Practical Philosophy

Never outshine the master

“When the party began, Fouquet was at the top of the world. By the time it had ended, he was at the bottom.”

Voltaire, 1694-1778

In The 48 Laws of Power, author Robert Greene teaches us an important lesson from history: Be careful never to outshine the master. Or, for that matter, anybody.

The Story

When Nicholas Fouquet, France’s Finance Minister, threw the best party France had ever seen, King Louis XIV seethed with jealousy. The day after the party, King Louix XIV imprisoned Fouquet on false charges, executed him, and then replaced him with a new (much more boring) minister.

The Lesson

Fouquet outshined the master. He did not realise that by shining so bright, he was making the king appear dull and was becoming a threat.

He did not realise that even a King had deep insecurities about being seen as the brightest, smartest, and most socially connected person in France.

Whether in a workplace or personal setting, it’s important to remember to not make other people look inadequate. Remember, people are driven by their emotions.

Instead, Robert Greene says it is wise to downplay your successes. “Oh, it wasn’t all that easy.” Control what you say.

Give credit to other people. Thank them for their advice and continued support. Be humble.

Practical Philosophy

Don’t say too much

“It is even more damaging for a minister to say foolish things than to do them.”

Cardinal de Retz, 1613–1679

Growing up, we are often told to say what we think. However, this can often be damaging. Remember, words have unintended consequences.

When we feel the need to gossip, we need to stop and think of the consequences of doing so. Both from the outside (how can anybody trust talking to us if they know we gossip) and from the inside (how can we live with ourselves after doing what we know is wrong).

At its roots, the need to say everything we think results from a lack of emotional control. We really really really want to say something, so we do. We want others to make others laugh, create drama, and seem interesting.

I’m not saying we should bottle up our thoughts and feelings. Instead, I propose that before we say something, we should stop and think of the consequences first.

Practical Philosophy

Never lose your temper in public

When Napoleon publicly lost his temper, his minister Tellyrand rightly predicted “This is the beginning of the end.”

Losing your temper in public always looks ridiculous. It shows others that we cannot control ourselves – and a person who cannot control themselves is not worthy of respect.

The truth is: Anger always looks out of proportion.

In the heat of the moment it may feel like we are standing up for the right thing. However, other people around us have no idea on the background of the situation, or share the exact same feelings as we do. To others, it often just looks like some crazy angry guy unnecessarily losing his cool. Remember rage-quitters in Call of Duty?

Instead, a better way is to always be mindful of how your behaviour looks from the outside. Wear the crown and always act with dignity and self-respect. Be mindful and learn to control your own emotions, or let them control you.

Notes from The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

Practical Philosophy

Wear the crown: always act with dignity and self-control

“Wear the Crown: place it above your head and assume a different pose – calm and assured, never doubting, never losing dignity.”

The 48 Laws of Power

When somebody insults us, do we lose our cool? When something obstructs our path, does it irritate us out of proportion? When we learn of some new office drama, do we join in on the gossip?

In the 48 Laws of Power, one of the laws is to “Wear the crown”. Think before you act and control your emotions by imagining how the a monarch would compose themselves.

How would Queen Elizabeth react to this? How would a King react? They would compose themselves with dignity and self-control. They would walk with confidence and with their head held high (a positive feedback loop). They would not let their emotions get the better of their judgement.

A monkey was carrying two handfuls of peas. One little pea dropped out. He tried to pick it up, and spilt twenty. He tried to pick up the twenty, and spilt them all. Then he lost his temper, scattered the peas in all directions, and ran away.

Practical Philosophy

Great people design their reputations

Julius Caesar was known for the dramatic. Crossing the Rubicon was a symbolic act of “no going back”. Later, he would wear red at parades, like Mars. He would host gladiatorial games to rouse the people. He would ride Cleopatra through the streets of Rome. One thing could be certain: Julius Caesar made it a reputation to put on a show.

In The 48 Laws of Power, author Robert Greene points out that great people deliberately choose their reputations. They pick a strength, and focus on building as much attention to it as possible. With enough attention, their strength becomes a reputation.

Genghis Khan deliberately built a reputation as a merciless conqueror. Any cities that rebelled against the Mongols were massacred – in some cases including the women, children, and even pets. The result was that neighbouring cities would immediately surrender out of fear of repurcutions.

Winston Churchill developed a reputation of being a dramatic orator. This carried weight, and made his words carry a kind of magical weight to them. Listening to any of Churchill’s speeches today still carries this magic – and partly because of his reputation.

Society is based on appearances, and because most people act the same way, most people get lost in the crowd. To get noticed, you have to make an effort. And the best way of doing this is to develop a reputation for something you are great at.

According to Robert Greene, the early parts of our career should be devoted on building this reputation: to get as much attention as possibler to our key strength. That could be communicating, or negotiating, or working hard, or leadership, etc.

And interestingly, this is the same recommendation as put forward in the career development book The Squiggly Career. In this, the authors first task readers with choosing several strength to develop into “super strengths”; strengths they want to build reputations out of.

If we don’t build our own reputation, then other people will. What do people talk about us when we step outside of the room? Who knows. An insightful exercise is to ask other people what they think your main strengths are. I did this with my ex-boss and colleagues, and had unexpected results.

Practical Philosophy

Words have unintended consequences

In both How to Win Friends and Influence People and The 48 Laws of Power, the authors highlight that you should be very careful when disagreeing with people. If somebody raises an incorrect point, and you correct them, they will often perceive it as a challenge to their intelligence. Being argumentative is a quick way to build resentment, regardless of how right you are.

Recently, I caught up with an old friend. In our conversation, we talked about a mutual friend. “Yeah, she’s doing this now.” “Oh, she’s travelling there.” “Remember when you asked what school she went to because of her bad spelling?” Oh shit. It must have been a bad joke I made years ago. Nonetheless, I felt terrible and apologised. It was a stark reminder that when you say things, you cannot take them back.

Saying less is generally better than saying too much. It’s wise to control your emotions and reign in the need to make that sarcastic comment. Why? Your words and actions have unintended consequences.

Practical Philosophy

You must learn to control your emotions

A few years ago, I went out with some friends. We were crossing the road, when a van tried to push through the red light and beeped at us to “hurry up”. One of my friends, in a sudden fit of rage, kicked the van. Yep, he actually kicked the van. I didn’t really know how to react. I asked “are you alright?” He pretended like nothing happened, but it was pretty clear he regretted his outburst.

Losing your cool in public often causes you to look ridiculous. While you may think it is a display of your passion and standing up for yourself, more often than not, it makes you look like a fool. Why? Because other people watching you are not feeling those same emotions. To them, you just look like a man who has lost all self-control.

In the 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, his first lesson is that we must learn to control our emotions. Emotions throw reason and judgement out of the window. The last time I got seriously angry, I broke a clothes hanger and damaged my wallpaper. Humiliating. I regretted it later. When we cannot control our emotions, we lose self-control. Without self-control, we cannot possibly follow any logical plans to better our lives.

Because most people are driven by emotions, it is also important to manage your words or face unintended consequences.