Robert Greene just might be one of the best authors you’ve never heard of, or never read. At least, that’s true for most people I’ve met.
Out of 200+ books I’ve read, his are some of the ones I most often come back to. He’s a #1 New York Times bestselling author, whose books have sold over a million copies and been translated into many different languages.
Why haven’t you heard of him? His books can feel dense, and many of his insights can seem counterintuitive or wrong. However, as I’ve read many other books on psychology, sociology, or history, they started to make sense. And I’ve found that pretty much every time I’ve doubted him (that’ll never work, that’d never happen), he’s ended up being right.
I want to make some lessons from his most recent book, The Laws of Human Nature more accessible, so I’ve written up the top things I’ve found useful. This is no substitute for reading the book, as there’s a lot more nuance to each of these and far more content in the book, but I think they’ll be well worth your time.
Top Things I’ve Learned
Understand the Shadow Side
Have you ever met someone who seemed really tough on the outside but later found out they were soft on the inside? Someone who seemed confident but was actually more prone to panic or worrying? You get the idea. Often, people’s overt traits cover up the opposite quality. Why is this? The answer is: they’re covering up their shadow side.
...every now and then with these friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, we glimpse behavior that seems to contradict what we normally see. This can come in several forms: Out of nowhere they make a critical, even cruel comment about us, or express a rather harsh assessment of our work or personality.
For example, in my own experience, the most confident person in the room isn’t the person making overly bold gestures, standing tall, and speaking loudly. Those are behaviors people adopt to end up overcompensating for a lack of confidence. The truly confident person is probably the one who’s either having fun or looking bored, two things people generally only do when they know they have nothing to worry about.
The shadow side are all the parts of human nature people try to repress, it’s subconscious. It usually only comes out in moments of stress or when someone gets triggered. Coincidentally, these are also the moments when it’s most important to handle things well, like when you’re working with someone on an important project.
Often, the things that most bother people about others are the things that most bother them about themselves, their own shadow traits. This is why perfectionists might hate other perfectionists, or people with superiority complexes hate others who are the same.
This can come out in other ways, too. For example, people who seem to take up a cause (e.g. political) may be subconsciously using it as a release:
Let us say we believe in some cause, such as the importance of transparency in our actions, particularly in politics… In these situations we go much further than simple enthusiasm. We are charged with powerful conviction. We gloss over any faults, inconsistencies, or possible downsides. We see everything in black-and-white terms—our cause is moral, modern, and progressive; the other side, including doubters, is evil and reactionary… We now feel sanctioned to do everything for the cause—lie, cheat, manipulate, spy, falsify scientific data, get revenge.
We tend to be dazzled by the strength of people’s convictions and interpret excessive behavior as simply overzealousness. But we should look at it in another light. By overidealizing a cause, person, or object, people can give free rein to the Shadow. That is their unconscious motivation. The bullying, the manipulations, the greed that comes out for the sake of the cause or product should be taken at face value, the overly strong conviction providing simple cover for repressed emotions to play themselves out.
How does this help you? The difference between understanding and not understanding people’s shadow selves is like the difference between having and not having a map while walking across a minefield. Master the shadow, and you can map out all of people’s trigger points, and walk around them. You can avoid unnecessarily triggering people into hour-long time-wasting arguments or denying your proposals. And in the cases people still get triggered, you can insulate yourself by understanding how their behavior is more reflective of them than you.
Master Your Emotional Self
Since everyone has a dark side, how can we protect ourselves from our own dark side?
A lot of people turn to logic. They read up on logical fallacies and biases, and tell you how you’re exhibiting the “sunk-cost fallacy”, the “straw man fallacy”, “confirmation bias”, or any of 100+ flavors of fallacy. All we need to do is identify all the fallacies, and think logically. A implies B implies C, right?
Wrong. Any logical argument has to make assumptions. For example, if someone says “you should have enough time to do X, because you’re spending it on Y, which is unnecessary'' they're making assumptions: They don’t know your calendar, or your priorities. They might selfishly want you to go to X for their own reasons, and have merely disguised it as logic by hiding their emotionally-motivated beliefs into their assumptions.
We’re all susceptible to this. So what can we do?
Let’s start with what not to do. Greene suggests the answer is not to declare yourself logical and use “logic speak”. In fact, the people I know who consider themselves the most logical are actually the ones most influenced by and unaware of their own emotions.
Instead, we must accept that emotions are hard-wired into the brain, and we must actively learn how to counteract them. Greene states:
“...nobody is exempt from the irresistible effect of emotions on the mind, not even the wisest among us; and to some extent irrationality is a function of the structure of our brains and is wired into our very nature by the way we process emotions. Being irrational is almost beyond our control. To understand this, we must look at the evolution of emotions themselves… “
We constantly feel emotions, and they continually infect our thinking, making us veer toward thoughts that please us and soothe our egos. It is impossible to not have our inclinations and feelings somehow involved in what we think. Rational people are aware of this and through introspection and effort are able, to some extent, to subtract emotions from their thinking and counteract their effect. Irrational people have no such awareness. They rush into action without carefully considering the ramifications and consequences...”
Even Daniel Kahneman, one of the two psychologists who pioneered the fields of cognitive biases says it hasn’t magically freed him:
In terms of my intuitions being better than they were — no. And furthermore, I have to confess, I’m also very overconfident. Even that I haven’t learned. It’s hard to get rid of those things.
I’ve been studying that stuff for over 50 years and I don’t think that my intuitions have really significantly improved. (From: https://awealthofcommonsense.com/2019/03/daniel-kahneman-on-intuition/)
Awareness is half the battle. So yes, go and learn logical fallacies and cognitive biases. But also learn not to make decisions while in an emotionally heated state. Take a break, come back later. This is very easy to say, and very hard to learn how to do.