The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene
This was a really good book. It’s long but there is a lot to learn about human nature since modern humans have been around for 200,000 years and although our minds have changed since then, they haven’t changed all that much over the past couple thousand years. The world certainly has though.
Each chapter in the book is structured by giving an example of how each law has applied in the real world using people from history such as Coco Channel, John D. Rockefeller, Lyndon Johnson, Queen Elizabeth I, Martin Luther King and many others. Then the author describes each law of nature and how it works and lastly he tells the reader how they can apply it to real life and why they should be aware of it.
In addition to be very useful to learn about how our minds think, feel and act, this book will also cause you to ponder your own life. Since humans naturally think, feel and act in natural ways that are unavoidable based on how our minds are wired, as you read this book you will start to wonder how these laws played a factor in your own life and how you can help use them to improve your life in the future.
The laws of human nature are:
But first we must clear up a common misconception: we tend to think of our behavior as largey conscious and willed. To imagine that we are not always in control of what we do is a frightening thought, but in fact it is the reality. We are subject to forces from deep within us that drive our behavior and that operate below the level of our awareness. We see the results – our thoughts, moods, and actions – but have little conscious access to what actually moves our emotions and compels us to behave in certain ways.
Human nature stems from the particular wiring of our brains, the configuration of our nervous system, and the way we humans process emotions, all of which developed and emerged over the course of the five million years or so of our evolution as a species. We can ascribe many of the details of our nature to the distinct way we evolved as a social animal to ensure our survival – learning to cooperate with others, coordinating our actions with the group on a high level, creating novel forms of communication and ways of maintaining group discipline. This early development lives on within us and continues to determine our behavior, even in the modern, sophisticated world we live.
Look at how the permeability of our emotions has only been heightened through social media, where viral effects are continually sweeping through us and where the most manipulative leaders are able to exploit and control us. Look at the aggression that is now openly displayed in the virtual world, where it is so much easier to play out our shadow sides without repercussions. Notice how our propensities to compare ourselves with others, to feel envy, and to seek status through attention have only become intensified with our ability to communicate so quickly with so many people. And finally, look at our tribal tendencies and how they have now found the perfect medium to operate in – we can find a group to identify with, reinforce our tribal opinions in a virtual echo chamber, and demonize any outsiders, leaning to mob intimidation. The potential for mayhem stemming from the primitive side of our nature has only increased.
Understand: Like everyone, you think you are rational, but you are not. Rationality is not a power you are born with but one you acquire through training and practice.
Like Pericles in the Assembly, you are infected by all of the drama that others churn up; you are continually reaction to what people give you, experiencing waves of excitement, insecurity, and anxiety that make it hard to focus. Your attention is pulled this way and that, and without the rational standard to guide your decisions, you never quite reach the goals that you set.
Emotions tend to narrow the mind, making us focus on one or two ideas that satisfy our immediate desire for power or attention, ideas that usually backfire. Now, with a calm spirit, you can entertain a wide range of options and solutions.
Evolution has led to the higher mammalian brain being composed of three parts. The oldest is the reptilian part of the brain, which controls all automatic responses that regulate the body. This is the instinctive part. Above that is the old mammalian or limbic brain, governing feeling and emotion. And on top of that has evolved the neocortex, the part that controls cognition and, for humans, language.
We do not have conscious access to the origins of our emotions and the moods they generate. Once we feel them, all we can do is try to interpret the emotion, translate it into language.
We constantly feel emotions, and they continually infect our thinking, making us veer toward thoughts that please us and soothe our egos. It is impossible to not have our inclinations and feelings somehow involved in what we think. Rational people are aware of this and through introspection and effort are able, to some extent, to subtract emotions from their thinking and counteract their effort. Irrational people have no such awareness. They rush into action without carefully considering the ramifications and consequences.
The most common emotion of them all is the desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
All of the [rational people like Charlies Darwin, Warren Buffett, Da Vinci, Aurelius} share certain qualities – a realist appraisal of themselves and their weaknesses; a devotion to truth and reality; a tolerant attitude toward people; and the ability to reach goals that they have set.
As those who have gone through long periods of isolation can attest, without eye contact we being to doubt our existence and to descend into a deep depression. But this need is also deeply psychological: through the quality of attention we receive from others, we feel recognized and appreciated for who we are. Our sense of self-worth depends on this. Because this is so important to the human animal, people will do almost anything to get attention, including committing a crime or attempting suicide. Look behind almost any action, and you will see this need as a primary motivation.
