The following questions and answers are taken from from Product Hunt, Reddit AMAs, and interviews. The answers to these questions are by Robert Greene himself, not me.
What’s your personal take on the meaning of life?
We are here to achieve our potential as individuals. That is what I read in our DNA, why humans have individual traits, unique qualities. In a Darwinian sense, that represents Natural Selection on the cultural level. Our diversity, our diverse skills, keep the human race alive. A seed is planted at your birth. You were meant to bring it to full growth. Many people do not because they become what others tell them they should be. This is all in Chapter One of Mastery. I could obviously say a lot more on the subject.
What’s your note-taking method for your books?
I read a book, very carefully, writing on the margins with all kinds of notes. A few weeks later I return to the book, and transfer my scribbles on to note cards each card representing an important theme in the book. For instance, in Mastery, the theme of mirror neurons. After going through several dozen books, I might have three hundred cards, and from those cards I see patterns and themes that coalesce into hardcore chapters. I can then thumb through the cards and move them around at will. For many reasons I find this an incredible way to shape a book.
How do you find the obscure, but awesome books that you use for writing?
It’s a developed skill. I have an intuition about some historical figure or some general idea, and now I need the hard data to back it up. I keep it open and follow side routes, but always guided ferociously by the main idea of the book. Once, for Seduction, I knew that Duke Ellington would be perfect. The researcher kept coming back with books that did not discuss his personal life. No way to see him as a seducer. I was relentless. Finally, ten books later, we discovered a book written by a former band member, completely obscure and out of print, and voila, it totally opened up his private life and how this man was the greatest rake of all time. My hunch or intuition proved to be right.
[Also] I am a big believer in cross referencing. In other words, I will come across the name of an historical figure or an idea that is intriguing, somewhat mysterious and obscure, and then using the footnotes or the Internet, I hunt down more information. In Mastery, for instance, I would read a book about the 10,000 hour study, and the book would reference another study that inspired it in the 60s. I would find the obscure book on that previous study, which would include a reference to some really intriguing book written in the 1950s on how the brain functions. That’s my method in a nutshell.
If you had the opportunity to meet anybody you wanted throughout history, who would it be? And what would you ask them?
I love ancient history. My major in college was Classics—ancient Greek and Latin. I would love to have met any of the great ones from that era. I would have too many questions to share here. I would be curious to see how very different their thinking is to ours, or whether some ideas transcend time. I could have a good conversation with Thucydides. And of course, I would love to have dinner with Machiavelli and ask him if the Prince was not slightly tongue in cheek.
Out of all the historical figures in history that you’ve researched who was the most intriguing one and why?
Napoleon Bonaparte. The drama of the times, the French Revolution. The brilliance of his mind as evidenced by so many amazing victories on the battlefield. The lessons to be learned from his eventual downfall. His wife, the great seductress. I could read about NB all day.
Say you got exiled to a desert island for the rest of your life and you were allowed to bring ONE book. What book would it be and why?
Thomas’ Guide to Shipbuilding. I’m the practical type.
What do you think of social media?
Burying yourself too deeply into social media can actually become a kind of fortress. You need real life interactions (non virtual) with as many people as possible, with all of the connections that will lead to. Facebook is a false world, a false reality. The point of Law #18 is to connect as deeply as possible to what is happening on the streets.
There could be some value to what you glean from social media, but we are human animals that actually thrive on face to face encounters. Too many shy people are using Facebook as a screen to avoid the trickier aspects of social life. If you had a choice, I would always opt for spending the time meeting with people face to face, even if it narrows the numbers.
If you could go back in time and tell your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
I would go back and tell myself to write more. I kept thinking about writing and imagining great books pouring out of my brain, but little time actually making them come to pass. If I had only practiced more, I could have already written ten novels and six books and retire on the Riviera.
Is it accurate to say your interest in power, seduction, and war relates to your own personal experiences and lessons in life as well?
Very much so. And I think that is why the books are popular. I give you the basic patterns of action in power, seduction, or war, and I let readers make personal connections to events in their lives. A lot of this came from my experience in the work world, and in particular in Hollywood. I tended to see some of my bosses as Cesare Borgias or little Genghis Khans trying to make their way through or around their rivals. I put a lot of my own experiences in the books, but disguised behind stories of famous figures. The stories I tell in the books (each concept is illustrated with stories from history) are designed to teach you lessons. What point is there in living if you are not learning from experience, yours or others?
