How To Become A Master Of What You Love

image - Flickr / Colin Stuart
image – Flickr / Colin Stuart

On my podcast, “The James Altucher Show” (available at itunes or Stitcher) I had the chance to interview Robert Greene, author of “Mastery”, “The 48 Laws of Power” and other books.

Before I interview anyone I read all of their books. By the time I was finished reading his books I thought I was the smartest guy in the world.

Robert’s books are dense with great stories, information, and practical takeaways. They are unlike any other personal improvement / nonfiction books anywhere.

Only, I wasn’t the smartest guy in the world. I was about to talk to him.

Here’s a snippet of that interview. The rest is in the podcast. But this snippet is worth it.

I’ve spent my life trying to master whatever it was I was interested in. And most of the time I failed. But I don’t think the failing is as important as the trying. When you are immersed in what you love, then you change the world.

If you move on to new loves or many loves, then that’s fine also. You master the combination of everything you love. Then you are unique in the world.

Robert describes the process below:


… If you were going to give someone the five-minute summary of how to master a topic, what would be the most important factors to look at?


The most important factor is chapter one in the book. You’re never going to master something unless you understand this…

The brain is designed to learn. We learn much better when we are emotionally engaged, when we want to learn, when we are motivated, when we feel the need to learn.

Let’s say you have to learn French. If it’s in the university, if it’s something you have to study, you’re not going to learn very much in one year.

But if you’re in France and your girlfriend is French and you need to get a job and you need to speak French… you’re going to learn like 20 times faster because you’re there and you’re motivated. That’s just how the brain works.


So what’s happening there though is first you find the girl, rather than first you say to yourself, “I want to get good at French.” [Of course, I am missing the point entirely because there’s mention of “a girl”.]


Yes, that could be. But the point I’m making is that when you’re motivated to learn something, you have to learn it.

You’re going to learn much faster.

You’re in France and you met this great girl. But she speaks no English, and you’ve got to be able to learn French in order to be able to communicate with and seduce her.

You’re so highly motivated, you’re going to learn 10 times, 20, 50 times faster than the university student back in New York or wherever you’re studying.

So the thing is, a lot of people go wrong. They choose a career because it’s about money. I have nothing against money. We all have to make a living.

But let’s say you go into law because that’s what your parents are pushing you into and other people. And it seems lucrative, but you aren’t personally excited by it.

You’re going to start tuning out. You aren’t going to learn very fast. After 10 years, you’re going to burn out.

You’re never going to become a master, because it takes 10,000 hours. It’s just a number, but let’s say it is pretty real. It could be real.

It could be 9,000, 11,000. You’re never going to have the patience. You’re never going to be able to put in the 10 years or more of studying something unless you really are excited about it. Unless there is some kind of personal commitment to it.

So it’s by far the most important thing. It’s that choice of the career. It doesn’t mean you have to know exactly what you want to be when you’re 21 years old and then go pursue it.

It’s going to be a process that might take you five or 10 years to figure out exactly what that is.

For me, it took 15 years for me to find out I should be writing books like the kind that I write. It’s going to take time.

But if you don’t make that first step – if you go into the wrong field – you’re never going to become a master. You’re never going to last long enough.

[Note: It could take many more years than 15. For me, it’s taken a lifetime of changing and combining careers.]


A big question that many people have is, how do I find the thing that I’m passionate about?

Now you mentioned five to six years, or 15 years in your case, in terms of wanting to be a writer. But what is that process by which someone finds what they are motivated enough to be a master of?


Well, everybody has a different process, a different journey.

Some people knew clearly what it was when they were young. I met a woman who interviewed me. She knew that she wanted to be a writer when she was a young girl and then she got into law and it was a dead end and she hated it. She finally figured it out that she had to go back at the age of 31 to what she really loved.

So there are going to be people like that. And there are others who come to me and say, “I have no idea what my passion is. I have no idea what I really love.”

That’s troubling because that means you’re not listening to yourself. You’re not aware of your own likes and dislikes. You have been paying too much attention to what other people are saying.

