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Interviewing Robert Greene about Mastery, Hustle, Fear, Boxing and MMA

Robert Greene, multiple time bestselling author, talks with Ben Thapa about boxing, hustling, fear, achieving great things and life lessons. Freddie Roach, Manny Pacquiao, Jon Jones, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison all feature in this thought-provoking talk.

It is hard to introduce Robert Greene without giving a grocery list of his past accomplishments, as having several best-selling books like The 48 Laws of Power or The Art of Seduction are a terrific resume booster, but somewhat useless in telling you why you should care about him now. It may be more important to introduce who he is: a careful and contemplative researcher with the ability, honed through years of practice, to deliver extremely convincing and powerful ideas through the stories and words of people from the centuries past and the modern present.

The latest product of Greene's mind and work is a book called Mastery (in bookstores on November 13th), which uses the stories of several historical and modern figures to show how people have built a path to success, clawed past obstacles, achieved great things, reached the pinnacle of their chosen careers and ultimately, became known as masters of a particular skill, pursuit or field of knowledge. Greene's book intends to show the reader how there are common patterns to what these people did - ones that can be replicated by many more than these few historical masters.

At this point, some of you may be wondering "This is cool and all, but what does it have to do with MMA?" Well, the easiest answer to give is that Greene interviewed Freddie Roach, the famous boxing trainer who achieved a considerable chunk of his success by transmuting the promise of a young Filipino boxer named Manny Pacquiao into a legendary skill-set and superstar career. At the time Manny met Freddie, neither man was a superstar in boxing and yet, the relationship worked out perfectly for both. Why was this so? Greene gets at this in the interview and through that, he lets us know that the more complicated answer to the above question is that much of what Greene says applies to almost every professional MMA fighter out there - and in particular, Jon Jones, the burgeoning superstar of "our sport".

To put it short, Robert Greene is a much more understandable, helpful and fun version of Giorgio Vasari - or perhaps your old history teachers, if the Vasari reference is not understood. And he writes about more than just artists or politicians - he writes about those who struggle against what seems to be fated, about those who fight circumstance or other people physically and mentally and about those who try to achieve great things and fail, succeed or both.

Brian Hemminger of MMA Mania and I were able to have Robert Greene spend more than an hour with us during a recent Sunday afternoon on our podcast The Verbal Submission (Link is here). The transcript of the talk is below and Robert comes on at roughly the 30 minute mark if you choose to listen to the podcast.

(Skipping past some loosening up talk)

Ben Thapa: Is mastery a sort of fairy gold - here today, but gone when the leprechaun's magic wears off?

Robert Greene: That's an interesting question. I'm talking about masters in all different fields - scientists, artists, athletes, business people, designers. I have an argument that to master a field, it's simple: It's a function of time. How much you devote yourself to the process, how much experience you get, how much you're willing to expand your limits, how willing you are to develop your own style. If you're willing to put those 10,000 hours, something amazing is going to happen. In some fields, there is a phenomenon where someone will develop these powers of achievement at an early age, as in sports or with some scientists. Most scientists will discover things in their 20s and they lose that in their 30s and 40s, they start becoming conservative and conventional instead of bold and experimental. But then there are others who keep going in their 40s and 50s and become even greater masters. To achieve this level, you have to keep fighting, keep learning and not feel like you know everything. You know, one of the masters I interviewed is Freddie Roach, the boxing trainer, and he is in his 50s now and he's probably at a bit of a plateau where he could feel like he has accomplished everything he wanted to right now, he doesn't have the hunger that he did some years ago, and maybe his winning percentage for his boxers might go down, so he definitely has to be finding a way, even as you get older, to maintain that edge.

BT: It's interesting that you mention Freddie right off the bat here, because one of the historical figures in your book, Benjamin Franklin never stopped developing. He kept finding new places go, new fields to expand his mind into and getting back to Freddie, boxing is a physical field, while Franklin's areas of expertise were more abstract. How does mastery in the physical things like mittwork or throwing punches and so on compare to this late-blooming of Benjamin Franklin?

