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Book Notes: “The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Greene

Summary

The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene (1998) is the spiritual successor to Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il Principe. It is a book about understanding power, identifying its applications, and learning to use it to further your personal agenda or how to mount an effective response when its used against you. We all want more power in our lives, we just don’t candidly acknowledge this fact. Naked ambition and overt power moves are viewed with suspicion and disdain; in modern society, we expect fairness, decency and civilized behavior from our peers. Even an honest discussion of the topic—Greene’s book included—is considered base or amoral. The solution is a more veiled approach to power: subtlety, misdirection, cunning and indirect means. Duplicitous power affords influence and manipulation without the pitfalls of detection. After all, people cannot effectively defend against things they cannot see or understand.

Greene's preferred model of power is the aristocratic courts of yesteryear. In this environment the king (or queen) was the locus of power. They were surrounded by innumerable members of the royal court—the courtiers—each vying for the regent’s attentions, affections, favors and influence. Courtiers had to engage in the game of power delicately: overly bold moves might arouse suspicions in others. Play the game poorly and alliances will form to thwart your every move. “The successful courtier learned over time to make all of his moves indirect; if he stabbed an opponent in the back, it was with a velvet glove on his hand and the sweetest of smiles on his face.” Seduction, charm, misdirection, deception, lies, and illusion were the primary weapons in the courtier’s arsenal.

Court life is a relic of the past, yet the same power games and interpersonal dynamics live on in contemporary life. “Power is a social game. To learn and master it, you must develop the ability to study and understand people.” Greene’s book aims to equip readers with the necessary tools to successfully engage in these games. The titular 48 laws are presented as individual chapters; each law is complemented by historical examples (as well as counter-factual examples) alongside Greene’s commentary. Common themes involve the mastery of key skills: objective thinking, mastering your emotions, contingency planning, human psychology, misdirection, and deception.

The 48 Laws of Power is a book that isn’t afraid to confront some bitter truths regarding human nature (in this objective it pairs well with another book I reviewed, The Dictator’s Handbook). The book has its share of problems: it relies heavily on anecdotal evidence and some of the laws are contradictory, repetitive or redundant. My biggest complaint is that it is not a pleasurable read nor does it work well as a linear narrative. Neither gripe should dissuade the determined reader: not every book needs to elicit joy and some books work better as reference guides or springboards to further inquiry. Despite the focus on some of the darker aspects of the human condition, this book will expand your understanding of interpersonal relationships. As Greene aptly says, “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...the better you are at dealing with power, the better friend, lover, husband, wife, and person you become.”

Pros: Eclectic historical examples that will seem fresh and original to many who are used to authors rehashing the same tired anecdotes in most popular non-fiction.

Cons: Better treated as a reference book than a book to read cover to cover. The book’s message can be depressing and some of the laws are contradictory or redundant.

Verdict: 6/10


Highlights

Preface

  • Everyone wants more power.

  • Being overly direct or overt about gaining or using power is distasteful: we must be subtle in our approach to power.

  • Greene compares power games to the dynamic of aristocratic courts (“civilized war”):

    • Court’s focal point is the person in power (e.g. king, queen, emperor, etc.).
    • The courtiers making up the leader’s retinue must serve their leader AND contend with other competing courtiers to vie for favor and influence over the leader.
    • The courtier’s dilemma: Appear refined and genteel while outwitting and thwarting their opponents with great subtlety.
  • “The successful courtier learned over time to make all of his moves indirect; if he stabbed an opponent in the back, it was with a velvet glove on his hand and the sweetest of smiles on his face.”

  • Contemporary world likes to believe it is just, fair and civilized but the same power dynamic continues.

  • Even those who insist on equality and the moral high-ground are playing power games: redistributing power and rewards as they see fit.

  • “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...the better you are at dealing with power, the better friend, lover, husband, wife, and person you become.”

  • Key skills to master:

    • Control your emotions: emotions cloud reason.
    • Think objectively: about both the past and future.
    • Anticipate and plan for future problems so you are not taken by surprise.
    • Master the art of deception. “Power requires the ability to play with appearances.”
    • Learn patience.
    • Learn to understand people and human behavior.
  • Each law has a simple premise:

    • Observing the law increases one’s power.
    • Disregarding the law decreases one’s power.

Law 1: Never outshine the master.

  • Overview: Make those above you feel superior. Don’t overdo it when trying to impress or flatter. Also: show restraint when exhibiting your skill or talents.
  • Example: Nicolas Fouquet, finance minister to Louis XIV. Threw a lavish party to pay tribute to the king. The party was so grandiose Fouquet inadvertently upstaged the king which led to his arrest and imprisonment (on grounds of embezzlement).
  • Example: Galileo, in order to entice patrons, focused exclusively on the Medici family in dedicating his discoveries and publications to them.
  • Two important considerations:

    1. “You can inadvertently outshine a master simply by being yourself.”
    2. “Never imagine that because the master loves you, you can do anything you want.”
  • “If your ideas are more creative than your master’s, ascribe them to him, in as public a manner as possible...your advice is merely and echo of his advice.”

Law 2: Never put too much trust in friends, learn how to use enemies.

  • Overview: Friends are prone to envy and betrayal. Former enemies can become more loyal than friends; they have more to prove.

  • Louis XIV: “Every time I bestow a vacant office I make a hundred discontented persons and one ingrate.”

  • Friends forget the favors and gifts received; they come to believe they earned their good fortune on their own.

  • Example: Story of Chinese Emperor Sung (ca. 960).

    • At a banquet with his military commanders upon ascending to the throne, he offered all of them retirement to rich estates. Goal was to remove these “friends” from the court to avoid betrayal.
    • Sung invited a rebel king, Ch’ien Shu, to meet with him and gave him a package containing documents showing Shu’s treachery. Sung spared Shu’s life and Shu became an ally of Sung’s.
  • “A friend expects more and more favors, and seethes with jealousy...a man suddenly spared the guillotine is a grateful man indeed, and will go to the ends of the earth for the mean who has pardoned him.”

