Anything is Not Just About Anything

On reaching Mastery, based on Robert Greene’s Mastery book.

Robert M. Vunabandi
9 min readJan 28, 2023

As I’m reading through the book Mastery by Robert Greene, I came across a passage that spurred my curiosity to one of the most intense it’s ever been. The massage said the following:

This unseen element that constitutes the animal’s entire experience … can be called various things. To the ancient Chinese … it was known as Tao or Way, and this Way inhabits everything in the world and is embedded in the relationships between things. The Way is visible to the expert—in cooking, carpentry, warfare, or philosophy. We shall call it the dynamic, the living force that inevitably operates in anything we study or do. It is how the whole thing functions, and how the relationships evolve from within. It is not the moves of the pieces on the chessboard but the entire game, involving the psychology of the players, their strategies in real time, their past experiences, influencing the present, the comfort of the chairs they are sitting in, how their energies affect each other—in a word, everything that comes into play, all at once.

This is what made me realize that just about anything is not just about anything.

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash

Context on The Book Mastery

If this passage is not as groundbreaking to you as it is to me, perhaps it’s because of everything said in the book before this. This passage is indeed coming from the last chapter of the book, so you could say that the entire book led to this. Now, if you’ve read anything from Robert Greene, you know how much of a stud this guy is. So, my following attempt at giving you the context of this book can, in no possible way, do justice to the writing of the 250+ pages of the book that came before this (about ~82% of the book indeed). Still, this might help.

The Concept of Mastery

This book is about the concept of “mastery”, which is how one gets to become the best they can possibly be at a particular field, career, sport, or anything they choose to do. To attain mastery is to reach a level of proficiency that the world literally cannot ignore. Some examples of masters that this book has analyzed so far are:

  • Marcel Proust
  • Napoleon Bonaparte
  • Yoky Matsuoka
  • Wright brothers
  • V. S. Ramachandran
  • John Coltrane
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Michael Faraday
  • Charles Darwin
  • Leonardo da Vinci

Case in point: you probably recognize a solid handful of these.

With all of that said, Greene analyzes all these masters of the world and finds what’s common about all of them. In analyzing all these masters, Greene builds a roadmap to mastery and lays it out in his book, Mastery.

How to Reach Mastery

The various steps to reach mastery, each of which can take multiple years, are as follows:

  1. Discover Your Calling—The Life’s Task: Greene suggests to look into your childhood and your pasts for things that “called” to you and to pay attention to what captivates your mind and get you to be completely absorbed. By closely investigating these events, you might be able to discover what it is you want to do in your life—your “Life’s Task”.
  2. Submit to Reality—The Ideal Apprenticeship: Post your formal education, Greene suggests that you immerse yourself in a period of intense learning. He particularly recommends to avoid things that doesn’t make you learn—e.g., taking on a high paying job where you don’t necessary learn as much as you could. This can be hard, but it is inherently a case of long term vs. short term strategy: you will be much better off in the long term if you choose to value learning over anything else such as money, fame, attention, etc.
  3. Absorb the Master’s Power—The Mentor Dynamic: Find a mentor from whom you can learn as much as you can. Someone you ideally want to be, but if not, someone that has experience in what you want to do. The biggest advantage to finding mentors is that mentors can be a huge shortcut to getting where you want to be. In order words, they’ve “been there, done that”. Keep in mind, also, that masters can be found in other places such as books or any other means of learning about how someone did something (e.g., Youtube or biographies).
  4. See People As They Are—Social Intelligence: People will act like people. Your job is to learn how people act and not take it personally. Obviously, people can change, but the point is to view people under this lens and again, not take it personally. Through analyzing Benjamin Franklin, Greene recommends taking his approach of looking inward into how you can “use” other people’s nature to your advantages. I put “use” in quotation because this can come off as manipulative, but in life, (1) anything is manipulative and (2) manipulations can be used as a force for good. This is a whole other topic that probably deserves its own essay, but Greene’s book The Laws of Human Nature or The 48 Laws of Power have good things to say on this.
  5. Awaken the Dimensional Mind—The Creative-Active: Greene makes a note of 3 kinds of minds: The Original mind, the Conventional mind, and the Dimensional mind. In a nutshell, the Original mind is how you were as a kid: super curious about everything and anything, having an attitude of playfulness, and wanting to experiment with everything. The Conventional mind is what most people get to in adult age: being sort of jaded with life and just going through the motions to get by. The Dimensional mind, however, is sort of like having a focused and targeted Original mind: creatively focused on your Life Task and seeing all the dimensions of life and how they relate to it. Greene suggests developing a Dimensional mind and offers 9 in-depth steps on how exactly to do that.
  6. Fuse the Intuitive With the Rational—Mastery: Finally, Greene talks about the idea of the “intuition” we develop after years of practice in one’s particular Life’s Task. Greene says that this intuition is often disregarded but that it should be seen as a higher form of intelligence. The passage I linked to at the beginning offers a hint as to how one may reach this level of higher intuition: by learning so much about their Life’s Task that they learn not just what the Life Task is about but also about how everything (all its parts, especially the ones that it’s not about) interact to form the the whole.

Though I’m still in the process of reading the chapter, this passage is what I want to discuss in this blog.

Anything is Not Just About Anything

Maybe you’re starting to see it now. After reading that passage, the first thing that came to mind was, “chess is not just about chess”. I wrote down in the margin of the book:

Taking literally all into consideration, a chess grand master can see the game in such a different light that it gives them a huge advantage. It’s like, we fail to see chess as more than just the chess board. => The game is not just about the game.

Years of Practice Helps Uncover Unseen Patterns

This is where that “dimensional” mind comes handy. In order to reach such level of master, one needs to start to see, over time, other things that influence the Task. For chess, I speculate it’s how a grand master may notice how their body posture, their sleep, their opponent’s attitude, and many other external factors affect their game. They might not be able to put this into words, but they can “intuitively” understand how all of these factors affect their game. For a basketball player—someone like the late Kobe Bryan (watch this interview to understand just how ridiculous this guy really is!)—might notice exactly how the angles of his placements of his feet affects the way he dribbles, how these angles affects how his opponents react to his game, etc.

I’m speculating at this point, but my point is, to have this dimensional mind is to not leave any stone unturned. Literally anything could affect the game. It’s about paying attention to literally anything and how that might affect the game.

There Is A Formula

Greene says at the beginning that “the reason for this overall disregard [of this high intuition form of learning] is simple: we humans have come to recognize only one form of thinking and intelligence,” and then goes on to describe how this “high intuition” is indeed another form of intelligence. It’s a form of seeing how the parts of something don’t necessarily add up to the whole but that as the parts interact together, they come to form a whole that is not resembling of the parts altogether.

The biggest case in point here: genes. I wrote a blog that explains how genes work at a high level.

It’s fascinating to grasp how such a simple process creates life as a whole. At the same time, I want to disagree a little bit with Greene. I do think there is a formula. When I read all these explanation, my technical, analytical, and mathematical background kicks in. I do think there is a formula but that that formula is so complex to us that we literally cannot understand it. That is why people see it as “intuition”. This is obviously a hypothesis, but I think that what happens is that each part do indeed form the whole but not in a simple additive way. Instead, each part forms the whole in the way of a complex function. If I could write it as a function, I’d write this:

# Thing X is made of X_1, X_2, ..., X_n
# We think thing X is this---the additive formula
X = X_1 + X_2 + ... + X_n

# However, thing is actually this
X = f(X_1, X_2, ..., X_n)

# Where f is a complex, multivariate functon that we literally
# cannot understand. However, one can get a sense of how the
# whole changes in relation to a part. I think masters come to
# understand multive derivatives, such as the one at variable `i`:
dX/di = d/di f(X_1, X_2, ..., X_i, ..., X_n)

If that didn’t make sense, let me put a simple example. When someone goes to work, there are multiple variables at play. Some are obvious: how much food they eat, how much they pay attention, how much they’ve slept the night before, how curious they are about the job, etc. There are some non-obvious ones: how fast they walk, who in the day they’ve seen so far, etc. The non-obvious ones as much as the obvious ones can influence how you eventually work. Understanding how one of the variable influences your final output—such as how much sleep one got—is important to increasing your work quality. What I think happens for masters, however, is that they inherently understand how many of the non-obvious variables influence their final output, and what makes this really complex is that this can—and indeed most often is—be a function of who they are!

So, a master such as Mozart can hear a song once and replay it days or weeks later to perfection, but how they were able to do that is not just a function of the song but also a function of what makes Mozart Mozart. That is why it feels like intuition: it’s literally too complex. Still, there’s a formula about it, and that’s the point I’m trying to make.

What Now

Personally, what I plan to do with this information is to try as much as possible to adopt a dimensional mind in everything that I do. I can’t say yet, unfortunately, that I know what my Life Task is. I came up with a simple, temporary answer in what I wrote in “What’s Your Life’s Purpose?”

In the meantime, being super attentive and curious in all that I do—or at least the things that captivate me—would help me, I hope, reach mastery one day.



Robert M. Vunabandi

Learning through life experiences and books, I share my ever-evolving understanding of the world and the niche-sphere of life that I live in.