The best part about this book is the long-form stories of 10+ people instead of cherry-picked anecdotes.
Here are my notes from Mastery:
- The common explanations for a Mozart or a Leonardo da Vinci revolve around natural talent and brilliance. How else to account for their uncanny achievements except in terms of something they were born with? But thousands upon thousands of children display exceptional skill and talent in some field, yet relatively few of them ever amount to anything, whereas those who are less brilliant in their youth can often attain much more. Natural talent or a high IQ cannot explain future achievement.
As a classic example, compare the lives of Sir Francis Galton and his older cousin, Charles Darwin. By all accounts, Galton was a super-genius with an exceptionally high IQ, quite a bit higher than Darwin’s (these are estimates done by experts years after the invention of the measurement). Galton was a boy wonder who went on to have an illustrious scientific career, but he never quite mastered any of the fields he went into. He was notoriously restless, as is often the case with child prodigies.
Darwin, by contrast, is rightly celebrated as the superior scientist, one of the few who has forever changed our view of life. As Darwin himself admitted, he was “a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect…. I have no great quickness of apprehension…. My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited.” Darwin, however, must have possessed something that Galton lacked.
In many ways, a look at the early life of Darwin himself can supply an answer to this mystery. As a child Darwin had one overriding passion — collecting biological specimens. His father, a doctor, wanted him to follow in his footsteps and study medicine, enrolling him at the University of Edinburgh. Darwin did not take to this subject and was a mediocre student. His father, despairing that his son would ever amount to anything, chose for him a career in the church. As Darwin was preparing for this, a former professor of his told him that the HMS Beagle was to leave port soon to sail around the world, and that it needed a ship’s biologist to accompany the crew in order to collect specimens that could be sent back to England. Despite his father’s protests, Darwin took the job. Something in him was drawn to the voyage.
Suddenly, his passion for collecting found its perfect outlet. In South America he could collect the most astounding array of specimens, as well as fossils and bones. He could connect his interest in the variety of life on the planet with something larger — major questions about the origins of species. He poured all of his energy into this enterprise, accumulating so many specimens that a theory began to take shape in his mind. After five years at sea, he returned to England and devoted the rest of his life to the single task of elaborating his theory of evolution. In the process he had to deal with a tremendous amount of drudgery — for instance, eight years exclusively studying barnacles to establish his credentials as a biologist. He had to develop highly refined political and social skills to handle all the prejudice against such a theory in Victorian England. And what sustained him throughout this lengthy process was his intense love of and connection to the subject.
The basic elements of this story are repeated in the lives of all of the great Masters in history: a youthful passion or predilection, a chance encounter that allows them to discover how to apply it, an apprenticeship in which they come alive with energy and focus. They excel by their ability to practice harder and move faster through the process, all of this stemming from the intensity of their desire to learn and from the deep connection they feel to their field of study. And at the core of this intensity of effort is in fact a quality that is genetic and inborn — not talent or brilliance, which is something that must be developed, but rather a deep and powerful inclination toward a particular subject.
This inclination is a reflection of a person’s uniqueness. This uniqueness is not something merely poetic or philosophical — it is a scientific fact that genetically, every one of us is unique; our exact genetic makeup has never happened before and will never be repeated. This uniqueness is revealed to us through the preferences we innately feel for particular activities or subjects of study. Such inclinations can be toward music or mathematics, certain sports or games, solving puzzle-like problems, tinkering and building, or playing with words.
- In practicing a skill in the initial stages, something happens neurologically to the brain that is important for you to understand. When you start something new, a large number of neurons in the frontal cortex (the higher, more conscious command area of the brain) are recruited and become active, helping you in the learning process. The brain has to deal with a large amount of new information, and this would be stressful and overwhelming if only a limited part of the brain were used to handle it. The frontal cortex even expands in size in this initial phase, as we focus hard on the task. But once something is repeated often enough, it becomes hardwired and automatic, and the neural pathways for this skill are delegated to other parts of the brain, farther down the cortex. Those neurons in the frontal cortex that we needed in the initial stages are now freed up to help in learning something else, and the area goes back to its normal size.
- The owner of the shop, George Riebau, was instantly charmed by the young man’s reverence for his books. He had never met someone quite so intense at such a young age. He encouraged him to return, and soon Faraday began to frequent the shop. To help Faraday’s family, Riebau gave him a job as a delivery boy. Impressed with his work ethic, he invited him to join the shop itself as an apprentice bookbinder. Faraday happily accepted, and in 1805 he began his seven-year apprenticeship.
In the initial months of the job, surrounded by all these books, the young man could hardly believe his good fortune — new books were rare commodities in those days, luxury items for the well-to-do. Not even a public library contained what could be found in Riebau’s shop. The owner encouraged him to read whatever he liked in his off-hours, and Faraday obliged by devouring almost every single book that passed through his hands. One evening he read an encyclopedia passage on the most recent discoveries in electricity, and he suddenly felt as if he had found his calling in life. Here was a phenomenon that was invisible to the eye, but that could be revealed and measured through experiments. This process of uncovering nature’s secrets through experiment enthralled him. Science, it seemed to him, was a great quest to unravel the mysteries of Creation itself. Somehow, he would transform himself into a scientist.
This was not a realistic goal on his part and he knew it. In England at the time, access to laboratories and to science as a career was only open to those with a university education, which meant those from the upper classes. How could a bookbinder’s apprentice even dream of overcoming such odds? Even if he had the energy and desire to attempt it, he had no teachers, no guidance, no structure or method to his studies. Then in 1809 a book came into the shop that finally gave him some hope. It was called Improvement of the Mind — a self-help guide written by Reverend Isaac Watts, first published in 1741. The book revealed a system of learning and improving your lot in life, no matter your social class. It prescribed courses of action that anyone could follow, and it promised results. Faraday read it over and over, carrying it with him wherever he went.