Empathy is more than anything a state of mind, a different way of relating to others. The greatest danger you face is your general assumption that you really understand people and that you can quickly judge and categorize them. Instead, you must begin with the assumption that you are ignorant and that you have natural biases that will make you judge people incorrectly.
When we make a mistake, we attribute it to circumstances that pushed us into doing it. But when others make a mistake, we tend to see it as a character flaw, as something that flowed from their imperfect personality. This is known as the attribution bias.
Pay deep attention to the moods of people, as indicated by their body language and tone of voice. When they talk, they have a feeling tone that is either in sync or not in sync with what they are saying. This tone can be one of confidence, insecurity, defensiveness, arrogance, frustration, elation. This tone manifests itself physically in their voice, their gestures, and their posture. In each encounter, you must try to detect this before even paying attention to what they are saying.
A key element you are trying to figure out is people’s intentions. There is almost always an emotion behind any intention, and beyond their words, you are attuning yourself to what they want, their goals, which will also register physically in you if you pay attention. For instance, someone you know suddenly shows unusual interest in your life, gives you the kind of attention you’ve never had before. Is it a real attempt to connect or a distraction, a means of softening you up so they can use you for their own purposes? Instead of focusing on their words, which show interest and excitement, focus on the overall feeling tone that you pick up. How deeply are they listening? Are they making consistent eye contact? Does it feel like even though they are listening to you, they are absorbed in themselves? If you are the object of sudden attention but it seems unreliable, they are probably intending to ask something of you, to use and manipulate you in some way.
You want to get a read on people’s values which are mostly established in their earliest years. People develop concepts of what they consider strong, sensitive, generous, and weak often based on their parents and their relationships to them. One woman will see a man crying as a sign of sensitivity and be attracted to it, while another will see it as weak and repulsive. By not understanding people’s values on this level, or by projecting your own, you will misread their reactions and create unnecessary conflicts.
Words are often used as a coverup, a way to conceal what is really going on.
As Erickson saw it, the harshness of life makes most people turn inward. They have no mental space left over for simple observations, and the 2nd language largely passes them by.
Almost all of our social attention is absorbed by what people say, which more often than not actually serves to conceal what they are really thinking and feeling. Nonverbal cues tell us what people are trying to emphasize with their words and the subtext of their message, the nuances of communication. These cues tell us what they are actively hiding, their real desires. They reflect in an immediate way people’s emotions and moods. To miss this information is to operate blindly, to invite misunderstanding, and to lose endless opportunities to influence people by not noticing the signs off what they really want or need.
In general, people will want to see more of you, want to see less of you, or be rather indifferent. They may fluctuate among three states, but they will tend to veer toward one. They will reveal this in how quickly they respond to your emails and texts, their body language on first seeing you, and the overall tone they take in your presence. The value in detecting possibly hostility or negative feelings early on is that it increase your strategic options and room to maneuver.
Realize the following: The word personality comes from the Latin persona, which means “mask.” In the public we all wear masks, and this has a positive function. If we displayed exactly who we are and spoke our minds truthfully, we would offend almost everyone and reveal qualities that are best concealed. Having a persona, playing a role well, actually protects us from people looking too closely at us, with all of the insecurities that would churn up.
If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit there is some truth to the concept of fate. We are prone to repeat the same decisions and methods of dealing with problems. There is a pattern to our life, particularly visible in our mistakes and failures. But there is a different way of looking at this concept: it is not spirit or gods that control us but rather our character.
Character is something that is so deeply ingrained or stamped within us that it compels us to act in certain ways, beyond our awareness and control. We can conceive of this character as having three components, each layered on top of the other, giving this character depth. The earliest and deepest layer comes from genetics, from the particular way our brains are wired which predisposes us toward certain moods and preferences. This genetic component can make some people prone to depression, for instance. It makes some people introverts and others extroverts. It might even incline some toward becoming especially greedy – for attention or privilege or possessions.
As a student of human nature your task is twofold: first you must come to understand your own character, examining as best you can the elements in your past that have gone into forming it, and the patterns, mostly negative, that you can see recurring in your life. It is impossible to get rid of this stamp that constitutes that constitutes your character. It is too deep. But through awareness, you can learn to mitigate or stop certain negative patterns. You can work to transform the negative and weak aspects of your character into actual strengths. You can try to create new habits and patterns that go with them through practice, actively shaping your character and the destiny that goes with it.
