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Robert Greene: The Laws of Human Nature

Human Nature

The truth is that we humans live on the surface, reacting emotionally to what people say and do. We form opinions of others and ourselves that are rather simplified. We settle for the easiest and most convenient story to tell ourselves.

If we really understood the roots of human behavior, it would be much harder for the more destructive types to continually get away with their actions.

Being able to understand more clearly that stranger within us would help us to realize that it is not a stranger at all but very much a part of ourselves, and that we are far more mysterious, complex, and interesting than we had imagined. To imagine that we are not always in control of what we do is a frightening thought, but in fact it is the reality. Let us call the collection of these forces that push and pull at us from deep within human nature.

We imagine we’re acting of our own free will, unaware of how deeply our susceptibility to the emotions of others in the group is affecting what we do and how we respond.

Consider The Laws of Human Nature a kind of codebook for deciphering people’s behavior — ordinary, strange, destructive, the full gamut. Human nature is stronger than any individual, than any institution or technological invention. It ends up shaping what we create to reflect itself and its primitive roots. It moves us around like pawns.

THE LAWS OF HUMAN NATURE is designed to immerse you in all aspects of human behavior and illuminate its root causes.

It will also radically change how you see yourself. It will accomplish these shifts in perspective in the following ways:

  • First, the Laws will work to transform you into a calmer and more strategic observer of people, helping to free you from all the emotional drama that needlessly drains you.
  • Second, the Laws will make you a master interpreter of the cues that people continually emit, giving you a much greater ability to judge their character.
  • Third, the Laws will empower you to take on and outthink the toxic types who inevitably cross your path and who tend to cause long-term emotional damage.
  • Fourth, the Laws will teach you the true levers for motivating and influencing people, making your path in life that much easier.
  • Fifth, the Laws will make you realize how deeply the forces of human nature operate within you, giving you the power to alter your own negative patterns.
  • Sixth, the Laws will transform you into a more empathetic individual, creating deeper and more satisfying bonds with the people around you.
  • Finally, the Laws will alter how you see your own potential, making you aware of a higher, ideal self within you that you will want to bring out.

Master Your Emotional Self: The Law of Irrationality

The Inner Athena

One day toward the end of the year 432 BC, the citizens of Athens received some very disturbing news: representatives from the city-state of Sparta had arrived in town and presented to the Athenian governing council new terms of peace.

In the earliest years of their democracy, before Pericles had appeared on the scene, the Athenians had preferred a certain personality type in their leaders — men who could give an inspiring, persuasive speech and had a flair for drama. Then Pericles entered public life around 463 BC, and Athenian politics would never be the same. He argued against expanding Athens’s democratic empire.

When it came to war and to serving as a general, he strove to limit campaigns and to win through maneuvers, with minimal loss of lives. What Pericles did with the growing surplus of money startled and amazed the citizenry: instead of using it to buy political favors, he initiated a massive public building project in Athens. What was perhaps the strangest quality of Pericles was his speaking style — restrained and dignified.

And so now, as he began to address the Assembly that afternoon, his opinion on war with Sparta would carry the most weight.

A direct land battle with Sparta would be suicide. What he proposed instead was a completely novel form of warfare — limited and defensive. In the second year of the war, an unexpected disaster upended everything: a powerful plague entered the city. Pericles himself caught the disease, and as he lay dying, he witnessed the ultimate nightmare: all that he had done for Athens over so many decades seemed to unravel at once, the people descending into group delirium until it was every man for himself.

With him no longer there, the factions returned with a vengeance. The war party became popular.

Then, after so many years of a war without end, in 415 BC several Athenian leaders had an interesting idea about how to deliver the fatal blow. The city-state of Syracuse was the rising power on the island of Sicily. Syracuse was a critical ally of the Spartans, supplying them with much-needed resources. At one point, through the sheer size of the force, it seemed that Athens had gained the advantage and had laid siege to Syracuse. But at the last moment, reinforcements arrived from Sparta, and now the Athenians were on the defensive.

Finally in 405 BC Athens suffered its final loss and was forced to agree to the harsh terms of peace imposed by Sparta.

What consumed Pericles as a thinker and a public figure was how to get out of this trap, how to be truly rational in an arena dominated by emotions. The solution he came up with is unique in history and devastatingly powerful in its results. It should serve as our ideal. In his conception, the human mind has to worship something, has to have its attention directed to something it values above all else.

For Pericles it would be nous, the ancient Greek word for “mind” or “intelligence.” For Pericles, the nous that he worshipped was embodied in the figure of the goddess Athena. To cultivate his inner Athena, Pericles first had to find a way to master his emotions. Emotions turn us inward, away from nous, away from reality.

Pericles trained himself to never react in the moment, to never make a decision while under the influence of a strong emotion. Instead, he analyzed his feelings. He decided to base all of his political decisions on one thing — what actually served the greater good of Athens. To help himself in this deliberative process, he opened his mind to as many ideas and options as possible, even to those of his opponents.

Keys to Human Nature

Like everyone, you think you are rational, but you are not. Rationality is not a power you are born with but one you acquire through training and practice.

Emotions tend to narrow the mind, making us focus on one or two ideas that satisfy our immediate desire for power or attention.

Bubbles occur because of the intense emotional pull they have on people, which overwhelms any reasoning powers an individual mind might possess.

The first step toward becoming rational is to understand our fundamental irrationality.

Emotions originate as physical arousal designed to capture our attention and cause us to take notice of something around us. They begin as chemical reactions and sensations that we must then translate into words to try to understand. But because they are processed in a different part of the brain from language and thinking, this translation is often slippery and inaccurate.

We do not have conscious access to the origins of our emotions and the moods they generate. Once we feel them, all we can do is try to interpret the emotion, translate it into language.

Progress and technology have not rewired us; they have merely altered the forms of our emotions and the type of irrationality that comes with them.

We constantly feel emotions, and they continually infect our thinking.

Rational people are aware of this and through introspection and effort are able, to some extent, to subtract emotions from their thinking and counteract their effect. Irrational people have no such awareness. They rush into action without carefully considering the ramifications and consequences.

We can also see the difference between a rational and irrational person in particular situations, when it comes to calculating long-term effects and seeing what truly matters.

The degree of awareness represents the difference. Rational people can readily admit their own irrational tendencies and the need to be vigilant. On the other hand, irrational people become highly emotional when challenged about the emotional roots of their decisions.

To acquire rationality is not complicated. It simply requires knowing and working through a three-step process.

  • First, we must become aware of what we shall call low-grade irrationality. This is a function of the continual moods and feelings that we experience in life, below the level of consciousness.
  • Second, we must understand the nature of what we shall call high-grade irrationality. This occurs when our emotions become inflamed, generally because of certain pressures.
  • Third, we need to enact certain strategies and exercises that will strengthen the thinking part of the brain and give it more power in the eternal struggle with our emotions.

Step One: Recognize the Biases

We imagine we are looking for the truth, or being realistic, when in fact we are holding on to ideas that bring a release from tension and soothe our egos, make us feel superior.

  • Confirmation Bias. I look at the evidence and arrive at my decisions through more or less rational processes.
  • Conviction Bias. I believe in this idea so strongly. It must be true.
  • Appearance Bias. I understand the people I deal with; I see them just as they are.
  • The Group Bias. My ideas are my own. I do not listen to the group. I am not a conformist.
  • The Blame Bias. I learn from my experience and mistakes.
  • Superiority Bias. I’m different. I’m more rational than others, more ethical as well.

Step Two: Beware the Inflaming Factors

  • Trigger Points from Early Childhood. In some ways, we are programmed to repeat the early experience in the present. Our only defense is awareness as it is happening. We can recognize a trigger point by the experience of emotions that are unusually primal, more uncontrollable than normal. They trigger tears, deep depression, or excessive hope.
  • Sudden Gains or Losses. Sudden success or winnings can be very dangerous. Neurologically, chemicals are released in the brain that give a powerful jolt of arousal and energy, leading to the desire to repeat this experience. Whenever you experience unusual gains or losses, that is precisely the time to step back and counterbalance them with some necessary pessimism or optimism.
  • Rising Pressure. Under stress or any threat, the most primitive parts of the brain are aroused and engaged, overwhelming people’s reasoning powers.
  • Inflaming Individuals. There are people in the world who by their nature tend to trigger powerful emotions in almost everyone they encounter.
  • The Group Effect. When we are in a group of a large enough size, we become different. It is impossible to not feel yourself caught up in the collective emotions.

Step Three: Strategies Toward Bringing Out the Rational Self

As long as there are humans, the irrational will find its voices and means of spreading. Rationality is something to be acquired by individuals, not by mass movements or technological progress.

Despite our pronounced irrational tendencies, two factors should give us all hope. First and foremost is the existence throughout history and in all cultures of people of high rationality. All of these types share certain qualities — a realistic appraisal of themselves and their weaknesses; a devotion to truth and reality; a tolerant attitude toward people; and the ability to reach goals that they have set. The second factor is that almost all of us at some point in our lives have experienced moments of greater rationality. This often comes with what we shall call the maker’s mind-set.

The following strategies are designed to help you bring out that inner Pericles or Athena:

  • Know yourself thoroughly.
  • Examine your emotions to their roots.
  • Increase your reaction time.
  • Accept people as facts. The problem is that we are continually judging people, wishing they were something that they are not.
  • Find the optimal balance of thinking and emotion. The horse is our emotional nature continually impelling us to move. This horse has tremendous energy and power, but without a rider it cannot be guided; it is wild, subject to predators, and continually heading into trouble. The rider is our thinking self. Through training and practice, it holds the reins and guides the horse, transforming this powerful animal energy into something productive.
  • Love the rational. To trust one’s feelings — means to give more obedience to one’s grandfather and grandmother and their grandparents than to the gods which are in us: our reason and our experience.

Transform Self-love into Empathy: The Law of Narcissism

The Narcissistic Spectrum

From the moment we are born, we humans feel a never-ending need for attention. We are social animals to the core. Our survival and happiness depend on the bonds we form with others.

In trying to satisfy our hunger for attention, however, we face an inevitable problem: there is only so much of it to go around.

Facing this dilemma from early childhood on, most of us come up with a solution that works quite well: we create a self, an image of ourselves that comforts us and makes us feel validated from within. If it is done properly, in the end we have a self that we can love and cherish. Our energy turns inward. We become the center of our attention.

Look at those who lack a coherent sense of self — people we shall call deep narcissists. In constructing a self that we can hold on to and love, the key moment in its development occurs between the ages of two and five years old. Deep narcissists have a sharp break in this early development, and so they never quite construct a consistent and realistic feeling of a self.

When it comes to other people in their lives, deep narcissists have an unusual relationship that is hard for us to understand. They tend to see others as extensions of themselves, what is known as self-objects. People exist as instruments for attention and validation.

Let us imagine narcissism as a way of gauging the level of our Self-absorption, as if it existed on a measurable scale from high to low. At a certain depth, let us say below the halfway mark on the scale, people enter the realm of deep narcissism. Above that halfway mark is what we shall call the functional narcissist, where most of us reside.

We are all prone to flattery because of our Self-love. We must begin to make the transformation into the healthy narcissist. Healthy narcissists have a stronger, even more resilient sense of self. They tend to hover closer to the top of the scale.

Like any skill, empathy comes through the quality of attention. If your attention is continually interrupted by the need to look at your smartphone, you are never really gaining a foothold in the feelings or perspectives of other people.

Deep narcissism tends to sink you deeper, as your connection to reality lessens and you are unable to really develop your work or your relationships. Empathy does the opposite.

The following are the four components that go into the empathic skill set.

  • The empathic attitude: The people around you present a mask that suits their purposes. You mistake the mask for reality. Let go of your tendency to make snap judgments. Open your mind to seeing people in a new light. When we make a mistake, we attribute it to circumstances that pushed us into doing it. But when others make a mistake, we tend to see it as a character flaw, as something that flowed from their imperfect personality. This is known as the attribution bias.
  • Visceral empathy: Empathy is an instrument of emotional attunement. We are all prone to catching the emotions of another person. People are continually affecting our moods. A key element you are trying to figure out is people’s intentions. Studies have revealed that people who score high on tests of empathy are generally excellent mimics.
  • Analytic empathy: The reason you are able to understand your friends or partner so deeply is that you have a lot of information about their tastes, values, and family background. Analytic empathy comes mostly through conversation and gathering information that will allow you to get inside the spirit of others.
  • The empathic skill: Becoming empathetic involves a process, like anything.

Examples of Narcissistic Types

Four Examples of Narcissistic Types:

  • The Complete Control Narcissist. The great riddle that Joseph Stalin and his type present is how people who are so deeply narcissistic can also be so charming and, through their charm, gain influence. These types generally have more ambition and energy than the average deep narcissist. What they discover at some point is that this sensitivity can be tuned to others to probe their desires and insecurities. Being so sensitive, they can listen to people with deep attention. They can mimic empathy. The difference is that from within, they are impelled not by the need to connect but by the need to control people and manipulate them. They listen and probe you in order to discover weaknesses to play on. At some point, as they get more secure in their power, they will resent the fact that they had to play the charm game.
  • The Theatrical Narcissist. Deep narcissists can be masters of disguise. They sense early on that if they revealed their true selves to others — their need for constant attention and to feel superior — they would repel people. They use their lack of a coherent self as an advantage. They can play many parts.
  • The Narcissistic Couple. Looking at people we tend to overemphasize their individual traits and not look at the more complex picture of how each side in a relationship continually shapes the other. A relationship has a life and personality all its own. And a relationship can also be deeply narcissistic. What generally makes a relationship narcissistic is the lack of empathy that makes the partners retreat deeper and deeper into their own defensive positions. The key to employing empathy within a relationship is to understand the value system of the other person, which inevitably is different from yours.
  • The Healthy Narcissist — the Mood Reader. In October of 1915, the great English explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874 – 1922) ordered the abandonment of the ship Endurance, which had been trapped in an ice floe in Antarctica for over eight months and was beginning to take on water. A much greater responsibility weighed on his mind — to somehow get the twenty – seven men of his crew safely back home. Their lives would depend on his daily decisions. Sir Edmund Hillary later summed it up: “For scientific leadership give me Scott; for swift, efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”[1] When Shackleton found himself responsible for the lives of so many men in such desperate circumstances, he understood what would spell the difference between life or death: the men’s attitude. How Shackleton went about this task should serve as the model for all of us. First, he understood the primary role that his own attitude would play in this. The leader infects the group with his mind-set. Second, he had to divide his attention almost equally between individuals and the group. Third, in detecting any dips in spirit or negativity, he had to be gentle.

