Book review: Mastery, by Robert Greene

We could all be high achievers if we put our minds to it, suggests this motivational tome. Then why is it that so few of us are, wonders Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.

by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Last Updated: 01 Nov 2012
In every form of society, people have always shown a great deal of interest in talent, but the subject has arguably never been as important as it is today.

Our fast-moving and increasingly complex world demands constant adaptation and a wide repertoire of skills, such as keeping up with technological advances, maintaining a work/life balance, and mastering cognitive, social and emotional competencies. As Sir Richard Branson recently noted: 'We're living through a time of big and little changes in the way we do just about everything, and the only people and organisations guaranteed to make fools of themselves are the ones who think they have got it all figured out.'

Unsurprisingly, some people tend to cope with this better than others, but why? In his latest book, Mastery, Robert Greene provides an intuitive answer to this question, saying that the ability to master our environment depends on developing a higher form of intellect, one that combines and carefully balances analytic and intuitive thinking, allowing us to create reliable rules for predicting events while still tolerating uncertainty and complexity. The book 'is designed to lead you from the lowest levels to the highest. It will help to initiate you into the first step - discovering your life's task, or vocation, and how to carve out a path that will lead you to its fulfilment on various levels.'

On the one hand, Greene's book is a neat integration of many of the key issues underlying the human capacity for self-improvement: eg, values, willpower, self-knowledge, creativity and soft skills - the stuff that personality psychologists have explored quite relentlessly over the past 100 years or so. The author draws from evolutionary theory, philosophy classics and romantic literature to present a motivational account of mastery. The book is not short of biographical examples and successfully blends personal anecdotes with salient historical case studies to illustrate the different stages in the development or 'transformation' of mastery. Greene's appetite for 'the big picture' is remarkable and his effort to bring classic ideas on talent alive should be applauded.

On the other hand, many of the central claims of this book are in stark contrast to the academic research evidence (sadly omitted by the author). For instance, Greene's claim that mastery begins with an intra-personal orientation (looking inward to find out who you really are) is inconsistent with anthropological, evolutionary and social psychological evidence indicating that our identity is essentially outside of us - if we want to know who we 'really' are, we need to ask others. Indeed, from Herbert Mead to Charles Horton Cooley and Jacques Lacan, sociologists and psychologists have agreed that the only relevant meaning about ourselves comes from others (or the symbolic world we live in).

This point is important because the inability to understand how other people see us, and what they think of us, causes a wide range of deficits in social skills, as well as narcissistic self-delusions. Likewise, the author's definition of social intelligence ('the ability to see people in the most realistic light possible') is both simplistic and too narrow. Social intelligence also involves acting smartly in our interactions and influencing other people.

Perhaps more worryingly, Greene's book seems to assume that there are no innate differences in our capacity for developing mastery - falling for the common cliche that 'anyone can attain mastery'. Maybe, but why is it that most people don't? Many decades ago, the Italian sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto famously noted that 20% of individuals tend to account for 80% of productivity.

Furthermore, all the key ingredients in Greene's mastery formula (from values to intuition to intelligence and creativity) have a clear genetic component, even if the environment also plays a role.

Despite these flaws, Greene's book is thought-provoking and fairly accessible. The chapters on mentoring, which include fascinating accounts of Frank Lloyd Wright, Carl Jung and Glenn Gould, and on strategies for the creative phase (especially the sections on John Coltrane and architect Santiago Calatrava) represent the book's most original take on the subject. But do not be fooled: as a self-help book Mastery is unlikely to improve the reader's chances of achieving greatness. In fact, it is best described as a theoretical monograph justifying some common, popular assumptions on talent. It is a convoluted alternative to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: richer in content, poorer in style, but equally populist in its argumentation.

Mastery, by Robert Greene

Profile Books, £14.99

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is professor of business psychology at UCL and founder of

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

When spying on your staff backfires

As Barclays' recently-scrapped tracking software shows, snooping on your colleagues is never a good idea....

A CEO’s guide to smart decision-making

You spend enough time doing it, but have you ever thought about how you do...

What Tinder can teach you about recruitment

How to make sure top talent swipes right on your business.

An Orwellian nightmare for mice: Pest control in the digital age

Case study: Rentokil’s smart mouse traps use real-time surveillance, transforming the company’s service offer.

Public failure can be the best thing that happens to you

But too often businesses stigmatise it.

Andrew Strauss: Leadership lessons from an international cricket captain

"It's more important to make the decision right than make the right decision."