reality that eluded you at first. At some point, as you progress through these initial months of observation, you will enter the most critical part of the apprenticeship: practice toward the acquisition of skills. Every human activity, endeavor, or career path involves the mastering of skills. In some fields, it is direct and obvious, like operating a tool or machine or creating something physical. In others, it is more of a mix of the physical and mental, such as the observing and collecting of specimens for Charles Darwin. In still others, the skills are more nebulous, such as handling people or researching and organizing information. As much as possible, you want to reduce these skills to something simple and essential—the core of what you need to get good at, skills that can be practiced.
In acquiring any kind of skill, there exists a natural learning process that coincides with the functioning of our brains. This learning process leads to what we’ll call tacit knowledge—a feeling for what you are doing that his hard to put into words but easy to demonstrate in action.
In an activity such as riding a bicycle, we all know that it is easier to watch someone and follow their lead than to listen to or read instructions. The more we do it, the easier it becomes. Even with skills that are primarily mental, such as computer programming or speaking a foreign language, it remains the case that we learn best through practice and repetition—the natural learning process. We learn a foreign language by actually speaking it as much as possible, not by reading books and absorbing theories. The more we speak and practice, the more fluent we become.
Once you take this far enough, you enter a cycle of accelerated returns in which the practice becomes easier and more interesting, leading to the ability to practice for longer hours, which increases your skill level, which in turn makes practice even more interesting. Reaching this cycle is the goal you must set for yourself, and to get there you must understand some basic principles about skills themselves.
First, it is essential that you begin with one skill that you can master, and that serves as a foundation of acquiring others. You must avoid at all cost the idea that you can manage learning several skills at a time. Second, the initial stages of learning a skill invariably involve tedium. Yet rather than avoiding this inevitable tedium, you must accept and embrace it. The pain and boredom we experience in the initial stage of learning a skill toughens our minds, much like physical exercise. Too many people believe that everything must be pleasurable in life, which makes them constantly search for distractions and short-circuits the earning process. Much as with physical exercise, you can even get a kind of perverse pleasure out of this pain, knowing the benefits it will bring you. In any event, you must meet any boredom head-on and not try to avoid or repress it. Throughout your life you will encounter tedious situations, and you must cultivate the ability to handle them with discipline.
Once an action becomes automatic, you now have the mental space to observe yourself as you practice. You must use this distance to take note of your weaknesses or flaws that need correction—to analyze yourself. It helps also to gain as much feedback as possible from others, to have standards against which you can measure your progress so that you are aware of how far you have to go.
If you take this far enough, you will naturally enter the cycle of accelerated returns: As you learn and gain skills you can begin to vary what you do, finding nuances that you can develop in the work, so that it becomes more interesting. As elements become more automatic your mind is not exhausted by the effort and you can practice harder, which in turn brings greater skill andm ore pleasure. You can look for challenges, new areas to conquer, keeping your interest at a high level. As the cycle accelerates, you can reach a point where your mind is totally absorbed in the practice, entering a kind of flow in which everything else is blocked out. You become one with the tool or instrument or thing you are studying. Your skill is not something that can be put into words; it is embedded in your body and nervous system—it becomes tacit knowledge. Learning any kind of skill deeply prepares you for mastery. The sensation of flow and of being a part of the instrument is a precursor to the greatest pleasures that mastery can bring.
In essence, when you practice and develop any skill you transform yourself in the process. You reveal to yourself new capabilities that were previously latent, that are exposed as you progress. You develop emotionally. Your sense of pleasure becomes redefined. What offers immediate pleasure comes to seem like a distraction, an empty entertainment to help pass the time. Real pleasure comes from overcoming challenges, feeling confidence in your abilities, gaining fluency in skills, and experiencing the power this brings. You develop patience. Boredom no longer signals the need for distraction, but rather the need for new challenges to conquer.
Although it might seem that the time necessary to master the requisite skills and attain a level of expertise would depend on the field and your own talent level, those who have researched the subject repeatedly come up with the number of 10,000 hours. This seems to be the amount of quality practice time that is needed for someone to reach a high level of skill and it applies to composers, chess players, writers, and athletes, among others. This number has an almost magical or mystical resonance to it. It means that so much practice time—no matter the person or the field—leads to a qualitative change in the human brain. The mind has learned to organize and structure large amounts of information. With all of this tacit knowledge, it can now become creative and playful with it. Although the number of hours might seem high, it generally adds up to seven to ten years of sustained, solid practice—roughly the period of a traditional apprenticeship. In other words, concentrated practice over time cannot fail but produce results. As you gain in skill and confidence, you must make the move to a more active mode of experimentation. This could maean taking on more responsibility, initiating a project of some sort, doing work that exposes you to the criticisms of peers or even the public. The point of this is to gauge your progress and whether there are still gaps in your knowledge. You are observing yourself in action and seeing how you respond to the judgments of others. Can you take criticism and use it constructively?
Most people wait too long to take this step, generally out of fear. It is always easier to learn the rules and stay within your comfort zone. Often you must force yourself to initiate such actions or experiments before you think you are ready. You are testing your character, moving past your fears, and developing a sense of detachment to your work—looking at it through the eyes of others. You are getting a taste for the next phase in which what you produce will be under constant scrutiny.
You will know when your apprenticeship is over by the feeling that you have nothing left to learn in this environment. It is time to declare your independence or move to another place to continue your apprenticeship and expand your skill base. Later in life, when you are confronted with a career change or the need to learn new skills, having gone through this process before, it will become second nature. You have learned how to learn. The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways.
Value Learning Over Money
It is a simple law of human psychology that your thoughts will tend to revolve around what you value most. If it is money, you will choose a place for your apprenticeship that offers the biggest paycheck. Inevitably, in such a place you will feel greater pressures to prove yourself worthy of such pay, often before you are really ready. You will be focused on yourself, your insecurities, the need to please and impress the right people, and not on acquiring skills. It will be too costly for you to make mistakes and learn from them, so you will develop a cautious, conservative approach. As you progress in life, you will become addicted to the fat paycheck and it will determine where you go, how you think, and what you do. Eventually, the time that was not spent on learning skills will catch up with you, and the fall will be painful.
Instead, you must value learning above everything else. This will lead you to all of the right choices. You will opt for the situation that will give you the most opportunities to learn, particularly with hands-on work. You will choose a place that has people and mentors who can inspire and teach you. A job with mediocre pay has the added benefit of training you to get by with less—a valuable life skill. If your apprenticeship is to be mostly on your own time, you will choose a place that pays the bills—perhaps one that keeps your mind sharp, but that also leaves you the time and mental space to do valuable work on your own. You must never disdain an apprenticeship with no pay. In fact, it is often the height of wisdom to find the perfect mentor and offer your services as an assistant for free. Happy to exploit your cheap and eager spirit, such mentors will often divulge more than the usual trade secrets. In the end, by valuing learning above all else, you will set the stage for your creative expansion, and the money will soon come to you.
Keep Expanding Your Horizons
No one is really going to help you or give you direction. In fact, the odds are against you. If you desire an apprenticeship, if you want to learn and set yourself up for mastery, you have to do it yourself, and with great energy. When you enter this phase, you generally begin at the lowest position. Your access to knowledge and people is limited by your status. If you are not careful, you will accept this status and become defined by it. Instead, you must struggle against any limitations and continually work to expand your horizons. Reading books and materials that go beyond what is required is always a good starting point. Being exposed to ideas in the wide world, you will tend to develop a hunger for more and more knowledge; you will find it harder to remain satisfied in any narrow corner, which is precisely the point.
The people in your field, in your immediate circle, are like words unto themselves—their stories and viewpoints will naturally expand your horizons and build up your social skills. Mingle with as many different types of people as possible. Those circles will slowly widen. Any kind of outside schooling will add to the dynamic. Be relentless I nyour pursuit for expansion. Whenever you feel like you are settling into some circle, force yourself to shake things up and look for new challenges. With your mind expanding, you will redefine the limits of your apparent world. Soon, ideas and opportunities will come to you and your apprenticeship will naturally complete itself.