RG: The thing about Freddie is that he's a hands-on trainer. He's got Parkinson's disease, which is fairly debilitating and affects his physical motor control. His style of training is not the traditional style of sitting back and watching the fighter. He's much more hands-on. It's not simply the mitt work, although he spends many hours doing that. His physical participation in the training has actually made the Parkinson's disease more manageable because he keeps his hand-eye coordination going. The hand-son training has helped him physically. I asked him point blank, what happens when he physically can't do this anymore, he's taking hard punches with these mitts, Manny hits pretty hard, are you going to retire? He said, yeah, I'd retire. I love the hands-on element of this. I don't want to be the guy sitting in the corner watching. I love to feel the physical elements of this sport and if you take that away, it doesn't make sense for me anymore. Freddie knows he has a short shelf life and it gives him a sense of urgency. He's not a trainer that will go on into his 60s and 70s. If he wants to achieve something, it has to be soon. Boxing coaching is not like Benjamin Franklin's career, where it's strictly a mental profession that can expand almost limitlessly. Freddie does keep his mind open and useful, he's not like other trainers we know, he'll try anything, he works with mixed martial artists and boxers alike, picking up and developing technique and honing them in different ways. He has the mind of a real master, but I think physically he will reach a point where he has to retire and who knows what he'll do then, I believe that his experience in boxing is so deeply refined that I hope he can continue to use it in some other way.

BT: Why did you choose to interview Freddie regarding the Pacquiao dynamic instead of Floyd Mayweather Jr., who you possibly know through your relationship with 50 Cent?

RG: That's a good question. I wanted to interview a sports figure, someone who was a coach, rather than an athlete, with a longer career path to talk about, as athletes have a short period of success and often, the athletes don't have the best perspective on what works and what doesn't or aren't as eloquent. Also, when I was writing, it was the middle of the athletic seasons. I also picked boxing because it's a one on one sport. You can really dig into the training relationship there and see pretty quickly how people do become masters. It's no slight to Floyd Mayweather or Mayweather Jr's training with his coaches, but I had seen the HBO special on Freddie a couple years ago. The way he talks about it and the hands-on process he uses really fits in with the book. You yourself have to practice what you talk about. This isn't a book of people sitting in some office about stuff that they will never do. I wanted the book to show how you can get so deeply inside the concepts that you have a feel for it. I'm not going to say who is better and hopefully we see this in a fight someday, but there is something special about Freddie and Manny in Hollywood in 2000 or 2001. Freddie's coaching really spoke to the themes of mastery. He is a true master in the sense that if you add up the number of hours that this man has spent with boxing, there's no other trainer that can compare and he's only in his early 50s now. He's had a fight career, turning pro at 18, retiring at 26 with 50 fights or so - which is a lot of fights, becoming a trainer under Eddie Futch. If you add up the hours this guy has put in, there's nobody to compare. It's gotta be in the 20 or 30,000 hours for Freddie and I wanted to find out what happened to his mind and what a person who has reached this level is like.

BT: During the year plus that Brian and I have done this podcast, we've noticed that coaches make for the best interviews. They're better at communicating, they're more honest, they're more insightful. They're just better interviews in general than the athletes themselves. Now, getting back to an actual question - the relationship between Freddie and Manny, according to some knowledgeable people I asked, is perhaps the best coach/athlete dynamic in boxing history. Freddie was the exact right coach for Manny at the time and I'm wondering if that is a rare phenomenon or can it happen often?

