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.
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.
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.
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.
The third thing I discovered is that, basically, the human brain that all of us possess is remarkably similar — each of us. In other words, there’s very little difference between the brain you possess and somebody in some other country who has a different cultural background. And the reason is that we all evolved from the same origins, the same source, hundreds of thousands of years ago, well before the spreading out of humans all around the globe.
So the qualities, these forces that I’m talking about here and now about human nature, they are all within all of us. They are governing all of our behavior. Nobody is excepted from these laws.
And so as I started writing the book, I got kind of excited, and I kind of had a weird sensation. It was making me understand myself in a way that was making me a little bit uncomfortable. I was realizing some of the dark, irrational qualities in myself, some of the sources of my own bad habits and patterns.
It was also making me very aware of the things that I was observing in the people around me. And I started to sense that there’s incredible power in this knowledge, that it can help me break these habits, and it can help me get along with people on a much higher level.
But also, more importantly, at the time that I was writing this book, a lot of strange things were going on. There was the bitcoin craze. There was the whole transformation of social media into this giant feeding ground for trolls, et cetera, and all the stuff that we’ve seen happening in social media. A new president was elected — and that was a very strange experience — and all the things that were going on around that and the kind of tribalism in our politics and the heated nature of it.
And I thought what I was uncovering in this stuff about human nature is explaining, in many ways, all of the stuff that I was witnessing. And I had this metaphor that I included in the introduction to the book that came to me. And the metaphor was that human nature, this stuff that I’m talking about that evolved very deep in our past, it’s like a puppet master, and we are the puppets. And it’s kind of moving us around and making us do things.
We’re not aware that human nature is making us do these things. But the puppet master is there. And we die, a new generation comes, and this puppet master is going to move them around in the same way. And the only way to escape that is to understand these laws, to understand what is really going on.
LAW OF IRRATIONALITY
So I want to take you now through some of these — I told you about these kind of powerful, primitive forces that intersect the modern. I want to take you inside four of these forces that kind of inspire or ground many of the chapters in the book. And the first one has to do with chapter 1, which is basically the law of irrationality.
And the point of this chapter is that we like to think of ourselves as these rational, thinking, very strategic creatures, when in point of fact, we humans are deeply irrational. And what I mean by that is that we are governed by our emotions more than anything else, which explains the kind of madness that overcame even the great genius Isaac Newton.
And I referred to neuroscience once again to explain this kind of madness that exists inside all of us. And basically, what neuroscience shows is that the human brain evolved. It’s kind of like a ladder. The brain has different layers, literally going from the bottom to the top.
The bottom part of the brain is the oldest part. It is where the autonomic functions that govern our hormones, et cetera. You move up, and then there’s the limbic system that governs our emotions. And at the very top is the frontal neocortex that developed very recently. It’s where our language and our reasoning powers came from.
And what this means is that these two parts of the brain, emotions and reasoning, are not in the same area. They’re separated by other layers, and they don’t communicate with each other.
Now this is very powerful idea that I think we all need to understand. So emotions are a very, very ancient system. Reptiles have a fear response. So this is something that goes back millions and millions — hundreds of millions — of years. And basically, emotions originate as a kind of hormonal nerve signal that is sent to the brain. And these signals are much stronger than any of the signals that the frontal cortex sends.
And what that means is emotions consume so much more of our attention than any kind of thought. They grab our attention more because they’re involving these very powerful physical forces.
The other thing that comes from this is that, because they’re in two different parts of the brain, we don’t really have access to our emotions. So it’s very hard for us to put our feelings into words. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that. But the word depression doesn’t really describe exactly sometimes the feeling of depression or the same with anger. They’re more complicated. There’s something more going on. It’s hard to verbalize these emotions.
The other thing is we have no access to the source of our emotions. So we could be angry and depressed but not really know consciously why we’re angry or depressed.
And finally, because these are separated functions, we don’t really realize to what extent emotions are infecting our strategies, our plans, our ideas. We don’t realize how much the ideas that we have are being infiltrated by our emotions. And to make all of this more complicated and worse — I don’t mean to overload you with all this information, excuse me — our brains operate by simplifying information.
The human brain takes in so much stimuli in the course of a day that if we had to sit there and look at all of that, we would go crazy. So the brain operates by simplifying the material that we receive and tells us a story so that, for instance, when you’re feeling angry, your brain tells you you’re angry because of this person or that. You’re depressed because of this event or that. But it’s not necessarily the truth.
There’s often a disconnect between the two. So for instance, when Sir Isaac Newton is having this issue with the South Sea Bubble, and he decided — the South Sea Company — decides to pour all £20,000 back into an investment, his brain is telling him, “Isaac, this is a great idea. Look at how much money you’re going to make. The king invested in it. People are making fortunes. It’s a rational decision.”
Whereas in fact, what was really motivating him was sheer greed. But the brain wasn’t telling him that.
I tell the story in the book of a story that fascinated me by a famous psychoanalyst named Heinz Kohut, who had a patient. And this patient was a young man who had this pattern in life. He was getting involved with young women in different relationships. There were four or five of them.
And he broke each one of them off several months or even several years into the relationship. He would say, “Well, this woman, I didn’t trust her. I don’t think she was going to be faithful. This other woman, she wasn’t smart enough. She wasn’t up to my level. This other woman, I think she was just out for my money.”
On and on, he would break the relationship off first. And in discussing with this patient, Kohut discovered that this young man had a mother who was very kind of narcissistic. She never quite paid very much attention to him. And so this was a very painful experience for him that he didn’t really remember.
But basically, he experienced her narcissism as a form of abandonment, as if she had left him. And so his pattern in life was to always be the one abandoning other people, abandoning women before they could abandon him, because he could not relive that experience again. But his brain wasn’t telling him that.
His brain was telling him this woman was not good. She wasn’t smart. She wasn’t worthy, et cetera. He had no access to the actual source of the patterns of behavior in his life.
And I ask you to think of the possibility this could be happening to you. There could be things in your life, things that are getting you angry or frustrated or depressed. And there could be something very much rooted in the first three or four years of your life that you have no idea about that is actually motivating your behavior in the present.