What is the relationship between power and happiness?
It depends on your definition of power and of happiness. In my book, people are often unhappy because they feel no power in their lives. This means they have no control over their fate, their career, their girlfriend or wife, their boss. A miserable feeling. Also the sense that you have never quite reached your potential in your work is another misery-inducing factor, which is also tied to power.
But just becoming Mark Zuckerberg will not make you happy. It’s not about the position you reach, but the sense that you have realized what you were meant to accomplish in life and have the freedom to do so. That’s how I see power.
In your opinion, how has technology affected power?
[Technology] has made power more democratic, which is a great and wonderful thing. It has opened the gates up to millions of people who had no access before. This democratization will eventually sweep over Russia and China, I believe, but perhaps not in my lifetime. So to me that is the greatest and best change that technology has offered.
There are also some downsides. People are less patient and social than ever before. I firmly believe the Internet has much to do with it. But on the whole, the good outweighs the bad.
How do you respond to critics that say The 48 Laws of Power in essence teaches you how to be snakish, evil, manipulative, etc.?
Learn how to work with enemies. Never Outshine the Master. Plan all the way to the end. Create compelling spectacles. Win their hearts and minds. In victory know when to stop. Disdain things you cannot have. I could go on. Well over half the laws are basic common sense and wisdom and have nothing snakey about them. So is there something manipulative and snakish on the part of those who only hone in on the laws that stand out? They read into the book and see what they want to see. The snakes of the world don’t need The 48 Laws. They’re naturally good at being assholes. The 48 Laws is mostly for those of us who are somewhat naive.
Is it possible to be honest and vulnerable—but also powerful?
Of course it is possible. But too much honesty would not work well in politics, and any place where there is office politics. Are you really that honest? Would you tell someone you thought they were overweight, or obnoxious? Vulnerability is a good trait, a key ingredient to being creative, but too much of it and you are continually hurt by people. You have to develop some toughness to survive in this world. I think people can go too far with being Machiavellian and always trying to be so clever and political. It repulses people in the end. I guess I like the middle road in life.
What laws do you practice?
It fades in and out, depending on the period in my life. I like to think I plan all the way to the end. I usually have an endgame in sight. I try to be as formless as possible. I generally despise the free lunch. And I disdain the things I cannot have. Those are the laws that come immediately to mind.
If you could choose any 3 laws of power over the rest, which would you choose and why?
Learn to Keep People Dependent on You. Appeal to People’s Self Interest. Plan All the Way to the End. Follow those three religiously and you cannot fail to succeed. (Somehow that sounds odd—you cannot fail to succeed?)
You stress in The 48 Laws of Power the importance of mastering your emotions. How can a person learn to perfect that skill?
Emotions play a vital role in our success. It is not about repressing them, a futile task that will make you miserable. It is about channeling the energy that comes from emotions in a productive way. You learn how to use anger to fuel you, instead of consume you. You use excitement about a subject to inspire you, instead of continually searching for some new entertainment.
In the book I compare it to the horse and the rider. The horse is your emotions, your animal energy, your libido. The rider is your mind, your conscious mind. If you simply let the horse run amok, which is what happens to many people, then you have no self-control and end up in all kinds of weird dead ends and traps in life.
As the rider, you are in control of your emotions, not the other way around. I use certain feelings to inspire me and give me energy, but I remain in control and always aware.
Would you say that a female can practice your 48 laws of power as you’ve written them or that she would need to exercise greater caution/be more passive so as to fit with society’s expectations of a woman?
Women have some advantages—more socially attuned, often better at reading people. But politically they have so many things stacked against them and many double standards. The best approach is to not get caught up in complaining about this but becoming more strategic.
I think slowly it will open up to the point where we can accept more powerful, tough women in our society and not pin on them certain labels. By making yourself more strategic and able to play the political game you will transform yourself into a superior player. I could write an entire book based on your question.
What do you think of the advice “just be yourself” when it comes to dating or relationships?
As I’ve said over and over in the Preface [to The Art of Seduction], seduction is about getting inside of the other person. A seducer should not really be selfish. A seducer is genuinely interested in other people, what makes them tick. As a writer, who likes to think inside of other people and create characters, I find great therapy in getting outside of myself. That is not being artificial or fake.
