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An anatomy of greatness

Robert Greene, the author of four books on strategy and power, says greatness is not an inborn quality, it can be developed

Shanu Athiparambath  |  New Delhi 

thinks intelligence is the most sensitive trigger point for envy. A sensible man would regard this “insight” somewhat suspiciously, because intelligence is also his greatest strength. But Mr Greene can say in his defence that he understands people really well. When he writes about the faults and foibles of little people, he does it with the authority of the highest level of scholarship. His erudition would put most academics to shame.

Mr Greene’s fifth book, Mastery, however, is not merely about politicking and power games; it describes what great achievers in history have in common. Mr Greene writes that there is nothing mystical about genius; it takes many hours of practice over years, perhaps decades, to achieve in any field. There is nothing new here. What sets apart is that it rejects many myths and simplistic dichotomies.

Mr Greene thinks in terms of fundamental principles. Yet he is wise enough to tell his readers that requires thought on a concrete level. Mechanical intelligence is as important as abstract reasoning. He understands the importance of emotional detachment when it seems best. But he also knows that emotions are a great source of information, and that we should listen to our feelings. There is no dichotomy between reason and emotions, between rational thinking and intuitive reasoning.

Mr Greene’s view of human nature is what many would call cynical, but in Mastery he writes that cynicism and scepticism are not a mark of maturity or intelligence, as many would like to believe. Inventors and innovators should retain a childlike spirit throughout their lives. It is irrational to be sceptical of everything that is new.

Ours is an age of hyper-specialisation, and many believe that physical and social sciences are becoming increasingly specialised — and rightly so. But Mr Greene thinks that creativity requires interdisciplinary knowledge and an understanding of varied perspectives. Not surprisingly, the sharpest thinkers in any field know that it is important to explore related fields, and conceive their system as a synthesis. Though Mr Greene does not explicitly mention Thomas S Kuhn, he relies on Kuhn’s historiography of science, and points out that it is dangerous to stick to one’s paradigm or fundamental vision when our reason tells us that we should move beyond it or even reject it altogether.

Mr Greene is at his best when he discusses what he calls the “Machiavellian reality.” Our conversational norms are topsy-turvy. We live in a world where discussing real-world politics is considered a mark of sophistication, but any discussion of office politics is met with scorn. Many claim that if we close our eyes and pretend that it does not exist, politicking will go away. The truth is that it is almost impossible for a man to reform democratic politics, but he can learn to handle politicking in his own life. Mr Greene is not afraid to say that this politicking is an inseparable part of reality, and that it is fraudulent to deny this fact.

When creative men enter the “real world”, they often run into trouble because they naively believe that others are driven by the same motives as they are. Introspection fails the cognitive elite. Mr Greene suggests that creative men who travel that road should abandon this “naïve perspective”, because that way madness lies.

Ordinary men are often driven by envy, insecurities and narrow self-interest. It is worse than a waste of time to appeal to their emotions, intellect or idealism. Rational arguments do not move them. For them, a creative genius cannot be anything but a malicious creature that spoils their party. He rightly points out that much of what we call social intelligence is about seeing through this politicking. His critics might scream their heads off that he is an evil monster, but this is still the truth to be said in this age when most self-help rehash the same old platitudes.

As much as he understands people, Mr Greene ignores some elementary facts of human nature. He claims that talent is not inborn, nor it is a product of privilege. But one is confronted by an embarrassing fact: “Success often runs in families.” This cannot be explained away by the claim that talent is a matter of practice or will. Unfortunately for Mr Greene, you cannot have it both ways. Geneticists had long established that many of our differences are innate. Perseverance cannot explain why Steve Jobs thought that his products were a fusion of scientific and liberal arts thinking, and why a designer I once worked with could not spell “Cleopatra”.

Another important truth is that most people are conformists. They do not want to achieve mastery by breaking free from all precedents and traditions. Even when they convince themselves that they are being rebellious, they are just replacing one form of conformism with another. There are perhaps people who attempt to go against the tide, but when push comes to shove, they will be back to where they were. Our society punishes non-conformism, and this is beyond reform because conformism is essential for a division-of-labour society. But it is possible that that introspection failed Mr Greene. Before he wrote his vastly popular on power and strategy, had 80 different jobs. In the longest job he ever had, he lasted 10 months.

Robert Greene
Profile Books
368 pages; Rs 499

First Published: Wed, January 16 2013. 00:32 IST