Robert Greene’s Speech at Yale
Below is the transcript of a speech Robert did at Yale in October along with the Q&A that followed. For those of you who would prefer to listen to an mp3 of the speech, you can do that here.
Host: Welcome everybody. So, it’s a pleasure to have all of you here, and a particular pleasure to welcome our honored guest, Robert Greene. He is, well, you are all here, so I think you probably know a lot about his books, his writings. I’ll state just a few words.
He has trained in classical literature. And then had a very shifting career for some early period of his post-college life. And then settled in to write a series of extremely fascinating books that draw on the classical training and readings that he did. The books that the lives and writings of a number of the major figures. He’s written about power, about seduction, about war.
With that background, of course, it is not surprising that he also made a wonderful connection with the hip-hop crowd. He became a guru of them for a while. He set up a collaboration with them. We were talking beforehand, it is clear that he enjoyed that collaboration. And it is not bad to be a guru, from what he said. But, it also achieved some of his other aims about who he was hoping to help empower.
I thought what we would do is, after we give him a big applause for welcome, I will ask him to say a bit about himself and what he is working on, and then we will open it up for questions. But, why don’t we start with giving him a nice, warm welcome.
Robert: Is it better if I stand or if I sit? Or what is the protocol?
Host: Whatever is comfortable.
Host: It is informal. You’re welcome to sit.
Robert: Well, I come from Los Angeles. I was actually born in Los Angeles. And I don’t mean to disparage California, or Los Angeles, particularly, or any of the people from there. But I will say that the IQ levels in a place like that are generally a little bit lower than what I find here. So, I’m actually a little bit intimidated by all of these very smart people here. So, I’m a little bit nervous. I hope you understand.
Basically, I started writing back in 1996. I’ve been writing my whole life. But I met somebody, we were in Italy together at the same time, working on a project, and it was a really awful Machiavellian environment, in Italy, if you can imagine that. And all of these terrible political games were being played. And we were just miserable and depressed. This was actually 1995. He was a book packager and he asked me if I had any ideas for books. And all of this pain that I had been through in the work world with all of these political, conniving figures, it just came up out of me. It was a beautiful day in Venice, Italy, and I sort of improvised this idea for a book, and he loved it. He basically paid me to live while I wrote “The 48 Laws of Power”. And that’s where it started.
For 15 to 16 years, I’ve had this weird position in life that I don’t know how many other people have had where I have been able to devote all of my attention to studying what I consider to be the most powerful, charismatic, successful, Machiavellian characters in history and contemporary figures, like, 50.
I may not be good at many things. I can’t build things with my hands or anything like that. But I have this one expertise — why some people excel, why some people are superior in the political game or in their creativity or whatever it is.
In figuring out what I wanted to talk to you about today, I was talking with Casper, who I want to thank for helping to organize this. There is sort of a philosophy that all of these figures that I’ve studied share. And I am often asked, or people say, “I want to become powerful. What’s the secret to it?”
I don’t believe in that kind of glib four sentence or one book answer about how to be powerful. But there is an attitude towards life, a way of looking at things, a way of thinking that all of these people that I have been studying they all share this way of looking at the world.
It is what I call radical realism. And the reason I call it radical is, realism has this idea of just understanding the world and it sort of has a cynical, sometimes an edge to it. I want the idea of really, deeply understanding what life is about, how people operate in this world. And not only being realistic and understanding it, but accepting in a very deep way that this is what the world is like and actually loving it and embracing it and working with reality.
All of these figures from 50 Cent and Napoleon Bonaparte to Cleopatra to John F. Kennedy, I believe they all share this kind of attitude. So, I am going to talk, hopefully not too long, because I really want to get to your questions, and I encourage you to barrage me with all kinds of difficult questions. I want to talk about three aspects of this attitude. The first is, what I call, Machiavellian realism or the Machiavellian reality. The second is existential reality, what it really means to be a human being. The third is what I call aesthetic realism.
My idea is that to the degree that you accept these realities in life, you are going to be successful and powerful. And to the degree that you deny them and you avoid them and you hate them and you are miserable about them and you try and run away, you are not going to have success in life.
So, the first one, as I said, is what I call our Machiavellian reality. There is a concept that lately fascinates me that I have been using for my next book. It is a term called Machiavellian intelligence. And it is something that came about in the sixties and seventies, where various scientists, people studying the brain, they are trying to understand why is it that the human brain is so much larger than anything else we have in nature? How did this happen? Why did our brains develop in this way so rapidly and become so much more complex than any other animal on the planet?
And they basically went back to primates. Unless you believe in creationism, our ancestors. Basically, primates are the other animal that have this exceptionally large brain. A brain that seems to be in excess of their needs. To explain why our brains developed in this way, they looked at primates, and they came up with a really fascinating theory called Machiavellian intelligence.
The gist of it is the following. What makes primates different from any other animal is that they live in very complex social environments. There are other animals, like wolves, etc., that live in packs, that have hierarchies, the alpha male, etc. But primates, and I’m talking about chimps, baboons, orangutans, that whole group, have a much deeper, a much more complex social organization. They have rituals of grooming, where they groom each other for hours upon hours during the day, forming all kinds of friendships and alliances. They remember these friendships and these alliances over the space of 10, 20 years.
The other thing that primates have that is so bizarre and interesting is that they are the only animal we know that practice deception and games of manipulation among each other. There is no other animal on the planet that we can say that about. So, they label primates as the Machiavellian creature, the Machiavellian animal. They have shown colonies of monkeys, for instance, in Puerto Rico, where they do a lot of studies, incredible games of manipulation that are going on among these little, small communities.
