Robert Greene, Bestselling Author
Are you on the path to mastery? An interview with Robert Greene
Let’s say that through some miscarriage of justice, you find yourself locked in prison tomorrow. Browsing through the prison library, you find there is one book that is constantly requested, but hard to get your hands on. What would you think that book was? Legal case studies? Lock-picking manuals? The Bible perhaps? Close, but no cigar. It’s none other than Robert Greene’s bestselling The 48 Laws of Power, which has sold over 1.2 million copies worldwide. Greene’s books are famously the most requested in correctional facilities across the United States, an achievement he bears with pride. (The author has a folder dedicated to the fan mail he receives from inmates). However, it’s not just convicts who have taken to Greene’s works. His books are a favourite of Wall Street executives, movie moguls and hip hop superstars. Some of his more notable fans include rappers Busta Rhymes, 50 Cent, Jay Z, and Kanye West.
With five international bestsellers on strategy power and seduction, Greene is the hero of schemers, manipulators and the power hungry; from the Hollywood elite to the lowliest criminal. If the subject matter of his books is anything to go by, you’d think he would present like a character from Game of Thrones, cold and conniving. Yet for all his accolades, Greene seems astonishingly normal. A native of Los Angeles, Robert Greene currently lives a quiet life in a Spanish-style villa in the suburb of Los Feliz.
How then, did a former screenwriter from L.A. with a degree in classical studies become a world-class business consultant, champion of prisoners worldwide, and icon of hip hop royalty? Greene explains: “I worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter and that wasn’t right for me. I was able to make a living in Hollywood but it looked like I was sort of lost.” But The 48 Laws changed all that. Greene describes the conception of his seminal work as “one of those lightbulb moments,” after meeting book packager Joost Elffers. “I was in Italy, working on yet another different job, and he asked me if I had any ideas for a book.” Drawing on his knowledge in ancient history, “I improvised on what would turn into The 48 Laws of Power.”
ON THE 48 LAWS:
So what rests within the pages of his books that turned Greene into a cult figure? For those new to The 48 Laws of Power, inside are case studies expounding the philosophies of Machiavelli and ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu amongst others. It explores the corridors of power; how people without power get it, and how those who have it, keep it.
Greene explains that his attraction to the subject matter was not because of any particular fondness for scheming himself, but rather a desire to expose the ruthless. “In all of my different jobs, particularly in Hollywood but also in journalism, I’d seen all these power games being played. And nobody writes about it, nobody talks about it. When the door is closed and the CEO is figuring out what to do, he or she will do all sorts of Machiavellian things that are basically secret. And I didn’t like that.” With innocent candour he explains: “I’m a guy who wants to know what’s really going on. And I read a lot of history.” With those two backgrounds, the idea crystallized.
At the time, Greene describes his situation as “desperate”. Unhappy in his job, he saw the book as his only way out. “In The 33 Strategies of War I wrote about ‘the death ground’. And it literally means your back is against the wall. You either win or you die. And that’s how I was feeling.” He was 36 at the time. “I knew if I didn’t make this book work, I was just going to be another loser and I would never make it in life. With that kind of energy and excitement, I wrote The 48 Laws in a very short period of time working practically 24 hours a day.” And from there, the rest was history. Its popularity exploding, the public devoured The 48 Laws of Power as one of the most revealing works on power struggles since Machiavelli.
ON THE JOURNEY
Before The 48 Laws, Greene claims to have worked between 50 and 80 different jobs. Meandering around multiple career paths, Greene’s professional life didn’t seem to follow the customary route. Amongst the various strata of society, the prevailing view is that life has a very definite set of goals marked along a clear trajectory. Finish school. Go to university. Get a job. But Greene argues the importance of embarking on a voyage of self-discovery. And crucially, the importance of remaining calm if it doesn’t work out according to plan. In his fifth book Mastery, Greene compares the early life of an entrepreneur to an often roundabout journey, “that you should feel excited about, and not impatient or nervous or anxious. Particularly if you’re an entrepreneur.”
