Recommendation: If you have any respect for science, you’ll hate the reasoning in this book. However, if you like to be told the same things over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over (I think I made my point), then this is the book for you!!!
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I don’t want this blog to be a place where I bash books. But, at the same time, I think sometimes I need to just be honest about a book that really falls short of the mark. And Mastery is that book. Robert Greene is a very successful author of both The 48 Laws of Power and The Art of Seduction, which were crazy run-away bestsellers. I haven’t read them and, after this experience, I don’t think I will be. That might be unfair, since Mastery seems to be pretty universally acknowledged as his weakest output (I think it’s the only of his books not to make an appearance on the bestseller list), but I just reallllllllllllllly didn’t like it.
The idea behind this book is that mastery is achievable for anyone as long as they dedicate themselves wholly to their task every day. Not a novel concept (because it’s non-fiction! Har-har), but whatever, give me some evidence and I’ll buy it. Greene’s “evidence” is that even those people that we consider once-in-a-generation geniuses (DaVinci, Mozart, Proust, etc.) had to go through a learning and apprenticeship phase. Thus, Greene concludes that anyone can become a master if they just dedicate themselves to their craft to the same degree that these individuals did.
I’m going to try not to be overly brutal, but here we go. Complaint #1: Complete and total disregard for anything resembling actual evidence for any of his claims. If you’ve ever been involved in science, or debate, or the law, Greene’s reasoning is just gonna piss you off. The only thing you will find in this book is anecdotal evidence. Lots of anecdotal evidence. I mean, I’m pretty sure that nobody is allowed to tell anecdotes anymore because Greene used the entire population’s quota in this book. This is how my imaginary conversation with Robert Greene goes:
Me: Why was Mozart so great?
RG: Because he studied his craft tirelessly, duh!
Me: How do we know he studied his craft tirelessly?
RG: Well, because this one time his dad said that he spent A week straight playing the violin in his room.
RG: Yeah! I mean if he did that for a week, we have to assume that he always studied endlessly all the time forever! So, that must be the only reason why he became a master!
Me: Don’t you think you should do some more research? It seems like you’re making a lot of conclusions from this one story. I mean, you’re probably right, I’m sure Mozart worked really hard, but shouldn’t you get something more concrete instead of deciding that hard work is the only reason he was so good?
RG: I’m writing this book! Leave me alone!
Complaint #2: Repetitive to the point of absurdity. First, the structure. Basically, Greene will take a couple pages to explain a story about one of the people he has classified as Masters. Then, Greene uses the events in the story to show that the Master was able to achieve greatness through the hard work that he exhibited that one time. And that’s it. That exact sequence is repeated about 100 times through 318 pages. It is exhausting. And boring. To make things worse, Greene will also repeat the same anecdotes multiple times throughout his book. For example, there are three sections that discuss boxing trainer Freddie Roach, and each section tells the same exact anecdote. A fact may be added or the story might be expanded at the end, but the reality is that I ended up reading the same story three times. Which is silly.
Complaint #3: Choice of subjects. So, speaking of Freddie Roach, wait, who the hell is Freddie Roach?!? Why is he being included in the same category as Da Vinci and Mozart? Are you serious? Having read the book, I can explain to everyone that Freddie Roach is an extremely successful boxing trainer (works with Manny Pacquiao now) who developed some innovative techniques that are now widely used by trainers in the sport. And that’s impressive. It’s just not anything nearly as impressive as some of the other people discussed in this book. This made me feel like Greene was cheating. Picking anyone he could pass off as a Master as long as they had the necessary anecdotes to work with his project.
I’ve done enough complaining, so let me end on A higher note. Greene is a good writer. If he had a better subject or better material, I could read him without getting too frustrated. And, although it is not at all the purpose, this book does serve as a good collection of mini-biographies of famous people. You can learn a little more about some famous old names and you’ll be introduced to a couple new names as well. But, let’s be honest, if you’re gonna fork over cash and devote hours of your time to reading it, don’t you want a little more than a handful of new facts and faces from A book? I know I do.