He followed the book’s advice to the letter. For Watts, learning had to be an active process. He recommended not just reading about scientific discoveries, but actually re-creating the experiments that led to them. And so, with Riebau’s blessing, Faraday began a series of basic experiments in electricity and chemistry in the back room of the shop. Watts advocated the importance of having teachers and not just learning from books. Faraday dutifully began to attend the numerous lectures on science that were popular in London at the time. Watts advocated not just listening to lectures but taking detailed notes, then reworking the notes themselves — all of this imprinting the knowledge deeper in the brain. Faraday would take this even further.
Attending the lectures of the popular scientist John Tatum, each week on a different subject, he would note down the most important words and concepts, quickly sketch out the various instruments Tatum used, and diagram the experiments. Over the next few days he would expand the notes into sentences, and then into an entire chapter on the subject, elaborately sketched and narrated. In the course of a year this added up to a thick scientific encyclopedia he had created on his own. His knowledge of science had grown by leaps and bounds, and had assumed a kind of organizational shape modeled on his notes.
One day, Monsieur Riebau showed this rather impressive collection of notes to a customer named William Dance, a member of the prestigious Royal Institution, an organization that sought to promote the latest advances in science. Thumbing through Faraday’s chapters, Dance was astounded at how clearly and concisely he had summarized complicated topics. He decided to invite the young man to attend a series of lectures by the renowned and recently knighted chemist Humphry Davy, to be given at the Royal Institution where Davy was director of the chemistry laboratory.
The lectures had been sold out well in advance and this was a rare privilege for a young man of Faraday’s background, but for him it was much more fateful than that. Davy was the preeminent chemist of his time; he had made numerous discoveries and was advancing the new field of electrochemistry. His experiments with various gases and chemicals were highly dangerous and had led to numerous accidents. This only added to his reputation as a fearless warrior for science. His lectures were events — he had a flair for the dramatic, performing clever experiments before a dazzled audience. He came from a modest background and had raised himself to the heights of science, having gained the attention of some valuable mentors. To Faraday, Davy was the only living scientist he could model himself after, considering Davy’s lack of any solid formal education.
Arriving early each time and gaining the closest seat he could find, he soaked up every aspect of Davy’s lectures, taking the most detailed notes he had ever attempted. These lectures had a different effect upon Faraday than others he had attended. He was inspired and yet he also could not help but feel somewhat dejected. After all of these years of studying on his own, he had managed to expand his knowledge of science and of the natural world. But science does not consist of the accumulation of information. It is a way of thinking, of approaching problems. The scientific spirit is creative — Faraday could feel it in Davy’s presence. As an amateur scientist looking at the field from the outside, his knowledge was one-dimensional and would lead nowhere. He needed to move to the inside, where he could gain practical, hands-on experience, become part of the community and learn how to think like a scientist. And to move closer to this scientific spirit and absorb its essence, he would need a mentor.
This seemed like an impossible quest, but with his apprenticeship coming to an end, and facing the prospect of being a bookbinder for life, Faraday went into desperation mode. He wrote letters to the president of the Royal Society and applied for the most menial jobs in any kind of laboratory. He was relentless, and yet months went by with no results. Then one day, out of the blue, he received a message from Humphry Davy’s office. The chemist had been blinded by yet another explosion in his laboratory at the Royal Institution, and the condition would last for several days. During this time he needed a personal assistant to take notes and organize his materials. Mr. Dance, a good friend of Davy’s, had recommended young Faraday for the job.
There seemed something fateful, even magical, in this occurrence. Faraday would have to make the most of it, do whatever he could to impress the great chemist. Awestruck to be in Davy’s presence, Faraday listened with utmost intensity to every one of his instructions and did more than was asked for. When Davy, however, had recovered his sight, he thanked Faraday for his work but made it clear that the Royal Institution already had a laboratory assistant and there were simply no openings for him on any level.
Faraday felt despondent, but he was not ready to give up; he would not let this be the end. Only a few days in Davy’s presence had revealed so many learning possibilities. Davy liked to talk about his ideas as they occurred to him and gain feedback from anyone around him. Discussing with Faraday one experiment he was planning afforded the young man a glimpse into how his mind worked, and it was fascinating. Davy would be the ultimate mentor, and Faraday determined that he would have to make this happen. He went back to the notes he had taken on Davy’s lectures. He worked them into a beautifully organized booklet, carefully handwritten, and full of sketches and diagrams. He sent this off to Davy as a gift. He then wrote to him a few weeks later, reminding Davy about the experiment he had mentioned but had probably forgotten about — Davy was notoriously absentminded. Faraday heard nothing. But then one day, in February 1813, he was suddenly summoned to the Royal Institution.
That same morning the Institution’s laboratory assistant had been fired for insubordination. They needed to replace him immediately, and Davy had recommended young Faraday. The job mostly involved cleaning bottles and equipment, sweeping, and lighting fireplaces. The pay was low, considerably lower than what he could gain as a bookbinder, but Faraday, hardly believing his good fortune, accepted on the spot.
His education was so rapid it shocked him; it was nothing like the progress he had made on his own. Under his mentor’s supervision, he learned how to prepare Davy’s chemical mixtures, including some of the more explosive varieties. He was taught the rudiments of chemical analysis from perhaps the greatest living practitioner of the art. His responsibilities began to grow, and he was given access to the lab for his own experiments. He worked night and day to bring a much-needed order to the laboratory and its shelves. And slowly, their relationship deepened — clearly Davy saw him as a younger version of himself.
That summer Davy prepared to go on an extended tour of Europe, and invited Faraday to come along as his laboratory assistant and valet. Although Faraday did not relish the thought of acting as a personal servant, the chance to meet some of Europe’s most preeminent scientists and work so closely with Davy on his experiments (he traveled with a kind of portable laboratory) was too much to pass up. It was best to be around him as much as possible and soak up his knowledge, his whole way of thinking.
During the trip, Faraday assisted Davy on a particular experiment that would leave a lasting impression on him. The exact chemical composition of diamonds had long been in dispute. They appeared to be composed of carbon. But how could something so beautiful be made of exactly the same substance as charcoal? There had to be more to its chemical composition, but there was no known way to divide a diamond into its constituent elements. It was a problem that had baffled many scientists. Davy had long entertained the radical idea that it was not the elements themselves that determined the properties of things. Perhaps charcoal and diamonds had precisely the same chemical composition, but it was changes in their underlying molecular structure that determined their form. This was a much more dynamic view of nature, but Davy had no way to prove this until suddenly, traveling through France, an idea for the perfect experiment came to him.
