Mastery: The Apprenticeship Phase by Robert Greene

Mastery is a modern take on apprenticeship. Robert Greene shares how people can learn more in less time and become better at what they do, no matter their profession or skill level. This book offers new perspectives for those who want to make the most of their lives through personal development.

Mastery: The Apprenticeship Phase by Robert Greene is a book that teaches you how to master the skills necessary to succeed in life. It guides you through the process of learning, and shows you how to understand what it takes to be successful.

Vintage blacksmith shop illustration of apprentice with mentor.

Note from the editor: This is an extract from Robert Greene’s new book Mastery, which he has graciously agreed to reprint on AoM. We’ve already discussed mastery on the site, and one part of attaining mastery in any subject that young men neglect is what Greene refers to as the “Apprenticeship Phase.” It’s that time of year when you have to pay your dues and quietly work on what seems to be tedious job. But it’s a period that can’t be bypassed if you want to be genuinely outstanding at anything. That’s why I requested Mr. Greene whether we might reprint this piece on our site. I strongly advise you to get a copy of Mastery. It’s one of my top five novels of the year. 

Note from the editor: This is an extract from Robert Greene’s new book Mastery, which he has graciously agreed to reprint on AoM. We’ve already discussed mastery on the site, and one part of attaining mastery in any subject that young men neglect is what Greene refers to as the “Apprenticeship Phase.” It’s that time of year when you have to pay your dues and quietly work on what seems to be tedious job. But it’s a period that can’t be bypassed if you want to be genuinely outstanding at anything. That’s why I requested Mr. Greene whether we might reprint this piece on our site. I strongly advise you to get a copy of Mastery. It’s one of my top five novels of the year.

“There is no lower or higher level of mastery than mastery of oneself.”

—Da Vinci, Leonardo

Like the chrysalis of a butterfly, we can always discern a period in the lives of the greatest Masters, past and present, when all of their future talents were in development. Because it does not feature tales of tremendous success or discovery, this portion of their lives—a mainly self-directed apprenticeship that lasts five to 10 years—receives little attention. These sorts are often in their Apprenticeship Phase and aren’t much different from everyone else. Their brains, on the other hand, are changing in ways we can’t see but that hold all of the seeds of their future success.

Much of how such Masters navigate this period is based on an intuitive understanding of what is most important and vital for their growth, but we can learn a lot from what they did well by examining what they did properly. In fact, a detailed review of their lives shows a pattern that runs across all of their disciplines, suggesting a form of Mastery Apprenticeship. And in order to grasp this pattern and follow it in our own ways, we must first comprehend the concept and need of completing an apprenticeship.

We are inculcated in culture from infancy via a protracted time of dependency—far longer than any other species. We acquire language, writing, arithmetic, and thinking abilities, among other things, at this time. Parents and instructors keep a close eye on their children and provide caring advice. As we get older, we put a higher focus on book learning—absorbing as much knowledge as possible on a variety of topics. Such knowledge of history, science, or literature is abstract, and learning is essentially a passive absorption process. We are then forced into the cold, hard labor world to fend for ourselves at the completion of this process (typically between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five).

We are not quite equipped to manage the shift to full independence as we emerge from our young condition of reliance. We take the habit of learning from books or professors with us, which is ill-suited to the practical, self-directed phase of life that follows. We have a tendency to be socially naive and unprepared for people’s political games. We are still unsure of who we are and believe that what counts in the workplace is attracting attention and making friends. And in the light of reality, these misunderstandings and naiveté are cruelly revealed.


We may finally find our path if we change over time; yet, if we make too many errors, we will create an unending number of issues for ourselves. We spend much too much time engrossed in emotional matters, and we never have enough detachment to reflect on and learn from our mistakes. By its very nature, each apprentice must undertake his or her apprenticeship in his or her own unique manner. It is self-defeating to follow someone else’s example or instructions from a book to the letter. This is the time in our lives when we finally announce our freedom and define ourselves. However, for this second education in our life, which is so important to our future success, there are certain strong and crucial lessons that we can all learn, which may help us avoid frequent blunders and save us time.

Because they are linked to something fundamental about human psychology and how the brain operates, these teachings transcend all disciplines and historical eras. They may be boiled down to one overarching premise for the Apprenticeship Phase, as well as a three-step method.