Having penned works that pull away the curtain from backroom machinations, it may come as no surprise that he opts to avoid the manipulative workplace altogether. “I don’t have a boss. Which is paradise for me. I don’t like the political environments.” Working for himself, Greene has long considered himself an entrepreneur. And how can you learn entrepreneurialism? He is an advocate of the School of Life tradition: “There’s no school that is going to teach you how to do it, unfortunately,” he says. “And if there were a school, it would be useless. You have got to do it on your own. You have got to figure out who you are, what your strengths and weaknesses are. Nobody can do that for you.”
For Robert Greene, success has been about the story; the process that led him to where he is. Regardless of where you are on your own journey, the author offers a harsh reality: “If you’re someone who is only focused on the end result, which is money, power, fame, you won’t have the patience to get there. You have to enjoy the process itself.”
For those concerned about working themselves into a professional cul-de-sac, Greene argues that what counts “is the knowledge of where you were meant to be headed.” Timely advice, in a time when dissatisfaction has become an epidemic. A 2012 Gallup poll found that only 13% of Americans reported being engaged in their jobs. A whopping 63% of employees across the country confessed to not being engaged at work and 24% were actively disengaged. And these results aren’t limited to the United States; the situation was equally dire across a host of other countries. To that, Greene offers some time-worn instruction: avoid pre-prescribed routes to money in fields that don’t interest you. Don’t just pursue a career because it’s well-paid. “Maybe you end up going into law, because it’s lucrative and because your parents tell you to. Maybe you get a practice, and end up in some obscure type of law. And you‘re forty years old and you think, ‘How the hell did I end up practicing international contract law, when I was really interested in being a writer?’ Now that’s a bad path to take, when you end up doing something you never intended to.”
The topic of his latest book, Mastery is self-evident from the title. But unlike many other self-help books, it is built upon years of in-depth research on the greatest masters of multiple disciplines throughout history. Shedding light on the lives of DaVinci, Mozart and Darwin among others, it analyses their path to mastery and the principles that drove them. Mastery posits that most people have the potential to be world-changing masters in some area. Above all, the book is about re-discovering your ‘life’s task’ and fulfilling the potential you were born with.
One of the driving ideas behind Mastery is that there are no shortcuts to success. Dominating any field will take 10,000 hours, minimum. “I am a little concerned with people in the digital age believing that because our technology is so powerful, they can do anything. I wanted to combat the mental disease that is spreading across the planet that things can come easily and quickly.” If you thought you could learn guitar or piano or martial arts just because your smartphone has an app for it, think again: “It took hundreds of thousands of years for your brain to evolve to the way where it is now. You are not going to change that because you have an app, or because you went to a good school or because you’re on a good diet.” He maintains it’s the same for running a business, playing the piano or learning theoretical physics. “The longer you spend learning something, the more you practice the skill, the more deeply you go into it, the better you get at it.”
It smacks of good traditional wisdom, the sort that might be dispensed by your grandpa as an antidote to laziness. However, this theory is not without its detractors. The most common counter-example Greene encounters is that of bestselling author of the 4 Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss. Life-hacker and star of new television show the Tim Ferriss Experiment, Ferriss has made a career for himself applying the Pareto principle (a.k.a the 80-20 rule) to learning new skills over short timespans. The notion of getting ahead using the least effort in the shortest time is not an unfamiliar concept. “I know his show, his books and his methods,” Greene says. “I am refuting the notion that you can master something with a shortcut.” He admits that a skill’s inherent simplicity shortens the length of the learning process. However, Greene maintains that simple skills will only get you so far. “A complex skill is what’s going to make you famous, successful and happy.” These are skills that can only be acquired by “going through the process.” Greene cuts to the crux of the dilemma of fast tracking: “What upsets me is the idea that if you are wanting a shortcut, you already have a problem. Because you have to love work. You have to love discipline. You have to love the process itself.”