One of the discoveries that they have in looking at these primates is that they possess a power that is known as the theory of mind. Now I don’t know if you are familiar with this concept. But, basically, it is the idea that only humans or primates have a concept where I can think about, perhaps, what is going on in your mind right now. Most animals can only judge another creature based on its outward behavior about what they are doing, about the threat that they, perhaps, represent. But a human and a primate has the capacity to actually, literally imagine, and I am pointing to you, because I am thinking about you right there. What is it exactly that is going on in your brain right now? What are you thinking? What are you thinking right now?
Now they have discovered that primates actually possess this theory of mind. It is related to something called mirror neurons. I am not going to get too technical with you here. I am not a neuroscientist myself. But, basically, mirror neurons is this fascinating phenomenon where if I pick up this telephone, my cell phone, they can look on a map of my brain and see that certain neurons are firing when I actually pick up this phone.
If I watch him pick up the phone, the same neurons are firing. It is called mirror neurons. So, basically, this allows me to learn by imitation. I can experience what you are doing with picking up that phone as if I, almost, myself, were feeling that.
This allows humans and primates to understand and to put themselves in the mind of another person. This allows for all kinds of complicated social behavior. It allows for us to be empathetic creatures, to cooperate. But it also allows for very deep levels of deception, manipulation, con games, whatever you want to call it. Because the moment I know what you are thinking or I can imagine what your intentions are, I can strategize. I can play all kinds of games. I can try to distract you, deceive you, etc.
So they have shown that monkeys, for instance, possess these mirror neurons. That chimpanzees possess this ability of theory of mind. And from all of this stems all of this incredible Machiavellian behavior. So the theory, to bring this all back to it, of Machiavellian intelligence is that the reason primate brains developed so rapidly is in dealing with this very complicated social environment.
An animal normally is only dealing with its physical environment. But primates are dealing with their social environment. And it is in dealing with the social problems and dealing with fellow chimpanzees and what they are thinking that the brain had to develop very rapidly in a very small period of time.
Primates started evolving, modern primates as we know them, 40 million years ago. Some six million years ago, we humans diverged from that. And we have the first, what are known as homo erectus. And our earliest ancestors have this inheritance in them. This Machiavellian intelligence. We formed larger and larger groupings. We were the first animal that actually hunted big game. And in creating, being able to hunt something like that, involved all kinds of complicated organization.
So if you map out very rapidly, and I’m skipping over millions of years of history, and a historian would be very offended with how I am doing this, but you would see an incredible increase in this social complexity over millions of years leading up to a modern era where a person who is raised as a human being in our environment is not simply dealing with a group of 20 people and having to figure out how to navigate in that world. But you are talking about people, us, who have to deal with thousands of thousands of people living in communities, in our workplace, in politics, in government, in business. All of the deep levels of manipulation, deception, cooperation, that whole element that goes into what is known as Machiavellian intelligence.
So, through this concept, the idea is that we humans, the reason why we have evolved so rapidly, why we are so clever, why we are so smart is that we are inherently social creatures. That you can’t divorce the games that we have to play, what we have to learn in how to get along with other people, you can’t divorce that from our other forms of intelligence. This is very much who we are. We are, by our nature, the Machiavellian animal. It is 40 million years of evolution starting from primates back then to who we are now. There is no way to deny that. There is no way to, in the course of 20 years or 80 years, to evolve beyond it. It is who we are.
So, this is my definition of that first basic reality, what I call our social reality, or the Machiavellian reality. Now, there is nobody out there who really talks about this. There are not many books written about it. There is nobody here at Yale teaching a class on how to be Machiavellian in the world or how to handle that kind of environment, at least as far as I know.
When you enter the real world, you are suddenly blindsided by this whole realm that exists. It is like our dirty little secret. People will talk about their sex lives. You’ll get Dr. Ruth here, we’ll go through all of that. But nobody talks about all of these power games that are constantly going on in the world. So, I just wanted to interject into this idea my own personal story. When I got out of college and I suddenly was confronted with this real world.
I had graduated, as he mentioned, with a classical background. I was immersed in studying philosophy and literature and languages. And so when I started working, essentially in magazines, I worked at Esquire magazine and a few others. I had no idea of how things operated in the real world, and I was very much shocked by all of the egos and the insecurities and the game playing and the political stuff. It really kind of disturbed me and it upset me. I can remember when I was about 26 or 27 years old one particular job that was kind of the turning point in my life.
I am not going to tell you which job this was. I don’t want you Googling it and figuring out who I’m talking about. But, basically, the job was that I had to find stories that would then be put into either film or a magazine, whatever. But I was basically judged on how many good stories I found. So in this job, I thought, I am a very competitive person, and I was doing better than anybody else there. I was finding more stories that ended up getting produced, because I felt that’s the point. You are trying to produce. You are trying to get work done. Isn’t that the most important thing? Isn’t that why we are all here?
Suddenly I found that my superior, this woman, who’s name I won’t mention, made it very clear that she wasn’t happy with me. That something was wrong. I was doing something wrong and I couldn’t figure out what it was.
So going on what I was mentioning, that theory of mind, this power that we have, I sort of put myself in her shoes. And I’m thinking, what is it that I’m doing that is displeasing her? I am clearly producing. And I figured out, well, maybe it is because I’m not involving her in what I’m doing, in my ideas. I need to run them by her. I need to make and involve her more so she feels like she is a part of the research that I am doing.
So I would go into her office and I would tell her where my ideas were coming. I was trying to engage with her, figuring that was the problem. Well, that didn’t seem to work. She was still clearly unhappy with me. Maybe didn’t like me. So, I thought, going further, well, maybe I’m not being friendly enough with her. Maybe I need to be nice to her. Maybe I need to go in and not talk about work, but just talk, be nice and talk like a human being.
