Robert Greene: How to Master Success


Do you see any major differences in the successful people today compared to the past?

“There are differences and there are not differences. The brain is the same and evolved over the course of a million years. So, I try to make the point that Da Vinci was going through the process and that our brains really haven’t changed in an evolutionary sense in 400 or 500 years. On the other hand, the circumstances are different and people now live in a world where there are many more distractions so it is harder to do that kind of focus that I was mentioning. So, in some ways it is a little bit harder. The people that I interviewed are really good at shutting out all of the distractions of the world, that is sort of what separates them. Every single one of them. Paul Graham, Paul does not have a smartphone, he doesn’t spend time on the internet, he’s extremely focused. Yoki Matsuwoka does all of her writing with a pen and paper, she’s not sitting there day in and day out on the computer checking her Facebook or Twitter page. I could go through all of them that way. Steve Jobs is the ultimate icon of mastery in our era and he said that “the only thing that differentiated me from everyone else was my level of focus. I could take a problem and burrow into it when everyone else was so distracted.” He would close his door and get away from his wife, his kids, everyone, and focus. All of these people were overcoming intense distractions in our world and they were able to do it. On the other hand, what you can get with a click on the internet with a Google search compared with what Da Vinci had to do, or a scientist had to do in the 19th or 20th century is absolutely astounding.

So, what you have at your fingerprints, the knowledge, the things you can connect and learn about, the potential for learning skills is out of this world. So, if you’re able to overcome the distracting elements and become a person that can focus, you have this wealth of information and knowledge and ability to acquire skills that nobody 20 or 100 years ago could dream about. So, those are the two differences between the masters of today and those of the past. They are people that are able to overcome their distractions and they are able to exploit the information explosion that we have in the right way and learn things that nobody else could before. The future lies with those who can make connections with different fields of knowledge between science and business.

What’s one of the most successful businesses on the planet? Google. And who’s behind Google? Two men who have exactly zero background in business, none, but they did happen to bring in Eric Schmidt who had a business background. Their background is in science and they made an incredible connection between science and business. They brought their scientific background to business and created a monster of a company that is structured in a way that no other business is structured. The future belongs to those that connect different fields in very creative ways and now we have the ability to do that through the internet and other things which nobody in the past had if you are able to overcome those distracting elements that I mentioned.”

In your book, you talk about avoiding burnout, can you give us a quick rundown?

“Burnout is an important issue and I’m a realist and it is true that if you focus deeply on a field that you love and practice that there is going to be boredom and tedium and moments of frustration when you’re doing the same thing for perhaps over several years and I get that way with my books. I start a book, and my books take two to three years, and you start out and you are all excited like a teenager pumped with energy. By the second and third year you are asking yourself, “how the hell can I do it?” You have to deal with that and it’s obvious that in any field, if you love basketball, how many times can you be in the gym practicing? There are going to be moments when you are sick of it, but what separates people that can overcome that frustration with those that just give in to it is a level of commitment that you have. So I am so committed to writing that book, I’m so obsessed with figuring out what mastery is, what power is, that I’ll push past the boredom because I want to figure out what it is. I have ambition. Kobe Bryant wants to be the greatest basketball player that ever lived so he can keep shooting three point shots till he is sick to death of it. Burnout is real and the problem that people have is that when they get frustrated or feel bored or they’re not quite challenged, they give up and they go on to to something else. There is a point here, a fine line between finding challenges for yourself, moving on when you need to move, and giving up because you are not able to push past that point of frustration. It’s a very slender line. But, I think I know what that line is. Are you afraid of failing, are you someone that can’t put up with criticism and feedback, because if you have that problem, you are going to think that when you quit and start up another business before the other one is successful. You’re going to tell yourself that you are bored when in fact you don’t have the wherewithal, the internal strength, to push past your own fears and your own concerns and doubts about yourself.

You are going to use your frustration as an excuse to quit and go onto something else and you are going to spend your whole life dabbling, spending two or three years on this and that and never mastering anything. On the other hand, you can start a business up and it can be running for eight years and there are no challenges left and it becomes rote and you are not excited by it anymore. Ok, you have mastered it, now there is a point to go on to something else. Now, you should move on to another business. Now you should start something different. Whatever it is, based on your previous skills, that is a great path to follow. You’ve mastered something, you’ve started a business that is successful, you sell it and now do something else, as opposed to the person that never got past the point of testing themselves. So it really comes down to who you are inside. The world is testing you. Are you able? Are you strong enough from within to withstand the moments when you are bored and frustrated and push past them? Or, are you somebody that is going to use that as an excuse and just dabble?”

