Robert Greene is famous for his books on strategy and social structures, most notably The 48 Laws of Power. In 2018, he returned with arguably his greatest work yet, The Laws of Human Nature. Equally focused on controlling your own mind as it is on the laws of social dynamics, The Laws of Human Nature is a must-read for those interested in power structures or in clearing their minds from the constant noise pollution of the modern world.
Getting out of Narcissism
The first task of persuasion or seduction is to get beyond ourselves and into the heads of our target audience. All of the best persuaders and seducers have this ability. Robert Greene gives the example of the renowned hypnotist Milton Erickson, who trained himself to observe the minutest signals that other people gave off during his bout with polio, since he had nothing else to do. One time, Erickson was even able to tell that a supposedly beautiful woman was a cross-dressed man, because he had observed him picking off lint from his clothing without “making a naturally wide detour across the breast area.”
Erickson’s skills reached the point they did because he was able to get outside of himself. We are always consumed by our own feelings, ideas, and movements, but The Laws of Human Nature showed us Erickon’s story, and how he was able to make the best of a bad situation by using it to escape the confines of his narcissism, the narcissism every human being inherits. Robert Greene says:
First you must recognize your state of self-absorption and how little you actually observe. With this understanding you will be motivated to develop observation skills. Second you must understand, as Erickson did, the different nature of this form of communication. It requires opening up your senses and relating to people on the physical level, absorbing their physical energy and not just their words. You do not simply observe their facial expression, but you register it from within, so that the impression stays with you and communicates.
Robert Greene says that most of us can’t see the signals that other people are giving off all the time because of our own self-absorption. It’s a habit that requires constant cultivation, and more than one chapter in The Laws of Human Nature is devoted to helping you do just that. Cultivating the habit will make you a better seller and seducer. The entire seventh chapter provides you with a roadmap to “soften people’s resistance by confirming their self-opinion.” By getting outside of your narcissism, you and your target audience become one, and your power increases. Robert Greene writes:
People have a perception about themselves that we shall call their self-opinion. This self-opinion can be accurate or not – it doesn’t matter. What matters is how people perceive their own character and worthiness. And there are three qualities to people’s self-opinion that are nearly universal: “I am autonomous, acting of my own free will”; “I am intelligent in my own way”; and “I am basically good and decent.”
By getting outside yourself and sharing the ideals and mannerisms of your audience, you can understand this self-opinion and confirm it, steering people in the direction you want them to go. It’s basically a form of hypnotic pacing and leading. The problem is that most people don’t get outside of themselves but approach people with their own thoughts and ideas in mind.
In this chapter, Robert Greene tells the story of how Lyndon Johnson seized control of the Senate in the 1950s despite being a junior member, by ingratiating himself with key figures and confirming their self-opinion. His understanding of human nature was far more potent than his junior status.
Robert Greene choose to end The Laws of Human Nature on a poignant note. This is not simply a book about power strategies with other people. It shows you how to have greater power over yourself. It’s a book that will help you against this guy.
There’s no better example than in that last chapter, which is about “meditation on our common mortality.” The lead-in reads as:
Most of us spend our lives avoiding the thought of death. Instead, the inevitability of death should be continually on our minds. Understanding the shortness of life fills us with a sense of purpose and urgency to realize our goals. Training ourselves to confront and accept this reality makes it easier to manage the inevitable setbacks, separations, and crises in life. It gives us a sense of proportion, of what really matters in this brief existence of ours. Most people continually look for ways to separate themselves from others and feel superior. Instead, we must see the mortality in everyone, how it equalizes and connects us all. By becoming deeply aware of our mortality, we intensify our experience of every aspect of life.
The truth of the matter is that you don’t have all the time in the world. The Laws of Human Nature talks about the early death of Flannery O’Connor at age 39 from lupus. Robert Greene makes it a point that the thought of death is unpleasant, but it allows us to see past petty squabbles and anchors us to the bigger picture and the importance of our work.
It’s easy to give into frivolity and hedonism in your 20’s, but the picture begins to change once you exit them. You realize that time moves a lot more quickly, and you don’t have as much as you think. Every moment matters. The only way to achieve immortality is through leaving a legacy, and you can’t do that with simple pleasures or hedonistic pursuits. Thinking of death will give you perspective on what you should do today to help build your legacy.
Meditating on your mortality will also ground your perspective and realize that you need to take the smart risks without backing away in fear or making excuses. You just don’t have enough time to do otherwise. It’s time to start that business now. It’s time to talk to that girl now. It’s time to do the audacious now. Not tomorrow.
Maybe you can’t actually do it now, but there’s no excuse to not lay the groundwork. There is no tomorrow.
And that also means reading The Laws of Human Nature today.