Okay. So that was strategy number two. I started doing that. Still didn’t have any effect. She still seemed really cold and kind of mean. I figured, all right. She just hates me. That’s just life. Not everybody can love you. That’s just it. I mean, what the hell? I’ll just do my job. Then one day we are having a meeting in which we are discussing our ideas, and she suddenly interrupts. She says, “‘Robert. You have an attitude problem.”
“What?” “You’re not listening to people here.” “I’m listening.” But, I mean, I produce. I do my work. You are going to judge me about how wide my eyes are open and how I’m listening to people? She goes, “No. You have a problem here.” “I’m sorry. I don’t think I do.”
Anyway, over the course of the next few weeks she just started kind of torturing me about this idea that I had an attitude. And, of course, naturally, I developed an attitude. I started resenting her. And a couple of weeks later, I quit, because I just hated it. I probably quit a week before they were going to fire me anyway. And I went home, and over the course of several weeks, I thought really deeply about it. What happened here? What did I do wrong? I mean, she just didn’t like me? I think I’m a likable person.
I figured, I came to this conclusion. I had violated a law of power 12 years before I ever wrote the book. Law number one: Never outshine the master. I had gone into this environment thinking that what mattered was doing a great job and showing how talented I was. But, in doing that, I had made this woman, my superior, insecure that maybe I was after her job or that maybe I was better than she was. And I would make her look bad because the great ideas were coming from me and not from her.
I had violated law number one. And when you violate law number one, you are going to suffer for it, because you are touching on a person’s ego and their insecurities. That is the worst thing you can do, and that is what had happened.
So in reflecting over this, it was kind of a turning point in my life. And I said, “I’m never going to let this happen again. I’m never going to get emotional.” Because that it what happened. I basically reacted emotionally to her torturing me and developed an attitude. I’m never going to let that happen again. I don’t care. I’m a writer. I don’t care about these jobs that I get. I am just going to become a master observer of the game of power. I am going to watch these people as if they were mice in a laboratory, with some distance.
I developed a motto. A motto that I still use to this day, and that motto is, “It’s all material.” Everything that happens is material. Material for a book. Material for a novel, for a screenplay. I want to be the master observer of this world.
This suddenly allowed me, now, to not only observe the power games going on in the many different kinds of jobs that I’ve had. And I can tell you, I’ve had jobs from working in journalism. I worked in a detective agency. I worked for a music producer. I worked for film. Everything possible.
In having this distance and looking at the world like this, suddenly I had power. I wasn’t emotionally involved. I had some distance, and I could deal with things. From that, I developed “The 48 Laws of Power,” when I was finally given the opportunity to write the book. What I decided in “The 48 Laws,” and it’s a very much a part of me, is that this is the reality that we must all deal with. That we are social creatures. That we live in environments where there are all kinds of complicated networks. We are, in a way, defined by how we handle these environments, this reality.
There are three types of people in this world in dealing with this social reality. There are, what I call, the deniers, the people who deny this reality exists. They almost want to pretend that we are descended from angels and not from primates. That what I am talking about here is cynical. It doesn’t really exist. It doesn’t happen.
Among these deniers, you will find two types. You will find people who are genuinely disturbed by the politicking aspect of human nature. They don’t want any kind of job in which they have to do that. You will find that they are slowly marginalized. They can be happy that way. They are never going to assume a position of great responsibility because it involves all of this.
The other branch of the deniers are the people that are the passive-aggressors. I would classify this woman who had tortured me as a kind of a classic passive-aggressor. People who consciously don’t want to admit that there is any kind of manipulation involved, but unconsciously are playing all kinds of games. In my books, I often describe the many different kinds, the trickiest kind of person to deal with, the passive-aggressors.
The second type of person besides the deniers are those who love this Machiavellian part of our nature and revel in it and are master manipulators, and con artists, and connivers and are very aggressive. They have no problem handling this part. In fact, they love it. This type of person, which usually you will find one or two in an office or in an environment. They can get pretty far, but eventually they are tripped up in life because they are too Machiavellian. They don’t understand that there is the other side to that whole idea of theory of mind and the mirror neurons, which is empathy and cooperation and seducing people and getting them to work with you. They are too much involved with themselves and their own ego and they love manipulating until they go too far and they have a fall in life. There is a wall. They can never get past it.
The third type is what I am calling the radical realist. It is what I am proposing that you adopt. And it goes as follows.
This is our nature. This is how we evolved over millions of years. There is no point in denying it. It is who we are. And not only am I not going to deny it, I am going to accept that this is the human being as it has evolved over all of this time.
In fact, I love it. It’s fine. There is nothing wrong with the fact that in this world people are playing political games. There is nothing wrong with the fact that there are seducers and con artists and it is going on all the time. It is just reality. It is just the world as it is. Stop fighting it. Just accept it.
Within that accepting of it, it is not that you love it and want to go out in the world and play all of these nasty games. It is that you understand they exist. If, occasionally, you have to do them, fine. That’s okay within reason. If it is often other people are practicing them against you, which you will find a lot in your life, once you leave the confines of Yale, that’s okay.
You understand the laws of power. You understand what people are up to, and they can’t necessarily hurt you. In accepting this reality and in dealing with it and studying human nature and this aspect of what I call Machiavellian intelligence, suddenly with that attitude, with that mentality, you have all kinds of power and freedom.
