How is it that a classics major, a guy who reportedly held 80 jobs, and a not-so-successful screenwriter became the big man of big ideas in a span of 15 years, now doing lectures at places like Google? Today, writer Robert Greene is known by everyone from corporate CEOs, to rappers like 50 Cent and Jay Z, and even to retired dictators like Fidel Castro.
Many people are most familiar with Greene’s seminal 1998 work, The 48 Laws of Power. The book is a compendium of principles of success for the modern-day prince and even low-level office worker on how to succeed. Some of those frequently mentioned laws include “Court attention at all costs,” “Crush your enemy totally,” “Learn to keep people dependent on you,” and “Pose as a friend, work as a spy.”
He also wrote other popular books drawing on the same formula of turning to the past and historic examples to shine relevance on the present and also on achieving success.
Greene’s works also include The Art of Seduction (2004), The 33 Strategies of War (2007), The 50th Law (2009) that involved collaboration with rapper 50 Cent, and more recently Mastery (2012). Greene is a man clearly on a mission. I recommend anyone who is interested in organizational behavior or simply how to get along better with a rival or coworker read one of his works.
Rebooting those ‘stale’ classics and lessons of history
The 48 Laws of Power, in essence, reboots the well-read and well-studied writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, historic Chinese military strategists like Sun Tzu, and tactics of leaders such as Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck. These are texts and persons that liberal arts majors by the hundreds of thousands have studied, yet few others have stitched together to have such contemporary modern relevance for everyone’s day-to-day life. As someone who has read many of these classic works and who studied history, nothing here is new to me, and thus not surprising.
Having sold well over a million copies of The 48 Laws of Power alone, Greene is today the subject of professional jealousy from those who have not achieved his notoriety and also praise from those who practice his stratagems that have appeared repeatedly in history. (This is just one of many summaries of those laws found online, and they are worth downloading and reviewing.)
Some professional groups, like the American Public Health Association, even published the laws of power, and quizzically asked public health leaders, “So, now that you’ve read the laws, how appropriate are they for you, as a health care administrator?” Having worked in the field, I can assure you many of these laws most certainly apply to public health bureaucracies and managerial aspirants in them who are more obsessed with power games and personal ambition than with promoting public health. But this is not news to anyone, in any profession.
As Greene told the LA Times in 2011, “These laws … people might say, ‘Oh they’re wicked.’ They’re practiced day in and day out by businesspeople. You’re always trying to get rid of your competition and it can be pretty bloodthirsty, and that’s just the reality.”
The ‘dark side’ or the ‘real side’?
Consider Greene’s dark view in the opening to The 48 Laws of Power. “If the world is like a giant scheming court and we are trapped inside it, there is no use in trying to opt out of the game. That will only render you powerless, and powerlessness will make you miserable. Instead of struggling against the inevitable, instead of arguing and whining and feeling guilty, it is far better to excel at power. In fact, the better you are at dealing with power, the better friend, lover, husband, wife, and person you become.”
For Greene, The 48 Laws of Power was a personal journey that built upon his fascination with Greek and Roman history, and the lessons drawn from that era. In Greene’s case, his failures in Hollywood led him to attempt to duplicate Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon River to launch a civil war against his rival Pompeii (dramatized brilliantly in the HBO miniseries Rome).
Greene notes how he arrived at his own Rubicon to reboot the tired, old classics into a modern bible for aspiring climbers and those trying to cope with amoral people and broken organizations: “My situation is much less intense, but I will follow Caesar and not only write the proposal, but take three months to do it right. I would have to borrow the money and cut my ties with the film world. As Caesar revealed to me, the more I had to lose, the harder I would work. The treatment turned into the best-selling The 48 Laws of Power and represents the turning point in my life.”
For those who are not familiar with history or its lessons, they may be missing Greene’s larger and longer long view of human history and behaviors that transcend time and culture. He told Forbes that his secret goal is to make “reading, studying the classics and philosophy something hip, so that young people were inspired to step away from the TV and the Internet and challenge their minds, rethink the world and return to our origins.”
We already knew a lot about the laws of power
When I posted a section of Greene’s writing on my Facebook page, describing people who are psychopathic and display passive aggression to the point of becoming warriors at this art, one of my colleagues responded, “OMG. If this does not describe one of my co-workers, I don’t know what does. Thank you for this.”
For me, many things Greene discusses have been well trodden by writers from William Shakespeare to Mark Twain, and anyone who has worked as a news reporter knows the realities that always lie beneath the surface veneer, particularly among those who exploit others and use power.
This is not to say students of history are cynics. Great students of history also are great leaders, notably Abraham Lincoln, who used his deep knowledge of America’s founding fathers and the actual intent of the U.S. Constitution’s authors to persuade voters that they did not intend slavery to remain a permanent and immoral institution in the country. Lincoln’s passion for history and his knowledge of power and human ambitions in fact made him one of the greatest leaders ever.
Mastery takes a more optimistic tone
I was deeply impressed with Greene’s delightful 2012 book, Mastery. The book uses profiles of contemporary masters and historic “geniuses,” such as Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, John Coltrane, Leonardo di Vinci, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and others. (Many examples, but not all, are white men.) Why did they break down barriers, have astounding creativity, and achieve brilliance that crossed boundaries of thought.
Greene’s answer lies in the deep, thoughtful, apprenticeship type work one does before one becomes a master. He shows that through this applied study, the most innovative work happens in sports, science, research, art, military endeavors, and more. For Greene, through an applied apprenticeship that normally lasts five to 10 years, learning real skills and innovative thinking occur at the neural level, where great insight comes from.
“The goal of an apprenticeship is not money, a good position, a title, or a diploma, but rather the transformation of your mind and character—the first transformation on the way to mastery,” he writes. These involve three modes:
- Step One: Deep Observation—the passive mode
- Step Two: Skills Acquisition—the practice mode
- Step Three: Experimentation—the active mode
During the acquisition mode, an apprentice will log at least 10,000 hours of practice, before charting his or her own course as a master. “This number has an almost magical or mystical resonance to it,” Greene writes. “It means qualitative change in the human brain. The mind has learned to organize and structure large amounts of information. With all of this tacit knowledge, it can now become creative and playful with it.”
For Greene, mastery is more than becoming simply proficient. This is about deep creativity and achieving one’s life purpose, which he suggests is a challenge that will confront most of us. “No good can ever come from deviating from the path that you were destined to follow. You will be assailed by varieties of hidden pain. Most often you deviated because of the lure of money, or more immediate prospects of prosperity. … Not seeing clearly ahead of you, you will end up in a dead-end career. … There is no compromise there, no way of escaping the dynamic. You will recognize how far you have deviated by the depth of your pain and frustration.”
The answer, according to Greene, lies in pursuing the path used by masters time and again, which he acknowledges is full of challenges and pleasures. “Make your return to the path a resolution you set for yourself, and then tell others about it,” writes Greene. “It becomes a matter of shame and embarrassment to deviate from this path. In the end, the money and success that truly last come not to those who focus on such things as goals, but rather to those who focus on mastery and fulfilling their life’s task.”
Franklin’s lesson in power and mastery
One the masters cited by Greene is Benjamin Franklin, because he was an innovative inventor, writer, and businessman who possessed great social intelligence. Greene shows that this latter skill is absolutely key to becoming successful and a master. Franklin is also one of my many role models. He excelled at nearly everything he did and had amazing people skills that always left a positive impression, like influential people I have known in my life.
Clearly, Franklin was one who learned about power well, in the most classic sense. Greene notes that as a young man, Franklin was terribly duped by Pennsylvania’s governor when he went to England and found himself practically penniless, without promised letters of introduction.
Franklin thought deeply and then grew. He resolved never to make an error of character judgment again and think about a man’s intentions carefully before making a response. And he always resolved to work at building his networks and turning enemies into allies, if possible. It worked time and again as he kept having success after success, but after great work and careful deep thought. Greene also shows that Franklin, as a master, also always stayed curious, and some say youthful until his 80s. The rest is, as they say, history.
Franklin perhaps is a Machiavellian case study in early American power, by becoming a revolutionary, co-author of the Declaration of Independence, and “founding father.” But by achieving excellence through the path of apprentice to master, he became much more.
On my wall, I have hanging a clip from Franklin’s daily planning calendar. On one side, he wrote the question for the morning: “What good shall I do this day?” For the evening hours, his calendar ended with the evening question, “What good have I done today.”