Big Think Interview With Robert Greene

A conversation with the writer and expert on power.
  • Transcript


Question: Did you learn about power and seduction through research or practice?

Robert Greene: A combination of both. I’ve been working… My girlfriend and I once counted that I’ve had in my life 80 different jobs, never very long. I think the longest job I ever had was about 10 months, but in all sorts of different things from working for a detective agency to working in Hollywood and I’ve seen a lot of manipulative power moves enacted on other people and enacted on myself, so I had a storehouse of all this experience and all of this kind of bitterness and then I got the opportunity to write the first book and I just knew. I’d done a lot of research in Hollywood and in academia. I love research and so I wanted to kind of ground the book in history, in things that I read that were universal and timeless and then kind of let my own experiences sort of filter through all of this history.

Question: Do you still practice your own techniques, or are you detached from them?

Robert Greene: Well it’s a combination. I mean as a writer you know you don’t have to deal with a lot of the crap that most people deal with, the political things. Every couple of years when your book comes out then you have to go into these fights with the publisher and the publicist and then maybe I bring sort of my knowledge of power into play. I’m kind of a combination. I mean some of the things like crush your enemy totally I don’t practice that in my real life. Get other people to do the work, but take the credit, that was done to me. I don’t do that to other people, but some of the things like from The Art of Seduction and other particular laws of power that I usually rely upon, so it’s a mix of things.

Question: What’s a specific situation in which you’ve overcome powerlessness?

Robert Greene: Well you’re always feeling powerless in life, so early on when I was working in Hollywood as a writer I would work with a director or a film company and what… I would end up coming in, in the end and kind of writing whole scenes and then they would take it away from me and do whatever the hell they wanted with it or they would take my name out of the whole thing and the only thing you could do when you work for a giant leviathan like Hollywood in which they just swallow your individuality up is to leave it and I left it and I went and wrote books because… And oddly enough now I’m going back into it because we’re trying to make a film version of The 48 Laws of Power, but now I’ve got the power on my side because I wrote the book. They can’t mess with me. They don’t do what I want then they’re gone, but before there was nothing I could do, so I left. And I tell people a lot like if you’re in an abusive relationship or working for what we call a psychotic boss sometimes the only option is to leave because you’re emotions get so entangled with these manipulative people that staying there you’re just helpless because they’re good at these passive aggressive games and you’re not, so you have to leave. You know working on this… and I’m still in this situation, working on the new book. The 50th Law, I love 50 Cent. He is a wonderful person, but he is a celebrity and he is very busy and sometimes it’s difficult to get… I wanted to get more action from him on promoting the book. You know who am I to move someone like that? So I had to confront my own powerlessness in the situation and in the end he came through, but I had to kind of take a step back and just let things happen, which is often what you have to do in life.

Question: Is there something inherently unethical about seeking power?

Robert Greene: It depends. Ethics and power are separate. That’s why I separated them. Ethics and morality, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I think life would be miserable if there weren’t some kind of code that people operated by, but history is full of many, many people who have gotten power by very unethical means, people who were very ethical who get no power, people who have the most brilliant, lovely, wonderful, nice intentions and bring about horrible things in the world because they don’t know how to play the power game. The two are separate. They don’t really intersect at any point. I talk in The 33 Strategies of War, I use Mahatma Gandhi as one of the examples I look at, and he was obviously a very ethical man. I’m not ever going to deny that, but he used strategy when he tried to take on the British and get them out of India. This was a man who was extremely clever, who understood England very well. He had lived there. He understood its weaknesses, its vulnerabilities, and he attacked them in an extremely strategic manner. If he had been just simply a good, ethical man and thought that was enough, nothing would have happened. So I wanted to write a book about power. I want to write a book about seduction or about warfare and strategy. I want to focus on them as intensely and deeply as possible. I want to reveal to the reader all of the things that people in history have done, some of it dastardly, some of it not so dastardly. And then I treat the reader like an adult. It’s up to you. If you’re already somebody who has issues and problems the book might push you more in that direction. I don’t know, but you’re probably going to be doing those things anyway. I find with most of my readers are kind of like me, sort of people who were a little bit naïve in life and then learned the hard way that this is what’s going on, the political games and most of my readers write to me telling me that the book helped them open their eyes to what other people are doing to them.

