Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The 50th Law: I read, so you don't have to.

If you read more than a few biographies, you may notice a disturbing pattern: Almost every famous person practices intentional badness. At a critical point in their lives, they gain influence by deception, manipulation, theft and/or violence.

I'd love to find an exception, but after several hundred books, I'm giving up hope. Some historical figures, like Saint Francis, appear to be good most of the time, but I fear this is the result of favorable editing. If the little guy had been born in the 20th century instead of the 12th, we'd be reading a book-long indictment of his crimes from Christopher Hitchens, like the one he wrote on Mother Teresa.

This observation confused me. If pure niceness makes one powerless, it does not follow that pure nastiness creates power. Powerful people can't be nasty all the time, or no one would follow them. There must be a payoff, after all.

Robert Greene studied powerful people just as I did, but he broke through and understood their power. As it turns out, unpleasant behavior is a tool, not an end in itself. This is true even in warfare, which is surprising. Many battles were lost, because a general used his resources up in a ritual of violence, losing sight of the goal he hoped to accomplish in the campaign.

I discovered Greene's writing in 2007. At the time, I was forced into a fight I had to win, against an enemy that outnumbered me. I consulted my friends, as well as professionals and experts. Almost all of them told me to give up; I hadn't a chance. During the campaign, I read The 33 Strategies of War, and applied every strategy I could. I kept looking for help until I found it. Together, we won. The strategies in the book greatly clarified my thinking, allowing me to plan effectively. A book with really useful information is hard to come by; I was impressed. 

Since discovering the first three books by Robert Greene, I have read each three times, listened to them on audio for many hours, and explored their bibliographies. This study improved my life and work. I'll write more about that in future posts.

Robert Greene's new book was inspired by rap musician Curtis Jackson, stage named 50 Cent. Jackson was orphaned young, after which he pursued a career as a drug dealer in Queens, New York. He saved his money and parlayed his experiences into tough-guy hip-hop chants. When his music began to pay off, Curtis invested his money wisely, so that today he has several business ventures outside music. At every critical juncture, he acted to expand his control and independence, in exactly the same way a medieval pope would calculate his next move.

I have no interest in drug dealing or "hip-hop," but Curtis's life is instructive. He was forced to act strategically, because of the harshness of his environment and his dire poverty. The aggression in his world was naked, but the aggression in mine is more often concealed, or indirect. Robert Greene writes:

You might imagine the streets that molded Fifty and the code he created for himself have little to do with your circumstances, but that is merely a symptom of your dreaming, of how deeply you are infected with fantasies and how afraid you are to face reality. The world has become as grimy and dangerous as the streets of Southside Queens—a global, competitive environment in which everyone is a ruthless hustler, out for him- or herself. 

The theme of The 50th Law is controlling fear. We must look at our lives clearly, and act on our long-term goals. If we give in to fear, it will cloud our vision and confuse our actions. We will waste our days and energy, chasing pleasant distractions, but getting nowhere. In the final chapter, Greene writes beautifully about overcoming our fear of death, by throwing all our energy into life:

When you choose to affirm life by confronting your mortality, everything changes. What matters to you now is to live your days well, as fully as possible. You could choose to do this by pursuing endless pleasures, but nothing becomes boring more quickly than having to always search for new distractions. If attaining certain goals becomes your greatest source of pleasure, then your days are filled with purpose and direction, and whenever death comes, you have no regrets. You do not fall into nihilistic thinking about the futility of it all, because that is a supreme waste of the brief time you have been given. You now have a way of measuring what matters in life—compared to the shortness of your days, petty battles and anxieties have no weight. You have a sense of urgency and commitment—what you do you must do well, with all of your energy, not with a mind shooting off in a hundred directions.


Grey Matter said...

hmmm could an exception be obama?

John Paul Turnage said...

While I have great respect for our President, I do not believe he got where he is today by being purely good and innocent. Every decision he has made in recent years, and every word from his mouth has been weighed against its value in taking him closer to his goal. Robert Greene has written about Obama's maneuvers on his blog,

Think a while on Obama's words and actions on the subjects of Jeremiah Wright and Hillary Clinton, and his strategic approach will start to reveal itself. It's not a bad thing. It is absolutely crucial that our leaders have a well-developed, cunning mind. "Good" men in high places could and have propelled us toward disaster.

John Barton wrote a wonderful book, "Cheating." In it, he cites a historical example:

[Byzantine] Emperor John became known as John the Good, and given the rising threat to the borders of the empire this was hardly good for Byzantium. The empire needed guile not goodness and the decay became irreversible. In 1453, the dying city of Constantine, all that was left of the once huge empire, fell to an unimaginative but sufficiently ponderous Muslim siege. The great invasions out of Asia finally swept away the Eastern Empire as they had the Western a thousand years before.