My Top 5 Takeaways from The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
If you want to upgrade your ability to affect your will—to create the body and life you really want—then you want to read this book.
“Can you recommend a book for…?”
“What are you reading right now?”
“What are your favorite books?”
I get asked those types of questions a lot and, as an avid reader and all-around bibliophile, I’m always happy to oblige.
I also like to encourage people to read as much as possible because knowledge benefits you much like compound interest. The more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunities you have to succeed.
On the flip side, I also believe there’s little hope for people who aren’t perpetual learners. Life is overwhelmingly complex and chaotic, and it slowly suffocates and devours the lazy and ignorant.
So, if you’re a bookworm on the lookout for good reads, or if you’d like to get into the habit of reading, this book club for you.
The idea here is simple: Every week, I’ll share a book that I’ve particularly liked, why I liked it, and several of my key takeaways from it.
I’ll also keep things short and sweet so you can quickly decide whether the book is likely to be up your alley or not.
If you’ve already read a book that I recommend or have a recommendation of your own to share, don’t be shy! Drop a comment down below and let me–and the rest of us “book clubbers”–know!
Lastly, if you want to be notified when new recommendations go live, hop on my email list and you’ll get each new installment delivered directly to your inbox.
Okay, let’s get to the featured book: The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene.
Chances are you’re not a politician, sociopath, or psychopath (*cough* often interchangeable *cough*), so you’re probably not much interested in the arts of obtaining, wielding, and preserving power.
Your primary focus is probably producing a better life for yourself and your loved ones and allowing others to do the same.
Thus, you might think this book isn’t for you. And you’d be wrong.
Your liberal (in the classical meaning, mind you) attitude is a good thing—the type of impulse that promotes peace, security, and prosperity—but it’s naive to assume everyone else operates the same way.
Some people who can’t survive on their own merits are parasites. Others believe they know best and seek to impose their ideas on everyone else. Others still are dominated by antisocial urges that command them to “do unto others before they do unto you.”
Such bad actors are many and often specialize in self-aggrandizement, so you’ll often find them in high places in organizations, commerce, government, and society in general.
This means that unless you plan on operating in complete isolation, you’re going to be involved in the machinations of power whether you realize it or not. And your ultimate success or failure is going to depend at least in part on your ability to advance and protect your interests (power) against those who would stop you.
That, then, is one of the reasons you should read this book: to avoid the tricks and traps of those who would use power to harm and hinder you. That is, to beat them at their own game.
The other, more positive, side of that coin is you should read this book to upgrade your ability to affect your will—to create the body and life you really want. Again, unless your dreams involve you and only you, they’re going to require the considerable accumulation and use of power in the forms of persuasion, inspiration, cooperation, reputation, compulsion, and others.
This book gives you information you can use to form your own “power playbook” to facilitate your goals.
Some people find 48 Laws distasteful because of its cynical disregard of morality, but this is hardly a reason to condemn or avoid it. In fact, I think we can benefit from its clinical, unprincipled posture because it allows us first to observe what works and then decide for ourselves what’s right.
For example, in the book, Greene says the following:
Honesty is one of the best ways to disarm the wary, but it is not the only one. Any kind of noble, apparently selfless act will serve. Perhaps the best such act, though, is one of generosity. Few people can resist a gift, even from the most hardened enemy, which is why it is often the perfect way to disarm people. A gift brings out the child in us, instantly lowering our defenses.
This is true. It works. Honesty and generosity are powerful psychological influencers that can be used for good or evil. Whether you use them to exploit or enrich is up to you.
Let’s get to the takeaways.
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Because most people are too imprisoned in the moment to plan with this kind of foresight, the ability to ignore immediate dangers and pleasures translates into power. It is the power of being able to overcome the natural human tendency to react to things as they happen, and instead to train oneself to step back, imagining the larger things taking shape beyond one’s immediate vision. Most people believe that they are in fact aware of the future, that they are planning and thinking ahead. They are usually deluded: What they are really doing is succumbing to their desires, to what they want the future to be. Their plans are vague, based on their imaginations rather than their reality. They may believe they are thinking all the way to the end, but they are really only focusing on the happy ending, and deluding themselves by the strength of their desire.
One of the primary factors that has distinguished history’s grand strategists is their singular focus on specific, detailed goals. They spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating their goals, imagining how it’ll feel to accomplish them, and visualizing how they’ll unfold and what success will look like.
Napoleon was a good example of this. He believed that a strategist could create his own luck through calculation, planning, and flexibility, so in preparation for a campaign, he would spend days poring over maps and reconnaissance reports to develop a in-depth strategy that included all possible permutations of attacks and counterattacks that he and his opponents could make.
He was so good at this that before the fighting even began, he would often point to exact spots on maps where he predicted the final battles would end. Time and again, his prophecies proved uncannily correct.
While the stakes may be lower in our endeavors, we can still benefit greatly from a similar approach. We can channel a bit of Napoleon’s power by clearly envisioning what we want to achieve, creating detailed and practical plans to realize our aims, and staying laser-focused on executing our schemes.