Question: How can you tell if you’re dealing with a conscious manipulator?

Robert Greene: Everything depends on circumstance. A lot of people are obvious. Right away you can tell that they’re after something from you, but most people are tricky. Most people are passive aggressive in this world. I have this idea that the human being is born with a kind of reservoir of aggression. We are inherently somewhat aggressive creatures and we either channel that in direct ways or we channel it in indirect ways and we become passive aggressive and more and more people nowadays are passive aggressive, so months can go by and you’re not realizing that they are these sort of slippery snakes and I mean we’re all passive aggressive to some extent. We can’t help it, but some people just take it to another limit and there are ways you can recognize when you’re dealing with it. I give hints throughout my books. An example would be you enter a job or a new position somewhere and there is somebody who is suddenly extremely nice to you and you don’t know why. They’re flattering you. They’re praising you. They’re listening to everything you say. They want to know what you’re doing. They’re desire to be a friend is too fast. Usually you’re dealing with someone that’s up to something. This is a tactic they have used in life to get something from you. They’re winning your confidence over. They’re learning about you and they’re going to probably eventually betray you because if someone is genuine with their emotions they generally take time. Everybody is a little bit distrustful and needs to know… learn about the other person. These types that are glomming onto you right away they’ve got some kind of emptiness inside on they’re playing some kind of game and you need to be very wary of them. So the flatterers, the overt flatterers are usually hiding some kind of manipulation. I mean there are people who are genuinely like that or who have a need because they’re insecure to do that and then maybe you don’t have to worry about them. I don’t want to promote paranoia in my books. It’s not like wow, everybody is after me. You know that’s not going to be very powerful. A person like Stalin was like that and he was powerful, but it ended up completely destroying him because he couldn’t trust anyone. The idea is to be smart and not be so naïve and there are people around you who are probably playing passive aggressive games and they give off signals. You know I gave you one idea. There are many.

Question: Does megalomania tend to weaken leaders?

Robert Greene: Well you know you could say Napoleon was a bit like that. I happen to admire Napoleon a lot because he was such a brilliant strategist. I call him the Mozart of warfare. He was like a child prodigy with war and strategy, but you can divide Napoleon’s career into two halves. For ten years from 1796 to 1806 he was an absolute genius. From 1806 to 1816 at Waterloo and everything he lost it all and it went to his head. His success went to his head and instead of being enjoying the process I tell people if you want to be powerful in life you have to enjoy the process. You have to get pleasure out of making the thing that you’re making. It can be politics. There has to be that kind of purpose behind it. If your purpose is simply gaining power, if you become kind of drunk on the sensation that it gets you. I’m not making a moral judgment on it, it’s just simply if that becomes your end in life then you end up sort of destroying yourself because you lose the sense of **** and detachment that’s very necessary. You have to be detached a little bit from other people so you can see what’s going on in the world. If you’re too emotional you’re going to lose it. You have to be detached from yourself. You have to be able to look at yourself with some distance and some humor and some irony. You look at a person like Napoleon and he had that for awhile. He was a very clever person, but he was also able to criticize himself, et cetera, and then the power just became too much, and he thought he was a god and he, on the battlefield he started losing it. Stalin you know is a clear example, but you lose on a smaller scale… We’re talking about giant egos like a Napoleon or a Stalin. On a smaller scale it happens to everybody. When you have any kind of success in life, that’s like the most dangerous moment that you’re in because you’re going to tend to think wow, I can just keep repeating what I’ve done. I’m a great person. People love me. All of the sudden they’re giving me all of this attention. You get drunk on it and you lose your sense of balance and your sense of detachment. I know it’s happened to me. Fifteen years ago I was saying the same things that I’m saying now, but nobody listened to me because I was nobody. Now everybody thinks wow, he is saying this and that and what does that mean and it can go to your head and you can start thinking I’m infallible, and you have to drop that and you have to step back and look at yourself and all of that. So that’s sort of how you could become a Napoleon or a Stalin, and I think celebrities have that kind of complex.