The premise is straightforward and must be ingrained in your mind: the purpose of an apprenticeship is not money, a nice job, a title, or a certificate, but rather the change of your mind and character—the first step toward mastery. You start a new job as an outsider. You’re naive, and you have a lot of preconceptions about this new world. Your mind is filled with future ideas and desires. Your understanding of the universe is based on emotions, anxieties, and a limited amount of experience. Slowly, you will re-establish your connection to reality, the objective world represented by the information and abilities that enable individuals to succeed in it. You’ll learn how to collaborate with others as well as deal with criticism. You’ll go from being impatient and scattered to becoming disciplined and focused, with a mind that can manage complexity, as a result of this process. You will eventually master yourself and all of your flaws.

This has a straightforward implication: you must choose work environments and roles that provide the most learning opportunities. Practical knowledge is the ultimate commodity, and it will pay you returns for decades to come—far more than a little raise in income at a seemingly profitable job with fewer learning chances. This implies you should aim for challenges that will push you to grow and develop, as well as opportunities to get objective feedback on your performance and growth. Apprenticeships that seem to be simple and relaxing are rarely chosen.

In this sense, you must consider yourself to be following in Charles Darwin’s footsteps. You’re finally on your own, embarking on a journey to shape your own destiny. It’s the age of youth and adventure, when you can go out and explore the world with an open mind and heart. In reality, you reconnect with that young, adventurous side of yourself anytime you need to master a new skill or change your job path later in life. Darwin might have played it safe by gathering just what he needed and spent more time on board researching rather than aggressively exploring. In that situation, he would have become simply another collector rather than a distinguished scientist. He was always on the lookout for new challenges, pushing himself beyond of his comfort zone. He utilized peril and adversity as yardsticks for his advancement. You must adopt this mindset and see your apprenticeship as a type of transformational adventure rather than a dreary indoctrination into the working world.


The Three Steps or Modes of Apprenticeship

With the principles given above as a guide, you should consider three key milestones in your apprenticeship, each of which overlaps the others. Deep Observation (The Passive Mode), Skill Acquisition (The Practice Mode), and Experimentation are the three stages (The Active Mode). It’s important to remember that an apprenticeship may take many various shapes. It might take place in one location over a period of years, or it can take the form of numerous separate jobs in several locations, resulting in a compound apprenticeship with many different talents. It might be a combination of graduate school and work experience. It will assist you to think in terms of these phases in all of these situations, but you may need to put more weight to one of them depending on the nature of your industry.

Step One: The Passive Mode—Deep Observation

Young Charles Darwin portrait painting.

The Beagle expedition of Charles Darwin is a wonderful illustration of the Apprenticeship Phase’s Deep Observation stage.

When you start a new job or move into a new setting, you join a world with its own set of laws, processes, and social dynamics. People have accumulated knowledge on how to get things done in a given sector over decades, if not centuries, with each generation building on the last. Furthermore, each workplace has its own set of norms, rules of conduct, and work requirements. Individuals also have a variety of power connections with one another. All of this symbolizes a reality that is bigger than your own wants and needs. As a result, your first goal upon entering this universe is to observe and acquire as much information as possible.

The worst error you can make during your apprenticeship is to believe that you need to attract attention, impress others, and prove yourself. These ideas will take over your head and shut it off from the rest of the world. Positive attention is false; it is not based on your abilities or anything true, and it will work against you. Instead, you’ll want to accept reality and submit to it by dimming your colors and being as inconspicuous as possible, remaining quiet and allowing yourself to watch. You’ll also want to let go of whatever preconceived notions you may have about the world you’re about to join. If you amaze others in the first few months, it should be because you are passionate about learning, not because you are rushing to the top before you are ready.

In this new environment, you will notice two important truths. To begin, you’ll observe the norms and processes that govern success in this environment—in other words, “how we do things around here.” Some of these principles will be explicitly given to you, usually the ones that are superficial and mostly a question of common sense. You must pay attention to and follow these regulations, but the unspoken rules that are part of the underlying work culture are of more relevance. These are concerns about key style and values. They are often a reflection of the guy or woman in charge’s personality.


Such guidelines may be seen by looking at people who are on their way up the corporate ladder and have a golden touch. More tellingly, you may spot people who are more uncomfortable, have been reprimanded for specific errors, or have even been dismissed. Negative trip wires such as this serve as a warning: do things this way, and you will suffer.

