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Contains much useful material, despite its occasional self-help babble and patronizing tone
on 22 March 2013
"Mastery" is the word Greene uses to describe the state of being characterized by stepping beyond mere understanding of a topic, instead obtaining superior command over it, yielding intuitive understanding, integration of manifold ideas and resulting in a major increase in creative output. In his book, Greene sets out to understand the nature of mastery, in particularly seeking to provide a practical guide for how to attain mastery.
Greene's topic is inherently interesting, in the sense that mastery obviously is desirable for many people. Also, to a large degree, Greene achieves the goal he has set for himself. The book is divided into six main chapters, and particularly the later chapters on social intelligence, creativity and intuition are well written and contains useful insights. Furthermore, throughout the book, Greene relates stories from the lives of a series of people having attained mastery in very varied fields such as robotics, painting, piloting and dancing. These stories are among the best parts of the book.
There are multiple aspects of the book, however, which I found seriously aggravating. First, in several of the chapters of the book, in particular in the introduction and in the first two chapters, Greene presents a very simplistic view of human nature, coming up with endless self-help clichés of the type "People get the mind that they deserve through their actions" (p. 14), "You possess a kind of inner force that seeks to guide you toward your Life's Task" (p. 19), "At your birth a seed is planted. That seed is your uniqueness," et cetera. Greene also comes up with some very generalizing and quite unfounded statements about the world such as "We are entering a world in which we can rely less and less upon the state" (p. 28). And finally, with scientific veneer, Greene proposes some very oversimplified and unfounded ideas about human history and biology, for example claiming that mirror neurons are the major component giving humans their superior visual and social skills and expounding in unrealistic detail the behaviour of our distant ancestors (p. 7-8). To top it all off, Greene occasionally also displays a rather condescending attitude, opening his paragraph with imperatives such as "Understand:" and the like, and has an annoying habit of capitalizing all kinds of words ("Mastery", "Life's Task", "The Apprenticeship", et cetera). Taken as a whole, I found the hyperbolic lack of objectivity and rigor so irritating that during the introduction and the first chapter, I really wanted to put the book down, and only pressed on because of the recommendation of a friend.
If you can look past all this, however, the book actually starts to shine. Once Greene is done with his simplified ideas about human history and is done extolling the attaining of mastery as the ultimate goal of life, he commences to seriously consider how to attain mastery. The tone of the book shifts to something more factual, and at this point, it's good reading. Greene's attitude is that in order to attain mastery, you should keep your eyes on the prize and be practical about your planning instead of grumbling about the unfairness of the world. For example, in chapter four, when discussing social intelligence, he observes that people who are difficult to work with is a part of life, and instead of passing around blame, he simply discusses how to get along with these people anyway and get the most out of the situation. In this part of the book, Greene's analyses are generally useful and sound, making these chapters the best of the book.
Summing up, the quality of Greene's book is diminished by the flaws in its initial chapters. However, if you can look past this, there is a solid amount of good material in the latter half of the book, and this might well be worth your time.