Ever since I wrote my books, and they’ve been published, I do all kinds of consulting work with business leaders, political figures, artists, very powerful people. Most of them are absolutely brilliant. They are brilliant at the technical side of their business. They have figured out how to make a lot of money. They have figured out how to maybe win elections or how to create a kind of music, etc., and market it. But they inevitably come to me for advice because they have a blind spot. They don’t understand the human nature, the political games that are going on. They don’t understand why somebody who they groomed as a successor, who they brought off the streets and helped and gave money to and developed is suddenly turning against them and betraying them in a very overt manner.
It is because they have spent their whole lives studying the technical side of their field, and they haven’t spent any time observing other people. They haven’t spent any time understanding human nature and why some people have egos and how that kind of ego will operate in an environment like an office.
This is the part of the game that trips up most people. All I am trying to say is that in accepting it and in studying it and opening your eyes to this reality, you are going to suddenly find yourself 5hat there is a whole other realm of life that you are not observing, that you are not paying attention to. If you pay attention to it, suddenly the whole power game, the whole dynamic will alter in your favor.
The second reality I want to talk about is in context of my work with 50 Cent. A few years ago, I was contacted by 50, Curtis Jackson, out of the blue. He was a big fan of “The 48 Laws of Power.” I had known that there was something going on in the hip-hop world. Jay-Z had been quoting the book and Nas had quoted one of the songs and lyrics. So, something was happening. But 50 wanted to meet me. I had no idea, but I was excited by that. So we met. We kind of hit it off in a very weird way.
You can’t imagine two people from two more different backgrounds in the world than he and I. But there was something about us that really clicked. We decided based on this to do a book together. I decided after meeting him and spending some time with him that this guy is really different. Now I live in Los Angeles. I’m not somebody who is generally star struck. I am not really interested in celebrities. They bore me. They don’t interest me. So it wasn’t a celebrity thing. There was something about him that was really interesting. He is really different. He had a kind of calmness. He had charisma, power. He had power.
So I wanted to figure out what made him different. Why is he like this? Maybe we could learn something from him and I would express that in the book. We would spend a long time talking about his life. And in talking about his life, I began to see a pattern.
I don’t know how familiar you are with this. But at the age of about nine years old, he started hustling on the streets in south side Queens, dealing drugs. He did that because he realized that school was a complete dead end for somebody from his background. That only suckers went into school. The schools were really bad. They led to really bad jobs. The only people he could see in the hood that had power were the hustlers. So he was going to become a great hustler. Nine years old is kind of early to start hustling, but that’s what he did.
So he was sitting there hustling on the streets. Soon he discovered that hustling wasn’t what he thought it was. It was actually quite boring. Day after day at 6:00 in the morning, you had to stand on the street corner. Nothing would happen. You just had to think about whatever. You had no books, nothing to read. No music. Nothing to listen to. Just waiting for people to buy your drugs. It was so boring, and it wasn’t glamorous at all. And on top of that, it was a trap. Hustlers don’t get out of their life. Most of them die, very few of them live past the age of 25, or they are in prison for most of their lives. To think that you are going to succeed in hustling is an illusion. There is a limit to it.
So, I am going to get out. And about at the age of 15, which is also a bit precocious, he decided he was going to get out of hustling and he was going to become the only other thing he could think you could become, which was a rapper.
So now he started learning how to rap, and he met Jam Master Jay and he apprenticed with him. He started getting reasonably successful. He had record labels interested in him. Then he realized that this was yet another kind of trap. The trap was that the record label owned you and they would develop artists very quickly and then get rid of them as soon as they were not so hot anymore. So you usually have a couple of years of power and success, and then it all faded and you were miserable and then you went back to drugs or dealing or whatever.
It was almost worse than being a hustler, being a rapper. To have power in that world was extremely difficult. And he got fed up with it. He decided to leave it. He decided he was going to go back into hustling. He went back into hustling. This is when he was about 18, maybe 19, I don’t remember exactly.
That is when he got shot. I’m sure you all know the story. From a beef that was going on, an old beef, somebody came up to him while he was sitting in the backseat of a car and shot nine times a few feet away from him. One of the bullets went right through his mouth.
He miraculously survived that. It was coming out of that experience that he had his own turning point in life. He determined after that that he was not going to give up. He was not going to get depressed. He was not going to go back into hustling. He was going to launch his music career, but he was going to do it all on his own, all by himself.
He was going to launch a mixed tape campaign on the streets of New York like no one had ever seen before. Because he didn’t have a record label, he was going to be able to be as nasty and violent and tell all kinds of stories, the reality of the streets, because there was nobody there who was going to censor him and say, “‘We can’t get that on the radio. We don’t want you to say this or that.”
“Fuck all that. I’m going to say exactly what I want. And I’m going to put it out on these mixed tapes. I am going to create a hard sound that is going to kind of reflect the violence that I have known my whole life, and I am going to do everything myself. I am going to package it. I am going to do my own artwork. I am going to mix it myself. I am going to have a group of people around me, but I am not going to depend on any record labels.”
He did that with such energy and such drive and such love for it that after two years of this campaign, Eminem got one of his mixed tapes and thought this was the greatest thing he had ever heard. He signed 50 to his record label at Interscope. And then the rest is history.
When I was looking at this, the pattern that I saw was that this was somebody that refused to be dependent on other people. He refused to go for the usual traps in life, in this case, hustling on the streets or being a rapper with a good label. He was supremely realistic. He saw through all the bullshit that the world put at you, and he saw this is where the power lies in life. I am going to go towards it. I was thinking, why would somebody like this be so realistic, so pragmatic and so sharp in his thinking, when a lot of his peers were not like that? A lot of his peers got totally seduced by the idea of becoming a great hustler.