Question: How should the U.S. handle power-mad dictators like Kim-Jong Il?

Robert Greene: Well you’re giving me like a pretty tough example. You know somebody once did the same thing with Israel and Palestine, like I’m going to be able to solve that problem. Give me a break. Kim Jong-il, you know, we’re dealing with these kind of closed systems of power like the Soviet Union was for many, many years, a world mostly you put a group of people together and politics intervenes. I say put three people together and people become political and they start thinking in political terms. You get a place like the Soviet Union or North Korea, these closed systems, it becomes completely political, but it’s not based on who is the smartest, on who has the most skill, who is the best leader to logically lead our country to power and success. It’s all about these little political games that people are playing. You can’t enter that world from the outside and tell people in North Korea what to do. A closed system like that… I used in The 48 Laws of Power, I talk about Athens and Sparta in ancient Greece. Athens was this very fluid democratic capitalistic environment. Sparta was this closed world. For hundreds of years they tried to create the system and they didn’t want it to change and eventually it just fell apart on its own because you can’t keep something closed in this world. North Korea has to just fall apart like it will eventually. Kim Jong-il will die. Somehow people will reach a level of dissatisfaction. You can’t force history. That’s sort of what we tried to do in Iraq. We’ll see what happens. Many people like myself years ago were predicting failure. You can’t force history. Things like that have to come up from below, from the people themselves, so my advice, unfortunately, to people in North Korea is to wait for when that moment happens. It’s interesting to see a place like Iran where it’s really happening now and it’s very interesting and very exciting where you have a group of people that are trying to put the lid on change and on history and a lot of very brave people are trying to struggle and fight against that because they’ve reached a level of disgust. They just can’t stand it any longer and so it’s coming up from the bottom. I don’t see any signs of that in North Korea, so it might be another 50, 100 years. Who knows?

Question: What propelled Obama and not McCain to power in 2008?

Robert Greene: Well you know a lot of things in history are timing, and it’s very peculiar because in retrospect things… people can look more brilliant or necessary than they actually were. So the fact that Bill Clinton faced George Bush, the first George Bush in ’92, was just the perfect moment for him in that sense. People were really bored with the Reagan era. They didn’t like Bush. He was unpopular and it was timing. W happened to have the good fortune of facing Al Gore in the year 2000 for all the virtues of Al Gore, and we love him, ran probably one of the worst campaigns, and he is not a good campaigner. In retrospect it looked like W, you know Karl Rove, that great genius, was able to do this electoral magic, but in fact, he happened to have the good luck to face two very weak candidates in Gore and in Kerry. Obama, I’m not saying Obama had luck, but the moment was totally right. People were just viscerally nauseated by W. They had enough of the wars, the incompetence, Katrina, the secrecy, but what Obama did that was brilliant, and I talk about it in The 50th Law to a little extent, is he understood that the timing was right and a normal person would have waited. I even thought he should have waited and I was wrong at the time, that it was too early for him. Nobody knew him. He had no record. He was a black man in America. You know what are you thinking? Give it some time. He understood that this was the moment. If he waited to 2012 that moment would have gone. He would have… Hillary would have won. She would have been in a position of power. He would have never had a chance. This was his moment. He opposed the Iraq war. He had momentum and he ran a brilliant campaign. It’s a question of obviously facing a very weak candidate in John McCain. I don’t know who they would have put up, who could have possible posed a greater threat, but Obama was brilliant in how he saw that this was the one moment he had and then he ran… For a Democrat, because Democrats generally are pretty incompetent when it comes to running elections. I’m a Democrat myself, so I say that with you know a little bit of I’m upset to hear that, but someone like John Kerry… Typically Democrats don’t understand strategy. They’re always reacting to news events and tacking there here and there depending on what is happening. They have no sense of the larger picture. Obama was the first person in my lifetime… I can swear the first candidate in my lifetime who I could say this man understands strategy. He ran a brilliant campaign, a lot of it based on a consistent message, which is one thing I preach, which was his opposition to the war and change, very well marketing wise. It was brilliant. This was the first man in my lifetime who I could compare to FDR or John F. Kennedy, two other brilliant campaigners in history.