After being reminded that one of the most powerful lenses of the time resided at the Accademia del Cimento in Florence, Davy made a detour there. Gaining permission to use the lens, he placed a diamond in a tiny glass globe containing pure oxygen and used the lens to focus intense sunlight on the globe until the diamond completely evaporated. Inside the globe, all that remained of the diamond was carbon dioxide gas, proving that it was indeed composed of pure carbon. Therefore, what turned carbon into either charcoal or a diamond must involve a change in the underlying molecular structure. Nothing else could explain the results of his experiment. What impressed Faraday was the thought process that went into this. From a simple speculation, Davy found his way to the one experiment that would physically demonstrate his idea by excluding all other possible explanations. This was a highly creative way of thinking, and it was the source of Davy’s power as a chemist.
On his return to the Royal Institution, Faraday was given a pay increase and a new title — Assistant and Superintendent of the Apparatus and Mineralogical Collection. And soon a pattern developed. Davy liked to spend most of his time on the road. Trusting Faraday’s growing skills, he would send back to him all kinds of mineral samples to analyze. Davy had slowly grown dependent on his assistant; in letters to Faraday he praised him as one of the best analytic chemists he knew — he had trained him well. But by the year 1821, Faraday had to confront an unpleasant reality: Davy was keeping him under his thumb. After eight years of an intense apprenticeship, he was now an accomplished chemist in his own right, with expanding knowledge of other sciences. He was doing independent research, but Davy was still treating him as an assistant, making him send packets of dead flies for his fishing lures and assigning him other menial tasks.
It was Davy who had rescued him from the drudgery of the bookbinding business. He owed him everything. But Faraday was now thirty years old, and if he were not allowed soon enough to declare his independence, his most creative years would be wasted as a laboratory assistant. To leave on bad terms, however, would ruin his name in the scientific community, especially considering his own lack of reputation. Then, finally, Faraday found a chance to separate himself from his overbearing mentor, and he exploited this opportunity to the maximum.
Scientists throughout Europe were making discoveries about the relationship between electricity and magnetism, but the effect they had on each other was strange — creating a movement that was not linear and direct, but apparently more circular. Nothing in nature was quite like this. How to reveal the exact shape of this effect or movement in an experiment became the rage, and soon Davy got involved. Working with a fellow scientist named William Hyde Wollaston, they proposed the idea that the movement created by electromagnetism was more like a spiral. Involving Faraday in their experiments, they devised a way to break up the movement into small increments that could be measured. Once this was all added up, it would show the spiral motion.
At about the same time, Faraday was asked by a close friend to write a review of all that was known about electromagnetism for an established journal, and so he began a rigorous study of the field. Thinking like his mentor, he speculated that there must be a way to physically demonstrate the motion created by electromagnetism in a continual fashion, so that no one could dispute the results. One night in September 1821 he had a vision of just such an experiment, and he put it into practice. With a bar magnet secured upright in a cup of liquid mercury (a metal that conducts electricity), Faraday placed a suspended wire, buoyed by a cork, in the mercury. When the wire was charged with electricity, the cork moved around the magnet in a precise conical path. The reverse experiment (with the wire secured in the water) revealed the same pattern.
This was the first time in history that electricity had been used to generate continual motion, the precursor to all electric motors. The experiment was so simple and yet only Faraday had seen it so clearly. It revealed a way of thinking that was very much the product of Davy’s tutelage. Feeling the weight of years of poverty, crushed expectations, and servitude lifting off of him, he danced around the laboratory. This would be the discovery that would free him at last. Excited about what he had done, he rushed to have his results published.
In his haste to get his report out, however, Faraday had forgotten to mention the research done by Wollaston and Davy. Soon enough, the rumor spread that Faraday had actually plagiarized their work. Realizing his mistake, Faraday met with Wollaston and showed him how he had reached his results independent of anyone else’s work. Wollaston agreed and let the matter drop. But the rumors continued, and soon it became clear that the source of them was Davy himself. He refused to accept Faraday’s explanation and no one knew quite why. When Faraday was nominated to the Royal Society because of his discovery, it was Davy, as president, who tried to block it. A year later, when Faraday made yet another important discovery, Davy claimed partial credit for it. He seemed to believe that he had created Faraday from nothing and so was responsible for everything he did.
Faraday had seen enough — their relationship was essentially over. He would never correspond with or see him again. Now having authority within the scientific community, Faraday could do as he pleased. His coming experiments would soon pave the way for all of the most important advances in electrical energy, and for the field theories that would revolutionize science in the twentieth century. He would go on to become one of history’s greatest practitioners of experimental science, far outshining the fame of his one-time mentor.
- In 1718, Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) went to work as an apprentice in his brother James’s printing shop in Boston. His dream was to transform himself into a great writer. At the printing shop he would not only be taught how to handle the machines, but also how to edit manuscripts. Surrounded by books and newspapers, he would have plenty of examples of good writing to study and learn from. It would be the perfect position for him.
As the apprenticeship progressed, the literary education he had imagined for himself came to pass, and his writing skills improved immensely. Then, in 1722, it seemed that he would finally have the perfect opportunity to prove himself as a writer — his brother was about to launch his own large-scale newspaper called The New-England Courant. Benjamin approached James with several interesting ideas for stories he could write, but to his great disappointment, his brother was not interested in his contributing to the new paper. This was a serious venture, and Benjamin’s work was too immature for The Courant.
Benjamin knew it was pointless to argue with James; he was a very stubborn young man. But as he thought about the situation, an idea suddenly came to him: what if he were to create a fictional character who would write letters to The Courant? If he wrote them well enough, James would never suspect they were from Benjamin, and he would print them. In this way, he would have the last laugh. After much thinking, he decided upon the perfect character to create: a young female widow named Silence Dogood who had lots of strong opinions about life in Boston, many of them rather absurd. To make this believable, Benjamin spent long hours imagining a detailed past for her. He thought so deeply into the character that she began to come alive within him. He could hear her way of thinking, and soon there emerged a very realistic writing voice all her own.
