#1 Robert Greene

Robert Greene joined James Altucher to talk about power, writing, and what it means for us to really become great at something. Greene is the author of Mastery, The 48 Laws of Power, and The Art of Seduction.

The interview begins with Greene telling James that he just finished reading Phil Jackson’s book Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success. “I’ll read 200-300 books for each book I write,” Greene says. Wow. Ryan Holiday (episode #108) told James that his career as a writer started because he was Greene’s research assistant.

“What is your current reading leading towards?” James asks. Greene says that he’s taking the chapter from Master about social intelligence, and expanding that into an entire book. The big ideas, says Greene, go back thousands of years and the new book is an attempt to explain to people how to use them.

One example from the book is how to persuade somebody to do something. Pretend you have a project, says Greene. You tell someone about it, they seem interested, but two weeks later they’re suddenly not interested anymore. Why?

Well, it could be that they’ve cooled off. That happens to all of us and it might be the case. Or, maybe you didn’t get to their self-interest. You need to be able to successfully identify the cause says Greene.

There are two powerful ideas here. First is the Rumpelstiltskin effect, second is persuasion jujitsu.

The Rumpelstiltskin Effect

In a podcast from June 23, 2015, Adam Savage says that he was looking for a glass bottle for a model he was building. It had to be a certain size and shape, and have a lip that curved just right. Savage says that he would search for “small round bottle” and “skinning bottle with medium lip” but  without luck.

His fortunes changed however when he learned that bottles are classified by the type of lip (also known as bottle finish).


Once Savage learned this, he quickly found the bottle he was looking for. Just like in the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, once he knew the name of the thing, the spell was broken. Other examples include:

  • Carol Leifer (episode #66) needed to know how to shut down hecklers. Once she knew the name of the technique, and the spell was broken.
  • Michael Mauboussin (episode TKP1) says that people make poor predictions when they lack a system. Once you have a name for decision steps, you make better decisions, and the spell was broken.
  • Dan Ariely (episode #65) explained the same idea in economic decisions. When he asked people what they would buy if they didn’t buy a certain car, they often said they would buy a different one. But once he explained the term “opportunity cost,” people started to see things differently, and the spell was broken.

To break the spell you must know the name of the thing. Greene’s point is this, you have to identify why you failed to connect and there may be many reasons.

Like a doctor diagnosis a medical ailment, we can diagnose social ones. How? By persuasion jujitsu.

Persuasion Jujitsu

In Influence – our current book club book – Robert Cialdini writes about negotiation jujitsu. The trick, he writes, is to realize that you won’t overpower someone and get them to change their minds. Instead you need to use their own invisible scripts to get them to do what you want.

Once you know the moves to make for each of their attacks or feints, you can take a certain course of action.

Say for example, you want people to use less energy in their homes.

  1. You could educate them about the negative environmental effects of burning coal.
  2. You could inform them about how much money they might save if they use less energy.
  3. You could tell them how much their neighbors use and incite a friendly competition.

Researchers have looked at this exact question many times over and the results are regularly the same. People will say that #1 or #2 might work, but certainly not #3. When researchers apply the test though, it’s  #3 that has the biggest effect.

Social pressure, it turns out, get us to act more than financial or environmental ones. I don’t know what type of social intelligence Greene is writing about, but this is the sort of jujitsu I’m sure he’ll make note of.

Social Intelligence in Mastery

A lot of what’s in the book Mastery, says James, is social intelligence. How important is that? “It’s 25% of the game,” says Greene. “No matter what field you are in, you have to have some degree of awareness of how other people are thinking.”

Let’s say, Greene explains, you’re at a new job. You get hired and most of the people there are friendly, but not overly so. Except for one guy who acts way too nice. What does this mean? As a society we have a spectrum of interpersonal relationships. Some are social, some formal, some professional, some intimate. You need to know, Greene says, when somebody isn’t acting the right way at the right time.

Adam Grant (episode #73) talked a bit about this with James as well. Grant’s angle was that there’s a certain kind of social giving you should do .

  • First, only give your time to others once your own work is done.
  • Second, give in a way that makes you feel good and uses your skills.
  • Third, don’t be a pushover. It’s this last part where Grant gives specific advice.

