The 50th Law
Over the course of the past eighteen months I have started dozens of blog entries, only to find that the passage of a few days or a week made my ideas seem irrelevant. Events in the world were moving too fast for me to keep up with them. The main culprit here was the book I had been working on during this period, The 50th Law (due out on September 8, 2009), and my tendency to want to concentrate on only one thing at a time. In the months to come I plan to recycle several ideas that are worth salvaging from those aborted blogs, but for now I would like to simply describe the evolution of the new book and how it has altered my perception of many of the dramatic events we have witnessed in the past few years. (I will be posting this in four parts.)
In early 2007, people in Fifty Cent’s camp contacted me to set up a meeting between us. He was a big fan of The 48 Laws and was interested in collaborating on some kind of book project. I agreed to the meeting (who wouldn’t), but I was initially skeptical about such a collaboration.
I am not someone who is normally drawn to the world of celebrities. By necessity, anyone who has reached the top has had to resort to all kinds of manipulative maneuvers, but most people in the limelight try to disguise all of that as best they can. They want to project to the public their angelic, spiritual side, highlighting the progressive causes they support, their inner goodness. Obviously a rapper would have a different angle, wanting to project an image of toughness and infallibility. But all of this is mythmaking–a power maneuver in its own right. My primary interest is ripping away the façade people like to present and showing you the inner workings of power, rats and all. And it is often easier to practice this analysis on dead people.
In our first meeting, however, I quickly saw that Fifty was different. He was in the midst of a power struggle with a rival rapper and he talked quite openly about the strategies he was employing, including mistakes he had made along the way. He analyzed his own actions with detachment, as if he were talking about another person. Over the last few years he had witnessed a lot of nasty maneuvering within the music business, and he seemed to want to discuss this with somebody from the outside. He was not interested in myths but reality. Contrary to his public persona, he had a Zen-like calmness that impressed me.
After the meeting and doing some research on him I came to the following conclusion: Fifty is a master practitioner of the The 48 Laws; he exemplifies a type that has always fascinated me–what Machiavelli calls the New Prince. Most princes or traditional leaders in this world occupy their position of power because of their background, connections and a bit of luck. They have a good education and perhaps some skill, but their power is limited because it depends on external factors–things that have been given to them from the outside, including knowledge. If fortune shifts, they are not able to adapt very easily. They remain tied to the past, ideas from books, and all kinds of conventions they have absorbed over the years. These shifts in fortune finally reveal them to be incompetent or mediocre.
New Princes generally emerge in times of great turmoil and chaos. They start at the bottom–with no privileges, connections, or money. What they have in abundance is ambition and hunger for power. If they make mistakes, they quickly analyze what they did wrong and learn the lesson. Considering the odds against them, they must stay focused, alert and patient. If they begin to rise up the ladder, it is almost purely by their own actions. They do not depend on others. They can handle downturns in fortune because they are used to adversity and turning negatives into positives. Since their education comes from experience and observation, they can think in the moment and adapt to their environment. They re-write the rules that others then slavishly follow. A classic example of a New Prince would be Napoleon Bonaparte.
Considering the openness that I sensed in my initial meeting with Fifty, I believed that this book project could represent for me a unique opportunity to study a New Prince in action. In a modern twist, Fifty could serve as my Cesare Borgia, and I as his Machiavelli.
I had another thought at the time: America can be country of great social mobility, but in many ways we remain people who are locked in mental ghettos. Academics tend to live in their cloistered world and talk among themselves. Celebrities associate with their own kind, to an absurd extent. As most of us get older, we like to be around people who share our values, even though this might close us off from interesting encounters that would challenge our most cherished beliefs and preconceptions. Look at any progressive neighborhood, such as where I live within Los Angeles, and you will see a rather depressing homogeneity in people’s style, tastes and values. To me, these ghettos are dull and deadening. I live for encounters with people from other cultures who think in different ways and make me reflect on my own limited perspective.
Although Fifty and I might have a similar way of looking at the power game, we come from diametrically opposed backgrounds. This book could be an experiment in which we would bring our two worlds together, on the plane of ideas, and see where this would lead.