He sent the first, rather lengthy letter to The Courant and watched with amusement as his brother published it and added a note in the newspaper asking for more letters from her. James probably suspected it was the work of some established writer in town using a pseudonym — the letter was so witty and satirical — but he clearly had no idea it was from Benjamin. James continued publishing the subsequent letters, and they quickly became the most popular part of The Courant.
Benjamin’s responsibilities at the shop began to grow, and he proved to be quite an adept editor for the newspaper as well. Feeling proud of all his precocious achievements, one day he could not help himself — he confessed to James that he was the author of the Dogood letters. Expecting some praise for this, he was surprised by James’s vitriolic response — his brother did not like being lied to. To make matters worse, over the next few months he turned increasingly cold and even abusive to Benjamin. It soon became impossible to work for him, and by the fall of 1723, feeling somewhat desperate, Benjamin decided to flee Boston, turning his back on brother and family.
After several weeks of wandering he ended up in Philadelphia, determined to settle there. He was only seventeen, with virtually no money and no contacts, but for some reason he felt full of hope. In the five years working for his brother he had learned more about the business than men twice his age. He was fiercely disciplined and ambitious. And he was a talented and successful writer to boot. With no more limitations on his freedom, Philadelphia would be his to conquer. Surveying the scene in his first few days there, his confidence only increased. The two printing shops in town at the time were well below the level of anything in Boston, and the writing in the local papers was abysmal. This meant endless opportunities to fill a void and make his way.
Sure enough, within a few weeks he managed to secure a position at one of the two printing shops in town, owned by a man named Samuel Keimer. Philadelphia was still relatively small and provincial at the time — word spread quickly of the newcomer and his literary skills.
The governor of the colony of Pennsylvania, William Keith, had ambitions of transforming Philadelphia into a cultural center, and was not happy with the two established printing businesses. Hearing of Benjamin Franklin and of his writing talent, he sought him out. Clearly impressed with the young man’s intelligence, he urged him to start his own printing shop, promising to lend him the initial amount that was needed to get the business going. The machines and materials would have to come from London, and Keith advised him to go there personally to supervise the acquisition. He had contacts there and would bankroll it all.
Franklin could hardly believe his good fortune. Only a few months earlier he was a menial apprentice to his brother. Now, thanks to the generous and enterprising governor, he would soon have his own printing business, and through it he could start a newspaper and become a leading voice in the city, all before he turned twenty. As he made his plans for London, the money Keith had promised as a loan was not forthcoming, but after writing to him a few times, word finally came from the governor’s office not to worry — letters of credit would be waiting for him once he disembarked in England. And so, without explaining to Keimer what he was up to, he quit his job and bought his passage for the transatlantic journey.
When he got to England there were no letters waiting. Feeling there must have been some kind of miscommunication, he frantically looked in London for a representative of the governor to whom he could explain their agreement. In his search he came upon a wealthy merchant from Philadelphia who, hearing his story, revealed to him the truth — Governor Keith was a notorious talker. He was always promising everything to everyone, trying to impress people with his power. His enthusiasm for a scheme would rarely last more than a week. He had no money to lend, and his character was worth about as much as his promises.
As Franklin took this all in and considered his current predicament, what disturbed him was not that he now found himself in a precarious position — alone and without money, far from home. There was no place more exciting for a young man than London, and he would somehow make his way there. What bothered him was how badly he had misread Keith and how naïve he had been.
Fortunately, London was teeming with large-scale printing shops, and within a few weeks of his arrival he found a position within one of them. To forget about the Keith fiasco he threw himself into the work, quickly impressing his employer with his dexterity with the various machines and with his editing skills. He got along well enough with his colleagues, but soon he encountered a strange British custom: five times a day his fellow printers would take a break to drink a pint of beer. It fortified them for the work, or so they said. Every week Franklin was expected to contribute to the beer fund for those in the room, including himself, but he refused to pay up — he did not like to drink during working hours, and the idea that he should give up a part of his hard-earned wages for others to ruin their health made him angry. He spoke honestly about his principles, and they politely accepted his decision.
Over the ensuing weeks, however, strange things began to happen: mistakes kept popping up in texts he had already proofread, and almost every day he noticed some new error for which he was blamed. He started to feel like he was losing his mind. If this continued any longer he would be fired. Clearly, somebody was sabotaging his work, and when he complained to his fellow printers, they attributed it all to a mischievous ghost who was known to haunt the room. Finally figuring out what this meant, he let go of his principles and contributed to the beer fund; the mistakes suddenly disappearing along with the ghost.
After this incident and several other indiscretions in London, Franklin began to seriously wonder about himself. He seemed hopelessly naïve, constantly misreading the intentions of the people around him. Thinking about this problem, he was struck by an apparent paradox: when it came to his work, he was supremely rational and realistic, always looking to improve himself. With his writing, for instance, he could see his weaknesses clearly and practiced hard to overcome them. But with people it was virtually the opposite: he would inevitably become swept up in his emotions and lose all contact with reality. With his brother, he wanted to impress him by revealing his authorship of the letters, totally unaware of the envy and malevolence he would unleash; with Keith, he was so wrapped up in his dreams that he paid no attention to obvious signs that the governor was all talk; with the printers, his anger blinded him to the fact that they would obviously resent his attempts at reform. What was worse, he seemed incapable of changing this self-absorbed dynamic.
Determined to break this pattern and change his ways, he decided there was only one solution: in all of his future interactions with people, he would force himself to take an initial step backward and not get emotional. From this more detached position, he would focus completely on the people he was dealing with, cutting off his own insecurities and desires from the equation. Exercising his mind this way every time, it would turn into a habit. In imagining how this would work, he had a strange sensation. It reminded him of the process he went through in creating the Dogood letters — thinking inside the character he had created, entering her world, and making her come alive in his mind. In essence, he would be applying this literary skill to everyday life. Gaining position inside people’s minds, he could see how to melt their resistance or thwart their malevolent plans.