  • “The problem with using or hiring friends is that it will inevitably limit your power. The friend is rarely the one who is most able to help you; and in the end, skill and competence are far more important than friendly feelings.”

  • Example: Talleyrand and Fouché were enemies but formed a partnership to conspire against Napoleon. The relationship was based on mutual self-interest rather than personal feelings.

  • Mao Tse-Tang's strategy of “constant conflict”:

    1. Pick fights you are sure to win.
    2. If you have no enemies, create convenient targets (even friends).
    3. Use such enemies to define your cause clearly to the public. Frame it as a struggle of good vs. evil.

Law 3: Conceal your intentions.

  • Overview: Keep others off-balance by hiding or obscuring your attentions. This is done to minimize their ability to defend or respond against your true plans.
  • “Most people are open books. They say what they feel, blurt out their opinions at every opportunity, and constantly reveal their plans and intentions.”
  • People are prone to believe what they see: “our first instinct is to always trust appearances.”
  • “A tactic that is often effective in setting up a red herring is to appear to support an idea or cause that is actually contrary to your own sentiments.”
  • Use feigned confidence (by revealing a plausible secret) is one way to gain the confidence from the other person.
  • Smoke screens are another way to conceal intentions.
  • Example: Haile Selassie (Ethiopian leader) “Ethiopians like their leaders fierce, but Selassie, who wore the front of a gentle, peace-loving man, lasted longer than any of them...he lured his victims with sweet smiles, lulling them with charm and obsequiousness before he attacked.”
  • “The paranoid and wary are often the easiest to deceive. Win their trust in one area and you have a smoke screen that blinds their view in another...”
  • Types of smoke screens:

    • Visual, physical reactions: Facial reactions and body language can be used in different ways. A blank, unreadable face allows individuals to hide their true thoughts and feelings.
    • Noble gestures: People want to believe that benevolent acts are genuine.
    • Patterns of behavior: Establish a clear pattern for your victims so they expect the same pattern in the future (and change the pattern for the element of surprise).
    • Blending: Blend in with those around you. People tend to mistake appearances for reality.

Law 4: Always say less than necessary.

  • Powerful people say less than is necessary. Over-speaking increases the chances for saying something foolish or divulging too much information. Saying less than is necessary keeps you in control, allows you to hide your intentions and lets you respond better.
  • Example: Story of Coriolanus the legendary Roman general. He was admires and beloved by the Roman citizens. Once he started speaking publicly he lost his popularity as his ideas were insulting and distasteful to most Romans.
  • “Power is in many ways a game of appearances, and when you say less than necessary, you inevitably appear greater an more powerful than you are.”
  • Short answers and silences make other people uncomfortable. Many people will fill silence with talk. This talk can often reveal important information.
  • Alternatively: silence can arouse suspicion. Another strategy is to play the role of a fool. Speak, but speak in such a way that others think they are smarter than you.

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 it slips...you are vulnerable, and will be attacked...”
  • Example: Story of Chuko Liang (Chinese general ca 250AD). Liang had a reputation as a cunning warrior (was known as “the sleeping dragon”). Once Liang was cornered by a larger force with only a token force at his disposal. Rather than try to fight, Liang tried a crazy gambit: he had his men hide, opened the gate to the city he was in and sat on the city walls and started to play music. the opposing general, recognized Liang and, suspecting a trap, ordered a retreat.
  • A strong reputation is as powerful as any weapon and strikes fear into your enemies and causes them to alter their plans accordingly.
  • Ruining the reputation of an opponent is another strategy:

    • Sow doubt about the reputation of your enemies.
    • Ridicule your opponent’s reputation (this approach is less direct and involves humor which might soften the attack).
  • “A solid reputation increases your presence and exaggerates your strengths without your having to spend much energy.”

  • Work hard to create an outstanding reputation for a single characteristic. Example: generosity, honesty, cunning, efficiency.

    • A reputation for honesty, for example, offers wide latitude for deception.
    • Associate with people who can burnish your reputation (if you are lacking in certain qualities). Example: PT Barnum promoted the high-brow Jenny Lind (opera singer) in order to escape his reputation as a purveyor of base entertainment. Robber barons boost their reputations by engaging in philanthropic efforts.

Law 6: Court attention at all costs.

  • “Everything is judged by its appearance; what is unseen counts for nothing...stand out. Be conspicuous, at all cost.”
  • “Once people’s eyes are on you, you have a special legitimacy.”
  • Capturing attention requires something unique, special, or different. The quality of the attention is of secondary importance.
  • “The worst fate in the world for a man who yearns fame, glory, and, of course, power is to be ignored.”
  • “Society craves larger-than-life figures, people who stand above the general mediocrity.”
  • “If you find yourself in a lowly position that offers little opportunity...an effective trick is to attack the most visible, most famous, most powerful person you can find.”
  • Mystery is another pathway to attention, intrigue and power: “It invites layers of interpretation, excites our imagination, seduces us into believing that it conceals something marvelous...”
  • Example: Count Victor Lustig (conman) did many things differently. He would show up in a limo driven by a Japanese chauffeur (at a time when this was unusual), he would wear unusual clothing accessories, he would feign the receipt of telegrams at all hours of the day.
  • “Mysterious people put others in a kind of inferior position—that of trying to figure them out.”
  • Actions, behaviors and responses can be chosen in a calculated way to be inscrutable by others and to throw them off balance: throw your opponent off balance.

Law 7: Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit.

  • Example: Rubens (painter) who created a studio with a production line in order to meet demand for his works. For instance, once painter would focus on backgrounds, another would specialize in robes, etc. Through this production line he was able to generate massive output while retaining control (and credit) the works generated.
  • Leveraging the skills of others will make you appear more capable and powerful than you would be on your own.
  • Sharing credit with others is important when you have superiors above you. Example: Henry Kissinger (diplomat) was instrumental in setting up Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China, but Nixon ended up with the credit.