I determined it is because of his very unusual background. 50 never knew his father. To this day he doesn’t know who his father was. His mother was killed, murdered when he was eight years old. He lived with his grandparents, but basically he was alone. He had no peers. He had no adult supervision. He was basically thrown out onto the streets of Queens with nobody. Nothing. No protection. No parental support. But on the other hand, which we would almost assume is a very negative thing, on the other hand he had nobody telling him who he should be, what he should do, what defines him.
He had to do everything himself. He had to decide who he was, who he wanted to be, without the usual crutches that most of us have. And I decided, I determined that in fact, this reality of his, this, what I call his existential reality, that he was basically alone in the world and had to do things for himself and define who he wanted to be, that is actually the reality of each and every one of us. But we are not aware of it.
We have the illusion that parents, that friends, that all of our support network is going to help us out in the end, that we can define ourselves through other people, by conforming to a group, by being like other people, by doing what other people tell us to do. But that is actually the illusion. That is actually the con game that goes on. The truth is, you are essentially alone in life. You were born alone and you are going to die alone. And although you have these networks of support and they are real and you do have parents, on the other hand, it is really up to you to define who you are and what you want in life.
What 50 had, and what most really powerful people have in life is a sense that they are unique, that there is something very different about them. And to the extent that you bring out your uniqueness in life, that you become more of an individual, that you bring more of your individuality into play, the more power you are going to have.
By refusing to be a hustler like everybody else, by refusing to be the typical rapper on a label, by going out there and saying, “I don’t care about all that. I am going to create the music that reflects my reality,” he stood out from everybody else, and he gained power.
Now I talked about this once a few months ago. I was invited to Stanford University to give a little talk. And I was explaining this idea of uniqueness. Essentially saying that each and every human being that is ever born, there is never going to be another you, ever, in the history of the universe. It is an actually remarkable thought that your DNA will never be repeated. Ever in the past. Ever in the future. It is completely different. You and your experiences in your life, there will never be anybody else like you, and that you are truly born as an individual, but that you are spending your life running away from it.
I gave this talk, and it was a group of people that I don’t think were very receptive to this talk. Afterwards, this Italian woman came up to me and she said, “You know Robert, you are talking about an individual. It is so American. It is so American. This whole thing about the cowboys and Ronald Reagan and being an individual, that is not how we are in Europe. That is not how we are. For us, these things aren’t important. It is just so American.” And then she proceeded to tell me about her grandfather, who was a truck driver in Italy and how he loved his life as a truck driver and he was happy as that. And she said, “What’s wrong with that? Why can’t people just accept that that’s what their role in life is? Why do you have to be always striving for something else?”
My answer to her, which I will abbreviate, was basically, first of all, how do you know that your grandfather was happy as a truck driver? Usually, people when they are in their twenties or a little bit younger have a dream about life, an ambition. They want something. Maybe he settled for being a truck driver and maybe he accepted it. But how do you know deep down inside that that was really what he wanted? You are assuming something. But even, let’s just pretend that he was happy being a truck driver. You are talking about the 1950s. You are living in a Rossellini neo-realistic movie from the 1950s, in which people had a union and there was communism and left wing activity. Being a truck driver meant something else that it doesn’t mean anymore.
That truck driver in Italy in the year 2010 is dealing with a globalized environment, the withering away of the welfare state, and is facing all kinds of conflicts and problems. And they are not happy. They are not necessarily happy.
The world as we are evolving right now is becoming completely different from the world of 50 or 60 years ago, where someone like my father would work for one company his whole life and felt protected by them. That is gone. You no longer can depend on anybody and any job or your boss protecting you. We are all dealing with a world that is so much more insecure, where we have to learn these self-reliant skills, where putting out our individuality is the only way we are going to get power in this world.
That you are dealing with an environment that is long gone. Whether that is good or bad, I don’t know. The reality that we are all facing is that we are left on our own and we have to develop these self-reliant skills and we have to not be afraid of expressing our individuality.
In the book that I’m writing now, I can talk about it later, if you’d like, I’m interviewing eight of the most eminent people in the world today in different fields — In neuroscience, in architecture, in music. All of them are inherently non-conformists. All of them are inherently bucking the trend and taking their field in a completely novel direction by bringing out more of that uniqueness that I was talking about.
I have realized that I have come a little bit longer than I wanted to do on this subject. So I am not even going to get to my third reality, because I want to give you enough time to ask questions. But I wanted to give you an idea of this overall philosophy that brings all of my books together.
Chapter one in “The 50th Law”, if you’ve read it, goes very deeply into the subject of realism, and I am going to be going deeper into it in my next book. But I have kind of hit my own wall here. So I want to open this now to your questions.
Host: I think there will be plenty of questions. Let’s see some and we also have, since Casper sent out a page before, there is even some anonymous questions. We may get to them. Why don’t we take . . .
Audience Member: All right. You sort of wound up talking about happiness. Would you say that you are happy?
Robert: Me? Me personally? Well, it is a weird thing of language to have a word like happiness. When your reality in the day is for three minutes you are happy and then for three minutes you are anxious. Then you get a phone call. Happiness never lasts for three days, I’m happy. You know? But overall, I’m very lucky and very blessed with my lifestyle in being able to write these books. So if I had to say am I happier than I was? Yes, I’m much happier than I was before I had a success as a writer.
Audience Member: So I have to ask. You know how to control men and do you know how to control women, God bless you. But . . .
Robert: I don’t know about the latter.
Audience Member: But what makes the good life?
Robert: The good life?
Audience Member: Is it power?