Revert to a Feeling of Inferiority
What prevents. People from learning is not the subject itself—the human mind has limitless capabilities—but rather certain learning disabilities that tend to fester and grow in our minds as we get older. These include a sense of smugness and superiority whenever we encounter something alien to our ways, as well as rigid ideas about what is real or true, often indoctrinated in us by schooling or family. If we feel like we know something, our minds close off to other possibilities. We see reflections of the truth we have already assumed. Such feeling sof superiority are often unconscious and stem from a fear of what is different or unknown. We are rarely aware of this, and often imagine ourselves to be paragons of impartiality. When you enter a new environment, your task is to learn and absorb as much as possible. For that purpose you must try to revert to a childlike feeling of inferiority—the feeling that others know much more than you and that you are dependent upon them to learn and safely navigate your apprenticeship. You drop all of your preconceptions about an environment or field, any lingering feelings of smugness. You have no fears. You interact with people and participate in the culture as deeply as possible. You are full of curiosity. Assuming this sensation of inferiority, your mind will open up and you will have a hunger to learn. This position is of course only temporary. You are reverting to a feeling of dependence, so that within five to ten years you can learn enough to finally declare your independence and enter full adulthood.
Trust the Process
What separates Masters from others is often something surprisingly simple. Whenever we learn a skill, we frequently reach a point of frustration—what we are learning seems beyond our capabilities. Giving in to these feelings, we unconsciously quit on ourselves before we actually give up. The difference is not simply a matter of determination, but more of trust and faith. Many of those who succeed in life have had the experience in their youth of having mastered some skill—a sport or game, a musical instrument, a foreign language, and so on. Buried in their minds is the sensation of overcoming their frustrations and entering the cycle of accelerated returns. In moments off doubt in the present, the memory of the past experience rises to the surface. Filled with trust in the process, they trudge on well past the point at which others slow down or mentally quit.
When it comes to mastering a skill, time is the magic ingredient. Assuming your practice proceeds at a steady level, over days and weeks certain elements of the skill become hardwired. Slowly, the entire skill becomes internalized, part of your nervous system. The mind is no longer mired in the details but can see the larger picture. It is a miraculous sensation and practice will lead you to that point, no matter the talent level you are born with. The only real impediment to this is yourself and your emotions—boredom, panic, frustration, insecurity. You cannot suppress such emotions—they are normal to the process and are experienced by everyone, including Masters. What you can do is have faith in the process. The boredom will go away once you enter the cycle. The panic disappears after repeated exposure. The frustration is a sign of progress—a signal that your mind is processing complexity and requires more practice. The insecurities will transform into their opposites when you gain mastery. Trusting this will all happen, you will allow the natural learning process to move forward, and everything else will fall into place.
Move Toward Resistance and Pain
By nature, we humans shrink from anything that seems possibly painful or overtly difficult. We bring this natural tendency to our practice of any skill. Once we grow adept at some aspect of this skill, generally one that comes more easily to us, we prefer to practice this element over and over. Our skill becomes lopsided as we avoid our weaknesses. Knowing that in our practice we can let down our guard, since we are not being watched or under pressure to perform, we bring to this a kind of dispersed attention. We tend to also be quite conventional in our practice routines. We generally follow what others have done, performing the accepted exercises for these skills.
This is the path of amateurs. To attain mastery, you must adopt what we shall call Resistance Practice. The principle is simple—you go in the opposite direction of all your natural tendencies when it comes to practice. First, you resist the temptation to be nice to yourself. You become your own worst critic; you see your work as if through the eyes of others. You recognize your weaknesses, precisely the elements you are not good at. Those are the aspects you give precedence to in your practice. You find a kind of perverse pleasure in moving past the pain this might bring. Second, you resist the lure of easing up on your focus. You train yourself to concentrate in practice with double the intensity, as if it were the real thing times two. In devising your own routines, you become as creative as possible. You invent exercises that work upon your weaknesses. You give yourself arbitrary deadlines to meet certain standards, constantly pushing yourself past perceived limits. In this way you develop your own standards for excellence, generally higher than those of others. In the end, your five hours of intense, focused work are the equivalent of ten for most people.
Apprentice Yourself in Failure
When a machine malfunctions, you do not take it personally or grow despondent. It is in fact a blessing in disguise. Such malfunctions generally show you inherent flaws and means of improvement. You simply keep tinkering until you get it right. The same should apply to an entrepreneurial venture. Mistakes and failures are precisely your means of education. They tell you about your own inadequacies. It is hard to find out such things from people, as they are often political with their praise and criticisms. Your failures also permit you to see the flaws of your ideas, which are only revealed in the execution of them. You learn what your audience really wants, the discrepancy between your ideas and how they affect the public.
Combine the “How” and the “What”
We humans live in two worlds. First, there is the outer world of appearances—all of the forms of things that captivate our eye. But hidden from our view is another world—how these things actually function, their anatomy or composition, the parts working together and forming the whole.
We live in the world of a sad separation that began some five hundred years ago when art and science split apart. Scientists and technicians live in their own world, focusing mostly on the “how” of things. Others live in the world of appearances, using these things but not really understanding how they function. Just before this split occurred, it was the ideal of the Renaissance to combine these two forms of knowledge. This is why the work of Leonardo da Vinci continues to fascinate us, and why the Renaissance remains an ideal. We must make ourselves study as deeply as possible the technology we use, the functioning of the group we work in, the economics of our field, its lifeblood. We must constantly ask the questions—how do things work, how do decisions get made, how does the group interact? Rounding our knowledge in this way will give us a deeper feel for reality and the heightened power to alter it.
Advance Through Trial and Error
You want to learn as many skills as possible, following the direction that circumstances lead you to, but only if they are related to your deepest interests. Avoid the trap of following one set career path and value the process of self-discovery. You are not sure where this will all lead, but you are now taking full advantage of the openness of information, all of the knowledge about skills now at our disposal. You see what kind of work suits you and what you want to avoid at all cost. You move by trial and error. This is how you pass your twenties—a wide-ranging apprenticeship within the loose constraints of your personal interests.
You are not wandering about because you are afraid of commitment, but because you are expanding your skill base and your possibilities. At a certain point, when you are ready to settle on something, ideas and opportunities will inevitably present themselves to you. When that happens, all of the skills you have accumulated will prove invaluable. You will be the Master at combining them in ways that are unique and suited to your individuality. You may settle on this one place or idea for several years, accumulating in the process even more skills, then move in a slightly different direction when the time is appropriate. In this new age, those who follow a rigid, singular path in their youth often find themselves in a career dead end in their forties, or overwhelmed with boredom. The wide-ranging apprenticeship of your twenties will yield the opposite—expanding possibilities as you get older.
It might be imagined that certain people in history—the naturally gifted, the geniuses—have either somehow bypassed the Apprenticeship Phase or have greatly shortened it because of their inherent brilliance. To support such an argument, people will bring up the classic examples of Mozart and Einstein, who seemed to have emerged as creative geniuses out of nowhere.
What in fact separates Mozart and Einstein from others is the extreme youth at which they began their apprenticeships and intensity with which they practiced, stemming from their total immersion in the subject. It is often the case that in our younger years we learn faster, absorb more deeply, and yet retain a kind of creative verve that tends to fade as we get older.
There are no shortcuts or ways to bypass the Apprenticeship Phase. It is the nature of the human brain to require such lengthy exposure to a field, which allows for complex skills to become deeply embedded and frees the mind up for real creative activity. The very desire to find shortcuts makes you eminently unsuited for any kind of mastery.