In economics, writers like Daniel Kahneman — I don’t know if you’re familiar with him — they talk about the affective heuristic, affective meaning emotional.
Now what that means is what determines people’s decisions in economics to buy something or invest in something is not rational but is actually based on emotions. This is a recent discovery in economics. And most of us are not aware of it. We think when we buy a product, we’ve done our research. We know what we’re doing. We bought it for this, that, or the other reason.
And because we’re not aware of how emotions are governing our purchases or economic behavior, this gives marketing people incredible room to manipulate us. So they’ve done all the research on human nature. And they know that putting a little ping sound in your smartphone at a certain frequency has a very hypnotic effect. And so you’re drawn to constantly check your smartphones.
You think it’s because of your own desire, but it’s actually you’re, in some ways, being hypnotized. They know that the color red will grab your attention in a way that no other color will. So they put things that will — they know how to manipulate your attention by using colors. There’s the exposure factor that they discuss.
So they know, through lots of research, that if someone is exposed to something first, they’re much more likely to buy it. The same thing goes with presidents that we elect or candidates. If we’re exposed to them, if we know them, just by the name, just by the recognition, we’re prone to vote for them.
Back in the day, when people still used to buy things in shops and stores, these people knew that if a shop assistant lightly touched you on the arm in a very non-threatening way, the chances of you buying the product went up 50%, 60%. And so they would teach their employees to do this, on and on and on.
So the lesson here is that we’re not aware of all of these things that are going on, of how much our emotions are actually governing and determining so much of our behavior. And the solution that I give in my book, the solution for us humans to actually become rational like we imagine ourselves to be, is to become aware of this phenomenon — first, to not think that you’re rational, to see the process. So it’s not easy.
But when you’re feeling anger or you’re feeling depressed, don’t just act on it and mope or lash out. But why? Ask yourself why. What is going on here? Could there be something else going on that I’m not really thinking of? Is there something deeper going on? And you may not get to the answer. You may not uncover that thing in your early childhood.
But just in asking that question, you’re going to create a little bit of space between the signal you’re getting from your brain and your reaction. And that space, that time, that 10 minutes, that one hour that you don’t react is actually what’s going to make you more rational person in the long run.
You’ll be able to question, well, why am I really interested in buying this product? Is it because I’m being manipulated, or is this something that I really need? I talk a lot in my consulting with people who have to make important decisions. I can bet you that 95% of your decision, the strategy you’re coming up with, is infected with emotions. I call it the rosy scenario.
You’re always imagining the best case that will emerge from this. But you’re not seeing all the potential pitfalls. So you want to subtract all of these emotional elements before you make your decision. Going through this process is what will, in the end, finally make you rational.
HOW EMOTIONS GOVERN US
Talking about how emotions govern us, there’s obviously something that emerged in our deep past that’s not really adapted to where we’re living now. But there is a power that we evolved from in our deep past that is actually extremely well-adapted to where we are now and will be very valuable for us. And that quality is empathy, which is a major theme of my new book.
And empathy is basically the ability, the incredible human ability, to get inside the perspective and the points of view of other people, to literally see inside how other people are seeing the world. And this is equality of power that our ancient ancestors, well before the invention of language, invented as a way to increase their ability to understand the people in the group or the tribe and to work more closely together.
And I say in my book “Mastery” and in this new book that I imagine these early ancestors were nearly telepathic in their ability to sense what other people were feeling and thinking. I call this visceral empathy.
But we humans have another quality that kind of counters this and renders this power that we all possess, kind of neutralizes that. And this quality is our self-absorption, our latent narcissism. And this quality isn’t something that is necessarily wired into our brains but comes about because of how we’re raised, how we’re socialized.
I’m trying to make the point that we are all somewhat narcissistic, that we’re all on that spectrum. The origins of narcissism, quite simply, are that we humans spend an inordinate amount of time being raised by our parents, much longer than any other animal. So we form a much deeper attachment to our mother and to our father.
But a point is inevitably reached in this process where that attention slackens, and the parent distances themselves from us. And it’s very emotionally disturbing. We feel like we’re not getting any more love or attention from our parents.
And the solution that most people create in this is to create a self, a self-image that they can retreat to, that they can love and esteem, and so that in these moments when parents aren’t giving us love and attention and recognition, we can withdraw into ourselves and feel that we are worthy, that we are OK, that we can love ourselves. And this self-love operates as a kind of thermostat.
So when we’re feeling depressed or not recognized, it kind of raises our moods up so we don’t fall too deeply down into this depression. And what’s part of this self-love is that we pour a lot of libidinal love energy – desire — into the self that we create. We become fascinated with our own tastes, our own desires of who we are. And then we go searching for other people who are similar to us.
And people have noticed in studies that we tend to fall in love with people who either look like us or have very similar ideas or values to us, so that we’re attracted and drawn to people who reflect who we are, which is another aspect of our narcissism. And we see that on social media, where people glom onto those who are most — creating kind of like a narcissistic tribe.
Now obviously, there are people who fall deeper into this, types that I call deep or toxic narcissists. And what happens with them is they never develop that inner thermostat. Because something was broken in their relationship with their parents, they were never able to develop enough self-love.
And so the only way they can get that feeling, that sense of self-worth and recognition when they start getting lower, when things aren’t going well, is to act out and get attention from other people instead of from themselves. So they become dramatic, and they kind of know how to get attention when they were children, et cetera. And so that’s their only way of solving this kind of emptiness inside themselves. And such people, such deep narcissists, can actually go pretty far in life, because as children, they developed a lot of flair and charisma.
And if they’re talented, they can become leaders. They can become CEOs of businesses because of this kind of charisma that they have. But then they hit a wall, because they always need more and more and more attention. They really don’t know and understand the people they’re dealing with, because they’re using them as objects for their own benefit. And they can’t learn from their mistakes, because for a deep narcissist to admit that they made a mistake is too painful.
So even though they can become the CEO of an enormous tech company — and I’m not going to name names here — they’re inevitably going to hit a wall because of this.