Robert: Yes, because with power comes a degree of freedom. Now, everybody is an individual. Some people like a position of dependence, and they feel happiest when there is somebody taking care of them. But, ultimately, I’m not happy with that because I know that that person will eventually withdraw their support. That unless this is someone who I am going to live with my whole life, that’s a different question, that eventually I am going to be left alone. And that dependency, that love or happiness that came from someone else, I can’t really 100 percent depend on it. I want to be able to have it depend on something that comes from within. Even to love somebody, even if you are going to live with them, is almost a skill that you have to develop, and it has to come from within.
And the only thing that is of value is something that you develop yourself through your life experiences, through maybe some hard times where you learn how to seduce. You learn how to compromise. You learn how to be in a relationship and how to love. And then once you have that skill or whatever you want to call it, then nobody can take it away from you and you have power and you have freedom and a degree of happiness. I don’t know if I answered your question.
Audience Member: But what would be the intrinsic goodness be? What is your intrinsic end of the power?
Robert: Well, there is no end. Because we die and what can I say? That is the absurd human condition that we have. You can accumulate millions, all the money in the world and all the beautiful women and then it’s gone at some point. So I don’t know what your question would be.
Audience Member: Those people that opt out of your system, can they not keep happiness because they don’t have that liberty.
Robert: Well, I think that it is hard to gauge, and you can’t put a number on it. But I think people who are depressed are often depressed because they have no control over their lives. They have no control over their destiny. They feel helpless. They feel like at work they might lose their job any moment now. It’s a terrible feeling. They feel that their children aren’t listening to them. The man or woman that they want to have a relationship with isn’t listening to them. That sense of helplessness, to me, is the worst feeling in the world.
Obviously there is a quote you’ve all heard of. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Malcolm X had a comeback to that line that I like a lot more. He said, absolute powerlessness corrupts even more than that. I’m not quoting it correctly. But the sense of being powerless is much worse, more debilitating on the human spirit, than the few people who are corrupted by having power. I still don’t know if I’ve answered your question.
Host: Well I wonder whether part of your question is, what do you use the power for? Is power the end that you are searching for? Or are there things you actually care about trying to use, to make sense to bother to have power for?
Robert: Well, it’s interesting.
Host: I’m not sure if that’s your question, but that’s mine.
Robert: No, I didn’t, that’s my fault, I didn’t understand. Well, let’s say, I could talk about myself. The pleasure that comes for me is in writing a book and in writing the book well, in spending a lot of time getting it right and understanding the real world as it is, the power game, the seduction game, whatever, and then creating a book that goes out in the real world. Half the game of life is doing something that you love and engaging with it deeply.
It is your study. It is your field. It is whatever you produce. But that is only half of it. Because if you don’t understand the social part, then the book that I write, if I don’t know how to deal with people, and I don’t understand human nature, and I can’t market my book, and my editor hates me, and my agent doesn’t know how to work with me, I could love my book. But it won’t get out there. It won’t get published. It won’t have success. And I won’t be happy.
The end in life is doing your work that you love and feeling satisfaction. But my experience is that a lot of people in this world are talented, and they don’t succeed because they don’t understand that there is this other side of life — the power game, the Machiavellian game. They fail at it. They might be a great painter, a great musician, a great business idea. But we are never going to hear of them because they don’t understand this.
To answer your question, the end is the satisfaction that you get with your work. For me. But that can only come with a larger understanding of the social component.
Host: That is interesting because you succeeded in a way, with these goals, because you were powerless. At least in the vignette that you gave that was your own experience. You couldn’t accomplish what you wanted to.
Host: That started getting you to think about how do you accomplish it?
Robert: That’s right.
Host: That has now put you where you feel like you have accomplished it, which is right. For you, somehow that experience with this extreme powerlessness . . .
Host: . . . that became the focus of your book.
Host: And what you cared about getting.
Robert: And not to compare myself to 50, because I can’t. But it was the same thing with him. When he was shot, he was very depressed. Nearly died. He was sitting in bed. He can’t talk anymore. He can’t sing anymore. He can’t go back to the streets hustling, because they are going to kill him. The record label dropped him. He experienced extreme powerlessness. And out of that he analyzed what it was that he needed to do and then he re-emerged. So maybe there is something to what you are saying.
Audience Member: You said earlier that it’s only when we step out of Yale that we will see this other dark, the other side and beneath all this Machiavellian strategy. But we will be stepping out into society. Yale is a society. Now why is it different? Like you say, here is a place where there is no need for that. And you are blinded
Robert: At a university, let’s say your goal, more or less, is to graduate with a very high GPA, as high as possible and land a really great job, perhaps, out of this. To get those high grades, do you need to have Machiavellian skills? Usually not. Usually, I mean, professors can be, they are not immune to favoritism, to being emotional. So there is a degree of seduction and charm going on. You could charm your professor perhaps. But more or less, you are being graded on what you’ve accomplished.
That’s how life should be, and I wish it were that way. I wish talent and getting answers right and doing a great essay, I wish that was the whole component. That would be a beautiful world if it could be like that. But it is not how it operates.
All I am saying is, the element of ego and gamesmanship and politicking, how much does that enter into your goal of success at the university? I don’t think it is as much, nearly as much, as one experiences in the real world. In fact, the university, and I could be wrong here, but, in fact, it tends to breed the opposite idea, which is why I think so many people suffer in life. It breeds the idea that just doing a good job and getting the good grades and succeeding is what will translate into power in the world. And actually, learning that that is not the case 100 percent can be quite traumatic. I don’t know.
Audience Member: Is it not interesting that a Yale graduate could go out and be involved in positions of power, as you might call it.
Robert: How do you mean?
Audience Member: After graduation, as I said, those people involve in society and they are doing well because of the character of the education that they got over here.
