The following is the full transcript of Robert Greene’s talk: The Key to Transforming Yourself at TEDxBrixton.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The key to transforming yourself by Robert Greene at TEDxBrixton
Robert Greene – Author, The 48 Laws of Power
After the publication of my first book The 48 Laws of Power, I began to receive requests for advice from people in every conceivable profession and at every level of experience.
Over the years I have now personally consulted with over hundred different people. And in so many of the cases, they would — the following scenario would play itself out. They would come to me with a specific problem. A boss from hell, a business relationship that had gone — turned ugly, a promotion that never came. I would slowly direct their attention away from the boss and the job, and instead get them to search inside themselves, and try to find the emotional root of their discontent.
Often as we talked it out, they would realize that at their core they felt deeply frustrated, their creativity was not being realized, their career had somehow taken a wrong turn. What they actually wanted was something larger, a real and substantial change in their careers and in their lives.
It would be at this point that I would tell them a story about myself, about my own peculiar path to change and transformation from a highly unsuccessful writer eking out an existence in a small one bedroom apartment in Santa Monica, to bestselling author seemingly overnight. I have never publicly related this story before but for this very special occasion, my first TED talk, I thought I would share it with you, because it’s actually very relevant to this subject of change.
The story goes like this. I had known since [age] that I wanted to become a writer. I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to write. Perhaps it was novels or essays or plays. After University I drifted into journalism as a way to at least make a living while writing.
Then one day after several years of working as a writer and editor, I was having lunch with a man who had just edited an article I had written for a magazine. After downing his third martini, this editor, an older man, finally admitted to me why he had asked me to lunch. “You should seriously consider a different career,” he told me. “You are NOT writer material. Your work is too undisciplined. Your style is too bizarre. Your ideas — they’re just not relatable to the average reader. Go to law school, Robert. Go to business school. Spare yourself the pain”.
At first these words were like a punch in the stomach. But in the months to come, I realized something about myself. I had entered a career that just didn’t really suit me mostly as a way to make a living. And my work reflected this in compatibility. I had to get out of journalism. This realization initiated a period of wandering in my life. I traveled all across Europe. I worked every conceivable job. I did construction work in Greece, taught English in Barcelona, worked as a hotel receptionist in Paris, a tour guide in Dublin, served as a trainee for an English company making television documentaries, living not far from here in Brixton.
During all of this time I wrote several novels that never made it past a hundred pages and dozens of essays that I would tear up and plays that never got produced. I wandered back to Los Angeles, California where I was born and raised. I worked in a detective agency, among other odd jobs. I entered the film business working as an assistant to a director, as a researcher and story developer and screenwriter.
In these long years of wandering, I had totaled over 50 different jobs. By the year 1995, my parents — God bless them — were beginning to get seriously worried about me. I was 36 years old and I seemed lost and unable to settle into anything. I too had moments of doubt but I did not feel lost. I was searching and exploring and I was hungry for experiences, and I was continuously writing.
That same year, while in Italy, for yet another job, I met a man there named Joost Elffers, a packager and producer of books. One day, while we were walking along the quays of Venice, Joost asked me if I had any ideas for a book. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, an idea just gushed out of me. It was about power. I told Joost that I was constantly reading books in history and the stories that I read of Julius Caesar, [La Borges], Louis the Fourteenth, these were the exact same stories that I had personally witnessed with my own eyes in all of my different jobs, only less bloody. People want power and they want to disguise this wanting of power. And so they play games. They covertly manipulate and intrigue all the while presenting a nice even saintly front. I would expose these games.
I gave him numerous examples of what I meant and he became increasingly excited. He said I should write a treatment, and if it was good enough he would pay me to live while I wrote half the book and up to sell it to a publisher. Suddenly in writing what would become The 48 Laws of Power everything in my disjointed past seemed to click into place, like magic, like destiny. All of those various writing experiences, the journalism, the television, the theater, the film had given me the skills to tell stories and organize my thoughts. All of that reading of history had given me a vast storehouse of ideas that I could draw upon and my work as a researcher had taught me how to find the perfect anecdote.
Even those — and those different seemingly random jobs had exposed me to every type of psychology and to the dark corners of the human psyche. Even the languages I learned while traveling it taught me patience and discipline. All of these experiences added up to rich layers of knowledge and practice that had altered me from the inside out. In my own very weird and intuitive way, I had given myself the perfect education for the writing of The 48 Laws of Power. The book came out in 1998 and it was a success. The course of my life was forever altered.
Now the moral of the story, as I told the people who had come to me for advice and as I’m telling you now is the following. We humans tend to fixate on what we can see with our eyes. It is the most animal part of our nature. When we look at the changes and transformations in other people’s lives, we see the good luck that someone had in meeting a person like Joost, with all of the right connections and the funding. We see the book or the project that brings the money and the attention. In other words, we see the visible signs of opportunity and success in our own lives but we are grasping at an illusion. What really allows for such dramatic changes are the things that occur on the inside of a person and are completely invisible. The slow accumulation of knowledge and skills, the incremental improvements in work habits and the ability to withstand criticism. Any change in people’s fortune is merely the visible manifestation of all of that deep preparation over time.
By essentially ignoring this internal invisible aspect, we fail to change anything fundamental within ourselves. And so in a few years time we reach our limits. Yet again we grow frustrated, we crave change, we grab at something quick and superficial and we remain prisoners forever of these recurring patterns in our lives.
The answer. The key to the ability to transform ourselves is actually insanely simple to reverse this perspective: Stop fixating on what other people are saying and doing on the money, the connections, the outward appearance of things. Instead look inward, focus on the smaller internal changes that lay the groundwork for a much larger change in fortune. It is the difference between grasping at an illusion and immersing yourself in reality. And reality is what will liberate and transform you.