So often we think that power has changed people, when in fact it simply reveals more of who they are.
People’s choice of spouse or partner says a lot about them. Some look for a partner they can dominate and control, perhaps someone younger, less intelligent or successful. Some choose a partner they can rescue from a bad situation, playing the savior role, another form of control. Yet others look for someone to fill the mommy or daddy role. They want more pampering. These choices are rarely intellectual; they reflect people’s earliest years and attachment schemas. They are sometimes surprising, as when people select someone who seems very different and outwardly incompatible, but there is always an internal logic to such choices. For instance, a person has a tremendous fear of being abandoned by the one they love, reflecting anxieties from infancy, and so they select a person who is noticeably inferior in looks or intelligence, knowing that person will cling to them no matter what.
You have a set character. It was formed out of elements that predate your conscious awareness. From deep within you, this character compels you to repeat certain actions, strategies, and decisions. The brain is structured to facilitate this: once you think and take a particular action, a neural pathway is formed that leads you to do it again and again.
You cannot move against the grain of your character or wish it away. It is too powerful.
By some perverse force within us, the moment we possess something or get what we want, our minds begin to drift toward something new and different, to imagine we can have better. The more distant and unattainable this new object, the greater is our desire to have it.
Whenever we see or imagine something, our minds cannot help but see or imagine the opposite. If we are forbidden by our culture to think a particular thought or entertain a particular desire, that taboo instantly brings to mind the very thing we are forbidden. Every no sparks a corresponding yes. (It was the outlawing of pornography in Victoria times that created the first pornographic industry.) We cannot control this vacillation in the mind between contrasts. This predisposes us to think about and then desire exactly what we do not have.
Complacency would be a dangerous evolutionary trait for a conscious animal such as humans. If our early ancestors had been prone to feeling content with present circumstances, they would not have been sensitive enough to possible dangers that lurked in the most apparently safe environments. We survived and thrived through our continual conscious alertness, which predisposed us to thinking and imaging the possible negative in any circumstance. We no longer live in savannas or forests teeming with life-threatening predators and natural dangers, but our brains are wired as if we were. We are inclined therefore toward a continual negative bias, which often consciously is expressed through complaining and griping.
Human nature does change within a few generations.
When we see people or things desired by others, it drives up their value.
We may think we live in a time of great freedom compared with the past, but in fact we live in a world that is more regulated than ever before. Our every move is followed digitally. There are ore laws than ever governing all aspects of human behavior.
It is not possession but desire that secretly impels people. To possess something inevitably brings about some disappointment and sparks the desire for something new to pursue. You are preying upon the human need for fantasies and the pleasures of chasing after them.
In the present moment we lack perspective. With the passage of time, we gain more information and see more of the truth; what was invisible to us in the present now becomes visible in retrospect. Time is the greatest teacher of them all, the revealer off reality.
Your task as a student of human nature, and someone aspiring to reach the greater potential of the human animal, is to widen your relationship to time as much as possible, and slow it down.
Death is equally your friend. It motivates you to make the most of each moment; it gives you a sense of urgency. Time is your great teacher and master. Awareness that a year from now this current problem you are experiencing will hardly seem so important will help you lower your anxiety and adjust your priorities.
The true spirit of conversation consists more in bringing out the cleverness of others than in showing a great deal of it yourself; he who goes away pleased with himself and his own wit is also greatly pleased with you. Most men… seek less to be instructed, and even to be amused, than to be praised and applauded. – Jean de La Bruyere
When people are rigid in their opposition to something, it stems from deep fear of change and the uncertainty it could bring.
When it comes to your own self-opinion, try to have some ironic distance from it. Make yourself aware of its existence and how it operates within you. Come to terms with the fact that you are not as free and autonomous as you like to believe. You do conform to the opinions of the groups you belong to; you do buy products because of subliminal influence; you can be manipulated. Realize as well that you are not as good as the idealized image of your self-opinion. Like everyone else, you can be quite self-absorbed and obsessed with your own agenda. With this awareness, you will not feel the need to be validated by others. Instead you will work at making yourself truly independent and concerned with the welfare of others, as opposed to staying attached to the illusion of your self-opinion.