Law 8: Make other people come to you, use bait if necessary.

  • “The essence of power is the ability to keep the initiative, to get others to react to your moves, to keep your opponent and those around you on the defensive.”
  • Two key skills to exercise this law:

    • Master your emotions (so you are in control of your reason and the situation).
    • Learn to make use of others’ emotions when they are pushed or manipulated.
  • Example: Marshal Togo Heihachiro in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War baited the Russians into leaving from the Baltic to engage the Japanese. The Russian fleet had to go around South Africa to get there. Japan also spread rumors of an imminent attack so the Russians remained on high alert throughout. Upon arrival, the Russians were exhausted and in Japanese waters. The Japanese crushed the Russian navy despite being outnumbered.
  • “For negotiations or meetings, it is always wise to lure others into your territory, or the territory of your choice. You have your bearings, while they see nothing familiar and are subtly placed on the defensive.”
  • Alternatively: speed and aggression can also throw opponents off balance (the opposite of “waiting and baiting”).

Law 9: Win through your actions, never through argument.

  • Arguers were a common archetype: “The Arguer does not understand that words are never neutral, and that by arguing with a superior he impugns the intelligence of one more powerful than he.”
  • Arguing often fails to achieve its desired goal since each individual believes in their own righteousness.
  • “Learn to demonstrate the correctness of your ideas indirectly.”
  • Judge your words carefully as they carry unintended and long-term effects on others. For instance, your words may offend unknowingly.
  • Demonstrating your ideas indirectly or symbolically is more effective than speaking directly.
  • Example: Nikita Khrushchev was once interrupted by an unnamed heckler while denouncing Stalin. The heckler yelled “You were his colleague, whey didn’t you stop him?” Khrushchev, unable to see the heckler responded with “who said that?” The crowd was silent. After a tense moment, Khrushchev said softly: “Now you know why I didn’t stop him.”
  • Alternatively: Argument can be used to throw up a smokescreen or distraction. In this instance, it can be an effective tool.

Law 10: Infection: Avoid the unhappy or the unlucky.

  • The emotional states of others are infectious: associate with the happy and fortunate.
  • “When you suspect you are in the presence of an infection, don’t argue, don’t try to help, don’t pass the person on to your friends, or you will become enmeshed. Flee the infector’s presence or suffer the consequences.”
  • Greene differentiates between those who genuinely need help and those who bring misfortune upon themselves via patterns of recurring self-destructive behavior.
  • “In the game of power, the people you associate with are critical.”
  • Judge people by “the effects they have on the world and not on the reasons they give for their problems.”
  • Associate with those who have strengths in those areas where you are weak (rather than associating with those who share your defects):

    • If you are introverted, associate with extroverts.
    • If you are miserly, associate with the generous.
    • If you are serious, associate with the cheerful.

Law 11: Learn to keep people dependent on you.

  • When others depend on you for their happiness and prosperity, you have nothing to fear. Ensure that you are always needed and wanted by others.
  • Example: The story of renaissance Italy’s mercenary soldiers (condottiere). Some of these mercenaries were beloved by the citizens of the towns they helped save. But owing to the interchangeable supply of these mercenaries, the aristocrats would imprison or execute these soldiers as a matter of convenience.
  • “Be the only one who can do what you do, and make the fate of those who hire you so entwined with yours that they cannot possibly get rid of you.”
  • Relationships of dependence are a key path to power. Through these relationships you can influence others to do your bidding willingly.
  • Some mistakenly believe that independence is the ultimate form of power. Greene disagrees: since power involves relationships between people and that ability to manipulate others to your desires, interdependence is far more valuable.
  • Story: King Louis XI (1423-1483) was interested in astrology. One court astrologer made a prediction about another courtesan that had recently come true. Frightened, Louis invited the astrologer to his chambers, high in a tower. Louis planned to question the man and then have him defenestrated. When Louis asked the astrologer what the man’s fate would be, the astrologer answered “I shall die three days before you, Majesty,” and Louis immediately changed his plans to end the astrologer.
  • Intensive and extensive power:

    • Michelangelo’s power was intensive: contingent on his singular artistic skill.
    • Henry Kissinger’s power was extensive: predicated on the many different dimensions and aspects of involvement.
  • The secret-intelligence tactic: Dependency through knowing secrets and privileged information. Ministers of secret police and intelligence agencies are often untouchable because of their sensitive knowledge.

Law 12: Use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victim.

  • One genuine gesture can mask dozens of dishonest ones.
  • Example: Story of conman Count Victor Lustig’s business proposition with mob boss Al Capone. Capone, knew Lustig was a con artist, but played along with Lusti’s ploy expecting to be duped. Lustig took Capone’s money, sat on it and returned in in full 60 days later (saying he failed to double the money as promised). Capone was so surprised (and used to others cheating him) that he told Lustig he was an honest man and gave him $5000 as well.
  • “The essence of deception is distraction. Distracting the people you want to deceive gives you the time and space to do something they won’t notice. An act of kindness, generosity, or honesty...disarms other people’s suspicions.”
  • People are prone to acts of generosity. They often accept them as sincere gestures and take them on face-value.

Law 13: When asking for help, appeal to people’s self interest, never their mercy or gratitude.

  • “When people choose between talk about the past and talk about the future, a pragmatic person will always opt for the future and forget the past.” Remember the adage: what have you done for me lately?
  • Be laser focused on the needs of the other person; avoid confusing their needs with your own.
  • Failing to appeal to the other person’s self-interest can make you appear desperate. You are effectively begging for help and at the mercy of the other party. Appealing to mutual interest makes the other party a vested party with something to gain.

Law 14: Pose as a friend, work as a spy.