I have known as many relationships that have failed because one of the partners makes no more effort, simply believes that just being him or herself is enough. The relationship dies because he or she no longer is capable of mirroring, of seeing how the other person sees. So the natural, sincere approach can be just as destructive to a relationship as the more artificial, seductive approach.
It depends on the person, their character or lack of it. If you are a decent, noble person, concerned about others, and you prefer to be yourself, you will tend to create strong relationships. But if the sincerity and being yourself is a mask for an underlying laziness and selfishness, it brings about the worst kind of relationships. And in my experience, there are more of the latter than the former.
I just want some honesty in matters of romance. Sometimes a little deception, a little manipulation is healthy and good. We all do it, or most of us, so let us not be so judgmental and demand from love and romance what none of us are capable of. To seduce, you have to be willing to act a little different than daily life. You just don’t wear your tshirts and say whatever comes into your mind and be a mental and physical slob. You try, you put some effort into it. You create drama and theater. Drama and theater is artificial, and yet it is the soul of life. A good drama is manufactured but look at the effect it has on people. Superficial? Ungenuine? I think not.
Appearances are part of life, particularly social life. I find the just be yourself argument a little fake in and of itself. Who are you, actually? Much of who we are comes from other people, our parents, movies we internalize, friends. We are social creatures. The personality is constantly in flux.
What is a good way to mute your internal monologue while in conversation with someone?
As with anything, baby steps. It is really really difficult. So don’t get down on yourself if you find it so, you are not alone. Try for small progress. Try to give yourself five minute blocks of time in which you listen so intently to what someone is saying you can’t hear yourself anymore.
Even if what they are saying is really boring, focus on the non-verbal stuff which is fascinating. Their gestures, the feeling tone in their voice, the look in their eyes. Practice a little by watching something on television, such as the news, and do the same thing. It’s a matter of developing focus. I’ve been meditating now for over five years, and I have made progress but not as fast as I would have thought. It takes time.
How do you feel about the Pickup Art (PUA) community?
My take on seduction was different than the PUA model. I was interested in the psychology of getting another person hooked on you, not just getting them into bed. I want to follow the train of the seduction over weeks and months. So we come at seduction from different angles. The problem with writing books that are so practical, is that they date quickly and are not relevant to everyone. I prefer to inhabit the realm slightly above this and show you the overall laws.
If you could give ONE piece of advice to a male about seduction, what would it be?
Treat each woman as a separate country/culture. Stop applying the same techniques to different women. Shut off your interior monologue and penetrate their way of thinking.
What advice would you give to a guy who is in the “friend zone”?
If a woman relegates you to the friend category as a way to signal you are not love or sex material, that should in no way discourage you from the seduction. It is in fact a better way to disguise your future maneuvers. You give in to this, you become the friend, and you slowly alter this perception she once had of you, creating a powerful reversal. Believe me, I have seen it done and I have done it myself.
You must never be discouraged by what someone thinks or sees in you. As Hannibal said, “I will either find my way or make my way.” (This is not physical, but psychological.) You may think that it is the woman who has chosen to put you into this category, but in fact you control the dynamic by seeing it differently. You choose to be her friend and to slowly turn the tables. In this sense, I find the ladder theory very un-creative and limiting. A good seducer alters people’s perceptions, does not take them as law.
What’s your advice for women who are interested in seduction, but who are not what society would call “pretty”?
Let me first relate a little story. Some years ago I worked at this magazine and there were two women there whom I shall refer to here as Mlle. N and Mlle. T. Now Mlle. T was much prettier. Simply put, she was hot. She had other fetching features and knew how to look a man in the eyes and make his knees weak. She had great sexual energy. A lot of men lusted after her, a few had sex with her, if they could be believed, but I can tell you that there was something a little bit sad about it, as if she were trying too hard, or needed all of this attention. It was not that she was some slut, but on a deeper level, the men tended to disrespect her, I think.
Now Mlle. N. Ah, Mlle. N. She had this air about her. In fact, she was the classic coquette, in the Freudian sense. The way she held herself, the way she walked, the slight aloofness, the sly smile, the particular way she engaged you in conversation, the way she made you think of her when she was not in the office that day. I could go on and on. It is almost impossible to put into words. Yes, I fell for her, but so did almost every man in the office who was not a Neanderthal. To this day, let us say at least ten years after the fact (not revealing my age) I encounter men who came across the infamous Mlle. N and all released the same kind of sigh.