Each of us has a particular way of looking at the world, of interpreting events and the actions of people around us. This is our attitude, and it determines much of what happens to us in life. If our attitude is essentially fearful, we see the negative in every circumstance. We stop ourselves from taking chances… The human attitude, however, is malleable. By making our attitude more positive, open, and tolerant of other people, we can spark a different dynamic – we can learn from adversity, create opportunities out of nothing, and draw people to us. We must explore the limits of our willpower and how far it can take us.
We humans like to imagine that we have an objective knowledge of the world. We take it for granted that what we perceive on a daily basis is reality – this reality being more or less the same for everybody. But this is an illusion. No two people see or experience the world in the same way. What we perceive is our personal version of reality, one that is of our own creation.
Each of us sees the world through a particular lens that colors and shapes our perceptions. Let us call this lens our attitude. The great Swiss psychologist Carl Jung defined this in the following way: “Attitude is a readiness of the psyche to act or react in a certain way… To have an attitude means to be ready for something definite, even though this something is unconscious; for having an attitude is synonymous with an a priori orientation to a definite thing.”
The attitude that we carry with us throughout life has several roots: First, we come into this world with certain genetic inclinations – toward hostility, greed, empathy, or kindness. Second, our earliest experiences and attachment schemas play a large role in shaping the attitude. We internalize the voices of the mother and father figure. If they were very authoritarian and judgmental, we will tend to be harsher on ourselves than others and have a more critical bent toward everything we see.
Negative and traumatic experiences can have a constricting effect – they close our minds off to anything that might possibly make us reexperience the original pain. Our attitude is constantly being shaped by what happens to us, but vestiges of our earliest attitude always live on… What we must understand about the attitude is not only how it colors our perceptions but also how it actively determines what happens to us in life – our health, our relations with people, and our success. Our attitude has a self-fulfilling dynamic.
Those with a negative attitude tend to operate from a basic position of fear toward life. They unconsciously want to limit what they see and experience to give them more control. Those with a positive attitude have a much less fearful approach. They are open to new experiences, ideas, and emotions. If the attitude is like our lens on the world, the negative attitude narrows the aperture of this lens, and the positive variety expands it as far as possible.
Your task as a student of human nature is twofold: First, you must become aware of your own attitude and how it slants your perceptions. It is hard to observe this in your day-to-day life because it is so close to you, but there are ways to catch glimpses of it in action. You can see it in how you judge people once they are out of your presence Are you quick to focus on their negative qualities and bad opinions, or are you more generous and forgiving when it comes to their flaws? You will see definite signs of your attitude in how you face adversity or resistance. Are you quick to forget or gloss over any mistakes on your part? Do you instinctively blame others for any bad things that happen to you? Do you dread any kind of change? Do you tend to keep to routines and to avoid anything unexpected or unusual? Do you get your back up when someone challenges your ideas and assumptions?
If you notice resentful tendencies within yourself, the best antidote is to learn to let go of hurts and disappointments in life. It is better to explode into anger in the moment, even if it’s irrational, than to stew on slights that you have probably hallucinated or exaggerated. People are generally indifferent to your fate, not as antagonistic as you imagine. Very few of their actions are really directed at you. Stop seeing everything in personal terms. Respect is something that must be earned through your achievements, not something given to you simply for being human.
If people improved their diet and their exercise habits, this would have a beneficial effect on all of the organs, because the body is an interconnected whole. This seems obvious to us now, but such an organic way of thinking has great application to our psychological health as well. Now more than ever people focus on their specific problems – their depression, their lack of motivation, their social inadequacies, their boredom. But what governs all of these seemingly separate problems is our attitude, how we view the world on a daily basis. It is how we see and interpret events. Improve the overall attitude and everything else will elevate as well – creative powers, the ability to handle stress, confidence levels, relationships with people.
How to view the world: See yourself as an explorer. With the gift of consciousness, you stand before a vast and unknown universe that we humans have just begun to investigate. Most people prefer to cling to certain ideas and principles many of them adopted early on in life. They are secretly afraid of what is unfamiliar and uncertain. They replace curiosity with conviction. By the time they are thirty, they act as if they know everything they need to know. As an explorer you leave all that certainty behind you. As an explorer you leave all that certainty behind you. You are in continual search of new ideas and new ways of thinking.
his is why the same external events or circumstances affect no two people alike; even with perfectly similar surroundings every one lives in a world on his own… The world in which a man lives shapes itself chiefly by the way in which he looks at it, and so it proves different to different men; to one it is barren, dull, and superficial; to another rich, interesting, and full of meaning. On hearing of the interesting events which have happened in the course of a man’s experience, many people will wish that similar things had happened in their lives too, completely forgetting that they should be envious rather of the mental aptitude which lent those events the significance they possess when he describes them.
