The 48 Laws of Power combs 3.000 years of history to draft a practical guide for anyone who’s interested in acquiring power
48 Laws of Power – Summary
About The Author: Robert Greene has a background in classical studies and is a best-selling author of books on power and applied social psychology.
Albeit not a psychologist or sociologist himself, Greene stands out for the depth and acuity of his social observations and, together with Nassim Taleb, he is one of my favorite authors.
Which Are The 48 Laws of Power?
Before delving in, here is a quick overview of the 48 Laws:
- Law 1: Never Outshine the Master
- Law 2: Don’t put too much trust in friends. Use your enemies
- Law 3: Conceal your Intentions
- Law 4: Always Say Less than Necessary
- Law 5: Protect Your Reputation at all Costs
- Law 6: Court Attention at All Costs
- Law 7: Get others to do the Work and Take the Credit
- Law 8: Make People Come to You
- Law 9: Win through Actions, not Argument
- Law 10: Don’t Get Infected by Misery and Misfortune
- Law 11: Make yourself Indispensable
- Law 12: Disarm People with Strategic Honesty & Generosity
- Law 13: Get Help by Appealing to Self-Interest, not Goodness
- Law 14: Be a Spy. Gather Intelligence.
- Law 15: Crush Your Enemy Totally
- Law 16: Raise your Value through Absence and Scarcity
- Law 17: Keep Others in Suspense by being Unpredictable
- Law 18: Don’t Isolate Yourself Behind a Fortress
- Law 19: Know Who You’re Dealing with
- Law 20: Maintain your Independence (as long as possible)
- Law 21: Make your Victims Feel Smarter Than You
- Law 22: Use Surrender as a Tool
- Law 23: Concentrate Your Forces
- Law 24: Be a Masterful Courtier
- Law 25: Create your Own Identity
- Law 26: Don’t Dirty Your Hands
- Law 27: Create a Cult-Like Following
- Law 28: Act with Boldness
- Law 29: Plan Till the End
- Law 30: Make your Achievements Seem Effortless
- Law 31: Control the Options
- Law 32: Play to People’s Fantasies
- Law 33: Find Your Opponent’s Fatal Weakness
- Law 34: Act in the Way you Want to be Treated
- Law 35: Master the Art of Timing
- Law 36: Ignore What you Can’t Have
- Law 37: Dazzle People with Spectacles
- Law 38: Hide your Unorthodox Thinking
- Law 39: Stir up Waters to Catch the Fish
- Law 40: Beware the Free Lunch
- Law 41: Don’t Get Lost in a Great Man’s Shadow
- Law 42: Strike the Shepherd to Scatter the Sheep
- Law 43: Win Both Hearts and Minds
- Law 44: Unbalance and Confuse with the Mirror Effect
- Law 45: Advocate Change but Not Drastic Reforms
- Law 46: Don’t Seem Too Perfect
- Law 47: Don’t Push Too Far in Victory
- Law 48: Be Formless
Law #1. Never Outshine The Master
Make the people above you feel comfortably superior.
When you outshine your masters and bosses, you will inspire fear and insecurity and they will want to punish you.
In your desire to please or impress them, do not go too far either, or you might accomplish the opposite.
Instead, make your masters appear more brilliant than they are and you will attain the heights of power.
Se one example of outshining the master from the movie Platoon:
Barne’s mistake there is to out-power the lieutenant.
Read the whole case study here.
Reversal of The Law: Getting Stuck Behind Petty Bosses
I must warn you here not to get too carried away with this law.
If you have an average boss, and most bosses are average, “never outshining the master” could easily mean years of wasted time as you lower yourself below average.
If you have big dreams and visions, you can’t stay stuck behind mediocrity for ever.
Law #2. Don’t Put Too Much Trust in Friends – Learn to Use Your Enemies
Robert Greene says that it’s easy for friends to grow resentful.
When you hire a friend simply for being a friend they will resent you.
Because people want to feel like they deserve what they get, and they want to feel like they are the masters of their own life.
