Robert Greene is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, The 33 Strategies of War, The 50th Law, and Mastery. In addition to having a strong following within the business world and a deep following in Washington, DC, Greene’s books are hailed by everyone from war historians to the biggest musicians in the industry (including Jay-Z, Drake, and 50 Cent).
In his highly anticipated sixth book, The Laws of Human Nature, he turns to the most important subject of all – understanding people’s drives and motivations, even when they are unconscious of them themselves. Drawing from the ideas and examples of Pericles, Queen Elizabeth I, Martin Luther King Jr, and many others, Greene teaches us how to detach ourselves from our own emotions and master self-control. He shows how to develop the empathy that leads to insight, how to look behind people’s masks, and how to resist conformity to develop your singular sense of purpose.
In this interview, I speak to Robert Greene on power, mastery, success & understanding human nature.
Q: Why explore the fundamentals of power and human nature?
[Robert Greene]: I’m never satisfied with the surface explanation for human behaviour and what motivates it. I’m always wanting to dig beneath the surface to figure out what’s really going on. This is what Machiavelli called effectual truth. What is really happening in a situation is not at the surface, it’s not what people say, it’s underneath. It’s about what’s consciously motivating people.
In my book 48 Laws of Power I had the idea that people really want power in this world. Power is not the sense we think of in politics, or great leaders doing dastardly things for political advantage. I think of power at an individual level- people (as individuals) want a degree of control over their lives. You want to shake-off the deeply unsettling feeling that you cannot influence your children, spouse, colleagues, and boss.
Power is an idea that transcends time, and so in my research I wanted to include cultures through time and around the world. I wanted to look at Chinese history, Indian history, African history and examine time periods stretching back often thousands of years to ground this research in the deep and profound parts of human nature. In this research, I found patterns in behaviour, often to do with insecurities, ego, political manipulation, and deception.
We are creatures of history, yet we have this idea that we are alienated from our past – and that’s a deep problem. Language is a product of thousands of years of history. The words that we speak are not our own. The ideas we have are not our own. They come from many other sources, stretching back hundreds, and thousands of years. The past is extremely alive in the present moment. It guides who we are.
If you delve deep into history, you understand how complicated it is. It’s never a simple pattern. It’s never a simple pattern or line leading to the present. If you look deeply at World War 2, which was only 80 years ago, you see how profound an impact it has had on today’s world.
When you only see the surface of what’s happening, you’re not going to be making rational decisions, and you won’t understand who you really are.
Q: What is mastery?
[Robert Greene]: If we look at the human brain, and how it has evolved from us being primates, over hundreds and thousands of years, it’s very clear there’s a process involved for attaining mastery in life. I mean mastery in the sense we can define- mastery over ourselves and our emotions… mastery over our self-awareness, over what makes us individuals, over our skills. At some point, these things become automatic, you don’t have to think. You start to operate at a very high, intuitive, level. These ideas are coming to you out of nowhere.
We have these myths about genius. We think those people have extra powers that we don’t… that they were born differently… that they went to the right schools….I wanted to demystify this process. If you don’t understand the process, you will never, ever, get there.
The starting point is understanding who you are on a very profound level. What makes you tick? What makes you different? Who were you as a child? What are your interests? What makes you different from everyone else? This understanding gives you a sense of destiny, your career-path and life’s path.
If you look at anybody successful in business, politics or sport – they all had some clarity at a relatively early age that this was what they were meant to do… this was their path. We tend to make everything an intellectual formula, but we are emotional animals and need to think more about the emotions involved in our life.
When you love what you do, when you’re excited about your field, when you’ve chosen a path that connects with you personally- you will learn fast, you will accomplish in 5 years what it would take others 15 years to do.
We can all achieve mastery. A lot of people (particularly young people) are disconnected from this process. They’re so used to technology, and things happening fast, that they think everything should be a shortcut. That’s not how our brains, or our lives, work.
[Vikas: our world also encourages hyper-specialisation at the cost of diverse thinking, that also has profound implications?]
