Note : This article is written in inspiration from Robert Greene’s 2012 book, Mastery.
What is Mastery?
“For me, living and making music, they’re one thing. It’s not like a job that I go to a studio to do, or a chore that I have to get myself in the mood to do. It’s the thing that I need to do every day.”
Before reading this article, take inventory for a second. Every single one of us have experiences unique only to us, that have never before happened in history and will never be repeated in the future. Amazing thought, isn’t it?
And all of us, at some point, have experienced an intense love for a subject, craft or field. We don’t exactly know why, but we could do it all day long, not realizing that hours have passed. There isn’t a need to describe this feeling, because even if we were to do that, it would be an incredibly imperfect attempt. It makes us, us. We don’t worry about competition. We can sincerely say we’re being ourselves.
But that connection gradually dims down as we grow up. It’s the typical story of wanting to fit in and be like “everyone else”. Maybe now we are more concerned about doing something we really hate because it helps us in getting a fat paycheck.
On the other side, there are people who strongly adhere to their calling in life, because they just can’t not do what their nature has instilled in them to do. They are lifelong students of their craft and they greatly challenge themselves until the very end of their lives. We remember them as Masters.
They define the world we live in — we see through their eyes, think through their thoughts, listen through their ears. Whether it’s Albert Einstein in physics, John Steinbeck in fiction, or Mozart in music, just to name a few.
Robert Greene’s metaphor for Mastery is to be on the inside of something. We are no longer outsiders. We are one with our craft. We no longer have to force ourselves or think very hard. It’s all second nature — complex and detailed information are in our fingertips, ideas naturally come to mind, and we experience our craft on a humbling, higher level. It’s not a thing we do before going to bed anymore. It’s something that we need to do. We breathe it.
In the modern time and space that we live in, guitarist John Frusciante is one of the best epitomes of Mastery in his field that we could learn from, no matter our backgrounds. This is his story and also the lessons we could emulate.
The year is 1998, fans are crowding inside a rather small California venue to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers perform after somewhat of a long break. As they start belting out their newly-written song I Like Dirt, fans are surprised as they are barely able to recognize the thin, long-haired, clean-shaven figure with his Fender Stratocaster hanging low by his shoulder.
A fan is heard asking, “Who’s the guitarist?”, to which another shouts out, “It’s John Frusciante!” Excitement fills the air of the eventful night as they witness Frusciante’s return. What lies ahead of them — little does anyone know they are experiencing the starting point of one of the greatest comebacks in music history.
Today the world reveres John Frusciante as the heart of the Chili Peppers. His soulful playing touches us to the core, as though he is specially playing for each and every member in the audience. Without any verbal expression, it is as if every note tells us a story; they are a medium for us to feel what he deeply feels inside. His live performances are always a thrill — his tremendous energy, his spontaneous guitar fills and improvisations, and his brilliant musical chemistry with the rest of the band. A Red Hot Chili Peppers concert isn’t just a concert — it’s an experience.
But on top of that, he is unlike most musicians today. Humble, Frusciante has always been careful of not placing himself in the spotlight; always wanting it to be about the music rather than about himself as a person. Emotionally connected to music as a purpose larger than him, his music speaks for itself. There is just an essential ingredient in his playing that is not present in other contemporary musicians. He is a character the world hasn’t had since the late Jimi Hendrix. But it wasn’t always this way; it didn’t just happen.
Life had been a long rollercoaster ride for John Frusciante. When he was just 18 he lived a teenager’s dream of joining his favorite band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, right when his dad told him to get a job. He used to frequently attend their concerts. Now, he was filling in the shoes of his idol, Hillel Slovak, who died of drug overdose. Naive and immature, Frusciante was soon sucked into the same vortex of hedonistic living. But he gradually came to realize that there was something greater, something more fulfilling than drugs and partying — it was the pursuit of creativity.
“…Hillel (once) asked me, ‘Would you still like [the Chili Peppers] if they got so popular they played the Forum?’ I said, ‘No. It would ruin the whole thing. That’s great about the band. The audience feels no different from the band at all.”
Fame and life in the limelight eventually took a toll on Frusciante after the sudden, unexpected success of their 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which sold 13 million copies. Unable to deal with major changes in his life, Frusciante was seen messing up his live performances and frequently having heated arguments with frontman Anthony Kiedis. “We’re too popular”, he would tell him, “I don’t need to be at this level of success. I would just be proud to be playing this music in clubs like you guys were doing two years ago.”
Though Frusciante struggled to cope with his present difficulties, he felt that nature was assuring him, “You won’t make it during the tour. You have to go now.” It was time for him to leave.
