The following is an amalgamation of two talks I gave recently: the first at the Emirates Festival of Literature in Dubai, and the second at the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore. Both of these talks were geared for a business audience. I plan on posting in eight digestible installments or you can read the entire thing in the form of an ebook.
The subject that I am going to talk about this evening is the state of the world as I see it, what is really going on–not what the newspapers report, not the conventional wisdom. But before I get to that, I want to give you some context about my perspective, my way of thinking and where it comes from.
In 1996 I began work on my first book, The 48 Laws of Power. The book had a simple premise: every human being has an innate desire for power. What I mean by power is the ability to control to some degree the events around us–to be able to influence people, move them in our direction, direct our career path and protect ourselves from those who are malicious. It also means having some control over our own destructive impulses. When we exercise such control, we feel energized and confident. When we experience the opposite–helpless in the face of circumstance–we become miserable and prone to all kinds of irrational behavior. To gain power, we try almost anything, but we are never quite sure of what really works.
The problem in writing such a book, as I saw it then, was the massive amount of confusion surrounding the subject. Few people like to admit they are motivated by ambition or a hunger for power. That seems too ugly. If somehow they attain some success in life it is because of their goodness or talent, never because of any maneuvering or political gamesmanship. Many people are masters at passive aggression–disguising their grabs at power behind a benign or smiling façade.
All of this moralizing and denial creates a great deal of fog. To pierce this fog and get at the reality, I devised a method that has served me well in all of my subsequent writings: I would ignore people’s words and justifications; instead, I would study their actions. To show what is timeless and universal in this hunger for power, I would look at the most illustrious people in history–all periods, all cultures–and ruthlessly dissect their successes and failures. In doing this research, I discovered patterns, which turned into laws, 48 of them. When you observe these laws, good things happen to you; when you transgress them, you court disaster. These laws apply as much to Louis XIV as to Bill Gates. They represent the physical reality of what happens in the world, not the deceptive appearances that people like to present.
The book came out in 1998, and slowly it gained some momentum. Around three years after the publication, I began to be sought out by people in various lines of work who wanted advice. Some of them were quite powerful in their fields. At first, I was somewhat intimidated, as I have no real solid background in business or a degree in psychology and I had not personally attained the heights of power. But soon it became clear to me that these people did not want help in technical matters or cared about my credentials. Their weakness was dealing with the political side of human nature, how to handle all of the maneuverings that I describe in The 48 Laws. They were confused. I saw that my advice could be very useful and that the ideas I had discussed in the first book were more than relevant to their experiences.
As I acquired more and more of these consulting relationships, I began to gain access to the inner workings of many important businesses. I saw a pattern in the problems that many executives were facing, and over the years my ideas on this coalesced into the following theory: we are in the midst of one of those great transitional moments in history in which the old ways of operating and thinking are finally dying off. Something new is trying to emerge. All of this makes people confused and uncertain; it is infecting everyone unconsciously.
I saw signs of this struggle in business, but also in politics–particularly in the Obama campaign. In the middle of these speculations, the global economy crashed and this only confirmed what I had been thinking.
I want to talk to you tonight about these countercurrents of the old and the new, what is really going on under the surface creating the turmoil that we are experiencing. As with the subject of power, I’m not satisfied with how people are describing these events. There is too much politicizing and too little perspective. The human being handles change with difficulty. It makes us hold on to the past or become overwhelmed by the apparent chaos. It makes us even more emotional. People who live through revolutionary moments generally have little notion as to what is going on. In this particular case, our lack of understanding makes it very difficult for us to exploit the tremendous changes and opportunities that are germinating at this moment.
What I want to do tonight is to broaden our viewpoint and provide a different way of looking at this strange new world we have entered. Clearing up some of our confusion can help make our actions more effective. To accomplish this reversal of perspective, I will be bringing in many ideas, examples from history and so on, but all with the purpose of explaining the present moment, so bear with me.
Stay tuned for the next installment, or read The Descent of Power as an ebook.