By John Capouya, contributor
FORTUNE -- "Low cunning'' has always struck me as a misnomer. In my biosphere, cunning is a vital, desirable attribute; whoever came up with that dismissive term obviously never scored the rewards of top-shelf deviousness.
Robert Greene's 2000 bestseller The 48 Laws of Power made clear there's a real and sophisticated art to scheming, climbing, and supremacy. Appropriately, the hip-hop community took to that book with a vengeance. Putting the mack back in Machiavelli, Greene won over acolytes like Busta Rhymes and Jay Z; he even wrote a follow-up with 50 Cent. In Laws he laid out a detailed path (430 pages in paperback) to dominance, offering advice on how to "Keep Others in Suspended Terror,'' "Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,'' and, my favorite, #15: "Crush Your Enemy Totally.'' What's so low about being on top?
His new book, Mastery, is about craft, not craftiness. The goal here is discovering your true calling, your Life's Task, then working Greene's six steps to mastery in your chosen -- destined -- field, moving from student to practitioner to master. Once attained, mastery of your practice yields both great achievement and ultimate fulfillment.
On this path competence and creativity are the desired ends; crushing others is optional. Greene only glancingly mentions that "because the world prizes creativity … it brings us tremendous practical power as well.''
In this less-scheming scheme of things, the enemy is not some rival prince but settling for false success -- mediocrity. The closest Mastery comes to the naked aggression of Laws is the declaration that "your goal is always to surpass your mentors in mastery and brilliance,'' which, Greene admits, the old guy might not appreciate.
The premise makes compelling sense. Greene quotes Goethe to establish that, while we are all born with the capability to shape our lives and reach our individual potential, the skill to do so "must be learned and attentively cultivated.'' To teach it he offers lessons drawn from historical and contemporary masters, including Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart, Einstein, Temple Grandin (the autistic woman, born in 1950, who became a leading animal scientist), robotics expert Yoky Matsuoka, and innovative boxing coach Freddie Roach, who trains Manny Pacquiao. According to Greene, their stories show that mastery "is not a function of genius or talent. It is a function of time and intense focus applied to a particular field of knowledge.''
Through deep study, including a formative apprenticeship, they all gained command of both intuitive and the rational ways of learning, knowing, and acting. To access both makes your mind -- your best weapon -- "increasingly dimensional, seeing more and more aspects of reality.'' German general Erwin Rommel, Greene writes, "could sense exactly where the enemy was thinking of striking.'' But that intuitive feel was merged with practical acumen: Rommel was also a mechanic "with complete knowledge of his tanks and what he could expect of them.''
The Buddhists call this non-dual thinking, a concept that Greene embraces. He cites the American artist and sculptor Teresita Fernandez as someone who reconciles and embraces opposites in her work. Like a Zen master, Greene urges us to accept what is, and to live -- without illusion or distraction -- in the present. That means breaking out of our habitual "obsessive, internal thought process'' in order to "connect to … other people, to reality.''
Similarly, he stresses the interdependence of all things, including people. We tend to think of mastery as a solitary pursuit, but Greene devotes an entire section to cultivating Social Intelligence, "the ability to see people in the most realistic light possible'' rather than projecting onto them our emotional needs and desires. "Success attained without this intelligence is not true mastery and will not last.''
In one insightful passage, Greene makes the case that genius is not often realized through man-made technology but rather through immersion in nature and accordance with natural laws. Renowned architect Santiago Calatrava, who still begins his projects drawing by hand on paper, used the shape of a whale to create one of his first successful buildings, and his Milwaukee art museum work was based on a bird in flight. Green calls the "ability to connect deeply to your environment … the most powerful form of mastery the brain can bring us.''
Greene explains persuasively how his Masters achieved their exalted state. He makes it clear just how long and arduous a path this is; his recommended apprenticeship phase lasts 10,000 hours, which others have recognized as a kind of tipping point into mastery. But many of his middle-aged readers must be well beyond the point in their careers where this is feasible.
On one level Greene's plan is detailed and minutely specific. He breaks each section into sequential steps, with numbered headings, alphabetical sub-headings -- it's organized. But format doesn't guarantee function. The book is explicitly prescriptive, but as with so many Rx's these days, at times what you get is generic. In his Social Intelligence take, for example, he tells us to watch others closely, as "their actions will say more about their character than their words.'' He adds: "People will tend to judge you based on your outward appearance.'' If you don't already understand these facts of life, no book can save you.
Mastery is a perceptive, thoughtful book that keeps insisting it's an owner's manual. Overall Greene's macro musings are probably more valuable -- and usable -- than his micro advice. If the book isn't quite as practical as he maintains, it's still valuable and even admirable. Mastery of and devotion to craft is under-considered and insufficiently taught. And Greene makes one essential truth very clear: the mastery we need and should seek is not over others but of ourselves.
Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers' and contributors' takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We've invited the entire Fortune family -- from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers -- to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities.
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