See Through People’s Masks: The Law of Role-playing

The Second Language

Words are often used as a cover- up, a way to conceal what is really going on.

For Milton Erickson, his sudden paralysis opened his eyes to not only a different form of communication but also a completely different way of relating to people. What he discovered is that nonverbal communication cannot be experienced simply through thinking and translating thoughts into words but must be felt physically as one engages with the facial expressions or locked positions of other people. It is a different form of knowledge, one that connects with the animal part of our nature and involves our mirror neurons.

As Erickson saw it, the harshness of life makes most people turn inward. They have no mental space left over for simple observations, and the second language largely passes them by.

Nonverbal cues tell us what people are trying to emphasize with their words and the subtext of their message, the nuances of communication. These cues tell us what they are actively hiding, their real desires. They reflect in an immediate way people’s emotions and moods.

Keys to Human Nature

We humans are consummate actors. People with consummate acting skills can better navigate our complex social environments and get ahead. We have a continual desire to communicate our feelings and yet at the same time the need to conceal them for proper social functioning. Our real feelings continually leak out in the form of gestures, tones of voice, facial expressions, and posture.

Your task as a student of human nature is twofold: First, you must understand and accept the theatrical quality of life. Second, you must not be naive and mistake people’s appearances for reality.

There are three aspects to this particular law: understanding how to observe people; learning some basic keys for decoding nonverbal communication; and mastering the art of what is known as impression management.

Observational Skills

Related to the baseline expression, try to observe the same person in different settings, noticing how their nonverbal cues change if they are talking to a spouse, a boss, an employee.

Pay great attention to any mixed signals you pick up. If you are observing someone you naturally dislike, or who reminds you of someone unpleasant in your past, you will tend to see almost any cue as unfriendly or hostile. You will do the opposite for people you like.

Keep in mind that people from different cultures will consider different forms of behavior acceptable. These are known as display rules.

Always consider the cultural background of people, and interpret their cues accordingly.

Decoding Keys

Remember that people are generally trying to present the best possible front to the world.

They will use words to hide their feelings and distract you from the reality, playing on people’s verbal fixation.

The three categories of the most important cues to observe and identify are dislike/like, dominance/submission, and deception.

The microexpression is a recent discovery among psychologists who have been able to document its existence through film. It lasts less than a second. There are two varieties of this: The first comes when people are aware of a negative feeling and try to suppress it, but it leaks out in a fraction of a second. The other comes when we are unaware of their hostility and yet it shows itself in quick flashes on the face or in the body. This is a variation on the mixed signal. People say something relatively strong about a general topic, but with subtle looks they point at you. Unless we are professional actors, the voice is very difficult to consciously modulate. When people are engaged and excited to talk to you, the pitch of their voice rises, indicating emotional arousal.

Dominance/submission cues: As the most complex social animal on the planet, we humans form elaborate hierarchies based on position, money, and power. Signs of dominance or weakness are more often expressed in nonverbal communication. People’s actions will often contain dominance and submission cues. For instance, people will often show up late to indicate their superiority, real or imagined. Those who feel dominant will tend to talk more and interrupt frequently, as a means of asserting themselves.

Deception cues: We humans are by nature quite gullible. We want to believe in certain things — that we can get something for nothing; that we can easily regain or rejuvenate our health thanks to some new trick, perhaps even cheat death; that most people are essentially good and can be trusted. In both cases — the cover – up and the soft sell — the deceiver is striving to distract you from the truth. This form of deception is harder to see through because there is less to notice.

Reality is messy and the pieces rarely fit so perfectly.

Polite, civilized society depends on the ability to say things that are not always sincere. It would be too damaging socially to become constantly aware of this subrealm of deception.

The Art of Impression Management

Consciously or unconsciously most of us adhere to what is expected of our role because we realize our social success depends on this.

The following are some basics in the art of impression management.

  • Master the nonverbal cues.
  • Be a method actor. In method acting you train yourself to be able to display the proper emotions on command.
  • Adapt to your audience.
  • Create the proper first impression.
  • Use dramatic effects. This mostly involves mastering the art of presence/absence. If you are too present, if people see you too often or can predict exactly what you will do next, they will quickly grow bored with you.
  • Project saintly qualities.

For some reason people see signs of humility as authentic, even though people might very well be simulating them.

The word personality comes from the Latin persona, which means “mask.” In the public we all wear masks, and this has a positive function. If we displayed exactly who we are and spoke our minds truthfully, we would offend almost everyone and reveal qualities that are best concealed.

Determine the Strength of People’s Character: The Law of Compulsive Behavior

The Pattern

People’s character is formed in their earliest years and by their daily habits. It is what compels them to repeat certain actions in their lives and fall into negative patterns. Look closely at such patterns and remember that people never do something just once. They will inevitably repeat their behavior.

The pattern of Howard Hughes’s life was set from very early on. His mother had an anxious nature, and after learning she could have no more children, she directed a great deal of her anxiety toward her only son.

Once his parents died, his true character could finally emerge from beneath the smiles and obedience. His character came out even more clearly in the leadership style that he evolved in Hollywood and his other business ventures. The paradox of this was that by trying to gain such total control he tended to lose it; one man could not possibly keep on top of everything, and so all kinds of unforeseen problems would arise.

Keys to Human Nature

Train yourself to ignore the front that people display, the myth that surrounds them, and instead plumb their depths for signs of their character.

If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit there is some truth to the concept of fate. We are prone to repeat the same decisions and methods of dealing with problems. There is a pattern to our life, particularly visible in our mistakes and failures. But there is a different way of looking at this concept: it is not spirits or gods that control us but rather our character.

The earliest and deepest layer comes from genetics, from the particular way our brains are wired, which predisposes us toward certain moods and preferences.

The second layer, which forms above this, comes from our earliest years and from the particular type of attachments we formed with our mother and care-givers. John Bowlby, an anthropologist and psychoanalyst, studied patterns of attachment between mothers and children and came up with four basic schemas: free/autonomous, dismissing, enmeshed-ambivalent, and disorganized. In general, from these earliest years people will display a particular tone to their character — hostile and aggressive, secure and confident, anxious and avoidant, needy and enmeshing.

Above this a third layer will form from our habits and experiences as we get older. Based on the first two layers, we will tend to rely on certain strategies for dealing with stress, looking for pleasure, or handling people. These strategies now become habits that are set in our youth.

There is a fourth layer as well. It often is developed in late childhood and adolescence as people become aware of their character flaws. They do what they can to cover them up.

When we look at people, we often are really seeing only their reputation, the myth that surrounds them, the position they occupy, and not the individual.

Character Signs

You must always keep in mind the primary corollary of this law: people never do something just once.

People under stress lose their normal Self-control. They reveal their insecurities about their reputation, their fear of failure and lack of inner resilience. On the other hand, some people rise to the occasion and reveal strength under fire. There’s no way to tell until the heat is on, but you must pay extra attention to such moments.

To the extrovert, the introvert has no fun, is stubborn, even antisocial. To the introvert, the extrovert is shallow, flighty, and overly concerned with what people think.

Strong character has a tensile quality like a good piece of metal — it can give and bend but still retains its overall shape and never breaks.

People of weak character begin from the opposite position. They are easily overwhelmed by circumstances, making them hard to rely upon. They are slippery and evasive. Worst of all, they cannot be taught because learning from others implies criticism. Weak character will neutralize all of the other possible good qualities a person might possess.

Toxic Types

Although each person’s character is as unique as a fingerprint, we can notice throughout history certain types that keep recurring and that can be particularly pernicious to deal with.

The Hyperperfectionist: You are lured into their circle by how hard they work, how dedicated they are to making the best of whatever it is they produce. Such people often have dependency issues stemming from their family background, similar to Howard Hughes.

The Relentless Rebel: At first glance such people can seem quite exciting. They hate authority and love the underdog. Almost all of us are secretly attracted to such an attitude; it appeals to the adolescent within us, the desire to snub our nose at the teacher.

In their childhood a parent or father figure probably disappointed them. They came to mistrust and hate all those in power.

The Personalizer: These people seem so sensitive and thoughtful, a rare and nice quality. They might seem a little sad, but sensitive people can have it rough in life. They are prone to take everything that people say or do as personal.

The Drama Magnet: They will draw you in with their exciting presence. They have unusual energy and stories to tell. Their features are animated and they can be quite witty. They are fun to be around, until the drama turns ugly.

The Big Talker: You are impressed by their ideas, the projects that they are thinking about. You might be dealing with a type that is not overtly dangerous but can prove maddening and waste your valuable time. They themselves never finish anything. Often such people had parents who were inconsistent.

The Sexualizer: They seem charged with sexual energy, in a way that is refreshingly unrepressed. A pattern is deeply set from within and cannot be controlled — they will tend to see every relationship as potentially sexual. If they occupy positions of leadership, they will use their power to get what they want, all under the guise of being natural and unrepressed.

The Pampered Prince/Princess: They will draw you in with their regal air. They are calm and ever so slightly imbued with a feeling of superiority. In childhood, their parents indulged them in their slightest whim and protected them from any kind of harsh intrusion from the outside world.

The Pleaser: You have never met anyone so nice and considerate. You almost can’t believe how accommodating and charming they are. Then slowly you begin to have some doubts, but nothing you can put your finger on. The further this goes, however, the more it seems like they are sabotaging you or talking behind your back. Perhaps they had harsh and punishing parents who scrutinized their every action. Just as when they were children, behind the smiles and flattery is a great deal of resentment at the role they have to play.

The Savior: You cannot believe your good luck — you have met someone who will save you from your difficulties and troubles. In childhood, these types often had to become the caregivers of their own mother, father, or siblings.

The Easy Moralizer: They communicate a sense of outrage at this bit of injustice or that, and they are quite eloquent. With such conviction they find followers, including you. Their morality is as easy and compulsive as drinking or gambling, and it requires no sacrifices on their part, just a lot of noble words.

For each weakness there is a corresponding strength. You need to also refine or cultivate those traits that go into a strong character — resilience under pressure, attention to detail, the ability to complete things, to work with a team, to be tolerant of people’s differences. The only way to do so is to work on your habits, which go into the slow formation of your character.

Become an Elusive Object of Desire: The Law of Covetousness

The Object of Desire

Absence and presence have very primal effects upon us. Too much presence suffocates; a degree of absence spurs our interest.

Just like Chanel, you need to reverse your perspective. Instead of focusing on what you want and covet in the world, you must train yourself to focus on others, on their repressed desires and unmet fantasies. You must train yourself to see how they perceive you and the objects you make, as if you were looking at yourself and your work from the outside. This will give you the almost limitless power to shape people’s perceptions about these objects and excite them. People do not want truth and honesty, no matter how much we hear such nonsense endlessly repeated. They want their imaginations to be stimulated and to be taken beyond their banal circumstances.

Create an air of mystery around you and your work. Associate it with something new, unfamiliar, exotic, progressive, and taboo. Do not define your message but leave it vague.

Keys to Human Nature

By nature, we humans are not easily contented with our circumstances.

We can call this the grass-is-always-greener syndrome, the psychological equivalent of an optical illusion — if we get too close to the grass, to that new object, we see that is not really so green after all.

Because our youth is an object that grows more distant as we age, we are able to idealize it and see it as greener than green.

Such a syndrome can be explained by three qualities of the human brain.

  • The first is known as induction, how something positive generates a contrasting negative image in our mind. This is most obvious in our visual system.
  • Second, complacency would be a dangerous evolutionary trait for a conscious animal such as humans. If our early ancestors had been prone to feeling content with present circumstances, they would not have been sensitive enough to possible dangers that lurked in the most apparently safe environments.
  • Finally, what is real and what is imagined are both experienced similarly in the brain.

All of this makes the grass-is-always-greener syndrome inevitable in our psychological makeup.

Strategies for Stimulating Desire

To the degree that you can see yourself and what you produce as objects that people perceive in their own manner, you have the power to alter their perceptions and create objects of desire. The following are the three main strategies for creating such objects. Know how and when to withdraw. This is the essence of the art. You have a presence that people see and interpret. If you are too obvious with this, if people can read you too easily and figure you out, if you show your needs too visibly, then they will unconsciously begin to have a degree of disrespect; over time they will lose interest.

Keep in mind the following: the more active our imagination becomes, the greater the pleasure we derive from it. When we were children, if we were given a game with explicit instructions and rules, we quickly lost interest.

Create rivalries of desire. Human desire is never an individual phenomenon. We are social creatures and what we want almost always reflects what other people want.

If you can somehow create the impression that others desire you or your work, you will pull people into your current without having to say a word or impose yourself.

In any negotiating situation you must always strive to bring in a third or fourth party to vie for your services, creating a rivalry of desire.

Use induction. We may think we live in a time of great freedom compared with the past, but in fact we live in a world that is more regulated than ever before. Our every move is followed digitally.

We yearn for what is transgressive and beyond the limits that are set for us.

You want to associate your object with something ever so slightly illicit, unconventional, or politically advanced.

It is not possession but desire that secretly impels people. To possess something inevitably brings about some disappointment and sparks the desire for something new to pursue.

