This is the modern 48 Laws of Power.
It’s the second installment of our “48 Laws of Power for modern Machiavellian” series.
This series takes Greene’s work “The 48 Laws of Power” and revisits it with a more modern look and more contemporary examples.
See here the first installment of the modernized 48 Laws of Power.
- Law #17: Be Friendly, But Hold Onto The Tools of Coercive Power
- Law #18: Build A Fortress – Then Pretend You Do It For The Peasants
- Law #19: Know Who You’re Dealing With – Not Everyone Deserves Your Time
- Law #20: Take Sides Strategically – Or Become The Referee
- Law #21: Play Dumb If You’re Smart, And Smart If You’re Dumb
- Law #23: Stick to Your Goals. Continuity of Effort Builds Empires
- Law #24: Learn Office Politics, But Never To The Detriment of Skills & Results
- Law #25: Find A Profitable Niche, Then Fabricate An Identity For Its Marketing
- Law #26: CYA Legally, Then Dirty Your Hands With Unethical But Profitable Deeds
- Law #27: Create A Cult Of Short Term Mood Fixes & Feel-Good Emptiness
- Law #30: Make Your Accomplishment Inspirational – They Can Do It Too!
Law #17: Be Friendly, But Hold Onto The Tools of Coercive Power
✘ Law 17: Keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability.
✔ Law 17: Manage through goodwill, But make sure you hold onto the tools of coercive power, too
Law of Power #17. Explained
The original law worked better with old power.
When an absolute monarch decided for life or death with the direction of his thumb, an “air of unpredictability” could reduce his subjects to trembling Jell-O in his presence.
In that sense, suspended terror worked to increase the monarch’s power in the immediate short term, silencing all possible dissent.
In the long term though it was likely to make the monarch’s power shakier because that approach leads to poorer decision making and increases the risks of assassinations.
In any case, making it work today is both difficult and even less effective.
Unpredictability in today’s society is most likely to become “fickleness”, or pure “craziness”.
And the same is true for government leaders.
With a globalized world and international trade at historical highs, it’s easier for a consortium of states to impose debilitating sanctions on rogue players even without having to go to war.
There is however still a place today for an “air of unpredictability”.
In street gangs.
Having a reputation of a dogged, crazy fighter, will paradoxically lead to fewer fights.
Indeed, since few people want to mess with madness, a vastly underrated self-defense technique is to scream like a possessed madman before a possible attack.
But power built on unpredictability is often limited, even in the underworld.
Because people don’t usually want to be led by “unpredictable schizophrenics”.
So, albeit there are exceptions, real power most often goes to more even-minded leaders.
This is a movie scene, but Nicolas Cage correctly explains this concept.
Law of Power #17. Bad Example: Saddam Hussein & Trump
Saddam Hussein kept his neighbors on suspended terror.
But his wars pissed off the international community, leading to biting sanctions and, eventually, a military intervention that delivered Saddam a searing defeat (and later cost him his life).
Keeping others in terror indeed does not work as well if you’re not very powerful to begin with.
And if you are very powerful… Then you have better strategies at your disposal.
It’s also worth noting that Saddam’s “terrorizing approach” made for a rather paranoid and fearful leader.
Saddam created an army reporting directly to him to defend against internal dissent.
As a sign of his paranoia, he kept the tanks around Bagdad purposefully low in ammunition in case they were going to turn on him.
The Personal Terror of Donald Trump
Trump cannot be compared to Saddam, of course.
But his erratic behavior could certainly fit the definition of “an air of unpredictability”, and several White House insiders testify that many fear for their jobs.
Trump’s fickleness is not helping him any, though.
The “terror” that he might say or do something stupid does not support Trump’s leadership.
And it does not help him to get things done with others and through others.
Because modern power in democracies as much as in business is enhanced by alliances and support, and it’s hard to form a strong web of allies while being unpredictable.
Indeed, modern power that lasts is best served by a web of alliances and a certain smoothness and constancy of operations.
- Trump VS Rapinoe (how aggression creates its own enemies)
- Trump’s evidence that adversarial negotiations suck
The Solution? Positive Collaboration Supported By Coercion
Machiavelli famously said that being feared is better than being liked.
The beautiful thing though is that the two are not opposites.
And you can be both.
This is how high-quality power, the type of power that lasts and grows, acts.
