What can we learn about human nature and the way the world works from reading history? This has been the territory of Robert Greene.
He is the New York Times bestselling author of 48 Laws Of Power, The Art of Seduction, and Mastery, among other books.
Combining the lessons of thousands of years, what do you learn about the fundamental subjects of seduction, power and mastery?
I called Robert to find out.
What’s at the root of seduction? Surprise.
Seduction involves a degree of surprise, which is generally the first thing that disappears after you’ve been in a relationship, and why there’s no more seducing that goes on. Everything is familiar and you’re no longer surprised by the other person.
Great seducers orchestrate surprise and never let the relationship become too familiar and boring.
A great seducer is able to create those moments. Now, they can’t be happening all the time because it’s too much. You have to time it, have to calibrate it, space it out a bit. There have to be surprises. There have to be moments where the other person sees you do something that they didn’t expect.
Let’s say you gave them a gift, or you took them somewhere they didn’t know, or you appear somewhere. Once it’s over and they’re back at home, they’re going to be thinking about you all the time. They’re going to be saying, “Wow, I thought I knew this person but I really don’t.” And they build you up with all sorts of idealizations, what the great writer Stendhal called it, they’re going to crystallize you in their mind into something perhaps better than what you really are. That’s why I emphasize surprise to overcome the opposite of seduction, which is familiarity.
Why is seduction such a lost art?
We’ve all grown so self-absorbed we can’t get out of our heads and into someone else’s.
Seduction is a very social game of getting outside of yourself and listening to other people. It’s about absorbing their energy and getting inside their world. We live in times where people are just so damn self-absorbed that they’re not able to muster up the energy to look away from their smartphone and their own problems to look inside another person.
What is often the root of gaining power? Deception.
In the modern era, violence isn’t much of an option for gaining power. So indirect methods are more practical.
There’s the obvious direct form of getting power, which is you go kill somebody or you rob someone, which exists more in the past. But since we’re social animals and live in large groups, in most cases you can’t be obvious and direct in how you get what you want. People will resent you, they’ll think you’re a monster or you’re just way too aggressive. So people learned to be indirect. And that’s where deception comes in.
Why does deception work so well?
Because people usually believe appearances.
A lot of it has to do with how easily we judge things by appearances. If someone appears to be saintly, if someone appears to be nice, well, then that’s who they are, that’s who they must be. Our first reaction isn’t to tell ourselves, “Well, maybe that person who seems so nice, he or she’s actually playing a game, they’re wearing a mask. They’re doing it for a reason.” It’s very hard for us to think like that in those terms. We’re very gullible.
What should you do with your life?
Robert says that the only way to survive the years of struggle required to master something is to do what you love.
To get to the point where you master your field, you have to love it. You must have a personal, emotional connection to it. I could go down the list of the hundred masters that are in the book, from Steve Jobs to Einstein to Thomas Edison to Martha Graham, they all have that one trait in common.
You’ll never have the patience and the persistence to put up with all of the boring parts that go into mastery, the repetition and the learning rules and procedures, following orders, being someone very low down on the totem pole in the beginning if you don’t love what you’re doing.
How do you figure out what you love?
First off, stop waiting for a lightbulb to suddenly appear over your head. Start trying things until something clicks.
It’s a path. It’s never the case that you wake up and know “This is exactly what I have to do.” You try things out, some things work, some things don’t work. You find your way by actively going in a direction. Eventually, something clicks. “Ah, this feels right, I’m going to pursue it.” And that’s how you know.
What’s the first step toward mastery?
Throughout history the greats did apprenticeships. No, this doesn’t mean you need to work for a shoemaker in Renaissance Italy.
This is the grind. This is where you get the bulk of those 10,000 hours.
An apprenticeship in the old days was about seven to ten years, and that’s pretty much how it is now, because that’s how long it takes to become extremely skilled at what you do. I want you to think of those years after you finish your schooling as your apprenticeship.
It’s a self-directed time of diving into your subject where you focus on learning above all else, and gain the fundamental skills.
During your apprenticeship you never take a job for money — you take it for the skills you’ll gain.
Don’t take the job that offers you the most money. You’re after learning. You’re after skills. If you take that one idea, and you carve it into your brain, it’ll change every decision that you end up making when you’re young. Learning is what’s going to make you a master. By your early 30s, if you play it right, you’re going to be able to write your own ticket because you have the kind of skills that are so necessary in this world.
But how can we find the focus to do this in the age of zero attention span?
In trying to become a master of something, the internet is your greatest friend — and your greatest enemy.
We live in a time of opportunity where mastery is more possible than ever because of the amount of information that we have available to us. What it took Leonardo da Vinci 10 years to learn about human anatomy, we could learn in five minutes on the Internet.
At the same time, the world we live in actually makes it harder because there are so many distractions. It’s so hard to focus and so hard to be patient.
You must develop the discipline to ignore the distractions of the modern era if you ever want to be great.
You have to push against these distractions, or you’re never going to become disciplined or accomplished. You have to learn how to turn off your phones, and turn off the Internet, and give yourself parts of the day where it’s complete focus.
You might think, “Well, that’s not possible anymore.” Who’s the master that we venerate the most in our contemporary times? I would have to say it’s Steve Jobs. This was a man who believed 3,000% in the power of focus. He would disappear, go into his office, meditate, close the door, no one could come in and see him. He would think deeply on whatever problem it was he was trying to attack.
If you’re able to have that degree of self-control, then the Internet and all its power is an incredible resource to better yourself.
Many of us are past our apprenticeship — but we’re not experts. Why? What are we doing wrong?
After your apprenticeship, to become truly great you must experiment. But most don’t. They do what’s safe and stagnate.
What happens to people is, as you get older, you start getting conventional. We get tired, we get conservative. It’s so much easier to just apply rules and procedures and formulas that we’ve learned. You don’t have to try something different which is risky and people might criticize you for it.
It’s so much easier just to settle in and do what everyone else is doing. They don’t enter the next phase towards mastery, which is the creative phase.
Being a master means challenging yourself.
You experiment. You try things out. Then it works or it doesn’t work, and you keep on that path, challenging yourself, trying to do things that suit you and not suit all of the rules that you’ve learned. You’re going to be the one that rewrites the rules. That’s what masters do. They first learn the rules in order to break them.
You learn the rules then break the rules in order to rewrite the rules.
That is how you become a master of your craft.
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