  • Effective spying can make you appear all-powerful and incredibly perceptive.
  • Spying is subtle, indirect and hidden; when others cannot see the source of your knowledge or power, they cannot fight against it.
  • “In the realm of power, your goal is a degree of control over future events.” Spying gives you advance notice and information to make better decisions and anticipate future events (and even shape them, if needed).
  • Example: Talleyrand (19th c. French politician) was considered a superb conversationalist but preferred to listen and let others speak so that he could gather information. He organized many social events for diplomats and politicians with food, wine and frivolity in an effort to uncover bits of useful information.
  • Talleyrand would seed false information to see how others would react. “As Baron von Stettin said, ‘Monsieur Talleyrand fires a pistol into the air to see who will jump out of the window.”
  • One technique for gaining the confidence of another is to bare your heart to them. Reveal your secrets (even if the secrets are false) and the other party is likely to reciprocate with their own true secrets.
  • Alternatively: You must anticipate that others will spy on you and provide information (or lies) accordingly. Per Winston Churchill: “Truth is so precious that she would always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

Law 15: Crush your enemy totally.

  • If you fail to exercise any and all means to eliminate an enemy, know that they may be working equally as hard to eliminate you.
  • Failing to finish off an enemy may make them more determined and give them the opportunity to exact revenge in the future.
  • Carl von Clausewitz (military theorist): “Direct annihilation of the enemy's forces must always be the dominant consideration...” In part this is because after war comes negotiation and division of territory and spoils. A total victor will have a much stronger negotiating position over a completely vanquished enemy.
  • “The goal of power is to control your enemies completely, to make them obey your will.”

Law 16: Use absence to increase strength and honor.

  • Scarcity creates value.
  • “What withdraws, what becomes scarce, suddenly seems to deserve our respect and honor. What stays too long, inundating us with its presence, makes us disdain it.”
  • “There always comes a moment when those in power overstay their welcome. We have grown tired of them, lost respect for them; we see them as no different from the rest of mankind...” [Me: This reminds me of Law 4: Always say less than is necessary and the story of Coriolanus]
  • Important consideration: This Law only applies to those who have achieved renown and reputation. If you withdraw before you have established your worth, nobody cares; you are just forgotten.

Law 17: Keep others in suspended terror, cultivate an air of unpredictability.

  • Use deliberate unpredictability to keep others off-balance and constantly guessing your next move or motives. In effect, you are trying to hide any patterns of behavior to create a smokescreen for others.
  • Example: Bobby Fischer’s antics during the 1972 Chess Championship against Boris Spassky. Fischer would fail to appear on time for his scheduled matches and in the games themselves he was erratic and used unorthodox tactics. The strategy worked: Spassky, despite winning the first two games, was completely unnerved and ultimately lost to Fischer who later regained control of the match.
  • Unpredictability is one of the most terrifying things to face.
  • “A person of power instills a kind of fear by deliberately unsettling those around him to keep the initiative on his side. You sometimes need to strike without warning, to make others tremble when they least expect it.”
  • Alternatively: Predictability can also be used to your advantage. Lull your enemy into a familiar pattern and then, when they don’t expect it, break the pattern and catch them off guard.

Law 18: Do not build a fortress to protect yourself, isolation is dangerous.

  • The costs of isolation don’t outweigh the benefits; isolation cuts you off from valuable information and allies, makes you a conspicuous target, and restricts your flexibility.
  • “Retreat into a fortress and you lose contact with the sources of your power.”
  • Per Greene’s repeated message: Power comes through our influence, interaction and manipulation of others. Therefore, it stands to reason that removing oneself from that arena is detrimental to one’s power.
  • Example: Louis XIV built the palace of Versailles. But rather than a royal retreat, Louis made Versailles the center of noble life: he lived in the center of the palace and many other nobles resided in apartments in the gigantic palace. Each day Louis engaged in a routine in which he interacted with courtiers, advisors and officials.
  • “Humans are social creatures by nature, power depends on social interaction and circulation. To make yourself powerful you must place yourself at the center of things...”
  • Example: The frescoes of Pontormo (painter) in Florence for Duke Cosimo I de’Medici. Pontormo went into seclusion for 11 years to work on his masterpiece. The result was an artistic mess: Pontormo had cut himself off from the advice, feedback and ideas of others and lost sight of proportion and good artistic sense.

Law 19: Know who you’re dealing with, do not offend the wrong person.

  • Gauging the nature and reactions of others is difficult. Offend the wrong person and you may make an enemy for life. Choose your opponents very carefully.
  • Buddhist quote: “When you meet a swordsman, draw your sword: do not recite poetry to one who is not a poet.”
  • Important types that you must learn to discern:

    • The arrogant and proud: Any perceived slight will lead to future vengeance and violence. This individual will overreact to seemingly innocuous slights.
    • The hopelessly insecure: Similar to the arrogant and proud but harder to spot and less violent. This fragile ego will stew and simmer in his discontent.
    • The suspicious: Sees what he wants to see in others and imagines that all are against him. May be easy to manipulate.
    • The serpent with a long memory: Calculating and patient. Will right perceived wrongs with great cunning and planning.
    • The plain, unassuming, and often unintelligent: The blunt man will not take bait because he is clueless. No need to fear retribution; the bigger concern is that these people will get in your way and waste your time.
  • Example: Story of Muhammad (shah of Khwarezm, 13th c.). Muhammad received multiple emissaries from Genghis Khan. Muhammad knew little of Khan: he rebuffed the initial overture. Khan sent a caravan with gifts which was seized by a governor (the caravan leaders were murdered). Khan sent a final envoy (also asking for punishment against the governor). Muhammad beheaded the ambassador and sent two servants back with shaved heads. Khan proceeded to completely destroy the Khwarezm Empire.
  • “Never assume that the person you are dealing with is weaker or less important than you are.”
  • When turning people down, do so politely, respectfully and with tact. Avoid rejecting others with insult and scorn.
  • A person who is of little importance today might become important and powerful in the future.
  • Offending others might feel good in the moment, but the short-term benefits may carry long-term consequences. Weigh the necessity of such actions and avoid unnecessary antagonism.

