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Notes on Power, Seduction, Mastery, Strategy, and Human Nature
Highlights from The Daily Laws by Robert Greene
One year ago I began reading Robert Greene’s The Daily Laws: 366 Meditations on Power, Seduction, Mastery, Strategy, and Human Nature.
Greene is best known for his masterpiece The 48 Laws of Power. He has also written books about strategy, seduction, mastery, and human nature.
The Daily Laws encompasses 366 concise lessons (one for each day of the year—leap years included) drawn from Greene’s previous books, interviews, and essays.
Here are my highlights from the first half of the book—50 lessons that stood out—along with some brief commentary.
Part 2 with highlights and notes on the second half of the book here.
1. “Consider The Daily Laws as a kind of bildungsroman…from the German meaning ‘development’ or ‘education novel’…In these stories, the protagonists, often quite young, enter life full of naïve notions. The author takes them on a journey through a land teeming with miscreants, rogues, and fools. Slowly, the protagonists learn to shed themselves of their various illusions as the real world educates them. And they come to see reality is infinitely more interesting and richer than all the fantasies they had been fed on. They emerge enlightened, battle-tested, and wise beyond their years.”
2.“What often happens is that at a fairly young age, burdened with such delusions, we enter the work world, and reality suddenly slaps us in the face. We discover that some people have fragile egos and can be devious and not at all what they seem. We are blindsided by their indifference or sudden acts of betrayal. Being ourselves and just saying what we think can land us in all kinds of trouble. We come to realize that the work world is riddled with political games that nobody has prepared us for.”
3. “Our culture tends to fill our heads with all kinds of false notions, making us believe things about what the world and human nature should be like, rather than what they are actually like.”
Greene takes a cynical view of all of human nature, which I have some disagreement with. He and his predecessors (e.g., Machiavelli, La Rochefoucauld) help their readers understand a narrow slice of humanity. Particularly those who are ambitious, competent, self-aggrandizing, and hungry for status and/or power. These types tend to score highly on the Dark Triad personality traits (psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism). These individuals exist everywhere. But the higher up you go, the less detectable and more capable they tend to be.
For example, despite accounting for just two percent of the general population, psychopaths make up 8 percent of college students, 13 percent of business executives, and 20 percent of prison inmates. Most people would enter prison and anticipate that many of their fellow inmates will be callous, cynical, and cruel.
But in academic or business environments, such types are also surprisingly prevalent. And they are frequently gifted at concealing it.
These people intrigue us, threaten us, and occupy so much of our mental real estate that Greene and others mistakenly overextend the qualities they have to everyone else.
Put differently, most people are generally kind, cooperative, and docile. And seldom cold and calculating. But a sizable handful are not. If you regularly interact with socially adept and ambitious people, then reading Greene’s work can illuminate the kinds of characters you will sometimes encounter and provide valuable tips.
4. “The most pleasurable things in life occur as a result of something not directly intended and expected. When we try to manufacture happy moments, they tend to disappoint us. The same goes for the dogged pursuit of money and status.”
This echoes one of the most influential passages I have ever read, from Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl:
“Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect...success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”
5. “To make a discovery, to invent something that connects with the public, to fashion a work of art that is meaningful, inevitably requires time and effort. This often entails years of experimentation, various setbacks and failures, and the need to maintain a high level of focus…You could have the most brilliant mind, teeming with knowledge and ideas, but if you choose the wrong subject or problem to attack, you can run out of energy and interest.”
Producing original or interesting or creative work is a delicate balance between believing what you are doing is incredibly important (otherwise why are you doing it?) and believing that it is not particularly important (otherwise you will be paralyzed into inaction or its close cousin, perfectionism).
6. “Understand: we tend to overestimate other people’s abilities—after all, they’re trying hard to make it look as if they knew what they were doing—and we tend to underestimate our own.”
Similar to the Instagram effect. We only see the curated images people present to us, and then compare it to our everyday lives. We see the smooth exterior and compare it to our internal worries. It’s useless to compare your behind-the-scenes to their highlight reel.
7. “Long term goals tend to generate anxiety...Always break tasks into smaller bites. Each day or week you must have microgoals...what you are after is a series of practical results and accomplishments, not a list of unrealized dreams and aborted projects.”