Question: In what areas, if any, has Obama ceded power since 2008?

Robert Greene: You know, it’s a little hard for me because I have a problem, which is I like him a lot and I normally don’t have this problem because I normally don’t like politicians, so I can view them with some distance, so I’m giving that caveat that I have this problem. I’m not completely objective. He has run up against some things that he hadn’t expected, which for somebody at his age, with his level of executive experience, which wasn’t any is going to encounter. So he is at a crossroads. He is a very intelligent man who is very capable of learning from experience. He is finding out what FDR discovered when he became president that suddenly you’re ruling over hundreds of people with their own agendas who come at you with their own little power bases and their own games and it’s chaos and it’s madness. Now FDR evolved a very brilliant way of handling it. He had also been governor of New York. He had some executive experience. It’s not been even a year that Obama has been as president and so I preach the idea of patience. Let us see how a man or a woman evolves over time in this position because that’s what shows how great a leader they’re going to be. He is at a kind of a crossroads. If he becomes consumed by these pressures from outside he could end up being a mediocre president. That is always possible. I have faith that he probably could go in the other direction, but an example would be Afghanistan. He inherited this situation. It wasn’t his creation and he inherited a military complex that’s peopled with generals that he had nothing to do with who bring in all kinds of pressures. It’s an extremely complicated situation and it’s filled with all kinds of landmines. If he disregards what his generals are saying it’s going to start looking like the Democrat who is weak, who doesn’t… who is against war, who doesn’t understand hard political realities, the right will eat him up and so he is between a rock and a hard place and some of these generals that he has inherited are not very cooperative with him. I’ve heard from people that I know. I don’t have a lot of connections, but I have some, that there is some friction from the old guard who were there in the Bush years. He is facing a very complicated problem in how to manage the military brass. I don’t think people understand how difficult and chaotic and complicated it can be to be the president of the United Stated inheriting what he has inherited in the year 2009 and so we’re going to measure him in the next year. I say give him another year. I’m kind of sick of all of these progressives who are just piling on him. Let’s just see things. I don’t think he is necessarily someone who is selling out, but it’s possible. Let’s give it some more time.

Question: What would you advise people trying to find or maintain jobs in the recession?

Robert Greene: Well I’m a big believer in being an entrepreneur. It’s easy for me to say because I work for myself and I am someone who likes that process, but I think most people in the world today understand that working for a company is a very insecure position to be in. You have no control over your destiny and things are changing so quickly in the world where a promising field five years ago doesn’t exist anymore, so it’s very complicated. You’ve got to play a double game. On the one hand you have to be aware of putting food on your table, of making a living in the here and now and you have to be smart about it and you have to choose the right field for you, but on the other hand you have to juggle your longer terms goals, particularly if you’re younger, where you want to be in ten years. I always tell people that it sounds hokey, but I believe it, that everybody was born with a kind of uniqueness. There is never going to be somebody else with the same DNA as you, with the same experiences. There is something that you were meant to do as an individual. You have some kind of creative skill. It can either be creating your own business in some level, creating your own project, being a writer, an artist, whatever, or it can even be working within a company itself because some people like that security, but from within that company you’re creating something. You’re doing something from within that makes you excited that fills you with passion because we all know when you’re doing something that you like everything changes. You have an energy that you don’t have and so you’ve got to juggle these two things. If you’re consumed only with the big dream you’re going to die because you won’t be able to feed yourself or you’re going to be losing your job, so you’ll just be sitting in your room dreaming, but if you’re only thinking of that job now and holding onto these crap jobs that keep you just above of the water you’re going to be unhappy. In 15 years you’re going to be burnt out, washed out. Life goes by very fast, so you have to think of the two things at the same time. If you’re in a job that’s not exactly what you want in life you can mix the two together. You can try finding things that you can do from within there where you’re learning about that business, taking on more responsibility, taking on a project that nobody else wanted to handle and then learning some self reliance, learning some skills as an executive or as an entrepreneur from within that company and getting more responsibility so it’s not a drudge work. The worst thing in life that you can have is a job that you hate, that you have no energy in that you’re not creative with and you’re not thinking of the future. To me might as well be dead. I’m sorry to say that. So even if you’re forced now to get a job at a Starbucks or whatever there is something within Starbucks I hate to say that you can learn about that business, get a sense, always be observing and learning and not allowing I call it in The 50th Law I call it dead time or alive time. If you’re just letting the time pass at your job it’s just dead time and you’ll never get it back. If at that job you’re learning and you’re observing and you’re seeing about people and connections and how the business is run it’s suddenly alive time and it’s all up to you and how you approach it.

