The Upgraded 48 Laws of Power reviews “The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Greene with contemporary interpretations and examples.
You can read the previous installments here:
- Law #34: Dress With Sprezzatura to Display Power
- Law #38: Behave Like Others When Learning, Then Switch: Power Makes Others Adapt
- Law #39. Strategically Roil Your Opponents & Lead Them to Overreact
- Law #41. Learn From The Best Leaders, Leverage Them As Mentors
- Law #42: Purge The Troublemakers
- Law #43 Make People Want to Follow You
- Law #44. Use The Mirror Effects To Oust The Established Power
- Law #46: Focus On Doing Your Best First – Learn Strategic Vulnerability Later
- Law #47: If You’re Doing Better Than Expected, Double Down
- Law #48: Remain Open to New Ideas – The Law of Teachability
Law #34: Dress With Sprezzatura to Display Power
✘ Law 34: Be royal in your own fashion: act like a king to be treated like one.
✔ Law 34: Dress royally. Unless you’re already powerful and rich, In which case, dress how the hell you like
Law of Power #34 Explanation
This is another rule that applied better in the old days.
In the past, dressing well was the prerogative of well-off people, so high-quality dresses were a major indicator of wealth and power.
I am listening now to the biography of Casanova.
Casanova slept with a ton of women and did so in what was a very sexually conservative society. One of the keys to his success was power: he was a wealthy nobleman, and one of the main ways he conveyed his status was with his clothes.
Today, almost anyone can afford to dress well.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t dress well.
I love dressing well, and it’s a huge tool of personal influence and persuasion.
But today things have changed, and the rules invert at the very top. At the very top, a disdain for appearances can become a power display.
Nothing screams “I don’t need your approval” like a disheveled man mounting a Ferrari like he has not a care in the world.
Because not caring for what others think is either the sign of a low-quality individual or… The sign of power and superiority.
In today’s world, dressing poorly and/or simply has also become a status symbol for entrepreneurs, who are so consumed by their visions that they can’t find the time for “appearances”.
Avoiding suits and fine clothes makes the entrepreneur look monk-like and consumed by his lofty goals.
Example: Steve Jobs’ Evolution of Style
Nassim Taleb makes the case that rich people cuss and dress down as a power display.
Because cussing means you don’t need to follow PC etiquette and you’re not afraid of pissing off anyone (both major signs of “f*ck you money” and independence),
Dressing down is similar, sending the message that you don’t need to obey the rules that the herd must obey.
See how Steve Jobs style changed over time:
Steve Jobs, on the left, didn’t have the power to dress as he wanted (the name tag is another indicator of low power).
Steve Jobs, on the right instead, was the top dog, and he could dress as he pleased.
Law #38: Behave Like Others When Learning, Then Switch: Power Makes Others Adapt
✘ Law 38: Think as you like, but behave like others.
✔ Law 38: Behave like others while you are still climbing the ladder. Once you’re on top, make others adapt to you
Law of Power #38 Explained
The original law from “The 48 Laws of Power” is good for climbing to power.
But it’s not good for established power players.
From a mindset point of view, even while climbing the true Machiavelli knows that his “fitting in days” are numbered.
The true power player wants to shape cultures, not adapt to them.
Because, if you think about it, what’s the alternative?
If all you worry about is fitting in and dancing to someone else’s tune… Guess what, your future is written.
And it’s the future of a sheep.
- Office power plays (it’s a humorous article, but also based on how some power-obsessed Machiavellians think)
How to Fit In to Acquire Power
Let me repeat this:
You do want to fit in as a trainee, a junior employee, a manager, and even maybe up to an executive role.
This is something I describe in “How to Become A Leader“, which I recommend you check out if you’re serious about leadership.
But as you get closer and closer to the top, you want to focus less on fitting in and more on influencing the culture.
And the same for what we said for personal style, a display of quirkiness going against the grain is also a display of power.
It says that you can allow yourself to be you.
Example: Gianni Agnelli & Sprezzatura
Gianni Agnelli was a cool man.