People are rarely who they seem to be. Lurking beneath their polite, affable exterior is inevitably a dark, shadow side consisting of the insecurities and the aggressive, selfish impulses they repress and carefully conceal from public view… You must become aware of your own dark side. In being conscious of it you can control and channel the creative energies that lurk in your unconscious. By integrating the dark side into your personality, you will be a more complete human and will radiate an authenticity that will draw people to you.
Depression and anxiety come from not being your complete self, from always playing a role.
Your task as a student of human nature is to recognize and examine the dark side of your character. Once subjected to conscious scrutiny, it loses its destructive power. If you can learn to detect the signs of it in yourself, you can channel this darker energy into productive activity. You can turn your neediness and vulnerability into empathy. You can channel your aggressive impulses into worthwhile causes and into your work. You can admit your ambitions, your desires for power, and not act so guiltily and stealthily.
By playing a role to such an extent, by straining to live up to ideals that are not real, you will emit a phoniness that others pick up. Look at great public figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. They possessed the ability to examine their flaws and mistakes and laugh at themselves. They came across as authentically human, and this was the source of their charm. The tragedy of Nixon was that he had immense political talent and intelligence; if only he had also possessed the ability to look within and measure the darker sides to his character.
Remember: behind any vehement hatred is often a secret and very unpalatable envy of the hated person or people. It is only through such hate that it can be released from the unconscious in some form.
We all compare ourselves with others; we all feel unsettled by those who are superior in some area that we esteem; and we all react to this by feeling some form of envy. (It is wired into our nature; studies have shown that monkeys feel envy.) You can begin with a simple experiment: next time you hear or read about the sudden success of someone in your field, notice the inevitable feeling of wanting the same (the pang) and the subsequent hostility, however vague, toward the person you envy. It happens quickly and you can easily miss the transition, but try to catch it. It is natural to go through this emotional sequence and there should be no guilt attached.
Let us be realistic and realize that it is almost impossible to rid ourselves of the compulsion to compare ourselves with others.
The story of Michael Eistner is much closer to you than you think. His fate could easily be yours, albeit most likely on a smaller scale. The reason is simple: we humans possess a weakness that is latent in us all and will push us into the delusional process without our ever being aware of the dynamic. The weakness stems from our natural tendency to overestimate our skills. We normally have a self-opinion that is somewhat elevated in relation to reality. We have a deep need to feel ourselves superior to others in something – intelligence, beauty, charm, popularity, or saintliness. This can be positive. A degree of confidence impels us to take on challenges, to push past our supposed limits, and to learn in the process. But once we experience success on any level – increased attention from an individual or group, a promotion, funding for a project – that confidence will tend to rise too quickly, and there will be an ever-growing discrepancy between our self-opinion and reality.
Any success that we have in life inevitably depends on some good luck, timing, the contribution of others, the teachers who helped us along the way, the whims of the public in need of something new. Our tendency is to forget all of this and imagine that any success stems from our superior self. We begin to assume we can handle new challenges well before we are ready. After all, people have confirmed our greatness with their attention, and we want to keep it coming. We imagine we have the golden touch and that we can now magically transfer our skills to some other medium or field. Without realizing it, we become more attuned to our ego and our fantasies than to the people we work for and our audience. We grow distant from those who are helping us, seeing them as tools to be used. And with any failures that occur we tend to blame others. Success has an irresistible pull to it that tends to cloud our minds.
As we get older, we may not be physically small anymore, but our sense of insignificance only gets worse. We come to realize we are one person not just in a larger family, school, or city but in an entire globe filled with billions of people. Our lives are relatively short. We have limited skills and brainpower. There is so much we cannot control, particularly with our careers and global trends. The idea that we will die and be quickly forgotten, swallowed up in eternity, is quite intolerable. We want to feel significant in some way, to protest against our natural smallness, to expand our sense of self.
