Review and Summary: The First Rule of Mastery

Review and Summary: The First Rule of Mastery

I have to admit, I underestimated this book when I first saw the cover. Non-fiction books written in a storytelling style without solid scientific grounding usually don’t appeal to me, and that’s what I initially thought about this one. However, the high rating on Goodreads convinced me to give it a chance, and I’m really glad I did. I wholeheartedly recommend this book—it’s that good!

Michael Gervais and Kevin Lake highlight on something we all experience: the fear of other people’s opinions, also known as fear of people’s opinion aka FOPO. The main goal of this book is to help you understand this psychological process that often hidden beneath the surface of our minds and turn it into a valuable lesson. Instead of fearing FOPO, the author encourages us to embrace it as an opportunity for growth. By identifying FOPO in our lives and observing our reactions to it, we can start to recognize how we think and act in response to perceived judgments from others.

Rather than avoiding FOPO, the book suggests we see it as a chance to learn and improve ourselves. It’s like a stepping stone toward unlocking our full potential.

Another interesting topic discussed in this book is identity, or as today, people familiar with as branding. People often tend to link themselves closely with their professions or lifestyles. However, it’s essential to recognize that nothing remains static in life; uncertainty is a critical aspect of our existence. I believe embracing this uncertainty and change is crucial, as it aligns with the understanding that certainty is eternal in our world. Personally, I find the idea of identity somewhat toxic, so I greatly appreciate the authors addressing this issue.

At the end of each chapter, there’s a “from idea to action” section where the author invites readers to put the chapter’s concepts into practice in their own lives. It’s a hands-on approach that makes the book even more valuable. So, if you’re looking to understand and overcome the fear of other people’s opinions, I highly recommend picking up this book soon. Trust me, you won’t regret it!


The First Rule of Mastery

  • Start by examining ourselves and making a firm decision to focus on mastering aspects that we have complete control over.
    • When we spend time worrying about things beyond our control, we lose sight of what we can actually influence.
  • The initial stage involves recognizing our fears related to how others perceive us. It needs to be paired with improving our psychological abilities.

Fear of People’s Opinion (FOPO)

  • FOPO is a hidden problem and possibly the biggest obstacle to human progress.
  • It’s a mechanism where we anticipate and react to potential rejection or acceptance from others, affecting us both psychologically and physically.
  • While it’s tied to interpersonal interactions, it’s primarily an internal struggle.
  • FOPO triggers a cycle of thoughts and actions before, during, and after social encounters.
    • Anticipation: We obsess over how others might perceive us, draining our mental energy and hindering focus.
    • Checking: We constantly seek signs of acceptance or rejection, often wasting time and resources.
    • Responding: Our reactions vary, from conforming to confronting, all driven by our fear of judgment.
  • This fear shifts our focus from our own thoughts to obsessing over others’ opinions, impacting our decisions and lives.
  • FOPO arises from our evolutionary need for social approval, now intensified by social media and societal pressures.
  • The neurobiology of FOPO suggests it’s linked to the default mode network (DMN), which is active during moments of rest, often leading to unproductive, negative thinking.
  • The solution to FOPO involves caring for others while staying true to our values and goals.

FOPO from an Evolutionary Perspective

  • Throughout history, humans have lived in groups for protection and resource access, but our social needs go beyond survival. We naturally starve connection and belonging, important for mental and emotional well-being.
  • Based on Dr. Mark Leary, a psychologist and neuroscientist, our self-esteem should ideally be independent of others’ opinions. However, Leary suggests it serves as measurement on how we’re perceived by others.
  • Given the vital role of relationships in our survival, it’s no surprise that our brain and body are wired to prioritize them.

Identity’s Impact on Performance


  • Or people nowadays in social media calls it branding. It is is a significant trigger for FOPO.
  • When we strongly associate ourselves with an identity that doesn’t truly reflect who we are, or if it’s too limited to encompass our entirety, criticism from others can feel deeply threatening.
  • Identity is our personal sense of self, shaped by our experiences, beliefs, values, memories, and cultural background. It’s unique to each individual and comprises both physical and psychological traits.

Performance-based Identity

  • In our performance-driven society, how well we perform affects not only how others see us but also how we see ourselves.
  • Our culture celebrates individual achievement and excellence in specific areas.
  • A performance-based identity is characterized by:
    1. Contingent self-worth.
    2. Fear of failure.
    3. Perfectionism.
  • For those with a performance-based identity, their performance is integral to their sense of self, to the extent that losing it would feel like losing a part of themselves.
  • Relying on performance for identity creates stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • Identity foreclosure occurs when individuals lock into a performance-based identity prematurely, without exploring other options.
  • Early success can lead to confusion about one’s value to the world.
  • Maintaining a performance-based identity requires constant effort and can lead to self-sabotage to avoid failure.