So the point I’m trying to make is that we are all on that spectrum. We all have that potential. And in moments when we feel depressed or circumstances aren’t going our way, we notice that we can become more and more self-absorbed and that we have this potential to fall even deeper into ourselves.
So I want us to get over this notion that the narcissist is always the other person and not me. We are all on the spectrum. The solution here is simple.
First, we have to admit this, that we are narcissists. The person that says, “Oh my god, I’m not a narcissist. No, not me,” that’s exactly a sign of narcissism right there. They are the exception.
“No, not me. Look at me. I’m not a narcissist.”
The second thing you have to realize is that you’re basically a functional narcissist. And that energy that goes into yourself can literally be turned outward and can be transformed into empathy, which is one of the chapters in my book. And what I mean by that is we turned all of that libidinal desire into ourselves. We became fascinated with ourselves, our thoughts, our ideas. We need to turn that outward into people that we’re looking at.
So when you’re in a conversation with a friend or whatever, chances are you’re not really listening to them. You’re not paying attention. You’re on your phone or you’re somewhere else because you’re more interested in your own ideas and your own problems. That’s where your energy and fascination goes.
But you must realize that the people you’re dealing with are weirder and more interesting than you could ever imagine. I like to tell people, think of the people you deal with as if they were characters in a movie.
I had a job once where I was really depressed. People, I thought, were really awful. And I imagined that they were actually figures in Greek mythology, and I had to figure out which one each one of them was. And it helped me a lot, because now I had to think about their lives and their childhoods and what made them the way they were.
So the people you’re dealing with are much more interesting than you imagine. And so if you can turn that energy around and you can start placing yourself in their shoes, it will go a long way to taking that self-absorption and turning it outward. We’re all working in much more diverse workplaces.
50 years ago, when my father had his job, it was all basically white men in his office. We don’t have that anymore. People come from all different — men and women — all different cultural backgrounds. And in this diverse workplace, it’s actually fascinating to try and get into the backgrounds and the mindsets of this diverse world and get outside yourself and get inside what other people are experiencing and try to figure out their culture that they came from. It’s like therapy.
So this is an incredible power empathy that lies latent in all of you but that must be cultivated and developed. And I give you many lessons in the book on how to do that.
Now another law of human nature is that we humans have what I call a self-opinion, an opinion about ourselves. And people who have done studies have shown that that opinion is generally more elevated than the reality. So we tend to think of ourselves as intelligent.
At least in our field, we’re intelligent. We like to think of ourselves as autonomous. We just make our own decisions. People don’t tell us what to do. I’m an independent person. And we tell ourselves that we’re basically good, moral people, that we’re nice and polite, that we’re team players, that we get along with other people.
But an equal law of human nature is that this sunny, kind of positive portrait is actually covering up and masking a dark side, what psychologist Carl Jung called the shadow, and that every human being has a dark side, has a shadow. And this shadow is not something that’s wired into our brains. It comes about how we are raised as children.
Basically, as children, we come into this world as a kind of complete, natural being. We have all kinds of emotions and feelings. We are mischievous. We can love our parents one moment and then hate them the next. We can be that sweet little angel one moment, and the next moment, we’re burning with desires for revenge, and we steal something from our brother or sister. We were a complete being. We had a full range of emotions.
But slowly, over time, we have to sort of soften all of that. Our parents are all stressed out, and they’re trying to get us to not act out so much. They want us to be more angelic.
And teachers, we had this pressure as well. So slowly, we feel this pressure to kind of tamp down and disguise these sort of natural emotions that are inside all of us. And this energy that could be positive and negative, could be loving and mischievous or vengeful at the same time, all of that — the dark stuff — goes into what is called the shadow. It doesn’t disappear. It stays with us as adults. And this shadow that you carry with you, you’re feeling tremendous amount of pressure to conceal it, because you want to present to everybody here at Google an image of yourself as this sweet, angelic child, this person that’s wonderful. And it’s pressure.
HOW DO I KEEP THIS DARK SIDE FROM COMING OUT?
Well, it comes out in certain moments, particularly when we’re feeling stress, when we’re feeling moments when we’re not getting enough attention and recognition from other people. And it leaks out in some bitchy comment that we give or some abrasive comment that hurts people’s feelings.
Or it comes out in some act that surprises us or surprises the people around us. And we often see that with celebrities, people in the news who get caught out doing some kind of weird sexual escapade or something like that. “I don’t know who that person was. That isn’t me. Something came over me,” right?
The guy who invested all of his money in bitcoins, he would tell me, “I don’t know who that was. That wasn’t me that plopped all that money down. Something came over me.”
And we generally accept these explanations, because it makes sense, because it only maybe happens once or twice. But I’m telling you in my book that this kind of behavior is not an exception. It’s actually more of their real self, the real self that people have, that is leaking out the shadow side. The shadow likes to disguise itself from you.
And one of the great shadow disguises that I talk about in the book is over-idealization. And this is what we see with the social justice warrior. Now if you’re a social justice warrior, you believe so deeply — you’ve identified so deeply with your cause — that it justifies any kind of manipulative, nasty, intolerant, bigoted behavior, because it’s all for the great cause that I’m promoting, right?
You can censor people. You can tell people to shut up. You can do whatever you want, because it’s all for your great cause. And you think it’s because it’s for the cause. But actually, a lot of it’s coming because the shadow is trying to find some way to get itself out. And it uses you in this fashion.
Social media has become this intense magnet for the dark shadow side lurking inside of us, which is why we find all the nihilistic trolls, et cetera, on social media. It’s become an infested ground for the shadow. So the point I tried to make — the solution here — is to be aware of it. You’re going around, and you’ve so identified with this sweet, angelic persona that you have created for yourself and that you show the world that you don’t even imagine that you have the shadow. And it operates by the fact that you’re unaware of it.
The fact that Isaac Newton wasn’t aware that he had a greedy little person inside of him that was dying to get out made it so that he could lose all of its money in this investment. So you want to see the shadow inside yourself. Recognize that child within you that was tamped down. See the patterns of behavior in which it leaks out.