RG: I think it's both. To have Manny walk into your gym, which has a bit of luck involved. Freddie had some success before him, a good win rate, but not like he would with Manny. When Manny first came to LA as a featherweight looking for a coach, he was already doing okay, but he wanted more. Coaches saw a one-dimensional guy with a pretty good left and thought they could get a bit out of him, but when Freddie got in the ring with him, he felt this unusual snap to the punches and saw that this was a once in a lifetime fighter that could have the tools to win and win. Freddie was knowledgeable enough to see that Manny wanted the knockout, but couldn't quite set it up and they got to work on the right hand and better footwork. Through several years of a deep relationship, they put in the large amount of hours they spent in the gym working on that right hand and much, much better footwork. It worked. That goes to show that Freddie had peculiar knowledge of boxing - it was complete knowledge. It wasn't just one area and he saw the whole picture of how to transform Manny from a one-dimensional fighter into a beast that could fight over many rounds. If Manny hadn't found Freddie, he'd have found someone else and maybe he'd not have been the same. But he did find Freddie. The lesson to draw from this is that with anyone who has achieved something great in life, you can find a moment where they were kind of lucky and for that luck, their life changed. However, you work hard, you train hard and you develop the skills, so you're prepared to take advantage of that luck. You can see the right opportunity at the right time and you can take full advantage of it. That's happened with me as an author and I believe that only Freddie could have made Manny Pacquiao into the monster that he did.

BT: Is there a necessity for perfect coaches or teachers or can you kind of make do with not so awesome ones?

RG: Well, there's a section in the book where I talk about the development process. I do talk about having to put in 10,000 hours and the great amount of work needed to get good at something. However, there is a way to streamline the process with a great coach. Their experience becomes your experience. They can give you much better practices. You want to find someone like that, but sometimes, you can't. I use the example of Michael Faraday, who was pretty much the founder of electromagnetism, using electrical power in moters and many other things and he came from the lowest of the low situations in the early 19th century in England. He wanted to become a scientist and he had no way to do it, so he wandered into a bookstore as a young boy and the guy who owned the store hired him as an apprentice book-binder. He loved this because he could be around books, work and read the books when he had free time and he devoured everything relating to science. When a time came when a scientist wanted a note-taker and assistant, he was educated enough and had enough experience to step into that opportunity. Humphrey Davies, the mentor he got that way, ended up being a great mentor and Faraday did become a great scientist. So if you put in the work and dedicate yourself enough, eventually, someone will come along and will want to teach you about the field you're in. But if you have no skills, if you don't have the right attitude, or the discipline, noone will want to help you. There was actually a person in the book who had no mentors ever in his life and still became a master and that was Thomas Edison. And it was a lengthy process. It wasn't easy. He had to spend hours in the library doing his research, doing his own experiments and all this time building his skill set that people who had coaches or mentors to streamline the process didn't have to engage in.


BT: I have to say Edison of all the masters you profile was perhaps the biggest hustler. He was more cutthroat, he was more concerned about the financial empire he built than the other masters in the books and I was wondering if this was a result of his mentor-less environment.

RG: Well, it's interesting to compare these kinds of things, as you know I did a book with 50 Cent who hustled his way from the bottom to riches. This was the 19th century and he was desperate. He was selling newspapers and things like that. I think Edison learned how to sell, because he needed to in order to make money, and then he apprenticed as a telegraph operator as a young man and traveled all across the country training other telegraph operators. He had to travel wherever there was work, never being anywhere for more than a couple months. It was a rough life and I would say with Edison that there was a trade-off. He spent thousands and thousands of hours learning about electricity. I urge you to read about the development of the light bulb, which was one of the greatest inventions and transformed the world, and it's an amazing story of persistence. The amount of hours he put into inventiveness is amazing. He was a consummate salesman so once he made the discovery, he already knew how to put on a show, invite newspaper reporters and so on, which is definitely an element of mastery. He really was one of the great geniuses and greatest inventors who ever lived.

BT: It's interesting that you mention that Edison learned so much from books, as there is a young man in MMA who I believe is 24 or 25 who is now the UFC light heavyweight champion named Jon Jones who actually learned some of his striking moves from books - as the story goes. For a while, it worked. What's interesting about him is that he has this personal charisma that makes almost everything he says into a media firestorm. The banal, young male athlete things he says get turned into things that people just love to talk about what he does or says and there is a love/hate relationship the fans have. I'm wondering if that level of personal charisma is a common trait among the masters you profile.