When I was writing AOS I thought of her all the time, as well as another woman named C, who was similar but slightly more intellectual, if you will, and who had an equal number of male victims as N. Both had the power to make a man fall in love, to cast a spell.
My point: well, it is always within the power of a clever female to play up the physical aspect, to use her eyes, the senses, to unleash this arsenal as early on in the game as possible. But I think it is a mistake. It appeals to the most brutal, primitive part of a man, which is effective, but hard for the woman to control once unleashed. She must always work now to please and appeal to him this way, since that is how she started the process. It is tiring. And men naturally crave variety, particularly in this visual area. Live by the sword, die by the sword. The man will inevitably tire of this. And it is the mistake too many women make.
The Madame de Pompadours, the Mlle. N’s, have a much more lasting and deeper effect on the male psyche. Men can be brutes, and are brutes, and I am a brute as well. But there is also another factor, another layer of weakness that creates a much better seduction. If we happen to live in a culture and a period in time that puts much greater emphasis on the physical, I cannot help that. But I [believe] that a psychological seduction that goes deeper, that effects a regression or creates a poetic aura, or that spurs him to prove himself, or that unleashes layers of masochism, all of that is real seduction.
In The 33 Strategies of War, you write a lot about Napoleon. What is it that fascinates you most about him?
His mind. How he could consume massive amounts of information and organize it all. He had a brain like a supercomputer. But still fluid and creative.
The 50th Law
How did you come to work with 50 Cent, and how was the collaboration like?
50 sought out me, back in 2006. He’s a big fan of The 48 Laws and Seduction. We really hit it off, had a minor bromance and decided to write a book together. We are obviously different but had a lot of mutual respect. The first meeting was weird: he was expecting Henry Kissinger and I was expecting Mike Tyson. Neither of us were what the other expected. He is a very nice person who listens and does not feel at all threatening. I loved working with him. His input on the 50th Law was huge. I obviously did most of the writing of the actual words, but many of the ideas, the content, the shape of the book came through a collaborative process. He also gave a lot of important input on the writing itself.
What is he like personally?
I found being around 50 cent unbelievably inspiring—his energy, his self–confidence and his overall love of life. It was like a drug, it would get under your skin you if you were around him long enough.
What is the best way to know what you were born to do?
Do you feel you’re mind wandering in your job? Does it feel like you’re not quite connecting? There is a difference between someone who is always dissatisfied and looking for an excuse to change careers just because you are perpetually bored, and someone who is in a bad fit. It’s something you should feel in your gut. You start hate coming to work. You research things slightly unrelated to your field. You first have to decide if your wanderlust is real before you can figure out what exactly you should be doing. Until you’re thirty I would experiment a little and try different things.
I’m having trouble figuring out my “life’s task.” What advice would you give?
The problem for a lot of people is that they are alienated from themselves. They have spent too long listening to others and don’t really have a sense of what makes them different or unique, and so it seems strange what I advocate in chapter one. This is not meant as a criticism. What you need to do is not get overly emotional or dramatic about it, but to implement some small steps to correct this.
Give yourself a few months to figure it out, not a few days. Start a journal or notebook. Think deeply about your childhood and adolescence. Take special note of any activity or subject that felt easier and more exciting to you. Look at the newspaper and observe which subjects excite you in a deep way. Write down the things you hate—for instance, working for a large corporation, or anything else like.
These are negative signs of what you should be avoiding. It’s a process. Nothing comes overnight. You are going through the process of reconnecting with yourself and what makes you unique. If after three months of this serious process and you still have no idea, then you should be depressed. But that won’t happen. The material is already there.
I am almost 40 and am in a place where I ignored my “true calling”. I am currently racking my brain trying to figure out what I used to like in childhood and go from there. Any advice for your older readers?
You need to build upon the skills you have already established and not get down on yourself or completely change direction. You need to go inward a little and try to understand where you took some wrong turns, what excites you in a primal way, the things that you hate about the job you’re in. In this way, it will slowly come to light.