And then, in my book, I describe many ways for how you can incorporate your shadow in a productive way. You can take your ambition and aggressive energy and channel it into some great cause. You can be a social warrior.
Social justice — there’s nothing wrong with it. But you don’t have to be nasty and intolerant and bigoted. You could be about getting results, about actually promoting your cause instead of hurting and putting down other people, on and on.
But the key is you have to first see the shadow within you. Well, I’m going a lot slower than I thought. Maybe I’ll skip over some of the things I have here.
So in my talks and in my experience, there’s always been a phenomenon that has struck me. And it first struck me about 12 years ago when I gave a talk at Microsoft up in the Seattle area. Here was a group of 20,000 – 30,000 people, some in this one area. And I was struck by how similar everybody was. People kind of dressed alike. They all kind of acted alike. They were all sort of this sort of buttoned-down, serious kind of personality. They weren’t all the same.
But there was something weird about the kind of behavior patterns that I had never seen in any other office before. Then some seven years ago, I was at Google up in Mountain View. And I noticed a similar thing, but much different. It was a much more playful and open and much more pleasant, to be honest with you, environment.
But there was definitely a kind of a spirit that that group had — this, I’m talking about, in Mountain View. I worked on the board of directors for a company called American Apparel. And the CEO is this kind of insane mad man, kind of like — he has sort of this hippie, free love sort of mentality.
And here you had a company of 10,000 people, and they were all having nose rings and tattoos and cross dressing in the office. Excuse me. Thank you.
It was like, what was going on here? And so I thought, what I’m seeing here at Microsoft, at Google and American Apparel, that there’s a culture. These places have a culture. And that’s a weird phenomenon if you think about it. France, obviously, has a culture. But that culture took 1,000 years to evolve, and it’s very pronounced.
But in the course of 10, 20 years, Microsoft, Google, American Apparel, they’ve evolved their own culture, their own way of being, where people are kind of similar.
What is this phenomenon? And basically, I explain it in my book as one of those very ancient processes that’s kind of determining who we are. See, our ancestors, in order to succeed and thrive as a social animal, they developed complex emotions like joy, like surprise, like anxiety. And these emotions would show up on the face. This is before the invention of language.
So you could look at the person next to you and see that they were feeling anxious, and then you could feel it as well. And then together, you could respond quickly, without ever having to say a word that maybe there was some predator in the area. So these emotional responses that people had were very much communicated without words, viscerally infected. We became infected.
We were susceptible to the emotions of people around us. And we humans have inherited that incredible power.
The other thing that happened is that we developed what’s known as mirror neurons, which I talked a lot about in “Mastery.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with mirror neurons. Basically, that means is if you’re watching somebody playing tennis, the person playing tennis, as they’re hitting the ball, certain neurons are firing in their brain to make them hit it.
As you’re watching them, the same neurons are firing in your brain that are firing in theirs. So this is what gives us the power to imitate and to learn. So you’ll notice sometimes you’ll be watching a basketball game, and you’ll almost be shooting a free throw along with the player, because you’re trying to will that ball into the net.
Those are your mirror neurons that are operating. So we have this built-in power to take on the emotions and feelings and moods of the people around us. And if you put enough people together for enough time, through sheer osmosis, you will create some kind of culture, and people will start acting and behaving in a similar way.
These cultures can be tight, like in Microsoft, or looser, as I imagined here at Google. They could be more kind of traditional, or they can be more kind of populous. They can be sort of top-down or more egalitarian, on and on and on. Often, the culture of the group reflects the person on top — so Bill Gates, obviously, for Microsoft and Dov Charney for American Apparel. I don’t know. I can’t begin to speculate where that might be for Google. I have no idea.
So what happens with this culture is that, also, certain unwritten codes of behavior evolved. And these sort of determine what is acceptable or not acceptable within this culture. And if you don’t pay attention to these codes here at Google or wherever office you’re working, you are likely to be fired or ostracized and never really understand why. So you need to pay attention to this.
So the idea that I’m trying to promote in this chapter is you like to think of yourself as this independent person, where your thoughts and beliefs are your own. But in fact, so many of the things that you think, so many of your values and ideas, come from the group. We are more conformist than we imagine. And I include myself in that.
If we belong to a certain political tribe, we tend to absorb all of the ideas — the same ideas — as other people that have the same political beliefs. So we’re much more conformist than we’d like to believe.
And the other thing is that if we’re not careful, the kind of group mentality can turn easily into a mob mentality. And it can become quite dangerous, as happens in bubbles like the South Sea Bubble, et cetera. So the solution that I’m promoting here is you need to be aware of how deeply the group has infected your own behavior and infected your belief system so that you can create a bit of space for some independent thinking so you can begin to realize that maybe you don’t want to have some of these ideas. They’re not coming from within.
And the second thing is if you’re a leader of any kind of group in any way, you must be very aware of the prevailing culture. You must be able to read it and understand it and work with it. So if you’re starting a group, you’re starting a business, if you have a startup of some sort, you have the chance to create a culture. And it’s extremely important, because once a culture is created, like in Microsoft or American Apparel, it’s very hard to change it.
So I talk in the book about how to create a healthy, functional, what I call a reality group as opposed to a dysfunctional group. So that’s sort of the lesson there. The last sort of force that I wanted to talk about is related to this group force.
And basically, all of us belong to one enormous group that is millions, hundreds of millions, that includes hundreds of millions of people. And that group is the generation that we belong to. A generation basically comprises 22 years. It’s called a cohort. So you belong to a particular generation, as I do.
And obviously, in that 22-year span, the people born near the beginning of their generation and the people born near the end, there’s going to be some differences. But social scientists have discovered remarkable similarities between people within a generation, even those that are separated by those years. They’ll have similar tastes, similar sense of humor, similar values, similar ideas. Where does this come from?
Well, in my book, I make a very kind of intricate description of the origin of the generation and why it evolves that way. But very simply put, when you’re young, you’re very vulnerable to the emotions and moods and ideas of the people around you. And those of your own age, you’re all watching — back in the day when people did that — you’re all watching the same television shows. You’re all listening to more or less the same music. You’re all dealing with parents who came from their own generation, who have their own different, special parenting styles, on and on.