Born into money aristocracy, he was known as the “rake of the Riviera” even while he kept a steady and (seemingly) happy marriage.
He wasn’t the type of rake who only slays because of his power and money though, and his conquests included equally powerful women.
Jackie Kennedy, JFK’s wife, flew to the Amalfi Coast just to spend the holidays with him, and a defensive US president hat to plead her for “more first lady, less Agnelli”.
But Gianni wasn’t “just” a womanizer.
He enjoyed women but wasn’t the type of man to let women steer him off his path.
With a mix of business acumen and charm, he led his family business to become Italy’s biggest industrial complex.
Famous for his conquests, business success, and style… Why would such a man wear his watches on the outside of his shirt?
There are a few rumors as to why he did it.
But ultimately, it’s because he could.
Where you wear your watch is purely cultural.
Nobody says it must be inside the shirt or on your left. People wearing it “the proper way” are fitting in.
But Agnelli didn’t need to fit in.
And he didn’t want to.
The watch on the outside of his shirt was his way of saying “I got f*ck you money and f*ck you power, so f*ck your rules, you follow them”.
Law #39. Strategically Roil Your Opponents & Lead Them to Overreact
✘ Law 39: Stir up waters to catch fish.
✔ Law 39: Roil your opponent whenever a clear mind provides an edge, but be careful that an emotional opponent will not instead gain an edge
Law of Power #39 Explained
This rule actually works even better in modernity.
Because we condemn violence and overreactions even more so than we did in the past.
However, it’s still a big mistake to generalize.
Greene says that “anger and emotions are counterproductive”, but that’s now always true.
We will see two examples for each to learn how to properly use the law of power #39.
Example: Successfully Stirring Fish (Marco Materazzi)
Raise your hand if you know Materazzi.
Unless you’re into football, like really into football, then you probably don’t.
And it makes sense.
You see, Materazzi is not a great player.
Not with his feet, at least.
But when it comes to stirring up the waters, he pulled the biggest and most feat ever football ever -or maybe at par with Maradona’s handstrike goal-.
Italy and France, two countries with a strong sports rivalry, were battling it out in the World Cup final, the biggest sports event ever.
The two teams were tied 1-1 but France, led by its best player ever Zinedine Zidane, was going on the assault.
Zidane was a legend-level player who had already won a World Cup -the first-ever for France-.
He had come back after a 2-years retirement just for the World Cup.
This was going to be his last match ever.
Ending with the biggest possible bang would have consecrated him into the Olympus of the best players ever.
Zidane seemed on his way into legendhood already.
He had already scored the first goal.
And did so with a “panenka” penalty kick, a football power move that embarrassed the Italian goalie.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of that panenka.
Zidane scored it against keeper Gianluigi Buffon. Buffon was the captain of the Italian squad, the main alpha male of the team, one of the best players in that tournament, and widely considered to be the best keeper ever.
Buffon represented the Italian team, and Zidane made a mockery out of him.
See the panenka here:
Embarrassing the Italian captain with a panenka kick was a highly significant power display by Zidane. Captain VS captain, it was the equivalent of saying “I’m the true master here”. And embarrassing the best goalie ever was a statement as to “who” was the real best player.
Yours truly was on the edge of his seat for the whole night.
It all seemed set to be Zidane’s crowning night. And a searing defeat for the Italians.
And it might have worked that way.
If it wasn’t for Materazzi stirring up water.
Nobody knows exactly what Materazzi said to Zidane.
But it changed the course of history.
Zidane overreacted, lost his head, and sank it deep into Materazzi’s chest.
Materazzi then played the game, pretending he was about to die. And Zidane was thrown out of the game.
See the video here:
Some people defended Zidane and roasted Materazzi.
And, honestly, Materazzi was a dirty player.
But in that game, Marco Materazzi sent a message of possibility and inspiration.
Materazzi was the modern David that defeated Goliath.
A mediocre player dethroned the legend, and made himself king.
Marco was a true Machiavellian hero for all the world’s underdogs.
Reverse Example: McGregor Stirs Up the Wrong Water, Finds a Shark
Stirring up waters can lead to violence or war.