With these considerations in mind I agreed to do the project. Together we came up with a method. I would follow him around and witness him in action on many fronts. I would go to Southside Queens and interview people who knew him from his drug-dealing days. As much as possible I would try to pierce the world of the urban hustler and learn its secrets. Most important, Fifty and I would have lengthy discussions about the power game and what it means to advance in this harsh, competitive world. From all this research and our talks, the exact subject and structure of this book would come to us.
Several weeks into the process, after witnessing many strange events (some of which eventually found their way into the book), I had a revelation of sorts about hustling, the New Prince and Fifty himself. We humans are generally frightened and timid creatures; we carry within us so many deeply embedded fears–of change, criticism, being alone, death itself. People who feel less fear in life have a distinct advantage. They are more adaptable and their careers are longer. Fearlessness is in fact the quality that distinguishes a New Prince, and one that Fifty has in abundance.
In his days as a hustler, he had to deal with endless confrontations, violence and betrayal. He learned that to feel fear on the streets could be fatal; he had to project a bold front. He saw the value in taking risks, experimenting and even failing–a hustler is always trying new things. And he has brought this fearless mindset into the world of corporate America, which is generally governed by cautious and conservative Princes, intellectually tied to the past. What they perceive as chaos, he sees as the normal state of things. Change, turmoil and adversity do not faze him in the least; in fact, they bring out the best in him. This is his strategic advantage.
At the base of all fears is that of death itself–a dread that influences our daily actions in so many ways. Fifty had that fear bleed out of him the day he survived the assassination attempt on him in 2000. This, I believe, accounts for his uncanny calmness.
Without really understanding it fully, I could sense that this quality was the source of his remarkable rise from the bottom to the top. There is another aspect to it: although we may seem to be rational, civilized creatures, we remain animals and as such we tend to read signals from people in a preverbal manner. In an encounter with someone new, we register their levels of fear and timidity–from their tone of voice, mannerisms, the look in their eye. If we sense that their fear level is higher than our own, we unconsciously look down on them, treat them with a touch of disdain and respect them less. If their fear level is lower than ours, we are either intimidated and get out of their way, or we are seduced by their self-assurance and follow them.
Confidence can be contagious, just as the awkwardness and timidity of others can infect us as well. Fifty’s fearlessness has this seductive power over those around him. In the few short weeks I had spent trailing him, I could feel its inspiring effect on myself.
The task before me was to get at the heart of this quality, break it down, make it understandable so that anyone could move closer to the ideal of fearlessness and experience the power it could bring. This, I decided, had to be the subject of the book and in discussing it with Fifty he agreed.
Together we mapped out ten common types of fears and the reverse power that you can obtain by overcoming them. We found stories from his own life that would illustrate these ideas, many of them culled from his days as a hustler and even highlighting mistakes along the way that taught him valuable lessons. Later, from my own research, I would bring in examples from other historical figures who exemplified this trait. Many of them would be African Americans–Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Miles Davis, Malcolm X, Hurricane Carter, et al–whose fearless quality was forged by their harsh struggles against racism. Others would come from all periods and cultures–the Stoics, Joan of Arc, JFK, Leonardo da Vinci, Mao tse-tung, and so on.
With all of this research in hand, I began to write the book in 2008. But as I thought about the material and analyzed our discussions, I came to the conclusion that there was something much larger going on here. This was not merely about some inspiring personal quality that can bring power. Without a fearless attitude, you have no balance, no hold on reality. You overreact to events and your strategies misfire. You could understand all of the laws of power but if you remain infected by fears, you will apply them in the wrong way and any success you have will be fleeting. The truth is that a fearless approach is the necessary starting point of almost any successful or creative action in this world. The 50th is in fact the ultimate law of power, the key to the castle.
Part Two–a glimpse into the Law itself, its mechanisms, and how freedom from fear translates into freedom in general.
Part Three–The Republicans, Barack Obama and the 50th Law.
Part Four–The Economic Meltdown, the Fear Culture and the 50th Law.