The Many Selves


  • Self-worth is how we perceive our value as human beings.
  • Our ancient brains are wired to detect threats, but they struggle to distinguish between physical and social threats. When our self-worth is linked to our performance, it can trigger the same stress response as facing a physical threat.
  • We tend to judge ourselves based on areas where we’ve placed our self-worth, leading to different reactions to the same experiences.
  • When we base our self-worth on external factors like success and achievements, we get stuck in a cycle of seeking validation. This traps us in a constant pursuit of validation, where our self-worth depends on external factors and is threatened by obstacles, failures, and others’ opinions.


  • Our self-esteem often relies on our performance, leading to temporary relief after achieving success. However, this relief is short-lived because there’s always another performance looming.
  • From an evolutionary standpoint, self-esteem evolved as a way to monitor the quality of our relationships. It works subconsciously until it detects a potential threat to our social bonds, prompting conscious evaluation.
  • William James, an American psychologist, proposed that self-esteem is based on two elements: achievements and aspirations. He illustrated this with a simple formula: self-esteem equals success (achievements) divided by pretensions (goals). He suggested that we can boost our self-esteem by achieving more or adjusting our aspirations to more realistic goals.

Self-Determination Theory

  • Self-determination Theory (SDT) suggests that humans are motivated by three basic internal needs essential for optimal performance and well-being.
    • Competence: Feeling capable and effective in meeting environmental demands.
    • Relatedness: Having a sense of belonging and significance in relationships.
    • Autonomy: Having freedom to make choices aligned with personal priorities, beliefs, and values.
  • When self-worth depends on success or failure in a specific area, the primary focus often shifts to proving oneself in that area. This can lead to a need to outperform others.
  • Seeking self-esteem can lead individuals to compare themselves to others and focus on defending or attacking rather than connecting outwardly.

Self-reliance myth

The idea of self-reliance is over glorified in stories and (social media) branding. However, it obscures a fundamental truth: nobody achieves success alone. Universally, people recognize that significant accomplishments require strong teams working together. The narrative of the lone genius—exemplified by figures like Steve Jobs, Charles Lindbergh, or Mother Teresa—oversimplifies reality.

The Spotlight Effect

  • The Spotlight Effect refers to the tendency for people to overestimate how much others notice their actions and appearance. Essentially, we think others are paying more attention to us than they actually are.
  • This phenomenon comes from an egocentric bias, where we focus on our own behavior and mistakenly believe others are equally focused on us. It’s not about being self-absorbed; it’s a result of our own experiences and perspectives shaping our worldview.
  • Another factor contributing to the Spotlight Effect is the “false consensus effect,” where we overestimate how much others share our beliefs, opinions, habits, or preferences.
  • The Spotlight Effect is an example of the anchoring and adjustment phenomenon, described by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. This describes how people tend to rely on initial information to make judgments. In this case, people anchor to their subjective experience that everyone is focusing on them, and they struggle to adjust their perception accurately.
  • While we can’t always control what happens to us, we can control how we respond.

Human, A Bad Mind-Reader

  • Humans have the unique ability to consider both their own thoughts and the thoughts of others.
  • Research by UChicago professor Nicholas Epley, PhD, and his team reveals that our ability to understand others’ thoughts is often quite poor.
    • If we struggle to predict the thoughts of those closest to us, it’s even harder to predict what acquaintances, colleagues, or strangers think about us. This suggests that much of the time we spend worrying about others’ opinions is likely misplaced.
  • Given the complexity of human minds, one effective strategy to understand what others are thinking is simply to ask them.
    • Rather than guessing or assuming, direct inquiry and active listening can provide clearer insights into others’ perspectives.

We See Things As They We Are

  • The brain doesn’t just passively perceive reality; it interprets information based on context, experiences, knowledge, and expectations.
  • Similarly, how we interpret others’ opinions is influenced by our beliefs and biases.
  • Humans tend to seek, interpret, and remember information that confirms their existing beliefs or expectations, a phenomenon known as confirmation bias.
    • This bias often operates without conscious awareness.
    • It stems from the brain’s need to efficiently process vast amounts of information, known as heuristics.
  • Perception is a constructive process, meaning our interpretations of reality are often distorted or misrepresentations.