[Robert Greene]: Polymaths are individuals who understand many different fields, Leonardo Da Vinci is the icon of that. He was a brilliant artist, an accomplished scientist and visionary inventor. Benjamin Franklin is another icon and polymath. Steve Jobs is a more modern example. His interest was in technology, but he was also obsessed with design, aesthetic, and beauty. He combined technology and design to create something on a much higher level.
If Leonardo Da Vinci could somehow be transported to the present, he would be blown away by the level of knowledge that’s available to all of us by a simple press of a key. He had to spend years dissecting corpses and animals to find 1 millionth of what we can find on our smartphones with a quick search.
It follows that we all have the opportunity to be on the level of Da Vinci or Franklin because we all have access to so many different forms of knowledge. Those who study philosophy, the arts and sciences together can make connections at that very high level because they see knowledge, as a whole, not as compartments. The greatest entrepreneurs in our world often went into different fields and made connections between things in a very novel way.
Specialisation has its space, but it’s not the future for us.
Q: How important is it to understand the dark side of human nature?
[Robert Greene]: I’ve been wanting to understand- on the deepest level- what human behaviour is, and what motivates it. I came upon 18 patterns that define our behaviour and a lot of them are negative and deal with our propensity to be irrational, self-absorbed, narcissistic, grandiose, envious, aggressive, and passive aggressive. These are traits we all have, and our relation to them defines us, but the number one thing I’ve discovered is that people deny that they have any of these traits. We always want to say it’s that other person who is a narcissist, the other person is aggressive, they have envy, but no…. not us. We deny we have these qualities and make out as if we are the exception, as if we haven’t evolved over thousands of years and as if we haven’t inherited those patterns. We treat ourselves as saintly, envy-free, not-narcissistic. It’s deeply false. We all have these traits. By our nature, we are all self-absorbed, irrational, short-sighted.
You have to have some humility in life before you can begin to understand yourself, and before you can begin to change yourself, the world, or other people. If you only think others have problems, you’re never going to be able to look at yourself and change who you are. You have to come to terms with your own human nature and embrace it.
I talk about the dark side of human nature, the shadow, which everybody has. These are impulses that are repressed from very early-on in our life. I’m obviously not encouraging us to act on our darkest impulses, but instead of repressing them, we need to use them. We ought to take that ambition, those aggressive impulses, and channel them into our work, into great causes, into justice. To achieve great things, we need to feel angry, we need to feel emotional, we need to feel these things to show us how much that cause means to us, and so that we can channel our anger and aggression into productivity as artists do.
I want you to not deny your shadow, your darkest impulses, but to find ways to use them and turn them into something productive.
[Vikas: why do we deny those fundamental aspects of who we are?]
[Robert Greene]: We’re invested in believing that we’re better than who we are. Admitting we all have these darker qualities- jealousy, anger, envy, narcissism- can be very painful. In the long term however, understanding these qualities can help us change ourselves and being aware of our emotions can help us control them. Maybe you will realise that you’re criticising someone because you envy them.
Understanding ourselves is painful. We don’t like painful things. We want to believe that we’re angels… saints… that everything we do is right and good. If you only think of the positive things about yourself, you’re never really going to understand who we are. If you don’t understand who you are? You’re navigating in the dark.
Q: Can we ever truly understand ourselves?
[Robert Greene]: We can never truly understand ourselves; we’re always going to remain a mystery. There is a core of our behaviour that is completely unknown.
I meditate every morning- I’ve been doing it for years and manage to meditate for 40 minutes. During that meditation, I start going deeper into myself and I begin to realise that I’m just this insane, chaotic, creature with all these impulses running through me. I’m much more complicated than I think I am – all these hormones and chemicals are rolling through my system, causing me to believe certain things and act in certain ways.
Even after years of meditation, I have no access to the core of my being. I’m still a mystery to myself.
Understanding ourselves is not a math problem. You’re never going to solve the equation of who you are but to the degree that you have a little more self-knowledge than you had before and understand a little more deeply what makes you different, what makes you tick, what makes you unique…. that can only be a powerful thing.