The second fact you’ll notice is the power dynamics inside the group: who is in charge, who is in charge of all communications, and who is on the rise and who is on the slide. These procedural and political norms may be dysfunctional or unhelpful, but your duty isn’t to moralize or complain about them; instead, it’s to comprehend them and gain a full picture of the situation. You’re like an archaeologist researching an exotic society, well aware of all of its intricacies and norms. You are not there to alter the culture; if you do, you will be murdered or dismissed from your job. You will be the one to rewrite or destroy these laws after you have gained power and expertise.

Every duty you’re assigned, no matter how little, provides opportunity to observe the working environment. There is no such thing as a minor detail regarding the people who live there. Everything you see and hear is a code that you must decipher. With time, you’ll be able to see and grasp more of the truth that previously evaded you. For example, a person you once believed had a lot of authority turned out to be more bark than bite. Slowly, you begin to glimpse what lies under the surface. As you learn more about your new environment’s norms and power dynamics, you’ll be able to better understand why they exist and how they connect to wider patterns in the industry. After months of attentive attention, you go from observation to analysis, developing your reasoning abilities.

We can easily observe how Charles Darwin followed this stage. He made his time for research far more fruitful by spending the first several months observing life on board the ship and sensing the unwritten laws. He was able to avoid pointless fights that would have hindered his scientific work, not to mention the mental agony he would have faced, by allowing himself to blend in. Later, he used the same strategy on gauchos and other local populations with whom he came into touch. He was able to expand the areas he could visit and the types of specimens he could gather as a result of this. On another level, he gradually evolved into possibly the world’s most observant naturalist. Darwin educated himself to perceive things as they are by removing any assumptions about life and its beginnings. He didn’t make any assumptions or generalizations about what he was observing until he had gathered enough data. He ended up penetrating one of the most basic truths of all—the development of all life forms—by submitting to and absorbing the reality of all facets of this adventure.


Understand that there are a number of important reasons why you must take this action. To begin, understanding your surroundings from top to bottom can aid you in navigating it and avoiding expensive blunders. You’re like a hunter: knowing every detail about the forest and the ecology as a whole will offer you a lot greater chances of surviving and succeeding. Second, being able to notice any strange place will become a valuable life skill. You’ll get into the habit of quieting your ego and gazing outside rather than within. In each contact, you will see what most others overlook because they are preoccupied with themselves. You’ll improve your capacity to concentrate and develop a strong eye for human behavior. Last, you’ll get into the habit of first observing, then basing your thoughts and hypotheses on what you’ve seen with your eyes, and finally evaluating what you’ve discovered. This is a crucial talent for the following, more creative phase of life.

The Practice Mode is the second step in the skill acquisition process.

Vintage apprentice young man binding printed books.

As you proceed through the early months of an apprenticeship’s obligatory observation, you will reach a vital stage: practice toward skill development. The mastery of skills is required for any human action, pursuit, or professional path. In other professions, like as operating a tool or machine or generating something tangible, it is straightforward and evident. Others, such as Charles Darwin’s observation and collection of specimens, are more of a blend of the physical and mental. Others, such as dealing with people or collecting and organizing information, need more vague talents. You want to keep these talents as straightforward and necessary as possible—the heart of what you need to acquire excellent at, skills that can be practiced.

There is a natural learning process that aligns with the functioning of our brains while learning any skill. This learning process produces tacit knowledge, which is a feeling for what you’re doing that’s difficult to describe but simple to illustrate in action. To understand how this learning process works, consider the best system ever devised for the development of skills and the acquisition of tacit knowledge: the Middle Ages’ apprenticeship system. This system was created as a response to a problem: Masters of different trades could no longer rely on family members to labor in the store as commerce grew in the Middle Ages. More hands were required. They didn’t want to hire employees who would come and go since they required stability and time to develop their workers’ talents. As a result, they created the apprenticeship system, in which young people between the ages of twelve and seventeen would sign a contract committing them to work in a business for a period of seven years. Apprentices would have to pass a master exam or create a master work at the conclusion of this period to demonstrate their degree of expertise. After passing, they were promoted to the position of journeymen, allowing them to practice their art wherever there was employment.


Apprentices learned the craft by observing Masters and mimicking them as closely as possible since there were few books or drawings available at the period. With relatively little verbal teaching, they learnt by infinite repetition and hands-on labor (the term “apprentice” originates from the Latin prehendere, which means “to grasp with the hand”). Apprentices would spend the majority of their time working directly on materials that would be utilized in the final product since resources like fabrics, wood, and metals were valuable and could not be spent on trial runs. They had to learn to concentrate intensely on their task and avoid making errors.

