As a teenager, future Hall-of-Famer Bill Bradley practiced from 9 to 5 every Saturday, taped cardboard to his eyeglasses to sharpen his court vision, and wore 10-pound lead weights in shoes to improve his strength.
Do not think that what is hard for you to master is humanly impossible; and if it is humanly possible, consider it to be within your reach.
Enter Robert Greene
The path to greatness is simple. It’s the path followed by everyone from Renaissance artists to the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. In writing my first four books, I immersed myself in the study these types of people—some of most powerful figures in history. Over the course of many hours of thinking, researching and writing on excellence—the last four years of which were dedicated to writing my newest book—I discerned an unmistakable formula for becoming the best. That formula is revealed in Mastery.
Today I’d like to share the first in the journey to Mastery: how to begin an apprenticeship Throughout history, it’s always been the way that Masters acquired their education. There are many different strategies for getting yours but make no mistake: you cannot become great without mentors and masters to teach you the necessary skills of your chosen craft. And if you can accept and internalize this fundamental part of the learning process, you will be one step closer to achieving mastery yourself.
Part IV: Move toward resistance and pain
A. Bill Bradley fell in love with the sport of basketball somewhere around the age of ten. He had one advantage over his peers—he was tall for his age. But beyond that, he had no real natural gift for the game. He was slow and gawky, and could not jump very high. None of the aspects of the game came easily to him. He would have to compensate for all of his inadequacies through sheer practice. And so he proceeded to devise one of the most rigorous and efficient training routines in the history of sports.
Managing to get his hands on the keys to the high school gym, he created for himself a schedule—three and a half hours of practice after school and on Sundays, eight hours every Saturday, and three hours a day during the summer. Over the years, he would keep rigidly to this schedule. In the gym, he would put ten-pound weights in his shoes to strengthen his legs and give him more spring to his jump. His greatest weaknesses, he decided, were his dribbling and his overall slowness. He would have to work on these and also transform himself into a superior passer to make up for his lack of speed.
For this purpose, he devised various exercises. He wore eyeglass frames with pieces of cardboard taped to the bottom, so he could not see the basketball while he practiced dribbling. This would train him to always look around him rather than at the ball—a key skill in passing. He set up chairs on the court to act as opponents. He would dribble around them, back and forth, for hours, until he could glide past them, quickly changing direction. He spent hours at both of these exercises, well past any feelings of boredom or pain.
Walking down the main street of his hometown in Missouri, he would keep his eyes focused straight ahead and try to notice the goods in the store windows, on either side, without turning his head. He worked on this endlessly, developing his peripheral vision so he could see more of the court. In his room at home, he practiced pivot moves and fakes well into the night—such skills that would also help him compensate for his lack of speed.
Bradley put all of his creative energy into coming up with novel and effective ways of practicing. One time his family traveled to Europe via transatlantic ship. Finally, they thought, he would give his training regimen a break—there was really no place to practice on board. But below deck and running the length of the ship were two corridors, 900 feet long and quite narrow—just enough room for two passengers. This was the perfect location to practice dribbling at top speed while maintaining perfect ball control. To make it even harder, he decided to wear special eyeglasses that narrowed his vision. For hours every day he dribbled up one side and down the other, until the voyage was done.
Working this way over the years, Bradley slowly transformed himself into one of the biggest stars in basketball—first as an All-American at Princeton University and then as a professional with the New York Knicks. Fans were in awe of his ability to make the most astounding passes, as if he had eyes on the back and sides of his head—not to mention his dribbling prowess, his incredible arsenal of fakes and pivots, and his complete gracefulness on the court. Little did they know that such apparent ease was the result of so many hours of intense practice over so many years.
B. When John Keats was eight years old, his father died in a riding accident. His mother never quite got over the loss and died seven years later—essentially leaving John, his two brothers, and one sister orphaned and homeless in London. John, the eldest of the children, was taken out of school by the appointed trustee and guardian of the estate, and enrolled as an apprentice to a surgeon and apothecary—he would have to earn a living as quickly as possible, and this seemed the best career for that.
In his last few terms at school, Keats had developed a love for literature and reading. To continue his education, he would return to his school in his off-hours and read as many books as he could in the library. Sometime later, he had the desire to try his hand at writing poetry, but lacking any kind of instructor or literary circle he could frequent, the only way he knew to teach himself to write was to read the works of all of the greatest poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He then wrote his own poems, using the poetic form and style of the particular writer he was trying to model himself after. He had a knack for imitation, and soon he was creating verses in dozens of different styles, always tweaking them a little with his own voice.
Several years into this process, Keats came to a fateful decision—he would devote his life to writing poetry. That was his calling in life and he would find a way to make a living at it. To complete the rigorous apprenticeship he had already put himself through, he decided that what he needed was to write a very long poem, precisely 4,000 lines. The poem would revolve around the ancient Greek myth of Endymion. “Endymion,” he wrote a friend, “will be a test, a trial of my Powers of Imagination and chiefly of my invention . . .—by which I must make 4000 lines of some circumstances and fill them with Poetry. He gave himself a rather impossible deadline—seven months—and a task of writing fifty lines a day, until he had a rough draft.
Three quarters of the way through, he came to thoroughly hate the poem he was writing. He would not quit, however, willing his way to the end, meeting the deadline he had set. What he did not like about Endymion was the flowery language, the overwriting. But it was only by means of this exercise that he could discover what worked for him. “In Endymion,” he later wrote, “I leaped headlong into the Sea and thereby became better acquainted with the Soundings, the quicksands and the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore and . . . took tea and comfortable advice.”
In the aftermath of writing what he considered to be a mediocre poem, Keats took stock of all of the invaluable lessons he had learned. Never again would he suffer from writer’s block—he had trained himself to write past any obstacle. He had acquired now the habit of writing quickly, with intensity and focus—concentrating his work in a few hours. He could revise with equal speed. He had learned how to criticize himself and his overly romantic tendencies. He could look at his own work with a cold eye. He had learned that it was in the actual writing of the poem that the best ideas would often come to him, and that he had to boldly keep writing or he would miss such discoveries. Most important of all, as a counterexample to Endymion, he had hit upon a style that suited him—language as compact and dense with imagery as possible, with not a single wasted line.
With these lessons in hand, in the years 1818 to 1819, before he became gravely ill, Keats would produce some of the most memorable poems in the English language, including all of his greatest odes. This added up to perhaps the most productive two years of writing in the history of Western literature—all of it set up by the rigorous self-apprenticeship he had put himself through.
By nature, we humans shrink from anything that seems possibly painful or overtly difficult. We bring this natural tendency to our practice of any skill. Once we grow adept at some aspect of this skill, generally one that comes more easily to us, we prefer to practice this element over and over. Our skill becomes lopsided as we avoid our weaknesses. Knowing that in our practice we can let down our guard, since we are not being watched or under pressure to perform, we bring to this a kind of dispersed attention. We tend to also be quite conventional in our practice routines. We generally follow what others have done, performing the accepted exercises for these skills.
This is the path of amateurs. To attain mastery, you must adopt what we shall call Resistance Practice. The principle is simple—you go in the opposite direction of all of your natural tendencies when it comes to practice. First, you resist the temptation to be nice to yourself. You become your own worst critic; you see your work as if through the eyes of others. You recognize your weaknesses, precisely the elements you are not good at. Those are the aspects you give precedence to in your practice. You find a kind of perverse pleasure in moving past the pain this might bring. Second, you resist the lure of easing up on your focus. You train yourself to concentrate in practice with double the intensity, as if it were the real thing times two. In devising your own routines, you become as creative as possible. You invent exercises that work upon your weaknesses. You give yourself arbitrary deadlines to meet certain standards, constantly pushing yourself past perceived limits. In this way you develop your own standards for excellence, generally higher than those of others.
In the end, your five hours of intense, focused work are the equivalent of ten for most people. Soon enough you will see the results of such practice, and others will marvel at the apparent ease in which you accomplish your deeds.
Did you like this article? Here are five (5) more exclusive chapters on apprenticing from Mastery, in order:
Robert Greene‘s newest book Mastery (view trailer) examines the lives of historical greats like Darwin, Mozart, and Henry Ford and distills the traits that made the masters. It is an excellent complement to The 4-Hour Chef. Robert also authored the massive international bestsellers The 48 Laws of Power, Art of Seduction, The 33 Strategies of War, and The 50th Law.
Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.