It’s All Material

Friday, April 29th, 2011

When he graduated with a degree in classics, Robert Greene (The 48 Laws of Power) had no idea how the real world worked:

I was immersed in studying philosophy and literature and languages. And so when I started working, essentially in magazines, I worked at Esquire magazine and a few others. I had no idea of how things operated in the real world, and I was very much shocked by all of the egos and the insecurities and the game playing and the political stuff. It really kind of disturbed me and it upset me. I can remember when I was about 26 or 27 years old one particular job that was kind of the turning point in my life.

I am not going to tell you which job this was. I don’t want you Googling it and figuring out who I’m talking about. But, basically, the job was that I had to find stories that would then be put into either film or a magazine, whatever. But I was basically judged on how many good stories I found. So in this job, I thought, I am a very competitive person, and I was doing better than anybody else there. I was finding more stories that ended up getting produced, because I felt that’s the point. You are trying to produce. You are trying to get work done. Isn’t that the most important thing? Isn’t that why we are all here?

Suddenly I found that my superior, this woman, who’s name I won’t mention, made it very clear that she wasn’t happy with me. That something was wrong. I was doing something wrong and I couldn’t figure out what it was.

So going on what I was mentioning, that theory of mind, this power that we have, I sort of put myself in her shoes. And I’m thinking, what is it that I’m doing that is displeasing her? I am clearly producing. And I figured out, well, maybe it is because I’m not involving her in what I’m doing, in my ideas. I need to run them by her. I need to make and involve her more so she feels like she is a part of the research that I am doing.

So I would go into her office and I would tell her where my ideas were coming. I was trying to engage with her, figuring that was the problem. Well, that didn’t seem to work. She was still clearly unhappy with me. Maybe didn’t like me. So, I thought, going further, well, maybe I’m not being friendly enough with her. Maybe I need to be nice to her. Maybe I need to go in and not talk about work, but just talk, be nice and talk like a human being.

Okay. So that was strategy number two. I started doing that. Still didn’t have any effect. She still seemed really cold and kind of mean. I figured, all right. She just hates me. That’s just life. Not everybody can love you. That’s just it. I mean, what the hell? I’ll just do my job. Then one day we are having a meeting in which we are discussing our ideas, and she suddenly interrupts. She says, “‘Robert. You have an attitude problem.”

“What?” “You’re not listening to people here.” “I’m listening.” But, I mean, I produce. I do my work. You are going to judge me about how wide my eyes are open and how I’m listening to people? She goes, “No. You have a problem here.” “I’m sorry. I don’t think I do.”

Anyway, over the course of the next few weeks she just started kind of torturing me about this idea that I had an attitude. And, of course, naturally, I developed an attitude. I started resenting her. And a couple of weeks later, I quit, because I just hated it. I probably quit a week before they were going to fire me anyway. And I went home, and over the course of several weeks, I thought really deeply about it. What happened here? What did I do wrong? I mean, she just didn’t like me? I think I’m a likable person.

I figured, I came to this conclusion. I had violated a law of power 12 years before I ever wrote the book. Law number one: Never outshine the master. I had gone into this environment thinking that what mattered was doing a great job and showing how talented I was. But, in doing that, I had made this woman, my superior, insecure that maybe I was after her job or that maybe I was better than she was. And I would make her look bad because the great ideas were coming from me and not from her.

I had violated law number one. And when you violate law number one, you are going to suffer for it, because you are touching on a person’s ego and their insecurities. That is the worst thing you can do, and that is what had happened.

So in reflecting over this, it was kind of a turning point in my life. And I said, “I’m never going to let this happen again. I’m never going to get emotional.” Because that it what happened. I basically reacted emotionally to her torturing me and developed an attitude. I’m never going to let that happen again. I don’t care. I’m a writer. I don’t care about these jobs that I get. I am just going to become a master observer of the game of power. I am going to watch these people as if they were mice in a laboratory, with some distance.

I developed a motto. A motto that I still use to this day, and that motto is, “It’s all material.” Everything that happens is material. Material for a book. Material for a novel, for a screenplay. I want to be the master observer of this world.

This suddenly allowed me, now, to not only observe the power games going on in the many different kinds of jobs that I’ve had. And I can tell you, I’ve had jobs from working in journalism. I worked in a detective agency. I worked for a music producer. I worked for film. Everything possible.

In having this distance and looking at the world like this, suddenly I had power. I wasn’t emotionally involved. I had some distance, and I could deal with things. From that, I developed “The 48 Laws of Power,” when I was finally given the opportunity to write the book. What I decided in “The 48 Laws,” and it’s a very much a part of me, is that this is the reality that we must all deal with. That we are social creatures. That we live in environments where there are all kinds of complicated networks. We are, in a way, defined by how we handle these environments, this reality.

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