Enlightened leadership prefers friendly relationships and always approaches with a smile.
But it’s not naive friendliness: it’s friendliness backed by strength.
At a very raw level, this is the stance:
I come with a smile and a gift looking for collaboration because that’s best for both.
But if you try to f*ck me up, then, well… I’m also carrying a gun.
Even some of the most thriving underworld organizations adopt this approach.
Think of The Godfather.
Albeit it’s a movie, that’s exactly how the mafia became so entrenched and successful in Sicily: its terror was for the enemies only.
The Godfather mostly sought to do business win-win and always sought to provide value, too.
And that’s how Tom Hagen, the family’s lawyer, approached Waltz:
Had Waltz played along, the transaction might have been win-win.
It’s only when Waltz refuses that terror comes into play.
Your friendly handshake on the table will go much further if you keep the revolver in the drawer
Also read on “enlightened collaboration“:
Law #18: Build A Fortress – Then Pretend You Do It For The Peasants
✘ Law 18: Do not build fortresses to protect yourself – isolation is dangerous.
✔ Law 18: Fortress your life by covering your downsides. And then enjoy life carefree
Law of Power #18. Explained
Robert Greene intends “fortress” more figuratively.
Because, literally, castles and walled cities (mostly) worked, and they have been bastions of civilization for centuries.
But let’s move to today.
What do we intend today for a fortress?
It could still be taken literally, like the bunkers that some wealthy people love to arm themselves with.
Or we might consider fortress in a wider sense, including modern contracts such as:
- Prenuptial agreements
- Golden parachutes
- No performance clauses
These are all examples of a “fortress mentality”, in the sense of “preparing for the worst-case scenario”.
Some authors also speak of healthy intimate relationships as an emotional power base with which to more confidently face the world -to which we might refer to as “emotional fortress”-.
The 21st century version of a fortress is a great approach to acquire and keep power in life, and it’s exactly how powerful men think.
Once you have a fortress to retreat to, figurative or not, you can more safely and more confidently live outside of it.
With a prenup, for example, you can enjoy the relationship worries-free, and with golden parachutes you can work without fear of being sacked.
And you can still keep great relationships with the non-fortress people by pretending you’re just like them.
Which is what many politicians do:
Law #18. Example: To Get Modern Fortresses, Pretend You Do It For The Peasants
Look at how Hillary pitches her campaign:
Some politicians want power for power’s sake.
And some of them don’t even plan on supporting the middle class and the average citizens.
Yet, if they want to swing for the presidential palaces -the modern fortresses- they need the citizens’ vote.
And that’s when you’ll see them stepping out of their strongholds and mingling with the commoners, pretending to be just like them.
Most commoners don’t see the game and feel blessed for being the recipients of such generosity.
Look at this example of Obama pretending to be “just one of the guys”:
Notice the boom mics placed around the place, including behind the counter (minute 1:06, 1:38).
Do those suggest a truly “improvised pop-in by the president”, or more like an elaborate PR scheme to shore up political support?
To me, it feels more like the latter.
But it worked.
Look at the comments:
I’d have been super bummed if Obama disrupted my dinner just so he could play his “I’m just like you” game.
Law #19: Know Who You’re Dealing With – Not Everyone Deserves Your Time
✘ Law 19: Know who you’re dealing with- do not offend the wrong person.
✔ Law 19: Not everyone deserves your time. Make sure you know early on who does and who doesn’t
Law of Power #19. Explained
Offending the wrong person was much more dangerous in the ancient world, when power could decide for life or death on a whim.
Granted, you still don’t want to offend the wrong person, with this iconic scene from the Godfather proving the point:
But still, I find the mindset behind the original law to be rather limiting.
The original law is motivated by fear and subordinates one’s goals to others.
But real power players worry less about offending others than achieving their objectives.
And second, the better and more powerful you get, the more you start thinking in terms of who deserves your time.
My usual stance is: be kind to everyone, and find out early who they are.
Because there is an element of exchange in life, and you want to know if people taking your time are also going to give something.
Law #20: Take Sides Strategically – Or Become The Referee
✘ Law 20: Do not commit to anyone.
✔ Law 20: Study the situation, then make your strategic commitment. Alternatively, you position yourself as the mediator
Robert Greene is right when he says this:
Only fools jump in too early taking this or that side
That’s the equivalent of betting on the black or red, and you lose a tremendous amount of power by giving your support away too early and too cheap.