You’re absorbing this kind of group osmosis, this group personality that kind of determines who you are. And this will be the same for millennials, for baby boomers, for Gen Xers. It’s kind of like a secret club that you belong to. So people who are millennials, you have a kind of tacit understanding. I could never enter this club. I can never really completely understand your mentality, because it’s something that you only, from within the generation, that you understand.
And there are two things that you have to see about the generation phenomenon. First is every generation thinks that it’s vastly superior to the one that came before it and vastly superior to the one that comes after. One of the most ancient forms of writing that we have is a Sumerian tablet in which it’s quoted, this is from 1000 BC, mind you — “Today’s youth is rotten, evil, godless, and lazy. It will never be what youth used to be. And it will never be able to preserve our culture.”
Now that sounds pretty familiar, right? So people will say of millennials, “Oh, you’re so soft. You’re so pampered. What’s wrong with you?”
But people were saying the same thing about baby boomers and saying about the same thing about Gen Xers. It’s human nature.
So the next time you hear somebody sort of parade this sign of superiority, which I just basically consider generational narcissism, just tell yourself it’s human nature. People are going to be saying that 1,000 years from now.
The second thing you must understand is that the generational phenomena creates what is called a zeitgeist, a spirit of the times. It’s critical, absolutely critical for you to understand if you want to be successful in business or whatever.
The zeitgeist basically, at any one time, there are four generations that are alive, the 22 years. There might be a fifth generation. But they’re getting pretty old, and they’re dying off. So the two youngest generations are the ones that are kind of unsettled. They don’t like the way the world is. They want a change. They want to create new values, new fashions, new styles. They’re generating all of this energy for change.
The two older generations want to stop that. They want to hold on to the past. They want to conserve and preserve the traditions that they inherited. And these two seismic forces are continually clashing, creating a spirit of the time, a zeitgeist.
The other thing with generations is they follow this incredible pattern that people have discovered, have written about for many years. So there will be a generation that will be known as the revolutionary generation, in which it overturns all of the previous ideas and values and creates true revolution. This will be followed by a generation that tries to preserve that revolution and kind of turn it into something a little more rational and sane. This will be followed by a very conservative generation that has lost touch with the revolution, but is just basically all about safety and keeping what happened in the past. This will be followed by a crisis generation, which gets so sick of the stagnant situation and of the values they’ve inherited that they’re very unhappy and dissatisfied. And this leads to the revolutionary generation, on and on and on and on and on.
And we can see the cycle continually happening. And people estimate that the generation that is now that the millennial generation is a true crisis generation. I believe that’s true. And that what is following is that we’re on the verge of another kind of revolution, the kind that happens, they estimate, every 80 or so years, where values are going to be completely overturned, and something new is gestating, something very exciting and something very different.
And so your task, in whatever you’re creating or whatever you’re doing, you have an audience that you must reach. And that audience has a zeitgeist, has a spirit. And this spirit is never stagnant. It’s always changing. And you tend to be locked in the past. I like to tend the spirit of the times as a kind of a wave.
If you’re just behind that wave, if you’re not quite up to it, the product, the book that you write, the startup that you create, will fail. If it’s with that wave, if it’s riding with it, you will have some success. If you anticipate that wave, if you’re a little bit ahead of it, you will have tremendous success. That is where true power lies.
So you must be incredibly sensitive to this phenomenon and not be — your generation will tend to lock you into the past, lock you into certain values and belief systems. You want to let go of them. You want to develop some flow. And you want to be able to develop this kind of very sensitive antenna to what is going on with the younger generations, where true change is fomenting.
Now I’ve gone way over my talk, what I thought this would take. But I want to conclude with a story that I have in my book that sort of illustrates to me the tremendous power that you can have by putting these ideas into action. And it’s a story about another Englishman — don’t worry, this book isn’t just about English people — a man named Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton. He was one of the great English explorers. He lived in the beginning of the 20th century.
Shackleton had led several expeditions across Antarctica. And it was his idea that he would lead the first expedition — the first group of men — to cross this enormous continent on foot.
So in 1914, he set out with a crew of 27 men to accomplish this. But as they got nearer to the point where they were to embark and cross the continent, they got trapped in an ice floe. And they were trapped in there for months. And their ship started catching water and began to sink.
So he had to order all of his men off the ship and onto this ice floe. And they managed to keep a couple of the life preserve ship — the little lifeboats that were on the boat. But basically, Shackleton was now facing what seemed to be an impossible, dire situation. They were about to enter the winter, in which there would be no daylight, and the weather would be awful. Their radio was too weak to send a distress signal to be picked up. So they were trapped on their own.
Supplies from the ship were going to quickly run out. And so they would have nothing to eat. They would have to live off the land. And so to be able to survive against all those odds seemed nearly impossible.
But Shackleton had been on many expeditions. He was this brilliant man who was not just brilliant at adventuring, but he had a deep understanding of people and himself.
So the first thing he realizes, in order to get out of this horrible situation, he would have to be making a series of decisions. The most important would be when to abandon the ice floe and try and go somewhere else. And if he listened to his emotions, if he panicked or he got doubtful, he wouldn’t time this right. He would leave too early or too late. He had to calm himself down. He had to make sure that his decisions weren’t being influenced by the men he was leading and what they were feeling. He had to step back and assess rationally. What was the best time to leave? What was the best decision for that moment?
The second thing was he had to deal with a very diverse group of men that came from all different backgrounds, social, economic backgrounds. And he was an incredibly empathetic person. He made a point of getting inside the spirit of each one of his men. He talked their language. To the photographer on the ship, he talked like a photographer. He got inside his more artistic point of view.
To the carpenter, who was from a lower class, he suddenly talked more of his language. He got into the spirit of each of these men so that he could figure out their moods and anticipate when they might start getting kind of negative and infect the group with doubts. And he was very sensitive to each person.
He understood that the group had a dark side, that this could ruin any chances of success, that the great enemy wasn’t the weather or anything, but it was from within the human spirit.