Question: How can employees negotiate the power dynamic of asking for a raise?

Robert Greene: Well you know we can talk for several hours about all of these things here, but it’s all about timing and the amount of importance you put on things. If you’re in your early twenties don’t think of… don’t put so much importance on the money, on the raise. You know getting an extra thousand dollars a year, if it’s that important, okay, I don’t want to deny that for you, but the real thing is the responsibility and the power and the experience that you’re learning, the larger picture that I was talking about. When you want to ask for a raise you don’t want to be seen as someone who is asking for it for the wrong reason. It has to be necessary. It has to be right. You have to have proven that you are essential to this place, that they can’t get rid of you, that they need you, that you’re necessary and you have to have a track record and then it’s logical and it fits and then you can ask for it and it makes sense. You don’t have to wait three years. You could go a little bit early. I’m all for boldness in that area, but the worst thing is to sit there and whine and complain and obsess about money as if that were the only sign of your worth. If people are giving you positions of responsibility, that’s worth $5,000 that you may not be getting right away because you’re learning something, and if you’re able to stop being so impatient because people… We’re impatient creatures by nature, but my God, people now don’t have the patience for like three months to go by, you know. Just calm yourself down and say the best the thing you can do in a workplace is to impress your boss and show him or her that they need you, that you’ve created… You know in The 48 Laws of Power I have a chapter about learn to keep people dependent on you, a very important chapter because the idea is people will get rid of you the moment they don’t need you. You create this thing where they need you. You have a skill that no one else can. You’ve impressed them. You’ve got a track record. Then go for that raise and get as much as you can, but be patient and be willing to let that build through a process.

Question: Do men and women seek different kinds of power in relationships?

Robert Greene: Well, yes and no. I mean if you are coming from another planet, an extraterrestrial, and you arrived on the planet Earth and you saw these humans moving around you wouldn’t see much difference between men and women as opposed to fish or dogs or whatever. We have an essential human relationship to power that we want. Seduction, we have a certain relationship to the need to have love and things in our life and the psychology of seducing a person I maintain is pretty much the same whether you’re a man or you’re a woman, you’re gay, you’re transgendered. I don’t care. Of course there are differences and it’s the weird thing is you’ll find men who respond to things like sex more like a woman and you’ll find woman who are more like a man. It’s all mixed up. Everybody is different and is individual, but of course there are things that a woman has different biologically and psychologically. I just think people focus too much on the differences and what fascinates me in the world is what the human animal and what unites them, what makes a black guy from the hood like 50 just like me in some elemental way, but you know you have to understand if you’re trying to seduce a woman for instance, taking the man’s point of view that they are obviously different and the main problem that a man would have in a seductive situation is he is too impatient. The only thing he is thinking about is sex. He is not willing to spend two months courting a woman knowing that in the end the sex will be a million times better if he just calms himself down. He can go home and take care of himself on his own if he needs to. Just spend those couple months, whatever is needed to court her, to make her feel like she is an individual, like she is worth it, and you know it’s going to pay off. On the other side a lot of times a woman all she thinks about is the relationship. Is this going to…? My boyfriend, you know, is he going to be committed? They’re thinking about that after one week and it frightens the man away. The woman has to calm down. The woman has to be more patient. She has to let the man trust her more and not feel like she is coming at this with this need for a relationship right away. Both sides have to learn patience, but for different reasons.

