Let’s say you have to learn French. If it’s something you have to study in university, 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 where you need to speak French, you’re going to learn much, much faster because you’re motivated. That’s just how the brain works.
You’re never going to master something unless you understand this: 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.
A lot of people go wrong because they choose a career for money. I have nothing against money. We all have to make a living.
If you go into law because your parents pushed you into it, or because 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. You’re going to burn out. You’ll never become a master. You’ll never be able to put in the 10 years or more of studying something unless you really are excited about it. There must be a personal commitment to it.
It doesn’t mean you have to know exactly what you want to be when you’re 21 years old. It’s going to be a process that might take you five or ten years to figure out exactly what that is.
For me, it took 15 years 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.
The Process to Find Your Subject of Mastery
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, at the age of 31, that she had to go back to what she really loved.
Some people will be like that. Others who come to me and say, “I have no idea what my passion is. I have no idea what I really love.” In my 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.”
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. You have to go through a process now of looking at yourself.
Go back and look at your childhood.
Look at the things that excited you.
Look at maybe where you went wrong.
Look at the things you hate.
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 hours about the process that I use in consulting. But it’s basically not going to be an overnight revelation. 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.
The Next Step
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.
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.
It can be 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 guide you in this new part of your life, so you’re creating your own apprenticeship. An apprenticeship means you’re going to have to learn new 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.
For your apprenticeship years, 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.
After three years, I knew that journalism wasn’t really right for me. I moved into a different kind of writing.
You’ll figure, “Alright, I’ll go into a different line of work, a different business. Still related.” As you do this, you’re going to be accumulating skills and experiences. You’re going to be observing people. You’re going to get political social skills. By the time you’re 31, you’re going to own the world. You’re going to have a lot of experience. 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 my book, Mastery, where 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 went through the same journey. 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.
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.
But What If You Are Older?
My father 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 been obliterated. 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. I wish it wasn’t that way, but my book is about being realistic, and that’s the nature of it. You’ve got to take control of your own life and craft and apprenticeship.
Your 10,000 hours can come from different things you have done in your life. 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. Then she started getting into journalism, and now the hours are piling up.
You can take the 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. All those jobs taught me about people and about weird power situations, about the games bosses play and all different kinds of careers. That helped me write my books.
If you are 35, you don’t have to go, “Oh, darn it, 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 those 5000 hours in a way that’s appropriate and personal.
The worst feeling in life comes from the sense as you get older that you didn’t somehow tap your potential, that you’re not expressing what you think you could have expressed and it makes a lot of people very, very unhappy.
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. I believe that mastery is the path towards that.
I have a quote in there from da Vinci, which I love.
“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.”
The idea is if you feel like you realized your potential, you almost feel like you can die a happy person.
[Ed. Note: What you’ve just read comes from the #1 New York Times Bestseller, Mastery by Robert Greene. In it, Robert Greene studies the lives of current and historical masters–from Napoleon to entrepreneur Paul Graham, Temple Grandin to Charles Darwin–and reveals their secrets to success. Are you ready to follow the path to mastery?]