Focus, passion and rebellion the keys to being a master

Robert Greene was labelled the "hip hop entrepreneur" after his 1998 book The 48 Laws of Power was embraced by entrepreneurial rappers. In his new book, Mastery , he looks at what separates the masters from the rest of the world. He talks to James Kidd

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 4:30pm

Mastery explores how people become masters in their chosen field: Marcel Proust in writing, Hakuin Zenji in Zen Buddhism. What for you are the most important factors in becoming a master?

Focus and passion. They are the absolute keys. That's why I made the first chapter about discovering your life's calling. It is better to find out when you are younger, but you can take longer to figure it out. None of the rest of the book will matter if you don't understand that. The brain is an organ that works when we focus deeply on something. We can't focus if we're not excited by what we are looking at.

You analyse some of the most successful people in history. How did you choose the masters - whether Freddie Roach or Goethe?

I had to be attracted to them. There were definitely people who fit the template but I didn't like them. I am particularly attracted to people who have overcome obstacles, who weren't born with the natural material you would think of to become a master. Michael Faraday was poor. I loved Temple Grandin. If someone with autism can get there then nobody else has an excuse.

What separates a master such as Albert Einstein from the rest of us?

The difference between masters and other people is that little voice inside is strong enough that it keeps popping up. It says, "No - you don't want to be a lawyer, you want to be a writer". That is the only thing that separates an Einstein from the rest of us. They know what they want to do and they follow it.

It sounds like you are advocating rebellion and idiosyncrasy.

I am advocating rebellion. The only people who rewrite the rules are those who have an impact, who are non-conformists. Not everyone can be like that. Trains wouldn't run on time if everybody was at that level. But there are different degrees. The world right now is super-competitive. It is almost forcing you to be a non-conformist. I call it a ferociously democratic environment. It is fuelled by the internet where we don't have any patience for middlemen. It is more of an entrepreneurial environment now.

How do you fit into this narrative of mastery - from passion through apprenticeship to mastery?

For me, it was knowing I wanted to write from a very early age. I thought originally I was going to write the great novel. When I got out of college, I had to get a job, so I went into journalism. I learned a lot, but I didn't like that everything is so short and temporary. I meandered through film and television. It's more creative, but you have no control. By the time I was 36, I hadn't found it. My parents were getting worried. Then I got the chance to write a book [ The 48 Laws of Power]. It was a sort of a eureka moment. I decided to make a book that was completely weird and true to my own proclivities. It was a risk. But The 48 Laws of Power was so different that it stood out and attracted a lot of attention.

Your writing draws on Asian philosophy and religion. How have Asian thinkers influenced you?

They are a huge influence. I am infinitely more interested in Asian forms of strategy than Western ones. I find it more fluid, much more realistic and dimensional. All the greats: Sun Tzu, Musashi, Tsung Ping. For me, Asian thinkers have a much more holistic viewpoint of life. Zen meditation I use in a very deep personal way: to help me deal with the stresses of my life, to help me focus. It gives purpose to what I do. There are so many intersections between Asian philosophy and my books that I could spend hours on them.

You've been called the "hip hop entrepreneur". You have collaborated with 50 Cent. has been name-checked by Jay-Z, Kanye West and Busta Rhymes. Why did your writing strike a chord with the hip hop community?

The 48 Laws of Power came out just at the right time when a lot of black artists were trying to own their music. Black artists had been exploited, going back to the jazz era. In the mid-1990s, there was a huge movement to be entrepreneurial - to start your own label. The music business is very Machiavellian. 50 Cent would tell me that being a drug dealer might have seemed ruthless, but it was nowhere near as harsh as the music business. The artists found The 48 Laws very helpful in dealing with meetings, being aware of what a record producer was doing to them.