To make this process foolproof, he decided he would also have to adopt a new philosophy: complete and radical acceptance of human nature. People possess ingrained qualities and characters. Some are frivolous like Keith, or vindictive like his brother, or rigid like the printers. There are people like this everywhere; it has been that way since the dawn of civilization. To get upset or try to alter them is futile — it will only make them bitter and resentful. Better to accept such people as one accepts the thorns on a rose. Better to observe and accumulate knowledge on human nature, as one accumulates knowledge in the sciences. If he could follow this new path in life, he would rid himself of his terrible naïveté and bring some rationality to his social relations.
After more than a year and a half of work in London, Franklin finally saved enough money for his return journey to the colonies, and in 1727 he found himself back in Philadelphia, looking once more for work. In the midst of his search, his former employer, Samuel Keimer, surprised him by offering Franklin a nice position in the printing shop — he would be in charge of the staff and training the others Keimer had recently hired as part of his expanding business. For this he would receive a nice yearly salary. Franklin accepted, but almost from the beginning he could sense something was not right. And so, as he had promised himself, he took a step back and calmly reviewed the facts.
He had five men to train, but once he accomplished this task there would be little work left over for him. Keimer himself had been acting strangely — much friendlier than usual. He was an insecure and prickly gentleman, and this friendly front did not fit him. Imagining the situation from Keimer’s perspective, he could sense that he must have greatly resented Franklin’s sudden departure for London, leaving him in the lurch. He must have seen Franklin as a young whippersnapper who needed his comeuppance. He was not the type to discuss this with anyone, but would seethe from within and scheme on his own. Thinking in this way, Keimer’s intentions became clear to him: he was planning to get Franklin to impart his extensive knowledge of the business to the new employees, then fire him. This would be his revenge.
Certain he had read this correctly, he decided to quietly turn the tables. He used his new managerial position to build relationships with customers and to connect with successful merchants in the area. He experimented with some new manufacturing methods he had learned in England. When Keimer was away from the shop, he taught himself new skills such as engraving and ink-making. He paid close attention to his pupils, and carefully cultivated one of them to be a first-rate assistant. And just when he suspected that Keimer was about to fire him, he left and set up his own shop — with financial backing, greater knowledge of the business, a solid base of customers who would follow him everywhere, and a first-rate assistant whom he had trained. In executing this strategy, Franklin noticed how free he was from any feelings of bitterness or anger toward Keimer. It was all maneuvers on a chessboard, and by thinking inside Keimer he was able to play the game to perfection, with a clear and level head.
Over the ensuing years, Franklin’s printing business prospered. He became a highly successful newspaper publisher, a best-selling writer, a scientist renowned for his experiments with electricity, and an inventor of such things as the Franklin stove (and later in his life that of the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, and so on). As an increasingly prominent member of the Philadelphia community, in 1736 he decided it was time to take his career further and enter politics, becoming a delegate to Pennsylvania’s colonial legislature. Within a few months he was chosen unanimously by fellow members to serve as the clerk to the legislature, a position of some influence. But when it was time to renew the appointment, a new member of the legislature, Isaac Norris, suddenly voiced his vehement opposition, supporting another candidate. After much heated debate Franklin won the vote, but in contemplating the situation, he saw danger on the horizon.
Norris was a wealthy, well-educated, and charismatic businessman. He was also ambitious and certain to rise within the ranks. If Franklin became antagonistic toward him, as would be expected after what had happened with the battle over the clerk position, he would confirm any unpleasant notions Norris had entertained of him and convert him into an implacable foe. On the other hand, if he ignored him, Norris might read this as an example of Franklin’s haughtiness and hate him all the more. To some it might seem to be the strong and manly thing to go on the attack and fight back, proving he was not someone to mess with. But would it not be infinitely more powerful to work against Norris’s expectations and subtly convert him into an implacable ally?
And so Franklin went to work. He observed the man closely in the legislature, gathered information from insiders, and thought himself deeply into Norris’s mind. He came to the conclusion that Norris was a proud and somewhat emotional young man who harbored a few insecurities as well. He seemed impatient for attention, for being liked and admired by others; perhaps he envied Franklin’s popularity and achievements. Through his insiders, he learned that Norris had one rather odd obsession — an extensive personal library containing many rare books, including one that was particularly rare and that he prized above all others. These books seemed to represent to him his own feelings of distinction and nobility.
Knowing all of this, Franklin decided upon the following course of action: he wrote to Norris a very polite note, expressing admiration for his collection. He was an avid book lover himself, and hearing so much about that one rare book in Norris’s collection, he would be excited beyond belief if he could somehow peruse it at his leisure. If Norris would lend it to him for a few days, he would take great care of it and return it promptly.
Clearly pleased by this attention, Norris sent the book over right away and Franklin returned it as promised, with another note expressing his gratitude for the favor. At the next meeting of the legislature, Norris came up to Franklin and engaged him in friendly conversation, something he had never done before. As he had predicted, he had created doubt in Norris’s mind. Instead of his suspicions being confirmed about Franklin, he was confronted with the fact that the man behaved as a true gentleman, shared his interest in rare books, and kept to his word. How could he continue to harbor bad feelings without wondering about himself and why he had sent the book? Playing on Norris’s emotional nature, Franklin shifted his feelings from antagonism to warmth. They became close friends and then staunch political allies to the end of their careers. (Franklin would go on to practice similar magic on many of his future political foes.)
In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was thought of as the quintessence of the trustworthy merchant and citizen. Like his fellow townsfolk, he dressed plainly; he worked harder than anyone they knew; he never frequented bars or gambling houses; and he had a folksy and even humble manner. His popularity was almost universal. But in the last public chapter of his life, he acted in a way that seemed to indicate that he had changed and lost his common touch.
In 1776, a year after the outbreak of the War of Independence, Benjamin Franklin — now a distinguished political figure — was dispatched to France as a special commissioner to obtain arms, financing and an alliance. Soon stories spread throughout the colonies of his various intrigues with French women and courtesans, and of his attendance at lavish parties and dinners — much of which was true. Prominent politicians such as John Adams accused him of becoming corrupted by the Parisians. His popularity among Americans plummeted. But what the critics and public did not realize was that wherever he went he assumed the look, the outward morals, and the behavior of the culture at hand, so that he could better make his way. Desperate to win the French over to the American cause and understanding their nature quite well, he had transformed himself into what they had wanted to see in him — the American version of the French spirit and way of life. He was appealing to their notorious narcissism.