Law 20: Do not commit to anyone.

  • “It is the fool who always rushes to take sides. Do not commit to any side or cause but yourself.”
  • If others come to “possess” you in any way (e.g. via your decision, loyalty, actions) then they hold power over you and limit your range of options.
  • Avoid getting dragged into the minor squabbles and fights of others. Stay neutral while others fight amongst themselves.
  • If you engage in the emotions, conflicts and constant reactions of others, their problems become your problems and occupy your time and energy.
  • Disengagement is a way to maintain your energy, mental focus and agency.

Law 21: Play a sucker to catch a sucker, seem dumber than your mark.

  • Individual intelligence is core to personal vanity. Most of us believe we are more intelligent than our peers.
  • Understanding this proclivity means we can take advantage of it:

    • Avoid inadvertently insulting or questions another person’s intellect.
    • Reinforce this belief in others: their belief in their intellectual superiority will blind them.
    • Play up your lack of intelligence. Appearing harmless masks ambition.
    • You may be kept around because you make others feel better about themselves in which case you will gain information and opportunity.
  • Example: Arthur and Slack’s California diamond mine. Two simpleton prospectors duped experts and financiers into investing in a fake diamond mine. They pulled off the scam by acting like rubes: they didn’t understand the true value of the mine, they brought in experts to bolster their claims, they wore ill-fitting clothes and acted awestruck in the big city.

Law 22: Use the surrender tactic: transform weakness into power.

  • “When you are weaker, never fight for honor’s sake; choose surrender instead.”
  • Surrender offers a path to regain strength, gain information, devise new plans and strike at another time in the future.
  • Example: Story of Voltaire in London. Anti-French sentiment was high. One day, while walking in the streets Voltaire is surrounded by a mob calling for Voltaire to be hanged. Voltaire addressed the crowd: “You wish to kill me because I am a Frenchman. Am I not punished enough being born an Englishman?” The crowd was disarmed by Voltaire's clever surrender.
  • Submission can make others feel important. It engenders a feeling of respect, superiority and righteousness. Use these effects to your benefit when the time is right.
  • “Never sacrifice long-term maneuverability for the short-lived glories of martyrdom.”
  • Reacting emotionally or impetuously to the actions of others is the common and expected response. Remember: doing the uncommon thing is unpredictable and throws others off-balance.

Law 23: Concentrate your forces.

  • “The mind must not wander from goal to goal, or be distracted by success from its sense of purpose and proportion.
  • “What is concentrated, coherent, and connected to its past has power.. What is dissipated, divided, and distended rots and falls to the ground.”
  • Arthur Schopenhauer (philosopher): “Intellect is a magnitude of intensity, not a magnitude of extensity.”
  • Singular focus and effort is often sufficient to overwhelm the efforts of others (who invariably exhibit far less concentration of effort).
  • Alternatively: Dispersal is necessary in certain situations: when you are the weaker party (e.g. guerilla warfare) or when you are tied to a single source of power (e.g. a single client or patron) whose power is declining. In the latter case, have contingency plans available.

Law 24: Play the perfect courtier.

  • Great courtiers has mastered the art of manipulating people; they wield significant influence without detection.
  • The laws of court politics (essentially a number of mini-laws):

    • Avoid ostentation.
    • Practice nonchalance.
    • Be frugal with flattery.
    • Arrange to be noticed (just not brazenly).
    • Alter your style and language to suit the other party (i.e. meet others at their level).
    • Never be the bearer of bad news (people have a hard time separating the message from the messenger).
    • You are not the master’s friend (the leader doesn’t want a friend, they want a subordinate).
    • Never criticize your superiors directly.
    • Be parsimonious when asking for favors (spend your political capital wisely).
    • Never joke about appearances or taste.
    • Don’t be the court cynic (this characteristic involves too much criticism).
    • Be a source of pleasure.
    • Be self-observant (and constantly monitor against infractions for the above laws).
  • Avoid detection of your aims at all possible costs. Once you are caught manipulating others, the illusion you have created is gone and your reputation and the trust and influence is lost.

Law 25: Re-create yourself.

  • You are the master of your image. Don’t let others define who you are.
  • Julius Caesar as a master showman: “Like him, you must learn to enlarge your actions, through dramatic techniques such as surprise, suspense, the creation of sympathy and symbolic identification...be constantly aware of your audience—of what will please them and what will bore them.”
  • Example: Story of Aurore Dupin Dudevant who, as a young woman, moved to Paris in 1831 and created the alter-ego of George Sand. This male persona allowed her great freedom as a writer and over her behavior.

Law 26: Keep your hands clean.

  • “Occasional mistakes are inevitable—the world is just too unpredictable. People of power, however, are undone not by the mistakes they make, but by the way the deal with them.”
  • Apologies open you up to questions about your competence, intentions and other weaknesses.
  • Scapegoats distract attention from yourself and place attention and blame on others. The wrong-doing is focused on this other which can be punished or eliminated.
  • “It is often wise to choose the most innocent victim possible as a sacrificial goat. Such people will not be powerful enough to fight you, and their naive protests may be seen as protesting too much...in other words, as a sign of their guilt.”
  • A “cat’s paw” is someone else who does dirty, dangerous work on your behalf. The cat’s paw allows you to save energy and effort and have someone else accomplish what you need done.
  • Example: Mao’s Communists had been fighting against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. Chiang Kai-shek was on the verge of victory when he was captured in a soldier’s mutiny and handed over to Mao. Japan invaded China around this time and instead of killing or keeping Chiang hostage, Mao freed him so they could ally against the Japanese. The Nationalists led the fight against Japan which allowed Mao to preserve his strength as his two enemies engaged. After the war, the Communists were able to defeat the Nationalists.