Absorb the Master’s Power: The Mentor Dynamic
Life is short, and your time for learning and creativity is limited. Without any guidance, you can waste valuable years trying to gain knowledge and practice from various sources. Instead, you must follow the example set by Masters throughout the ages and find the proper mentor. The mentor-protégé relationship is the most efficient and productive form of learning. The right mentors know where to focus your attention and how to challenge you. Their knowledge and experience become yours. They provide immediate and realistic feedback on your work, so you can improve more rapidly. Through an intense person-to-person interaction, you absorb a way of thinking that contains great power and can be adapted to your individual spirit. Choose the mentor who best fits your needs and connects to your Life Task. Once you have internalized their knowledge, you must move on and never remain in their shadow. Your goal is always to surpass your mentors in mastery and brilliance.
To learn requires a sense of humility. We must admit that there are people out there who know our field much more deeply than we do. Their superiority is not a function of natural talent or privilege, but rather of time and experience. Their authority in the field is not based on politics or trickery. It is very real. But if we are not comfortable with this fact, if we feel in general mistrustful of any kind of authority, we will succumb to the belief that we can just as easily learn something on our own, that being self-taught is more authentic. We might justify this attitude as a sign of our independence, but in fact it stems from basic insecurity. We feel, perhaps unconsciously, that learning from Masters and submitting to their authority is somehow an indictment of our own natural ability. Even if we have teachers in our lives, we tend not to pay full attention to their advice, often preferring to do things our own way. In fact, we come to believe that being critical of Masters or teachers is somehow a sign of our intelligence, and that being a submissive pupil is a sign of weakness.
Understand: all that should concern you in the early stages of your career is acquiring practical knowledge in the most efficient manner possible. For this purpose, during the Apprenticeship Phase you will need mentors whose authority you recognize and to whom you submit. Your admission of need does not say anything essential about you, but only about your temporary condition of weakness, which your mentor will help you overcome.
The reason you require a mentor is simple: Life is short; you have only so much time and so much energy to expend. Your most creative years are generally in your late twenties and on into your forties. You can learn what you need through books, your own practice, and occasional advice from others, but the process is hit-and-miss. The information in books is not tailored to your circumstances and individuality; it tends to be somewhat abstract. When you are young and have less experience of the world, this abstract knowledge is hard to put into practice. You can learn from your experiences, but it can often take years to fully understand the meaning of what has happened. It is always possible to practice on your own, but you will not receive enough focused feedback. You can often gain a self-directed apprenticeship in many fields, but this could take ten years, maybe more.
Mentors do not give you a shortcut, but they streamline the process. They invariably had their own great mentors, giving them a richer and deeper knowledge of their field. Their ensuing years of experience taught them invaluable lessons and strategies for learning. Their knowledge and experience become yours; they can direct you away from unnecessary side paths or errors. They observe you at work and provide real-time feedback, making your practice more time efficient. Their advice is tailored to your circumstances and your needs. Working closely with them, you absorb the essence of their creative spirit, which you can now adapt in your own way. What took you ten years on your own could have been done in five with proper direction.
There is more to this than just time saved. When we learn something in a concentrated manner it has added value. We experience fewer distractions. What we learn is internalized more deeply because of the intensity of our focus and practice. Our own ideas and development flourish ore naturally in this shortened time frame. Having an efficient apprenticeship, we can make the most of our youthful energy and our creative potential.
What makes the mentor-protégé dynamic so intense and so productive is the emotional quality of the relationship. By nature, mentors feel emotionally invested in your education. This can be for several reasons: perhaps they like you, or see in you a younger version of themselves, and can relive their own youth through you; perhaps they recognize in you a special talent that will give them pleasure to cultivate; perhaps you have something important to offer them, mostly your youthful energy and willingness to work hard. Being useful to them can build a powerful emotional connection to you over time. On your part, you also feel emotionally drawn to them—admiration for their achievements, a desire to model yourself after them, and so on.
With this two-way emotional connection you both open up to each other in a way that goes beyond the usual teacher-student dynamic. When you admire people, you become more susceptible to absorbing and imitating everything they do. You pay deeper attention. On the other side, because of the emotional bond, mentors will tend to divulge more of their secrets than they would to others. You must not be afraid of this emotional component to the relationship. It is precisely what makes you learn more deeply and efficiently.
To initially entice the right Master to serve as your mentor, you will want to mix in a strong element of self-interest. You have something tangible and practical to offer them, in addition to your youth and energy: work ethic and organizational skills. Almost all Masters and people of power suffer from too many demands on their time and too much information to absorb. If you can demonstrate the ability to help them organize themselves on these fronts to a degree that others cannot, it will be much easier to get their attention and interest them in the relationship. Do not shy away from anything menial or secretarial. You want person-to-person access, however you can get it. Once you establish a relationship, you will find other ways to continually hook them through their self-interest. Try to see the world through their eyes and ask the simple question of what it is they need most. Keeping their self-interest involved will only enhance any emotional connection they feel toward you.
If you work on yourself first, developing a solid work ethic and organizational skills, eventually the right teacher will appear in your life. Word will spread through the proper channels of your efficiency and your hunger to learn, and opportunities will come your way. In any event, you should not feel timid in approaching Masters, no matter how elevated their position. You will be frequently surprised at how open they can be to serving as a mentor, if the fit is right and you have something to offer. The ability to transfer their experience and knowledge to someone younger often provides them with a great pleasure, akin to parenting.
The best mentors are often those who have wide knowledge and experience, and are not overly specialized in their field—they can train you to think on a higher level, and to make connections between different forms of knowledge. The paradigm for this is the Aristotle-Alexander the Great relationship. Philip II, Alexander’s father and king of Macedonia, chose Aristotle to mentor his thirteen-year-old son because the philosopher and learned and mastered so many different fields. He could thus impart to Alexander an overall love of learning, and teach him how to think and reason in any kind of situation—the greatest skill of all. This ended up working to perfection. Alexander was able to effectively apply the reasoning skills he had gained from Aristotle to politics and warfare. To the end of his life he maintained an intense curiosity for any field of knowledge, and would always gather about him experts he could learn from. Aristotle had imparted a form of wisdom that played a key role in Alexander’s success.
You will want as much personal interaction with the mentor as possible. A virtual relationship is never enough. There are cues and subtle aspects you can only pick up through a person-to-person interaction—such as a way of doing things that has evolved through much experience. These patterns of action are hard to put into words, and can only be absorbed through much personal exposure. In crafts or in sports this is more obvious. Tennis instructors, for example, can only reveal many secrets of their skills by demonstrating things before their pupils’ eyes. Instructors may not in fact be completely conscious of what makes their backhand so effective, but in watching them in action pupils can pick up the pattern and motion. But this process of absorption is also relevant to nonmanual skills.
As the relationship progresses you can make this absorption process more conscious and direct, questioning them about the principles underlying their way of doing things. If you are clever, you can be a kind of midwife, getting them to analyze their own creativity for you, and mining all kinds of rich ideas in the process. They are often grateful for the opportunity to reveal the inner workings of their power, particularly to someone they do not perceive as a threat.
Although one mentor at a time is best, it is not always possible to find the perfect one. In such a case, an alternate strategy is to find several mentors in your immediate environment, each one filling strategic gaps in you knowledge and experience. Having more than one mentor has side benefits, giving you several connections and important allies to rely upon later on. Similarly, if your circumstances limit your contacts, books can serve as temporary mentors. In such a case you will want to convert such books and writers into living mentors as much as possible. You personalize their voice, interact with the material, taking notes or writing in the margins. You analyze what they write and try to make it come alive—the spirit and not just the letter of their work.
In a looser sense, a figure from the past or present can serve as an ideal, someone to model yourself after. Through much research and some imagination on your part, you turn them into a living presence. You ask yourself—what would they do in this situation or that? Countless generals have used Napoleon Bonaparte for just such a person.
