Why mastery?—Mentorship—Avoiding convention—Constant flexibility and evolution
Can you believe it’s already almost May?
It’s been a busy year for me, as I prepare for several weddings (not my own), graduate school applications, and the Man v. Horse Marathon.
Time is of the essence, and to preserve it, I’m reminded of Paul Graham’s quote:
"The most dangerous way to lose time is not to spend it having fun, but to spend it doing fake work."
In that spirit, enjoy the rest of the weekend!
“You should read the Wall Street Journal every day. Really digest it. Do that for two years and you’ll be miles ahead of everyone going into the industry.”
Hearing this career advice from an analyst at Goldman Sachs over lunch while I was still in college, I realized I may not be cut out for a career in finance. I realized some people actually enjoyed digging through a company’s 10-K filing or listening to earnings calls. And I realized I just wasn’t THAT interested in doing those things. There must be a better option.
Seeking career guidance, I turned to Robert Greene’s book Mastery. The book examines how people become great at things they truly enjoy doing. While I first read Mastery six years ago, I still return to it time and again as a kind of career Bible. Below are some of my favorite nuggets from the book, subtle reminders on picking and shaping a career that aligns with one’s natural inclinations.
#1: Why mastery?
“There exists a form of power and intelligence that represents the high point of human potential. It is the source of the greatest achievements and discoveries in history. […] Let us call this sensation mastery—the feeling that we have a greater command of reality, other people, and ourselves.”
I saw the actor Chris Tucker conduct a thousand-person laughing orchestra this weekend. He’s attained mastery as a comedian, the ability to find humor in the absurdities of life, with its traffic jams and over-salted airport food. The night before, I ate at Chef Vola’s, where Louise and Michael Esposito have veal and cheesecake down to a science. The common thread between these two parties is that they are both exceptional at something people find highly valuable. And each day, they get real-time feedback, through laughs or smiles, to reinforce it.
How often do we forget that simply attaining mastery at something valuable can be such a rewarding source of fulfillment?
#2: On mentorship:
“[Y]ou 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.”
One of my great mentors roasted me a bit when we first met. I had set-up an introductory call to “learn more about what he does”, which, as you may guess, wasn’t specific enough for a busy executive whose Outlook calendar is a solid blue block each day. Over the years, he’s pushed me to become a more confident speaker and more incisive problem solver. Good mentors are career accelerants.
On the path to mastery, Greene emphasizes that we typically outgrow a mentor at some point, the inevitable result of our own progress. That’s actually be a good sign. “One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil” goes the Nietzsche saying.
#3: On avoiding convention
“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.”
Once we attain a reputation for our expertise, Greene warns of the accompanying risks: creeping complacency, convention and conservatism at odds with the hunger and innovation that fueled the rise.
Mastery goes beyond upfront investment; it demands continual re-investment and risk-taking. That’s why you’ll find Chris Rock at the Stress Factory in New Jersey, stumbling through handwritten notes as he tests out new material. He can’t afford to stick with last year’s greatest hits. He doesn’t worry that a lot of people won’t laugh at these new jokes. He’s in it to create.
#4: On constant flexibility and evolution
“’[Y]our 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.”
In Think Again, Adam Grant tells the story of his cousin Ryan. Ryan decided in college he would be a neurosurgeon. In medical school, he started having doubts, but he felt pressure to keep on track and duck paddle onward. His doubts only grew as he slaved through residency, and yet the further he chugged along, the deeper the hole he dug for himself. Could he ever pivot?
Ryan rigidly followed a path set in his youth. But interests and goals can change over time. Greene emphasizes that attaining mastery is always a journey, partially to adjust to these changes. The fact that it’s a journey also means there is always room to improve or evolve. There are always new opportunities or skills to learn.
You may not be able throw the football anymore, Tom, but you can still quarterback the discussions on TV.
Thanks for reading! I love when these thoughts lead to conversations with readers. Did you find anything interesting or surprising? Reply to me and let’s have a dialogue.