“It is a trend. The question is if it is a good thing or bad thing. I don’t like to make those kinds of moral choices because of the world the way it is. But, through the lens of mastery, it is probably not a good thing. I have a friend who I went to high school with who was a big rock star from the 80’s and 90’s. He would say it would take three years. He would have an idea for some songs, they would work on it together, then after one and a half years they would go into the studio, which was a really huge moment. Now, as you are pointing out the pressure with iTunes where it is not so much the great album anymore where people are feeling the pressure to create something quicker and not spend so much time on it. For books, it’s a huge problem. If I were to try to write the “48 Laws of Power,” my first book, now, I would have never written it. I would never make it, never have a chance to sell it, never have a chance to even write it because it took two years of work to write that with a lot of research. They don’t give you that option anymore. They want books in three months, six months, nine months, so the pressure to produce and get smaller advances and make money that way is very intense. So, what happens is that people don’t put as much thought into their work. They’re feeling that inner stress to make a lot of money and appeal to the crowd. It’s difficult, it’s a real problem. I work on the Board of Directors for American Apparel. In the business world, everything has become very short-term based on the quarter instead of five or ten years. You have to be someone, I believe, to be truly successful to be on that much of a higher level like the people starting Twitter and all of the other companies that we love. You have to be someone that can surmount those pressures to some degree. You can take two years to write a book, you can spend a few extra months putting out that great album, you can think past the quarterly report and have a vision for your company that goes two or three years down the line. Look at all the people that were truly successful and they were able to surmount to some degree those pressures. They’re very real, it’s never going to be like it was in the past where I can think where my business is going to be ten years from now. I know that’s impossible, but to the degree that you have an over-arching vision and a sense of where the world is going, where you want to be in two years, I think you’re going to be able to rise above the very mediocre work that is out there in whatever field it is.”

Do you think being in a long-term relation helps you in becoming successful?

“It does help. It grounds you. I had my 20’s when I was “a rake” and had many personal relationships. It’s good to do that if you’re young and that is your proclivity- get it out of your system. But you start slowing down when you get into your 30’s and 40’s. To have a person there that you love grounds you, you have a routine, and you can feed your ideas off of them. Anna has been helping me edit my books from the very beginning. She is a really amazing, great editor. If I ever have an idea, I use her as a sounding board. She does films and I’ve helped her a lot with the dialogue and all the other aspects of it. When she makes a costume, the first thing she does is ask me if I think it is right for the character. So, you build up a nice work rapport like that and you have a sense of roundedness, routines and habits. I think it can be really, really helpful and important.

I never thought of it that way but if you look at a lot of really successful people, you’ll find that by the time they get into their 30’s and 40’s they realize that it took me till I was in my late 30’s to realize that you need something like that, otherwise you’ll be too scattered and crazy and you’ll be out there in the dating world and never getting to your work. It’s really distracting. So, it’s interesting to see a lot of these CEO”s and even people like Zuckerberg, he was married when he was 26 or 27. You just reach a point and there is some wisdom there that you have to settle down and that it does help you a lot with your work. But, if was 18 that would be the last thing I would thinking about.”

Every one of your books has been inspired from the past. What’s next?

“In “Mastery,” I have a chapter on social intelligence. The idea is that you cannot divorce your success or your power in life from the social component- everything we do is in relation to other people. You’re constantly thinking in your day-to-day life of other people. What do they think of you, what do you think of them, there’s this constant battle going on in your mind of other people’s opinions of you. The social plays a huge role with anything that you do in life and how good you are with people. In “Mastery,” I had a whole chapter on social intelligence. See people as they are, try to inject some realism into how you approach the social realm and how you judge people. The reason that I had it in “Mastery” was because it’s not just about being technically brilliant at what you do, you also have to know how to work with people, how to cooperate and how to defend yourself. I received a lot feedback on the chapter and people really liked it and they said it was helpful and that they were hungry for more. And, I could sense that I had something there, that I had hit a chord that I could go more deeply into. So, I’m creating a book called the “Laws of Human Nature” and I’m going to try to help you elevate your game on that level so you’ll have a much better ability to read the people around you, understand what motivates them, why they do the weird things that they do, to connect with them on a higher level so that you can influence them and persuade them to align with your own interests based on the superior knowledge of the human animal we are. We have certain behavioral patterns, we have certain insecurities, we have an ego, we are all essentially narcissistic, we are essentially lazy, we do not necessarily like to work, we have irrational elements. I’m going to ground you in this knowledge so that you are not going to be naïve anymore, you’re not going to be paranoid, you’re going to have a much better sense of why people are doing the things that they are doing so you can master this part of the game.”


Check out Robert Green’s new book “Mastery.

Photography by Melly Lee

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