So are you a person that embraces the process, he asks, “or are you a nervous, impatient person who has to learn things faster than other people? To me, that is the dividing line between someone who will be successful and someone who will just be a dilettante.”
Finally, Greene admits: “The word mastery can be a little intimidating. But keep in mind that it’s actually really fun.” If your idea of a fun weeknight is passively spacing out in front of Jersey Shore, you have another thing coming. The author explains that with mastery, you get “a sense of pleasure from a larger feeling of fulfillment.” Real fun should be closer to “that feeling you have from building something, and the process of getting there.” In a word? “It’s exciting.” The good news is, mastery is not a question of prohibitive genius or genetics. Greene argues: “Mastery is eminently attainable by anybody, if you go through the process. It leads to something that is a lot more fulfilling and it’s not just a boring 10,000-hour trudge learning something. It’s really the most exciting adventure you could be on.”
NO SHORTCUTS: 9 STEPS TO TAKE YOU CLOSER TO MASTERY.
THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS, BUT WITH THE RIGHT STRUCTURES IN PLACE, YOUR LIFE COULD BE ON TRACK TO MASTERY. ROBERT GREENE OFFERS TIMELESS GEMS OF ADVICE TO POINT YOU IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION.
1. MAKE MISTAKES
Be willing to make mistakes on your journey, to lose yourself for a while, and figure things out. It’s part of the process.
2. BE PATIENT
In a society where everyone wants results instantly, be patient if you’re not an overnight success. Take Steve Jobs. He was brilliant, but the truly important creativity he demonstrated didn’t come along until after 20 years of intense experience.
3. ADMIT IGNORANCE
Don’t start a process thinking you know the answer. Maintain a hunger for absorbing as much knowledge and information as possible because that is a way to cover your ignorance and figure things out.
4. BE APPRENTICED
Early in your career, it’s not just time to party. Find someone who has travelled on the journey you are on and has already achieved the things you want to achieve. Reach out to them, learn from them and be mentored as much as you can. Partying can wait.
5. GAIN SKILLS, NOT MONEY
What matters early on is gaining skills and not money. Despite the worst things that happen to you, you’re always learning something about yourself and you’re always learning something about other people, refining your skills.
6. DON’T TAKE THE HIGH PAYING JOB
It’s a tempting mistake, but early in your career the job at the high paying firm might be a mistake all the same. Take the job with a little tiny company of four or five people, and half the salary. People will wonder what you’re doing, but you’ll get more hands-on experience, gaining as many skills as possible.
7. LOVE WORK
Love work. Love discipline. Love the process itself without getting too caught up in the results, and love the journey you’re on.
8. DITCH REGRET
Hold off on the regret. You’re on a journey discovering your life’s task, and everything you have done has equipped you for where you are today. You might do something stupid or foolish; maybe you take a job that you shouldn’t have, but there is always something you can learn from it. Nothing is more important than discovering and pursuing your life’s task, and sometimes it takes time.
9. LEARN ALWAYS
The most important characteristic of a leader and entrepreneur is the ability to learn. Even if you are successful, it’s dangerous if you believe that you possess the wisdom to always know exactly what needs to be done. If you have a mind that is flexible, you are going to make it. People like that will always land on their feet.
- 04:00 – Tips on how to master anything
- 06:00 – How Robert started out as a writer
- 09:34 – Learn about Robert’s journey to self-discovery
- 11:08 – Robert talks about his book Mastery
- 14:00 – Lessons on giving up and sacrificing what you have to be where you want to be
- 16:00 – Robert shares the hardships of writing
- 24:00 – Learn the common remedies when you come across business with challenges
Full Transcript of Podcast with Robert Greene
Nathan: Welcome to episode number two of the “Foundr” podcast. It’s great to have you all here and I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to listen and share your time with me. You know, somebody’s attention is so difficult to get and I just want to say, honestly, thank you so much for taking the time and investing in yourself as an entrepreneur. And I promise you, if you stick around, you’re going to learn a lot, because I’ve been doing this for the past 18 months and it’s crazy, how much I’ve accelerated my personal learning from speaking with some of the most successful entrepreneurs on the planet. So there’s a whole ton to share and I’m really excited.