The Supreme Desire

We need to be able to distinguish between what is positive and productive in our covetous tendencies and what is negative and counterproductive. On the positive side, feeling restless and discontented can motivate us to search for something better and to not settle for what we have. This restlessness, however, must be under conscious control.

In the end what you really must covet is a deeper relationship to reality, which will bring you calmness, focus, and practical powers to alter what it is possible to alter.

Elevate Your Perspective: The Law of Shortsightedness

Moments of Madness

It is in the animal part of your nature to be most impressed by what you can see and hear in the present —

Learn to measure people by the narrowness or breadth of their vision; avoid entangling yourself with those who cannot see the consequences of their actions, who are in a continual reactive mode. They will infect you with this energy. Your eyes must be on the larger trends that govern events, on that which is not immediately visible. Never lose sight of your long – term goals.

John Blunt was a pragmatic, hard-nosed businessman with a single goal — to make a lasting fortune for himself and his family. In the summer of 1719, however, this highly realistic man caught a fever of sorts. When he began to read about what was going on in Paris, he was struck by the drama of it all. He read vivid stories about average Frenchmen suddenly making fortunes. He had never thought prior to this that investments in joint – stock companies could yield such quick results, but the evidence from France was irrefutable. He wanted to bring similar good fortune to England, and in crafting his plan he naturally imitated many of the features of Law’s scheme, only increasing the scale of it.

Blunt’s mental time frame had shrunk to the point where he lost the ability to look months down the road and consider consequences.

When people lose the connection between their actions and their consequences, they lose their hold on reality, and the further this goes the more it looks like madness. The madness that overcame Blunt soon infected the king, the Parliament, and eventually an entire nation of citizens renowned for their common sense.

We humans tend to live in the moment. It is the animal part of our nature. We respond first and foremost to what we see and hear, to what is most dramatic in an event.

Keys to Human Nature

But there is in fact a way for us humans to manufacture the effect of time, to give ourselves an expanded view in the present moment. We can call this the farsighted perspective, and it requires the following process.

First, facing a problem, conflict, or some exciting opportunity, we train ourselves to detach from the heat of the moment. We work to calm down our excitement or our fear. We get some distance. Next, we start to deepen and widen our perspective.

In other words, this process involves distance from the present, a deeper look at the source of problems, a wider perspective on the overall context of the situation, and a look further into the future — including the consequences of our actions and our own long-term priorities.

In a world that is complex, with myriad dangers that loom in the future, our short-term tendencies pose a continual threat to our well-being.

If possible, avoid deep contact with those whose time frame is narrow, who are in continual react mode, and strive to associate with those with an expanded awareness of time.

Four Signs of Shortsightedness and Strategies to Overcome Them

The following are the four most common manifestations of short-term thinking:

  • Unintended consequences. The source of this age-old syndrome is relatively simple: alarmed by something in the present, we grab for a solution without thinking deeply about the context, the roots of the problem, the possible unintended consequences that might ensue. Because we mostly react instead of think, our actions are based on insufficient information. Nonconsequential thinking is a veritable plague in the world today that is only growing worse with the speed and ease of access to information, which gives people the illusion that they are informed and have thought deeply about things.
  • Tactical hell. You find yourself embroiled in several struggles or battles. You seem to get nowhere but you feel like you have invested so much time and energy already that it would be a tremendous waste to give up. You have actually lost sight of your long-term goals, what you’re really fighting for. Instead, it has become a question of asserting your ego and proving you are right.
  • Ticker tape fever. During the run-up to the 1929 crash on Wall Street, many people had become addicted to playing the stock market, and this addiction had a physical component — the sound of the ticker tape that electronically registered each change in a stock’s price. Hearing that clicking noise indicated something was happening, somebody was trading and making a fortune. Lincoln provides the model for us all and the antidote to the fever. First and foremost, we must develop patience, which is like a muscle that requires training and repetition to make it strong. Second, when faced with issues that are important, we must have a clear sense of our long – term goals and how to attain them.
  • Lost in trivia. You feel overwhelmed by the complexity of your work. You feel the need to be on top of all the details and global trends so you can control things better, but you are drowning in information. It is hard to see the proverbial forest for the trees. This is a sure sign that you have lost a sense of your priorities — which facts are more important, what problems or details require more attention. What you need is a mental filtering system based on a scale of priorities and your long-term goals. Knowing what you want to accomplish in the end will help you weed out the essential from the nonessential. You do not have to know all the details.

The Farsighted Human

We live for immediate pleasures to distract us from the passage of time and make us feel more alive. But we pay a price for all this. Repressing the thought of death and aging creates a continual underlying anxiety. We are not coming to terms with reality.

Awareness that a year from now this current problem you are experiencing will hardly seem so important will help you lower your anxiety and adjust your priorities.

Soften People’s Resistance by Confirming Their Self-opinion: The Law of Defensiveness

The Influence Game

Never attack people for their beliefs or make them feel insecure about their intelligence or goodness — that will only strengthen their defensiveness and make your task impossible. Make them feel that by doing what you want they are being noble and altruistic — the ultimate lure.

From the beginning of his political career, Johnson had a single ambition — to one day become president of the United States. To get there he needed a relatively swift rise to prominence. The younger he reached leadership positions, the more time he would have to spread his name and gain leverage within the Democratic Party. Elected to the House of Representatives at the age of twenty-eight, he seemed on track to get what he wanted, but in the House his career got bogged down.

He became frustrated and restless. Finally reaching the Senate at the age of forty, he brought with him his impatience, as evidenced by his meeting with Connally. But shortly before his inauguration, he toured the floor of the Senate and had an epiphany: the place was much smaller; it was more like a cozy club for gentlemen. Here he could work one on one and slowly gain power by accumulating influence. To accomplish this, however, he had to transform himself. He was naturally aggressive; he would have to rein this in, slow down, and step back. He would have to stop talking so much and getting into heated arguments. Stop thinking of himself; instead, focus completely on his fellow senators as they talked and talked.

After several months of this campaign, he was able to alter the reputation he had had in the House. He no longer seemed a threat, and with the senators’ defenses down, Johnson could escalate his campaign. He turned his attention to winning over key allies. Early on he spotted Senator Russell as the perfect target — lonely, a believer in a cause without any real disciples, and very powerful.

Slowly his influence was spreading, but he realized that his desire to have the dominant position within his party and the Senate had one major obstacle — the northern liberals. Once again, Johnson chose the perfect target — Senator Humphrey. He read him as a man who was lonely, in need of validation, but who was also tremendously ambitious.

Now with a bridgehead established to the northern liberals, Johnson had expanded his influence to all corners of the Senate. Step by step he had acquired such influence without ever appearing aggressive or even threatening. By the time those in the party realized what had happened, it was too late — he was in complete control of the chessboard, the Master of the Senate.

Influence over people and the power that it brings are gained in the opposite way from what you might imagine. Normally we try to charm people with our own ideas, showing ourselves off in the best light. We hype our past accomplishments. We promise great things about ourselves. We ask for favors, believing that being honest is the best policy. What we do not realize is that we are putting all of the attention on ourselves. In a world where people are increasingly Self-absorbed, this only has the effect of making others turn more inward in return and think more of their own interests rather than ours.

As the story of Johnson demonstrates, the royal road to influence and power is to go the opposite direction: Put the focus on others. Let them do the talking. Let them be the stars of the show.

Keys to Human Nature

We feel inwardly secure — not judged but accepted by friends, the group, or the loved one. We see a reflection of ourselves in others. We can relax. At our core we feel validated. Not needing to turn inward and defensive, we can direct our minds outward, beyond our ego — to a cause, a new idea, or the happiness of the other.

Creating this feeling of validation is the golden key that will unlock people’s defenses. And we cannot survive and thrive in this highly competitive world without possessing such a power.

People have a perception about themselves that we shall call their self-opinion. This Self-opinion can be accurate or not — it doesn’t matter.

There are three qualities to people’s Self-opinion that are nearly universal: “I am autonomous, acting of my own free will”; “I am intelligent in my own way”; and “I am basically good and decent.”

Our Self-opinion is primary: it determines so much of our thinking and our values. We will not entertain ideas that clash with our Self-opinion.

Instill in people a feeling of inner security. Mirror their values; show that you like and respect them. Make them feel you appreciate their wisdom and experience. Generate an atmosphere of mutual warmth.

Five Strategies for Becoming a Master Persuader

Five Strategies for Becoming a Master Persuader:

  • Transform yourself into a deep listener. Once you are motivated to listen, the rest is relatively simple. Your goal is to make them come away from the encounter feeling better about themselves. As they become increasingly relaxed in your presence, you will have great latitude for planting ideas and influencing their behavior.
  • Infect people with the proper mood. Keep in mind that your expectations about people are communicated to them nonverbally.
  • Confirm their Self-opinion. Autonomy. No attempt at influence can ever work if people feel in any way that they are being coerced or manipulated. Intelligence. With their intelligence flattered, you now have some room to gently alter their opinion or have lowered their defenses for a request for help. Goodness. You must never inadvertently cast doubts on this saintly Self-opinion.
  • Allay their insecurities. We never really feel secure. If the flattery is done right, we feel that the flatterer likes us, and we tend to like people who like us. It is always better to praise people for their effort, not their talent. With people who are your equals, you have more room to flatter. With those who are your superiors, it is best to simply agree with their opinions and validate their wisdom. Never follow up your praise with a request for help, or whatever it is you are after.
  • Use people’s resistance and stubbornness. Some people are particularly resistant to any form of influence. They are most often people with deeper levels of insecurity and low Self-opinion. Use their emotions. Use their language. Use their rigidity. When people are rigid in their opposition to something, it stems from deep fear of change and the uncertainty it could bring. They must have everything on their terms and feel in control.

The Flexible Mind—Self-strategies

As children our minds were remarkably flexible. We could learn at a rate that far surpasses our adult capacities. We can attribute much of the source of this power to our feelings of weakness and vulnerability.

His motto in life had become “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The charm of Socrates, what made him so devilishly fascinating to the youth of Athens, was the supreme openness of his mind.

Change Your Circumstances by Changing Your Attitude: The Law of Self-sabotage

The Ultimate Freedom

Each of us has a particular way of looking at the world, of interpreting events and the actions of people around us. This is our attitude, and it determines much of what happens to us in life.

The story of Anton Chekhov is really a paradigm for what we all face in life. We carry with us traumas and hurts from early childhood. In our social life, as we get older, we accumulate disappointments and slights. We too are often haunted by a sense of worthlessness, of not really deserving the good things in life. We all have moments of great doubt about ourselves. These emotions can lead to obsessive thoughts that dominate our minds. They make us curtail what we experience as a way to manage our anxiety and disappointments. They make us turn to alcohol or any kind of habit to numb the pain. Without realizing it, we assume a negative and fearful attitude toward life. This becomes our Self-imposed prison. But this is not how it has to be. The freedom that Chekhov experienced came from a choice, a different way of looking at the world, a change in attitude. We can all follow such a path.

By accepting people, by understanding and if possible, even loving them for their human nature, we can liberate our minds from obsessive and petty emotions. We can stop reacting to everything people do and say. We can have some distance and stop ourselves from taking everything personally.

Keys to Human Nature

We humans like to imagine that we have an objective knowledge of the world. But this is an illusion. No two people see or experience the world in the same way. What we perceive is our personal version of reality, one that is of our own creation. To realize this is a critical step in our understanding of human nature.

We experience many different moods, but in an overall sense we can say that we have a particular way of seeing and interpreting the world, dominated by one emotion or a blend of several, such as hostility and resentment. This is our attitude.

The attitude that we carry with us throughout life has several roots: First, we come into this world with certain genetic inclinations — toward hostility, greed, empathy, or kindness. Second, our earliest experiences and attachment schemas play a large role in shaping the attitude.

What we must understand about the attitude is not only how it colors our perceptions but also how it actively determines what happens to us in life — our health, our relations with people, and our success. Our attitude has a Self-fulfilling dynamic.

Although attitudes come in many varieties and blends, we can generally categorize them as negative and narrow or positive and expansive.

You are not born with fixed intelligence and inherent limits. See your brain as a miraculous organ designed for continual learning and improvement, well into old age.

The Constricted (Negative) Attitude

Life is inherently chaotic and unpredictable. The human animal, however, does not react well to uncertainty.

The following are the five most common forms of the constricted attitude. Negative emotions have a binding power — a person who is angry is more prone to also feel suspicion, deep insecurities, resentment, et cetera.

  • The Hostile Attitude. People with this attitude have many other subtle tricks up their sleeve for provoking the hostility they secretly want to feel directed at them — withdrawing their cooperation on a project at just the wrong moment, constantly being late, doing a poor job, deliberately making an unfavorable first impression.
  • The Anxious Attitude. These types anticipate all kinds of obstacles and difficulties in any situation they face.
  • The Avoidant Attitude. People with this attitude see the world through the lens of their insecurities, generally related to doubts about their competence and intelligence. These types find it hard to commit to anything, for a good reason. If they remained at a job or in a relationship, their flaws might become too apparent to others.
  • The Depressive Attitude. As children, these types did not feel loved or respected by their parents. As adults they will anticipate abandonment, loss, and sadness in their experiences and see signs of potentially depressing things in the world around them. These types often have a secret need to wound others, encouraging behavior such as betrayal or criticism that will feed their depression. Depressive types can often attract people to them, because of their sensitive nature; they stimulate the desire to want to help them.
  • The Resentful Attitude. As children, these types never felt they got enough parental love and affection — they were always greedy for more attention. They are never quite getting the recognition they deserve. They are experts at scanning people’s faces for signs of possible disrespect or disdain. Because they have a continual feeling of being wronged, they tend to project this on to the world, seeing oppressors everywhere. In dealing with such types, you must exercise supreme caution. Although they might smile and seem pleasant, they are actually scrutinizing you for any possible insult.

The Expansive (Positive) Attitude

You want to open the aperture of the lens as wide as you can. Here is your road map. How to view the world: See yourself as an explorer. With the gift of consciousness, you stand before a vast and unknown universe that we humans have just begun to investigate.