So he organized all of these things that could channel this dark energy. He organized big soccer games on the ice so they could get out their competitive spirit. He organized all these kind of festivals where they could get drunk and rowdy and raunchy, and he didn’t stop it. Basically, he tried constantly to elevate the group’s spirits, that they would not start doubting themselves, on and on and on.
And through this process, he figured out the moment when they left the ice floe. They got on their lifeboats, and they traveled some 300 miles to an island, the Elephant Island, where they now were on solid ground, but on a tiny beach where they wouldn’t survive. And then he took one of these little boats. With him were six men who he’d carefully chosen. He crossed the most treacherous waters on the planet — 800 miles, with waves 30, 40 feet high — to South Georgia Island, where he was able to get a rescue ship. And all 27 men survived.
It is considered one of the most remarkable survival and rescue stories in the history of mankind. And Sir Henry Shackleton has gone down in history. Any books on leadership are always quoting this story of Shackleton and what he accomplished on that journey. Sorry, I’m losing my voice.
And basically, he did this through his knowledge of himself, through his incredible empathetic connection to his men, and through his deep grasp of human nature.
Now I don’t think here at Google you’re ever going to be facing circumstances as dire as what Shackleton faced. I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. But it’s a social animal. We’re always facing environments that are full of dangers, disappointments, toxic people, et cetera. And it is my belief and my hope that with a genuine understanding of human nature, which I hope to have sparked in you today, you can navigate even the most treacherous, dysfunctional environment you’ll ever encounter and handle those toxic people that will inevitably cross your path, and that you’ll be able to develop that empathy that I think is the most powerful tool that any human could possibly possess.
Thank you so much for this. I’m sorry about how long it went. I thought it was a much shorter talk than it was. But anyway, thank you.
QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION
AUDIENCE: So you mentioned that 95% of a decision of action come from subconscious. So is that on average, or is there a range for that?
ROBERT GREENE: Well, the range would be coming through the understanding that I’m trying to develop and help you with by understanding yourself more — just by understanding the fact that so much of your behavior is unconscious, you’re already going to increase the range of that 95 and lower it, because you’re going to be aware of these things going on. You’re going to be able to see, for instance, if emotions are governing your action and you’re not aware of it. How you buy something, or the plans and strategies you’re making, or how you responded to people. If you simply know that fact, then you’re able to carve out more consciousness.
AUDIENCE: So how do you have a more empathetic relationship with your shadow? And do you have any examples of how an individual use their shadow to be more productive in what they want to accomplish?
ROBERT GREENE: You do have to be more empathetic. It’s like a child inside of yourself that you have to finally accept, and come to terms with, and kind of love in a way. So I noticed my own shadow, for instance — I like to think of myself as this rigorously independent person. But basically what it’s disguising — because the shadow also — I didn’t completely go into everything.
The shadow is not just your dark emotions, it’s also your insecurities and your vulnerabilities that you’re hiding from the world. And I’m hiding from the world, from the public, a kind of scared child. I want to be independent and assert that because I had parents that basically never gave me enough attention. So I hope my mom’s not watching this. She’ll now want to rewind that.
But anyway, so — I tend to kind of go too far with this sort of behavior. I talk in the book about Abraham Lincoln, who had a very pronounced shadow. And this shadow had two sides to it. First, he was kind of morbid, and a very sensitive person — almost kind of poetic in a way. He was obsessed with death. And he knew that if he let out this kind of obsessive, morbid, overly sensitive personality would get him in trouble. People wouldn’t like it. He also was a very aggressive and belligerent people.
These two sides lived in — these two aspects were both there at the same time. He was a belligerent person. You don’t realize this, but he loved boxing, and he loved beating the hell out of people. He was a boxer as a young man. And at one point in his life he insulted another politician with very rude language. And he told himself, I’m never going to do this again. He saw his shadow on parade.
And so he learned to channel these two sides of himself in a way that would be productive. He turned that kind of morbid sensitivity into empathy, to the feeling that he didn’t want to lose lives during the Civil War. He wanted — even Confederate soldiers was valuable to him. And he channeled that aggressive energy into winning the war, into strategizing, into being the most brilliant, rational, strategist that ever lived.
I tell people who are artists use your anger, use your frustration and your anger, and your hurts and put them into your work. Because — and films and books that do that grab an audience. Because we all have these emotions, and these sides that we’re tamping down, that if you express your anger, it’ll attract people like a magnet. And I did that — I’ve done that in all my books.
The 48 Laws of Power — I had a lot of anger in there, and I put it in the book, and I think that’s what attracted a lot of readers to it. And I talk in The Art of Seduction about Malcolm X and the tremendous anger that was welling inside of him from all of the hurt that he had as a young man and the years in prison. And he tamped that down and he controlled — he didn’t explode.
If you ever watched Malcolm X speak, there was this incredible incandescence that I call charisma. He was controlling that anger, but he was channeling it in these very rational, powerful speeches. So I want you to take it and channel that energy into something positive and productive.
Take — don’t be afraid of your ambition, don’t be afraid that you’re aggressive, but put it into something that’s actually productive and you’ll accomplish something as opposed to hurting people.
I mean, I have more in the book about that — that’s sort of — does that answer your question?
AUDIENCE: Yeah, thanks.
AUDIENCE: Hello. You mentioned that the laws of human nature are based in neuroscience, and that we all experience it. But how is it also related to mental disease? Do you believe that — for sociopaths for example, do you believe that they also are guided by these laws of human nature? Or do you believe that they are an edge case to this?
ROBERT GREENE: They’re what?
AUDIENCE: That they’re an edge case.
ROBERT GREENE: Edge case?
AUDIENCE: That they don’t — they’re an outlier.
ROBERT GREENE: Well by the logic I’ve determined, nobody is exempt from it. OK?
