Robert Greene: The Laws of Human Nature @ Talks at Google (Transcript)

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.

And here was a man, in his 70s at this point, who was reduced to near poverty. And in the aftermath of this horrible event in his life, he had a quote that I am particularly attracted to. He said:

“I can calculate the motions of heavenly bodies, but I cannot understand the madness of men.”

Here was this great genius who could understand the laws of gravity, the motions of planets, and all sorts of other things. But when it came to himself, the closest thing to him, he could not understand himself. He couldn’t understand the laws that govern human behavior.

So now, come some 300 years later, more to the present time, and I’m — me, Robert Greene — I’m working as a consultant to many powerful people in all sorts of enterprises — athletes, hip-hop artists, politicians, businesspeople. And they’re coming to me, particularly after I wrote “The 48 Laws of Power,” with their own problems.

And these problems basically revolved around the fact that they couldn’t control the people that they were dealing with. They didn’t know how to handle them. There was one man who had partnered with some guy who he thought was rather mild-mannered. And this man was in the process of stealing the company from him.

There were other people who had made really disastrous hires of lieutenants and other people that were literally destroying their company and destroying their lives. There was one gentleman who had had a board of directors that he lost complete control over. There was another person who had started this product line that he was certain was going to succeed. And then it failed miserably, and he blamed all of his associates for not knowing how to execute these plans.

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I had one famous musician who took all his investment, all of his savings and put it in the bitcoin craze about four years ago. And he lost everything in that, quite similar to Sir Isaac Newton.

And so what all of these people had in common was they were all, like Mr. Newton, very brilliant in their fields. They could calculate the movements of global markets, of very complicated economic things.

But when it came to the basics of just dealing with people — you would think the most important skill you would have — and in understanding themselves, they were actually quite helpless. And in the aftermath of all of these experiences that I was having — rather powerful experiences — I also thought of myself.

I thought of myself in the sense that I too had had many failures. I too had had problems dealing with people, particularly before I wrote “The 48 Laws of Power,” problems that inspired that book. I too had made many mistakes. I had violated law number one, never outshine the master, and I had been fired for that.

So I was thinking about my own problems as well. And about seven years ago, I decided to set out on a quest. I was going to try to get at the root of all of these problems that these people had and that I had. And what I thought that the root of this problem was the basic ignorance or misunderstanding of human nature, of the laws that govern human behavior, much like Sir Isaac Newton was looking at the laws that govern the movement of stars.

I was going to write a book about this subject. Because startlingly enough, this is a subject that we all need to know, because as a social animal, we spend all of our time dealing with people. You can’t succeed in this world — I don’t care how technically brilliant you are in your field, how well you are at coding or whatever it is.

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If you don’t understand people, you’re going to neutralize all of your powers. And yet nobody was writing a book about this subject.

So I determined I was going to be the one to do it. And so I started devouring literature on the subject — neuroscience, evolutionary biology, psychology, psychoanalysis. And in the course of this research, I came upon three kind of discoveries that were very fundamental, that sort of grounded the book that came out of that.

The first one was I read that, in neuroscience, people estimate that 95% of human behavior is unconscious. In other words, 95% of what we do never reaches the level of consciousness. We’re not aware of what actually motivates our behavior. I thought this was rather startling. It’s as if we possess a stranger inside of ourselves who’s governing our behavior.

The second fact I uncovered was that there are many kind of forces that came from our evolution hundreds of thousands and millions of years ago that are wired into our brains and how we operate. And a lot of these things came about evolutionarily for very adaptive purposes for where we were 500,000 years ago but that don’t have much purpose for where we are right now in the 21st century. These elemental forces that are very primitive, I call human nature.

These are the forces that basically determine a lot of what we do. And so much of this very primitive stuff is actually intersecting us in the 21st century and determining a lot of the problems that we’re encountering now. I’ll go into that a little more later.

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