All of this worked to perfection — Franklin became a beloved figure to the French, and a man of influence with their government. In the end, he brokered an important military alliance and gained the kind of financing nobody else could have wrested from the stingy French king. This final public act in his life was not an aberration, but the ultimate application of his social rationality.
- From the moment he was born, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91) was surrounded by music. His father, Leopold, was a violinist and composer in the court of Salzburg, Austria, as well as a music instructor. All during the day, Wolfgang would hear Leopold and his students practicing in the house. In 1759, his seven-year-old sister Maria Anna began taking piano lessons from their father. She showed great promise and practiced at all hours. Wolfgang, enchanted by the simple melodies that she played, began to hum along to the music; he would sometimes sit at the family’s harpsichord and try to imitate what his sister had played. Leopold could soon detect something unusual in his son. For a three-year-old, the child had a remarkable memory for melody and an impeccable sense of rhythm, all without having had any instruction.
Although he had never attempted to teach someone so young, Leopold decided to begin teaching piano to Wolfgang when he turned four, and after only a few sessions he realized the boy had other interesting qualities. Wolfgang listened more deeply than other students, his mind and body completely absorbed in the music. With such intensity of focus, he learned more quickly than other children. Once when he was five years old, he stole a rather complicated exercise meant for Maria Anna, and within thirty minutes he could play it with ease. He had heard Maria Anna practice the piece, and remembering it vividly, the moment he saw the notes on the page he could rapidly reproduce the music.
This remarkable focus had its roots in something that Leopold saw almost from the beginning — the boy had an intense love of music itself. His eyes would light up with excitement the moment Leopold laid out a new challenging piece for him to conquer. If the piece was new and hard to figure out, he would attack it day and night with such tenacity that it would soon become part of his repertoire. At night, his parents would have to force him to stop practicing and send him to bed. This love of practice only seemed to increase with the years. When it came time to play with other children, he would find a way to transform a simple game into something that involved music. His favorite game, however, was to take some piece he had been playing and improvise on it, giving it a personal flair that was quite charming and inventive.
From his earliest years, Wolfgang was exceptionally emotional and sensitive. His moods would swing wildly — he would be petulant one moment, highly affectionate the next. He had a perpetually anxious look on his face that would only disappear when he sat down at the piano; then he was in his element, losing himself in the music.
One day in 1762, as Leopold Mozart heard his two children playing a piece for two pianos, an idea came to him. His daughter Maria Anna was a very talented piano player in her own right, and Wolfgang was a veritable marvel. Together, they were like precious toys. They had a natural charisma, and Wolfgang had a showman’s flair. As a mere court musician, Leopold’s income was rather limited, but he could see the potential for making a fortune through his children. And so, thinking this through, he decided to take his family on a grand tour of the capitals of Europe, playing before royal courts and the public and charging money for the entertainment. To add to the spectacle, he dressed the children up — Maria Anna as a princess, and Wolfgang as a court minister, complete with wig, elaborate waistcoat, and a sword dangling from his belt.
They began in Vienna, where the children charmed the Austrian emperor and empress. They then spent months in Paris, where they played for the royal court and Wolfgang bounced on the knee of the delighted King Louis XV. They continued to London where they ended up staying for over a year, playing before all kinds of large crowds. And while the sight of the two children in their costumes charmed audiences enough, Wolfgang’s playing astounded them. He had developed numerous parlor tricks, stage-managed by his father. He would play a minuet on a keyboard that was hidden from his view by a cloth, using only one finger. He would deftly sight-read the latest composition by a famous composer. He would play his own compositions — it was impressive to hear a sonata composed by a seven-year-old, no matter how simple it was. Most marvelous of all, Wolfgang could play at an incredible speed, his tiny fingers flying over the keyboard.
As the tour continued, an amusing pattern began to develop. The family would be invited to do some sightseeing, tour the countryside, or attend a soirée, while Wolfgang would find some excuse to stay behind — a feigned illness or complaints of exhaustion — and would devote his time instead to music. His favorite ploy in this vein was to attach himself to the most illustrious composers in the particular court they were visiting. In London, for instance, he managed to charm the great composer Johann Christian Bach, son of Johann Sebastian Bach. When the family was invited out on a jaunt, he declined to join them with the perfect excuse — he had already engaged Bach to give him lessons in composition.
The education he received in this fashion, from all of the composers he met, went far beyond anything any child could hope to receive. Although some argued that it was a waste of childhood for someone so young to be so single-minded, Wolfgang felt such an ardent love for music and the constant challenges it presented that in the end he derived much greater pleasure from his obsession than any amusement or game could provide.
The tour was a great financial success, but it nearly ended in tragedy. In Holland in 1766, as the family was beginning its return journey, Wolfgang fell ill with a powerful fever. Losing weight rapidly, he drifted in and out of consciousness, and at one point appeared near death. But miraculously, the fever passed, and over the course of several months he slowly recovered. The experience, however, altered him. From that moment on, he had a constant feeling of melancholy and a foreboding that he would die young.
The Mozart family had come now to depend on the money that the children had generated through the tour, but as the years went by the invitations began to dry up. The novelty had worn off, and the children no longer seemed so young and precious. Desperate to generate money, Leopold came up with a different scheme. His son was turning into a serious composer, with the ability to compose in different genres. What was needed was to secure for him a stable position as a court composer, and attract commissions for concertos and symphonies. With this goal in mind, in 1770 father and son embarked on series of tours of Italy, then the center of all things musical in Europe.