Come to terms with your grandiose needs. You need to begin from a position of honesty. You must admit to yourself that you do want to feel important and be the center of attention. This is natural. Yes, you want to feel superior. You have ambitions like everyone else. In the past, your grandiose needs may have led you into some bad decisions, which you can now acknowledge and analyze. Denial is your worst enemy.
We are all born as complete beings, with many sides to us. We have qualities of the opposite sex, both genetically and from the influence of the parent of the other gender. Our character has natural depths and dimensions to it. When it comes to boys, studies have shown that an early age they are actually more emotionally reaction than girls. They have high degrees of empathy and sensitivity. Girls have an adventurous and exploratory spirit that is natural to them. They have powerful wills, which they like to exert in transforming their environment. As we get older, however, we have to present to the world a consistent identity. We have to play certain roles and live up to certain expectations. We have to trim and lop off natural qualities. Boys lose their rich range of emotions and, in the struggle to get ahead, repress their natural empathy. Girls have to sacrifice their assertive sides. They are supposed to be nice, smiling, deferential, always considering other people’s feelings before their own. A woman can be a boss, but she must be tender and pliant, never too aggressive. In this process, we become less and less dimensional; we conform to the expected roles of our culture and time period.
We humans like to believe that we are consistent and mature, and that we have reasonable control over our lives. We make decisions based on rational considerations, on what will benefit us the most. We have free will. We know who we are, more or less. But in one particular aspect of life these self-opinions are all easily shattered – when we fall in love. When in love, we become prey to emotions we cannot control.
The eminent psychologist Carl Jung – who analyzed over the course of his very long career thousands of men and women with stories of painful love affairs – offered perhaps the most profound explanation for what happens to us when we fall in love. According to Jung, we are actually possessed in such moments.
We all possess hormones and genes of the opposite sex. These contrasexual trains are in the minority (to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the individual), but they are within us all and they form a part of our character.
The attraction we feel toward another might be purely physical, but more often the person who draws our attention unconsciously bears some resemblance – physical or psychological – to our mother or father.
If the relationship to the mother or father was mostly positive, we will tend to project onto the other person the desirable qualities that our parents had, in the hope of reexperiencing that early paradise. Take, for instance, a young man whose mother nurtured and adored him he may have been a sweet, loving little boy, devoted to his mother and reflecting her nurturing energy, but he repressed these traits in himself as he grew into an independent man with a masculine image to uphold. In the woman who triggers and association with his mother he will see the capacity to adore him that he secretly craves. This feeling of getting what he wants will intensify his excitement and physical attraction. She will supply him the qualities he never developed in himself. He is falling in love with his own anima, in the form of the desired woman. If the feelings toward the mother or father were mostly ambivalent (their attention inconsistent), we will often try to fix the original relationship by falling in love with someone who reminds us of our imperfect parent figure, in the hope that we can subtract their negative qualities and get what we never quite got in our earliest years. If the relationship was mostly negative, we may go in search of someone with the opposite qualities to that parent, often of a dark, shadowy nature. For instance, a girl who had a father who was too strict, distant, and critical perhaps had the secret desire to rebel but didn’t dare to. As a young woman she might be drawn to a rebellious, unconventional young man who represents the wild side she was never able to express, and is the polar opposite of her father.
We are all complex. We like to present a front to the world that is consistent and mature, but we know inside that we are subject to many different moods and wear many different faces, depending on circumstances. We can be practical, social, introspective, irrational, depending on the mood of the moment. And this inner chaos actually causes us pain. We lack a sense of cohesion and direction in life. We could choose any number of paths, depending on our shifting emotions, which pull us this way and that. Why go here instead of there? We wander through life, never quite reaching the goals that we feel are so important to us, or realizing our potential. The moments in which we feel clarity and purpose are fleeting. To soothe the pain from our aimlessness, we might enmesh ourselves in various addictions, pursue new forms of pleasure, or give ourselves over to some cause that interests us for a few months or weeks. The only solution to the dilemma is [Martin Luther] King’s solution – to find a higher sense of purpose, a mission that will provide us our own direction, not that of our parents, friends, or peers. This mission is intimately connected to our individuality, to what makes us unique. As [Martin Luther] King expressed it, “We have a responsibility to set out to discover what we are made for, to discover our life’s work, to discover what we are called to do. And after we discover that, we should set out to do it with all the strength and all of the power that we can muster.