Mentors have their own strengths and weaknesses. The good ones allow you to develop your own style and then to leave them when the time is right. Such types can remain lifelong friends and allies. But often the opposite will occur. They grow dependent on your services and want to keep you indentured. They envy your youth and unconsciously hinder you or become overcritical. You must be aware of this as it develops. Your goal is to get as much out of them as possible, but at a certain point you may pay a price if you stay too long and let them subvert your confidence. Your submitting to their authority is by no means unconditional, and in fact your goal all along is eventually to find your way to independence, having internalized and adapted their wisdom.
You must not allow yourself to feel any guilt when the time comes to assert yourself. Instead, you should feel resentful and even angry about his desire to hold you back, using such emotions to help you leave him. It is often best to set up this move earlier on so that you are emotionally prepared to make it. As the relationship progresses, you can begin to slightly distance yourself from the mentor, perhaps taking note of some of his weaknesses or character flaws, or even finding fault with his most cherished beliefs. Establishing your differences with the mentor is an important part of your self-development, whether he is of the good or bad parent type.
In Spanish they say al maestro cuchillada—to the Master goes the knife. It is a fencing expression, referring to the moment when the young and agile pupil becomes skillful enough to cut his Master. But this also refers to the fate of most mentors who inevitably experience the rebellion of their proteges, like the cut from a sword. In our culture, we tend to venerate those who seem rebellious or at least strike the pose. But rebellion has no meaning or power if it occurs without something solid and real to rebel against. The mentor, or father figure, gives you just such a standard from which you can deviate and establish your own identity. You internalize the important and relevant parts of their knowledge, and you apply the knife to what has no bearing on your life. It is the dynamic of changing generations, and sometimes the father figure has to be killed in order for the sons and daughters to have space to discover themselves.
As we grow in confidence and contemplate our independence, we can even grow competitive with the mentor we once worshipped. As Leonardo da Vince said, “Poor is the apprentice who does not surpass his Master.” In any event, you will probably have several mentors in your life, like stepping-stones along the way to mastery. At each phase of life you must find the appropriate teachers, getting what you want out of them, moving on, and feeling no shame for this. It is the path your own mentor probably took and it is the way of the world.
Although you must submit to the authority of mentors in order to learn from and absorb their power to the highest degree, this does not mean you remain passive in the process. At certain critical points, you can set and determine the dynamic, personalize it to suit your purposes. The following four strategies are designed to help you exploit the relationship to the fullest and transform the knowledge you gain into creative energy. With your intense focus, you improve in your skill levels, giving the power to introduce more of yourself and your needs. You give them feedback to their instruction, perhaps adjust some of their ideas. This must begin with you, as you set the tone with your hunger to learn. Once a back-and-forth dynamic is sparked, the relationship has almost limitless potential for learning and absorbing power.
It is never wise to purposefully do without the benefits of having a mentor in your life. You will waste valuable time in finding and shaping what you need to know. But sometimes you have no choice. There is simply no one around who can fill the role, and you are left to your own devices. In such a case, you must make a virtue of necessity. That was the path taken by perhaps the greatest historical figure to ever attain mastery alone—Thomas Edison.
If you are forced into this path, you must follow Edison’s example by developing extreme self-reliance. Under these circumstances, you become your own teacher and mentor. You push yourself to learn from every possible source. You read more books than those who have a formal education, developing this into a lifelong habit. As much as possibly, you try to apply your knowledge in some form of experiment or practice. You find yourself second-degree mentors in the form of pubic figures who can serve as role models. Reading and reflecting on their experiences, you can gain some guidance. You try to make their ideas come to life, internalizing their voice. As someone self-taught, you will maintain a pristine vision, completely distilled through your own experiences—giving you a distinctive power and path to mastery.
See People as They Are: Social Intelligence
Often the greatest obstacle to our pursuit of mastery comes from the emotional drain we experience in dealing with the resistance and manipulations of the people around us. If we are not careful, our minds become absorbed in endless political intrigues and battles. The principal problem we face in the social arena is our naïve tendency to project onto people our emotional needs and desires of the moment. We misread their intentions and react in ways that cause confusion or conflict. Social intelligence is the ability to see people in the most realistic light possible. By moving past our usual self-absorption, we can learn to focus deeply on others, reading their behavior in the moment, seeing what motivates them, and discerning any possible manipulative tendencies. Navigating smoothly the social environment, we have more time and energy to focus on learning and acquiring skills. Success attained without this intelligence is not true mastery and will not last.
Social intelligence is nothing more than the process of taking a more realistic point of view. 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. It is a way of thinking that must be cultivated as early as possible.
Look at the case of Benjamin Franklin, the icon of social intelligence and the clearest example of the role it plays in mastery. As the second youngest of a large extended family, he learned to get his way through charm. As he got older he came to believe, as many young people do, that getting along with others is a function of behaving charmingly and winning them over with a friendly manner. But as he engaged with the real world, he began to see his charm as the actual source of his problem. Being charming was a strategy he had developed out of childish need; it was a reflection of his narcissism, of the love he had of his own words and wit. It had no relation to other people and their needs. It did not prevent them from exploiting or attacking him. To be truly charming and socially effective you have to understand people, and to understand them you have to get outside yourself and immerse your mind in their world.
It might be deduced from Benjamin Franklin’s story that social intelligence requires a detached, emotionless approach to people, making life rather dull in the process, but this is hardly the case. Franklin himself was by nature a very emotional man. He did not repress this nature, but rather turned his emotions in the opposite direction. Instead of obsessing over himself and what other people were not giving him, he thought deeply of how they were experiencing the world, what they were feeling and missing. Emotions seen inside other people create empathy and bring a deep understanding of what makes them tick.
With this new awareness and attitude in place, you can begin to advance in your apprenticeship in social intelligence. This intelligence consists of two components, both equally important to master. First there is what we shall call specific knowledge of human nature—namely the ability to read people, to get a feel for how they see the world, and to understand their individuality. Second, there is the general knowledge of human nature, which means accumulating an understanding of the overall patterns of human behavior that transcend us as individuals, including some of the darker qualities we often disregard. Because we are all a mix of unique qualities and traits common to our species, only the possession of both forms of knowledge can give you a complete picture of the people around you. Practice both forms of knowledge and they will yield invaluable skills that are essential in the quest for mastery.
To begin this process, you need to train yourself to pay less attention to the words that people say and greater attention to their tone of voice, the look in their eye, their body language—all signals that might reveal a nervousness or excitement that is not expressed verbally. If you can get people to become emotional, they will reveal a lot more. It is also interesting to observe how people behave around those in positions of power and authority. They will tend to reveal an anxiety, a resentment, or a sycophantic falseness that betrays something essential about their psychological makeup, something that goes back to their childhoods and that can be read in their body language. Cutting off your interior monologue and paying deep attention, you will pick up cues from them that will register with you as feelings or sensations.
As an exercise, after you have known people for a while, try to imagine that you are experiencing the world from their point of view, placing yourself in their circumstances and feeling what they feel. Being able to place yourself to any degree in the mind-set of others is a brilliant means of loosening up your own thought process, which will tend to get locked into certain ways of seeing things. This intuitive form of reading people becomes more effective and accurate the more you use it, but it is best to combine it with other, more conscious forms of observation. For instance, you should take particular note of people’s actions and decisions. Your goal is to figure out the hidden motives behind them, which will often revolve around power. People will say all kinds of things about their motives and intentions; they are used to dressing things up with words. Their actions, however, say much more about their character, about what is going on underneath the surface.
When looking for cues to observe, you should be sensitive to any kind of extreme behavior on their part—for instance, a blustery front, an overly friendly manner, a constant penchant for jokes. You will often notice that they wear this like a mask to hide the opposite, to distract others from the truth. They are blustery because they are inwardly very insecure; they are overly friendly because they are secretly ambitious and aggressive; or they joke to hide a mean-spiritedness.