When that’s the case, it might be that both sides lose.
Anger and rage in contact sports can be an advantage for your opponent.
For example, many have argued that Khabib destroyed McGregor thanks to the rage that he brought into the ring.
And that rage was there because of McGregor trying to stir up waters.
McGregor’s “stirring water” technique likely made his opponent stronger (and sure made him look like a big mouth after the bout)
Even in non-contact sports, people who are good at channeling that anger can turn your stirring into motivation.
Legendary coach Phil Jackson shares in his biography the story of Derrick stirring up waters with Michael Jordan.
The Grizzlies were winning against the Chicago Bulls, and Derrick thought well of stirring waters and taunting Michael Jordan.
This is what Michale Jordan told him:
And then proceeded to unleash hell.
MJ led the Bulls to turn around the match and to inflict a historical beating on the water-stirrer.
What does it all mean to you?
What should you do, stirring or not stirring?
Stirring Up or Not Stirring Up?
As we’ve seen, stirring up water can be dangerous.
As a rule of thumb, do this:
- On pure mental games of concentration where rationality and coolness rule, stir your enemies
- With opponents who know how to channel their rage appropriately use the opposite strategy and induce them into a false state of tranquillity instead (play a sucker to catch a sucker)
Law #41. Learn From The Best Leaders, Leverage Them As Mentors
✘ Law 41: Avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes.
✔ Law 41: Seek great leaders to learn from
Law of Power #41 Explained
It’s partially true what Greene says.
It will always be a challenge being the leader after a great leader.
But what’s the alternative?
Waiting it out?
Who knows when your next chance will come.
Moving somewhere else?
Even if nobody knows, deep down you will know that you’re quitting out of fear.
Again, this is a terribly defensive mindset.
Even more, this is a defetist mindset.
I invite you to take the opposite view.
A great predecessor is a great man to learn from.
You might be able to recruit your great predecessor as your mentor as you take over, and you can use his great work and achievements to spur even bigger achievements.
Even if you aim at being “remembered” as the best -a really hollow mindset you should overcome-, remember this:
A dynasty always beats a single good ruler
A good CEO manages a turnaround, or gives a company a good run. Dynasties create empires.
So don’t be a scared bitch: take the challenge and run with it.
Example: Maldini Follows a Legend, Becomes a Bigger Legend
Baresi was the captain of AC Milan, and he was one of the finest defenders to have ever played.
Maldini, a promising football rising star, was a born and bred Milan player, coming up from the junior teams of AC Milan.
Eventually, Maldini was old and talented enough to start playing with Serie A teams.
As the up-and-coming young gun, if he wanted to “avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes”, he should have left Milan.
He could have sought greener pastures somewhere else and, strong of his talent, become captain soon after and be the undisputed N.1 of a smaller team.
But that would have been a typical “big fish in a small pond” mentality.
And Maldini was better than that.
He stayed and built a great relationship with Baresi, learning all the tools of the trade from the best of the best.
Maldini grew to be one of the finest defenders to have ever played, winning everything there was to win, being part of one of the best teams ever, and eventually becoming captain after Baresi retired.
Strong of his model-like looks, Maldini also became the (pretty) face of the club and a true “flag” for Milan since he never switched teams.
In terms of skills, it’s hard to say whether or not Maldini surpassed Baresi.
But it doesn’t matter: his name only shone bigger because of the partnership at the top.
The two of them are the best defending duo to have ever played together.
Law #42: Purge The Troublemakers
✘ Law 42: Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter.
✔ Law 42: Bad influences spread. Make sure you spot and fire the troublemakers early
Law of Power #42 Explained
This law applies well to modernity as group dynamics stayed the same.
The caveat is that you must strike early, because rotten apples can spoil the bunch very quickly.
If you’re looking for team performance, troublemakers take on a much wider meaning, including people who:
- Avoid work
- Don’t buy into the vision
- Aren’t unsupportive of the team
There are good resources on this website grounded on both psychology and power dynamics.
Example: When It’s Either Them Or You (Kobe VS Jackson)
Phil Jackson, whom we already saw earlier shares a story all leaders should do well to heed.