As an explorer you leave all that certainty behind you.

How to view adversity: Our life inevitably involves obstacles, frustrations, pain, and separations. How we come to handle such moments in our early years plays a large role in the development of our overall attitude toward life.

Your goal is to move in the opposite direction, to embrace all obstacles as learning experiences, as means to getting stronger. In this way you embrace life itself.

How to view yourself: As we get older, we tend to place limits on how far we can go in life. Over the years we internalize the criticisms and doubts of others. By accepting what we think to be the limits of our intelligence and creative powers, we create a Self-fulfilling dynamic. They become our limits.

When Chekhov had the epiphany about the ultimate freedom, he could create for himself, he had what the American psychologist Abraham Maslow called a “peak experience.” These are moments in which you are lifted out of the daily grind and you sense that there is something larger and more sublime in life that you have been missing.

How to view your energy and health: Although we are all mortal and subject to illnesses beyond our control, we must recognize the role that will-power plays in our health.

How to view other people: First you must try to get rid of the natural tendency to take what people do and say as something personally directed at you, particularly if what they say or do is unpleasant. See people as facts of nature. They come in all varieties, like flowers or rocks.

“The world in which a man lives shapes itself chiefly by the way in which he looks at it, and so it proves different to different men.”[2]

Confront Your Dark Side: The Law of Repression

The Dark Side

For those who worked closely with Richard Nixon, the man was an enigma. According to his chief speechwriter, Ray Price, there were two Nixons, one light, one dark. The light Nixon was “exceptionally considerate, exceptionally caring, sentimental, generous of spirit, kind.” The dark Nixon was “angry, vindictive, ill-tempered, mean-spirited.”

According to Kissinger, the key to Nixon and his split personality must somehow lie in his childhood. “Can you imagine,” Kissinger once observed, “what this man would have been like if somebody had loved him?”

In dealing with his difficult parents, the personality of Nixon was formed. Seeking to overcome and disguise his vulnerabilities, he created a persona that served him well, first with his family and later with the public.

He became supremely tough, resilient, fierce, decisive, rational, and not someone to mess with, particularly in debate.

But the weak and vulnerable child within does not miraculously disappear. If its needs have never been met or dealt with, its presence sinks into the unconscious, into the shadows of the personality, waiting to come out in strange ways. It becomes the dark side.

The story of Nixon is closer to you and your reality than you might like to imagine. Like Nixon, you have crafted a public persona that accentuates your strengths and conceals your weaknesses.

Depression and anxiety come from not being your complete self, from always playing a role. It requires great energy to keep this dark side at bay, but at times unpleasant behavior leaks out as a way to release the inner tension.

Keys to Human Nature

What we glimpse in these moments is the dark side of their character, what the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung called the Shadow. The Shadow consists of all the qualities people try to deny about themselves and repress. This repression is so deep and effective that people are generally unaware of their Shadow; it operates unconsciously.

The Shadow is created in our earliest years and stems from two conflicting forces that we felt. First, we came into this world bursting with energy and intensity. We did not understand the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior; we only experienced natural impulses. We wanted to monopolize our parents’ attention and receive much more of it than our siblings. At the same time, we were completely vulnerable and dependent on our parents for survival. This dependence lasted for many years. They actively discouraged our tantrums and any form of acting out.

As we got older, these pressures to present a particular front came from other directions — peers and teachers.

Most of us succeed in becoming a positive social animal, but at a price. We end up missing the intensity that we experienced in childhood, the full gamut of emotions, and even the creativity that came with this wilder energy.

You must become adept at recognizing such moments of release in others and interpreting them, seeing the outlines of the Shadow that now come forward. The following are some of the most notable signs of such release.

  • Contradictory behavior: This is the most eloquent sign of all.
  • Emotional outbursts: A person suddenly loses his or her habitual Self-control and sharply expresses deep resentments or says something biting and hurtful.
  • Vehement denial: According to Freud, the only way that something unpleasant or uncomfortable in our unconscious can reach the conscious mind is through active denial.
  • “Accidental” behavior: People might talk of quitting some addiction, or not working so damned hard, or staying away from a Self-destructive relationship. They then fall into the behavior they spoke of trying to avoid, blaming it on an uncontrollable illness or dependency.
  • Overidealization: This can serve as one of the most potent covers for the Shadow. By overidealizing a cause, person, or object, people can give free rein to the Shadow.
  • Projection: This is by far the most common way of dealing with our Shadow, because it offers almost daily release. We cannot admit to ourselves certain desires — for sex, for money, for power, for superiority in some area — and so instead we project those desires onto others. Behind any vehement hatred is often a secret and very unpalatable envy of the hated person or people.

The solution is not more repression and correctness. We can never alter human nature through enforced niceness. The pitchfork doesn’t work. Nor is the solution to seek release for our Shadow in the group, which is volatile and dangerous. Instead, the answer is to see our Shadow in action and become more Self-aware.

Deciphering the Shadow: Contradictory Behavior

Be extra wary around people who display such emphatic traits. It is very easy to get caught up in the appearance and first impression. Watch for the signs and emergence of the opposite over time.

The following are seven of the most common emphatic traits that you must learn to recognize and manage appropriately.

  • The Tough Guy: He projects a rough masculinity that is intended to intimidate.
  • The Saint: These people are paragons of goodness and purity. They support the best and most progressive causes.
  • The Passive – Aggressive Charmer: These types are amazingly nice and accommodating when you first meet them, so much so that you tend to let them into your life rather quickly.
  • The Fanatic: You are impressed by their fervor, in support of whatever cause. They speak forcefully. They allow for no compromise.
  • The Rigid Rationalist: All of us have irrational tendencies. It is the lasting legacy of our primitive origins. We will never get rid of them. We are prone to superstitions, to seeing connections between events that have no connection.
  • The Snob: These types have a tremendous need to be different from others, to assert some form of superiority over the mass of mankind.
  • The Extreme Entrepreneur: At first glance these types seem to possess very positive qualities, especially for work. They maintain very high standards and pay exceptional attention to detail. They are willing to do much of the work themselves.

The Integrated Human

We are completely drawn to the authentic types and unconsciously repulsed by their opposite. The reason for this is simple: we all secretly mourn for the child part of our character we have lost — the wildness, the spontaneity, the intensity of experience, the open mind. Our overall energy is diminished by the loss. Those who emit that air of authenticity signal to us another possibility — that of being an adult who has managed to integrate the child and the adult, the dark and the light, the unconscious and the conscious mind. We yearn to be around them. Perhaps some of their energy will rub off on us.

Conscious of our Shadow, we can control, channel, and integrate it. Aware of what we have lost, we can reconnect to that part of ourselves that has sunk into the Shadow.

The following are four clear and practical steps for achieving this.

  • See the Shadow. This is the most difficult step in the process.
  • Embrace the Shadow. Your natural reaction in uncovering and facing up to your dark side is to feel uncomfortable and maintain only a surface awareness of it. Your goal here must be the opposite — not only complete acceptance of the Shadow but the desire to integrate it into your present personality.
  • Explore the Shadow. Consider the Shadow as having depths that contain great creative energy. You want to explore these depths, which include more primitive forms of thinking and the darkest impulses that come out of our animal nature. The conscious thinking we depend on is quite limited. We can hold on to only so much information in short- and long-term memory. But the unconscious contains an almost limitless amount of material from memories, experiences, and information absorbed in study.
  • Show the Shadow. Most of the time we secretly suffer from the endless social codes we have to adhere to. We have to seem so nice and agreeable, always going along with the group.

You pay a greater price for being so nice and deferential than for consciously showing your Shadow. First, to follow the latter path you must begin by respecting your own opinions more and those of others less, particularly when it comes to your areas of expertise, to the field you have immersed yourself in.

Beware the Fragile Ego: The Law of Envy

Fatal Friends

We humans are naturally compelled to compare ourselves with one another.

In late 1820, Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851) , author of the novel Frankenstein, and her twenty-eight-year-old husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, moved to Pisa, Italy.

In early 1821, a young English couple named Jane and Edward Williams arrived in Pisa, and their first stop in town was to visit the Shelleys.

When Jane first met Mary, she had conflicting emotions. On the one hand, there was much to like and admire about Mary. On the other hand, she made Jane feel deeply inferior.

With envy comes the secret desire to hurt, wound, or steal from the envied person, to right the unfairness that comes with his or her supposed superiority.

First, it is socially toxic to display envy. It reveals deep insecurity along with hostility, a very ugly brew, which is certain to push people away. Second, she and her husband depended on the Shelleys for their future livelihood. Acting in a hostile manner toward Mary would have put that all in jeopardy. Finally, envy is a painful emotion, an admission of our own inferiority, something rather unbearable for us humans. It is not an emotion we want to sit with and brood over. We like to conceal it from ourselves and not be aware that it motivates our actions.

Considering all this, Jane took the natural next step: she befriended Mary, returning Mary’s friendly advances and then some. But the more time she spent around Mary, the more the imbalance between them became apparent. And so the more time she spent with Mary, the stronger her envious feelings became.

To conceal this envy from herself and others now required the next logical step: she had to mentally convert Mary into an unsympathetic character.

But in order for enviers to feel entitled to take harmful action, they must create a narrative: everything the other person does reveals some negative trait; they do not deserve their superior position.

Envy occurs most commonly and painfully among friends. We assume that something in the course of the relationship caused the friend to turn against us. Sometimes all we experience is the betrayal, the sabotage, the ugly criticisms they throw at us, and we never understand the underlying envy that inspired these actions.

People who feel envy in the first place are often motivated to become our friends.

Keys to Human Nature

Of all the human emotions, none is trickier or more elusive than envy. The reason for this elusiveness is simple: we almost never directly express the envy we are feeling.

All of us feel envy, the sensation that others have more of what we want — possessions, attention, respect.

Signs of Envy

Detect the signs of this more acute form of envy before it turns dangerous. You can do this in three ways: by learning the signs of envy that manage to leak through, by being aware of the types of people who are more prone to acting on envy, and by understanding the circumstances and actions that might trigger active envy in people.

Although the signs are subtle, envious feelings tend to leak out and can be detected if you are observant.

You want to look for combinations or repetitions of the following signs, a pattern, before moving to alert mode.

  • Microexpressions: When people first experience envy, they have not yet fooled themselves into thinking it is something else, and so they are more prone to leakage than later on. The eyes are indeed a telling indicator, but the envious microexpression affects the entire face. You will notice the envier’s eyes momentarily boring into you, with a look that suggests disdain and a touch of hostility.
  • Poisonous praise: A major envy attack is often preceded by little envy bites — offhand comments expertly designed to get under your skin.
  • Backbiting: If people like to gossip a lot, particularly about common acquaintances, you can be sure they will gossip about you.
  • The push and pull: As we saw in the Jane Williams story, enviers often use friendship and intimacy as the best way to wound the people they envy.

Envier Types

According to the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein (1882 – 1960), certain people are prone to feeling envy their entire lives, and this begins in early infancy.

Most of us experience moments in childhood in which we feel another person is getting more of the attention that we deserve, but we are able to counterbalance this with other moments in which we experience undeniable love, and gratitude for it.

The following are five common varieties of enviers, how they tend to disguise themselves, and their particular forms of attack.

  • The Leveler: When you first meet them, levelers can seem rather entertaining and interesting. You will notice that though they can put others down, they do not take easily to any jokes at their expense. Their main goal is to bring everyone down to the same mediocre level they occupy.
  • The Self-entitled Slacker: In the world today many people rightfully feel entitled to have success and the good things in life, but they usually understand that this will require sacrifice and hard work. Some people, however, feel they deserve attention and many rewards in life as if these are naturally due to them. These Self-entitled slackers are generally quite narcissistic.
  • The Status Fiend: As social animals we humans are very sensitive to our rank and position within any group. We can measure our status by the attention and respect we receive. For some people status is more than a way of measuring social position — it is the most important determinant of their Self-worth. Recognize status fiends by how they reduce everything to material considerations.
  • The Attacher: In any court-like environment of power, you will inevitably find people who are drawn to those who are successful or powerful, not out of admiration but out of secret envy.
  • The Insecure Master: For some people, reaching a high position validates their Self-opinion and boosts their Self-esteem. But there are some who are more anxious. Holding a high position tends to increase their insecurities, which they are careful to conceal.

Envy Triggers

There are circumstances that will tend to trigger envy in almost anyone. The most common trigger is a sudden change in your status, which alters your relationship to friends and peers.

Sometimes it is people’s natural gifts and talents that will stir up the most intense forms of envy.

If you find yourself under an envy attack, your best strategy is to control your emotions. It is much easier to do this once you realize that envy is the source.

Finally, you might imagine that envy is a somewhat rare occurrence in the modern world. But the truth is that envy is more prevalent now than ever before, largely because of social media.

What we experience in this case is a generalized feeling of dissatisfaction. Low-grade envy sits inside us, waiting to be triggered into the more acute variety if something we read or see intensifies our insecurities. Such diffuse envy among large groups of people can even become a political force, as demagogues can stir it against certain individuals or groups of people who have or seem to have it easier than others.

Beyond Envy

What we must aspire to is to slowly transform our comparing inclination into something positive, productive, and prosocial. The following are five simple exercises to help you in achieving this.

  • Move closer to what you envy. Envy thrives on relative closeness. Nothing is ever so perfect as it seems, and often we would see that we are mistaken if we only looked closely enough.
  • Engage in downward comparisons. You normally focus on those who seem to have more than you, but it would be wiser to look at those who have less.
  • Practice Mitfreude. Schadenfreude, the experience of pleasure in the pain of other people, is distinctly related to envy, as several studies have demonstrated. But it would be wise to practice instead the opposite, what the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called Mitfreude — “joying with.”
  • Transmute envy into emulation. We cannot stop the comparing mechanism in our brains, so it is best to redirect it into something productive and creative. Instead of wanting to hurt or steal from the person who has achieved more, we should desire to raise ourselves up to his or her level.
  • Admire human greatness. Admiration is the polar opposite of envy — we are acknowledging people’s achievements, celebrating them, without having to feel insecure.