So they are more like an edge case. So I talked about narcissism, we all have narcissism and narcissistic tendencies. But there are people who fall deeply into toxic narcissism, deep narcissism. They’re only a more extreme example of a tendency that we all have. So even the worst criminal is only displaying potentiality and tendencies that exists within each and every one of us. So criminals have a dark side, obviously. And they act on that dark side more readily than we do. They didn’t necessarily tamp down all that energy that they had as a child. They’re acting out on it more in their twenties and thirties — they’re holding up liquor stores, they’re robbing, they’re doing whatever they want because they never developed that positive, angelic image that we have.
But even criminals, who I’ve studied a lot, 95% of the time, they’re actually polite people, getting along. They’re not being aggressive, and violent and angry all the time. They’ve learned also as well — in order to get along with people, in order to survive even among other criminals — that they have to present a certain kind of image.
So the laws that I’m talking about affect each and every one of us. So the criminal mentality is simply an extension of tendencies we all have. The number one thing that defines a true criminal is the fact that they don’t have the normal patience that we have to get what we want. They are not able to delay their gratification needs.
So if we want money and recognition, we’re willing to put in 10 years of hard work to get it — knowing that at the end there will be something — they don’t have that. They want instant gratification. They can’t wait that long — they need the money now, they need the attention, the excitement now. But we all have that tendency. All of us are impatient. We all are prone to taking the line of least resistance. If someone gave us a shortcut — instead of 10 years, it only took two years — each and every one of us would take that. So there is that tendency within all of us.
The book — I really want to be making sure in a kind of humane way — to stop separating us and them. As if we are these great superior creatures, they are these scum — these human rejects — we are all in this together. We all have the same propensities. You take any one of you and put you in some horrible, neglected, poverty-stricken environment, you’ll find survival skills that you never realized you had. You’ll become a different person. You might even discover criminal tendencies in yourself. You never realize.
So I want to get people off their high horse, off their moral superiority, off their feeling that they’re so much better than others. We’re all in this together. We all have the same flaws and the same strengths.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: Hi, Robert. I really enjoyed your talk.
ROBERT GREENE: It wasn’t too long?
AUDIENCE: It was great. I really enjoyed it.
ROBERT GREENE: I cut out a whole bunch of stuff, if you can believe it.
AUDIENCE: I’m sort of disappointed. I’m used to listening to really long podcasts. But I was taken with the storytelling aspect of your talk. And I’m wondering if you can talk about A, what you think is — this is a little off-topic for your book, but — A, what do you think makes for good storytelling, the way you’ve delivered it? And maybe some of the people that you look up to as good storytellers.
ROBERT GREENE: Well, you know, since The 48 Laws of Power I’ve been — my method — bye, Travis. You’re coming back? I always decided that I would tell stories because I feel I want to draw the reader into my subject. And so many books that I read are really boring, and they don’t connect with me, because I’m always at a distance from what they’re talking about. And I want to seduce the reader. I want to draw you into my world, to my way of looking at things, and a story does that.
And the power of a story, which I talk a lot in two of my books — The Art of Seduction, and then in my third book on strategies of war, my kind of version of Sun Tzu. I have a chapter about how to communicate to people, and I just — I reveal all of my secrets in that chapter.
But basically, when you tell a story people don’t know what’s happening next. And I always make it a point that you don’t know the lesson that I’m getting at where I begin. You have no idea that the people I’m describing are actually the con artists who are conning the other person. You think they’re the ones being conned, but they’re the con artist. I try and surprise you, I try to have some mystery. And I lead you along, lead you along, and then boom — I tell you the ending, and the moral, and then I interpret it.
And I liken this — the power of this, psychologically — to when we were children. We liked that feeling of our father picking us up and throwing us around, carrying us someplace we didn’t know where he was carrying us. We liked the idea of some ride at an amusement park. What’s around the corner? What’s happening next? What’s behind the curtain?
That moment where you’re wondering what’s happening next, you have caught the reader, you’ve hooked them. They’re going to want to know what’s next. So I’m always in the process of hooking the reader. I’m very aware of my audience. I’m very aware of when they’re going to get bored and where their attention is going to weaken.
So I want to create stories. I mean — any great novelist, any great playwright, any great screenwriter is going to be a master at creating that level of suspense and mystery. But I think it’s deeply ingrained in us. And if I could tell people that — I teach people to write books, I’m often helping them with their books — I’m telling you, you’re being too, obvious too familiar. You’re not surprising people.
By the third chapter we’ve read everything that you have to say. You’ve left no surprises. So I always structure my books to have continual little pops, make them think — so you’re never quite bored. Hope I’ve succeeded.
AUDIENCE: I’m excited to read your book.
ROBERT GREENE: Oh, thank you.
AUDIENCE: Hey, Robert. So you talked a lot about the power of empathy. I’m curious what your thoughts are on — let’s say as a leader, and having to make decisions sort of for the overall — the best possible decision for the overall good, right? Even when sometimes it has to be kind of hard on certain groups of people, right? And you need to like work harder to sort of get ahead in a certain environment — what are your thoughts — do you ever feel like too much empathy can lead to a little bit more of an irrational and emotional decision making?
ROBERT GREENE: It’s a very good question. Yeah, there’s a level there where as a leader, in particular, you have to cut that off. But the empathy that you’re having is — as a leader, you’re there for the greater good. The group is coming together to create something positive, what I call a reality group.
A reality group is a group that’s together to make something, to create a product, to create a book or a film. It’s not there for emotional purpose, it’s not there for people to be friends, or to get out their ya-yas. It’s to make something. So you’re grounded in reality, you’re practical.
And if you have 10 members and one of them is some kind of raging narcissistic asshole, or whatever, you can’t be empathetic to that person. You have to find a way to isolate them so your empathy is geared towards the greater good of the group. I have a chapter on this, a chapter on authority. And I talk about the icon of that is Queen Elizabeth I, that I discuss — who is an immensely empathetic person but was in a terrible position as the female ruler at a time when women weren’t supposed to rule. And so she created a style of authority that I think is incredibly powerful.
And from her story I kind of deduce certain laws. And so for instance, if you need the group to work harder — and they’re slagging off, et cetera — you need to lead from the front. You need to set the example. You can’t be sitting there back in your office yelling at people saying, what are you going home right now? It’s 4 o’clock! No, you’ve got to stay longer. You can’t be berating people and pushing them like a donkey up a hill.