By our nature we humans crave a sense of direction. Other living organisms rely upon elaborate instincts to guide and determine their behavior. We have come to depend upon our consciousness. But the human mind is a bottomless pit – it provides us with endless mental spaces to explore. Our imagination can take us anywhere and conjure up anything. At any moment, we could choose to go in a hundred different directions. Without belief systems or conventions in place, we seem to have no obvious compass points to guide our behavior and decisions, and this can be maddening.
Each human individual is radically unique. This uniqueness is inscribed in us in three ways – the one-of-a-kind configuration of our DNA, the particular way our brains are wired, and our experiences as we go through life, experiences that are unlike any other’s.
We have a side to our character that we are generally unaware of – our social personality, the different person we become when we operate in groups of people. In the group setting, we unconsciously imitate what others are saying and doing. We think differently, more concerned with fitting in and believing what others believe. We feel different emotions, infected by the group mood. We are more prone to taking risks, to acting irrationally, because everyone else is. This social personality can come to dominate who we are. Listening so much to others and conforming our behavior to them, we slowly lose a sense of our uniqueness and the ability to think for ourselves. The only solution is to develop self-awareness and a superior understanding of the changes that occur in us in groups.
When people operate in groups, they do not engage in nuanced thinking and deep analysis. Only individuals with a degree of calmness and detachment can do so. People in groups feel emotional and excited. Their primary desire is to fit in to the group spirit. Their thinking tends to be simplistic – good versus evil, with us or against us. They naturally look for some type of authority to simplify matters for them.
Certain emotions are more contagious than others, anxiety and fear being the strongest of all… Other highly contagious emotions are joy and excitement, tiredness and apathy, and intense anger and hatred. Desire is also highly contagious. If we see that others want to possess something or follow some new trend, we are easily infected with the same impulse.
It is always wise to impress bosses with your efficiency and to make them dependent on your usefulness, but be careful of taking this too far: if they feel you are too good at what you do, they may come to fear their dependence on you and wonder about your ambition. Make them feel comfortable in the superiority they believe they possess… Standing out too much, being seen as too brilliant or charming, will stir up envy, and you will die by a thousand bites. You want as many courtiers on your side as possible.
As Anton Chekhov once noted, “Love, friendship, respect do not unite people as much as common hatred for something.”
You must become consummate observer of yourself as you interact with groups of any size. Begin with the assumption that you are not nearly as much of an individual as you imagine. To a great extent, your thoughts and belief system are heavily influenced by the people who raised you, your colleagues at work, your friends, and the culture at large.
We feel entitled to have respect for our work, no matter how little we have actually accomplished. We feel people should take our ideas and projects seriously, no matter how little thought went into them or how meager our track record. We expect people to help us in our careers, because we are sincere and have the best intentions. Some of this modern form of entitlement might come from being especially spoiled by our parents, who made us feel that anything we did was golden. Some of it might come from the technology that so dominates our lives and spoils us as well. It gives us immense powers without our having to exert any real effort. We have come to take such powers for granted and expect everything in life to be so fast and easy. Whatever the cause, it infects all of us, and we must see this sense of entitlement as a curse. It makes us ignore the reality – people have no inherent reason to trust or respect us just because of who we are. It makes us lazy and contented with the slightest idea or the first draft of our work.
We humans are self-absorbed by nature and spend most of our time focusing inwardly on our emotions, on our wounds, on our fantasies. You want to develop the habit of reversing this as much as possible. You can do this in three ways. First, you hone your listening skills, absorbing yourself in the words and nonverbal cues of others. You train yourself to read between the lines of what people are saying. You attune yourself to their moods and their needs, and sense what they are missing. You do not take people’s smiles and approving looks for reality but rather sense the underlying tension or fascination. Second, you dedicate yourself to earning people’s respect. You do not feel entitled to it; your focus is not on your feelings and what people owe you because of your position and greatness (an inward turn). You earn their respect by respecting their individual needs and by proving that you are working for the greater good. Third, you consider being a leader a tremendous responsibility, the welfare of the group hanging on your every decision. What drives you is not getting attention but bringing about the best results possible for the most people. You absorb yourself in the work, not your ego. You feel a deep and visceral connection to the group, seeing your fate and theirs as deeply intertwined.