Jackson was eventually ousted from the Lakers in good part because of his souring relationship with the team’s star: Kobe Bryant.
Jackson implied that Kobe Bryant was too rebellious and uncoachable.
In this interview, Bryant implies that Jackson was sneaky and talking too indirectly:
It’s difficult getting to know the truth.
Having listened to both I tend to believe that Jackson’s approach was too much on the “finessing” side and he might have been more forceful and more direct.
However, once he realized he couldn’t fix the rift, he had one option only if he wanted to remain the leader of a healthy team; get rid of Kobe Bryant.
Law #43 Make People Want to Follow You
✘ Law 43: Work on the hearts and minds of others.
✔ Law 43: Make people want to follow you
Law of Power #43 Explained
Law #42 is the opposite of Greene’s “air of terror” law.
And albeit they both might have a place, law #43 works better on most occasions and with most people.
And especially so in our modern world of democracy and personal freedoms.
Law #44. Use The Mirror Effects To Oust The Established Power
✘ Law 44: Disarm and infuriate with the mirror effect
✔ Law 44: Use the mirror effect when you are the upstart and you are trying to unsettle more powerful and more established players
Law of Power #44 Explained
The “mirror effect” can be very powerful, but it has a limited scope.
Because, while it can infuriate, it also shows you are overly invested in your opponent (rather than your own life and goals).
And over-investing in someone is a clear sign your opponent is holding sway over you.
There is however one use of the mirror effect.
And that’s when you are dealing with legends and/or opponents who are obviously better than you are.
In those cases, it’s OK for you to over-invest in them because it’s already obvious to everyone they are better while you still need to prove yourself.
Example: Unsettling The Established King (Valentino Rossi)
Valentino Rossi had been the dominant figure of motorbike racing for years.
Dominant here not just in wins, but in attitude as well: Rossi was (covertly) obsessed with power and dominance.
During my formative years, Rossi is one of the guys from whom I learned the most about dominance, power, and power dynamics.
But here is a truth of life: no lion reigns forever on sheer force.
And eventually the upcoming young guns started claiming the throne.
Jorge Lorenzo was the first aspirer to the throne.
And to unsettle his rival, he used the mirror effect.
Valentino Rossi, extroverted and exuberant, was famous for mocking his opponents and staging post-race theatrical celebrations.
Jorge Lorenzo, reserved, introverted and somewhat socially awkward, wasn’t the type.
But he forced himself and started copying Rossi’s post-race celebrations. Here is one example where Lorenzo indirectly mocked Rossi for finishing the race much farther behind.
The most dramatic example of the “mirror effect” though was with a later upcoming young gun: Marc Marquez.
Marquez never admitted it, but he was obsessed with being the new (and upgraded) Rossi.
He copied Rossi not with his celebration, but with what hurt the most: his wins, his riding style, and his on-track aggression.
The apex of the mirror effect came in the Laguna Seca race.
Years prior Rossi had pulled in Laguna Seca one of the most legendary overtakes ever in the history of motorbike racing by going on the off-track gravel with a bike on slick tires.
See it for yourself here.
Now what does Marquez do?
He overtakes Rossi himself in the exact same spot, going outside the tarmac exactly like Rossi had done.
See the overtake here.
Marquez would go on antagonizing Rossi in undercover ways and trying to prevent him from winning a 10th title.
But Marquez did it with a smile on his face, which infuriated Rossi and prompted the old lion to overreact in one of the most dramatic scenes any sport has ever seen.
Watch for yourself:
Law #46: Focus On Doing Your Best First – Learn Strategic Vulnerability Later
✘ Law 46: Never appear too perfect.
✔ Law 46: Show strategic vulnerability when appropriate. If you’re not sure when to stick to always do your best no matter what the envious will think
Law of Power #46 Explained
This law works differently for the ancient world and modernity.
In the past, appearing perfect for kings and masters was advisable for kings and masters, but dangerous for underlings (“never outshine the master”).
Today, it’s different.