But things only seemed to get even worse. Frusciante fell into deep depression and his addiction to heroin was eating his life away. In this destructive period of his life, he couldn’t write any music, or play the guitar. “I thought John was going to die.” bassist and bandmate Flea recounted, “I was sure he was going to die.”
Literally inches away from death, Frusciante was sent to a recovery center, with the help of his former bandmates. Undergoing dental and skin surgeries due to his excessive use of heroin, Frusciante was also slowly rebuilding mentally and spiritually. No longer the hedonistic teen jumping around in silly hats, it was if the young John Frusciante had died from heroin addiction. Recuperating now was a completely different man, with priorities and a direction in his life.
He once said, “I don’t need to take drugs. I feel so much more high all the time right now because of the type of momentum that a person can get going when you really dedicate yourself to something that you really love.”
Years went by and the Chili Peppers, on the other hand, were inches away from disbanding. Flea felt that “the only way I could imagine carrying on is if we get John back in the band.”
Frusciante had just completed his rehabilitation and Flea asked, “What would you think about coming back and playing in the band?” Frusciante started sobbing and said, “Nothing would make me happier in the world.”
It really was the happiest time of their lives. Their immensely successful album Californication was released in 1999 — an honest expression of the realities of Hollywood that they had been through. And in the years that came they worked on two more albums that the world will not forget, namely By The Way and Stadium Arcadium.
The year is now 2007, and the Chili Peppers are still on the road as part of their Stadium Arcadium tour. Night after night, they deliver performances to massive crowds with their signature prolific energy. Not to mention the awards they had recently championed, including the Grammys.
But once again, something isn’t quite right. Onstage Frusciante seems sad and disconnected from the rest of the band. Offstage, he doesn’t talk and joke as much as he used to. Flea is forced to consider the possibility of Frusciante leaving again. It seems ridiculous for him to carry on without Frusciante in the band. “Things were feeling kind of dysfunctional; the communication, the ease of togetherness..”, he said, “I felt something coming. I didn’t know what it was. Things were not flowing in an easy and unified way, even though I thought our art was at a very high level.”
Now the long tour has ended, and everyone has gone home to spend some quality family time. They decided to go on another hiatus, since they had been working continuously since Californication. Frusciante, however, decided that he will never come back. He confronted Flea and said, “I’m done. I can’t do this anymore.”
Work has been growing stale for him; he felt that he had given all he could for the band and that he needed to head in a different direction. He wants to fully devote himself to the art. Touring and appearing on TV have always been a compromise to his larger purpose. “I don’t want to make a spectacle of myself as a guitarist in the way that I did when I was in the Chili Peppers.”, he said, “I wanted to be on the inside of music, not something outside of it to grab your attention.”
It is time, again, for him to leave. Only now, as a mature adult. The Chili Peppers have once more lost a huge part of themselves. His decision to switch to electronic music, where he has to be very careful of how he incorporates his guitar playing, is upsetting to many fans, but if that is what makes him happy, then it is for the best.
Lessons To Live By :
Tailor Yourself To Someone Greater First
“You really heard how he [Hendrix] felt in his playing. When he was feeling cosmic, when he was feeling good and peaceful he played just the most beautiful things ever. And when he was feeling angry he just played the dirtiest, grittiest, meanest sounding things you ever heard in your life.”
From the outside, it does seem a little bad, even lame to follow what other creators do and to imitate their styles. It kind of makes you a copy, doesn’t it? But it’s perfectly normal. In fact, it’s an essential part of the creative process. It’s how we learn. It’s where we start.
As a boy Frusciante spent hours a day in his bedroom, rigorously studying the playing styles of his heroes, especially that of Jimi Hendrix. When he was a teenager he would walk into music stores and impress folks as he could play a large repertoire of Hendrix’s songs.
Hendrix and Frusciante share many commonalities. Hendrix was a figure that influenced him not only in his playing, but personally. He said, “When you hear Jimi Hendrix play, it’s a pure expression of him as a person. You see him on stage and there’s absolutely no separation between him and his guitar; they’re completely one because he’s just putting every single bit of everything; of his whole psyche and every single part of his body into his guitar playing.”
Those words are Frusciante’s, in describing Hendrix. But interestingly, today, those are the same words we would think of to describe Frusciante.
Leave Ego Out Of The Equation
“Music has always carried me through times of loneliness. So when I make music, I like to make people who listen to it feel like they have a friend who reveals something personal to them, rather than trying to be like a god up on a pedestal.”
To be or to do? That is the question. And we need to keep asking ourselves from time to time. Are you obsessed with the idea of being a painter, a singer, or anything else simply because you want to be famous and feel important? Do you just want to sign autographs and appear in annoying TV commercials? Are you just aiming to satisfy yourself?
Or are you doing this to devote to something larger than yourself? Is doing your job and performing at your best enough for you? Or do you need a standing ovation to make you feel good about yourself?