So you have to go through a process now of looking at yourself. I work as a consultant. I have dealt with people, many people, who say that to me.

They say, “I am 35. I’m 40. I don’t know what it is that I was meant to do. I really have no idea.” OK, let’s go back and look at your childhood.

Let’s look at the things that excited you. Let’s look at maybe where you went wrong. Let’s look at the things you hate. If you hate working for a large company, if you hate politicking, you’re probably meant to be an entrepreneur, to be working for yourself in some level. Let’s look at the subjects that really excite you when you open the newspaper or go online.

It could take a couple months, it could take a year. It depends on the person.

You’re reconnecting to what I call a voice inside of you that you had when you were a kid, that drew you to certain activities that you have lost touch with.

I could go on for four hours about the process that I have dealt with in consulting. But it’s basically not going to be overnight. You’re not going to wake up and go, “I should have been a doctor.” It isn’t like that. It takes time, but it’s so worth it.


So after that first realization that “OK, I’m motivated to be a writer” or “I’m motivated to discover more uses of electricity or to be an Internet entrepreneur,” or whatever it is… what would you say is the next step?


First of all, if you’re 22 and about to enter the career world, it’s usually a matter of “I like this field, the sciences” or “I like sports” or whatever. A general category of things that you’re going to pursue.

For me, it was writing. So when I was 21, I decided I would go into journalism as a way to make a living and train myself as a writer.

You’re going to make a choice of something to start with that is in some way related to that field that you love. And it can be kind of general. It can just be the tech world. Or it could be a business. It doesn’t have to be specific. But you’ve got to make the right choice.

You want to think of your 20s as your apprenticeship. We don’t use that word anymore, and it’s a shame that we don’t. We usually all go through the school system, the education system where we are all guided and there are teachers there to help us.

Now there is nobody there to do anything for you. Maybe your parents… But really, nobody is there to guide you in this new part of your life, so you’re CREATING YOUR OWN apprenticeship.

That apprenticeship means you’re going to learn skills. It’s NOT about making money.

If you’re 22 and you’re obsessed with making money, you’re never going to really make a lot of money. It’s a perverse law of human nature that I’m going to discuss.

The people who end up making the most amount of money are usually motivated by something else.

The classic example is Steve Jobs, somebody who from very early on was clearly not very interested in money. And look where he ended up. So you’re choosing something that appeals to you and now you’re open. I call it a journey.

You’re going to discover you like what you’re doing but there’s something better for you. It’s not exactly right. I knew that journalism, after three years, wasn’t really right for me. So I went into a different kind of writing.

Well, you’ll figure, “Alright, I’ll go into a different line of work, a different business. Still related.” And as you do this, you’re going to be accumulating skills, experiences… You’re going to be observing people.

You’re going to get political social skills. And by the time you’re 31, you’re going to own the world. You’re going to have a lot of experience. And then you will be able to figure out how to combine everything you’ve learned into something great that really appeals to you.

I give examples in the book. I interviewed contemporary masters. One of those, Paul Graham, started a company called Y Combinator, which is an entrepreneur system for tech people in Silicon Valley. It’s worth billions of dollars, and he is the same thing.

He didn’t realize until he was 30 what it was that he was meant to do. But in his 20s, he had all of these amazing experiences that served as a foundation for what ended up being this great tech business that he created for Netscape back in the ’90s.

So be prepared not to necessarily strike gold when you’re 25 or 26. It’s going to take some time. But if you think of it as your own education that you, yourself are in charge of… you’re going to be a lot better off than people who just wander around and just choose any career.


Robert, this is a really important message now – even from an economics point of view – because what we’re seeing is a disintegration of the middle class.

The middle class is formed by the conformity of the traditional school system… the conformity of traditional corporatism where everybody feels that they are safe in their cubicle and they can rise up and get promotions and so on.

Whether it’s become masters or close to masters… People now have to take charge of their economic lives. That means they have to do something they are motivated by and interested in.

Even if they don’t put in their 10,000 hours, they have to take control of their own lives. That’s why this message has become critically important in today’s society.