You must also avoid the common mistake of making judgments based on your initial impressions of people. Such impressions can sometimes tell you something, but more often they are misleading. There are several reasons for this. In your initial encounter you tend to be nervous, less open, and more inward. You are not really paying attention. Furthermore, people have trained themselves to appear a certain way. Unless you are incredibly perceptive, you will tend to mistake the mask for the reality.
What you want is a picture of a person’s character over time, which will give you a far more accurate sense of their true character than any first impression could. So restrain yourself from the natural tendency to judge right away, and let the passing months reveal more and more about who people are, as you get better at reading them.
In the end, your goal is to identify and pierce through to what makes people unique, to understand the character and values that lie at their cores. You will encounter thousands of various individuals in your life, and the ability to see them as they are will prove invaluable.
Next is general knowledge. Throughout recorded history, we can detect patterns of human behavior that transcend culture and time, indicating certain universal features that belong to us as a species. Some of these traits are quite positive—for instance, our ability to cooperate with one another in a group—while some of them are negative and can prove destructive. Most of us have these negative qualities—envy, conformism, rigidity, self-obsessiveness, laziness, flightiness, and passive aggression—in relatively mild doses. But in a group setting, there will inevitably be people who have one or more of these qualities to a high enough degree that they can become very destructive. Through study and observation, we must understand the nature of these negative qualities so that we can detect their presence and avoid triggering them in the first place.
The natural tendency with fools is to lower yourself to their level. They annoy you, get under your skin, and draw you into a battle. In the process you feel petty and confused. You lose a sense of what is really important. You can’t win an argument or get them to see your side or change their behavior, because rationality and results don’t matter them. You simply waste valuable time and emotional energy. In dealing with fools you must adopt the following philosophy: they are simply a part of life, like rocks or furniture. All of us have foolish sides, moments in which we lose our heads and think more of our ego or short-term goals. It is human nature. Seeing this foolishness within you, you can then accept it in others. This will allow you to smile at their antics, to tolerate their presence as you would a silly child, and to avoid the madness of trying to change them. It is all part of the human comedy, and it is nothing to get upset about or lose sleep over.
If they are causing you trouble, you must neutralize the harm they do by keeping a steady eye on your goals and what is important, and ignoring them if you can. The height of wisdom, however, is to take this even further and to actually exploit their foolishness—using them for materials for your work, as examples of things tro avoid, or by looking for ways to turn their actions to your advantage. In this way, their foolishness plays into your hands, helping you achieve the kind of practical results they seem to disdain.
Developing social intelligence will not simply help you manage your relations with other people—acquiring it will also have an immensely beneficial effect on your ways of thinking and on your creativity in general. Look at the example of Benjamin Franklin. With people, he cultivated the ability to home in on the details that made them unique and to connect to their experience and motivations. He built up a high degree of sensitivity to the subtleties of human nature, avoiding the common tendency to lump people together. He made himself uncommonly patient and open-minded in his dealings with people from many different cultures and backgrounds. And this. Social intelligence of his became completely integrated into his intellectual labors—his sharp eye for detail in scientific work, his fluid manner of thinking and patient approach to tackling problems, and his uncanny way of getting into the minds and voices of the various characters he created in his writing.
In general, the greatest Masters in history—Leonardo, Mozart, Darwin, and others—displayed a fluid, sensitive way of thinking that developed along with their expanding social intelligence. Those who are more rigidly intellectual and inward can go far in their fields, but their work often ends up lacking a creativity, an openness, and a sensitivity to detail that becomes more pronounced with time. In the end, the ability to think inside other people is no different from the intuitive feel Masters gain in relation to their field of study. To develop your intellectual powers at the expense of the social is to retard your own progress to mastery and limit the full range of your creative powers.
Awaken the Dimensional Mind: The Creative-Active
As you accumulate more skills and internalize the rules that govern your field, your mind will want to become more active, seeking to use this knowledge in ways that are more suited to your inclinations. What will impede this natural creative dynamic from flourishing is not a lack of talent, but your attitude. Feeling anxious and insecure, you will tend to turn conservative with your knowledge, preferring to fit into the group and sticking to the procedures you have learned. Instead, you must force yourself in the opposite direction. As you emerge from your apprenticeship, you must become increasingly bold. Instead of feeling complacent about what you know, you must expand your knowledge to related fields, giving your mind fuel to make associations between different ideas. You must experiment and look at problems from all possible angles. As your thinking grows more fluid your mind will become increasingly dimensional, seeing more and more aspects of reality. In the end, you will turn against the very rules you have internalized, shaping and reforming them to suit your spirit. Such originality will bring you to the heights of power.
Masters and those who display a high level of creative energy are simply those who manage to retain a sizeable portion of their childhood spirit despite the pressures and demands of adulthood. This spirit manifests itself in their work and in their ways of thinking. Children are naturally creative. They actively transform everything around them, play with ideas and circumstances, and surprise us with the novel things they say or do. But the natural creativity of children is limited; it never leads to discoveries, inventions, or substantial works of art.
Masters not only retain the spirit of childhood, but they had to it their years of apprenticeship and an ability to focus deeply on problems or ideas. This leads to high-level creativity. Although they have profound knowledge of a subject, their minds remain open to alternative ways of seeing and approaching problems. They are able to ask the kinds of simple questions that most people pass over, but they have the rigor and discipline to follow their investigations all the way to the end. They retain a childlike excitement about their field and a playful approach, all of which makes the hours of hard work alive and pleasurable.
We all possess an inborn creative force that wants to become active. The human mind is naturally creative, constantly looking to make associations and connections between things and ideas. It wants to explore, to discover new aspects of the world, and to invent. To express this creative force is our greatest desire, and the stifling of it the source of our misery. What kills the creative force is not age or a lack of talent, but our own spirit, our own attitude. We become too comfortable with the knowledge we have gained in our apprenticeships. We grow afraid of entertaining new ideas and the effort that this requires. To think more flexibly entails a risk—we could fail and be ridiculed. We prefer to live with familiar ideas and habits of thinking, but we pay a steep price for this: our minds go dead from the lack of challenge and novelty; we reach a limit in our field and lose control over our fate because we become replaceable.
What this means, however, is that we equally possess the potential to spark this innate creative force back to life, no matter how old we are. Experiencing a return of this creative force has an immensely therapeutic effect on our spirits and on our career.
A dimensional mind has two essential requirements: one, a high level of knowledge about a field or subject; and two, the openness and flexibility to use this knowledge in new and original ways. The knowledge that prepares the ground for creative activity largely comes from a rigorous apprenticeship in which we have mastered all of the basics. Once the mind is freed from having to learn these basics, it can focus on higher, more creative matters. The problem for us all is that the knowledge we gain in the apprenticeship phase—including numerous rules and procedures—can slowly become a prison. It locks us into certain methods and forms of thinking that are one-dimensional. Instead, the mind must be forced from its conservative positions and made active and exploratory.
To move through the creative process requires three essential steps: first, choosing the proper Creative Task, the kind of activity that will maximize our skills and knowledge; second, loosening and opening up the mind through certain creative strategies; and third, creating the optimal mental conditions for a Breakthrough or Insight. Finally, throughout the process we must also be aware of the Emotional Pitfalls—complacency, boredom, grandiosity, and the like—that continually threaten to derail or block our progress. If we can move through the steps while avoiding these traps, we cannot fail to unleash powerful creative forces from within.
Step One: The Creative Task
The task that you choose to work on must have an obsessive element. It must connect to something deep within you. (For Mozart, it wasn’t simply music, but opera that fully engaged him.). You must be like Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby-Dick, obsessed with hunting down the Great White Whale. With such a deep-rooted interest, you can withstand the setbacks and failures, the days of drudgery, and the hard work that are always a part of any creative action. You can ignore the doubters and critics. You will then feel personally committed to solving the problem and will not rest until you do so. It. Is the choice of where to direct his or her creative energy that makes the Master. When Thomas Edison saw his first demonstration of the electric arc light, he knew then and there that he had found the ultimate challenge and the perfect goal toward which to direct his creative energies. Figuring out how to make electric light not just a gimmick, but something that would eventually replace the gaslight, would require years of intense labor, but it would change the world like nothing else. It was the perfect riddle for him to solve. He had met his creative match.