I met recently a woman who went into law, hated it, always wanted to be a writer, and left the profession to become a writer, but a writer about legal affairs. This eventually led to writing novels with a heavy legal component. But she started by using the skills she had developed and channeling them in a way that was more personal.
Since social intelligence is both tricky and vital, do you have any advice for types of patterns and characteristics to look for?
Remember the following: people never do something just once. If in their past they screwed someone else over, or completely misread a situation, or displayed some paranoia, you can be sure it will recur and you might be the next target. People have patterns of behavior. That is human nature. Yes, we can change and alter ourselves, but only with effort.
Most people don’t like the effort. I noticed in reading this excellent bio of Howard Hughes how people kept working for him even though he had this awful track record. They thought in person he had changed. People don’t usually change and rarely do something just once.
Do you have any methods or thoughts concerning how to avoid distraction and find your focus?
Well, I think it has been pretty well established by all kinds of writers, books, studies that we excel at something we like. Many people (most?) don’t like the organizational part of a book or project or business. And so they focus more on the affect, the end result, etc. I actually am fascinated by structure and organization, how ideas are connected in a logical pattern. I love patterns.
And so because this fascinates me I spend a lot of time on organizing my material. If an idea doesn’t seem to fit into the scheme, or my structure seems to not reflect reality, it will drive me crazy. I have to figure it out. But I try to tell people, if they don’t share this fascination, to at least see that structure is strategy, and that how you organize a book is worthy of all your creative juices. It can actually be fun.
How important do you think college is today?
College is increasingly irrelevant. I would spend those years in college developing general thinking and writing skills. But once you leave college be prepared to start all over and let the real world educate you. Stop relying on books and learn how to observe people. Be hands on and develop real skills. Don’t be afraid of failing and relish criticism. These are the kinds of things they don’t teach in college.
[Of course, e]very path is different and for the hard sciences, college is essential. But I would be careful to not get sucked into the academic climate, which is too political and tends to breed conformists.
What advice would you give on mastery for entrepreneurs?
Learn how to fail. You advance through the negative experiences. Read Chapter Two in [Mastery], particularly the material about Henry Ford. Be a serial entrepreneur. Get your feet wet, learn by doing and actually secretly wish you fail.
What do you think about the 10,000 hour rule?
What’s so brilliant about [the 10,000 hour rule] is that it quantifies something we all intuit: after a certain degree of practice and exposure to a field, our minds can shift to a higher gear. We know this if we play the piano or learn chess. Now, it is demonstrated in black and white, for chess players, composers, athletes. And it can be used to explain great feats of thinking and creativity.
I tried to show in Mastery how you can use this as a template to explain Mozart and Einstein. And so, if putting in those hours, with much focus and intensity, is the key to mastery, how can you get yourself to travel that far? Well the answer is in chapter one of the book. You have to choose a career, a problem to solve, an art form that really connects with you personally and emotionally, so that in your work, you experience what is known as flow. You don’t feel those hours as labor. You are not even aware of the passing time.
What historical figure or figures do you respect and perhaps admire the most in Mastery?
I love the story of Charles Darwin. A seemingly dull witted boy who just loves the outdoors and collecting beetles. He stumbles into the perfect opportunity, a voyage around the world collecting specimens. Suddenly his brain sparks to life. He goes from being a slacker to an intense workaholic who can’t waste a second because he loves the work. And this leads to perhaps the greatest scientific discovery of all time, at least in relation to its impact on the future. An inspiring, illuminating story.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to a just-turned 20 year old who wants to both succeed and improve the world?
The book Mastery covers this well. If you choose a career path that connects to you personally on some deep level (and the book goes into how to do that), you will inevitably contribute something positive to our culture by creating and innovating. If it’s the environment or politics on some level that excite you, the best thing you can do is take the approach that you need to master the subject, to study and know it well, to develop skills in organizing or writing. That shows you really care, instead of just entertaining ideas and not following them through.
[You want to t]hink of your 20s as a time of adventure. You are accumulating skills in things that interest you and feeling excited about this. Don’t think too much about money. Better to learn how to get by with less when you are younger. A life long skill. Don’t get addicted to the paycheck. Get addicted to learning. You have to live, I understand, but you can accept a job that pays less but gives you greater opps to learn. By the time your 30s come and you are ready to settle down more, all of those skills and experiences will reap great benefits.