What follows is Part 1 of a two-part post that details the process of completing my fifth book, Mastery. In anticipation of the book’s release on November 13th, I’m releasing Part 2 of this post with a pre-order of Mastery. I’ll be announcing a pre-order offer in a few days but I hope this tides you over until then
In my new book Mastery (Viking/Penguin, November 2012), I propose a radical new way of looking at human intelligence and high achievement, countering the various misconceptions we have about talent and genius. I make the case that mastery is a latent power within us all, the gift of millions of years of brain evolution. It is a power that we awaken through a process that can be described and followed. It is not a power reserved for the intellectually superior, but a level of intelligence almost all of us can attain, if we understand where it comes from and work at it. The key lies within our own willpower and the intensity of our desire.
To complete this book required a lengthy journey that began with the work on my previous four books and ended with the writing of Mastery itself. I want to share with you the process that went into the creation of the book because I think it reveals an important lesson about the intelligence I describe in it and how far our willpower can carry us.
One day in early 2007 I had an epiphany. For the previous eleven years I had immersed myself in a study of the most powerful people in history. I had read one biography after another about great political figures, strategists, scientists, artists, and inventors. And on that particular day, as I was reviewing some old material, it finally struck me: all of these people—no matter their field, culture, or moment in history—followed more or less the same pattern or pathway to power. At first, I could see only the broad outlines of this, but as I thought about it more, in the days to come this pattern came into focus.
It goes like this: in childhood these high–achieving types experience a powerful attraction towards a particular subject or activity—math, music, games and sports. As they get older, this interest gets stronger, to the point of becoming an obsession. They end up following a career path that corresponds to this primal interest. Because the subject or activity stimulates their natural curiosity, they learn at a faster rate than others. They pay deeper attention and absorb lessons more thoroughly. While often still quite young they acquire a high skill level in this field, which makes them find more pleasure in the practice or training period, which leads them to practice harder. They tend to gain attention early on for their proficiency, which leads them to be given responsibilities or chances to practice what they have learned on a public stage. At this point, they enter a cycle of accelerated returns—more practice and experience leads to higher skill levels and more chances to prove themselves, more valuable feedback, and so on.
Inevitably a point is reached where they begin to experiment with what they have learned and become creative with their knowledge. Since they are often still young, they retain a freshness, and a somewhat rebellious attitude towards authority. They are not afraid to go against conventions. In the process of experimenting, they hit upon new ways of doing things or seeing the world. They become the ones who rewrite the rules they had learned so diligently in their apprenticeships.
At the endpoint of this process, these types reveal signs of a qualitatively higher intelligence. I call this intelligence high–level intuition. As opposed to mere hunches or anything mystical, this intuition is based on years of intense experience. They have internalized so much knowledge that they have a feel for their field. It has become hardwired into their nervous system. They can spot solutions or trends with great speed and fluidity, and this brings them tremendous practical power.
The epitome of this would be Napoleon Bonaparte. As a child he found himself drawn to games of strategy, and to books that presented examples of leadership in action. Entering a military academy, he was not focused on a military career and fitting into the system. Instead, he had an obsessive need to learn as much as he could about all aspects of the military arts. He read voraciously. The extent of his knowledge impressed his superiors. At a very early age he was give an unusual amount of responsibility. He learned quickly how to keep his cool, derive the right lessons from his experiences, and recover from mistakes. By the time he was given greater responsibilities on the battlefield, he had gone through an apprenticeship that was double or triple the intensity of his peers. Being so young, ambitious and disdainful of authority, when he was given leadership positions, he proceeded to effect the greatest revolution in military history, changing the size and shape of armies, singlehandedly introducing maneuver into battle, and so on.
At the endpoint of his development, he came to possess a remarkable feel for battle and the overall shape of a campaign. In his case, this became known as his infamous coup d’oeil, his ability to assess a situation with a glance of his eye. This made his lieutenants and rivals imagine that he possessed mystical powers.
This realization of a common pattern or path to power set me to thinking. We normally imagine those who achieve great things in the world as somehow possessing a larger brain or some innate talent, giving them the raw materials out of which they can transform themselves into geniuses and Masters. Based on my research and thinking this did not seem to be the case at all. Many of the figures I had studied were mediocre students; they often came from poverty or broken homes; their parents or siblings did not display any kind of exceptional ability. Their powers did not appear in their early years, but were clearly the fruits of intense labor. Although genetics might play role, it seemed to be a minor one.
What separates Masters from the rest of us is the degree to which they feel connected to their primal inclinations and natural interests. All of us have such inclinations. They are a reflection of our uniqueness at birth, the singularity of our DNA. As we get older, however, we tend to lose contact with this. We pay greater attention to what our parents or peers say, than that voice from within. When it comes to career decisions, we often think first of money and comfort. Masters do not lose their sense of connection and child–like curiosity. This fuels their intense desire to learn and sharpens their ability to focus.