If you help them because they’re your friend, they will feel like they got a handout from you, and they even need to thank you for making them feel bad.
And, ironically, the more gifts and favors you supply to revive that friendship, the less gratitude you receive.
Work requires some distance, Robert Greene says.
And if you want to mantain your power, you must be free to judge whoever furthers your interests the best.
And you can’t do that with friends.
Hire former enemies instead, they have more to prove and will be loyal.
Law #3. Conceal Your Intentions
Never let people know your true intentions.
If they don’t know what you are up to, they can’t defend from it.
Do the opposite instead: let them believe something purposefully wrong, and by the time they’ll realize your game, it will be too late.
Law #4. Say Less Than Necessary
Powerful people impress and intimidate by talking little.
You don’t learn anything new by talking, and the more you speak, the higher the chances you’ll say something foolish.
Let people fill your voids instead and they’ll reveal more about themselves.
See The Godfather leveraging this law:
Law #5. So Much Depends On Your Reputation: Guard It With Your Life
Reputation is the cornerstone of power.
Your reputation precedes you, and can hand you victory without even going into battle.
So make it unassailable and guard it with your life.
Thwart any attack against your reputation swiftly before they can gather any speed and destroy your enemies by undermining their reputation.
See Keanu Reeves managing his reputation without looking like he is managing it:
And see people falling for it:
Law #6. Court Attention At All Cost
What’s unseen doesn’t count.
All that matters is what is seen and appears to be true.
Don’t let yourself disappear in the greyness of the crowd, but stand out at all costs.
Do it with class though, like Monica Bellucci in “Malena”:
Law #7. Let Others Do the Work, But Always Take The Credit
At work, task your underlings and present the results to your superiors as if they were yours.
In war, send your troops ahead and walk over their dead bodies to enjoy the spoils of war.
Robert Greene uses the example of Edison exploiting Tesla’s genius and invention to get rich and famous thanks to Teslas’ invention (albeit this might be a false myth).
This was funny for me since a few days prior I have read “Think and Grow Rich” where Napoleon Hill talks up Edison as a man of honor to emulate (lol).
Use the skills of others to do the work for you: never do yourself what others can do for you.
Law #8. Make Other People Come To You – Use Bait If Necessary
When you make the others act, you’re in control.
Let them come to you, let them abandon their own plans, and then attack.
How to Use Bait
I want to sell my garage.
And my neighbor wants to buy my flat, but not the garage.
Use the garage as bait for the flat:
I use the flat -which she wants- as a bait to make her come to me for what I want.
Law #9. Win Through Actions, Never Through Argument
Actions speak louder than words.
Any time you “win” an argument you rarely really convince anyone but you sure as hell will breed resentment (also read: How to Win Friends).
Much better to have others agreeing to your actions instead: demonstrate, don’t explicate.
Law #10. Infection: Avoid The Unhappy And Unlucky
Emotional states are contagious, be them positive or negatives.
So while you may think you’re helping a poor soul get back on his feet you’re actually bringing yourself down in the process.
Avoid the unhappy and unlucky then and associate yourself with the happy and lucky.
While this might be true for some “unhelp-able” people who’ll always be in trouble, it can be the opposite for those who are honestly looking to better themselves.
Also watch out for helping up people who will later move on to greener pastures:
Law #11. Learn To Keep People Dependent On You
Never teach people enough so they can live happily without you, but keep them dependent on you instead.
The more people depend on you, the more freedom you have.
I don’t fully agree with this law: this is how low-quality, abusive men think. Keeping people dependent often results in co-dependencies (see Beatty, 1986) and, often, often the more people depend on you, the less freedom you have.
Law #12. Use Selective Honesty and Generosity to Disarm Your Victims
Be generous and honest once and manipulate them once their guard is down.
One good act of honesty can cover a dozen dishonest ones.
The best scams though involve people doing the opposite. They are often honest, to cover one big con.