Don’t underestimate how big of a difference this can make in the quality of the long-term outcomes in your life.
Very few people create and follow concrete, calculated plans of any kind. Instead, they live in a myopic haze, taking things as they come and hoping for the best. It’s no surprise, then, that so many people are unsatisfied in their lives. Modern existence and ambitions are too complex for this approach to work well.
By meditating on the bigger pictures and developing sensible strategies before setting out, however, you can greatly increase your chances of success. And in the case of a competitive activity like business, you can also gain an almost insurmountable advantage over your less deliberate rivals.
To quote Greene from another book of his, The 50th Law:
“It is a law of power, however, that the further and deeper we contemplate the future, the greater our capacity to shape it according to our desires.”
Recognize the fortunate so that you may choose their company, and the unfortunate so that you may avoid them. Misfortune is usually the crime of folly, and among those who suffer from it there is no malady more contagious: Never open your door to the least of misfortunes, for, if you do, many others will follow in its train . . . . Do not die of another’s misery.
One of the easiest ways to sabotage yourself is to associate with unhappy and unfortunate people.
That may sound harsh, but it’s true regardless. Often such people aren’t victims of mere circumstance as they would have you believe but are actively (and often secretly) working to bring disaster and misfortune on themselves and everyone around them.
And even if someone doesn’t consciously intend to drag others through the mud with them, remember that their moods, attitudes, and ideas are infectious. The more you’re around such people, the more likely you are to become collateral damage.
When you suspect you’re connected to an “infector,” as Greene calls them, don’t try to help them, don’t try to explain yourself or argue with them, and don’t pass them off to friends. Simply cut your ties and flee. To do anything else is to risk becoming deeply and painfully enmeshed in their woes.
There’s an obvious corollary here as well: Associate as much as you can with people who are a source of pleasure and happiness through their good cheer, success, and intelligence. Allow their positive qualities to “infect” and uplift you.
Since we must live in society and must depend on the opinions of others, there is nothing to be gained by neglecting your reputation. By not caring how you are perceived, you let others decide this for you. Be the master of your fate, and also of your reputation.
I’ve never been one to care much about how others might perceive me or what they might think about me. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve learned to appreciate the importance of cultivating positive relationships and a positive reputation.
One of the ways I’ve gone about this is something I learned from reading about BIll Clinton.
When Bill was in his 20s, he started putting together a box of notecards listing the contact information of friends, teachers, political figures, and other people he met who he thought might be helpful in his future career as a politician.
Every day, Bill would reach out to at least one person from his box through a phone call or personal letter, and by the time he lost his bid for reelection as the governor of Arkansas in 1980, he had amassed over 10,000 notecards and developed many mutually beneficial relationships.
Although I don’t have political (parasitic) ambitions, this story gave me the idea to maintain a rolodex in a Google Sheet with tabs for different types of contacts (personal, authors, podcasts, businesspeople, media, etc.). Every day, I reach out to at least one person on one of my lists to just check in via email, phone, or text message and see how they’re doing.
This simple gesture has not only generated goodwill among my friends and peers (thereby bolstering my reputation) but has also produced many valuable work and business opportunities.
Conserve your forces and energies by keeping them concentrated at their strongest point. You gain more by finding a rich mine and mining it deeper, than by flitting from one shallow mine to another—intensity defeats extensity every time.
This reminds me of the central message of a book I often recommend, The ONE Thing: The key to success isn’t in all the things we do but in the handful of things we do well.
We can gain a lot from evaluating the various compartments of our lives and deciding in clear terms what we want, and then working backward to identify the actions that’ll be most productive, and making those our number one priorities.
This is also the essence of the “Hedgehog Concept” discussed in another book I’ve reviewed and recommend, Good to Great.
Timidity is dangerous: Better to enter with boldness. Any mistakes you commit through audacity are easily corrected with more audacity. Everyone admires the bold; no one honors the timid.
We all have weaknesses and our plans and efforts will never be perfect, but nothing overcomes deficiencies like sheer audacity and velocity.
Boldness and speed encourage, exhilarate, and empower us. They build morale, create a sense of vitality, and attract attention and admiration. They’re also effective tools to use against opponents and enemies to put them on their heels and force them to act reactively rather than proactively.
As Napoleon said, “you must be slow in deliberation and swift in execution.”
This is particularly true in business, where you’re not only working to outpace and outmaneuver your established competitors but also protect against incursions from startups looking to disrupt your success.
Yes, you need to be able to think strategically and develop clear, practical, and feasible plans that span the course of months and even years, but you also need to be able to shift into high gear and execute your plans swifty before their windows of opportunity close due to shifts in circumstances, competition, or otherwise.
Whatever you do, we mustn’t fall into the trap of waiting for everything to be “just right” before we get into action. Conditions will never be just right. Perfect is just an excuse that we use to stay comfortable and maintain the status quo.
Start now and adapt your plans as you go, and remember that you’ll get further by leaning toward impetuousness rather than cautiousness.
Have you read The 48 Laws of Power? What did you think? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
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