RG: I have a chapter in the book about what I call social intelligence. You can do a lot in life on your own and you can do all kinds of stuff, but if you're really bad with people, if you're really naive or aggressive and push people away. If you don't know the political environment you're in, it invalidates all the things you know. You're not going to get anywhere. It's really important to know your field, but you have to understand certain basics of your social environment, which I go into depth on. You have to read certain things and know laws of human nature. A charming personality can be developed to the point that lets you seduce people. I know 50 Cent has one of the most charming, seductive personalities I can imagine and it's helped him get to where he is. A lot of the masters I interviewed in the book - the contemporary ones - don't have that. Paul Graham, a computer industry businessman, is not a charming guy - he's great at what he does, but he knows that he is not a social charmer. However, it's not important because he's changed his business in such a way that his wife handles that stuff. His wife is a social person, so he's figured out that letting her deal with the sociopolitical stuff is much better than him doing it. You don't have to be 50 Cent or Bill Clinton. I have a friend who is a high level lawyer in the boxing business, which is one of the nastiest environments possible, and he really needs his political skills to succeed.

BT: We almost expect fighters to be really really good at fighting and also good at self-promotion. I'm wondering how do people find the time and energy to master both their field and the self-promotion or political stuff?

RG: Well, you have to find the time to do both. There is a certain level of hustle you have to learn. You have to spend time learning how to work with people and develop the interpersonal political skills. I notice in football that the wide receivers have really outgoing personalities, sassy, smart and know how to work the public to get what they want. Like Terrell Owens and a few others. They have to be really outgoing and out there because it's a dangerous position to play. You have to be really cocky to survive and thrive there. I think boxing is like that. You have to have a personality to match. Muhammad Ali became the star he did because of the large personality he had and the confidence he had as shown by what he said. Boxing is really a mental sport, we underestimate how much of it is mental. Freddie talked about the level of confidence when entering the ring is absolutely critical. It's dependent on the level of training you put in. A boxer can't be a timid or shy person. The brashness and cockiness is needed. Successful boxers have the the larger than life personalities and high confidence. In any field, confidence is a really important thing to project whether it's in business or with women or in politics, confidence is a supreme quality to posses. It can't be purely ego, as knowledge of your field is critical, but confidence is a super important quality to have for boxing and showing that is super-important.

BT: What makes the interpersonal politics so navigable to some people and not to others? Is the politics in boxing as bad as the politics you've seen in movie industry or the writing world or other areas you have experience?

RG: I would say practically every profession has a really political environment. I think the world has become more competitive. There are so many people in every place competing for these small slices of success and power. It's a heated atmosphere and whenever you have competition, you're going to have more politics and manipulation. Publishing is totally in a transformative state due to ebooks and so on and publishers are freaking out. They're not giving out contracts as they used to. Things are much more intense. Down the line, all industries will do the same. The music business has been very successful with the record label model, but it's changing and the politics and business element of things are shifting. In the sports world, my friend, the lawyer, tells me stories of promoters and how it's almost Mafia like in terms of the insane political stuff they go through. You have to be prepared for the landmines of politics and not be naive. My first book, 48 Laws of Power, is a manual that teaches us how to navigate these landmines and Mastery goes well with it, as the first book teaches you how to navigate the politics.

BT: To shift gears a bit, are polymaths really masters of many things or are they just passing cursory inspections?

RG: Well, I profile a few polymaths in my book. Essentially, they are people who master a few different skills, in science or whatever. Leonardo da Vinci was certainly one. There's a difference between them and a dilettante. A polymath is someone who really knows their field and how to combine their skills. Benjamin Franklin was a polymath. He was a great writer, a great inventor, a great politician and he combined all of these things into many different achievements in his life. It's better in life if you learn one thing well than to be a dilletante. To flit from thing to thing for a couple months is a real recipe for failure. We do live in a world where there is so much access to information and we have a vast opportunity to learn on our own. This is the time when we can learn different skills like never before. Many of the scientists I profile in the book have picked up another science, engineering, robotics and so on and are connecting them to things like neuroscience, muscles and mimicking the human brain. That's what you want. These are real skills, developed by years of learning and trying, being connected to different concepts and it's through mastery. Don't be the person who cannot master anything or a skill because you're permanently bored and don't know what you really want to do, but do strive to get more than that one.