Robert: Well, the education is extremely valuable, and I don’t mean to devalue it at all. It is extremely valuable. The skills that you learn, the analytical skills, the knowledge that you gain will be very valuable. But it is just part of it. And maybe your connections at Yale and the degree, it’s has a lot of weight to it. It can lead to a good job. But then you are on your own. Your interpersonal, political skills were not developed at Yale.
There is a university called CalArts in California. I have friends who have gone there. Very interesting place. It was a school that was formed in the sixties, essentially, and basically it is an arts school. They discerned that the art world, there is no more political, crabby, competitive, mean-spirited world than the art world. Because what makes a great work of art or film is very subjective. So there is a lot of politicking. And they created this university to literally train their students to be good at that. They created this thing where you had to learn how to deal with your professors and deal with the politicking and talk about your work in a way that would charm and seduce. And actually develop the kind of political skills that you are going to need when you later go into the art world. That is kind of a unique thing for a university, and a very interesting idea.
Audience Member: You talk about the importance of expressing individuality. What if following your own ideals means that you have to separate yourself from the crowd. Which one would you say is more important? Is it being unique or being able to mix?
Robert: Well, they don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. And I didn’t get to go into my idea in as much depth as I would like to. I don’t mean that the moment you graduate Yale, you dye your hair green and you start doing something really wild because that is just who you are. That’s ridiculous. And it is often not really who you are. It is just because you are trying to rebel and be different. It is more subtle than that. For instance, we all have to serve an apprenticeship in life. So once you graduate Yale, you are going to go work for some high powered law firm or Wall Street or wherever you go. I don’t know.
You are not going to have the luxury of suddenly not fitting in and being so weird and different. You are not going to last very long if you do that. You have to be able to take your time and fit into the culture that’s created and find your place in it. But the problem is that that ends up becoming the end in life. You end up becoming a kind of person that only knows how to fit in, hat only knows how to fit into that particular culture. And if you do that long enough, and now you are there and you are 30 years old and that is the only thing you have ever learned to do, you are afraid to step away from that. You are afraid to express something unique about yourself.
You have to, when you are in your apprenticeship, in those first years working at that high powered firm, you have to be constantly waiting for that moment when you are going to do something different. You have to cultivate your own individuality, your own self-reliant skills. People who now, particularly in business, who are successful, are creating really unique kinds of business. There are new models being created every day. You are having to think about, that is the end game in life. I want to be an entrepreneur. I want to create my own business.
You can do that from within a large corporation, that apprenticeship phase, while you are learning about the world and you are preparing for that moment when you are going to step out on your own. But all I am saying is if you end up becoming the kind of person that only knows how to fit into a corporate culture, that is going to be the end of it. That is as far as you are ever going to go. And if that is what you want, then that’s fine. But power lies in a slightly different direction.
Host: So let me ask one of the written in questions, and then maybe we’ll have time for two more after that. People talk about the importance of charm and charisma. How can these traits be defined? And do you have to be born with them? And I assume implied in the latter question is what do I have to do to get it? How do I learn to be charming and charismatic? Or can I?
Robert: The answer to your question is you have to read “The Art of Seduction” because I explain and describe nine types of seducers in the world. One of them is the charmer, and one of them is the charismatic. They are different people. They are different types. Usually charmers are not charismatic. Usually charismatics are not necessarily charmers. They are almost not the same.
Charismatics are people who have a tremendous need to get love from the world. They don’t want love from one person. They want it from an audience. They often come from backgrounds that are a little bad. They didn’t have happy childhoods. So, to sublimate this need for affection and love, they turn to a large group. They become charismatic on a political, on a global level. They become a Mahatma Gandhi, a John F. Kennedy. All charismatics are burning with a mission, with an idea that makes their whole face light up, their eyes light up with this idea that they want to convey to people. And the sense of being alive with this inner fire is what people feel this charisma.
Seduction is a non-verbal language, which is why, I know “The Art of Seduction” is written with words. But it is a language that is non-verbal. You can’t tell people you are charismatic. You can’t communicate it outwardly. They have to feel it in an animal way.
In the book, I say some people are born with charisma because they come from bad backgrounds. Like Marilyn Monroe, who was an orphan. You are not necessarily from that background, but you can learn the idea. Your inner conviction is what people feel. They see it in your hands, in your eyes.
50 has charisma. I’ve watched him. Everybody feels it around him. You have to have that inner conviction. Your whole body has to be alive with it or you are not going to have charisma. You can learn to a degree, but there is a limit unless you are born that way.
Charm is a whole, more possible realm for everyone. Charm is knowing how to please other people. There is a famous quote about a woman who said, this is about Gladstone and Disraeli, two British politicians of the 19th century who were rivals. And she said, “Sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the most brilliant man in the world. Sitting next to Disraeli, I thought I was the most brilliant woman in the world.”
That’s the charmer. The charmer is somebody who knows how to make the other person feel great about themself. It is a really important social skill. It means not thinking about yourself but imagining what the other person wants to hear. What their weakness is. What they need, validation. You have to be outer directed. And it is very important and very powerful and anybody can learn it. And I talk about it in the book. Seducers are not born, they are made. You may not end up becoming Cleopatra, but you can go halfway or a quarter of the way.
I’m sorry, did you want to ask another anonymous question?
Audience Member: Audience Member: You mentioned entrepreneurs. And I also heard from a lot of entrepreneurs that they say that in order to be wildly successful, you have to be prepared to wildly fail.
Audience Member: And does that fit into your paradigm of maintaining power?