The trip went well. Wolfgang performed his magic on the piano before all of the major courts in Italy. He gained acclaim for his symphonies and concert pieces — they were quite impressive for a teenager. He mingled yet again with the most celebrated composers of his time, intensifying the musical knowledge he had gained on his previous tours. In addition, he rediscovered his greatest passion in music — the opera. As a child he had always had the feeling that he was destined to compose great operas. In Italy he saw the finest productions and realized the source of his fascination — it was the drama translated into pure music, the nearly limitless potential of the human voice to express the full range of emotion, and the overall spectacle. He had an almost primal attraction to any kind of theater. But despite all of the attention and inspiration he received, after nearly three years of visiting the various courts in Italy, he was not offered a position or a commission that was worthy of his talents. And so, in 1773, father and son returned to Salzburg.
After some delicate negotiation with the archbishop of Salzburg, Leopold finally managed to secure for his son a relatively lucrative position as court musician and composer. And by all appearances the arrangement was good: not having to worry about money, Wolfgang would have endless time to work on composing. But almost from the beginning Wolfgang felt uncomfortable and restless. He had spent almost half of his youth traveling throughout Europe, mingling with the leading minds in music, and listening to the most renowned orchestras, and now he was relegated to life in provincial Salzburg, isolated from the European centers of music, in a city that had no theater or opera tradition.
More troubling, however, was the mounting frustration he felt as a composer. For as long as he could remember, his head was continuously filled with music, but it was always the music of other people. He knew that his own pieces were simply clever imitations and adaptations of other composers. He had been like a young plant, passively absorbing nutrients from the environment in the form of the different styles he had learned and mastered. But he could feel stirring from deep within something more active, the desire to express his own music and to stop imitating. The soil was now rich enough. As an adolescent, he was assailed by all kinds of conflicting and powerful emotions — elation, depression, erotic desires. His great desire was to transpose these feelings into his work.
Almost without being aware of it, he began to experiment. He wrote a series of slow movements for various string quartets that were long and drawn out with strange mixes of moods, full of anxiety that would rise to great crescendos. When he showed these pieces to his father, Leopold was horrified. Their income depended on Wolfgang supplying the court with the kind of pleasant melodies that would delight people and make them smile. If they or the archbishop heard these new compositions, they would think Wolfgang had gone insane. Besides, the pieces were too complicated for the court musicians of Salzburg to perform. He begged his son to stop indulging in such strange music, or at least to wait until he had a position somewhere else.
Wolfgang acquiesced, but as time went on he grew increasingly depressed. The music he was being forced to write seemed so hopelessly dead and conventional; it had no relation to what was going on inside him. He composed fewer pieces and performed less often. For the first time in his life he was losing his love for music itself. Feeling imprisoned, he grew irritable. When he heard an operatic aria sung in public he was reminded of the kind of music he could be composing, and he would go into a funk. He began to quarrel incessantly with his father, passing from anger to begging for forgiveness for his disobedience. Slowly he resigned himself to his fate: he would die in Salzburg at an early age, without the world ever hearing the kind of music he knew existed within him.
In 1781 Wolfgang was invited to accompany the archbishop of Salzburg to Vienna, where he was planning to showcase the musical talents of his various court musicians. Suddenly, in Vienna, the nature of his status as a court musician became clear. The archbishop ordered him about as if he were simply one of his personal staff, a mere servant. Now all the resentment Wolfgang had felt for the past seven years bubbled and rose to the surface. He was twenty-five years old and losing valuable time. His father and the archbishop were actively holding him back. He loved his father and depended on his family for emotional support, but he could tolerate his circumstances no longer. When it was time to return to Salzburg, he did the unthinkable — he refused to leave. He asked to be dismissed from his position. The archbishop treated him with the utmost contempt, but finally relented. His father sided with the archbishop and ordered his son to return, promising that all would be forgiven. But Wolfgang had made up his mind: he would stay in Vienna, for what would turn out to be the rest of his life.
The rift with his father was permanent and extremely painful, but sensing that his time was short and that he had almost too much to express, he threw himself into his music with an intensity that was even greater than what he had displayed in childhood. As if all of his ideas had been pent up for too long, he exploded in a creative outburst unprecedented in the history of music.
The apprenticeship of the past twenty years had prepared him well for this moment. He had developed a prodigious memory — in his mind he could hold together all of the harmonies and melodies that he had absorbed over the years. Instead of notes or chords, he could think in terms of blocks of music and write them out as quickly as he heard them in his head. His speed of composing would now astonish those who witnessed it. For instance, the night before the premiere in Prague of the opera Don Giovanni, Mozart had gone out drinking. When his friends reminded him that he had not yet written the overture, he hurried home, and while his wife kept him awake by singing to him, he wrote one of his most popular and brilliantly conceived overtures in a matter of hours.
More important, the years he had spent learning how to compose in every conceivable genre now allowed him to use these genres to express something new, to stretch their boundaries and even permanently transform them through his creative powers. Feeling turmoil within himself, he searched for a way to make music something powerful and expressive, and not merely decorative.
In his time, the piano concerto and symphony had become rather light and frivolous genres, with short, simple movements, small orchestras, and an overabundance of melody. Mozart completely reworked these forms from within. He wrote for larger orchestras, expanding in particular the violin sections. Such orchestras could produce a more powerful sound than had previously been known. He expanded the length of his symphonic movements well beyond convention. In his opening movement, he would establish a mood of tension and dissonance that he would proceed to build up in the slow second movement, and which he would resolve in a grand and dramatic resolution at the finale. He gave his compositions the power to express dread, sadness, foreboding, anger, exhilaration, and ecstasy. Audiences were spellbound by this new sweeping sound that suddenly had so many new dimensions. After these innovations, it became almost impossible for composers to return to the light, frothy court music that had previously prevailed. European music had forever been altered.
These innovations did not spring from any conscious desire on his part to provoke or rebel. Rather, his transforming spirit emerged as if it were completely natural and beyond his control, like a bee secreting wax. Aided by his superior sense of music, he simply could not help but personalize every genre he worked in.
In 1786 he came upon a version of the Don Juan legend that excited him. He immediately identified with the story of the great seducer. He shared Don Juan’s obsessive need and love for women, and he had the same disdain for authority figures. But more important, Mozart felt that as a composer he had the supreme ability to seduce audiences and that music itself represented the ultimate seduction, with its irresistible power to strike at our emotions. Translating this story into an opera, he could convey all of these ideas. And so the following year he began early work on his opera Don Giovanni (Italian for Don Juan). To make this story come alive in the way he had imagined it, he would once again apply his transformative powers — this time to the genre of opera.