Know Your Limits: The Law of Grandiosity

The Success Delusion

Counteract the pull of grandiosity by maintaining a realistic assessment of yourself and your limits. Tie any feelings of greatness to your work, your achievements, and your contributions to society.

We can say that at a certain point in his career Michael Eisner succumbed to a form of delusion when it came to power, his thinking so divorced from reality that he made business decisions with disastrous consequences.

At the beginning of his career at ABC, young Eisner had a solid grasp on reality. He was fiercely practical.

As a person of high ambition, he soon felt that the world of television was somewhat constricting. It was natural, then, for him to accept the position at Paramount. But at Paramount something occurred that began the subtle process of the unbalancing of his mind.

Now his mind was subtly divorcing itself from reality. Instead of rigorously focusing on the audience and how to entertain people, he started to increasingly focus on himself, believing in the myth of his greatness as promulgated by others.

At Disney the pattern repeated and grew more intense. In the grips now of his delusion, he made his most serious mistake of all — the firing of Jeffrey Katzenberg.

The downward spiral had begun. The acquisition of ABC, under the belief that bigger is better, revealed his growing detachment from reality.

Soon all of the problems that stemmed from his delusional thought process began to cascade — the continually rising costs of Euro Disney, the Katzenberg bonus, the lack of hits in both film divisions, the continual drain on resources from ABC, the Ovitz severance package.

We humans possess a weakness that is latent in us all and will push us into the delusional process without our ever being aware of the dynamic. The weakness stems from our natural tendency to overestimate our skills.

Any success that we have in life inevitably depends on some good luck, timing, the contributions of others, the teachers who helped us along the way, the whims of the public in need of something new. Our tendency is to forget all of this and imagine that any success stems from our superior self. We begin to assume we can handle new challenges well before we are ready.

The gods are merciless with those who fly too high on the wings of grandiosity, and they will make you pay the price.

Keys to Human Nature

We can call this psychological disease grandiosity. As you feel its effects, the normal realistic proportions are reversed — your self becomes larger and greater than anything else around it.

You are rarely aware of your own grandiosity because by its nature it alters your perception of reality and makes it hard to have an accurate assessment of yourself.

According to the renowned psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut (1913 – 1981), grandiosity has its roots in the earliest years of our life.

As we get older, we may not be physically small anymore, but our sense of insignificance only gets worse.

What we experienced at the age of three or four unconsciously haunts us our entire lives. We alternate between moments of sensing our smallness and trying to deny it. This makes us prone to finding ways to imagine our superiority.

In the past, we humans were able to channel our grandiose needs into religion.

Other factors have also contributed to increases in grandiosity. First, we find more people who experienced pampering attention in their childhood than ever in the past. Second, we find increasing numbers of people who have little or no respect for authority or experts of any kind. Third, technology gives us the impression that everything in life can be as fast and simple as the information we can glean online.

Through social media we have almost limitless powers to expand our presence, to create the illusion that we have the attention and even adoration of thousands or millions of people.

In the world today, you will also notice the prevalence of negative forms of grandiosity.

You will notice they have a need to display this humility in a public manner. It is grandiose humility — their way to get attention and to feel morally superior. A variation on this is the grandiose victim — they have suffered a lot and been the victim numerous times.

You can measure the levels of grandiosity in people in several simple ways.

  • For instance, notice how people respond to criticism of them or their work.
  • If people are successful, notice how they act in more private moments.
  • Grandiose people are generally big talkers. They take credit for anything that is even tangential to their work; they invent past successes.
  • Higher grandiose types generally display low levels of empathy. They are not good listeners.

The greatest protection you can have against grandiosity is to maintain a realistic attitude. You know what subjects and activities you are naturally attracted to. You cannot be skilled at everything. And you must have a solid grasp on your social position — your allies, the people with whom you have the greatest rapport, the natural audience for your work. You cannot please everyone. In knowing yourself, you accept your limits. You are simply one person among many in the world, and not naturally superior to anyone. Being realistic and pragmatic is what makes us humans so powerful.

If people with high levels of grandiosity also possess some talent and a lot of assertive energy, they can rise to positions of great power.

The Grandiose Leader

The following are six common illusions they like to create.

  • I am destined. Grandiose leaders often try to give the impression that they were somehow destined for greatness.
  • I’m the common man/woman. In some cases grandiose leaders may have risen from the lower classes, but in general they either come from relatively privileged backgrounds or because of their success have lived removed from the cares of everyday people for quite some time.
  • I will deliver you. These types often rise to power in times of trouble and crisis. In order to pull this off, their promises have to be large yet vague.
  • I rewrite the rules. A secret wish of humans is to do without the usual rules and conventions in place in any field — to gain power just by following our own inner light.
  • I have the golden touch. Those with heightened grandiosity will try to create the legend that they have never really failed.
  • I’m invulnerable. The grandiose leader takes risks. This is what often attracts attention in the first place, and combined with the success that often attends the bold, they seem larger than life. But this boldness is not really under control.

Practical Grandiosity

Grandiosity is a form of primal energy we all possess. It impels us to want something more than we have, to be recognized and esteemed by others, and to feel connected to something larger.

Practical grandiosity is based not on fantasy but on reality. The energy is channeled into our work and our desire to reach goals, to solve problems, or to improve relationships.

The following are five basic principles that are essential for attaining the high level of fulfillment that can come from this reality-based form of grandiosity.

  • Come to terms with your grandiose needs.
  • Concentrate the energy.
  • Maintain a dialogue with reality.
  • Seek out calibrated challenges.
  • Let loose your grandiose energy.

Reconnect to the Masculine or Feminine Within You: The Law of Gender Rigidity

The Authentic Gender

All of us have masculine and feminine qualities — some of this is genetic, and some of it comes from the profound influence of the parent of the opposite sex. But in the need to present a consistent identity in society, we tend to repress these qualities, overidentifying with the masculine or feminine role expected of us.

In Caterina Sforza’s time, the roles that a woman could play were severely restricted. Her primary role was to be the good mother and wife, but if unmarried, she could devote her life to religion, or in rare cases she could become a courtesan.

Caterina stands out as a remarkable exception, and it was because she benefited from a unique confluence of circumstances.

We could say of Caterina that she had a feminine spirit with a pronounced masculine undertone, the reverse of her father. And these feminine and masculine traits were blended together, giving her a unique style of thinking and acting.

This ability to play many different roles, to blend the masculine with the feminine, was the source of her power.

Perhaps what is most surprising about the story of Caterina Sforza is the effect she had on the men and women of her time. We would expect that people would have condemned her as a witch or virago and shunned her for all her flouting of gender conventions. Instead, she fascinated almost everyone who came in contact with her.

The specific details of gender roles might fluctuate according to culture and time period, but the pattern is essentially the same and is as follows: We are all born as complete beings, with many sides to us. We have qualities of the opposite sex, both genetically and from the influence of the parent of the other gender. Our character has natural depths and dimensions to it. As we get older, however, we have to present to the world a consistent identity. We have to play certain roles and live up to certain expectations. We have to trim and lop off natural qualities. In this process, we become less and less dimensional; we conform to the expected roles of our culture and time period. We lose valuable and rich parts to our character.

Power lies in exploring that middle range between the masculine and the feminine, in playing against people’s expectations. Do not be afraid to bring out the more sensitive or ambitious sides to your character. In the theater of life, expand the roles that you play.

Keys to Human Nature

When in love, we become prey to emotions we cannot control. We make choices of partners we cannot rationally explain, and often these choices end up being unfortunate.

When we fall in love, we are actually being more ourselves. The mask slips off.

What happens to us when we fall in love. According to Jung, we are actually possessed in such moments. He gave the entity (person B) that takes hold of us the name anima (for the male) and animus (for the female). This entity exists in our unconscious but comes to the surface when a person of the opposite sex fascinates us. The following is the origin of the anima and the animus, and how they operate. We all possess hormones and genes of the opposite sex. These contrasexual traits are in the minority (to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the individual), but they are within us all and they form a part of our character. Equally significant is the influence on our psyche of the parent of the opposite sex, from whom we absorb feminine or masculine traits.

The unconscious feminine part of the boy and the man is what Jung calls the anima. The unconscious masculine part of the girl and woman are the animus. Because they are parts of ourselves that are deeply buried, we are never really aware of them in our daily life. But once we become fascinated with a person of the opposite sex, the anima and animus stir to life.

If the relationship to the mother or father was mostly positive, we will tend to project onto the other person the desirable qualities that our parent had, in the hope of reexperiencing that early paradise.

If the feelings toward the mother or father were mostly ambivalent (their attention inconsistent), we will often try to fix the original relationship by falling in love with someone who reminds us of our imperfect parent figure, in the hope that we can subtract their negative qualities and get what we never quite got in our earliest years. If the relationship was mostly negative, we may go in search of someone with the opposite qualities to that parent, often of a dark, shadowy nature.

Gender Projection—Types

Although there are infinite variations, below you will find six of the more common types of gender projections.

  • The Devilish Romantic: For the woman in this scenario, the man who fascinates her — often older and successful — might seem like a rake, the type who cannot help but chase after young women. But he is also romantic. This is often the projection of women who had rather intense, even flirtatious relationships with the father.
  • The Elusive Woman of Perfection: He thinks he has found the ideal woman. She will give him what he’s been missing in his prior relationships, whether that’s some wildness, some comfort and compassion, or a creative spark. This is a common form of male projection. It contains all of the elements he thinks he never got from his mother, never got from the other women in his life. The men prone to this projection often had mothers who were not totally there for them.
  • The Lovable Rebel: For the woman who is drawn to this type, the man who intrigues her has a noticeable disdain for authority. He is a nonconformist. The woman with this projection often had a strong, patriarchal father who was distant and strict.
  • The Fallen Woman: To the man in question, the woman who fascinates him seems so different from those he has known. Perhaps she comes from a different culture or social class. Perhaps she is not as educated as he is. There might be something dubious about her character and her past; she is certainly less physically restrained than most women. Men of this type often had strong mother figures in their childhood. They became good, obedient boys, excellent students at school.
  • The Superior Man: He seems brilliant, skilled, strong, and stable. He radiates confidence and power. He could be a high-powered businessman, a professor, an artist, a guru. Even though he may be older and not so physically attractive, his Self-assurance gives him an attractive aura. For the woman attracted to this type, a relationship with him would give her an indirect feeling of strength and superiority. The woman in this case has internalized the voices of the father and others who have been so critical of her, who have lowered her Self-esteem by telling her who she is and how she should behave.
  • The Woman to Worship Him: He’s driven and ambitious, but his life is hard. It’s a harsh, unforgiving world out there, and it’s not easy to find any comfort. He feels something missing in his life. Then along comes a woman who is attentive to him, warm, and engaging. She seems to admire him. He feels overwhelmingly drawn to her and her energy. This is the woman to complete him, to help comfort him. But then, as the relationship develops, she no longer seems quite so nice and attentive. She certainly has stopped admiring him. He concludes that she has deceived him or has changed. Such a betrayal makes him angry.

This male projection generally stems from a particular type of relationship with the mother — she adores her son and showers him with attention.

The Original Man/Woman

A common experience for us humans is that at a certain point in life — often near the age of forty — we go through what is known as a midlife crisis.

Let us look at this phenomenon from a different angle — as a crisis of identity. As children, we had a rather fluid sense of self. But in our youth, we had to shape a social self, one that was cohesive and would allow us to fit into a group. In our late teens and into our twenties, we continually adjust this identity in order to fit in — it is still a work in progress, and we derive some pleasure in forging this identity. But as the years go by, the gender role we play gets more and more fixed, and we begin to sense that we have lost something essential, that we are almost strangers to who we were in our youth. At a certain point, we inwardly rebel at the loss of what is so essentially a part of us.

The return to your original nature contains elemental power. By relating more to the natural feminine or masculine parts within you, you will unleash energy that has been repressed.

  • Masculine and feminine styles of thinking: Masculine thinking tends toward focusing on what separates phenomena from one another and categorizing them. Feminine thinking orients itself differently. It likes to focus on the whole, how the parts connect to one another, the overall gestalt. For too long the masculine style has been seen as more rational and scientific, but this does not reflect the reality. Almost all people will lean more toward one style of thinking. What you want for yourself is to create balance by leaning more in the other direction.
  • Masculine and feminine styles of action: When it comes to taking action, the masculine tendency is to move forward, explore the situation, attack, and vanquish. If there are obstacles in the way, it will try to push through them. When confronted with a problem or the need to take action, the feminine style often prefers to first withdraw from the immediate situation and contemplate more deeply the options. In the West, this feminine style of strategizing and acting is instinctively judged as weak and timid. But in other cultures, the style is viewed quite differently. To Chinese strategists, wu-wei, or nonaction, is often the height of wisdom and aggressive action a sign of stupidity because it narrows one’s options.
  • Masculine and feminine styles of Self-assessment and learning: As studies have shown, when men make mistakes, they tend to look outward and find other people or circumstances to blame. On the other hand, men will tend to feel that they are completely responsible for any success in life. Similarly, if there is a problem, the masculine style is to try to figure it out on one’s own — to ask for assistance would be an admission of weakness. For women, it is the opposite: When there is failure, they tend to blame themselves and look inward. If there is success, they are more prone to look at the role of others in helping them. They find it easy to ask for assistance; they do not see this as a sign of personal inadequacy. They tend to underestimate their skills and are less prone to the grandiose confidence that often fuels men.
  • Masculine and feminine styles of relating to people and leadership: Men form hierarchies and punish those who fall out of line. They are highly status conscious, hyperaware of their place in the group. The feminine style is more about maintaining the group spirit and keeping the relationships smoothed out, with fewer differences among individuals.