A lot of people are afraid of what makes them different from everybody else. It makes them insecure. It means they have to stand-out a little. You have to come to terms with what makes you unique, even if that causes a bit of pain. I’m quite a strange individual, I’m actually kinda’ weird… I’m not like other people.
There is incredible power in peeling away the onion and going into the depths. You will never peel through 100% of the layers, but even 10% is deeper than most people go, and it’s going to increase your ability to change yourself, change your patterns, and will help you exploit what you are to get what you want.
Q: Can we understand our purpose?
[Robert Greene]: I’m not somebody who likes big abstract words like purpose. If you ask me about the meaning of life, the purpose of life, I have no answer. Think of it in these terms… You’re born with a particular set of DNA which has never, ever existed in the past. The combination of DNA that makes you is a one-off, it will never be replicated in the future. There’s something imprinted in your DNA that makes you unique. On top of that, your parents are also unique, and they have influenced you in a way that no other people could. They created an individual and gave you some of your formative experiences. When you add-up your DNA, the influences of your parents and your experiences, that makes you different from any other person who has ever lived in this world or who will ever live. You need to realise h ow profound that is.
Think of yourself as a seed planted in the ground. You (as the seed) will turn into something amazing and beautiful. That’s your purpose.
You don’t have to become a great political figure, or a great writer, or anything like that. Your purpose could be to raise great children, to be socially motivated. The key is that you have to come to terms with the difference embedded in you, at birth. To me, instead of the grand idea of your purpose or your mission, it’s that we bring it down to that individual level, cultivating what makes you different – that seed.
Q: How should we understand paths to success?
[Robert Greene]: There is no cookie-cutter formula for success; it sometimes feels as if everybody is searching for a formula, an algorithm that they can apply to succeed. It doesn’t work like that.
My idea of success and mastery is achieving a feeling of fulfilment.
I knew early in my own life that I wanted to be a writer. I never knew what I was going to write, and it was a painful journey. I wandered around the world and tried lots of jobs – journalism, novels, screenwriting…. Nothing clicked until I met a man who talked about serendipity in 1995. He was a book producer and asked if I had ideas for books – that was the moment I went, ‘wow! Maybe this is what I was intended for’ – I was so-excited that I pitched him an idea which then turned into the 48 Laws of Power. Following that path led to a tremendous sense of fulfilment – but it’s not a path that anyone else could take. You don’t know the weird, horrible jobs I had – I worked in a detective agency, did construction in Greece, worked in a hotel in Paris… there’s no logic to the path, I couldn’t write a book about my way to success. It was personal, painful, and ultimately successful.
To me, that is success, realising what you were meant to do and fulfilling it. Your path will be different from anybody else.
Q: What does legacy mean to you?
[Robert Greene]: I get a lot of emails from readers. Granted it’s anecdotal, and the people who read my books and had their lives ruined probably don’t write to me <laughs> but I must say that I get a lot of email from people who said that I really helped them in life. I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but a lot of people who’ve been successful in business write to me and tell me that they owe a lot of that success to me, and the ideas I have written about. That, to me, is the most satisfying feeling of all… knowing there’s a person out there who I was able to impact and whose life course I was able to change. Here’s me, sitting in Los Angeles with my own ideas, writing books in a painful, medieval way, and those books go out into the world and change a life in France, England, or Vermont. That’s a lot of power, right?
The power of a writer is different to that of a politician, but it’s immense. Ideas move the world. Ideas change the course of history. Ideas change how we think and behave.
I’m not on the level of some of the great icons of the past. I’m not that grandiose. Some people like Machiavelli literally changed the course of history with their ideas. To the degree that I have made people aware of the phenomenon of power, the dangers of the power game, how to catch themselves and not get involved in these emotional entanglements, how I’ve made them aware of the process of mastering a subject and changed their lives… To me… that’s my legacy. The feeling that I’ve had that impact is beyond gratifying. I don’t have the worlds for it. It’s the thing I never believed I would have because I doubted myself so much in the past. Every time I see those emails, I feel emotional. It’s extremely satisfying.