To some people the notion of consciously playing power games — no matter how indirect — seems evil, asocial, a relic of the past. They 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 among the most adept players at power.Robert Greene
Playing power games, so it seems, is only socially acceptable when it happens serendipitously. When it occurs spontaneously rather than deliberately. When we act defensively rather than on the offence. In reality, we’re all playing them continuously. According to Robert Greene, there’s no way around the fact that we all strive for power. We just hide it behind the veil of innocence, naïveté or virtue. So what are the rules of those inevitable power games? Greene has skillfully distilled them into four dozen laws. But before diving into the most intriguing lessons and quotes from The 48 Laws of Power, let’s consider what Greene’s work is all about.
What Is The 48 Laws of Power About?
To put it bluntly, Robert Greene’s infamous book is a manual for power and how to best attain it in everyday life. The 48 laws are often counterintuitive and always morally thought-provoking. Published in 1998, it was the product of Greene’s own experience of having been outsmarted and overpowered throughout his life. In a sense, the author took his painful experiences as a starting point and turned them into a bestseller.
The result is a deep dive into human nature and our natural instinct for power as evidenced by century-old accumulated wisdom; gathered from doers and thinkers such as Sun-Tzu, Machiavelli and von Clausewitz. Greene explores the realities of the human shadow with great detail and powerful historical anecdotes. The result of the author’s research is a collection of “timeless and definitive laws” everyone who doesn’t want to live a life of misery should know.
In this spirit, Greene dismisses the idea of perusing his work for mere entertainment. Instead, he invites the reader to study power as a manifestation of the art of deception, patience and most of all indirection. It’s up to us whether we use this knowledge for defence or offence. But ultimately, we all have to live with the consequences of observing and transgressing the laws of power. Even if we don’t believe in them.
Quotes From The 48 Laws of Power
Here’s my selection of the ten most insightful quotes from The 48 Laws of Power. I’m going to summarise Greene’s argument, give you my personal reflections on each law and link to related ideas I have encountered.
1. Never Outshine the Master (Law 1)
Always make those above you feel comfortably superior in your desire to please and impress them, do not go too far in displaying your talents or you might accomplish the opposite — inspire fear and insecurity. Make your masters appear more brilliant than they are and you will attain the heights of power.
We begin with one of the most practical power laws to observe. Working in a hierarchical organisation, it’s tempting to flaunt one’s own merits in order to move up the career ladder. This strategy, however, doesn’t take into account the insecurities of those you’re trying to impress. These can be easily offended, both deliberately or inadvertently.
The answer to this situation is something akin to strategic modesty. But it’s not giving up on our talents and skills that are the key to power. It’s the avoidance of making said skills apparent. Insecure individuals should be steered clear of wherever possible. An excellent relationship with a superior should not tempt us into believing the law no longer applies. As the old moral maxim goes: “It takes great talent to conceal one’s talent or skill.”
Self-restraint becomes even harder if your superior is the living embodiment of the Peter Principle. Those who climbed a hierarchy to the level of their incompetence are particularly vulnerable to attacks on their ego. The solution is as painful as it is obvious: Make your “masters” look good by attributing your own successes to them. It will pay out in the long run.
2. Always Say Less Than Necessary (Law 4)
When you are trying to impress people with words, the more you say, the more common you appear, and the less in control. Even if you are saying something banal, it will seem original if you make it vague, open-ended, and sphinxlike. Powerful people impress and intimidate by saying less. The more you say, the more likely you are to say something foolish.
Humans love to hear themselves talk. And there’s nothing more gratifying than talking about ourselves. But as philosopher Alan Watts said: “If you talk all the time, you will never hear what anybody else has to say”. In such a world, the ability to bite one’s tongue and listen instead is not only a chance to get an information advantage over others. It’s also a potent demonstration of self-control.
Take the case of US Army General David Petraeus. Much of his aura has been attributed to his legendary fitness level and strength. Asked how he kept this myth alive with his troops, the general once said: “I don’t talk about it.” Because myths weren’t born by someone “orchestrating the myths”. They were born from someone “being secretive about it”.
Humans are pattern-seeking animals. We look for them even when they are not there. If there are no dots to connect we infer them. The goal, therefore, is to leave room for imagination. To observe rather than orate. Or to omit a key piece of information to intrigue your counterparts. As the saying goes, there are two rules in life. The first one is to not give out all the information.
3. Win Through Actions Not Argument (Law 9)
Any momentary triumph you think you have gained through argument is really a Pyrrhic victory: The resentment and ill will you stir up is stronger and lasts longer than any momentary change of opinion. It is much more powerful to get others to agree with you through your actions, without saying a word. Demonstrate, do not explicate.
Law number nine comes down to the ability to say ‘No’ without giving offence, particularly to a superior. Debate is disagreement. Disagreement invites affront. When being wrong carries a reputational cost for those we’re trying to convince, we should not assume that our counterpart values the truth above all else. Being right is one thing. But it can be dangerous if we don’t know how to communicate our wisdom to those above us.
In this context, it’s worth being aware of the Curse of Knowledge. Once we have a greater understanding of a topic, we tend to forget what being ignorant was like. As a result, we struggle to relate to those with less knowledge, which can invite conflict. One of the solutions is to use tactical empathy to see the world through the eyes of our counterparts. This shows them we understand their point of view, making them more receptive to our ideas. Greene, however, goes one step further.
