Thursday 17 October 2019

This is one of the most requested books in US prison libraries

Does blowing your own trumpet earn admiration, or resentment?

Stock picture of prison bars
Stock picture of prison bars
Picture posed. Thinkstock Images
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Robert Greene's The 48 Laws of Power isn't a book that you want to be seen reading in public. It's not just because the book's bright red cover and flagrant title will attract attention, rather because the controversial content divides opinion.

The international bestseller, first published in 1998, has been described as "Machiavellian" and "amoral", while the author has been characterised as a sociopath and a psychopath. The fact that the title is one of the most requested books in US prison libraries only adds to Greene's villain status.

The 48 Laws of Power bills itself as a "definitive manual for anyone interested in gaining, observing, or defending against ultimate control". In other words, it's a book for anyone who wants to learn how to play the game of life like a chess champion.

Of course, different people will take different things from it. I like the book for its historical examples of military tacticians (although I know that sounds like someone who says they only read Playboy for the articles). It's painstakingly researched and while there is no empirical evidence to suggest that the laws are effective, there is no doubt that Greene has done his homework.

There are others, however, who take the advice at face value and decide that Law 15 - Crush Your Enemy Totally - is just the tactic that they need to add to their repertoire of subterfuge and skulduggery.

Anyway, I digress. I recently started rereading the book and I came to Law 46 - Never Appear Too Perfect. "Appearing better than others is always dangerous," writes the author, "but most dangerous of all is to appear to have no faults or weaknesses."

Unlike Greene's other laws, which promote guile and cunning, this law stands out as a profoundly sensible piece of advice, especially in the age of the #blessed status update.

Most of us are guilty of putting a filter on our good fortune and flaunting it on social media without really thinking about the effect of stoking envy and resentment.

Because envy is an emotion that few people admit to, we are less inclined to assume it in others. Yet we only have to think about how we feel when our friends post photos of first-class travel and backstage access to understand why we should probably avoid doing it ourselves.

As Greene writes: "Once success happens your way... the people to fear the most are those in your own circle, the friends and acquaintances you have left behind. Feelings of inferiority gnaw at them; the thought of your success only heightens their feelings of stagnation."

Sure, you could argue that real friends should be happy for you, but that is to minimise the insidious nature of envy, especially among contemporaries and colleagues. You'll notice that we can be happy for those who aren't chasing the same ambitions, yet when a peer's success threatens our self-esteem, we're not always as gracious.

Envy, it could be argued, is an evolutionary survival mechanism that drives us to compete for resources, whether it's money, status or even sexual partners. It's little wonder then that we always support the underdog - they pose no threat.

A landmark study on envy by Sarah Hill and David Buss concluded that we tend to respond to envy with submission (avoidance); ambition (competing) or destruction (back-biting).

We've all seen this play out in one way or another, so why then do we provoke envy when we know its detrimental effects? Indeed, why would anyone actually want to be "the envy of their friends", as old-school advertisers used to say?

Greene advises successful people to "occasionally display defects and admit to harmless vices, in order to deflect envy and appear more human and approachable".

Some people do this very well - we all know of a multi-millionaire farmer who drives a 20-year-old car. Likewise, Oprah's fluctuating weight makes us think of her more as someone we can all relate to rather than just an obscenely wealthy TV producer.

Others aren't as sophisticated in their displays of false humility - the 'humblebrag' being an obvious example.

That's why it's probably best to leave The 48 Laws of Power aside at this point and defer to one of the 40 life lessons that clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson shared on Quora instead: "Be careful who you share good news with." He didn't elaborate. He didn't need to.

There will of course come points when we have good news that we are eager to share, but perhaps we should be more mindful of the people we tell.

Does the friend who is struggling to find a new job need to hear about your 10k salary raise? Does the friend who has been trying for a baby for three years need to know about the ease with which you can get pregnant?

It's also worth thinking about what your constant bragging says about you. Do others think of you as a person deserving of admiration, or a person desperately seeking validation?

"A wise man need not be an exhibitionist," wrote Osho in The Empty Boat. "Whatsoever is, is. He is not aware of it, he is not in any hurry to show it."

Put simply, we can deflect envy by being tactful or discreet. Or we can stop deriving our identity from success, and notice that the need to deflect envy no longer arises.

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