Question: How can understanding power dynamics help people in long-term relationships?

Robert Greene: Well you have to be careful on the one hand because if you get kind of excited by seducing, you’re going to want to move onto the next person in line and you’re going to get bored. So if it’s somebody that you really love and you want to have a relationship with you have to, first of all, kind of calm down a bit your seductive desires for new meat or however you want to put it and realize that you… The worst thing that can happen is you’re a great seducer and then you have a relationship and then suddenly you stop trying. You know you no longer dress like you used to. You just wear your pajamas and your T-shirts. You don’t take here… I’m taking the man’s point of view, but you can turn it around. You don’t take her to a nice restaurant anymore. You just want to eat in all the time. No more movies. No more travel. No more flowers or whatever the… I hate to be so cliché, but whatever it is that is… that worked in the first place you stop trying and everything… You start taking the other person for granted and everything becomes familiar and the whole spark and the mystery is gone and then forget it. So you want to keep some of that seduction still going, but not too much of it because a relationship after all is a degree of stability. You don’t want too much drama, but you still want some drama. You still want some mystery. You don’t want the other person to know everything about you. You still want to keep trying. You still want to do the things that you did before, but maybe a little bit differently. That’s the way to keep seducing the same person and believe me I’ve dealt with hundreds of people coming to me with the same problem. I tell them the same thing. You’ve stopped trying. It’s not their fault necessarily. Maybe it’s both of your faults, but you have to keep that enchantment thing going.

Question: What’s an effective “opening move” for a would-be seducer?

Robert Greene: Oh boy. It really depends on what you’re after and where you are. You know, if you’re in a bar you can ask certain things that might work for a one night stand that if you tried in a library would earn you like a book hit over your head, so it really depends on where you are. You know the thing is in seduction… I’m kind of avoiding your question, but I’m not. The thing in seduction is everybody that you’re dealing with is an individual and you’re problem is you’re bringing with you your baggage, your past, your stereotypes about who a man is or what a woman is like. The other sex is almost Freud said is like another country. You know you don’t really understand them in any way, so you bring with you all of these stereotypes, the preconceptions and you just throw them on that person and then you also have these lines that you learn from Robert Greene’s book all right the Game or some other stupid thing like that and then you know it’s like you’re not dealing with that person as who they are and they know it and they feel it and it feels empty and mechanical and so I preach it in the Art of Seduction is knowing that person, gathering intelligence on them. I hate to put it that way. Figuring out what makes them tick, who they are, what they’re needs are, what they’re missing in life, what they want, then when you reach that point and you know who they are then you can make something a little bolder. Sometimes being bold in that first time you meet somebody can work very well because it shows that you have a level of confidence, that you’re not nervous and it can kind of infect the other person, but it depends on the woman you’re trying to seduce. Your boldness can seem arrogant. It can seem cocky. It can seem like you’re just thinking about yourself. If you’re able to make that person feel like an individual and that they are wanted and desired for who they are then you’re going to seduce them whether your try boldness or whatever it is. So it’s more like individualizing the people you’re trying to seduce or reach in life.

Question: Can a would-be seducer gain power by appearing to yield it?

Robert Greene: Very much so, in fact, that is the better way to go than the boldness initially. In fact, my book is filled with that because I believe that is the best thing to do because what you want in life is you want that other person to come to you. You want to do it… be so clever and such a brilliant seducer that they are the ones that actually do the bold move not realizing that you’re the magician who completely set it up and so the initial chapters in The Art of Seduction I have the first part, which is about the character types and how to be a more kind of natural seducer, which sounds like a contradiction, but you have to read the book. The second half is this kind of process of moving through a seduction and in the initial ones I have a whole thing about being indirect. The person doesn’t even know that you’re pursuing them. You become their friend. It’s something called friend to lover strategy where you become their friend and there seems to be nothing sexual about it and you develop this rapport and these ties, but at the same time you’re learning so much about the other person and you can then move to this other position. There is the chapter about weakness and appearing vulnerable as if you’re almost kind of too emotional or sad or even pathetic and then the woman wants to take care of you. In Dangerous Liaisons, my favorite book, the one I use a lot in The Art of Seduction the great **** Valmont who can seduce a beetle if he needed to, he was so good, is trying to seduce the one woman that’s impossible to do it because she is a prude. She is so religious. And he does. He seduces her by appearing to be so weak and vulnerable and he can’t control himself and he is crying and he is so in love with her. The problem is he ends up… In the book he really is feeling weak. He really is in love with her and it turns against him, but he is able to seduce her by being weak, which is a typical thing that a man can use on a woman. So to answer your question the indirect, the stepping back, the using weakness particularly for a man is by far the better strategy in life.