And like I said before in the first episode, if you’re sick and tired of all the regular kind of podcasts and you want to hear from big-time founders and multimillionaires and all sorts of crazy, extremely successful entrepreneurs–some that you’ve never heard of, some that you’ve probably heard of their companies, but you don’t know who’s behind the brand and who started it all–you’ve come to the right place. So that’s it from me. If you are enjoying these interviews, can you please do me a favor and leave us a five-star review in the iTunes Store? That would really, really help us.
And also–I may as well plug myself–if you…I love these interviews, too. You should check out the magazine. It really is my blood, my sweat and my tears, so check it out. Today, we have Robert Greene. He’s a five times best-selling author and he’s a very, very intelligent guy. He’s worked over 80 different jobs in his life before he found writing and his books have been sold to over millions of people. In this interview, I talk to him about the process of achieving mastery and certainly, his take on what it takes become a successful entrepreneur and writer.
Roberts also shares with me his number one tip on how to master anything and he also shares with me some very interesting things that he’s never shared before in any other interview. He even said to me after the call, “I have never been asked some of those questions, so you’ve done your homework.” And I think you guys are really going to enjoy this interview. This one, actually–I must say–I reported it oh, at least nine months ago, maybe a year ago. And I remember I was doing it on my lunch break of my day job and I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, I am so lucky to be speaking with this guy,” because…yeah, it was just so extremely inspiring.
And I shared this interview with some of my friends and they were like, “Nathan, this is awesome.” They just absolutely loved it. So if you want to get in touch with me, you can reach me at, firstname.lastname@example.org, no “E” between the “D” and the “R.” So yeah, look, it’s…it would be great if you could leave us a five-star review. If you want to get in touch with me, if there’s anything I can do to help, please get in touch with me. That’s enough from me and I hope you enjoy the show.
Nathan: Okay, everyone. Before we get into today’s episode, I want to give a quick shout out to our sponsor of today’s show, Odesk. Odesk.com is the world’s leading website for online freelance talent. With millions of freelancers doing graphic design, programming, writing, marketing, translation and much more, you’re sure to find the people you need to assist with practically any skill online that you need for your start-up. I’ve actually used Odesk to launch “Foundr Magazine” and it’s allowed me to rapidly scale and grow the business and saved me at least 10 the 15 hours every week. I highly recommend this platform.
To access a free $50 credit to get started on hiring today, please sign up at, odesk.com/coupon and use the coupon code, “FoundrEO2014.” Remember, when you support our sponsors, you’re supporting the show. Today, I’m speaking with Robert Greene. He’s an American author, speaker and business consultant best known for his books on strategy, power and seduction. He’s written four international bestsellers, “The 48 Laws of Power,” “The Art of Seduction,” “The 33 Strategies of War” and “The 50th Law.” So Robert, thank you for taking the time.
Robert: Thank you very much for having me, Nathan. Thank you.
Nathan: Yeah. Look, it’s an absolute pleasure, man. I read your book, “The Art of Seduction” maybe about three or four years ago, when I was trying to get better with girls.
Robert: Yeah. And did it work?
Nathan: Look, I was…look, and this is me being totally open and honest. I’ve never spoken of this in any of my interviews, so I’m just making myself vulnerable. But I went through a journey of wanting to get better with girls and you know, look, I learned heaps from your book. It came as a recommendation from “The Game,” I think.
Robert: Oh, yeah. Yeah, sure. I’m friends with Neil. A lot of people have come to “The Art of Seduction” through his book, so great. Yeah.
Nathan: Yeah, no, it’s…your work is extremely interesting, say. So can you tell us a little bit about how you got your job?