Law 27: Play on people’s need to believe and create a cult like following.

  • People have a genuine need to believe in something. As a result, people are gullible.
  • How to create a cult in 5 easy steps:

    1. Keep it vague, keep it simple. Attract attention through words, not actions; words are more deceptive and ambiguous. Your words should contain two elements (1) A great and transformational promise and (2) Vagueness. Vague promises allow people to conjure crazy ideas and dreams to fit their aspirations.
    2. Emphasize the visual and sensual over the intellectual. Use exotic and theatrical effects to make the banal appear extraordinary.
    3. Borrow the forms of organized religion to structure the group. Hierarchy and strict authority are a hallmark of religion. Rituals and doctrine help impart control.
    4. Disguise your source of income. “Never reveal that your wealth actually comes from your followers’ pockets; instead make it seem to come from the truth of your methods.” The illusion is that prosperity is the direct result of your ideology.
    5. Set up and us-versus-them dynamic. Keep the followers united through this adversarial dynamic; adherents are part of a “chosen group” unified by common belief and values.
  • Alternatively: While groups can impart greater power than individuals, the stakes are much higher when it comes to failure or the downfall. For this reason, the actor must weigh the cost/benefit of group vs. individual manipulation.

Law 28: Enter action with boldness.

  • People admire and appreciate bold action (even if it leads to failure); nobody respects or honors the timid.
  • Axioms of boldness and timidity:

    • The bolder the lie the better: The boldest lies are often the most convincing and the audacity of a story can distract from smaller inconsistencies.
    • Predators are attracted to hesitant prey: People can sense weakness. If you project a weak or hesitant persona, people will take advantage of that.
    • Boldness creates fear and fear creates authority.
    • A lack of confidence creates self-made obstacles: you are constantly beset by second-guessing, fear and delay.
    • Audacity separates you from the herd. Boldness draws attention and is inclined towards action and impact.
  • Alternatively: While timidity is the opposite of power, it can be used for purposes of deception.

Law 29: Plan all the way to the end.

  • Planning affords some degree of control over an unpredictable future through preparation, anticipation and contingency.
  • Having a concrete goal is not only important for achieving a goal, it’s a critical determinant for knowing when to stop doing something.
  • Example: Bismarck had a singular goal: to form an independent German state (led by Prussia). War was started with Denmark not for the purpose of territorial conquest, but to generate nationalistic fervor among Germans.
  • Consider the two options: over-planning and rigidity and vs. constant improvisation and vagueness. In reality, there is no harm that comes from planning while retaining sufficient flexibility to adapt and react should plans change.

Law 30: Make your accomplishments seem effortless.

  • Conceal the effort, toil and practice that goes into your actions in order to create an illusion of magical competence.
  • Example: Harry Houdini (escape artist) displayed such effortlessness in his acts that people came to think he have supernatural powers or superior mental capabilities. In reality, he just used elaborate gadgets and practiced his routines so they became flawless.
  • One reason for this recommendation: unusual feats are admired, but we admire unusual feats accomplished effortlessly tenfold.
  • Revealing the secrets behind your methods gives others a weapon to use against you.

Law 31: Control the options, get others to play with the cards you deal.

  • Example: Story of Ivan the Terrible (Russian Czar) in 1564. Ivan faced a ruinous civil war. He opted to withdraw from Moscow and yield leadership. In his absence, Russians experienced the consequences of Ivan’s departure. A delegation begged Ivan to return to power. Ivan gave them a choice: grant him absolute power or find a new leader. Given the alternative (chaos and ruin), the people chose to grant his wish for absolute power.
  • People like the idea of choice but they aren’t especially critical of the range (or lack) or choices available. What this means is you can present 2 choices and the illusion of choice alone will yield some degree of satisfaction.
  • Some ways to control the range of options:

    • Color the choices: Henry Kissinger (diplomat) couldn’t directly offer a single course of action. Instead, he would propose several choices. However, one of the choices would be presented as superior to the others.
    • Force the resister: If someone is resistant to a path of action, insist that they relapse into their old habits. Your advocacy of the bad alternative may push them to the good alternative.
    • Alter the playing field: John D. Rockefeller sought an oil monopoly. He attacked the problem creatively: he bought the transportation infrastructure for oil. Now when he attempted to acquire new oil companies, he had the option of restricting their options on account of his power over distribution.
    • Shrink the options: Raise the price or change the available choices for the indecisive. They might fear that failure to act now will result in a poorer deal or set of choices tomorrow.
    • Brothers in crime: Involve your victims in a criminal scheme. Once they are complicit, their range of choices is quickly narrowed.

Law 32: Play to people’s fantasies.

  • People want easy, painless results that are too good to be true. Because of this, it is easy to dupe them. Consider schemes that promise a big change in quality of life: poor to rich, sick to healthy, misery to ecstasy.
  • “How did the great sixteenth-century German quack Leonard Thurneisser become the court physician for the Elector of Brandenburg without ever studying medicine? Instead of offering amputations, leeches, and foul-tasting purgatives, Thurneisser offered sweet-tasting elixirs and promised instant recovery.”

Law 33: Discover each man’s thumbscrew.

  • Many personal weaknesses are an insecurity or need or uncontrollable emotion. Identify it and use it to your advantage.
  • Principles for discovering weaknesses:

    • Pay attention to gestures and unconscious signals. Ordinary conversation can reveal much. Confide in someone (falsely if necessary) and see what confidence they offer in reciprocation.
    • Childhood trauma, indulgences or longing may review long-simmering weaknesses.
    • Look for contrasts: Visible traits sometimes hide their opposite. For instance, those prone to bluster and bullying may secretly be cowards. Prudish behavior might hide uncontrollable passion.
    • Find the weak link: Find the power broker who has influence over the nominal person at the top. Use or influence this power broker to indirectly influence the leader.
    • Fill the void: Insecurity and unhappiness are common emotional voids. Offer validation to garner trust and influence.
    • Feed on uncontrollable emotion: lust, greed, hatred, paranoia. These emotions are open to manipulation and control.
  • “People’s need for validation and recognition, their need to feel important, is the best kind of weakness to exploit...find ways to make people feel better about their taste, their social standing, their intelligence.”