Law #13. Appeal to Self-Interest, Never To Mercy or Gratitude
Don’t get people to do things for you by reminding them of what you’ve done for them in the past.
Instead, point to what’s in it for them in your current request and emphasize it.
This is not always true. Also read “Criticism of The 48 Laws of Power“.
Law #14. Pose As a Friend, Work As a Spy
Learn to probe, ask indirect questions to understand what are people’s weaknesses and intentions.
Every occasion is a good chance for artful spying.
Law #15. Crush Your Enemy Totally
Stopping halfway will only make your enemy plot in revenge.
Destroy your enemy completely instead, both in body and spirit.
Law #16. Use Absence To Increase Respect And Honor
Too much of anything will decrease your value.
Once you already well established within a group, learn to disappear for a while to let people talk, gossip and miss you.
That’s how you create value through scarcity (also see Cialdini, 1984).
Law #17. Keep Others In Suspended Terror: Cultivate An Air Of Unpredictability
Your unpredictability will keep others off balance.
And if you take it to an extreme, this strategy can intimidate and terrorize.
I don’t agree with this law.
Albeit it will intimidate and terrorize, the disadvantages often exceed the benefits.
See Saddam Hussein and his terror strategy:
Law #18. Do Not Build Fortresses – Isolation Is Dangerous
A fortress might seem the safest option, but the opposite is true.
It removes you from valuable information and makes you a sitting duck and an easy target.
Move around instead, mingle and make allies: the crowd and your web of allies will make you safer.
Law #19. Know Who You’re Dealing with – Do Not Offend The Wrong Person
To use any strategy, you must first know your target.
Deceiving or outmaneuvering some people will get you ahead without paying any price.
But do it with some others and they will plot and seek revenge for their whole life.
Choose your victims and opponents carefully then and never offend or deceive the wrong one.
Law #20. Do Not Commit To Anyone
Robert Greene says that fools always jump to take sides.
Don’t be a fool.
Do not commit to any side instead, but your own side.
As you keep your independence you’ll be able to better play the people around you, pitching them against one another and becoming the prize as they pursue your commitment.
Law #21. Play A Sucker To Catch a Sucker – Seem Dumber Than Your Mark
Make your victims feel like they are smarter than you are.
They will feel better around you, they will never suspect you are up to mischief and they will keep their guard down.
A second-level application of the 21st law of power is to play the victim so that you can keep abusing others.
Ben Shapiro uses this strategy, here are some examples:
He says he is against bullying because he’s been bullied. And that way he can bullying others.
Law #22. Use The Surrender Tactic: Transform Weakness Into Power
Never fight just for honor’s sake when you know you’ll be beaten.
It gives your enemy the satisfaction of winning outright and it will make you weaker.
Take time to recover, to wait for his power to decrease and attack when you’re at your strongest.
Law #23: Concentrate Your Forces
Intensity of focus beats breadth of effort.
You have more to gain by mining a single rich mine than by going from one shallow mine to another.
Law #24. Play The Perfect Courtier
Law of Power number 24 is actually a whole list of laws.
Here they are:
- Practice nonchalance: never seem to be working too hard, your talent must appear to flow naturally
- Be frugal with flattery: learn to do it indirectly, by downplaying your own contributions
- Arrange to be noticed: you cannot display yourself too brazenly, yet you must also get noticed. Often initially it is simply a matter of being seen. Pay attention to your physical appearance and find a way to create a distinctive -subtly distinctive- style and image.
- Alter your style and language to your partner: the pseudo belief in equality -that you ought to speak the same way to those above and beneath you- is BS. The ones below will take it as a form of condescension, which it is, and those above might be offended without admitting it.
- Never be the bearer of bad news
- Don’t act friendly with your boss: that’s his choice. If he’s not friendly, keep a healthy distance
- Be frugal in asking those above your for favors: it’s irritating having to reject someone’s requests. And do not ask for favors on another person’s behalf, least of all a friend.
- Don’t be the court cynic: don’t go around criticizing peers and subordinates as it will rub off on you. Express modest admiration and when it’s called for it, express wonder and amazement.
