I’ve been a huge fan of Robert Greene’s work ever since his 48 Laws of Power was recommended by my boss back when I was a 19 year old intern at Booz Allen Hamilton. Greene’s books combine two of my favorite subjects – history and psychology – to give actionable takeaways that you can apply in your daily life.
The truth is that we humans live on the surface, reacting emotionally to what people say and do. We form opinions of others and ourselves that are rather simplified. We settle for the easiest and most convenient story to tell ourselves.
Consider The Laws of Human Nature a kind of codebook for deciphering people’s behavior—ordinary, strange, destructive, the full gamut. Each chapter deals with a particular aspect or law of human nature. We can call them laws in that under the influence of these elemental forces, we humans tend to react in relatively predictable ways. Each chapter has the story of some iconic individual or individuals who illustrate the law (negatively or positively), along with ideas and strategies on how to deal with yourself and others under the influence of this law. Each chapter ends with a section on how to transform this basic human force into something more positive and productive, so that we are no longer passive slaves to human nature but actively transforming it.
The Laws of Human Nature key takeaways listed below are my personal favorites but this book has a ton in it and I suspect different things stand out to different readers. Here are The Laws of Human Nature key takeaways:
The Laws of Human Nature Key Takeaways
Key Takeaway #1: Our Emotional Self Can Control Us If We Don’t Take Active Steps To Be Rational
As human beings, we are a mix of logic and emotions. Being emotional has a bad reputation but the truth is that life wouldn’t be worth living without emotion. So there’s certainly a place for being emotional. However, the trouble arrives when we become overly dependent on our volatile emotions. An emotional state can be “triggered” by comments or events that strike our deepest insecurities:
We can recognize a trigger point by the experience of emotions that are unusually primal, more uncontrollable than normal. They trigger tears, deep depression, or excessive hope. People under the spell of these emotions will often have a very different tone of voice and body language, as if they were physically reliving a moment from early life. In the midst of such an attack, we must struggle to detach ourselves and contemplate the possible source—the wound in early childhood—and the patterns it has locked us into. This deep understanding of ourselves and our vulnerabilities is a key step toward becoming rational.
That said, no matter how well you try to control yourself, no one is immune to stress and emotions. All we can hope for is improved awareness and perhaps, a better control on our actions:
Whenever you notice rising pressure and stress levels in your life, you must watch yourself carefully. Monitor any signs of unusual brittleness or sensitivity, sudden suspicions, fears disproportionate to the circumstances. Observe with as much detachment as possible, finding time and space to be alone. You need perspective. Never imagine that you are someone who can withstand rising stress without emotional leakage. It is not possible. But through self-awareness and reflection you can prevent yourself from making decisions you will come to regret.
Key Takeaway #2: Turn Your Narcissism Into Empathy
I absolutely love that Robert Greene wrote about this point in his book because I also wrote about it in mine. While The Startup Gold Mine focused mainly on how startups and large corporations can better collaborate if they approach each other with empathy rather than animosity, The Laws of Human Nature takes a broader approach.
In most conversations, there are two monologues happening. The participants aren’t listening to each other. We’re so in love with our own thoughts that we don’t take the time to understand what others are conveying to us. This attitude extends to all of our interactions with the outside world. Greene has a simple recommendation for changing this attitude:
The best place to begin this transformation in your attitude is in your numerous daily conversations. Try reversing your normal impulse to talk and give your opinion, desiring instead to hear the other person’s point of view. You have tremendous curiosity in this direction. Cut off your incessant interior monologue as best you can. Give full attention to the other. What matters here is the quality of your listening, so that in the course of the conversation you can mirror back to the other person things they said, or things that were left unsaid but that you sensed. This will have a tremendous seductive effect.
Key Takeaway #3: Being Elusive Can Make People Desire You…But Be Careful Not To Fall Into The Trap of Chasing Others
It’s an unfortunate fact of human nature: we desire what we cannot have. And this applies to human relations as well:
Once people get what they want or possess you, your value and their respect for you immediately begin to lower. Keep withdrawing, surprising, and stimulating the chase. As long as you do, you have the power.
However, there’s a corollary to this dynamic that can severely inhibit your ability to form meaningful relationships. It sounds a lot like the Optionality Trap:
With relationships, we can spend our life searching for the perfect man or woman and end up largely alone. There is nobody perfect. Instead, it is better to come to terms with the flaws of the other person and accept them or even find some charm in their weaknesses. Calming down our covetous desires, we can then learn the arts of compromise and how to make a relationship work, which never come easily or naturally.