Your emotional commitment to what you are doing will be translated directly into your work. If you go at your work with half a heart, it will show in the lackluster results and in the laggard way in which you reach the end. If you are doing something primarily for money and without a real emotional commitment, it will translate into something that lacks a soul and that has no connection to you.
If you are excited and obsessive in the hunt, it will show in the details. If your work comes from a place deep within, its authenticity will be communicated. This applies equally to science and business as to the arts. Your creative task may not rise to the same obsessive level as it did for Edison, but it must have a degree of this obsessiveness or your efforts will be doomed. You must never simply embark on any creative endeavor in your field, placing faith in your own brilliance to see it through. You must make the right, the perfect choice for your energies and your inclinations. There are two things to keep in mind: First, the task that you choose must be realistic. The knowledge and skills you have gained must be eminently suited to pulling it off. To reach your goal you may have to learn a few new things, but you have mastered the basics and possess a solid enough grasp of the field so that your mind can focus on higher matters. On the other hand, it is always best to choose a task that is slightly above you, one that might be considered ambitious on your part. The higher the goal, the more energy you will call up from deep within. You will rise to the challenge because you have to, and will discover creative powers in yourself that you never expected.
Second, you must let go of your need for comfort and security. Creative endeavors are by their nature uncertain. You may know your task, but you are never exactly sure where your efforts will lead. If you need everything in your life to be simple and safe, this open-ended nature of the task will fill you with anxiety. If you are worried about what others might think and about how your position in the group might be jeopardized, then you will never really create anything. You will unconsciously tether your mind to certain conventions, and your ideas will grow stale and flat. If you are worried about failure or going through a period of mental and financial instability, your worries will be reflected in the results. Think of yourself as an explorer. You cannot find anything new if you are unwilling to leave the shore.
Step Two: Creative Strategies
Think of the mind as a muscle that naturally tightens up over time unless it is consciously worked upon. What causes this tightening is twofold. First, we generally prefer to entertain the same thoughts and ways of thinking because they provide us with a sense of consistency and familiarity. Sticking with the same methods also saves us a lot of effort. We are creatures of habit. Second, whenever we work hard at a problem or idea, our minds naturally narrow their focus because of the strain and effort involved. This means that the further we progress on our creative task, the fewer alternative possibilities or viewpoints we tend to consider.
This tightening process afflicts all of us, and it is best to admit that you share in this flaw. The only antidote is to enact strategies to loosen up the mind and let in alternative ways of thinking. This is not only essential for the creative process, but is also immensely therapeutic for our psyches. The following five strategies for developing such flexibility have been distilled from the lessons and stories of the most creative Masters, past and present. It would be wise to adapt all of them at some point, stretching and loosening the mind in all directions.
- Cultivate Negative Capability: Truly creative people in all fields can temporarily suspend their ego and simply experience what they are seeing, without the need to assert a judgment, for as long as possible. They are more than ready to find their most cherished opinions contradicted by this reality. This ability to endure and even embrace mysteries and uncertainties is what John Keats called negative capability. This quality allows Masters to entertain a broader range of ideas and experiment with them, which in turn makes their work richer and more inventive. Throughout his career, Mozart never asserted any particular opinions about music. Instead, he absorbed the styles he heard around himself and incorporated them into his own voice. Late in his career, he encountered for the first time the music of Johann Sebastian Bach—a kind of music very different from his own, and in some ways more complex. Most artists would grow defensive and dismissive of something that challenged their own principles. Instead, Mozart opened his mind up to new possibilities, studying Bach’s use of counterpoint for nearly a year and absorbing it into his own vocabulary. This gave his music a new and surprising quality. To negate the ego you must adopt a kind of humility toward knowledge—Scientific knowledge is constantly progressing. The greatest theories of the time are eventually disproven or altered at some future point. The idea or theory that you are currently formulating, that seems so fresh and alive and truthful, will almost certainly be shot down or ridiculed in a few decades or centuries. And so it is best to keep this in mind and not grow too fond of your ideas or too certain of their truth.
- Allow for Serendipity: The brain is constantly searching for similarities, differences, and relationships between what it processes. Your task is to feed this natural inclination, to create the optimal conditions for it to make new and original associations between ides and experiences. And one of the best ways to accomplish this is by letting go of conscious control and allowing chance to enter into the process. Many of the most interesting and profound discoveries in science occur when the thinker is not concentrating directly on the problem but is about to drift off to sleep, or get on a bus, or hears a joke—moments of unstrained attention, when something unexpected enters the mental sphere and triggers a new and fertile connection. Such chance associations and discoveries are known as serendipity—the occurrence of something we are not expecting—and although by their nature you cannot force them to happen, you can invite serendipity into the creative process by taking two simple steps. The first step is to widen your search as far as possible. In the research stage of your project, you look at more than what is generally required. You expand your search into other fields, reading and absorbing any related information. It might seem tiring and inefficient, but you must trust this process. What ensues is that the brain becomes increasingly excited and stimulated by the variety of information. A kind of mental momentum is generated, in which the slightest chance occurrence will spark a fertile idea. The second step is to maintain an openness and looseness of spirit. In moments of great tension and searching, you allow yourself moments of release. You take walks, engage in activities outside your work (Einstein played the violin), or think about something else, no matter how trivial. Our minds are limited. We cannot explore all avenues and imagine every possibility. Random external stimuli lead us to associations we cannot come by on our own. Like seeds floating in space, they require the soil of a highly prepared and open mind to take root and sprout a meaningful idea.
- Alternate The Mind Through “The Current”: The Current is like a mental electrical charge that gains its power through a constant alternation. Let us say you have an idea for a new product. You can design it on your own and then launch it, but often you notice a discrepancy between your own level of excitement for your product and the somewhat indifferent response of the public. You have not engaged in a dialogue with reality, which is the essence of the Current. Instead, it is better to produce a prototype—a form of speculation—and see how people respond to it. Based on the assessments you gain, you can redo the work and launch it again, cycling through the process several times until you perfect it. The responses of the public will make you think more deeply about what you are producing. Such feedback will help make visible what is generally invisible to your eyes—the objective reality of your work and its flaws, as reflected through the eyes of many people. Alternating between ideas and artifacts will help you to create something compelling and effective.
- Alter Your Perspective: consider thinking as an extended form of vision that allows us to see more of the world, and creativity as the ability to expand that vision beyond conventional boundaries. When we perceive an object, our eyes relay only a portion or outline of it to our brains, leaving our mind to fill in the rest, giving us a fast and relatively accurate assessment of what we are seeing. Our eyes are not paying deep attention to all of the details, but noticing patterns. Our thought processes, modeled after visual perceptions, use a similar shorthand. As with vision, for us to have to think deeply about every new occurrence or perceived object would exhaust the brain. Creative people are those who have the capacity to resist this shorthand. They can look at a phenomenon from several different angles, notice something we miss because we only look straight on. Whether such powers are natural or learned does not matter: the mind can be trained to loosen itself up and move outside the grooves.
- Revert to Primal Forms of Intelligence: Language is a system largely designed for social communication. It is based on conventions that everyone can agree upon. It is somewhat rigid and stable, so that it allows us to communicate with minimum friction. But when it comes to the incredible complexity and fluidity of life, it can often fail us. Most mathematicians think in terms of images, creating a visual equivalent of the theorem they are trying to work out. The list of great thinkers who relied upon images is enormous. The use of images to make sense of the world is perhaps our most primitive form of intelligence and can help us conjure up ides that we can later verbalize. Words also are abstract; an image or model makes our idea suddenly more concrete, which satisfies our need to see and feel things with our senses. Using diagrams and models to help further the creative process can be immensely productive. They can help reveal to you patterns in your thinking and new directions you can take that you would find hard to imagine exclusively in words. To Leonardo da Vinci, drawing and thinking were synonymous.