We live in democracies where (on paper) everyone is the same. But we also live in an iconoclastic culture that does not respect ranks and authority nearly as much as it did in the past.
Today everyone is invited to feel the same as their bosses and masters, which creates a ripe environment for envy and jealousy.
In this environment, “never appearing too perfect” can make sense. Even for an already powerful individual.
Perfection funnels envy and resentment and does so especially in certain types of individuals.
- Men can be jealous of a successful woman when said men feel that women are inferior
- As Taleb correctly points out, an ivy-league educated man will be resentful of a self-made man without education because some ivy-league individuals feel “superior” to uneducated men
- Rich-countries’ citizens can be jealous of immigrants who become successful because they (secretly) feel like immigrants should do menial tasks
In these cases, it might make sense to appear less than perfect IF you want to be accepted and welcomed by the group that feels envious of you.
But there are important psychological caveats to this rule.
It does not apply If the envious people have little power over you and if you could care less about them.
And it does not apply to people who admire you deeply, care for you and are not ambitious (or dickhead) enough to feel superior to you.
In all these cases, don’t heed the advice of “making mistakes on purpose”, which is one of the most stupid “social skills” tips I’ve ever read.
Focus less on making mistakes and more on producing mistake-free work
This is the truth:
It takes a lot of emotional intelligence to understand when strategic weakness is called for.
People who haven’t reached that level and/or haven’t acquired enough power yet should not focus on this rule.
- Frenemies and how to spot frenemies (frenemies are the envious par excellence)
- Vulnerability is not power: don’t overdo it
Law #47: If You’re Doing Better Than Expected, Double Down
✘ Law 47: Do not go past the mark you aimed for; in victory know when to stop.
✔ Law 47: If you were aiming for 90 and getting 95, try to go for 100, too
Law of Power #47 Explained
This is another law that applies more to the war fields that Greene loves so much than to modern social life.
But in normal life, if you are doing better than you expected, you should likely double down your efforts instead of stopping earlier.
That’s how power players act.
Real power players, especially the ones who climb fast, think in terms of “faster, bigger, greater”.
Example: Go For The Bigger Deal
Below is a movie based on the real story of George Jung.
And sure, Jung he was in the drug business and that didn’t end up well.
But it’s the mindset here that is common to all power players, including the ones in legal businesses.
And this is the mindset of how some individuals acquire power fast.
In Jung’s career, when the business was going well with the weed the average guys in the team were happy with a good, but not life-changing sum of money.
They would have stopped there.
But Jung smelled the opportunity for real money and power.
Jung saw the business had potential, and he immediately thought about overshooting his goal and supplies and going directly to the sources.
And this is exactly how many fast-climbing power players think and act.
To stay within movies, it’s how Tony Montana in Scarface thinks and behaves.
But it’s also how Trump thinks and behaves.
In his movie “The Art of The Deal” Trump shows the typical “more, more, more” attitude of the fast-climbing power player.
It’s the attitude of going past his mark that allowed Trump to win the presidency while most people laughed at his campaign and called him unfit for the presidency.
Law #48: Remain Open to New Ideas – The Law of Teachability
✘ Law 48: Assume formlessness
✔ Law 48: Never assume you have “arrived”, but remain teachable and open to new ideas
Law of Power #48 Explained
Remaining “adaptable” is one of those suggestions that’s easy to give but difficult to apply.
What does it even mean, and where, when and how do you apply it?
The best interpretation in our modern world of fast change is to remain teachable and learnable.
Idiots repeat the same thing over 30 years and call it “experience”.
Fools end their training, get their diplomas and feel like they have arrived.
Real wise men keep searching for new answers and new wisdom until they die.
The 48 Laws of Power is a wonderful book about power, but its laws are too specific and mostly suited for the ancient world.
This article puts the laws in perspective and adds modern examples and interpretations.
You can find the two previous installments here:
To keep this series streamlined I skipped some laws because they overlap with previous laws (for example: “dazzle with spectacles” is “learn to leverage politics and appearances but never to the detriment of skills and results”).
As usual, The Power Moves does not encourage or condone amorality. Use responsibly.