You can spend all day making excuses for why you can’t achieve a particular goal, or you can take the most basic first step and consistently move forward.
A relevant quote from James Clear:
“If you show up at the gym 5 days in a row—even for 2 minutes—you're casting votes for your new identity. You’re not worried about getting in shape. You’re focused on becoming the type of person who doesn’t miss workouts.”
8. “In fact, it is a curse to have everything go right on your first attempt. You will fail to question the element of luck, making you think that you have the golden touch. When you do inevitably fail, it will confuse and demoralize you.”
9. “It is the height of stupidity to believe that in the course of your short life, your few decades of consciousness, you can somehow rewire the configurations of your brain through technology and wishful thinking, overcoming the effect of six million years of development.”
Human nature and mother nature laugh at the thinking, self-aware, conscious part of our minds who thinks it is always in charge.
10. “In the Apprenticeship Phase...If you are not careful, you will accept this status and become defined by it, particularly if you come from a disadvantaged background...you must work to expand your horizons...be relentless in your pursuit for expansion.”
Sometimes, as you grow in experience and knowledge, others will continue to view you as a novice. Moving into a new environment or surrounding yourself with different people can help you shed that old image. I saw this on occasion in the military. A new recruit would make rank and become a non-commissioned officer. But others didn’t treat him any differently, they still saw him as a rookie. When he’d relocate to a new duty station, though, people would see the stripes on his sleeve and give him his due. Because they only ever knew him as that particular rank.
11. “Once you do enough work on a project, enough preparation, and you've had months of experience delving into the subject, you often reach a state of creativity where ideas come to you out of nowhere...almost as if the book or project is living inside of you.”
When I was in the midst of writing my memoir, I was so immersed in that project that long dormant memories would suddenly surface in my dreams. I’d bolt awake at 3am and write everything down, worried that I would forget it before morning.
12. “It is essential to build into the creative process an initial period that is open-ended...give yourself time to dream and wander...allow the project to associate itself with certain powerful emotions that naturally come out of you as you focus your ideas…Whether your project takes months or years to complete, you will always experience a sense of impatience and a desire to get to the end…reverse this natural impatience.”
13. “The person who has the wider, more global perspective will inevitably prevail...Most people are perpetually locked in the present...overly influenced by the most immediate event; they easily become emotional and ascribe greater significance to a problem than it should have.”
14. “What kills the creative force is not age or lack of talent, but our own spirit, our own attitude. We become too comfortable with the knowledge we have gained. We grow afraid of entertaining new ideas...we could fail and be ridiculed.”
15. “The human mind is simply too weak to have a clear and perfect vision of reality. The idea or theory you are currently formulating, that seems so fresh and alive and truthful, will almost certainly be shot down or ridiculed in a few decades or centuries.”
16. “To many of those who knew Marcel Proust as a young man, he seemed the least likely person ever to attain mastery, because on the surface he appeared to waste so much valuable time. All he ever seemed to do was read books, take walks, write interminable letters, attend parties, sleep during the day, and publish frothy society articles. But under the surface was an intensity of attention. He did not simply read books, he took them apart, rigorously analyzed them, and learned valuable lessons to apply to his own life. All of this reading implanted in his brain various styles that would enrich his own writing style. He did not merely socialize—he strained to understand people at their core and to uncover their secret motivations.”
17. “Mistakes and failures are precisely your means of education. They tell you about your own inadequacies. It is hard to find out such things from people, as they are often political with their praise and criticisms. Your failures permit you to see the flaws.”
18. “To create a meaningful work of art or to make a discovery or invention requires great discipline, self-control, and emotional stability. It requires mastering the forms of your field. Do not fall for the romantic myths and cliches about creativity.”
In his guide On Writing, Stephen King (a former alcoholic) shares Greene’s view:
“The idea that the creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time…Substance abusing writers are just substance abusers — common garden variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit.”
19. “Perhaps the greatest difficulty in maintaining a...sense of purpose is the level of commitment that is required...You have to handle many moments of frustration, boredom, and failure, and endless temptations in our culture for more immediate pleasures.”