At the time, operas tended to be rather static and formulaic. They consisted of recitatives (spoken dialogue accompanied by harpsichord that conveyed the story and action), arias (sung portions in which the singer would react to the information in the recitative), and choral pieces, featuring large groups of people singing together. For his opera, Mozart created something that flowed as a continuous whole. He conveyed the character of Don Giovanni not just through the words but through the music, accompanying the seducer’s presence on stage with a constant twitching tremolo in the violins to represent his nervous, sensual energy. He gave the work an accelerated, almost frantic pace that no one had ever witnessed before in the theater. To push the expressive value of the music further, he invented ensembles — stirring, climactic moments in which several characters would sing, sometimes over one another, in an elaborate counterpoint, giving the opera a dreamlike feel and flow.
From beginning to end, Don Giovanni resonated with the demonic presence of the great seducer. Although all of the other characters condemn him, it is impossible not to admire Don Giovanni even as he remains unrepentant to the end, laughing all the way to hell and refusing to submit to authority. Don Giovanni was not like any opera anyone had ever seen before, either in the story or in the music, and it was perhaps too far ahead of its time. Many complained that it was all rather ugly and harsh to the ears; they found the pace too frenetic and the moral ambiguity too disturbing.
Continuing to work at a deliriously creative pace, Mozart exhausted himself and died in 1791, two months after the premier of his last opera, The Magic Flute, at the age of thirty-five. Several years after his death audiences caught up with the radical sound he had created in works such as Don Giovanni, which soon became among the five most frequently performed operas in history.
- Perhaps the greatest illustration of serendipity would be the discovery by Louis Pasteur of immunology and how contagious diseases can be prevented by inoculation. Pasteur spent years demonstrating that various diseases are caused by microorganisms or germs, a novel concept for the time. In developing his germ theory, he expanded his knowledge into all different branches of medicine and chemistry. In 1879 he was researching chicken cholera. He had prepared cultures of this disease, but the cholera work got interrupted by other projects, and for several months the cultures remained untouched in his laboratory. When he returned to the work, he injected the cultures into chickens and was surprised when they all recovered easily from the disease. Figuring these cultures had lost their virulence because of the time factor, he ordered some new varieties, which he injected immediately into the same chickens and into some new ones as well. The new ones all died, as expected, but all of the old chickens survived.
Many doctors in the past had witnessed similar phenomena, but had not taken notice or had refused to contemplate its meaning. Pasteur had such wide and deep knowledge of the field that the survival of the chickens instantly caught his attention. In thinking deeply about what it could mean, he realized he had stumbled upon a whole new practice in medicine — the inoculation of the body against disease by injecting small doses of the actual disease. The wideness of his searches and the openness of his spirit allowed him to make this connection and “random” discovery. As Pasteur himself commented, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.”
Such serendipitous discoveries are extremely common in science and in technological inventions. The list would include, among hundreds of others, the discoveries by Wilhelm Röntgen of X-rays and Alexander Fleming of penicillin, and the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. Perhaps one of the most illuminating of all such examples occurred with the great inventor Thomas Edison. He had been working long and hard on improving the mechanics of the roll of paper as it moved through the telegraph and recorded the various dots and dashes. The work was not going well, and what particularly bothered him was the sound the machine made as the paper passed through — it gave off “a light, musical, rhythmical sound, resembling human talk heard indistinctly.”
He wanted to get rid of this sound somehow, but over the course of the next few months as he let go of the work on the telegraph, the whirring noise continued to haunt him. One day, as he heard it yet again in his head, an astounding thought occurred to him — he might have inadvertently hit upon a way to record sound and the human voice. He spent the next few months immersing himself in the science of sound, which led to his first experiments on creating a phonograph that would record the human voice, using a very similar technology to the telegraph.
This discovery shows us the essence of the creative mind. In such a mind, every stimulus that enters the brain is processed, turned over, and reevaluated. Nothing is taken at face value. A whirring sound is never neutral, never merely a sound, but something to interpret, a possibility, a sign. Dozens of such possibilities lead nowhere, but to an open and fluid mind they are not only worth considering, but are a constant pleasure to investigate. Perception itself becomes a stimulating exercise in thinking.
One reason that serendipity plays such a large role in discoveries and inventions is that our minds are limited. We cannot explore all avenues and imagine every possibility. Nobody could have come upon the invention of the phonograph in Edison’s time by a rational process of imagining rolls of paper that could record sound. Random external stimuli lead us to associations we cannot come by on our own. Like seeds floating in space, they require the soil of a highly prepared and open mind to take root in and sprout a meaningful idea.
Serendipity strategies can be interesting devices in the arts as well. For instance, the writer Anthony Burgess, trying to free his mind up from the same stale ideas, decided on several occasions to choose random words in a reference book and use them to guide the plot of a novel, according to the order and associations of the words. Once he had completely haphazard starting points, his conscious mind took over and he worked them into extremely well-crafted novels with surprising structures. The surrealist artist Max Ernst did something similar in a series of paintings inspired by the deep grooves in a wood floor that had been scrubbed too many times. He laid pieces of paper rubbed with black lead on the floor at odd angles, and made prints of them. Based on these prints, he proceeded to make surreal and hallucinatory drawings. In these examples, a random idea was used to force the mind to create novel associations and to loosen up the creative urge. This mix of complete chance and conscious elaboration often creates novel and exciting effects.
To help yourself to cultivate serendipity, you should keep a notebook with you at all times. The moment any idea or observation comes, you note it down. You keep the notebook by your bed, careful to record ideas that come in those moments of fringe awareness — just before falling asleep, or just upon waking. In this notebook you record any scrap of thought that occurs to you, and include drawings, quotes from other books, anything at all. In this way, you will have the freedom to try out the most absurd ideas. The juxtaposition of so many random bits will be enough to spark various associations.
If you liked the above content, I’d definitely recommend reading the whole book. 💯
Until We Meet Again…