If you set the example, if you set the tone and the spirit, people will follow you. And that’s the mistake. 95% of these — I keep using that number, sorry — so many mistakes that people make, leader-wise, is they think that it comes from other people. That their employees are to blame, they’re lazy, they don’t know what they’re doing. It comes from you. You’re not setting the tone. You have the power to set the right tone. You’re in the office work until 9, 10 o’clock, and everybody sees that. They’re going to follow your lead.
They’re going to see that you take responsibility for mistakes. You don’t blame scapegoats. They’re going to say, oh, I better take responsibility for myself. You’re not favoring this person over that person. You’re treating everybody more or less equally. Oh, OK, I’m motivated to work harder and earn his or her trust. Through the tone that you set, that’s the power that you have as a leader. It’s much better than yelling at people and berating them.
So I agree, empathy can go too far in that case, and you have to set limits and boundaries. But more than anything, you have to set the proper tone for the group.
AUDIENCE: So I have a question about leadership. You mentioned that people in — actually about culture. People in certain environment become very similar to each other. And we have a tendency to be like other people around us. I was wondering, if you don’t like something about the culture and you’re not in the leadership position to set an example, how do you go about changing the culture?
ROBERT GREENE: It’s extremely difficult, particularly if you’re in a large company, because the culture is stronger than any individual. Right so if you’re in a dysfunctional environment — and believe me I’ve consulted with companies that I would call dysfunctional — you as an individual have very limited choices. And I’ve talked to people like that and I say, in these situations, you have to be a little bit selfish.
You have to see the skills that you can get — you have to learn from this, you have to learn the negative examples, and you have to get out as quickly as you can. Because these kind of environments will drag you down. I say people can go crazy — can literally develop a mental illness — by working in a dysfunctional group. It can infect you and you’ll never get over the rest of your life. As opposed to working for a reality group, or positive place, can actually improve your mental health.
So first of all, don’t be hubristic, don’t be grandiose and think that you — one person, mid-level employee — is going to suddenly be — shining knight in armor and going to change this culture. You can’t. It’s stronger than you are. And I talk in the book about the United States Pentagon. It’s very powerful, rooted military culture. And all these people came in thinking that they were going to be the ones that were going to alter the culture.
John F. Kennedy was one, Lyndon Johnson was one. They didn’t want to get deeper involved in the Vietnam War, they were going to change the culture. And the culture ended up changing them, ended up making them go further and further into the war. The culture will change you the longer you’re in it. You won’t change it.
So have some humility, think about yourself, and as soon as you can get out of it. If you give me more specifics, I can go more deeply into it. That’s generally the advice I give.
AUDIENCE: It may not be necessarily a dysfunctional culture. There may be aspects like — we went to Microsoft, everybody was a certain way. What if you have some different idea for what culture should be? Not necessarily — I’m not talking dysfunction.
ROBERT GREENE: I’m sorry, I misunderstood.
Well in a culture like Microsoft — and I’m generalizing a bit — but there wasn’t much room for expressing something weird or individual, showing your own flair. But you always could if you learned to first abide by the conventions of the culture that you’re in. So when you enter a new environment, a new group — let’s say you enter Google for the first time and there is a pronounced culture — you must be very attuned to it.
You must understand the spirit, you must understand the mood that prevails, and certain codes of behavior. What is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Even though you may not like it, you have to learn those codes. And from within those codes perhaps you have room to express a little bit more of your individuality. And it’s a game because sometimes bending those rules a little bit and being more of yourself will actually be very powerful.
If you’re simply the company man or woman, maybe you won’t get very far because you’re too much of a conformist. So sometimes operating within the conventions and the codes of behavior, you have room to bend them a little bit and show some of your own flair. I know I’m generalizing in that sense, but that’s one way where you can kind of operate within that kind of strict environment.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
ROBERT GREENE: Well, I’m going to see this through. All right.
AUDIENCE: Hey, thanks for your talk. I really enjoyed it. So my question was — I’m a little curious about what you were discussing about the power of empathic ability. Empathic ability. How I see it that someone with a greater empathic ability would, in an interaction, have essentially a greater level of power maybe to the point of a manipulative capacity. And how is it possible to recognize this type of power dynamic? And what’s the best way to address that?
ROBERT GREENE: Very good question. So it’s a known thing in psychology that a lot of psychopaths — or sociopaths, whichever term you prefer — can be very attuned to other people. They have actually empathy, and that’s what makes them such great manipulators. They’re able to get inside the moods and ideas of people. And they know who you are and that gives them the room to manipulate. So it’s a very good point.
And I discuss this in the book that there are different kinds of empathy. There is what I call analytic empathy in which you are looking at the other person in a very analytic way. What’s their weakness, what’s their strength, who are they? And I talk about visceral empathy. Visceral empathy comes from here, from the gut. It’s a feeling. And I talk about we have this power — I can’t read your thoughts, but through great knowledge of nonverbal behavior — which is part of my talk I didn’t get to get to — I can feel what your mood is, what your emotions are, what your spirit is. And that creates a kind of visceral connection.
A communication that predates words that we humans possess. And that kind of visceral empathy is more human, it’s more elemental, it’s more on the level of two fellow people communicating to each other.
And the psychopath doesn’t have that visceral empathy, which is what enables them to be so evil and nasty and manipulative. Because they can go inside your world and figure out how to mess with you and they won’t feel any compunction because they lack that quality that links two people from here. Not from the heart, but from the viscera.
And so to have true empathy you have to develop this other skill. And I say in there, having just visceral empathy is not enough either. Because sometimes that gut feeling, that communication, can be inaccurate. You can misread people. So you want to have that analytic ability. You want to have the ability to go what was your childhood like, what was your mother like, who are you? And analyze it.
But you want it with this as well because one without the other will make you a kind of inhuman beast. So that’s the difference between the two.
AUDIENCE: All right. Thank you so much, everyone, for coming. Thank you, Robert for giving this awesome talk.
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