Law 34: Be royal in your own fashion. Act like a king to be treated like one.

  • Another law on the importance of maintaining the illusion of authority, confidence and strength.
  • Example: Story of Louis-Philippe, the “bourgeois king.” Louis-Phillippe’s downfall was that he mixed with the businessmen and middle class and downplayed his status. He was rejected by the aristocracy, unimpressive to the commoners and eventually treated with contempt by his own class.
  • Strategies to project a royal demeanor:

    • The Columbus Strategy: Make a bold demand. Set your price high.
    • Go after the highest or most influential person in the building.
    • Give a gift to those above you. The gift establishes a kind of equality and reciprocity.
  • Alternatively: Avoid the error of putting down others or humiliating others in order to elevate yourself.

Law 35: Master the art of timing.

  • Being hurried or stressed exhibits a lack of control over yourself and your environment. Be patient.
  • “Slowing time down will give you a perspective on the times you live in, letting you take a certain distance and putting you in a less emotionally charged position to see the shapes of things to come.”

Law 36: Disdain things you cannot have, ignoring them is the best revenge.

  • What you do not react to cannot drag you down.
  • Example: Story of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Henry wanted an annulment with Catherine (he had fallen for Anne Boleyn). Catherine was uncooperative so Henry banished her from court. Pope Clement refused to annul the marriage so Henry ignored the pope and his authority and all threats of excommunication by establishing the Church of England.
  • Acknowledging others opens you to their influence.
  • “Contempt is the prerogative of the king. Where his eyes turn, what he decides to see, is what has reality; what he ignores and turns his back on is as good as dead.”
  • Alternatively: Giving undue attention to weaker enemies or trivial matters gives them strength and power and, in turn, reduces your stature. Moreover, when you fail to crush this irritating opponent, you can create sympathy for the weaker side (Example: In the aftermath of JFK’s failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, Fidel Castro became an international hero).

Law 37: Create compelling spectacles.

  • Another law about using the power of illusion as a distraction or smokescreen so that you can operate undetected and without interference.
  • Oftentimes, people don’t want rational explanations or words, they want an immediate appeal to their emotion. Images, symbols, and bold gestures can create these moments.
  • Example: Charles de Gaulle (French leader) and the liberation of Paris in World War II. American troops were leading the way back into Paris after defeating the Nazis. De Gaulle realized that if the Americans were seen at the head of the column, it would imply that the Americans were in charge. De Gaulle worked to get himself and a French Division placed at the front of the liberation procession. After this stunt, the Allies started treating him as the new leader of France. De Gaulle was well aware of the importance of the visual spectacle and the emotional response it elicited from his countrymen and Allies.

Law 38: Think as you like but behave like others.

  • “People who flaunt their infatuation with a different culture are expression a disdain and contempt for their own...to separate themselves from the common folk...and to express their sense of superiority.”
  • “Wise and clever people learn early on that they can display conventional behavior and mouth conventional ideas without having to believe in them. The power these people gain from blending in is that of being left alone to have the thoughts they want to have and to express them to the people they want to express them to without suffering isolation or ostracism.”
  • You risk isolation when you disrespect or disregard the customs, orthodoxies, or conventions of times or culture.

Law 39: Stir up waters to catch fish.

  • Anger and emotion will cloud your judgement. You must stay calm and objective, but you can use anger and emotions to ruin the judgement of your enemies.
  • Angry responses and public tirades will degrade your reputation and public image: people have witnessed you lose control and act foolishly.
  • When you exhibit frustration, you show that you have lost control over a situation. You have become helpless and unable to respond effectively. Often your response is out or proportion to what initiated the response.
  • “When the waters are still, your opponents have the time and space to plot actions that they will initiate and control. So stir the waters, force the fish to the surface, get them to act before they are ready, steal the initiative. The best way to do this is to play on uncontrollable emotions—pride, vanity, love, hate.”
  • Change your perspective by distancing yourself from the situation and not viewing social interactions as personal. For instance, if someone directs anger at you, in many cases there are other underlying issues (beyond whatever you have done) that have contributed to their reaction.
  • Be indifferent: “Nothing is as infuriating as a man who keeps his cool while others are losing theirs.”

Law 40: Despise the free lunch.

  • Always consider the cost in your interactions with others. When something is offered for free, there is always a price that is paid: psychological, obligation, compromises, etc. [Me: Sage advice for the free internet advertising model!]
  • Learn to recognize these types (and avoid or manipulate their weakness):

    • The greedy fish: These people only see life as a balance sheet in which people are pawns or obstacles to the pursuit of wealth.
    • The bargain demon: These people can only judge things by their literal price tag. They do not consider the other dimensions of price: time, peach of mind, values, etc. They just want the cheapest price, the best deal.
    • The sadist: These people play power games with money. For instance, they believe that paying for something gives them the right to abuse the seller.
    • The indiscriminate giver: These people use money to gain love and admiration from others. However, they give indiscriminately rather than strategically.
  • When you pay “full price” up front, you avoid the entanglements and future obligations that accompany gifts and free lunches.
  • Alternatively: Most people want the rewards with minimal or zero work. This makes it easy to deceive and bait them. “Sell them advice on how to make millions, and that small sum will become a fortune when multiplied by thousands of suckers.”

Law 41: Avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes.