His personal advice is to “learn to demonstrate the correctness of ideas indirectly”. This is the case when using the constructive ‘No’. Trying to talk your superior out of an idea may threaten their authority and sense of autonomy. So go with the idea instead. Test it out carefully until it becomes clear that the idea doesn’t work. Then suggest an alternative to which your boss can agree while saving face. The ‘No’, we could say, is shown rather than said out loud. As a convenient side-effect, we increase our power by saying less than necessary.
4. Keep Others In Suspended Terror (Law 17)
Humans are creatures of habit with an insatiable need to see familiarity in other people’s actions. Your predictability gives them a sense of control. Turn the tables: Be deliberately unpredictable. Behavior that seems to have no consistency or purpose will keep them off-balance and they will wear themselves out trying to explain your moves. Taken to an extreme, this strategy can intimidate and terrorize.
The fourth of our 48 laws of power quotes is another way to play with our proclivity to look for patterns even if they’re nonexistent. Known as the narrative fallacy, this also applies to stories. As we learn about a series of random facts and events, we tend to sequence them together, filling the gaps with our imagination. Applied to your own actions, you can use this phenomenon to create an aura of suspenseful unpredictability.
If your opponents have a hard time figuring you out, how are they supposed to strategise against you? The madman theory of negotiations takes this to the extreme. It was popularised by US President Richard Nixon who used it during the Cold War. The theory suggests making your opponent believe you’re irrational, erratic and volatile. Unable to predict your next move, they will be very cautious about provoking you.
Granted, unpredictability carries the danger of appearing like a nutcase. So use this law with prudence, for example, to persevere in a competitive environment. By keeping your plans and motives hidden, creating suspense and allowing others to fill in the void of meaning behind your actions. You don’t want to appear indecisive and unapproachable. But you also don’t want others to always know exactly what you’re going to do next.
5. Play a Sucker to Catch a Sucker — Seem Dumber Than Your Mark (Law 21)
No one likes feeling stupider than the next person. The trick, then, is to make your victims feel smart — and not just smart, but smarter than you are. Once convinced of this, they will never suspect that you may have ulterior motives.
This 48 Laws of Power quote should particularly resonate with those who are perpetually misjudged. Because being underestimated can be an effortless source of power; as long as we know how to wield it. Greene knows that the mere suggestion of simple-mindedness counts as a major-league insult. Intelligence is a vanity. A vanity that you can take advantage of by giving your counterpart the perceived power of intellectual superiority.
A case in point is the Columbo Method. It’s named after legendary inspector Columbo, the clumsy protagonist of the ancient detective series of the same name. The cigar-smoking homicide detective was famous for his shabby outfit and incessantly confused demeanour. It was his main weapon in exposing the high-profile and intellectual murderers he investigated.
First, Columbo would get persons of interest talking by fainting ignorance and asking them casual, random questions. He knew how to establish his persona of general confusion, incompetence and harmlessness. Once the suspects had lowered their guards and become talkative, Columbo would get to the heart of what you really wanted to know: “Just one more thing…”. By the time the murderers realised Columbo was much smarter than he appeared, it was already too late.
BONUS: Use the Surrender Tactic — Transform Weakness Into Power (Law 22)
When you are weaker, never fight for honors sake; choose surrender instead. Surrender gives you time to recover, time to torment and irritate your conqueror, time to wait for his power to wane. Do not give him the satisfaction of the fighting and defeating you — surrender first. By turning the other cheek you infuriate and unsettle him. Make surrender a tool of power.
Understanding the difference between strategy (long-term thinking) and tactic (short-term thinking) is key to mastering the game of power. In case it needs to be said, strategy must always reign supreme. It’s the practice of elevating yourself above the daily “tactical hell” and focusing on your life’s larger purpose instead. So when you’re weak and likely to lose, it is much wiser to save resources, regroup and live to fight another day.
In this way, surrender can be a strategic decision; one of the most indirect and unexpected power moves you can make. Especially when your counterparts expect you to answer their show of force with more force. It buys you time to plan your next moves. In fact, the higher your opponent’s sense of authority, the more important this move will make them feel. If, and only if, you allow your ego and emotions to yield and take the short-term loss.
The surrender tactic works wonders in everyday negotiations, too. With the long-term perspective in mind, you can accept a bad short-term deal. During a heated argument, what your counterpart least expects are the words: “Okay, you win.” Who will most likely be a return customer? The guy you try to argue into the ground because he spilled his own coffee and wants a new one on the house? Or the one to whose demands you surrender with a smile, giving him a complimentary croissant on top?
“So much of power,” Greene notes, “is not what you do but what you do not do — the rash and foolish actions that you refrain from before they get you into trouble.” In this sense, understanding the rules of the game of power is quite the opposite of being “evil” or “asocial”.
The laws are as much about defending yourself against ruthless actors as they are about using them to gain power. True virtue lies in arming yourself with that knowledge. In making yourself as powerful as possible and then getting that power under control.
The 48 Laws of Power is worth reading in its entirety. If you’re interested in my thoughts on my final five favourite quotes from The 48 Laws of Power, check out part two with The 10 Most Insightful Lessons From The 48 Laws of Power which I’ve published as bonus content on my Substack.