Robert Greene is an American author known for his books on strategy, power, and seduction. He has written six international bestsellers: The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, The 33 Strategies of War, The 50th Law, Mastery, and The Laws of Human Nature.
In this talk, Robert discusses how to detach from one’s emotions to better understand intrinsic motivations in order to make better decision and master self-control.
ROBERT GREENE: Thank you so much for coming. I’ve been a big fan of Google since way back since the late ’90s. I even wrote a blog post many years ago comparing Google to the warfare of Napoleon Bonaparte and Sun Tzu. So I’ve been a big fan for years.
And it’s always been a great honor for me to talk Google. This is my third Google talk. So thank you very much for this opportunity. I really appreciate it.
Now today, I’m going to be taking all of you inside my latest book, “The Laws of Human Nature,” because I believe it has the potential to change your life, to actually change how you look at the world.
But I want to begin by telling you a story that I relate in this book. And the story concerns a man named John Blunt, a prominent English businessman in the early 18th century.
Now Mr. Blunt was a leading director of an enterprise called the South Sea Company. And basically, at this time, the English government had massive debts, more than any other country in history, from financing all the wars they had been fighting. It was basically valued at around £31 million, which was enormous.
And the South Sea Company basically managed this debt in exchange for having a monopoly on all trade in South America. But John Blunt, he came from the lower classes, and he was an extremely ambitious man. His motto in life was, “Think big.”
And so in 1719, he came up with an idea for a business idea that was worthy of this motto and that would earn him everlasting fame. The idea was that the South Sea Company would completely take over this $31 million. They would pay the government with some money for that right.
And what they would do is they would take this money, and they would privatize it, and they would turn it into a commodity. And they would share cells of the debt — shares of this debt — to the public, £100 equaling one share in the South Sea Company. And the idea was that if they turned a nice profit, they would be able to pay down the English enormous debts.
They would be able to make a nice profit for themselves. And they would take some of that money and pay very nice dividends to people who invested in it. So it seemed like a win-win.
How could this lose? And so they initiated this in about May of 1719. And it took off. People didn’t really understand it, but they thought it was an amazing idea. It was their patriotic duty to invest in this. And quickly, the share prices rose, within a month to £200 a share, within two months to £300 a share.
The King of England, King George I, plopped down £100,000 of his own money into the scheme. People were going crazy. Servants and maids were taking their life savings and investing it and cashing out and making a fortune.
One day, this woman, who was an aristocrat, very wealthy, was in the theater. And she looked up, and she saw her former maid occupy a seat, a balcony, a box in the theater that was much more lavish and expensive than her own. It was like things were going upside down. People were going crazy.
But about six months into the scheme or seven months into the scheme, Mr. Blunt started getting an uneasy feeling. Basically, what he was running was a glorified Ponzi scheme. The money that people were investing in the South Sea Company, he was actually sending back to them in the form of dividends to entice more and more investors.
But if at some point, people panicked and stopped buying shares, the whole thing would collapse. So he had to keep trying, stoking interest in it, and giving people even better and better and better terms of investing in it.
But finally, the panic that he worried about occurred in September of 1720, and the whole thing collapsed in the most spectacular fashion. Thousands of English people lost their life savings. Hundreds of people committed suicide, including Mr. Blunt’s nephew. It’s estimated that it took the English government over a century to recover from this debacle.
And this was the everlasting fame that, ironically, John Blunt earned as the initiator of the infamous South Sea Bubble.
Now many think famous Englishmen had invested in this, including writers, architects, politicians, et cetera, but none more famous than the great Sir Isaac Newton, the greatest scientist of his age and one of the most brilliant men that ever lived. When the scheme started, he took his own life savings, £7,000, and he put it into the South Sea Company. And he watched as it quickly doubled and then trebled to nearly £20,000.
Mr. Newton realized that what goes up could easily go down. So he cashed out, and he collected his £20,000. But in August of 1720, as Blunt was giving out this incredibly favorable terms, and Isaac Newton saw that other people had made much more money than his £20,000, he decided he was going to take that money and reinvest all of it in the South Sea Company. And he lost his entire savings a month later in the crash.