Advance with a Sense of Purpose: The Law of Aimlessness

The Voice

Martin Luther King Jr. was a complex man with several sides to his character. There was the pleasure-loving King, who loved nice clothes, food, dances, women, and mischievous behavior. There was the practical King, always wanting to solve people’s problems and think things through thoroughly. There was the sensitive, introspective King, a side that increasingly inclined him toward spiritual pursuits. These sides were often in conflict from within, as he succumbed to passing moods.

In many ways, the dilemma that King faced is the dilemma that all of us face in life, because of a profound element in human nature. We are all complex. We like to present a front to the world that is consistent and mature, but we know inside that we are subject to many different moods and wear many different faces, depending on circumstances. We can be practical, social, introspective, irrational, depending on the mood of the moment. And this inner chaos actually causes us pain. We lack a sense of cohesion and direction in life.

The only solution to the dilemma is King’s solution — to find a higher sense of purpose, a mission that will provide us our own direction, not that of our parents, friends, or peers. This mission is intimately connected to our individuality, to what makes us unique.

Finding this higher sense of purpose gives us the integration and direction we all crave. Consider this “life’s work” something that speaks to you from within — a voice. He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how. — Friedrich Nietzsche

Keys to Human Nature

Feeling of being lost and confused is not anyone’s fault. It is a natural reaction to having been born into times of great change and chaos. The old support systems of the past — religions, universal causes to believe in, social cohesion — have mostly disappeared, at least in the Western world. Disappearing also are the elaborate conventions, rules, and taboos that once channeled behavior. We are all cast adrift, and it is no wonder that so many people lose themselves in addictions and depression. By our nature we humans crave a sense of direction.

Throughout history we can see that the healthiest and most celebrated cultures have been the ones that encouraged and exploited the greatest internal diversity among individuals — ancient Athens, the Chinese Sung Dynasty, the Italian Renaissance, the 1920s in the Western world, to name a few.

With a sense of purpose, we feel much less insecure. We have an overall sense that we are advancing, realizing some or all of our potential. We can turn anxiety and stress into productive emotions. In trying to reach our goals — a book, a business, winning a political campaign — we have to manage a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty, making daily decisions on what to. This is an important life skill. We develop a high tolerance for stress as well, and even feed off of it. We humans are actually built to handle stress. And finally, with a sense of purpose we are less prone to depression. Yes, low moments are inevitable, even welcome. They make us withdraw and reassess ourselves.

Fighting for a cause is known as a force multiplier.

Once you commit yourself to developing or strengthening your sense of purpose, then the hard work begins. You will face many enemies and obstacles impeding your progress.

Strategies for Developing a High Sense of Purpose

The following five strategies are designed to help you move past these obstacles.

  • Discover your calling in life. When you are engaged in the activity that feels right, it will correspond to that form of intelligence for which your brain is most suited. Experimenting with the skills and options related to your personality and inclinations is not only the single most essential step in developing a high sense of purpose, it is perhaps the most important step in life in general.
  • Use resistance and negative spurs. The key to success in any field is first developing skills in various areas, which you can later combine in unique and creative ways.
  • Absorb purposeful energy. We humans are extremely susceptible to the moods and energy of other people. For this reason, you want to avoid too much contact with those who have a low or false sense of purpose.
  • Create a ladder of descending goals. Operating with long-term goals will bring you tremendous clarity and resolve. Remember that what you are after is a series of practical results and accomplishments, not a list of unrealized dreams and aborted projects.
  • Lose yourself in the work. Perhaps the greatest difficulty you will face in maintaining a high and consistent sense of purpose is the level of commitment that is required over time and the sacrifices that go with this. You need to have moments of flow in which your mind becomes so deeply immersed in the work that you are transported beyond your ego. The psychologist Abraham Maslow called these “peak experiences”. First, it is essential to wait until you are further along in the process — at least more than halfway through a project, or after several years of study in your field. Second, you must plan on giving yourself uninterrupted time with the work — as many hours in the day as possible, and as many days in the week. Third, the emphasis must be on the work, never on yourself or the desire for recognition.

The Lure of False Purposes

The real purpose leads us upward, to a more human level. We improve our skills and sharpen our minds; we realize our potential and contribute to society. False purposes lead downward, to the animal side of our nature — to addictions, loss of mental powers, mindless conformity, and cynicism.

Here are five of the most common forms of false purposes that have appealed to humans since the beginning of civilization.

  • The pursuit of pleasure.
  • Causes and cults: People have a profound need to believe in something, and in the absence of great unifying belief systems, this void is easily filled by all kinds of microcauses and cults.
  • Money and success: For many people, the pursuit of money and status can supply them with plenty of motivation and focus.
  • Attention: People have always pursued fame and attention as a way to feel enlarged and more important.
  • Cynicism: According to Friedrich Nietzsche, “Man would rather have the void as purpose than be void of purpose.” Cynicism, the feeling that there is no purpose or meaning in life, is what we shall call having “the void as purpose.”

Resist the Downward Pull of the Group: The Law of Conformity

An Experiment in Human Nature

We have a side to our character that we are generally unaware of — our social personality, the different person we become when we operate in groups of people. In the group setting, we unconsciously imitate what others are saying and doing.

The Cultural Revolution was Mao’s attempt to try to alter human nature itself. According to Mao, through millennia of capitalism in various forms, humans had become individualistic and conservative, bound to their social class. Mao wanted to wipe the slate clean and start over. As he explained it, “A clean sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it.” To get his blank canvas, Mao would have to shake things up on a mass scale by uprooting old habits and ways of thinking and by eradicating people’s mindless respect for those in authority. Once he accomplished this, Mao could start to paint something bold and new on the clean sheet. The result would be a fresh generation that could begin to forge a classless society not weighed down by the past.

Mao had the following specific strategy to enact his bold idea: Focus people’s attention on a legitimate enemy — in this case, revisionists, those who consciously or unconsciously were clinging to the past. Encourage people, particularly the young, to actively fight against this reactionary force, but also against any entrenched forms of authority. In struggling against these conservative enemies, the Chinese would be able to free themselves from old patterns of thinking and acting; they would finally get rid of elites and ranking systems; and they would unify as a revolutionary class with utmost clarity as to what they were fighting for. His strategy, however, had a fatal flaw at its core: when people operate in groups, they do not engage in nuanced thinking and deep analysis. Only individuals with a degree of calmness and detachment can do so. People in groups feel emotional and excited. Their primary desire is to fit in to the group spirit.

In the power vacuum that Mao had now created, another timeless group dynamic emerged: those who were naturally more assertive, aggressive, and even sadistic (in this case Fangpu and Little Bawang) pushed their way forward and assumed power, while those who were more passive (Jianhua, Zongwei) quietly receded into the background, becoming followers.

Once all forms of authority were removed and the students ran the school, there was nothing to stop the next and most dangerous development in group dynamics — the split into tribal factions.

Mao had wanted to forge a unified Chinese citizenry, clear as to its goals, and instead the entire country descended into tribal battles completely disconnected from the original purpose of the Cultural Revolution.

Let us call us this energy the social force, a type of invisible force field that affects and binds a group of people through shared sensations and creates an intense feeling of connection.

Keys to Human Nature

We can observe several interesting elements to the social force: First, it exists inside us and outside us at the same time. We can also say this force differs, depending on the size and chemistry of the particular group. And finally, we are drawn to this force.

We can observe one other aspect to the social force, in its reverse form: when we experience a prolonged period of isolation.

The social force among humans is merely a more complex version of what all social animals experience. Social animals are continually attuned to the emotions of others within the group, aware of their role in the pack and anxious to fit in.

The social force is neither positive nor negative. It is simply a physiological part of our nature. Many aspects of this force that evolved so long ago are quite dangerous in the modern world.

The problem we face as social animals is not that we experience this force, which occurs automatically, but that we are in denial of its existence. We become influenced by others without realizing it.

What we need more than anything is group intelligence. This intelligence includes a thorough understanding of the effect that groups have on our thinking and emotions; with such awareness, we can resist the downward pull. To acquire this intelligence, we must study and master the two aspects of the social force outlined above — the individual effect of groups on us and the patterns and dynamics that groups will almost always tend to fall into.

The Individual Effect:

  • The desire to fit in: The first way you do this is through appearances. The second and more important way you fit in is by adopting the ideas, beliefs, and values of the group.
  • The need to perform: Stemming from this first effect is the second effect — in the group setting, we are always performing.
  • Emotional contagion: Like all social animals, we are primed from an early age to sense and pick up the emotions of others, particularly those close to us. This is the third effect of the group on us — the contagiousness of emotions. Certain emotions are more contagious than others, anxiety and fear being the strongest of all.
  • Hypercertainty: When we are on our own and think about our decisions and plans, we naturally feel doubts. If everyone seems to agree that this is the right course of action, we are compelled to feel confident about the decision. And so the fourth effect on us is to make us feel more certain about what we and our colleagues are doing, which makes us all the more prone to taking risks.

Group Dynamics. The following are the most common dynamics that you must study in the groups that you belong to or pass through:

  • Group culture: When we travel to another country, we are aware of the differences in culture from our own. Two things to keep in mind: First, the culture will often center on an ideal that the group imagines for itself. Second, this culture will often reflect the founders of the group, particularly if they have a strong personality. Better to be aware and realize that the larger the group and the more established the culture over time, the more likely it will control you than the other way around. The longer a group exists and the larger it grows, the more conservative it will become.
  • Group rules and codes: For any human group, disorder and anarchy are too distressing. And so standards of conduct and rules for how to do things quickly evolve and become set.
  • The group court: Today the court will form around the film executive, the head of an academic department, the CEO of a business venture, the political boss, the owner of an art gallery, a critic or artist who has cultural power.
  • The group enemy: As mentioned above, our ancestors had a reflexive fear at the sight of any outsiders to their group.
  • Group factions: Over enough time, individuals in a group will begin to split off into factions. The reason for this dynamic is simple: In a group, we get a narcissistic boost from being around those who share our values. But in a group over a certain size, this becomes too abstract. The differences among the members become noticeable. Our power to influence the group as individuals is reduced. We want something more immediate, and so we form subgroups and cliques with those who seem even more like us, giving us back that narcissistic boost.

The future of the human race will likely depend on our ability to transcend this tribalism and to see our fate as interconnected with everyone else’s. We are one species, all descendants of the same original humans, all brothers and sisters. Our differences are mostly an illusion. Imagining differences is part of the madness of groups.

The Court and Its Courtiers

We can say that courtiers tend to fall into certain types, depending on deep patterns stemming from childhood. Some of these types can become quite dangerous if they accumulate power within the court.

The following are seven of the more common types you will find.

  • The Intriguer: These individuals can be particularly difficult to recognize. They seem intensely loyal to the boss and to the group. No one works harder or is more ruthlessly efficient. But this is a mask they wear; behind the scenes they are continually intriguing to amass more power.
  • The Stirrer: This type is generally riddled with insecurities but adept at disguising them from those in the court. They feel deep wells of resentment and envy for what others seem to have that they don’t, part of their childhood pattern. Their game is to infect the group with doubts and anxieties, stirring up trouble, which puts them at the center of action and may allow them to get closer to the leader.
  • The Gatekeeper: The goal of the game for these types is gaining exclusive access to leaders, monopolizing the flow of information to them. They may resemble the Intriguer in their willingness to use people to get to this position, but unlike that type, their objective is not to take over power.
  • The Shadow Enabler: Leaders are often in a difficult position. They have to bear the responsibility for what happens to the group and the stress that goes with that. At the same time, they must maintain a reputation that is above reproach. These types often are closer to their own Shadow, aware of their own darkest yearnings. In childhood they probably felt these desires deeply but had to repress them, which made such desires all the more powerful and obsessive. Having established contact with the leader’s Shadow, the Enabler then takes this further, with suggestions of possible actions for leaders, ways to vent their frustrations, with the Enabler handling it all and serving as protection.
  • The Court Jester: Almost every court has its Jester. In the past they wore a cap and bells, but today they come in different varieties and looks. They can be the court cynic and scoffer, who has license to poke fun at almost everyone and everything, including sometimes the leaders themselves, who tolerate this because it shows their apparent lack of insecurity and sense of humor. Often the modern court will tolerate differences in appearances but not so much in ideas and political correctness.
  • The Mirrorer: These types are often among the most successful courtiers of all, because they are capable of playing the double game to the hilt — they are adept at charming leaders and fellow courtiers, maintaining a broad base of support. Their power is based on the idea that everyone at heart is a narcissist. This is a role you might want to consider playing in the court because of the power it brings, but to pull it off you will have to be a great reader of people, sensitive to their nonverbal cues.
  • The Favorite and the Punching Bag: These two types occupy the highest and lowest rungs of the court. Every king or queen must have his or her Favorite within the court.

The Reality Group

In a dysfunctional culture, the members are often confused about their roles and the overall direction of the group. Amid such confusion, people start to think more of their own interests and agendas, and they form factions. Those who excel at schmoozing and playing politics but little else often thrive, rise to the top, and become lieutenants. Mediocrity is preferred and rewarded. Leaders find themselves dragged down by all the internal dissension and gamesmanship. Feeling vulnerable, they surround themselves with courtiers who tell them what they want to hear.

What creates a functional, healthy dynamic is the ability of the group to maintain a tight relationship to reality. The reality for a group is as follows: It exists in order to get things done, to make things, to solve problems. It has certain resources it can draw upon — the labor and strengths of its members, its finances. It operates in a particular environment that is almost always highly competitive and constantly changing. The healthy group puts primary emphasis on the work itself, on getting the most out of its resources and adapting to all of the inevitable changes. We shall call this ideal the reality group.

The following are five key strategies for achieving this, all of which should be put into practice.