  • The weight of the past can be a burden. Create the necessary space for yourself to build your own identity (and power); forge your own path by breaking from the past.
  • Example: Story of Alexander the Great and the Gordion Knot. This knot was an intractable puzzle, impossible to untie and solve. It was prophesied that whoever should undue the know would become ruler of all Asia. Alexander struggled to solve the know and eventually drew his sword and simply cut it. [Me: reminds me of the famous scene in Raiders of the Last Ark when Indiana Jones is faced with a skilled swordsman who menacingly twirls his weapons at a bewildered Jones. Jones pulls his pistol and shoots the warrior.]
  • Augustus Caesar differentiated himself from Julius Caesar. Alexander the Great also had to create a different path for himself from his father Phillip of Macedonia.
  • This law can be reframed more broadly as: Don’t allow others to determine the field of battle, the self-imposed constraints or the rules of engagement for you.

Law 42: Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter.

  • “In every group, power is concentrated in the hands of one or two people, for this is one area in which human nature will never change: people will congregate around a single strong personality like planets orbiting a sun.”
  • Focus on the essential and the important targets: you can achieve maximum effect with minimum effort by removing these enemies. Banishment and isolation are effective methods.

Law 43: Work on the hearts and minds of others.

  • Direct coercion is too blunt and can create resentment and hatred. Seduction takes time but plays on emotions. Charm and persuasion are gentler and yield longer lasting results.
  • Example: Story of Chuko Liang (Chinese General circa 220 AD) and the southern barbarians. Liang sought to pacify the region. Countless times Liang would battle the barbarians and capture their soldiers only to feed the captives and then free them. Over time, the barbarians lost their heart for fighting.
  • “Force will only strengthen their resistance. With most people the heart is the key: they are like children, ruled by their emotions. To soften them up, alternate harshness with mercy. Play on their basic fears, and also their loves—freedom, family, etc. Once you break them down, you will have a lifelong friend and fiercely loyal ally.”
  • Play on contrast and expectations: Push people to despair then grant relief. Make them expect pain and then give them pleasure.
  • Gestures of self-sacrifice demonstrate shared suffering and will make people identify with you.
  • “Self-interest is the strongest motive of all: A great cause may capture minds, but once the first flush of excitement is over, interest will fall—unless there is something to be gained.”

Law 44: Disarm and infuriate with the mirror effect.

  • “When you mirror your enemies, doing exactly as they do, they cannot figure out your strategy.”
  • The mirror effect can accomplish numerous objectives depending on its use:

    • As a tool of mockery and humiliation: use it to force an overreaction.
    • As a tool of seduction: create the illusion that you share someone’s values.
    • As a tool of instruction: use the mirror effect to teach a lesson more effectively by example rather than through words.

Law 45: Preach the need to change, but never reform too much at once.

  • People understand the need for change at the theoretical level but are very resistant to change at the practical level. Too much innovation is traumatic and leads to revolt. You must manage the rate and perception of these changes.
  • “The man who initiates strong reforms often becomes the scapegoat for any kind of dissatisfaction.”
  • “Never underestimate the hidden conservatism of those around you...never let the seductive charm of an idea cloud your reason: Just as you cannot make people see the world your way, you cannot wrench them into the future with painful changes.”
  • Example: Mao Tse-tung implemented radical changes in China. One way he did it was to make the revolution legitimate and comforting by associating it with the past. For instance, Mao appropriated ideas from a popular medieval Chinese novel, The Water Margin, which concerns the exploits of a Chinese Robin Hood who rebels against a corrupt government. Two important themes of the book: The nobility of a cause can unite people and that these fraternal ties are stronger than kinship and family ties.

Law 46: Never appear too perfect.

  • People don’t like feelings of inferiority. Superior skill, talent, and status creates discomfort and envy.
  • “To deflect envy...display a weakness, a minor social indiscretion, a harmless vice. Give those who envy you something to feed on, distracting them from your more important sins.”
  • Thoreau: “Envy is the tax which all distinction must pay.”

Law 47: Do not go past the mark you aimed for. In victory, know when to stop.

  • Napoleon: “The greatest danger occurs at the moment of victory.”
  • “The essence of strategy is controlling what comes next, and the elation of victory can upset your ability to control what comes next in two ways. First, you owe your success to a pattern that you are apt to repeat...without stopping to see whether this is the direction that is best for you. Second, success tends to go to your head and make you emotional. Feeling invulnerable, you make aggressive moves that ultimately undo the victory you have gained.”
  • “The powerful vary their rhythms and patters, change course, adapt to circumstance, and learn to improvise. Rather than letting their dancing feet impel them forward, they step back and look where they are going.”
  • Green says good luck can be more insidious than bad luck: good luck deludes you into overestimating your abilities and brilliance; bad luck teaches you humbling lessons about patience, timing and circumstance.
  • “The rhythm of power often requires an alternation of force and cunning.”
  • Another danger of overreach: you may needlessly create new enemies before you are done with your previous task/enemy or before you are ready to take on a new foe/challenge.

Law 48: Assume formlessness.

  • Example: In 8th century BC, land-locked Sparta opted to develop the strongest warrior culture in Greece in order to compete with their rivals. The result is that Sparta created a one-dimensional culture entirely focused on making war. Their main rivals, the Athenians, were more adaptable and saw an economic and cultural flourishing. Sparta defeated Athens in war, but Athens, through its cultural and intellectual advances continued to thrive whereas Sparta eventually fell never to recover.
  • “Learn to move fast and adapt or you will be eaten.”
  • “The first psychological requirement of formlessness is to train yourself to take nothing personally. Never show any defensiveness. When you act defensive, you show your emotions, revealing a clear form. Your opponents will realize they have hit a nerve, an Achilles’ heel.”
  • Having an adaptable mindset opens up possibilities and options. Being rigid or engaging in intellectual constraints or orthodoxy limits your choices.
  • “Formlessness is a tool. Never confuse it with a go-with-the-flow style, or with a religious resignation to the twists of fortune. You use formlessness, not because it creates inner harmony and peace, but because it will increase your power.”


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