Yes. Take my father… He worked at the same company for 40 years. They were loyal to him, and he was loyal to them.

It’s not that long ago that a world existed where people would work at one place and things were sort of taken care of. But that’s just been blown away, obliterated, probably by the Internet, by other things going on.

It might as well be the Year of the Dinosaur, and you cannot rely on the company you’re working for now. It will downsize you the first chance it can. Or as soon as you reach a certain age, it’ll replace you with somebody who is cheaper. That’s just the nature of it.

I’m not saying it’s good. I wish it wasn’t that way. But my book is about being realistic, and that’s just the nature of it. You’ve got to take control of your own life and craft and apprenticeship.

Now I want to clear up a misconception. It doesn’t mean that you’re playing chess for 10,000 hours and then you become a master of medicine or whatever. Those 10,000 hours can come from different things you have done in your life.

So for instance, this woman that I mentioned who spent her 20s in law and realized it was the wrong thing, she decided when it was finished, she would become a writer about legal issues, which was a brilliant move on her part.

All that legal experience added up to 3,000 or 4,000 hours already of writing about legal matters. And then she started getting into journalism, and now the hours are piling up.

You can take that time you think you wasted doing something else and apply it to something that really appeals to you. Suddenly, all that experience enters into practice.

I did a lot of really bad jobs myself because as a writer, I wanted a lot of experience. I did construction work, etc. And all those jobs taught me about people and about weird power situations. And about the games bosses play and all different kinds of careers.

So you can be 35, and you’re not going to go, “Oh, dammit, I can’t do 10,000 hours, my life is screwed.” NO, you have already probably done 5,000 hours. Now you have to find a way to apply it in a way that’s appropriate and personal.


That’s a great way to look at it. It’s almost like your past… Don’t view it as you have messed up, but how you have built these prior hours as a safety net that you can then use to build either mastery or close to mastery so that you can make that leap from the job that you’re not really excited about to something you’re more excited about.

Not everyone is a Mozart. But everyone can use the hours they have built up to build some sort of safety net for themselves, if they apply your techniques.

What is the relationship between mastery and happiness? You used the example earlier of Steve Jobs, but let’s throw in Mozart and Napoleon and Tesla. These people did not end up as happy people, by and large.


Well, I would really take issue with that. Steve Jobs was a tempestuous person who had a very obsessive personality. But I would say, judging on the biography, the last 12 years of his life must have been immensely satisfying. And it depends on your definition of happiness.

The book is called Mastery. It’s not called Happiness. If I wanted to write a book on happiness, I’d go take drugs and hang out in Peru on a hilltop or something. That’s not what my book is about. But I will say I make the point that everybody has creative potential.

And the worst feeling in life comes from the sense as you get older that you didn’t somehow tap that potential. You’re not expressing what you think you could have expressed and it makes a lot of people very, very unhappy.

Mozart had a great life when he finally left his father. He died young, but I would claim he was happy. I don’t think a lot of these people who we see as driven are necessarily unhappy. They do spend a lot of time with their work, and they are maybe obsessive.

But that kind of attention to detail – to doing what you love – brings a sense of satisfaction that maybe isn’t the same satisfaction that you might get from an immediate rush of going to a party.

It’s a different kind of happiness. It’s something a little more like fulfillment. And I believe that mastery is the path towards that.

I have a quote in there from da Vinci, which I love. It’s basically just – “A day when you have worked hard brings a blessed sleep. A life in which you fulfilled what you’re doing brings a blessed death.”

I’m quoting it horribly, but the idea is if you feel like you realized your potential, you almost feel like you can die a happy person.

[As an aside, I want to mention my podcast is all about people who have reinvented themselves and transformed their lives. Robert is an excellent example of someone who both did it and then wrote about the process. A true genius and artist.] Thought Catalog Logo Mark

James Altucher is the author of the bestselling book Choose Yourself, editor at The Altucher Report and host of the popular podcast, The James Altucher Show, which takes you beyond business and entrepreneurship by exploring what it means to be human and achieve well-being in a world that is increasingly complicated.

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