  • Instill a collective sense of purpose. No matter the type of work, you want to emphasize excellence and creating something of the highest possible quality. To make this work, the group must practice what you preach.
  • Assemble the right team of lieutenants. You select for this team people who have skills that you lack, each individual with their particular strengths. They know their roles.
  • Let information and ideas flow freely. As the group evolves, your greatest danger is the slow formation of a bubble around you.
  • Infect the group with productive emotions.
  • Forge a battle-tested group. It is essential that you know your group well, its strengths and weaknesses and the maximum you can expect of it.

Make Them Want to Follow You: The Law of Fickleness

The Entitlement Curse

Although styles of leadership change with the times, one constant remains: people are always ambivalent about those in power. They want to be led but also to feel free; they want to be protected and enjoy prosperity without making sacrifices; they both worship the king and want to kill him.

Authority is the delicate art of creating the appearance of power, legitimacy, and fairness while getting people to identify with you as a leader who is in their service.

When Elizabeth Tudor became queen, she understood her supremely fragile position. Unlike her father or almost any other English monarch, she had zero credibility as a ruler, and no respect or authority to draw upon.

Elizabeth was ambitious and highly intelligent; she felt more than capable of ruling England. She had a vision of how she could solve its many problems and transform it into a European power.

She decided the only way forward was to turn her weak position into an advantage, forging her own type of credibility and authority, one that in the end would give her powers far greater than any previous king.

It would be easy for Elizabeth to delude herself and simply expect the loyalty that came with her august position. But she was too smart to fall into that trap. She would deliberately go in the opposite direction. She would feel no sense of entitlement. She would keep in mind the weakness of her actual position.

By forging much deeper ties with her ministers and the commoners, she would overcome people’s natural fickleness and channel their energies for the purpose of rebuilding England.

She wanted to earn their approval. She would build on this empathy throughout her reign, and the bonds between her and subjects became much more intense than with any previous ruler.

Although there are no longer powerful kings and queens in our midst, more of us than ever operate as if we consider ourselves royalty. We feel entitled to respect for our work, no matter how little we have actually accomplished. We feel people should take our ideas and projects seriously, no matter how little thought went into them or how meager our track record. We expect people to help us in our careers, because we are sincere and have the best intentions. Some of this modern form of entitlement might come from being especially spoiled by our parents, who made us feel that anything we did was golden. Some of it might come from the technology that so dominates our lives and spoils us as well.

It makes us ignore the reality — people have no inherent reason to trust or respect us just because of who we are. It makes us lazy and contented with the slightest idea or the first draft of our work.

We have to continually prove ourselves. We have to show that our primary consideration is not ourselves and our sensitive egos but the welfare of the group.

Keys to Human Nature

It is a fundamental fact of human nature that our emotions are almost always ambivalent, rarely pure and simple. We can feel love and hostility at the same time, or admiration and envy.

Nowhere is this fundamental aspect of human nature more evident than in our relationship toward leaders.

This ambivalence toward leaders operates in the following way. On the one hand, we intuitively recognize the need for leaders. On the other hand, we also tend to fear and even despise those who are above us.

We must understand the fundamental task of any leader — to provide a far-reaching vision, to see the global picture, to work for the greater good of the group and maintain its unity. That is what people crave in their leaders.

We must see leadership as a dynamic relationship we have with those being led.

We must pay great attention to our attitude, to the tone that we set. We need to attune ourselves to the shifting moods of the members of the group. We must never assume we have their support.

When leaders fail to establish these twin pillars of authority — vision and empathy — what often happens is the following: Those in the group feel the disconnect and distance between them and leadership. They know that deep down they are viewed as replaceable pawns. They sense the overall lack of direction and the constant tactical reactions to events. And so, in subtle ways, they begin to feel resentful and to lose respect.

This disdain for authority and leadership has filtered its way throughout our culture.

In this atmosphere, leaders begin to believe that they are more like caretakers, there to stand back and enable the group to make the right decisions, doing everything by consensus. Or they entertain the idea that what matters more than anything else is crunching numbers, absorbing the mass of information available today. Data and algorithms will determine the direction to take and are the real authority.

Strategies for Establishing Authority

Remember that the essence of authority is that people willingly follow your lead.

That is what the following strategies are designed to do. Put them all into practice. Find your authority style:

  • Authenticity. The authority you establish must emerge naturally from your character; from the particular strengths you possess. A notable archetype is the Deliverer. Another archetype would be the Founder. Other archetypes could include the Truth Seeker. The Quiet Pragmatist. The Healer. The Teacher. You must identify with one of these archetypes, or any others that are noticeable in culture.
  • Focus outwardly: the Attitude. First, you hone your listening skills, absorbing yourself in the words and nonverbal cues of others. Second, you dedicate yourself to earning people’s respect. You do not feel entitled to it. Third, you consider being a leader a tremendous responsibility, the welfare of the group hanging on your every decision.
  • Cultivate the third eye: the Vision. Most people are locked in the moment. They are prone to overreacting and panicking, to seeing only a narrow part of the reality facing the group. They cannot entertain alternative ideas or prioritize. Those who maintain their presence of mind and elevate their perspective above the moment tap into the visionary powers of the human mind and cultivate that third eye for unseen forces and trends.
  • Lead from the front: the Tone. As the leader, you must be seen working as hard as or even harder than everyone else. You set the highest standards for yourself. You are consistent and accountable. It is important that you set this tone from the beginning. First impressions are critical. If you try later on to show you want to lead from the front, it will look forced and lack credibility.
  • Stir conflicting emotions: the Aura. Most people are too predictable. Never appear to take, always to give: the Taboo.
  • Rejuvenate your authority: Adaptability. Your authority will grow with each action that inspires trust and respect.

The Inner Authority

You have a responsibility to contribute to the culture and times you live in. To serve this higher purpose, you must cultivate what is unique about you. In a world full of endless distractions, you must focus and prioritize. You must adhere to the highest standards in your work.

See the Hostility Behind the Friendly Façade: The Law of Aggression

The Sophisticated Aggressor

When it comes to your own aggressive energy, learn to tame and channel it for productive purposes — standing up for yourself, attacking problems with relentless energy, realizing great ambitions.

The story of the rise to power of John D. Rockefeller has to be considered one of the most remarkable in history. In a relatively short period of time (some twenty years), he rose from the bottom of society (his family had suffered periods of poverty) to become the founder and owner of the largest corporation in America, and shortly after that to emerge as the wealthiest man in the world. In the process, as so often happens in such cases, his story became shrouded in all kinds of myths. He was either a demon or a god of capitalism. But lost in all of these emotional responses is the answer to a simple question: how did one man — with little help — accumulate so much power in so little time?

In truth, what we can attribute it to more than anything is the sheer relentless force of will that he possessed to utterly dominate every situation and rival he encountered, and to exploit every opportunity that crossed his path. We shall call this aggressive energy. Such energy can have productive purposes (see the last section in the chapter for more on this), and certainly Rockefeller had some achievements that benefited the society of his time. But as so often happens with highly aggressive people, this energy pushed him to monopolize virtually all power in a complex industry. It made him wipe out all rivals and any possible competition, bend laws to his benefit, standardize all practices according to his desires, and in the end, depress innovation in the field.

In these first years of business, we can see the motivating factor that would drive all his subsequent actions — the overwhelming need for control. The more complicated and difficult this task, the more relentless the energy he would summon to achieve such a goal. And out of this need came a second one, almost as important — to justify his aggressive actions to the world and to himself. Rockefeller was a deeply religious man.

He constructed what we shall call the aggressor’s narrative. He had to convince himself that his quest for power served some higher purpose.

To realize his dream of control, Rockefeller transformed himself into a superior reader of men and their psychology.

Most people, he determined, are rather weak. They are mostly led by their emotions, which change by the day. They want things to be rather easy in life and tend to take the path of least resistance. They don’t have a stomach for protracted battles. They want money for the pleasures and comforts it can bring, for their yachts and mansions. They want to look powerful, to satisfy their ego. Make them afraid or confused or frustrated, or offer them an easy way out, and they would surrender to his stronger will. If they got angry, all the better. Anger burns itself out quickly, and Rockefeller always played for the long term.

Rockefeller represents a type of individual that you will likely come across in your field. We shall call this type the sophisticated aggressor, as opposed to the primitive aggressor.

In dealing with this type, you will tend to become angry or fearful, enlarging their presence and playing into their hands. You obsess over their evil character and fail to pay close attention to what they are actually up to. What you often end up surrendering to is the appearance or illusion of strength that they project, their aggressive reputation. The way to handle them is to lower the emotional temperature. Start by looking at the individual, not the myth or legend.

Keep in mind that aggressors often get their way because you fear that in fighting them, you have too much to lose in the present.

Standing up to and outwitting aggressors can be one of the most satisfying and ennobling experiences we humans can have.

Keys to Human Nature

It is always the other who is belligerent, who starts things, who is aggressive. This is a profound misconception of human nature. Aggression is a tendency that is latent in every single human individual. It is a tendency wired into our species.

The Latin root of the word aggression means “to step forward,” and when we assert ourselves in this world and try to create or change anything, we are tapping into this energy.

Aggression can serve positive purposes. At the same time, under certain circumstances, this energy can push us into antisocial behavior, into grabbing too much or pushing people around. These positive and negative aspects are two sides of the same coin.

That human aggression stems from an underlying insecurity, as opposed to simply an impulse to hurt or take from others. Before any impulse to take aggressive action, aggressors are unconsciously processing feelings of helplessness and anxiety. They often perceive threats that are not really there, or exaggerate them. They take action to preempt the perceived attack of another, or to grab for things in order to dominate a situation they feel may elude their control.

The Source of Human Aggression

When we look at any chronic aggressor around us, we must search for the underlying insecurity, the deep wound, the reverberating feelings of helplessness from their earliest years.

We must also be aware that aggressors see the people around them as objects to use. They might have some natural empathy, but because their need for power and control is so strong, they cannot be patient enough to rely solely upon charm and social skills.

Your goal is not to repress this assertive energy but to become aware of it as it drives you forward and to channel it productively.

You need to discipline and tame your natural assertive energy. This is what we shall call controlled aggression, and it will lead to accomplishing great things. Chronic aggressors often have obsessive personalities. Having meticulous habits and creating a completely predictable environment is their way of holding control.

Human aggression simply adapts to the newest media and technological innovations, finding ways to express and vent itself through them.

Passive Aggression—Its Strategies and How to Counter Them

Keep in mind that actively aggressive types can generally be quite passive – aggressive at times, as Rockefeller certainly was. Passive aggression is simply an additional weapon for them in their attempts at control.

The following are the most common strategies employed by such aggressors, and ways to counter them.

  • The Subtle-Superiority Strategy.
  • The Sympathy Strategy: Somehow the person you are dealing with is always the victim — of irrational hostility, of unfair circumstances, of society in general. You notice with these types that they seem to relish the drama in their stories. No one else suffers as they do.
  • The Dependency Strategy: You are suddenly befriended by someone who is unusually attentive and concerned for your welfare. They want to help you with your work or some other tasks. They want to listen to your stories of hardship and adversity. But every now and then you detect some coldness on their part. A variation of this strategy comes from people who love to make promises (of assistance, money, a job), but don’t quite deliver on them. Getting out of any such relationships should be a priority.
  • The Insinuating-Doubt Strategy: In the course of a conversation, someone you know, perhaps a friend, lets slip a comment that makes you wonder about yourself and if they are in some way insulting you. Robespierre, one of the leaders of the Terror of the French Revolution, was the absolute master of this strategy. The point of this strategy is to make you feel bad in a way that gets under your skin and causes you to think of the insinuation for days. You remain calm. You “agree” with their faint praise, and perhaps you return it in kind.
  • The Blame-Shifter Strategy: With certain people, you feel irritated and upset by something they have done. Perhaps you have felt used by them, or they’ve been insensitive or ignored your pleas to stop behavior that is unpleasant. Even before you express your annoyance, they seem to have picked up your mood, and you can detect some sulking on their part. And when you do confront them, they grow silent, wearing a hurt or disappointed look. Whatever their type of response, you are left with the feeling that perhaps you were wrong all along. This strategy is a way of covering up all kinds of unpleasant behavior, of deflecting any kind of criticism, and of making people skittish about ever calling them on what they are doing. To counter this strategy, you need to be able to see through the blame shifting and remain unaffected by it.
  • The Passive-Tyrant Strategy: This strategy is generally used by those in power on their underlings, but it could be applied by people in relationships, one partner tyrannizing the other by simply being impossible to please. The strategy is based on the following logic: If people know what it is that you want and how to get it for you, they have some power over you. It is very hard to strategize against such types, because most often they are your superiors and have real power over you.

Controlled Aggression

We are born with a powerful energy that is distinctly human. We can call it willpower, assertiveness, or even aggression, but it is mixed with our intelligence and cleverness.

Since this energy cannot disappear, it turns inward, and we create what the great English psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn called the internal saboteur. The saboteur operates like a persecutor from within, continually judging and attacking us.

The internal saboteur can also have a dampening effect on our mental powers. It discourages us from being bold and adventurous in our thinking.

The problem has never been that we humans are assertive and aggressive. The real problem is that we do not know how to harness this energy in an adult, productive, and prosocial manner.

The following are four potentially positive elements of this energy that we can discipline and use, improving what evolution has bestowed on us.

  • Ambition.
  • Persistence: almost nothing in the world can resist persistent human energy. Hannibal’s motto: “I will either find a way, or make a way.”
  • Fearlessness: We are bold creatures by nature. As children, we were not afraid to ask for more or assert our will.
  • Anger: It is natural and healthy for you to feel anger at certain types of people — those who unfairly block your advancement, the many fools who have power but are lazy and incompetent, the sanctimonious critics who espouse their clichés with so much conviction and attack you without understanding your views. What makes anger toxic is the degree to which it is disconnected from reality.

Seize the Historical Moment: The Law of Generational Myopia

The Rising Tide

You are born into a generation that defines who you are more than you can imagine. Your generation wants to separate itself from the previous one and set a new tone for the world. In the process, it forms certain tastes, values, and ways of thinking that you as an individual internalize.

