Notes Psychology

Introduction (Mastery)

Greene reminds us that before industrial society, humans derived a survivalist advantage in observing and in thinking to themselves. A human hunter could afford to observe the patterns of behavior of other animals, before creating the right hunting strategy. That is, the human being figured out how to make time work for him. His physical body may decay over time, but his mind became more adept at solving puzzles in nature only by observing and thinking – this defied what any other animal was capable of.

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.


The modern world is filled with technological distractions. Our great failure to take advantage of technology comes from our inability to properly absorb and control it. One thing that technology has done is that it has given people a sense of complacency. One may conclude, by observing the world, that technology has solved and will solve all the problems there are to solve and will continue to do so in the future. So why should you bother cultivating your talents, when it will be soon be automated?

The idea of glorifying technology has another effect, and that is to subconsciously lower the individual’s aims in life.

This is an attitude that results in self-alienation, apathy, and self-destruction. The individual fails to cultivate his talents over time and plunges himself into the fast-paced world of distractions, without ever learning anything about himself, what he is drawn to, and what he should be contributing to the flourishing of the species. Instead, he contents himself with a job that is safe, that pays relatively well, and while this may be satisfying for a while, eventually discontentment will set in.

The false artist thinks that their emotion is what makes art, and that it should be done effortlessly, they think that the craftsman defies the purpose of art, that real creativity can only be done suddenly and without labor. But this idea defies what we know about creativity, that most of our greatest achievements have come from long hours of work rather than flashes of genius.  

The difference between Galton and his older cousin Darwin captures this point. Galton was very smart, and had a great career as a scientist, but Darwin changed the way we see the world. Darwin was not particularly gifted, but he loved collecting biological specimens. It was his obsession and the long hours he spent on his craft that made him a genius.

The ironic, passive attitude is not romantic, but destructive. A mind that is not constantly trained becomes dull and barren.

It used to be the case that only people with extraordinary amounts of energy and the elite had access to mentors and knowledge to advance themselves, but in the modern world, access to education has become open to all. Workweeks are shorter, and people have more opportunity to enhance their knowledge

Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became “geniuses” (as we put it), through qualities the lack of which no one who knew what they were would boast of: they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.


Mastery is important, because it does two things that are very important to the mind. First, it cools anxiety, it gives someone an attachment to something internal, that is resistant to external events and shocks, it makes the person calmer, and more resilient, and focused. The second thing is that it creates real value to humanity. Someone who spends a long time working on a small number of things will probably contribute something very valuable to the world, especially when they correctly identify what they are innately drawn towards, whether it is playing with words or solving mathematical puzzles.

Thus the argument that Greene makes is that the master will accomplish much more than the frantic intelligent person who jumps from one idea to the next, forever exhausting themselves, becoming weaker and less capable over time, and less satisfied.

MasteryIntroduction (Mastery) 1

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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