Jen called me and said, “Have you heard about this book called The 48 Laws of Power?” I hadn’t. “Ugh, I thought it was about how to be a more powerful person in yourself,” she said. “But I read a few pages and I was just like, This is from The Dark Side.” She returned the book, but I kept thinking about it.
The word “powerless” has been popping up in my mind lately, and maybe in yours, too. I feel powerless now in the same way I felt powerless right before the start of the Iraq war, half a million deaths ago. I’m powerless to keep the next baby face from popping up in my newsfeed, a kid killed because they went to school or opened their front door to find someone brainwashed into thinking they were the enemy. I feel powerless to stop whales from washing up dead on shore, vomiting our plastic. I feel powerless to stop us.
The New York Times recently published a piece called “Everyone Wants ‘Power.’ Everyone Thinks Someone Else Has It,” which highlighted the specific power the protesting Parkland kids don’t have: “the ability to make rules or laws that might somehow curtail the number of guns and shootings in their schools.”
“In the realm of power, your goal is a degree of control over future events,” writes Robert Greene and Joost Elffers, the authors of The 48 Laws of Power, which I order for research. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. “The feeling of having no power over people and events is generally unbearable to us — when we feel helpless, we feel miserable.”
I’m not supposed to want power, because I like to think I’m a good person. Not the best, not the worst, but if you were to split society in two, I trust I’d be in the top 50th percentile of people who don’t want others to get hurt, who want everyone to have enough to eat and stay warm.
How much power should a good person try to have? How much power can a single human tolerate, before the very possession of that power turns the person bad? How should good people think about power?
If you were to split society in two, I trust I’d be in the top 50th percentile of people who don’t want others to get hurt, who want everyone to have enough to eat and stay warm.
This book seems dangerous, but I can’t decide whether it’s more dangerous to read it or not to read it. For research, I dive in to learn about power.
The 48 Laws of Power, which was published in 1998 and weighs as much as a brick, holds me rapt on flights all the way from Key West to Seattle. I keep it down on my tray table, lest anyone thing I was the kind of person who wanted power and was reading a book on how to get it.
In the book, published by Penguin in 1998, hit The New York Times Bestseller list with more than a million sales. It made a name for Greene, who before had 80 jobs, such as hotel receptionist and construction worker, but no big writing hits. The authors describe each law, then illustrate it using a historical example of someone who observed the law and did well, then someone who transgressed the law and, in many cases, found their head rolling.
To do “well” is a subjective term, however. Some of the people held up as models of the powerful, which they definitely were, got there by getting rid of all their siblings, as Cleopatra did a few decades before Jesus showed up; forcing their children to marry their own cousins, as the Rothschilds did in the 1800s or as Wu Chao did in the year 654 to become empress in China, smothering her newborn baby.
Some of the principles make me laugh, like “Allow your enemies no options. Annihilate them and their territory is yours to carve.” What enemies? I work with arts organizations.
“View all those around you as pawns in your rise to the top,” Greene writes in one section. Other parts of the book discuss the masks I must wear in order to lure people into my traps, the various deceptions I should be juggling at the same time, and how to form my web of spies. It all starts to sound like a lot of work. It also sounds quite lonely. Of Empress Wu, who killed her baby to frame someone with the power she wanted for the murder, the authors say that she lived a life in which “there were enemies everywhere; she could not let down her guard for one moment.”
How much power can a single human tolerate, before the very possession of that power turns the person bad?
Some of the 48 Laws come off as, well, pretty evil, like a primer for a more nuanced Game of Thrones viewing. Law 7 (Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit) and Law 15 (Crush your enemy totally) come to mind. But others overlap with what I’ve read from books approaching the world from other domains, from nearly opposite ways of looking at the world. Law 13 is “When asking for help, appeal to people’s self-interest, never to their mercy or gratitude.” This sounds like just a rephrasing of “Think Win-Win,” as found in the friendly version of the world painted by The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This is the thing about modeling the world, you think you’re climbing separate mountains, but then you meet at the peak. What is true in one place is true everywhere. You just have to make sure your view is zoomed out far enough to truly understand where you are.