Let us look momentarily at the prerevolutionary world in France through the eyes of King Louis XVI. Much of what he saw seemed to be the same reality that previous kings had faced. The king was still considered the absolute ruler of France, divinely appointed to lead the nation. The various classes and estates in France remained quite stable; the distinctions among the nobility, the clergy, and the rest of the French people were still largely respected. Yes, there were financial problems, but the great Louis XIV himself had faced such crises, and they had passed. Life at the palace was rather sweet and relatively tranquil. Most important to Louis, the glory and the majesty of France, as embodied in its ceremonies and visual symbols, still carried the same weight as before.

Below the surface of what he saw, however, there were some troubling signs of discontent. Beginning during the reign of Louis XV, writers such as Voltaire and Diderot began to ridicule the church and the monarchy for all of their backward, superstitious beliefs. Their ideas became known as the Enlightenment.

Secret societies were sprouting up everywhere, promoting a whole new way of socializing, far from the stuffy environment of the court.

When Georges-Jacques Danton looked out at the same world as the king, he saw something quite different. Unlike the king, he was not timid or insecure but the opposite. In the 1780s he began to pick up the disparate signs of change — from within the King’s Council and the growing disrespect among the lawyer class, to the clubs and street life, where a new spirit could be detected. The youth of Danton’s generation had grown tired of all of the empty formality in French culture. Danton both exemplified this Romantic spirit and understood it. In a way that made him quite unique, Danton was able before anyone else to connect the meaning behind all of these signs and foresee a mass revolution on its way.

Nothing in human life is ever static. There is always discontent below the surface, and hunger for change.

You might see King Louis XVI as an extreme example of someone out of tune with the times, not particularly relevant to your own life, but in fact he is much closer to you than you think. Like him, you are probably looking at the present through the lens of the past.

People act more or less the same. The institutions that hold power remain in place and are not going anywhere. People’s ways of thinking have not really changed; the conventions that govern behavior in your field are still followed religiously. Below the surface, however, the tide is moving; nothing in human culture stands still.

Power dynamics — among classes, regions, industries — are in a state of flux.

Intellectuals are often the last to really discern the spirit of the times, because they are so grounded in theories and conventional frameworks. First and foremost, you must be able to feel the change in the collective mood, to sense how people are diverging from the past. Once you feel the spirit, you can begin to analyze what is behind it. Once you have an adequate feel for what is really going on, you must be bold in how you respond, giving voice to what other people are feeling but not understanding.

Keys to Human Nature

Fifty years ago, many arguments were rooted in psychoanalysis and sociology, writers often seeing the environment as the primary influence on human behavior.

Now arguments tend to revolve around genetics and the human brain, with everything having to be backed up by studies and statistics. Sentences are shorter, designed to communicate information. But this change in theorizing style is not anything new.

What drives these changes is the continual succession of new generations of young people, who are trying to create something more relevant to their experience of the world, something that reflects more their values and spirit and that goes in a different direction from that of the previous generation.

Many of us intuit the truth about generations — how they tend to have a kind of personality and how the younger generation initiates so many changes. Some of us are in denial about the phenomenon because we like to imagine that we as individuals shape what we think and believe, or that other forces such as class, gender, and race play a greater role.

And understanding this generational phenomenon can yield several other benefits: We can see what forces shaped our parents’ mind-set, and then ours in turn, as we have tried to go in a different direction. We shall call this knowledge generational awareness.

The Generational Phenomenon

In our first years of life, we are sponges, absorbing deeply the energy, style, and ideas of our parents and teachers. Although we are encountering the same reality as everyone else alive at the time, we are doing so from a peculiar angle — that of being a child, physically smaller, more helpless, and dependent on adults.

Then, when we reach our teen years or perhaps earlier, we become aware that we are part of a generation of young people (focusing more on those around our age) with whom we can identify. As we become more aware of what is going on in the world, we often come to see the ideas and values of our parents as not fitting very well our own experience of reality. In this first phase of life, we shape a generational perspective. It is a kind of collective mind-set, as we absorb the prevailing culture at the same time as our peers, from the point of view of childhood and youth.

Then, when we reach our twenties and into our thirties, we enter a new phase of life and experience a shift. Now we are in a position to assume some power, to actually alter this world according to our own values and ideals. In some periods, the youth culture that is generated is so strong that it comes to dominate the culture at large — in the 1920s and the 1960s, for instance.

Then, as we enter our forties and midlife and assume many of the leadership positions in society, we begin to take notice of a younger generation that is fighting for its own power and position.

Generational Patterns

When we judge in this way, we are not aware that we are reacting according to a pattern that has existed for at least three thousand years.

When it comes to the changes generated by the tensions between two generations, we can say that the greater part of them will come from the young.

What you want to do is to be able to gauge the spirit of the present moment, with a similar sense of distance, and to see where your generation fits into the overall scheme of history, giving you a sense of where things might be headed.

Since the beginning of recorded time, certain writers and thinkers have intuited a pattern to human history. It was perhaps the great fourteenth-century Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun who first formulated this idea into the theory that history seems to move in four acts, corresponding to four generations.

  • The first generation is that of the revolutionaries who make a radical break with the past, establishing new values but also creating some chaos in the struggle to do so.
  • Then along comes a second generation that craves some order.
  • Those of the third generation — having little direct connection to the founders of the revolution — feel less passionate about it. They are pragmatists.
  • Along comes the fourth generation, which feels that society has lost its vitality, but they are not sure what should replace it. They begin to question the values they have inherited, some becoming quite cynical.

At the core of this pattern is a continual back-and-forth rhythm that comes from emerging generations reacting against the imbalances and mistakes of the previous generation.

Consider yourself a kind of archaeologist digging into your own past and that of your generation, looking for artifacts, for observations that you can piece together to form a picture of the underlying spirit.

Create a kind of personality profile of your generation, so that you can understand its spirit in the present and exploit it. You can begin this by looking at the decisive events that occurred in the years before you entered the work world and that played a large role in shaping this personality. Try to map out the ramifications of these decisive events. Pay particular attention to the effect they may have had on the pattern of socialization that will characterize your generation.

In filling out this profile, look at the parenting styles of those who raised you — permissive, overcontrolling, neglectful, or empathetic. The famously permissive style of those who raised children in the 1890s helped create the wild, carefree attitude of the lost generation of the 1920s.

Pay close attention to the heroes and icons of a generation, those who act out the qualities that others secretly wish they had as well.

Similarly, look at the trends and fads that suddenly sweep through your generation, for instance the sudden popularity of digital currencies.

Like an individual, any generation will tend to have an unconscious, shadow side to its personality. A good sign of this can be found in the particular style of humor that each generation tends to forge.

As part of this, you will want to look at the relationship of the genders in your generation.

With your awareness of the overall zeitgeist, you will also understand the historical context.

Keep in mind that this knowledge is more critical to possess now than ever, for two reasons. First, despite any antiglobal sentiments sweeping the world, technology and social media have unified us in inalterable ways. This means that people of one generation will often have more in common with those of the same generation in other cultures than with older generations in their own country. And second, because of these sharp changes initiated by technological innovations, the pace has quickened, creating a Self-fulfilling dynamic.

Strategies for Exploiting the Spirit of the Times

To make the most of the zeitgeist, you must begin with a simple premise: you are a product of the times as much as anyone; the generation you were born into has shaped your thoughts and values, whether you are aware of this or not. With this in mind, you must put into practice some or all of the following strategies.

  • Push against the past.
  • Adapt the past to the present spirit.
  • Resurrect the spirit of childhood.
  • Create the new social configuration. It is human nature for people to crave more social interaction with those with whom they feel an affinity. You will always gain great power by forging some new way of interacting that appeals to your generation.
  • Subvert the spirit. You might find yourself at odds with some part of the spirit of your generation or the times you live in.
  • Keep adapting.

The Human Beyond Time and Death

We humans are masters of transforming whatever we get our hands on. We have completely transformed the environment of the planet Earth to suit our purposes. We have transformed ourselves from a physically weak species into the preeminent and most powerful social animal, effectively enlarging and rewiring our brains as we did so. We are restless and endlessly inventive. But one area seems to defy our transformational powers — time itself. We are born and enter the stream of life, and each day it carries us closer to death. Time is linear, always advancing, and there is nothing we can do to stop its course.

We move through the various phases of life, which mark us according to patterns beyond our control.

If we look more closely, however, at our personal experience of time, we can notice something peculiar — the passage of the hours or days can alter depending on our mood and circumstances. What this means in general is that time is a human creation, a way for us to measure its passage for our own purposes, and our experience of this artificial creation is quite subjective and changeable.

Here’s how we could apply this active approach to four elemental aspects of time. The phases of life: As we pass through the phases of life — youth, emerging adult, middle age, and old age — we notice certain common changes in us. As we age, we can strive to retain the positive youthful qualities that often fade with the years.

  • Present generations: Your goal here is to be less a product of the times and to gain the ability to transform your relationship to your generation.
  • Past generations: When we think about history, we tend to render the past into a kind of dead and spiritless caricature. People were experiencing their present moment within a context that made sense to them. Your concept of time will expand and you will realize that if the past lives on in you, what you are doing today, the world you live in, will live on and affect the future, connecting you to the larger human spirit that moves through us all. You in this moment are a part of that unbroken chain. And this can be an intoxicating experience, a strange intimation of immortality.
  • The future: We can understand our effect on the future most clearly in our relationship to our children, or to those young people we influence in some way as teachers or mentors.

Meditate on Our Common Mortality: The Law of Death Denial

The Bullet in the Side

Most of us spend our lives avoiding the thought of death. Instead, the inevitability of death should be continually on our minds. Understanding the shortness of life fills us with a sense of purpose and urgency to realize our goals.

We tend to read stories like Flannery O’Connor’s with some distance. We can’t help but feel some relief that we find ourselves in a much more comfortable position. But we make a grave mistake in doing so. Her fate is our fate — we are all in the process of dying, all facing the same uncertainties. In fact, by having her mortality so present and palpable, she had an advantage over us — she was compelled to confront death and make use of her awareness of it. We, on the other hand, are able to dance around the thought, to envision endless vistas of time ahead of us and dabble our way through life. And then, when reality hits us, when we perhaps receive our own bullet in the side in the form of an unexpected crisis in our career, or a painful breakup in a relationship, or the death of someone close, or even our own life-threatening illness — we are not usually prepared to handle it.

Our avoidance of the thought of death has established our pattern for handling other unpleasant realities and adversity.

Making death a familiar presence, we understand how short life is and what really should matter to us. We feel a sense of urgency and deeper commitment to our work and relationships.

Keys to Human Nature

Let us call this the paradoxical death effect — these moments and encounters have the paradoxical result of making us feel more awake and alive. We can explain the paradoxical effect in the following way. For us humans, death is a source not only of fear but also of awkwardness. We are the only animal truly conscious of our impending mortality.

Feeling the unconscious impulse to somehow soften the blow of our awareness, our earliest ancestors created a world of spirits, gods, and some concept of the afterlife.

In the world today, our growing reasoning powers and knowledge of science have only made our awkwardness worse.

In the past, death was a daily and visceral presence in cities and towns, something hard to escape. By a certain age, most people had seen firsthand the deaths of others. Today, in many parts of the world, we have made death largely invisible, something that occurs only in hospitals. Furthermore, we have recently come to venerate youth, to create a virtual cult around it.

Death is absolute stillness, without movement or change except decay. In death we are separated from others and completely alone. Life on the other hand is movement, connection to other living things, and diversity of life forms.

By connecting to the reality of death, we connect more profoundly to the reality and fullness of life. By separating death from life and repressing our awareness of it, we do the opposite.

A Philosophy of Life Through Death

The problem for us humans is that we are aware of our mortality, but we are afraid to take this awareness further.

The philosophy we are adopting depends on our ability to go in the opposite direction we normally feel toward death — to look at it more closely and deeply, to leave the shore and explore a different way of approaching life and death, taking this as far as we can. The following are five key strategies, with appropriate exercises, to help us achieve this.

  • Make the awareness visceral. There is no such thing as life without death. Our mortality is just as much a flesh-and-blood reality as life. From the moment we are born, it is a presence within our bodies, as our cells die and we age. We need to experience it this way. We should not see this as something morbid or terrifying.
  • Awaken to the shortness of life. When we unconsciously disconnect ourselves from the awareness of death, we forge a particular relationship to time — one that is rather loose and distended. We must think of our mortality as a kind of continual deadline. Let the awareness of the shortness of life clarify our daily actions. We have goals to reach, projects to get done, relationships to improve.
  • See the mortality in everyone. The more we can create this visceral connection to people through our common mortality, the better we are able to handle human nature in all its varieties with tolerance and grace. In general, we can say that the specter of death is what impels us toward our fellow humans and makes us avid for love. Death and love are inextricably interconnected. The ultimate separation and disintegration represented by death drive us to unite and integrate ourselves with others. Our unique consciousness of death has created our particular form of love.
  • Embrace all pain and adversity. Life by its nature involves pain and suffering. And the ultimate form of this is death itself. There is much in life we cannot control, with death as the ultimate example of this. This love of fate has the power to alter everything we experience and lighten the burdens we carry.
  • Open the mind to the Sublime. Think of death as a kind of threshold we all must cross. As such, it represents the ultimate mystery. We cannot possibly find the words or concepts to express what it is. This confrontation with something we cannot know or verbalize is what we shall call the Sublime, whose Latin root means “up to the threshold.” The Sublime is anything that exceeds our capacity for words or concepts by being too large, too vast, too dark and mysterious. When we turn this around, becoming more aware of our mortality, we experience a taste of true freedom. We no longer feel the need to restrict what we think and do, in order to make life predictable. We can be more daring without feeling afraid of the consequences.

[1] In the book on page 70

[2] Arthur Schopenhauer in the book on page 230

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