Key Takeaway #4: Elevate Yourself Above Normal Human Shortsightedness
There’s a story Greene shares in The Laws of Human Nature which eerily resembles the cryptocurrency bubble of late 2017/early 2018. It’s about the South Sea Bubble in London in 1720:
When people lose the connection between their actions and their consequences, they lose their hold on reality, and the further this goes the more it looks like madness. The madness that overcame Blunt soon infected the king, the Parliament, and eventually an entire nation of citizens renowned for their common sense. Once the English saw their compatriots making large sums of money, it became a fact—the scheme had to be a success. They too lost the ability to think a few months ahead. Look at what happened to Sir Isaac Newton, paragon of rationality. In the beginning he too caught the fever, but after a week his logical mind could see the holes in the scheme, and so he sold his shares. Then he watched others making much larger sums of money than his paltry £ 14,000 and it bothered him. By August he had to get back in, even though it was the absolute worst time to reinvest. Sir Isaac Newton himself had lost the ability to think past the day. As one Dutch banker observed of the scene in Exchange Alley, “[ It resembled] nothing so much as if all the Lunatics had escaped out of the Madhouse at once.”
When everyone around you is doing something successfully, no matter how irrational it appears, you will be tempted to follow them. This is normal. What Greene is advocating for is that you think differently, with more intention and long-term planning than your fellow humans. This is extremely difficult.
A tangential but related point here: it’s easy to feel like you’re being contrarian to mainstream society while still falling for your own version of the South Sea bubble. The crypto bubble (or boom) in 2017/2018 demonstrated this perfectly. Many highly intelligent people held the belief that cryptocurrencies were going mainstream (which is still possible). These people were certainly contrarian to most of society – but they got trapped in their own echo chamber. The positive cryptocurrency news and chatter kept feeding itself, leading to increasingly inflated prices. Until things fell back down to Earth.
Another story in this section which caught my attention was about unintended consequences, particularly by top-down government orders:
In nineteenth-century India, under British colonial rule, authorities decided there were too many venomous cobras in the streets of Delhi, making life uncomfortable for the British residents and their families. To solve this they offered a reward for every dead cobra residents would bring in. Soon enterprising locals began to breed cobras in order to make a living from the bounty. The government caught on to this and canceled the program. The breeders, resentful of the rulers and angered by their actions, decided to release their cobras back on the streets, thereby tripling the population from before the government program.
If you needed a warning against top-down regulation, there it is.
Key Takeaway #5: Keep Your Mind Flexible
Going about our day to day lives, it’s easy to become rigid in our opinions. That there’s only one way of doing something. We build habitual ways of doing something and start to believe there are no alternatives. Likewise, we form opinions, often due to something external like a book, podcast, or movie, and hang on to that opinion until the end of time. In contrast, Greene sees great power in keeping your mind loose and flexible:
When it comes to the ideas and opinions you hold, see them as toys or building blocks that you are playing with. Some you will keep, others you will knock down, but your spirit remains flexible and playful.
To cultivate this, sometimes it’s necessary to destroy your most cherished beliefs, something Greene demonstrates with the following anecdote:
The great fourteenth-century Zenmaster Bassui posted at the door of his temple a list of thirty-three rules his monks were to abide by or be thrown out. Many of the rules dealt with alcohol, which was strictly forbidden. One night, to totally disconcert his literal-minded monks, he showed up to a talk completely drunk. He never apologized or repeated it, but the lesson was simple: such rules are merely guidelines, and to demonstrate our freedom we must violate them from time to time.
Key Takeaway #6: We All Have a Dark Side
Whether we like it or not, we have a dark side to our natures. We may imagine that the Holocaust or slavery were acts undertaken by the sunken members of our species but that is unfortunately not the case. The Shadow, as it was known by Carl Jung, is a part of all of us:
Unfortunately there is no doubt about the fact that man is, as a whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. —Carl Jung
Pretending the Shadow doesn’t exist won’t help and in fact may increase how strongly it presents itself. Greene advises the reader to be extra wary of anyone who is overly friendly and shows no sign of the Shadow. You can be sure that their Shadow is lurking.
Key Takeaway #7: Beware of Envy (Especially on Social Media)
This was one of my favorite takeaways in the entire book. The internet, and social media in particular, have made envy one of our more prominent emotions:
Through social media we have a continual window into the lives of friends, pseudofriends, and celebrities. And what we see is not some unvarnished peek into their world but a highly idealized image that they present. We see only the most exciting images from their vacations, the happy faces of their friends and children, accounts of their continual self-improvement, the fascinating people they are meeting, the great causes and projects they are involved in, the examples of success in their endeavors. Are we having as much fun? Are our lives as seemingly fulfilled as theirs? Are we perhaps missing out on something? We generally believe, and for good reason, that we are all entitled to share in the good life, but if our peers seem to have more, someone or something must be to blame.
But as Greene does such a good job of reminding us, things are often not what they appear to be on the surface:
Nothing is ever so perfect as it seems, and often we would see that we are mistaken if we only looked closely enough. Spend time with that family you envy and wish you had as your own, and you will begin to reassess your opinion. If you envy people with greater fame and attention, remind yourself that with such attention comes a lot of hostility and scrutiny that is quite painful. Wealthy people are often miserable.
This section of the book also contains a wonderful habit that can stop us from feeling envious of the success of others and again, help us empathize:
This means that instead of merely congratulating people on their good fortune, something easy to do and easily forgotten, you must instead actively try to feel their joy, as a form of empathy. This can be somewhat unnatural, as our first tendency is to feel a pang of envy, but we can train ourselves to imagine how it must feel to others to experience their happiness or satisfaction. This not only cleans our brain of ugly envy but also creates an unusual form of rapport. If we are the targets of Mitfreude, we feel the other person’s genuine excitement at our good fortune, instead of just hearing words, and it induces us to feel the same for them. Because it is such a rare occurrence, it contains great power to bond people. And in internalizing other people’s joy, we increase our own capacity to feel this emotion in relation to our own experiences.
Key Takeaway #8: Death Can Be The Most Powerful Motivator
Most of us don’t consciously think about death all that often. It’s something constantly lurking on the outskirts of our awareness, confined as something which happens to “other people”. In those rare moments it enters our awareness, perhaps because someone close to us passes, thoughts of death can terrify and even overwhelm us. But does not necessarily have to be the case. A counterexample can be seen when someone has had long-term exposure to death. Greene uses the example of Flannery O’Connor, whose father suffered from a horrific form of lupus. O’Connor and her father were extremely close and the death shook her to her core. A few years later, she started suffering from similar symptoms. In the years between her father’s illness and her own onset of symptoms, medicine had progressed to offer some relief, but the disease was still a harbinger of premature death. O’Connor used this life sentence to her advantage:
Focusing so deeply on her mortality had one other important advantage—it deepened her empathy and sense of connection to people. She had a peculiar relationship to death in general: It did not represent a fate reserved for her alone but rather was intimately tied to her father. Their sufferings and deaths were intertwined. She saw her own nearness to death as a call to take this further, to see that all of us are connected through our common mortality and made equal by it. It is the fate we all share and should draw us closer for that reason. It should shake us out of any sense of feeling superior or separated.
Greene has a wonderful passage towards the end of the book that’s a huge wake up call for anyone who hasn’t thought deeply about death:
We tend to read stories like Flannery O’Connor’s with some distance. We can’t help but feel some relief that we find ourselves in a much more comfortable position. But we make a grave mistake in doing so. Her fate is our fate—we are all in the process of dying, all facing the same uncertainties. In fact, by having her mortality so present and palpable, she had an advantage over us—she was compelled to confront death and make use of her awareness of it. We, on the other hand, are able to dance around the thought, to envision endless vistas of time ahead of us and dabble our way through life. And then, when reality hits us, when we perhaps receive our own bullet in the side in the form of an unexpected crisis in our career, or a painful breakup in a relationship, or the death of someone close, or even our own life-threatening illness—we are not usually prepared to handle it. Our avoidance of the thought of death has established our pattern for handling other unpleasant realities and adversity. We easily become hysterical and lose our balance, blaming others for our fate, feeling angry and sorry for ourselves, or we opt for distractions and quick ways to dull the pain.
While we don’t know what will happen when we die, we do know that we will die someday (Ray Kurzweil aside). Instead of being terrified, let’s embrace that fact and use it is as a powerful motivator.
The Laws of Human Nature Key Takeaways is just a brief introduction to this thorough guide to how we humans act and think. You can buy a copy of The Laws of Human Nature on Amazon or wherever you buy books.
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