The human brain, as it evolved over the course of millions of years, developed as a kind of lens for looking at the world. When we focus deeply on whatever is before us, we slowly gain greater powers of mental perception. We see deeper and deeper into things. We see the connections between phenomena. We awaken higher levels of intelligence. We are hardly aware of the powers we actually possess when we focus this lens. Masters awakens these powers through the intensity of their connection to what they are learning. Their willpower is engaged and all of their energies concentrated. Feeling connected and motivated, they are able to also develop patience when dealing with the drudgery of practice, persistence when confronting obstacles, and enough confidence to handle petty criticisms. Their powers do not reflect some freakish intellect or innate talent, but a profound emotional connection to their primal inclinations and their calling in life.
As I advanced these thoughts in the days and weeks after my initial realization, I became increasingly excited. Since time began people have been searching for quick fixes, for some magical way to power. They want to uncover ancient Secrets that reveal laws of attraction and success. They want formulas. All they come up with are ideas that are vague and impossible to exploit in the real world. Here, however, was something concrete and real. It was not so much a formula as a simple chain of events that are sparked by a critical first step—discovering your calling in life and moving in directions that maximize your child–like curiosity. From there, the proper focus is generated, and the path to creative and intuitive powers can unfold naturally.
Based on these thoughts, I decided I would write a book that would reveal this pattern and path to everyone. I would show how the brain evolved to bring us this higher intelligence and how each one of us essentially possesses latent mental powers that can be awakened through a process I would lay out. For that purpose, I would give readers a detailed roadmap as to how they could discover their calling in life, enter into an ideal apprenticeship and set off the cycle of accelerated returns. I would paint the creative, intuitive powers that can come to anyone who pursues this path over enough time. I would show how necessary it has become to possess these powers in the modern world. I would debunk once and for all elitist notions of genius and talent. In this book, I would show how certain choices determine our fate, and how far we can alter our circumstances through the intensity of our desire and willpower.
I sold the idea to Penguin in early 2008 and after completing The 50th Law, I began serious work on the project in early 2010. I saw the elaboration of the book in a series of steps—initial in–depth research on neuroscience, cognition, the evolution of the human brain, creativity, and high reasoning skills. Following this, I would consume biographies on as many iconic Masters in all fields as I could reasonably accomplish. To put everything in a modern context, I would interview as many contemporary Masters as I could, showing how this intelligence could be adapted to the 21st century. I would somehow combine all of this into one coherent book.
As I entered this process, however, I sensed a problem—the complexity of the project. I would have to draw upon books from many different fields and make many connections between disparate sources. Unlike my previous projects, there would be no single or small group of source books that would serve as a foundation—such as the works of Machiavelli or Sun–tzu. I would be exploring some unchartered territory, particularly when it came to high–level intuition. For the biographies, I would have to dig deeper than usual for what I needed, because a lot of the key material was buried in early childhood or teen years. For someone like Charles Darwin, I would have to read three or four books. The research on the contemporary Masters would require a lot of labor and time—finding and wooing them, setting up the interviews, going over the transcripts and incorporating the notes into the book research. On top of it all, I would have to find a way to actually shape and structure the book itself, from so many strands.
If I were not careful I would find myself overwhelmed by the material. I would not master the subject. This could weaken the book in several ways. Never quite feeling on top of it all, I would tend to resort to simple ideas and to some of my own pre–digested notions. I would rely too much on what others had written and would not be able to think far enough for myself. The book would not come to life. This could be deadly when it came to the chapters on creativity and intuition, which required me to be at the level of the subject.
Furthermore, this could lead to a debilitating cycle of tiredness. I had felt this on previous books and did what I could to fight it off, but inevitably near the end of the project I would grow exhausted. I would force my way to the end and then take a good four months to recuperate. Here, the dangers would be greater, considering the complexity of the project. So many books we read nowadays tend to peter out half way or two thirds of the way through. Writers begin with an exciting idea, which is reflected in the energy of the first chapters. Then, they get somewhat lost in the material. The organization of the book falls apart. They start to repeat the same ideas. The last few chapters do not have the same verve of the opening ones. It is hard to maintain one’s enthusiasm, energy and freshness over the course of months and years that a book requires. If I succumbed to the tiredness cycle too soon, the book could fall apart at precisely the most important part of my argument.
To help me avoid such a fate, I decided to conduct an experiment on myself. (I had conducted such experiments on previous books. With War, for instance, I took up several games in which I could test out some strategy ideas on a micro level.) For Mastery, the experiment would be conducted on two fronts—physical and mental.
To Be Continued…in the pre-order bonus materials I will be announcing shortly. There I discuss the process of writing and completing Mastery, and the mental and physical transformation I underwent as I strove to publish this book under immense pressure. Stay tuned! You can buy Mastery from anywhere, including from the following links: