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The Art of Success: Two Books that Taught Me How to Master My Life

By Crystal Hamilton

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Do you ever feel like you’re the jack of all trades but the master of none? That’s my story… but I don’t want it to be.

I often feel inadequate in various skills. Other people treat my talents as if I’ve already mastered them, but I lack the same enthusiasm towards my abilities.

I know what the problem is. I’m allergic to mediocrity. I’m an over-achiever; a perfectionist in all arenas. Now, I know these aren’t bad qualities; but how do I focus them in the right direction?

I know I’m good at a lot of things, but I want to be known for that one thing. The one thing I’m the best of the best at; head-and-shoulders above the crowd. I want to feel in my heart that no-one can compete with me, because I’ve developed a unique skill level.

Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out which one thing to go all in on. Where do I focus?

I’m not going to sugarcoat it… this is super difficult. Especially when I need to figure out how to make my passion profitable.

Two Books, One Message

Back in my sophomore year of high-school, I was given a copy of Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell.

This book was my introduction to the notion of ‘mastery’ as it relates to extraordinary people. People with genius-level intellects or astonishing talents. This idea, still nebulous, remained in my mind as I went through life.

Some 17 years later, I read a book that solidified my developing theories. Mastery, by Robert Greene, was required reading for my grad school studies. I couldn’t have asked for a better assignment. Greene’s book took what Gladwell had taught me and expanded it.

Mastery taught me that I could master not only a craft, but my reality: my own mind and my relationships with other people. Greene’s step-by-step methodology – an actionable guide to mastery – revealed the mindset, intelligence and effort necessary to become a master of… well, anything.

Many would argue against aspects of both authors’ philosophies. I’m certainly not going to claim that they’re flawless. But both books, hitting my brain years apart but perfectly timed, were extremely enlightening. They motivated me and ingrained some key lessons that I still carry with me.

Many would argue with certain aspects of both philosophies, however I found both books to be very enlightening and motivating with valuable key lessons. Both have opened my eyes to a different world, perspective, and attitude toward the pursuit of success.

In this post, I’d like to share the core concepts that resonated with me.

Malcom Gladwell’s The Outliers: Key Points

The 10,000 Rule

You’ve probably heard this one before: mastery comes after 10,000 hours of practice.

Stop and think about what that means. It’s a big commitment. In order to get ahead – get really ahead – you need persistence, grit and self-efficacy.

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Intelligence Only Gets You So Far

The relationship between high IQ and success is only useful to a point.

Once you look at people with an IQ of 120+, having additional points on the metric doesn’t appear to equal real-world advantage.

This is clear when you see the many ‘gifted’ children who were only praised for their intelligence rather than their work ethic; once they leave academia (or even just high-school) they can struggle to achieve what they thought would come easily.

Upbringing Matters

How you were raised plays a big role on your future success. While wealthy vs. poor parentage had some effect, the key factor that impacts a kid’s life is whether their parents are involved.

This is excellent news for parents, as it means we can all make a meaningful difference to our children’s chances of success. You don’t need to be rich, just interested and proactive.

Meaningful Work

Work needs to be meaningful for people to really care about it – that is, care about it to the point they want to master it.

If you find genuine purpose within your work, you’re far more likely to work hard and put in the hours needed to develop skills.

People who find their work meaningful are also less likely to give up when they face setbacks or obstacles.


The beliefs we grew up with – the intergenerational lessons and values from our cultures – subconsciously influence our behaviors and likelihood of success.

The cultural legacies that influence you might not be obvious, Gladwell says; they can persist when economic, social or demographic conditions change beyond recognition. But without taking the time to discover and understand them, it is hard to make sense of our behaviors.

Robert Greene’s Mastery: Key Points

Mastery is Essential to Finding Your Purpose

Greene uses a metaphor to explain ‘purpose’.

He says that, when you’re born, a unique seed is planted. That seed wants to grow and transform; to become a flower at its full potential. Your life’s task is to help that seed germinate, grow and flower, says Greene.

Like a living seed, your purpose has a natural energy. It wants to evolve. Keeping a strong grasp on your purpose – in whatever form is best for you – will increase your chances of achieving mastery. You will express your own uniqueness – your beautiful, flowering plant – through your work.

Emotional Intelligence is Vital

Many people who seek mastery forget that emotions are important; the feelings of yourself and other people are not ignorable.

Your emotions can make or break your attempts at mastery. Gladwell theorizes that one of the key differences between successful people and the rest of humanity is how they handle frustration.

Successful people, he says, know how to deal with stuff going wrong – which it always does, in one way or another. They can embrace failure as a lesson and put their lives back together after they’ve been shaken up. They can handle people’s insults and sabotage with grace.

This point reminds me of ‘If’, a poem by Rudyard Kipling. These lines in particular:

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools

The poem ends “you’ll be a Man, my son” – but I think we can safely substitute “Woman”, don’t you?

Focus on Your Inclinations and Avoid the False Path

Your inclination is a profound attraction that drives an obsession. It can seem implanted from birth; it drives you towards mastery and feeds the soul.

You have to recognize that inclination and stay true to it. This will allow you to see things more clearly, or from different perspectives. It will help you to innovate and plow through conventional ideas to find totally new paths.

The danger comes if you follow a ‘false path’ – a direction that attracts us for the wrong reasons (money, attention, power). The actions taken on this path are unfulfilling and potentially damaging to your life goals.

Find Mentors Through Apprenticeship

Mastery is not something that can be attained solo. Those who seek mastery are best served by seeking a mentor.

A mentor, if chosen wisely, will be in alignment with your inclination. They will help you to focus your attention in the right places; they will know how to challenge you at the right level for rapid improvement.

To properly absorb the lessons and experience offered by a mentor, you must learn to practice humility – basically, you need to accept that there’s a lot you don’t already know!

That said, the goal of apprenticeship is always to surpass the mentor; not to live permanently in their shadow. A good mentor will embrace this.

Master Social Intelligence and See People as They Are

Social intelligence is the ability to see people in a realistic light.

Greene breaks this ability into two categories of knowledge:

Specific Knowledge of Human Nature

This means knowing how to ‘read’ people as individuals. How does this person see the world? What makes them unique? What does this mean for my interactions with them?

General Knowledge of Human Nature

This is the knowledge of how humankind works as a species. It’s an understanding of our collective flaws: rigidity, a desire to conform, self-obsessiveness, laziness, flightiness envy, passive-aggression and so on.

Social intelligence comes easier to some than others, but you can acquire it through various means:

  • Speak through your work. You don’t need to shout about your abilities; let the results of your graft make the noise.
  • Craft an appropriate persona (Superhero Alter Ego, enter the stage!). Your second persona can deal with the public.
  • See yourself as others see you. That might be a shock (either a positive or negative one), but it will help you grow as a person.
  • Suffer fools gladly. Flip the conventional wisdom and learn to have grace for fools. We all act foolishly sometimes; often, without even being aware of it. When we acknowledge this through humility and self-awareness, we can learn to have grace for others. In return, others are more likely to forgive our transgresssions.

The Wrap Up

If you’re a regular reader of Superhero Alter Ego, you’ll find some familiar themes in Outliers and Mastery.

Gladwell and Greene helped shape my personal philosophies, and that’s apparent in my writing, my other work and my everyday life.

The two books opened my eyes to a different world. I took on a new perspective and attitude towards the pursuit of success.

I hope that you’ll find them just as useful.

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