If the time apprentices spent working directly on materials throughout those years was tallied together, it would total more than 10,000 hours, which is sufficient to build extraordinary skill levels in a trade. The great Gothic cathedrals of Europe—masterpieces of beauty, workmanship, and stability, all built without plans or books—embody the strength of this sort of tacit knowledge. These cathedrals were the culmination of many craftsmen’s and engineers’ efforts.

This simply indicates that language, both spoken and written, is a comparatively new creation. Long before that, our forefathers had to master a variety of skills, including toolmaking, hunting, and so on. Watching and mimicking others, then repeating the behavior over and again, was the natural model for learning, which was primarily dependent on the power of mirror neurons. This kind of learning is most suited to our brains. We all know that watching someone and following their lead is easier than listening to or reading directions while doing anything like riding a bicycle. The more we practice, the less difficult it gets. Even when acquiring largely cerebral abilities like computer programming or speaking a foreign language, we learn best via practice and repetition—the natural learning process. We learn a foreign language by speaking it as much as possible rather than by reading books and studying ideas. We grow more fluent the more we talk and practice.

Once you’ve gone far enough, you’ll find yourself in a cycle of accelerated returns, in which practice gets simpler and more fascinating, allowing you to practice for longer periods of time, increasing your skill level, and making practice even more exciting. The aim you must set for yourself is to complete this cycle, and in order to do so, you must first comprehend certain fundamental ideas regarding skills.

First and foremost, you must start with one talent that you can master and use as a foundation for learning others. You must reject the notion that you can acquire many abilities at the same time. You must improve your focus skills and recognize that attempting to multitask will kill the process.

Second, tedium is generally present throughout the early stages of acquiring a skill. However, rather than avoiding tedium, you must accept and embrace it. Similar to physical training, the discomfort and boredom we encounter during the early stages of acquiring a skill toughens our brains. Too many individuals feel that everything in life should be enjoyable, which causes them to seek out diversions and short-circuits the learning process. The discomfort is a form of mental challenge—can you learn to concentrate and get beyond the boredom, or will you cave to the craving for instant pleasure and diversion, like a kid would? You may even get a twisted joy out of this agony, similar to how you might get a perverse pleasure out of physical training, since you know the advantages it will bring you. In any case, you must face boredom full on rather than attempt to avoid or suppress it. You will face tiresome circumstances throughout your life, and you must have the skill to manage them with discipline.


When you practice a skill in its early stages, something occurs neurologically in the brain that you should be aware of. When you begin a new task, a huge number of neurons in the frontal cortex (the brain’s higher, more conscious command center) are recruited and activated, assisting you in learning. The brain must process a great quantity of new information, which would be unpleasant and burdensome if just a small portion of the brain was employed to do so. As we concentrate intently on the job, the frontal cortex really grows in size. However, after enough repetitions, something becomes hardwired and automatic, and the neural connections for this talent are delegated to other sections of the brain, farther down the cortex. Those neurons in the frontal cortex that we required at the beginning have now been freed up to deal with something else, and the region has returned to its original size.

Finally, a complete network of neurons is formed to remember this particular job, which explains why humans can still ride a bicycle years after learning how to do so. The frontal brain of people who have mastered something via repetition would remain extraordinarily motionless and passive while they did the task, if we were to gaze at it. All of their brain activity takes place in lower-level locations that need much less conscious control.

This hardwiring process cannot take place if you are continually distracted, switching from one job to another. In this instance, the neural connections related to this talent never form; what you learn is too flimsy to be retained in the brain. It is preferable to devote two or three hours of focused attention to a skill than eight hours of scattered concentration. You want to be as present as possible while doing what you’re doing.

You now have the mental space to monitor yourself as you practice after an activity has become habitual. You must use this space to assess yourself, noting any defects or shortcomings that need to be addressed. It also helps to get as much input from people as possible and to establish benchmarks against which you can evaluate your development so that you know how far you have to go. People who do not practice and acquire new abilities will never develop a healthy sense of proportion or self-criticism. They have little touch with reality and believe they can accomplish anything without effort. Trying something over and over again roots you in reality, making you acutely aware of your shortcomings as well as what you can achieve with greater effort.