Robert: Very much so. I’ll be looking at a lot about that in my next book. All of the most creative people are experimenters who have many failures. Einstein, who I have been reading a lot about, he said, “I measured my success by how full my wastebasket was. How many ideas I threw away meant that I was on the right track. If my wastebasket was empty, I wasn’t being creative.”
You are going to be measured by your failures, and the reason is we learn by doing. You can’t learn how to run a business, you can’t learn how to have success by reading a book. I’m afraid I’m dissuading all of you from buying my books. But, ultimately, a book has a limit. It is your own experience in doing things where you learn, “Oh, this is what connected with my audience. Oh, this is what got that guy interested in my idea.” And so you have to go out there and not be afraid of trying things. Starting a business.
They have shown entrepreneurs that, I don’t know the number, but it was like 95 percent of them, their first ventures fail. And the ones who are successful go on to a second and a third one and a fourth one. They are called serial entrepreneurs.
So you have to not be afraid of failure. You have to be the kind of person that tries things out and learn from your experiences. If you are afraid of that, it is going to be very difficult to gain the real world knowledge that you need in order to have success. So it is very important.
Audience Member: You talk a lot about personal characteristics like charisma, aggressiveness, etc. But, you know, 50 Cent wouldn’t have been able to sell that mixed tape if the environment wasn’t ready for it. And there is that French minister who survived from the French Revolution all the way through Napoleon and after.
Robert: Oh, Fouchet?
Audience Member: Yeah, Fouchet. Just the ebbs and flows and trends. What do you think about, aside from personal charisma and characteristics at all, about the natural way that opportunities and political opinions sway with the times?
Robert: Well, it’s a good question because a lot of people will say, they will look at a Clinton or a Barack Obama and they’ll say, “What makes them so brilliant or how do they succeed in an election?”
A lot of it, a good degree is luck. You come on the world stage at the right time. So there is always a degree of luck in anybody’s success. I met this man in Italy. If I hadn’t met him in 1995, I still might be slaving away in some cubicle in Hollywood and you would never have heard of me. I had the luck to meet this man. But the difference is everybody has luck. Everybody, something happens to you. It is just what do you do with it? Are you the kind of person that recognizes the opportunity?
When Barack Obama was first deciding to run for presidency, it happened to be a lucky moment. This was probably the only moment where he could have won an election given his background. But he was the one that recognized this was the moment and I am going to seize it, when everybody was telling him, “You are not ready to run. You need to wait four more years.” And he said, “No. I see this is the opportunity.” So what separates people in life are, a good thing will happen to you and you let it pass. You know?
If you are an opportunist, which I talk about in “The 50th Law,” you recognize that opportunity has come, and you work like a fiend in order to make it happen. When this man gave me an opportunity to write “The 48 Laws of Power,” I worked night and day, my birthday, Christmas, 365 days a year until 1:00 in the morning. I was not going to let go of my one opportunity in life. And that is, to me, what separates people who take an opportunity like that and others who let it slip by.
Host: So let me make a comment and then get your reactions and then I think we’ll finish up. I know when I first started looking at some of what you wrote, and hearing you today, it would be easy to take much of what you say as instructions for how to use other people. How to get them to do your bidding. And there is clearly a way in which a bunch of the laws are written, that way. That is a very instrumental view of other people. How do I turn them into a means for me to accomplish something?
Also, though, mixed into, as you have talked and as we talked earlier, there had a sense that some of what you are really interested in is something that say, some of the psychologists here and our provost here have studied, which is emotional intelligence. How do I understand how other people think and what moves them? And what their emotional state is. And how my actions will interact with theirs. And that having some honed emotional intelligence might put me in a position to be able to accomplish things that I want but also be attuned to what they want. And not necessarily treat them as minions, but treat them as their own independent entities. So I was wondering how you think about those tensions?
Robert: Yeah. It becomes tricky, because if you are thinking about them deeply and their own needs, where is the distinction for them becoming a means to it? What are you trying to accomplish? If you are trying to, for instance, forge a political organization where people are all on the same page with a sense of mission and you need to be sensitive to the kinds of people that will join your group, and you are aware of their own needs and the fact that they are an individual. But, on the other hand, you are bringing them into the group and you have a mission you are trying to accomplish. What separates them from being a means or an instrument and also being attuned to their individuality and what their separateness is? Why does it have to be mutually exclusive?
Host: I don’t know that they are.
Robert: Oh, okay.
Host: I don’t know that they are. But I do think that the focus on what’s that other person’s interest and what would really matter to that person and how might we both be able to accomplish what we both care about? To get our goals in alignment. We go back to where you ran to, the difficulty that you talked about.
Host: The boss who was squashing you. Was there another way than just to say, “Well, never outshine my boss.” But to think, well, I shouldn’t outshine her. How do I bring her over?’
Host: But then it aligns with we both want to create these stories.
Robert: In the book, “The 48 Laws of Power,” I talk about how you do not outshine people and get them. But then it gets very Machiavellian. It is a good point because people mistake my books for being purely about how to use people. And it is all kind of selfish.
But, particularly in “The Art of Seduction,” I make the point that you are not going to get far unless you are the kind of person that knows how to think inside the other person’s mind. And that requires a totally different kind of personality. Where you have to not be so self-absorbed. Where you can think inside of other people and what their interests are and what is going to appeal to them. That is the secret to being successful as a politician or a businessperson or in any kind of relationship. And I go as deeply into that as I can. But not many people recognize that, because they only see the element of using other people for what you want.
Host: Yeah. Well, that is what I was aware of.
Host: You do have that component, but it may not be the most visible.
Host: I wanted to thank you very much.
Robert: Oh, thank you very much. Thank you.