So yes, this law adapts well to modernity.
But there is one step above the noncommittal game (second example).
Law #20 Example: Italy As Realpolitiker (WWI) & Fool (WWII)
As long as you remain outside of the fray, you are the big prize courted by all sides.
And this is exactly what Italy got with its noncommittal game during WWI.
The war saw Austra/Germany pitted against France/England, and Italy spoke and negotiated with both.
Italy was picking sides based on convenience, best offer on the table and likelihood of victory.
And it was happy to let everyone know about it, because that increased the offers on the table.
Italy was using commitment as a bargaining chip.
Compare it to Italy in the second world war, which jumped in right away based on ideology (nazi-fascism).
And that proved disastrous.
Go one level up: be the referee, not the player
The next level of the noncommittal game is taking the referee or mediator role.
Smart power players prefer taking the mediator role rather than taking sides and getting mired in the war.
If you play your role well, you can become the referee of the contest, a role that everyone looks up to.
The mediator does not fight himself, but by influencing the terms of negotiation and the rules of the game, it can defend its interests at no costs while increasing its political clout and soft power.
The US played it several times after WWII as the world’s major superpower, and it’s indeed a role naturally suited for the strongest party.
Smaller Players As Mediators
Albeit not easy, smaller can sometimes be mediators, too.
It takes smarts and a certain element of boldness, as you have to show up with the attitude of being a righteous moral authority (a hideous power move, BTW).
And Benito Mussolini dramatically boosted his power and international political standing playing mediator between the more extremist Hitler and the democratic powers (see Munich Agreement).
The mediator role is a “soft” version of the vote counter.
Exception: Picking side without anyone else knowing it
Of course, there are almost always exceptions.
And if you can pick side without anyone else knowing it, than you got nothing to lose.
If that side wins, you got a powerful ally.
If it loses, nobody knew what you did.
See it in action:
Law #21: Play Dumb If You’re Smart, And Smart If You’re Dumb
✘ Law 21: Play a sucker to catch a sucker- seem dumber than your mark.
✔ Law 21: Discover people’s true intentions by posing as a victim. Make your enemies feel safer by looking weaker, then attack
Law of Power #21. Explained
This one of my favorite laws.
And in a world of braggarts and alpha male posturers, it’s way underrated.
One of my favorite ways of using this law is to test people.
How do you do it?
You make yourself look clueless on purpose and then observe their behavior.
If they help and explain, it might mean you’re dealing with principled individuals.
If they try to take advantage of it, you know you must enter into your “Machiaveli mode” (article on “Machiavelli mode” to follow).
The Caveat of Law of Power #21: Always Invert Play/Reality
Here is a caveat.
You want to look dumber strategically and only when in reality you’re smart and ready to profit from your opponent’s aggression.
Because looking dumb will invite aggression, and if you’re actually dumb and unprepared, then… You see the problem.
On the other hand, when you’re dumb and defenseless, playing strong and smart might the best option and might fend off an attacker looking for easy victims.
Example of Strategic Strength Play: The Nonexistent Lawyer
The last time I got fired I told my employer I needed more time to get back to them because my lawyer was off for two days.
But I didn’t actually have a lawyer.
I played that game to increase the chances that my employer wouldn’t try to screw me over (ie.: being weak but strategically posing as stronger).
Law of Power #21 Example: Women Playing Damsel in Distress
This is a common game womne play.
It consists of playing dumb and weak to make him act, care and take care.
Does it work?
Yeah, with most men it works very well.
But if you’re a man, don’t despair, men can use this technique as well.
People love to feel strong.
Position yourself like the emotional validator of their strengths/skills, and you can recruit them to do your work.
Law #23: Stick to Your Goals. Continuity of Effort Builds Empires
✘ Law 23: Concentrate your forces.
✔ Law 23: Find something you love and stick with it over the long run. Mastery translates well into money and power
Law of Power #23 Explained
The law of power #23 applies to modernity very well.
As a matter of fact, with today’s endless distractions and whole industries built on time-wasting, it might apply to the 21st century more than ever.
Law #24: Learn Office Politics, But Never To The Detriment of Skills & Results
✘ Law 24: Play the perfect courtier
✔ Law 24: Develop your emotional intelligence and social skills, they are fundamental to your life’s quality. But never forget hard skills and results.