If you go far enough, you’ll find yourself in a cycle of accelerated returns: You may begin to modify what you do as you learn and acquire abilities, discovering subtleties that you might build in the task to make it more fascinating. As the aspects become more natural, your mind is less fatigued by the effort, allowing you to practice longer and more effectively, resulting in increased proficiency and enjoyment. You may hunt for new challenges and conquer new places to keep your curiosity piqued. As the cycle progresses, you may reach a point when your mind is completely consumed by the practice, experiencing a state of flow in which everything else fades away. You become one with the tool, instrument, or object you’re learning about. Your expertise isn’t something you can explain; it’s ingrained in your body and neurological system, and it’s known as tacit knowledge. Learning a skill thoroughly prepares you for mastery. The experience of being a part of the instrument and flowing with it is a foretaste of the enormous delights that mastery may provide.


In essence, as you practice and improve any talent, you are transforming yourself. As you advance, you discover new talents that were previously hidden. Emotionally, you grow. Your definition of pleasure is altered. What provides instant pleasure becomes a distraction, a pointless diversion to pass the time. Overcoming problems, feeling confident in your talents, attaining skill fluency, and experiencing the power that comes with it provide real joy. You learn to be patient. Boredom no longer indicates a need for diversion, but rather a desire to take on new tasks.

Although it may seem that the time required to acquire the essential abilities and achieve a degree of proficiency depends on the sector and your level of ability, those who have investigated the issue frequently come up with the figure of 10,000 hours. This seems to be the amount of high-quality practice time required for composers, chess players, authors, and sports, among others. This number has a mysterious or even magical ring to it. It indicates that a significant amount of practice time—regardless of the individual or field—causes a qualitative change in the human brain. The mind has developed the ability to organize and arrange huge volumes of data. It may now become creative and fun with all of this tacit information. Despite the large number of hours, they usually add up to seven to 10 years of consistent, good practice—roughly the length of a typical apprenticeship. To put it another way, focused practice over time cannot fail to yield results.

Experimentation—The Active Mode is the third step.

Vintage scientist with large microscope placed on the table.

This is the shortest phase of the procedure, but it is still essential. As your expertise and confidence grow, you’ll need to transition to a more active method of exploration. This might include taking on greater responsibilities, beginning a project, or doing work that exposes you to peer or public criticism. The goal is to see how far you’ve come and if you still have any knowledge gaps. You’re seeing yourself in action and seeing how you react to other people’s opinions. Can you absorb criticism and turn it into something useful?

As the journey proceeded and he started to entertain ideas that would lead to his theory of evolution, Charles Darwin decided to share his thoughts with others. First, he discussed them with the captain aboard the Beagle, painstakingly absorbing his passionate critiques of the plan. This, Darwin reasoned, would be the public’s response in most cases, and he would have to prepare for it. Back in England, he started writing letters to different scientists and scientific bodies. The comments he got suggested he could be onto something, but that he needed to do further investigation. As his studio work for Verrocchio proceeded, Leonardo da Vinci started to innovate and impose his own style. He was surprised to learn that the Master was pleased by his ingenuity. This signalled to Leonardo that he was nearing the conclusion of his apprenticeship.


Most individuals put off taking this step for far too long, usually out of fear. It’s usually simpler to understand the rules and remain in your comfort zone if you stick to them. You may have to push yourself to begin such acts or experiments before you believe you are ready. You’re putting your character to the test, overcoming your concerns, and establishing a detached attitude about your job by seeing it through the eyes of others. You’re getting a taste of what’s to come in the following phase, when everything you do will be scrutinized constantly.

When your apprenticeship is over, you’ll have the impression that there’s nothing further you can learn in this atmosphere. It’s time to proclaim your independence or go to a new location where you may continue your apprenticeship and broaden your skill set. When you’re faced with a professional shift or the need to acquire new skills later in life, having gone through this process previously will make it second nature. You’ve mastered the art of learning.

When your apprenticeship is over, you’ll have the impression that there’s nothing further you can learn in this atmosphere. It’s time to proclaim your independence or go to a new location where you may continue your apprenticeship and broaden your skill set. When you’re faced with a professional shift or the need to acquire new skills later in life, having gone through this process previously will make it second nature. You’ve mastered the art of learning.

Mastery by Robert Greene is a good place to start if you want to learn more.



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The “mastery robert greene chapters” is a book that offers different perspectives on what it means to be an apprentice. The book also has chapters that focus on other topics such as the importance of mentors, how to master your craft and how apprenticeship can help you in life.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does Robert Greene say about mastery?

A: Robert Greene says that if you want mastery, practice every day.

How do you get mastery Robert Greene?

A: I dont know, but the internet exists and you can search for it.

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A: I was unable to answer this question.

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