48 Laws of Power and 50 Shades of Grey

Unpleasant truths vs comforting liesI’ve been thinking and reading about the topic of honesty lately. First, I read The Honest Truth About Dishonesty that describes that we are liars by nature and the kind of incentives/forces that are needed to keep us honest. Then, I read the essay Lying by Sam Harris that advocates complete honesty for a happy life. Finally, I went to the other extreme and re-read 48 Laws of Power. This is a popular book that basically advocates deception in all aspects of human interaction: from business to relationships. But… it also advocates boldness:

“If you are unsure of a course of action, do not attempt it. Your doubts and hesitations will infect your execution. Timidity is dangerous: Better to enter with boldness. Any mistakes you commit through audacity are easily corrected with more audacity. Everyone admires the bold; no one honors the timid.”

A lot of guys connect with the 48 laws the same way they connect with the movie Scarface. It feeds the fantasy of the world as a game of strategy, with the self at the center alone where the ultimate goal is ultimate power. In such a world, most of these rules are perfectly rational and even admirable. However, in a world that is more honest and cooperative, many of these rules do not apply directly or at all. So really, it all depends what kind of circles you move around in, and what kind of things brings you happiness.

game-of-thrones-season-4In many ways, 48 Laws of Power is to guys what 50 Shades of Grey is to women and Atlas Shrugged is to college undergrads full of promise and ambition. It’s mental masturbation to the caricature of the world as a game of power. Or, should I say: A Game of Thrones. It’s a good show, but most of it does not apply to daily life in the 21st century United States. And that’s the main criticism I have for the 48 laws is that the examples given for each law are anecdotes reaching far into the past that sound like distorted versions of the truth, the distortion serving the author’s point.

All that said, there is truth underlying many of the laws, and in some ways the 48 Laws advocates extreme honesty, brutal honesty, but with yourself only. That is the most difficult and the most important kind of honesty.

Here are some select things that do contain a kernel of value for the more peaceful world I personally move around in:

  • #4. Always say less than necessary. The “than necessary” part is silly. The goal is to say exactly what is necessary, and not more.
  • #7. Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit. This sounds evil, but the first part is actually a job description of a good manager and leader. Delegation is part of working in a team at any level. The second part is the more evil sounding part, and the one I don’t agree with. Take some credit, but not more. Do all things in moderation, including modesty.
  • #16. Use absence to increase respect. We are creatures of habit, and it’s easy to take the good things in our life for granted. Absence can help remind us of the true value of things. Again, everything in moderation.
  • #20. Do not commit to anyone. Again, an evil statement that contains a kernel of a good idea. A part of this is the idea of “under-promise and over-deliver”. This latter way of life is one everyone should live by.
  • #34. Be royal in your own fashion: Act like a king to be treated by one. Fake it till you make it. Or as Joe Rogan says, be the guy you are pretending to be when you’re trying to get laid.

Overall, for me, anyone who lives by the 48 Laws to a considerable extent is a douchebag who should be avoided. But it does serve as a reminder that the world is not all sunshine and rainbows. In such a world, the goal is to be your own man, constantly learning, adjusting, and growing:

Do not accept the roles that society foists on you. Re-create yourself by forging a new identity, one that commands attention and never bores the audience. Be the master of your own image rather than letting others define if for you. Incorporate dramatic devices into your public gestures and actions – your power will be enhanced and your character will seem larger than life.

The best advice from the book, in my view, is to be a master of your emotions. Though I don’t like the phrasing (and that it refers to a “game of power”), the ideal is solid and should be an ever-present character trait of any man:

“To succeed in the game of power, you have to master your emotions. But even if you succeed in gaining such self-control, you can never control the temperamental dispositions of those around you. And this presents a great danger.”

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