Step Three: The Creative Breakthrough—Tension and Insight
In the creative lives of almost all Masters, we hear of the following pattern: They begin a project with an initial intuition and an excitement about its potential success. Their project is deeply connected to something personal and primal, and seems very much alive to them. As their initial nervous excitement inspires them in certain directions, they begin to give their concept shape, narrowing down its possibilities, and channeling their energies into ideas that grow more and more distinct. They enter a phase of heightened focus. But Masters inevitably possess another quality that complicates the work process: They are not easily satisfied by what they are doing. While able to feel excitement, they also feel doubt about the worthiness of their work. They have high internal standards. As they progress, they begin to detect flaws and difficulties in their original idea that they had not foreseen.
As the process begins to become more conscious and less intuitive, that idea once so alive in them starts to seem somewhat dead or stale. This is a difficult feeling to endure and os they work even harder, trying to force a solution. The harder they try, the more inner tension and frustration they create. The sense of staleness grows. In the beginning, their mind teemed with rich associations; now it seems condemned to a narrow track of thought that does not spark the same connections. At certain points in this process, lesser types would simply give up or settle for what they have—a mediocre and half-realized project. But Masters are stronger. They have been through this before, and on an unconscious level they understand that they must plow forward, and that the frustration, or the feeling of being blocked, has a purpose.
At a particular high point of tension, they let go for a moment. This could be as simple as stopping work and going to sleep; or it could mean deciding to take a break or to temporarily work on something else. What almost inevitably happens in such moments is that the solution, the perfect idea for completing the work comes to them.
We can explain this pattern in the following way: If we remained as excited as we were in the beginning of our project, maintain that intuitive feel that sparked it all, we would never be able to take the necessary distance to look at our work objectively and improve upon it. Losing that initial verve causes us to work and rework the idea. It forces us to not settle too early on an easy solution. The mounting frustration and tightness that comes from single-minded devotion to one problem or idea will naturally lead to a breaking point. We realize we are getting nowhere. Such moments are signals from the brain to let go, for however long a period necessary, and most creative people consciously or unconsciously accept this.
When we let go, we are not aware that below the surface of consciousness the ideas and the associations we had built up continue to bubble and incubate. With the feeling of tightness gone, the brain can momentarily return to that initial feeling of excitement and aliveness, which by now has been greatly enhanced by all of our hard work. The brain can now find the proper synthesis to work, the one that was eluding us because we had become too tight in our approach. The key is to be aware of this process and to encourage yourself to go as far as you can with your doubts, your reworkings, and your strained efforts, knowing the value and purpose of the frustration and creative blocks you are facing. Such moments often precede enlightenment.
If you don’t have deadlines, manufacture them for yourself. The inventor Thomas Edison understood how much better he worked under pressure. He would deliberately talk to the press about an idea before it was ready. This would create some publicity and excitement in the public as to the possibilities of the proposed invention. If he dropped the ball or let too much time pass, his reputation would suffer, and so his mind would spark into high gear and he would make it happen.
The greatest impediment to creativity is your impatience, the almost inevitable desire to hurry up the process, express something, and make a splash. What happens in such a case is that you do not master the basics. What you mistake for being creative and distinctive is more likely an imitation of other people’s style, or personal rantings that do not really express anything. The best route is to love learning for its own sake. Anyone who would spend ten years absorbing the techniques and conventions of their field, trying them out, mastering them, exploring and personalizing them, would inevitably find their authentic voice and give birth to something unique and expressive.
It is essential to build into the creative process an initial period that is open-ended. You give yourself time to dream and wander, to start out in a loose and unfocused manner. In this period, you allow the project to associate itself with certain powerful emotions, ones that naturally come out of you as you focus on your ideas. It is always easy to tighten up your ideas later on, and to make your project increasingly realistic and rational. But if you begin with a feeling of tightness and pressure, focusing on the funding, the competition or people’s opinions, you will stifle the associative powers of the brain and quickly turn the work into something without joy or life.
It is also best to have wide knowledge of your field and other fields, giving your brain more possible associations and connections. Then, to keep this process alive, you must never settle into complacency, as if your initial vision represents the endpoint. You must cultivate profound dissatisfaction with your work and the need to constantly improve your ideas, along with a sense of uncertainty—you are not exactly sure where to go next, and this uncertainty drives the creative urge and keeps it fresh. Any kind of resistance or obstacle that crosses your path should be seen as yet another chance to improve your work.
Finally, you must come to embrace slowness as a virtue in itself. When it comes to creative endeavors, time is always relative. Whether your project takes months or years to complete, you will always experience a sense of impatience and a desire to get to the end. The single greatest action you can take for acquiring creative power is to reverse this natural impatience. You take pleasure in the laborious research process; you enjoy the slow cooking of the idea, the organic growth that naturally takes shape over time. You do not unnaturally draw out the process, which will create its own problems (we all need deadlines), but the longer you can allow the project to absorb your mental energies, the richer it will become.
We generally have a misconception about the inventive and creative powers of the human mind. We imagine that creative people have an interesting idea, which they then proceed to elaborate and refine in a somewhat linear process. The truth, however, is much messier and more complex. Creativity actually resembles a process known in nature as evolutionary hijacking. In evolution, accidents and contingencies play an enormous role. Human creativity generally follows a similar path, perhaps indicating a kind of organic fatality to the creation of anything. Ideas do not come to us out of nowhere. Instead, we come upon something by accident. If we are experienced enough and the moment is ripe, the accidental encounter will spark some interesting associations and ideas in us. Instead of a straight-line development from idea to fruition, the creative process is more like the crooked branch of a tree.
The lesson is simple—what constitutes true creativity is the openness and adaptability of our spirit. When we see our experience something we must be able to look at it from several angles, to see other possibilities beyond the obvious ones. We imagine that the objects around us can be used and co-opted for different purposes. We do not hold on to our original idea out of sheer stubbornness, or because our ego is tied up with its rightness. Instead, we move with what presents itself to us in the moment, exploring and exploiting different branches and contingencies. The difference then is not in some initial creative power of the brain, but in how we look at the world and the fluidity with which we can reframe what we see. Creativity and adaptability are inseparable.
Fuse the Intuitive with the Rational: Mastery
Through intense absorption in a particular field over a long period of time, Masters come to understand all of the parts involved in what they are studying. They reach a point where all of this has become internalized and they are no longer seeing the parts, but gain an intuitive feel for the whole.
The ability to have this intuitive grasp of the whole and feel this dynamic is simply a function of time. Since it has been shown that the brain is literally altered after approximately 10,000 hours of practice, these powers would be the result of a transformation that happens in the brain after some 20,000 hours and beyond. With this much practice and experience, all kinds of connections have been formed in the brain between different forms of knowledge. Masters thus have a sense of how everything interacts organically, and they can intuit patterns or solutions in an instant. This fluid form of thinking does not occur through a step-by-step process, but rather comes in flashes and insights as the brain makes sudden connections between disparate forms of knowledge, causing us to sense the dynamic in real time.
You are unique, and there is a purpose to your uniqueness. You must see every setback, failure, or hardship as a trial along the way, as seeds that are being planted for further cultivation, if you know how to grow them. No moment is wasted if you pay attention and learn the lessons contained in every experience. By constantly applying yourself to the subject that suits your inclinations and attacking it from many different angles, you are simply enriching the ground for these seeds to take root. You may not see this process in the present, but it is happening. Never losing your connection to your Life’s Task, you will unconsciously hit upon the right choices in your life. Over time, mastery will come to you.
Intuition 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 deply we pay attention. If we are half listening to a vocabulary lesson in a foreign language, we are not likely to retain it on any level. But if we are in the country where the language is spoken, we will ehar the same words repeated in context; we will tend to pay deeper attention because we need to, and the memory trace will be much more stable.