To realize his dream of control, Rockefeller transformed himself into a superior reader of men and their psychology. And the most important quality for him to gauge in the various rivals he faced was their relative willpower and resiliency. He could sense this in people’s body language and in the patterns of their actions. Most people, he determined, are rather weak. They are mostly led by their emotions, which change by the day. They want things to be rather easy in life and tend to take the path of least resistance. They don’t have a stomach for protracted battles. They want money for the pleasures and comforts it can bring, for their yachts and mansions. They want to look powerful, to satisfy their ego. Make them afraid or confused or frustrated, or offer them an easy way out, and they would surrender to his stronger will. If they got angry, all the better. Anger burns itself out quickly, and Rockefeller always played for the long term.
Primitive aggressors have very short fuses. If someone triggers in them feelings of inferiority or weakness, they explode. They lack any self-control, and so they tend to not get very far in life, inevitably bullying and hurting too many people. Sophisticated aggressors are much trickier. They rise to top positions and can stay there because they know how to cloak their maneuvers, to present a distracting facade, and to play upon people’s emotions. They know that most people do not like confrontation or long struggles, and so they can intimidate or wear people down.
Aggression is a tendency that is latent in every single human individual. It is a tendency wired into our species. We became the preeminent animal on this planet precisely because of our aggressive energy, supplemented by our intelligence and cunning.
Men find it harder to manage feelings of dependency and helplessness, something psychologists have noted in male infants. Men are generally more insecure about their status in the work world and elsewhere. They have a greater need to continually assert themselves and gauge their effect on others. Their self-esteem is tied to feelings of power, control, and respect for their opinions.
If you observe infants, you will notice how willful and relentless they are when they want something. Such persistence is natural to us, but it is a quality that we tend to lose as we get older and our self-confidence fades. This is often what happens later in life when we face a problem or some resistance: We summon up the energy to attack the problem, but in the back of our mind, we have some doubts – are we up to the task? This ever-so-slight diminishment in self-belief translates into a reduction in the energy with which we attack the problem.
Timidity is a quality we generally acquire. It is a function of our mounting fears as we get older and a loss of confidence in our powers to get what we want. We become overly concerned with how people perceive us and worry what they will think if we stand up for ourselves. We internalize their doubts. We become afraid of any kind of conflict or confrontation, which will churn up emotions and lead to consequences we cannot predict or control We develop the habit of backing down. We don’t say what we feel even when it would be appropriate, and we fail to set boundaries to people’s harmful behavior. We find it hard to ask for a raise or a promotion or the respect due to us. Losing our bold spirit, a positive form of aggression, is losing a deep part of our self, and it is inevitably painful. You must try to recover the fearlessness you once possessed, through incremental steps. The key is to first convince yourself that you deserve good and better things in life.
As children experiencing the Great Depression and as adults coming of age during World War II and the postwar period, they became rather cautious and conservative, valuing stability, material comforts, and fitting tightly into the group. The next generation, the baby boomers, found the conformity of their parents rather stifling. Emerging in the 1960s, and not haunted by the harsh financial realities of their parents, this generation valued personal expression, having adventures, and being idealistic.
[Next came] the millennial generation. Traumatized by terrorism and a financial crisis, they reacted against the individualism of the last generation, craving security and teamwork, with a noted dislike of conflict and confrontation. We can deduce two important lessons from this: First, our values will often depend upon where we fall in this pattern and how our generation reacts against the particular imbalances of the previous generation. We would simply not be the same person we are now, with the same attitude and ideals, if we had emerged during the 1920s or the 1950s instead of later periods. We are not aware of this critical influence because it is too close to us to observe. Certainly we bring our own individual spirit into play in this drama, and to the degree that we can cultivate our uniqueness, we will gain power and the ability to direct the zeitgeist. But it is critical that we recognize first he dominant roles that our generations plays in our formation, and where this generation falls in the pattern. Second, we notice that generations seem capable only of reacting and moving in an opposing direction to the previous generation. Perhaps this is because a generational perspective is formed in youth, when we are more insecure and prone to thinking in black-and-white terms. A middle way, a balanced form of choosing what might be good or bad in the values and trends of the previous generation, seems contrary to our collective nature.
By connecting to the reality of death, we connect more profoundly to the reality and fullness of life. By separating death from life and repressing our awareness of it, we do the opposite.
The problem for us humans is that we are aware of our mortality, but we are afraid to take this awareness further. It is like we are at the shore of a vast ocean and stop ourselves from exploring it, even turning our back to it. The purpose of our consciousness is to always take it as far as we can.