Today it seems that every visible surface and screen around us has been optimized to seize our attention. Focus is more important now than ever before.
An evergreen quote from Steve Hely:
“Writing a novel— actually picking the words and filling in paragraphs— is a tremendous pain in the ass. Now that TV’s so good and the Internet is an endless forest of distraction, it’s damn near impossible. That should be taken into account when ranking the all-time greats. Somebody like Charles Dickens, for example, who had nothing better to do except eat mutton and attend public hangings, should get very little credit.”
20. “Today we face a peculiarly similar paradox to that of the courtier: Everything must appear civilized, decent, democratic, and fair. But if we play by these rules too strictly, or take them too literally, we are crushed by those who are not so foolish.”
21. “Perhaps the greatest impediment to human creativity is the natural decay that sets in over time in any kind of medium or profession…a certain way of thinking or acting that once had success…becomes a fashion, something to conform to…it eventually becomes a cliché…Nothing in culture escapes this deadening dynamic. This problem, however, sets up tremendous opportunity for creative types…People are dying for the new, for what expresses the spirit of the time in an original way.”
22. “In your desire to please and impress, do not go too far in displaying your talents or you might…inspire fear and insecurity. When you show yourself in the world and display your talents, you naturally stir up all kinds of resentment, envy, and other manifestations of insecurity…outshining the master is perhaps the worst mistake of all. Make your masters appear more brilliant than they are, and you will attain the heights of power. If your ideas are more creative than your master’s, ascribe them to him, in as public a manner as possible. Make it clear that your advice is merely an echo of his advice. If you surpass your master in wit, it is okay to play the role of the court jester, but do not make him appear cold and surly in comparison…Always make those above you feel comfortably superior.”
This is Law 1 from Greene’s 48 Laws of Power. Elsewhere Greene has stated:
“People don't understand that the person above them who seems so powerful and in control often has insecurities. The truth is, the higher up you go in a hierarchy, the more insecure you become. The more you worry about whether people truly respect you.”
This isn’t true for everyone, but it’s true enough for enough people that it is a well worth internalizing.
23. “Scientists are not spared the vagaries of court life and patronage. They too must serve masters who hold the purse strings. And their great intellectual powers can make the master feel insecure, as if he were only there to supply the funds—an ugly, ignoble job. The producer of a great work wants to feel he is more than just the provider of financing. He wants to appear creative and powerful, and also more important than the work produced in his name.”
24. “If you are ambitious yet find yourself low in the hierarchy, this trick can be useful: Appearing less intelligent than you are, even a bit of a fool, is a perfect disguise. In general, always make people believe they are smarter and more sophisticated than you are. They will keep you around because you make them feel better about themselves.”
I’m about 73% certain that this describes Greg from HBO’s Succession. Especially the early dynamic between Greg and Tom.
25. “Do not be the court cynic. Express admiration for the good work of others. If you constantly criticize…some of the criticism will rub off on you, hovering over you like a gray cloud wherever you go. By expressing modest admiration for other people’s achievements, you paradoxically call attention to your own.”
26. “In the social realm, appearances are the barometer of almost all our judgments, and you must never be misled into believing otherwise…Reputation has a power like magic…Whether the exact same deeds appear brilliant or dreadful can depend entirely on the reputation of the doer.”
27. “A fortress seems the safest. But isolation exposes you to more dangers than it protects you from—it cuts you off from valuable information…Since power is a human creation, it is inevitably increased by contact with other people…To make yourself powerful, place yourself at the center of things, make yourself more accessible, seek out old allies and make new ones, force yourself into more and different circles.”
28. “The way you carry yourself will often determine how you are treated: in the long run, appearing vulgar or common will make people disrespect you...Ask for less and that is just what you will get.”
29. “Have no mercy. Crush your enemies as totally as they would crush you. Ultimately the only peace and security you can hope for from your enemies is their disappearance. It is not, of course, a question of murder, it is a question of banishment...exiled from your court forever, your enemies are rendered harmless.”
30. “Those misfortunates among us who have been brought down by circumstances beyond their control deserve all the help and sympathy we can give them. But there are others who are not born to misfortune or unhappiness, but who draw it upon themselves by their destructive actions and unsettling effect on others. It would be a great thing if we could raise them up, change their patterns, but more often than not it is their patterns that end up getting inside and changing us…Infectors can be recognized by the misfortune they draw on themselves, their turbulent past, their long line of broken relationships, their unstable careers, and the very force of their character, which sweeps you up and makes you lose your reason. Be forewarned by these signs of an infector; learn to see the discontent in their eye. Most important of all, do not take pity. Do not enmesh yourself in trying to help. The infector will remain unchanged, but you will be unhinged…Associate with the happy and fortunate instead.”
Between growing up and seeing the same people repeat the same mistakes over and over along with listening to hundreds of people call into Loveline as a kid, I internalized this lesson by my early twenties. Most people don’t want to change their lives, no matter how unpleasant and disorderly it might be.
31. “People are always trying to read the motives behind your actions and to use your predictability against you. Throw in a completely inexplicable move and put them on the defensive…People will talk about you, ascribe motives and explanations that have nothing to do with the truth, but that keep you constantly in their minds…Only the terminally subordinate act in a predictable manner.”
32. “Sir Walter Raleigh was one of the most brilliant men at the court of Queen Elizabeth of England. He had skills as a scientist, wrote poetry still recognized as among the most beautiful writing of the time, was a proven leader of men, an enterprising entrepreneur, a great sea captain, and on top of all this was a handsome, dashing courtier who charmed his way into becoming one of the Queen’s favorites…Eventually he suffered a terrific fall from grace, leading even to prison and finally the executioner’s axe. Raleigh could not understand the stubborn opposition he faced from the other courtiers. He did not see that he had not only made no attempt to disguise the degree of his skills and qualities, but he had imposed them on one and all, making a show of his versatility, thinking it impressed people and won him friends. In fact it made him silent enemies, people who felt inferior to him and did all they could to ruin him the moment he tripped up or made the slightest mistake. In the end, the reason he was executed was treason, but envy will use any cover it finds to mask it destructiveness…Appearing better than others is always dangerous, but most dangerous of all is to appear to have no faults or weaknesses. Envy creates silent enemies.”
A related concept is the “pratfall effect” in social psychology:
Highly competent individuals are viewed as more likable after committing mistakes, while average individuals are viewed as less likable if they commit the same mistake.
33. “Power is a social game. To learn and master it, you must develop the ability to study and understand people…You must recognize motivations and see through the cloud of dust with which people surround their actions. Some people, for instance, believe they can opt out of the game by behaving in ways that have nothing to do with power. You must beware of such people, for while they express such opinions outwardly, they are often the most adept players at power…They utilize strategies that cleverly disguise the nature of manipulation involved.”
34. “We live in a very politically correct time...the nicest, most liberal, most progressive people on the planet...behind closed doors, they turn into raging manipulators who will do anything to get exactly what they want. Power is timeless.”
35. “The deniers are the people that are passive-aggressors—those who consciously don’t want to admit that they ever engage in manipulation, but unconsciously are playing all kinds of games.”
36. “Those who love this Machiavellian part of our nature and revel in it...can get pretty far, but they are eventually tripped up...They don't understand there is a whole other side to the game, which requires empathy, cooperation, and seducing people.”
Humans are naturally coalitional animals who work in teams and resent deceptive and domineering individuals. Part of the reason Greene’s books are so popular is precisely because people disdain these types and want to understand them and develop counter strategies against them.
37. “Aggressive, envious, and manipulative people don't usually announce themselves as such. They have learned to appear charming in initial encounters, to use flattery and other means of disarming us...Your ability to stay calm will infuriate them.”
38. “Pay less attention to the words people say and greater attention to their actions. People will say all kinds of things about their motives and intentions...Their actions, however, say much more about what is going on underneath the surface…take special note of how people respond to stressful situations—often the mask they wear in public falls off in the heat of the moment.”
39. “Children may be naive...but they often act from an elemental need to gain control over those around them...Genuinely innocent people may still be playing for power, and are often horribly effective at the game, since they are not hindered by reflection.”