According to the model developed by the psychologist Kenneth Bowers, whenever we encounter a problem—a face we need to recognize, a word or phrase we need to recall—mnemonic networks within the brain become activated as the search for the answer is guided along certain pathways. All of this occurs below the level of consciousness. When a particular network is sufficiently activated, we suddenly become conscious of a possible name for the face, or a phrase that might be appropriate. These are low-level forms of intuition that come to us in our everyday life; we cannot reconstruct the steps that went into recognizing a person’s face and remembering their name.
People who spend years studying a particular subject or field develop so many of these memory networks and pathways that their brains are constantly searching. For and discovering connections between various pieces of information. When confronted with a high-level problem, the search goes in a hundred directions below conscious awareness, guided by an intuitive sense of where the answer might lie. All kinds of networks become activated, ideas and solutions suddenly rising to the surface. Those that seem particularly fruitful and appropriate stick in the memory and are acted upon. Instead of having to reason an answer through a step-by-step process, the answer comes to consciousness with a feeling of immediacy.
The extremely high number of experiences and memory networks that become hardwired allow the brains of Masters to explore an area that is so wide that it has the dimensions and feel of reality itself. For someone like the chess Master Bobby Fischer, the number of times he experienced similar sets of circumstances and witnessed the various movements and reactions of different opponents created powerful memory traces. He internalized incredible numbers of patterns. At some point in his development, all of these memories fused into a feel for the overall dynamic of the game. He was no longer seeing simple moves on the chessboard and recalling various countermoves he had made in the past, but rather was able to see and recollect long sequences of potential moves that presented themselves as fields of force, sweeping the board as a whole. With such a sense for the game, he could entrap his opponents well before they were aware of what was happening.
This high-level intuition, like any skill requires practice and experience. At first, our intuitions might be so faint that we do not pay attention to them or trust them. All Mastes talk of this phenomenon. But over time they learn to notice these rapid ideas that come to them. They learn to act on them and verify their validity. Some lead nowhere, but others lead to tremendous insights. Over time, Masters find that they can call up more and more of these high-level intuitions, which are now sparking all over the brain. Accessing this level of thinking on a more regular basis, they can fuse it even more deeply with their rational forms of thinking. This intuitive form of intelligence was developed to help us process complex layers of information and gain a sense of the whole.
What happens to many of us when faced with such complexity is that we feel subtly discouraged before we even try anything. More and more people in this overheated environment will be tempted to opt out. They will develop a greater taste for ease and comfort; they will increasingly settle on simplified ideas of reality and conventional ways of thinking; they will fall prey to seductive formulas that offer quick and easy knowledge. They will lose a taste for developing skills that require time and a resilient ego—it can hurt our self-esteem in the initial phases of learning a skill, as we are made so aware of our awkwardness. Such people will rail against the world and blame others for their problems; they will find political justifications for opting out, when in truth they simply cannot handle the challenges of engaging with complexity. In trying to simplify their mental lives, they disconnect. Themselves from reality and neutralize all of the powers developed by the human brain over so many millions of years.
This desire for what is simple and easy infects all of us, often in ways we are mostly unaware of. The only solution is the following: We must learn how to quiet the anxiety we feel whenever we are confronted with anything that seems complex or chaotic. In our journey from apprenticeship to mastery we must patiently learn the various parts and skills that are required, never looking too far ahead. What we are doing is gaining a tolerance and even a taste for chaotic moments, training ourselves to entertain several possibilities or solutions. We are learning to manage our anxiety, a key skill in these chaotic times.
Mastery is not a function of genius or talent. It is a function of time and intense focus applied to a particular field of knowledge. But there is another element, an X factor that Masters inevitably possess, that seems mystical but that is accessible to us all. Whatever field of activity we are involved in, there is generally an accepted path to the top. It is a path that others have followed, and because we are conformist creatures, most of us opt for this conventional route. But Masters have a strong inner guiding system and a high level of self-awareness. What has suited others in the past does not suit them, and they know that trying to fit into a conventional mold would lead to a dampening of spirit, the reality they seek eluding them.
And so inevitably, these Masters, as they progress on their career paths, make a choice at a key moment in their lives: they decide to forge their own route, one that others will see as unconventional, but that suits their own spirit and rhythms and leads them closer to discovering the hidden truths of their objects of study. This key choice takes self-confidence and self-awareness—the X factor that is necessary for attaining mastery.
In our culture we tend to denigrate practice. We want to imagine that great feats occur naturally—that they are a sign of someone’s genius or superior talent. Getting to a high level of achievement through practice seems so banal, so uninspiring. Besides, we don’t want to have to think of the 10,000 to 20,000 hours that go into such mastery. These values of ours are oddly counterproductive—they cloak from us the fact that almost anyone can reach such heights through tenacious effort, something that should encourage us all. It is time to reverse this prejudice against conscious effort and to see the powers we gain through practice and discipline as eminently inspiring and even miraculous.
Your false self is the accumulation of all the voices you have internalized from other people—parents and friends who want you to conform to their ideas of what you should be like and what you should do, as well as societal pressures to adhere to certain values that can easily seduce you. It also includes the voice of your own ego, which constantly tries to protect you from unflattering truths. This self talks to you in clear words, and when it comes to mastery, it says things like, “Mastery is for the geniuses, the exceptionally talented, the freaks of nature. I was simply not born that way.” Or it says, “Mastery is ugly and immoral. It is for those who are ambitious and egotistical. Better to accept my lot in life and to work to help other people instead of enriching myself.” Or it might say, “Success is all luck. Those we call Masters are only people who were at the right place at the right time. I could easily be in their place if I had a lucky break.” Or it might also say, “To work for so long at something that requires so much pain and effort, why bothe? Better to enjoy my short life and do what I can to get by.”
These voices do not sepak the truth. Mastery is not a question of genetics or luck, but of following your natural inclinations and the deep desire that stirs you from within. Everyone has such inclinations. This desire within you is not motivated by egotism or sheer ambition for power, both of which are emotions that get in the way of mastery. It is instead a deep expression of something natural, something that marked you at birth as unique. In following your inclinations and moving toward mastery, you make a great contribution to society, enriching it with discoveries and insights, and making the most of the diversity in nature and among human society. It is in fact the height of selfishness to merely consume what others create nd to retreat into a shell of limited goals and immediate pleasures. Alienating yourself from your inclinations can only lead to pain and disappointment in the long run, and a sense that you have wasted something unique. This pain will be expressed in bitterness and envy, and you will not recognize the true source of your depression.
You cannot ultimately understand why you are drawn to certain activities or forms of knowledge. This cannot really verbalized or explained. It is simply a fact of nature. In following this voice you realize your own potential, and satisfy your deepest longings to create and express your uniqueness. It exists for a purpose, and it is your Life’s Task to bring it to fruition.
“Because we think well of ourselves, but nonetheless never suppose ourselves capable of producing a painting like one of Raphael’s or a dramatic scene like one of Shaeksepare’s, we convince ourselves that the capacity to do so is quite extraordinarily marvelous, a wholly uncommon accident, or, if we are still religiously inclined, a mercy from on high. Thus our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of the genius: for only if we think of him as being very remote from us, as a miraculum, does he not aggrieve us. . . . But, aside from these suggestions of our vanity, the activity of the genius seems in no way fundamentally different from the activity of the inventor of machines, the scholar of astronomy or history, the master of tactics. All these activities are explicable if one pictures to oneself people whose thinking is active in one direction, who employ everything as material, who always zealously observe their own inner life and that of others, who perceive everywhere models and inventives, who never tire of combining together the means available to them. Genius too does nothing but learn first how to lay bricks then how to build, and continually seek for material and continually form itself around it. Every activity of man is amazingly complicated, not only that of the genius: but none is a ‘miracle.’” – Friedrich Nietzsche