Protecting our beliefs

  • Studies reveal that when our deeply held beliefs are challenged, there’s increased brain activity in areas related to identity, threat response, and emotions. The stronger our attachment to a belief, the greater the activity in these areas.
  • Challenging someone’s beliefs is perceived as an attack on their identity and sense of self.
  • For the brain, our most personal beliefs and our identity are closely intertwined.

The brain shields us from opinions that threaten our identity:

  • It reacts to opinions threatening our core beliefs as if they were physical threats, activating defense mechanisms to protect our sense of self.
  • The brain’s primary role is to safeguard the body, and the psychological self is an extension of that. When our self feels threatened, the brain mobilizes defenses to protect it.
  • The insula, a part of the brain’s frontal cortex, plays a key role in protecting our identity.
  • Just as the emotion of disgust evolved to protect us from physical harm, the insula now safeguards our identity. It warns us against information that may challenge our sense of self.
  • When others challenge our deeply held beliefs, especially those tied to our sense of self, our brain’s defense mechanisms kick in. Stress hormones are released, putting our body on high alert, and our brain often ignores or distorts facts to maintain our worldview.

In conclusion, when people challenge our beliefs, we can train our minds to see it as an opportunity for growth rather than a threat.

How to defense against FOPO


  • Instead of succumbing to our brain’s instinctual need for social approval, we can learn to direct our attention consciously.
  • Mindfulness serves as a powerful tool to change our relationship with FOPO.
  • It allows us to be more present and aware of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions, empowering us to respond rather than react impulsively.
  • Mindfulness is defined as paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment.
  • There are two main types of mindfulness practices:
    • Contemplative mindfulness involves observing thoughts without judgment.
    • Single-point mindfulness focuses attention on one object, often the breath, but it could be anything like a sound, candle flame, or spot on the wall.

Strong sense of self

  • A strong sense of self is the most effective defense against FOPO.
  • We should base our identity on who we are, not on what we do, how well we do it, who we do it with, or where we do it.
  • By committing to learning and purpose, we shift our focus away from ourselves, leading to a new way of experiencing ourselves and the world.
  • Adopting a learner’s mindset allows us to integrate discovery into our sense of self, giving us space to grow and change.
  • To embrace a learner’s mindset, we must be willing to let go of what we think we know and acknowledge what we don’t know.
  • Anchoring our sense of self in discovery acknowledges that we evolve over time.
  • According to Dan Gilbert, humans are works in progress who mistakenly believe they’ve reached their final form, a misconception known as the “end of history illusion.”

Value Purpose above Approval

  • From a young age, we’re taught to seek approval, and this behavior continues into adulthood.
  • However, we’re not limited to seeking external validation; we can choose purpose instead.
    • Purpose is meaningful to us, holds intrinsic value, and extends beyond ourselves. It’s future-oriented.
    • Instead of seeking approval from others, we can shift our focus inward and align our actions with our purpose. Asking, “Am I being true to my purpose?” becomes more important than “Am I being liked?”
    • Purpose becomes the guiding force for our decisions, priorities, and choices. We evaluate our thoughts and actions based on whether they align with our purpose.
  • While purpose isn’t necessary for high performance, it provides greater resilience in the face of challenges when our lives are rooted in it.

How to react to others’ opinion

  1. Take a Breath: Pause and collect yourself before reacting.
  2. Develop a Strategy: Rather than reacting impulsively, create a plan. Form a small group of trusted individuals whose opinions you value. This “roundtable” could include family members, friends, mentors, or experts. Choose people who genuinely care about your well-being and are committed to supporting you.
    • Keep the group small to maintain meaningful relationships.
    • While the opinions of your roundtable are crucial, remember that they aren’t the only ones that matter.

Do you want to know what you’ll regret at the end of your life? Simply ask yourself what you regret right now.

My Favorite Bits

In the culture of self, both achievements and failures are perceived to depend entirely on one’s own efforts. While that idea can be a source of motivation (“you can change the world”), it can also work against mental health. When we identify as a separate itself, we take authorship of what happens around us, including those things we don’t control. Life unfolds. Things happen. And then we layer on the subjective interpretation that they are happening to me. They are happening because of me, because of something i am doing or not doing. We give ourselves too much credit when things go well and too much blame when things don’t work out. We often feel like we are not good enough, like something inside of us is unlikeable. We turn our experiences against ourselves and they become a referendum on our self. Consequently, we are continually in pursuit of our worth and evading the fear of our inadequacy. We are running to stay ahead of our self-judgements and the opinions and judgements of others.

Michael Gervais and Kevin Lake, The First Rule of Mastery: Stop Worrying about What People Think of You.

Author: Michael Gervis PhD and Kevin Lake

Publication date: 7 November 2023

Number of pages: 224 pages


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