Where the Tao Te Ching, an ancient book of wisdom, says “Just do what you do, then leave,” the 48 Laws of Power says “Court attention at all cost.” If I’m thinking in the realm of spiritual power, the Tao Te Ching is right. If I’m speaking with a personal branding expert, they’d probably quote the 48 Laws.
We have to be educated enough in the full spectrum of life: science, spirituality, history, sociology, to employ a book like this without it taking us over. Because the root of the power question, for me, is: Why do you want more power? Is it to rake up another million dollars, or to keep more kids from getting shot? Gandhi, a powerful person, spent a full day each week in silence to make sure his work came from the deepest possible place. He wasn’t just concerned with getting more influence over future events. He was concerned with using that influence well.
Many of the laws could be applied to get more power for good or for evil. Take, for example, Law 11: Learn to Keep People Dependent on You. On its face, this law is straight from the abuser’s handbook. Domestic abusers tend to isolate their victims from their friends, control money in a relationship, and discourage or forbid their partners from working, hence making them dependent on their abuser, and giving their abuser power over them, with no one else to turn to.
But knowing that a person’s dependence gives the other party power could be used by anybody, even for good. My friend had this job that no one else in his department wanted, because it was known for being so taxing. He was the only qualified person for the job, the people he managed loved him, and his bosses needed him. But his boss wouldn’t listen to him about what his team needed and kept heaping responsibilities on him. I couldn’t get him to see his power and negotiate for a more fair situation. He had power, he just couldn’t see it.
Reading further into this law, I realized this is a power I use all the time — it’s one of the ways in which I’m trying to make my freelance life work. As someone who’s always vying for her next job, I want to be the one my clients need to get the work done, which is why I obsessively add to the Swiss Army knife of my skills, studying Excel and InDesign and photography. I want my clients to depend on me so that they keep coming back to me.
“There are many ways to obtain such a position,” write the authors. “Foremost among them is to possess a talent and creative skill that simply cannot be replaced… You do not have to be Michelangelo; you do have to have a skill that sets you apart from the crowd.”
Studying Adobe in order to differentiate myself in the market does not make me a bad person, it just makes me a more powerful person. After all, I’m not trying to claw to the top, just up from the bottom. “Right in that meaty part of the curve. Not showing off, not falling behind,” in the words of George Costanza.
The root of the power question, for me, is: Why do you want more power?
Greene told the L.A. Times that he practices about half of the laws, including "Concentrate your forces" and "Plan all the way to the end," but not “Crush your enemy totally.” He says he got the laws from observing those who have power, not from his own life.
If good people want power, we’re up against a barrage of bias ingrained in our evolution. Power has been found to make humans lose compassion, take a more generalized view of others, and lose respect for laws. People in luxury cars tend to ignore pedestrians approaching crosswalks. Higher socioeconomic status was found to make us disregard or disrespect people around us. All this shows that we might march out in pursuit of power to Robin Hood it back to the people, only to arrive at positions of power and forget about the people we came to serve.
“Any man can withstand adversity,” said Abraham Lincoln, “if you want to test his character, give him power.”
I’ve already caught myself noticing someone else’s weaknesses — which the book taught me to exploit — in the same way you might notice some cash just lying there, and for a moment think about how you could totally get away with… but, no. You’re not that kind of person.
Evolutionary psychology says that we’re nice to each other mostly because it benefits us. I can see how, if we no longer need the people around us, we’d be less likely to give them our resources. I’m an animal trying to do better than what I’m programmed to do. How do I do that?
I have to check myself and my power as a habit, as a lifestyle. Whereas the powerful tend to disengage with the wider world, I want to keep finding ways to stay connected. Read literary fiction, especially by people unlike me. Keep filling my life with awe, especially from nature. Get outside the bubble. Cultivate a spiritual practice. Give directly to people who need my help.
The ultimate power, I think, is the capacity to have power and not let it destroy you. The rare power of Mother Teresa, Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela.
We can’t fool ourselves into thinking we’re above seeking power. Anytime we try to make ourselves more successful, attractive, richer, or stronger, we’re going after it.
In fact, the main thing I realized from reading the book was not that I wanted more power, but I wanted Jen to have more power. There’s someone in her life who is constantly trying to take her power away. He probably has this book on his nightstand, so I think she should, too. As long as it’s not her only book.