BT: I can't imagine being permanently bored.

RG: There are a lot of people out there who are like that. They try something for a couple months and they fail and then they quit. They have an excuse for not being successful You have to get out there and stop being so afraid of failure that you flit from one thing or job to another and another. After a while of the flitting, anybody would be unhappy. By trying to learn something well, you're putting yourself out on a line and keep going.

BT: One of the themes of the masters is that they are really able to push through the frustration and keep going. They don't stop once frustrated or failing and they push through. I started wondering why people all over the world experience frustration at first ? Is that evolutionarily useful or does it keep us safe?

RG: There is a chapter I have on creativity that talks about this somewhat. Frustration, boredom, lack of results is really a way - you have to see it as a challenge, as a positive thing - a way that your brain is signaling to you that you need to try harder. That something good is happening. Frustration is your brain is telling you that there is something there that is exciting, but you can't figure out what it is. When I write and I get frustrated because I can't seem to write the chapter, it's because there's something exciting there. Cesar Rodriguez (Wiki) is a perfect example of this - the fighter pilot who was in Desert Storm and Iraq, who was not a golden boy. He was not a natural pilot. There was so much to do that he would get frustrated. He had the feeling that he couldn't master it and felt that he wasn't good at it. I have this too - when I'm not good at something, it makes me angry and I want to try harder and harder to get good at it. Cesar had this and he worked harder than anyone else and turned into the best fighter pilot of his generation. If you're doing something that you don't love, that you weren't meant to do - the frustration is impassable. I don't think I could have become a boxer, I don't think I could have pushed through the frustration there, but as a writer, I can. The exciting things are on the other side of that frustration. If you're telling yourself that things will be easy, you're lying to yourself. It has to be hard, it has to be worked for.

BT: You mention that Temple Grandin (Wiki) had brain scans done that showed her fear centers were three times as large as an average person's. Do you think other masters have this phenomenon going on too?

RG: Temple Grandin dealing with autism is an amazing story. If she can master industrial design, anybody can do this in their field too. It wasn't good luck or anything with her. She was severely impaired as a child with autism, with physical things, with language and things like that. She was on the verge of being institutionalized and eventually became one of the best livestock equipment designers, a great professor and an expert on autism. Her fear centers were unusually large and her theory is that autistic people generally have that, as well as animals. The fear center enlargement serves a purpose, that they can feel the signals in the environment that protect them. It's a problem for her, but she's dealt with it. I don't think that the other people I profile had this in their brains. In the 50th Law, I write about fear, but in the sense that you have to feel the fear and then overcome it. You need to feel fear - it has a biological purpose - and it needs to be a part of your awareness. These masters aren't walking into any situation clueless or unafraid. General Patton felt such fear in his first battle that he couldn't do much. He felt so awful about it that he put in a great amount of work to never feel that again. He made it a point to tell others that fear could be overcome and that he himself did it. Temple Grandin is one of those people who've done that and it's let her be who she is.

BT: Is there something wrong with the way that we let fear be depicted in books, horror movies and other things that prevents us from effectively dealing with fear in our own lives?

RG: The virtual ways we deal with fear can never approximate real life. It's a superficial level and in the end, you don't have to worry about a horror movie. It's never ever the same thing to see a movie about warfare. You can't literally feel the bullets flying around, something ripping in your flesh and wondering if you are going to die. The simulated battles that soldiers aren't the near thing. Even in boxing, we have the Mike Tyson quote that the preparation goes out the window once you feel that first punch. There's nothing that you are going to feel ever, that will prepare you for what a fight or a war feels like, to feel your stomach turning and so on. However, once you go through it, you find out that you can handle it. You can handle the punch, you can handle the earthquake and you gain a power from having gone through that experience. Anyone who thinks you can simulate your way to experience is in for a really bad lesson in life. You cannot master your fears with a video game.