Law of Power #24. Explanation
This law only applies to modernity at 50%.
In the old courts, politics might have been 95% of power.
Back then metrics and KPIs were poor or non-existent and it was all about who the king favored and who influenced the king the most.
Today the “perfect courier” who only plays politics fails far more times than he succeeds (some high-functioning sociopaths can sometimes be the exceptions, there is one example in Social Power).
Most power players today marry politics with results and skills, and you should aim at doing the same.
Law #25: Find A Profitable Niche, Then Fabricate An Identity For Its Marketing
✘ Law 25: Re-create yourself.
✔ Law 26: Find something that sells, and then create an identity around your product. If you’re a public persona, best to stick with one identity
Law of Power #25 Explained
Recreating yourself worked better in the past, when people couldn’t keep track of your changes.
You could move to a new city, and you would start from scratch.
Even as a famous person or as a con artist.
But today, whatever you were or did is readily available with an Internet search.
And the more success you get, the more people will scrutinize your past, making the re-creation all the more dangerous.
Indeed, few people today achieve power and success with endless recreations.
The most successful Machiavellians of the 21st century do the opposite: they first find something that sells, and then attach an identity to it.
This is a shortcut to actual mastery, but in the digital world identities and authority can be faked.
Law of Power #25 Example: Jon Gray of “Men Are From Mars”
Jon Gray penned “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus“.
That’s the most popular book ever in the relationship genre.
Quite striking, if you consider that Gray lacked any meaningful background on the topic.
But John Gray quickly worked to change that.
He doubled down on relationships and acquired the references.
“Acquired” here might be quite literal, here, with Gray’s master degree shrouded in mystery and his Ph.D. awarded on correspondence from a non-accredited and now-defunct institution.
Gray also joined the American Counseling Association and the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, and later founded his own relationship institute where he took the important-sounding title of “president”.
Where am I going with this?
If John Gray had kept moving and “recreating” himself, he would have lost all authority on relationships and, with his authority, lost his lucrative royalties and speaking engagements.
This is no bashing of John Gray.
The guy understands genders better than most academics. Much of Gray’s criticism is driven by the nonsensical notion that genders & people are born mostly the same (also see “The Blank Slate“).
Gray is not the exception, but the rule of how many coaches, self-help gurus and marketers operate.
Have you noticed how almost any entrepreneur with products linked to his expertise seems to have such a compelling, inspiring story on how they started doing what they’re doing?
They struggled with this or that, fought without reprieve, learned and improved… Until they finally achieved their dreams.
And now… Now they want to sell you their product to do the same.
Of course, sometimes those stories are true.
But the vast majority of times those stories are “romanticized”, and many other times the identities are custom-made from scratch.
They are sales pitches, and the sellers’ identities are part of the marketing.
Law #26: CYA Legally, Then Dirty Your Hands With Unethical But Profitable Deeds
✘ Law 26: Keep your hands clean.
✔ Law 26: Keep your hands clean of small-time offenses, dirty them for good once you’re ready for the once in a lifetime hit
Law of Power #26. Explained
There are plenty of people who keep their hands clean all their life.
They make it such a big deal of respecting the law, acting morally and never saying anything out of place.
In truth, many of these proud “law-abiding citizens” go to swell the rank and files of average people.
And this is exactly what “The Goodfellas” intro describes.
But this is not how many powerful men operate.
While many good citizens care about being prosocial and keeping a prosocial image, many type-a personalities care more about power and social climbing than about what you think.
Their worry is not “staying clean”, their worry is not getting caught once their hands get dirty.
Law of Power #26 Example: Jho Low Stained His Hands & Happily Disappeared
Your reputation only matters if you stain your hands under your real name, if people find out or… If you stick around.
Jho Low, POS that he is, stained his hands big time.
Eventually, everyone knew about it, but he did it well and before police could catch up, he was gone.
He is “believed” to be in China.
But wherever he is, he is enjoying a lavish lifestyle financed by billions he stole from the people he was supposed to serve.
Unluckily, the truth is that we live in a world were staining your hands with a well-concocted plan works.
Alternatively, you can simply take care that you stain your hands legally.
If people won’t be able to recoup the fruits of your unethical deeds, then you can dirty your hands as unethically as you please.
And this is how the real power players do it.
They hide money in fiscal paradises, they lobby politicians, and they leverage loopholes.