In giving situations, Grant writes, you can cooperate or compete with someone else. If you find yourself in a competing situation, you don’t want to cooperate fully because that person will take advantage of you. Instead you need to identify the situation and cooperate two-thirds of the time.This will keep you from being taken advantage of, and it will let you remain a successful giver.

The (Happy) Sorcerer’s Apprentice

As the interview moves on, James asks Greene about the his book Mastery, which he says is “a brilliant book, I highly recommend it to everybody.” But how do you become a master, James asks.

Step one, says Greene, is to find something you can enjoy doing, “listen to your own voice.” Gary Vaynerchuk (episode #2) says to find something you love to do because you are going to work your butt off if you want to do it well. Gretchen Rubin (episode #97) says to “know your tendencies,” before you choose something.

Ask, “what excites me?” says Greene. For Maria Popova (episode #89) it was the discovery of human ideas and truths. Popova didn’t get this in college – to the point that it surprised her – so she started a small email. Now she runs Brainpickings.org.

For Amanda Palmer (episode #82) it was always about being a performer. Palmer’s act as a street artist taught her about how to ask. She learned so much, and asked so often that she wrote a book about it.

At this stage you want to double down on experience, even at the expense of income says Greene. (Palmer and Popova both had none early on). Big shot lawyer? Yeah right, that doesn’t always turn out rosy. It turns out more like a prison said Peter Thiel (episode #43) who said that when he left his law firm his colleagues congratulate him, expressing that they couldn’t leave. “It was a place where everyone on the outside wanted in,” says Thiel, “and everyone on the inside wanted out.”

Robert Kurson (episode #116) said the same thing about his experience in corporate law and how much it drained him. Kurson described it as a place where, “time seemed to tick backwards.” Law isn’t like a John Grisham book, at least it wasn’t for Kurson. One of his last cases was to determine if a McDonald’s franchisee was using pickles that were too green.

If you aren’t going to chase dollars what do you go after? Experience says Greene. “Once you get in a field where you want to work, think of your 20’s as your apprenticeship.” Alex Blumberg (episode #70) took this path. His career sequence was ; freelance reporter, producer for This American Life, creator of Planet Money, then founder of Gimlet Media. I don’t know what a freelance reporter for NPR gets paid, but it couldn’t have  been much. Instead Blumberg accumulated so much experience he told James, “this skill that I’ve worked and slaved for now has value.”

And you don’t have to know where you’ll end up. Blumberg certainly didn’t know podcasts would be a thing when he graduated college in 1989. Neither did Kevin Kelly (episode #96) when he was starting out. What does the Whole Earth Catalog and living in Asia have to do with editing Wired Magazine? Little, except that Kelly had the right set of skills when that job came along. And you need to build some skills.

The 10K Hour Rule.

The rule considered gospel since Malcolm Gladwell wrote about it in Outliers . If you aren’t familiar with it, here’s the Wikipedia page. More concisely it’s this: it takes about 10,000 hours of dedicated and intentional practice on something to become world class in that thing.

Greene says this idea is still true, but maybe not to the extent of the original research. Your hours of experience can come from anywhere. Maybe you worked as accountant for 7 years, that’s about 10K hours of accountant work. But what if you want to quit that job to be a motivational speaker? Hmm.

Don’t stress too much says Greene. Rather, you probably have a few thousand hours from that job as an accountant that will translate to motivational speaking. For example, you know how to talk with people, you understand their fears, you see the value of a plan. Plus, you’ll know how to balance costs against revenue for your new business. You might be a quarter of the way to mastery before you’ve given a single talk.

A Day in the Life

James asks what a typical day is like for Greene. “It’s not horribly glamorous,” says Green. The actual writing is only about one-third of the process he says. If that’s what he’s working on, he’ll write for three to four hours and then take a break to exercise. The other parts are research and then the miscellany of management, small tasks, etc. For more about writers:

One thing Greene doesn’t care to do is to create Pinterest images of his quotes – in general terms. “I find it exhausting and depressing for me.” Greene says about social media.

Thanks for reading, I’m @MikeDariano on Twitter and find it exciting. If Greene’s comments about a career, apprenticeship, and 10K hours struck you more than anything else, then you need to read Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. That book makes the case that the biggest thing you need to build up is career capital and there is a correct sequence to it. Newport’s book stands well on its own but if you want some help, I created a guide with further examples and questions. If you’ve read this far you enjoy my insights, connections, and further stories. The guide is no different.

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