Question: What new insights about power came out of your research for “The 50th Law”?

Robert Greene: Well I wanted to look at something kind of really underneath it all because The 48 Laws of Power I’m looking at these games that people are playing in this kind of court like atmosphere with all these politics going on and strategies being used and all of that. I wanted to like dig underneath it and go into the mind and the guts of what makes a person powerful or successful. Not just with money, but just in the sense of feeling like you’re a powerful person and I had the chance to work with 50 Cent. He was a fan of The 48 Laws. A lot of rappers are. I’ve met quite a few who feel like they’ve used the book to help them. He was one of them. We met. We found we had a really interesting rapport. We felt very comfortable with each other as if we had known each other for many years and so we did this book together, but for me the idea was here is somebody who comes from the absolute bottom of America, Southside Queens in the crack era when an African-American male is not supposed to live past the age of 25, particularly one who is dealing drugs and who is dealing with all the violence. Not only did he manage without a mother or father in his life. He never knew his father. His mother was murdered when he was eight. Not only did he manage to be a hustler, but he managed to get out of the hustling racket. He managed to get into music, but he managed to survive that horrible world of music with the crap political games that go on within. He not only survived, but he was able to become successful, but he kept building on it and building on it. It’s a typical American rags-to-riches story. I wanted to know why. What’s underneath it? What was that quality that maybe we could learn? And in spending time with him I felt like if I could summarize it in one word it’s that this is a man who comes to life without fear. So it’s not just fear of death or bullets. That’s the obviously thing we’re talking about. I’m talking about here is a man who is not afraid of change for instance. If something happens where a situation is new, he has lost a job, he has been cut off of his record contract or something happening he doesn’t get upset or worried. He is calm. He deals with it in a fearless manner. He takes risks, but the risks are controlled, but he is not afraid of failing. He is not afraid of being criticized. He is not afraid of being different from other people. When I thought about that it’s just how powerful you could be in life if are not afraid of the things that happen to you. You’re able to feel balanced and in control and make decisions not based on exaggerating risks etcetera, but on reality. I just thought it was an incredibly powerful way to be in the world. I could feel it myself influenced by him and seeing myself going forward and when I looked at all the people I’ve studied in history, Napoleon Bonaparte, Franklin Eleanor Roosevelt, Catherine the Great, Cesare Borgia, all of the thousands of people I’ve studied, they all shared that quality and it’s like a… It’s a way of being in the world. When you’re afraid and fearful it’s like your mind close… the aperture of your mind closes up to this and you stop looking at the world around you. You want everything to be comfortable and familiar and the same. You stay in your house. You watch the same TV shows. Everything just… The circle closes up. When you’re not afraid and we’ve experienced it all in our lives. When suddenly you’re in a new country and you just don’t… You’re traveling and you feel open. You’re mind is active and alive. You become creative. Everything changes. This is the key to feeling powerful, but also to being creative in the world, so I wanted to get underneath all of the other things, the power, the seduction, the strategy and see that quality that lay underneath it all.

Question: Is fearlessness innate or cultivated?