You’ll never find out and, if you do, nobody will be able to do a thing about it.
The Clinton Foundation, legally providing the Clintons with the immense type of power and leverage that only billions of dollars can.
Law #27: Create A Cult Of Short Term Mood Fixes & Feel-Good Emptiness
✘ Law 27: Play on people’s need to believe to create a cult-like following.
✔ Law 27: The appeal of real solutions which require hard work is limited. The mass appeal is in the quick fix and in the “feel good” industry
Law of Power #27 Explained
This one depends on how you define “cult”.
In the strict sense of the term, creating a cult-like following was easier in ancient times.
People were more gullible before science and mass-education.
Sure, it’s still doable today and there are plenty of modern hard-core cults.
But if you aim at being a high-quality individual, you’d have to wonder today: who is going to follow a cult?
And if you are reading here, you probably will realize that cult-followers are not the type of people you want to spend most of your time with.
Law of Power #27 Example: The Self-Help Cult of Inspiration (Jay Shetty)
If we go for a “softer” definition of a cult, then you’re in luck.
There is an endless supply of people ready and willing to idolize the latest charismatic, deep-sounding guru teaching them how to think and how to live their lives.
As a matter of fact, our digital world is the best era in history for self-help gurus to gather a following as they can leverage digital virality.
For those who choose this path to power and influence, there is no need to worry about checking facts and actually helping people over the long term.
The best cults indeed don’t change people for good: they deliver short-term fixes that keep them back for more of the same “spin your wheels” inspiration.
Try to listen to self-styled “urban monk” Jay Jetty speaking:
“The paradox of our times is that we have more degrees but less sense. More knowledge but less judgment.
More experts but less solutions.
Tried to clean up the air but polluted our soul
That’s, my friends, is emptiness made into time-wasting motivation.
And other self-help gurus are only marginally better.
Take Brendon Burchard, whose books are a mumble jumbo of repackaged self-help but who can call himself a “New York Time bestseller” thanks to his cult-like followers.
And some of these self-help gurus are not just time-wasters but actually harmful (see my review of Marie Forleo).
Law #30: Make Your Accomplishment Inspirational – They Can Do It Too!
✘ Law 30: Make your accomplishments seem effortless.
✔ Law 30: Position your accomplishments as the final fruits of a mighty struggle and adverse fate, which you only conquered thanks to relentless drive, motivation and hard work
Law of Power #30 Explained
The original law does not reflect modernity too well.
Of course, people still love and respect talent.
Everyone unconsciously envies and respects “good genes”.
And that’s part of the issue with it.
Some people will be looking for ways to discount and discredit success from talent.
“Oh, yeah, he was born good-looking”, they’ll say.
Or “he won because he’s bigger”.
But as a hard-working underdog you are tougher to discredit.
And, most of all, you send a much more appealing message: that if you made it, so can anyone else.
It today’s cultural climate, if you want to be admired and revered across the board, you need to drop the natural talent angle.
You’re better instead to position yourself like you’ve fought insurmountable odds with endless dedication, grit, and power of perseverance.
And then end your spiel with a wink to the audience: they can do it too.
Law of Power #30 Example: Gary Vee & Hustle Porn
Almost every successful influencer today talks about struggle, hustle and hard work.
A mention to Gary Vee, the king of “no talent, all hard work” is mandatory here:
Heck, even Will Smith had to toe the “hustle porn” line when he wanted to broaden his appeal beyond simple “Holywood celeb status”.
One of his most famous quotes runs:
And where I excel is ridiculous, sickening, work ethic.
You know, while the other guy’s sleeping?
Sure one might wonder mr. Smith must also sleep at times?
So, yes, in this day and age, when you talk about money and success, you are better off bragging about work ethics than pretending it was all talent.
This is NO bashing of hard work, which is often a precondition and which can also be very fulfilling (see my monk mode for the past 2 years).
This is the second installment of the modern 48 Laws of Power.
I skipped a couple of laws as they were either valid and didn’t need any amendment, or they didn’t add enough value to make it in here.
- Here is the first volume of updated Laws of Power with laws 1 to 16.
- Here is the third and last installment
This article, as much as this website, is not an invitation to act amorally.
This is a dispassionate description of power dynamics and how some power-seeking individuals operate.
There are otherwise plenty of ways to acquire power ethically and that’s what I invite readers to seek.