- Be self-observant: learn to be your own mirror training your mind to see yourself as others see you
- Master your emotions: as an actor, learn to laugh and cry on command when appropriate. Disguise anger and frustration and fake contentment and agreement. Become the master of your own face. Call it lying if you like, and if you prefer not to play the game don’t complain when people call you arrogant and obnoxious
- Be a source of pleasure: as simple as that. We flock to people who can give us good emotions.
Law #25. Recreate Yourself
Do not accept the identity the people around you choose for you.
Choose your own identity instead and change it as it fits you.
Like John Gray did when he created the identity of “relationship expert”:
Law #26. Keep Your Hands Clean
Maintain a spotless appearance, never allow yourself to be mired by mistakes scandals.
Use others as scapegoats when needed.
Law #27. Play On People’s Need to Create a Cultlike Following
People want to believe in something.
Be that person who gives them something to believe in, offer them a cause, a new faith.
Be poor on details, but rich in promises and hope. Enthusiasm trumps rationality.
Gives them rituals to abide by and ask them to perform sacrifices for you.
Law #28. Enter Action With Boldness
When you are unsure of what do to, don’t do anything.
Doubts and insecurity will mar your execution.
Better to burst into the scene with boldness instead. Bold mistakes are easily corrected with more boldness.
Everyone admires the bold, nobody likes the timid.
Law 29. Plan All The Way To The End
The end is all that matters.
Be sure to plan all the way until you reach your desired outcome.
Law #30. Make Your Accomplishments Seem Effortless
Hide all the hard work that went into your accomplishment.
Act effortlessly, as if you could do much more, and people will be in awe of your “natural talent”.
In today’s world it might be the opposite and you might be better off talking your hard work, dedication and drive.
Law #31. Control The Options: Get Others To Play With The Cards You Deal
The best deception is in making people feel like it was their choice.
Give them the options you choose and that will lead to the result you want.
Law #32. Play To People’s Fantasies
People want to avoid the truth because it makes them feel bad.
Don’t make them feel bad: make up a fantasy for them instead and they’ll be running to you like moths to the flame.
The field of people promising the moon is an overcrowded one (see Tai Lopez).
And also consider there can power in directness and honesty. Ray Dalio built an empire out of pure, unadulterated truth.
Law #33. Discover Each Man’s Thumbscrew
Everyone has a button and a hidden weakness which you can use to your advantage.
It can be something that was missing for them in their childhood, or it might be the need for emotional validation and recognition -to feel important-.
I have met countless people who could be so easily maneuvered by pandering to their emotional needs.
Law #34. Be Royal In Your Own Fashion: Act Like a King To Be Treated Like One
Act like you want to be treated and eventually, people will come to treat the way you want -and act-.
Robert Greene goes into a fascinating story on how Christopher Columbus should have had no business in leading 3 ships to America.
But he acted and demanded it and eventually achieved it.
There is a caveat to this rule thouhg: once you already have power, then dressing as you please is a sign of power.
See Steve Jobs as an example:
When you’re already powerful, dressing badly is a sign of power (you don’t need to care about appearances anymore).
Law #35. Master The Art Of Timing
Never seem in a hurry as it communicates you’re at the mercy of events and forces outside of yourself.
See how powerful mafia bosses move slowly:
Look patient, recommends Greene, as if you knew everything will pan out eventually.
And learn to understand the spirit of time, the trends you can ride all the way to power.
Stand back when the time is not yet ready and strike boldly at the right time.
Law #36. Disdain Things You Cannot Have: Ignoring Is The Best Revenge
At times you will not be able to reach a goal.
By acknowledging the problem, you make it stronger by giving it attention and credibility.
And if it’s a person, you often empower them by giving them more visibility and attention.
Whenever you can, leave things alone instead.
And when you want something you can’t have, show contempt for it.
Robert Greene seems to conflate contempt and ignoring, but they are far from being similar.
Disdaining anything is also a way of giving attention (and you come across as spiteful).
Law #37. Create Compelling Spectacles
Dashy imagery and symbolic gestures create an aura of power.
Those around you will be drawn and distracted by your flashy spectacles and not notice what you’re really up to.
Law #38: Think As You Like But Behave Like Others
If you flaunt your ways of going against the crowd people will feel you look down on them and you’re an attention seeker.
They will punish you for trying to make them feel like sheep.
Share your uniqueness only with the tolerant ones who can appreciate it instead and fit in with the sheep when you’re with the sheep.
On most occasions, I agree.
And yet, it’s also a sign of power to show how different you are. Going against the rules shows that you can go against the rules.
Law #39. Stir Up Waters To Catch Fish
Make your enemy angry and worked up as you always maintain your cool: it’s easier to induce people into mistakes when they’re angry and emotional.
Ben Shapiro mastered this technique to perfection to achieve fame and power:
Law #40. Despise The Free Lunch
What has worth is worth paying for.
Behind a free lunch, there’s usually a trick or hidden obligation. Always pay and stay away from the burdens of guilt and gratitude.
Always pay in full, too: let your money move around generously. That’s both a sign and a magnet for power.
The example in the book is of a woman who was stingy about her money because she associated giving money away as giving away power.
So she harassed her architect to no end, until she was made to pay in full, a few times over, for her stinginess.
Law #41. Avoid Stepping Into A Great Man’s Shoes
What happened in the past always seems better than what’s in the present.
Do not follow in the footsteps of great leaders and do not follow their path: build your name and identity by changing instead.
Law #42. Strike The Shepherd And The Sheep Will Scatter
The source of your problems can often be traced back to a single strong person.
If you allow these people the freedom to move, they will keep stirring troubles and possibly rally the crowd against you.
Do not let those people time to pester, but strike them hard at once: the sheep will scatter after them.
Law #43. Work On The Hearts And Minds Of Others
Coercing makes people push back against you.
You must instead seduce others into wanting to do what you want them to do.
Once you seduced someone, they are your loyal pawn for you to move them as you please.
Work on their emotions, play on what they hold dear and what they fear.
Law #44. Disarm and Infuriate With the Mirror Effect
Mirror your enemies, do what they do, and they won’t be able to figure out your strategy.
You can make them angry and make them overreact with the mirror effect or you can dupe them into believing you share their values.
Law #45. Preach The Need For Change, But Never Reform At Once
Everybody understands the need for change, but we all cling to our habits.
Humans are creatures of habit, and we don’t really like change. Too much innovation, too quickly, will lead to revolt.
When you’re new to power then, make a show of respecting the old way of doing things, and if change is needed, do it slowly.
Make it feel like a gentle improvement on the past.
Law #46. Never Appear Too Perfect
Only Gods and the dead can appear perfect with impunity.
Appearing better than others is dangerous, and most dangerous is appearing perfect.
It creates envy, and envy creates silent enemies. It’s much better to occasionally display defects instead, and admit to some small vices.
Robert Greene says it’s naive to believe that as you gain power you won’t be envied.
Expect envy instead and that it will work against you insidiously.
One of the ways to avoid it can be to painting power as a burden, and the role you’re playing and power you wield as a sacrifice you took upon.
And if you are the one who feels envy, don’t let it poison you, but use it outwardly to match and surpass those you’re envious of.
Reversal of The Law: Malena Was Too Beautiful
Malena (Monica Bellucci) was too beautiful and too perfect for the average women of her village.
She remained too distant and too aloof, becoming the target of heir envy and jealousy.
And it culminated with a lynching mob (YB removed the video, watch the movie :).
Law #47. Do Not Go Past The Mark You Aimed For: Learn When To Stop
When we’re riding the high wave of victory arrogance and overconfidence can easily push you past the goal you had settled for.
And when you go too far, you make more enemies than you can defeat.
Don’t allow success to go to your head, but set a goal and stop once you reach it.
Law #48. Assume Formlessness
Never bet on stability and lasting order, everything changes.
And with a given a shape and a visible plan you’re easy to attack.
Keep yourself adaptable and on the move instead.
The 48 Laws of Power Quotes
When you display your talents, you naturally stir all kinds of resentment, envy, and other manifestations of insecurity… you cannot spend your life worrying about the petty feelings of others
On leading with confidence:
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.
On work and friendship:
Keep your friends for friendship, but work with the skilled and competent
Do not leave your reputation to chance or gossip; it is your life’s artwork, and you must craft it, hone it, and display it with the care of an artist.
On the dangers of victory:
There is nothing more intoxicating than victory, and nothing more dangerous
On wasting time on other people’s
te valuable time, or mental peace of mind, on the affairs of others—that is too high a price to pay.
Lord, protect me from my friends; I can take care of my enemies.
The 48 Laws of Power Video
Real Life Applications
If I had to mention a couple of rules I found the most useful:
- Win through your actions, not through your words
A fantastic reminder that you should rarely really battle ideologies and point of views with people and rather simply just act.
- Appeal to self-interest
This is the golden rule of always leading with what’s in it for them rather than just pleading for mercy or gratitude
- Don’t put too much trust in friends
This is also a golden one many people would rather not talk about. You should always take a hard honest look at your friends and realize not everyone is worthy of being one. And relationships might easily sour when you hire some to help them out.
The 48 Laws of Power Criticism
Albeit The 48 Laws of Power is a wonderful book and everyone loves it, there are a few cons as well in my opinion:
- Unscientific, all “proofs” are anecdotal evidence (or Science)
Robert Greene says that the laws are “timeless and definitive”.
LOL, what a load of BS.
Greene’s background is classical literature, not psychology.
And it shows.
All the “proofs” that back up the “laws” are from old historical events.
This is more a book to pique curiosity than an actual resource on social skills or “life hacks”.
- Laws are highly specific and, hence, not “laws”
The aws are not “definitive”.
Quite the opposite: their application is highly specific.
Just as an example, if you were to apply “never outshine the master” all the times, you’d never move past your boss.
But the most ambitious corporate climbers do outshine their boss when the time comes for (see Scarface as an example).
- Impractically theoretical at times
Some of the rules are very theoretical and highly impractical, and the historical examples didn’t help to make them any clearer.
“Recreate yourself” or “assume formlessness” are such examples.
You read them, enjoy them but they will not help you much and you’ll probably forget then soon after.
- Some laws are platitudes
Some rules might just sound obvious and the connected historical story just a nice to read novel with little added value.
“plan all the way to the end” was such an example for me.
- Mumble jumble of “laws”
The laws come from such disparate fields that it gives the book no coherent common thread.
You have suggestions on moving slow, on never appearing to be perfect and on planning till the end.
If the thread is only “how to play people for power” then it seems a bit tenuous to me.
- Cynicism is good marketing, but not always good wisdom
Sometimes it feels like the book is resting on the idea that because it sounds cynical, then it must be true and effective.
That is not the case.
Also read: The 48 Laws of Power for Virtuous Leaders.
- Micro, not macro
The laws are tactical.
You are not going to learn power dynamics with “The 48 Laws of Power”.
For more, please read:
48 Laws of Power – Review
In a way, “The 48 Laws of Power” is similar to The Power Moves in that it lays bare all the games and tricks people play as they jostle for power positions.
Commenting on the quality, some laws are a bit obvious and some others can well be counterproductive when blindly applied.
The examples are also mostly from the ancient world, and they don’t always translate well to modernity.
That is why I curated a mini-series follow up with more modern real-life use of the 48 Laws of Power.
- Updated 48 Laws of Power (laws 1 to 16)
- Upgraded 48 Laws of Power (laws 17 to 32)
- Modernized 48 Laws of Power (laws 33 to 48)
And still, overall, The 48 Laws of Power is an amazing read and a great resource to understand the darker side of social human behavior.