I’ve been reading Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power on and off over the past two years now. It’s a bit out of character for me to let a single book linger on for so long, but this one is different for two main reasons.
First, there is not a concrete plot or narrative element tying the chapters of the book together. So finishing a chapter, one of the laws, doesn’t draw you into reading about the next one. This makes it easy to put down and pick back up.
Secondly, the topic discussed and examples are a bit unsettling at times. I’d call it required reading for anyone looking to create a villain character that is smart, devious, and brimming with stomach-turning ambition. I’d read a chapter and have some serious questions about if I would ever want to follow said rule of power. I end up asking myself, I don’t believe I want to emulate these character traits so why am I reading a book about it.
The Dominance Hierarchy is Real
The first chapter of Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life is about the innate posturing that goes on in social systems. You can not like it and not strive for it, but denying its existance in the world is foolish.
Power is reasonable metric for understanding your own place in a social hierarchy. Evening if I don’t want to make accumulation of power my goal, understanding some of the trappings helps me stay off the bottom of that heirarchy. Not being at the bottom has some signifiicant effects on the quality of your life.
Part of what is hard to read in the 48 Laws of Power is the application of techniques of power (social manipulation) to those close to you. It paints the picture that those with great power also have limited peaceful relationships with other people. The book Shogun by James Calvell, ends explaining a plot on how this emperor is committing numerous years and resources just for the chance to gain a friend.
There are relationships, specifically financial ones, where friendships and closeness are of no real concerns. I have a land lord and we have a contract. Our relationship doesn’t need to expand beyond that to be beneficial to both of us. In this circumstances, the application of the laws of power feels very intuitive and helpful.
People want power
Understanding and contemplating these rules gives you some grounds for evaluating the intent of the actions of those around you. This awareness can save you from manipulation or at least make you a more challenging mark.
This is significantly more significant in work environments where it is difficult to have a clear objective measures of your work. Matthew Crawford expands on this idea extensively in Shop Class for Soul Craft, noting that the carpenter does need to flatter coworkers because you can test if the walls he built is plum, level, and square. Quality is measurable and therefore does not need to be convinced.
Need for power will change over time
I don’t feel drawn to chasing power in my work place at the moment for a number reasons, but I expect this will change over time. I could pursue a new job, take on a different role, or have to take a stand for some policies changes. Specifically if tasks and roles start getting pulled away it’s easy to see how these ideas would give you methods for helping to holding on.
You might not want power until someone else starts taking it away from you.
It can help in conversations
- How do you talk to a supervisor? Specifically one where you might not have that many opportunities to engage with them. Many of the power laws provide tangible advice on leaving good impression with others. Don’t be the bearer of bad news unless you have to, don’t highlight the fact that you might be more proficient then a supervisor. It’s a lot less about your own personal gain and more about understanding that other people are affected by your speech so being intentional helps avoid the costs of burning bridges.
There are more reasons to engage with this book, I’m sure. The 48 Laws of Power works because in many ways it is an examination of a narrow but very common lens through which individuals make choices in their lives. The lessons within can likely be gleamed from other text on human character, though not as directly. It’s a book that I have continuously put down to pick up more interesting texts but at the same time I think it does contain some important insight.-->