40. “If they were to say in so many words they felt superior to you, they would incur ridicule and shame. They want you to feel it in subtle ways, while they are able to deny what they are up to...pay attention to the pattern more than the apologies.”
41. “This is the blind spot in human nature: we are poorly equipped to gauge the character of the people we deal with. Their public image, the reputation that precedes them, easily mesmerizes us. We are captivated by appearances…Instead of determining people’s character — their ability to work with others, to keep their promises, to remain strong in adverse circumstances — we choose to work with or hire people based on their glittering resume, their intelligence, and their charm. But even a positive trait such as intelligence is worthless if the person also happens to be of weak or dubious character…This is the source of endless tragedies in history, our pattern as a species.”
42. “You can recognize deep narcissists by the following behavior patterns: If they are ever insulted or challenged, they have no defense, nothing internal to soothe them or validate their worth. They generally react with great rage, thirsting for vengeance, full of a sense of righteousness. This is the only way they know how to assuage their insecurities…they will position themselves as the wounded victim, confusing others and even drawing sympathy. They are prickly and oversensitive. Almost everything is taken personally. They can become quite paranoid and have enemies in all directions to point to. You can see an impatient or distant look on their face whenever you talk about something that does not directly involve them in some way. They immediately turn the conversation back to themselves, with some story or anecdote to distract from the insecurity behind it. They can be prone to vicious bouts of envy if they see others getting the attention they feel they deserve. They frequently display extreme self-confidence. This always helps to gain attention, and it neatly covers up their gaping inner emptiness and their fragmented sense of self.”
43. “Weak character will neutralize all of the other possible good qualities a person might possess.”
Studies indicate that when people form impressions of others, they assign the highest importance to moral character. Morality eclipses warmth (e.g., sociability, enthusiasm, agreeableness) and ability (e.g., intelligence, athleticism, creativeness) in personal evaluations.
In fact, when forming impressions of others, people assign more than twice as much importance to moral character than competence.
44. “The feeling that someone else is more intelligent than we are is almost intolerable. We usually try to justify it in different ways: ‘He only has book knowledge, whereas I have real knowledge.’ ‘Her parents paid for her to get a good education. If my parents had had as much money, if I had been as privileged…’ ‘He’s not as smart as he thinks.’ Last but not least: ‘She may know her narrow little field better than I do, but beyond that, she’s really not smart at all. Even Einstein was a boob outside physics.’ Given how important the idea of intelligence is to most people’s vanity, it is critical never inadvertently to insult or impugn a person’s brain power.”
45. “Hide your intentions not by closing up (with the risk of appearing secretive and making people suspicious) but by talking endlessly about your desires and goals—just not your real ones. You will kill three birds with one stone: you appear friendly, open, and trusting; you conceal your intentions; and you send your rivals on time-consuming wild-goose chases…making all kinds of errors in their calculations.”
46. “Not everyone can be approached through cynical self-interest...They need opportunities to display their good heart. Do not be shy. Give them that opportunity. It's not as if you are conning them...it really is their pleasure to give, and to be seen giving.”
47. “While people understand the need for change, knowing how important it is for institutions and individuals to be occasionally renewed, they are also irritated and upset by changes that affect them personally…Change in the abstract, or superficial change, they desire, but a change that upsets core habits and routines is deeply disturbing to them…It is far easier…to play a kind of con game. Preach change as much as you like, and even enact your reforms, but give them the comforting appearance of older events and traditions.”
48. “If you need a favor from people, do not remind them of what you have done for them in the past, trying to stimulate feelings of gratitude…Instead, remind them of the good things they have done for you in the past. This will help confirm their self-opinion: ‘Yes, I am generous.’”
49. “Train yourself to focus on others...People do not want truth and honesty, no matter how much we hear such nonsense endlessly repeated. They want their imaginations to be stimulated and to be taken beyond their banal circumstances.”
50. “Familiarity is the death of seduction…Without anxiety and a touch of fear, the erotic tension is dissolved. Remember: reality is not seductive. Maintain some mystery or be taken for granted…Keep some dark corners in your character.”
People you want to impress don’t need to know everything about you. Less history, more mystery.
Part 2 with highlights and notes on the second half of The Daily Laws here.
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