If you’re to own just one book, let it be this


by Elaine Cotoner

If you’re going to own just one book, let it be Mastery by Robert Greene. Though why you’d want just one, I don’t know why.

This book shows how masters like Charles Darwin and Leonardo Da Vinci became the best in their fields. Greene dispels the myth of genius: that masters came to be because of their special talents. Instead, he thinks that the path to mastery is accessible to all of us.

In the Middle Ages, teenage boys choose a field they want to work in and undergo an unpaid apprenticeship for seven to ten years. They would work under a master in exchange for food, shelter, and the opportunity to learn.

After this apprenticeship, they become Journeymen. They still work for masters, but get wages for their work. To become a master, a Journeyman has to produce a masterpiece (yes, that’s where the term came from!) and get the approval of his guild.

Greene says that this method is still applicable for us today—even if you only ever hear the words “apprentice” and “guild” in TV shows and online games.

  1. Discover your Life’s Task.

Greene says your natural inclinations were clear in childhood, but get muddled when you get older because of parental pressures or the desire to be rich. Discovering your Life’s Task sounds like the “follow your passion” advice that we’ve heard enough of. But the advice does have some merit.

As a kid, Charles Darwin would collect beetles and put some in his mouth because he didn’t have enough hands. When he was older, his father secured a job for him at the church, where would have a steady income. Instead, Charles took a five-year unpaid position as a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle. The ship took him to the Galapagos Islands where he first observed evolution at work.

Some people can’t afford to make a career out of your passions, but they can always pursue them on the side—whether paid or not. After retiring as a professional boxer, boxing coach Freddie Roach worked as a telemarketer while working as an unpaid boxing trainer for five years.

  1. Be an apprentice

Follow your passion is bad advice, not because it’s incorrect, but because it’s incomplete. Most masters spend eight to ten years working before gaining recognition–and they failed a lot, too. Architect Buckminster Fuller was even at the brink of suicide.

In the apprenticeship phase, it’s important to revert to a feeling of inferiority. Remember that you are there to learn, not to show off or impose changes. You also have to push yourself through failure and go through trial and error.

Apprenticeship can be at one place, or in different places throughout the course of your career.

  1. Get a mentor

Having a mentor who can show you the ropes and expand your network is better than going at it alone. Michael Faraday went from bookseller to discovering electromagnetism through the help of his mentor Humphry Davy.

Though I believe that an apprentice should always strive to surpass his master, I’m a bit wary when Greene said that cutting ties is the only way to do it. Faraday cut ties with Davy after discovering that he is keeping him under his thumb. But see Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan. They weren’t featured in this book, but I think they offer a great counter example.

You can also get indirect mentorship by reading books and watching interviews (Yay, technology!)

4. Be people smart

The road to mastery is filled with politics. Envious colleagues may gossip about you or sabotage your work. Be prepared for this by learning how to read people’s intentions. Greene suggests that we think less about ourselves. Instead, focus on how other people feel and how we can win them over. Some people call it shrewd politicking—I choose call it empathy.


So that’s it! I bought this book in 2012 and I’ve read and highlighted it for like the fifth time now. But saying that it’s the only book you should have is, well, dictatorship. So, what about you, if not this book, what’s the book you suggest if I can only own one book?

P.S. No, I’m never giving this book away. 🙂

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