Why do you do what you do? Because you better know.
A purpose is what you need to count on. When times get extremely difficult, when no one reads your stuff, when no one cares about the video you just uploaded. And more often than not, that’s what happens in reality. That’s when you need to ask yourself — Why am I even doing this in the first place?
Most of us are just in love with the image of being this and that. Just because you smoke cigars and write with a typewriter, that doesn’t make you another Hemingway. Just because you wear a turtleneck, that doesn’t make you another Steve Jobs. Just because you own a Fender Strat, that doesn’t make you another Hendrix, or a Frusciante.
In Frusciante’s words, “The world is divided into allies and enemies. And a lot of the time your worst enemy is your ego.”
In his interviews Frusciante stated that he always hated being a walking poster. He had always cared more about doing the work and being engaged in the creative process rather than impressing others and being a star.
Do it for the love of it. Do it for the sake of your craft. Frusciante learned that, “Music of any worth has been done by people who were very interested in the internal process of their soul and their mind that’s taking place while they’re writing.”
He even had a disdain for showy guitarists who had overdecorated techniques and “flying fingers”, but had no soul in their playing. “I’m just not a person who’s into guitar solos.”, he said, “ I don’t like people who feature themselves. I like people who play with the people that they’re playing with. To me it’s just about the way you create shapes and patterns in the air which people don’t see with their eyes, but they see them with their ears and to me it’s something you’ve got to be really delicate with. You don’t just display yourself.”
When the Chili Peppers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Frusciante politely declined the invitation to attend the ceremony, saying that it made him uncomfortable.
Always Stay A Student
“Your relationship with music has to be one from the inside; inside being the process of making music and a passionate interest for what goes into making music as opposed to an opinion about what it’s going to eventually be.”
Even though Frusciante had accomplished a great deal as a musician when he was in the Chili Peppers, he always had a strict metric to measure himself against.
He continued giving himself assignments — studying other guitarists, just as he did when he was a young boy, depending on whose music he was emotionally connected to at the moment.
Immersing himself in the details, Frusciante would then carry out experiments — What if he combined the playing style of so-and-so with that of so-and-so? What needs more refining? What else can he improve to make it sound better and new?
Very often, at some point in our lives, we come to a stalemate. We satisfy ourselves with thinking that we already know everything there is to know. That, of course, isn’t true. Learning never stops. Like a river, it needs to keep flowing. Otherwise, it becomes polluted and eventually, it becomes lifeless and dead. People can sense that in your work. That’s why no one likes a musician whose songs all sound alike. The same is true in other endeavors.
Always Go Back To Square One
“I find that the best way to do things is to constantly move forward and to never doubt anything…If you make a mistake say you made a mistake.”
In his books, Robert Greene is fond of saying “go back to square one” and “do not fight the last war”. Meaning that you shouldn’t let your mind get rigid and formulaic. Let it wander, let it find new ways and adapt itself to new situations.
Having tasted some success, it’s always tempting to reuse the same ideas, tactics and strategies that worked before. But it always ends up bad. Even if it works, it always feels boring and inauthentic. We can’t stay in the past for long. Once a project is done, we need to go back to work.
Frusciante understood that. An album was a success and he started to feel like he “wanted another one just like it”. But he always took a different road. He continued to treat each album differently. Every album had challenges of their own and thus needed their own solutions.
Every Chili Peppers album sounded unique, particularly the guitar parts. Frusciante’s work in Blood Sugar sounded very Hendrix-inspired as compared to Californication, in which he had to adapt to a more minimalistic approach as he had not played for a long time since. Differences are also prevalent in By The Way and Stadium Arcadium. It was always a fresh new start.
What makes Frusciante even more exhilarating as a guitarist is his live performances. He never played songs the same way they sounded in the albums. He always welcomed change and spontaneity. He explained that when he played a song on stage, he could feel just where a next note would be to give the song more life. And he executed it.
One Final Thing
There is a famous Hemingway line in which he said that we are all “apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master”. That’s something we must constantly remember.
Obviously the term Mastery is used, but the thing is, there is no finish line, no end zone in Mastery. Mastery is an asymptote. A Master isn’t actually someone who has mastered a skill, but is someone who has gained valuable experiences in the craft and still continues to educate and improve himself or herself.
You’ve probably heard of the 10,000 hour rule that basically tells us that we only become great after 10,000 hours of practice. There’s another argument that tells us, hey, it’s not 10,000 hours but 20,000.
Who cares? Mastery is a lifelong journey. The important thing is to keep going, even when you have to start again and again.
Why does Mastery matter? Because it makes your life more meaningful. It makes you happy. It makes other people’s lives happier too, because you have contributed to them in ways that only you can. It’s always about what you can give, instead of what you can get.