BT: Do you have a personal connection to fighting?

RG: I loved boxing growing up, but from a voyeuristic point of view. I have full respect for it. I love the martial arts, but I'm at a certain age where I can't do that much. I loved Muhammad Ali. I love boxing. I love the sweet science, the whole spectacle and production of it. I've never stepped in the ring. I admire the courage it takes to step in the ring and take a 98 mph punch, stand with a 200 lb fighter across from you, to stand mano a mano on the line, that's the gutsiest thing I can imagine. I have a lot of respect for it. I haven't done it myself, did a lot of karate when I was younger, but I respect the courage. I respect how the people talk the talk and then get in the ring and do what they say.

BT: If you had to graph what mastering something looks like, what would it be? Would it be a smooth curve, jagged jumps or what?

RG: If you looked at it from 10,000 feet, I think it would be a smooth line curving upwards. If you jump down to 1,000 feet, you'd see a more zig-zagging path. You take Freddie again. He fell in love with boxing as a kid and turned pro at 18. Found out he didn't have the skills to make it to the very top. Retired at 26, took a terrible telemarketing job and started drinking badly. Then he got into coaching and the success started coming in slowly. The things he's dealt with in his career isn't exactly a continual rise, but it did constantly rise and it did lead him to mastery and success.

BT: With the level of work it takes to become a master at something, why do people keep butting their heads against the metaphorical walls to reach the heights of their profession? Why do people keep losing again and again the best ways to become experts?

RG: The way I parcel out mastery is that it's an extremely ancient phenomenon. Our ancestors long ago learned how to hunt and how to pass that hunting skill and knowledge on through traditions that became timeless. The need for apprenticeship, having a master and so on is clear. That's what they set up and that's what works. At the same time, each generation has to adapt with the passage of time. A boxer and writer and so on has to continually reinvent the wheel and rediscover the timeless skills that work in their profession. Boxing has upped the speed at which things happen and it's incredibly difficult to be successful there in defending yourself in the ring or for mixed martial artists to do the same. Each person has to take that traditional system and change it for yourself. The knowledge I give you in the book has to be adapted by you so that you can do whatever you want, leverage whatever technology you can. You have to learn the basics, read the classics and so on, while keeping your eye on what's new and changing. You have to do both at the same time and it's hard to think while you're doing all this. It's incredibly hard to think in the ring. If you're thinking about footwork or combinations, it's too late. You can't do that and win. You have to put in the work before the fight to do that automatically and in doing that work, you can do both the learning of the basics, the skills of the past and the looking towards the new while you're learning. What doesn't work is trying to do one without the other.

BT: My last question relates to a short sentence in the beginning of the book. You say that the survival of the human species is the most important thing we can contribute to as individuals. Can you explain that?

RG: I'm glad you pointed that out, it's one of the most important lines in the book. People think that power and politics are selfish things that people use to get things for themselves, while screwing everyone else. However, it's not ideally like that. Our culture as human beings depends on diversity. The millions of people on this planet can do different things, contribute different points of views, invent new things, give us new products, markets, ideas and do more than before. If everyone went to get an MBA or did everything the same way, we'd be a bad species that did not evolve and we'd be doomed. We thrive on diversity as people. By mastering something, we are not being selfish. We are actually contributing to our future and to diversity by coming up with something original. Mastering boxing is not strictly necessarily to our survival, but Freddie has changed the sport and left a mark on the world. People like him in boxing and outside, who bring a different style or individual thing, they bring diversity to the world. In doing that, you're opening the culture of your field and adding to the total skill package of people. This isn't about greed or selfishness, it's about something much larger than that, it's about being unique and achieving great things.

Robert wishes to remind you that Mastery is supposed to inspire you to greater things and that part of being alive is to aim at higher things. Hopefully, his words inspire you to practice something of your choosing and that the book ends up being useful. It is up to you, but the information that you need is out there for the getting. His blog and website can be found at His Twitter is and his Facebook account is at Pre-ordering the book will get you some extra bonuses.