Robert Greene: Well it’s… I don’t want to get angry here because it’s not about you, but I get so annoyed with that argument about it being innate. How could something like that be innate? Sure we’re all individuals and somebody because of who they are and their DNA and their experiences are a little more timid than other people, but nobody is born without fear. We are all born into this world screaming and crying, a bloody mess. We’re terrified of being away from our mother for a few minutes. We’re afraid of the dark. We’re afraid of dying. We’re afraid of being beaten up in school. We’re afraid of failing. There is not an individual on this planet, I don’t care who you’re talking about who hasn’t felt a lot of fear. What differentiates people are those we find who tend to deal more with fearful situations and don’t… and understand that it’s hurting them in life. That by becoming fearful they’re maiming themselves and they learn to move past these fears. That’s what separates people. That’s what separated 50. He saw being on the streets if he was afraid it was just going to mess him up. People could read it off of him. He’d get conservative. It wouldn’t work and so he learned that he had to teach himself to not be fearful in any circumstance in life. That’s what the book is there for. Certainly some people don’t have as much clay to work with or they’re older and they’re… and things are set, but everybody has the capacity to be more realistic and realize that the reason they’re holding onto that bad job it’s not because they’re being realistic or prudent or being a good worker. It’s because they’re afraid. They’re afraid of change. They’re afraid of leaving something. They’re afraid of anything unfamiliar. It’s fear. When you understand the fear then you can begin to move past it. So when I hear the people say it’s innate, you can’t learn it, I just want to hit them in the head. I don’t know.

Question: Can fearlessness become a liability for powerful people?

Robert Greene: Yes, of course it can. I mean we talked about it earlier with Napoleon where it goes to your head and you lose a sense of proportion and you start thinking of yourself as a god, and a lot of rappers have that problem. The money comes. It comes too fast and then it goes just as fast because they don’t understand that a lot of it came by a bit of luck, by accident and now once you have success you got to be careful. You got to take a step back and be strategic. They don’t know that and they lose it. 50 is a very strategic person in life. He is also a human being who has weaknesses and limitations as well, so I think he will always land on his feet like a cat in this world because he was shot and nearly died and he knows a sense of proportion. I’ll always have millions of dollars that’s never going to go away what do I have to worry about? You know I already faced death. Every day to me seems like I’m on borrowed time. I’m just happy to be alive. I’m making money and I’m ambitious, but it doesn’t matter. You know you have that kind of attitude you’ll land on your feel. Sometimes he’s had problems. His records aren’t doing so well. I don’t know what his new record is doing. I haven’t been following it. He has dealt with mistakes he’s made, but I’ve seen him… I’ve seen him time and again, he’ll be upset for a day and then next week he is completely forgotten it and moved on. He’ll land on his feet.

Tiger Woods, you know, to play golf on that level. I’m kind of fascinated with it. It’s going to be sort of the subject of my next book. I’m not writing about golf, but I’m writing about the mindset of somebody who is powerful and is able to focus deeply on something. You know playing golf and running your personal life are two different skill sets, so they don’t necessarily translate one to the other. In fact, they can kind of clash, which is what we’ve seen. On the golf course his boldness, his aggression, his strategic genius, his attention to detail and how much he has mastered all the small parts of golf, it all comes to, just channels into this one beautiful flow turning into this supreme Da Vinci of golf Tiger Woods, but you can control a game like golf, which is a very uncontrollable game with all of this practice and this effort and this talent. You can’t control your personal life in the same way, and in fact, feeling like you’re aggressive and ambitious means he has to attack a new woman almost like he is attacking Augusta… you know the Masters, and he needs these new challenges, and so the two don’t necessarily mesh well, and that’s not a question of something except of a person’s character and how they’ve learned their experiences in life.

You take someone like a John F. Kennedy who you may or may not revere. I happen to think he was a very smart man and would have been if he had lived longer, a great president. He made… He was having dalliances left and right and center. We only know about it now, but if he had been living in the Internet age, forget about it. You know, Tiger Woods doesn’t have that room to learn and experience and grow in his character because it’s all out there in the public naked for us to see. It’s a terrible thing for someone like that, so you know he is probably chastised. He is probably learning that he shouldn’t have married this woman. He should have been single and sowed his wild oats, and now he is going to do this or whatever. He has to learn to bring those two worlds and make it something that has that flow like he has on the golf course, and he will. He is a great man.

Recorded on December 14, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen