One of the most provocative books I have read to date is Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power due mainly to its focus on gaining power through deceit and manipulation. While it does have a few “laws” that one could follow in real-world circumstances without necessarily ending up selling one’s soul to the devil, most of the rules involve either playing people against each other or leading others to believe in half-truths and veiled intentions.
Drawing anecdotes from the events of the past three thousand years, from ancient China to turn-of-the-20th-century America, 48 Laws provides cautionary examples of both great and terrible figures who managed to seal their places in the annals of history through greed, cunning and utter ruthlessness. Whether they are admired, feared or hated is not the issue, but what matters is that in their respective lifetimes, counting many years on the throne, amassing fortunes and annihilating enemies were the hallmarks of their existence.
“Amoral” is surely one of the words that best describes the book, but it still provides a good lesson on how to gain power if power is all you are after and not much else. It is also a textbook for understanding the dynamics at play in any setting where power or everything that it represents is too few for the many to enjoy. In this case, the fight for power and the eventual loss of trust among its players ensues, meritocracy and outstanding ideas that serve the good of the many be damned.
Should you read the book? Yes, by all means, but only to understand the psyche of the power-hungry and not to imitate their ways. And if you have to pick up a few lessons, here are some that I recommend:
Law 5: So Much Depends on Reputation – Guard it with your Life
“Reputation is the cornerstone of power. Through reputation alone you can intimidate and win; once you slip, however, you are vulnerable, and will be attacked on all sides. Make your reputation unassailable. Always be alert to potential attacks and thwart them before they happen.”
Law 9: Win through your Actions, Never through Argument
“Any momentary triumph you think gained through argument is really a Pyrrhic victory: The resentment and ill will you stir up is stronger and lasts longer than any momentary change of opinion.”
Law 13: When Asking for Help, Appeal to People’s Self-Interest, Never to their Mercy or Gratitude
“If you need to turn to an ally for help, do not bother to remind him of your past assistance and good deeds. He will find a way to ignore you. Instead, uncover something in your request, or in your alliance with him, that will benefit him.”
Law 25: Re-Create Yourself
“Do not accept the roles that society foists on you… Be the master of your own image rather than letting others define if for you.”
Law 29: Plan All the Way to the End
“By planning to the end you will not be overwhelmed by circumstances and you will know when to stop. Gently guide fortune and help determine the future by thinking far ahead.”
Law 35: Master the Art of Timing
“Never seem to be in a hurry – hurrying betrays a lack of control over yourself, and over time. Always seem patient, as if you know that everything will come to you eventually.”