Robert: Well, it’s not technically a job, but I have always wanted to be a writer. I knew that when I was a kid and after university, I just couldn’t figure out how I was going to become a writer and make a living. So I worked in journalism and didn’t really like it for various reasons, traveled all around the world and Europe…lived in Europe for many years, doing all sorts of odd jobs, writing novels and essays and things. And that really wasn’t quite working out, but I was having fun.
And then, I came back to LA where I’m born and raised and got into the film business, thinking that was where I could write. And I worked as a screenwriter and in other elements of production and stuff and that wasn’t right. I didn’t like the fact that you had no control over what you wrote and 80 million people would pile on top of what you did and change it and it just wasn’t me. And then, I was about 35, 36…well, I was 36, about the point where my parents were getting ready to give up on me.
You know, I was able to make a living in Hollywood and stuff, but I wasn’t…I looked like I was sort of lost. And I met this man in Italy, where I was working on yet another different job. And he was a book guy–a book packager–and he asked me if I had any ideas for a book. And it was one of those lightbulb moments, one of those…I don’t know what you would call it: epiphany, whatever…where I just suddenly go, “Wow, the chance to write a book. Books are what I should be doing.”
And when he asked me the question, I improvised what would turn into “The 48 Laws Of Power,” because I had seen in all of my different jobs…particularly in Hollywood, but also in journalism and elsewhere…I see all these power games being played by people and nobody writes about it, nobody talks about it. When the door is closed and the CEO is figuring out what to do, he or she will do all sorts of Machiavellian things that are basically kind of a secret. And I didn’t like that. I’m a guy who wants to sort of know what’s really going on and I read a lot of history.
So with those things, those two backgrounds, I improvised what would turn into “The 48 Laws of Power.” He loved it, the idea. Of course, it’s easy to have an idea, but I was so desperate. If you know my work, I have an idea in one of my books called “the death ground,” you’re on death ground. And it literally means your back is against the wall, you either win or you die. And that’s how I was feeling. I’m, like, 36. If I don’t make this book work, I’m just going to be a loser. I’m not going to ever make it in life.
And with that kind of energy and excitement, I wrote that book in a very short period of time, working practically 24 hours a day. And then, from there, it just took off. And I’ve been very blessed and lucky and I’ve been able to have…make a living really just on my books, but I also do other things. So that’s my long-winded answer to your question.
Nathan: Yeah, no. Look, thank you. And it’s very interesting, because a lot of people, they think that you…when you go to school as a young person, you think that you’ve got it all worked out when you don’t and you go to university and you get a job and that’s it for you, that’s what you’re meant to do in life. And you’ve kind of gone on a journey of self-discovery in this, which has taken you a while. And you mentioned that you’ve done around 80 different jobs to get where you are today.
Robert: Yeah. I gave a…you know, if your audience is interested, I gave a TED talk–a TEDx talk–last year in London, in which I sort of explained the journey–that 80, 50 different jobs, whatever it really is–and why. Maybe it won’t take people out there 15 years…and maybe…hopefully, it doesn’t, but it is a journey. And it’s a journey you should feel excited about and not inpatient and not nervous or anxious, particularly if you’re an entrepreneur.
And I consider myself an entrepreneur, because I work for myself. I don’t have a boss, which is paradise for me, because I don’t like the political environments. So I am kind of an entrepreneur…I’m definitely an entrepreneur in spirit. And so, to be an entrepreneur, you have to be willing to make mistakes, to lose yourself for a while, to figure things out. There’s no school that’s going to teach you how to do it, unfortunately. And if there were a school, it would be useless, because you’ve got to do it on your own. You’ve got to figure out who you are, what your strengths and weaknesses are. Nobody can do that for you.
So to feel like it’s a journey and you’re discovering what you’re good at and what you’re meant to create is just the best metaphor for it. And I don’t know if…you didn’t mention my fifth book in your introduction. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, “Mastery.”
Nathan: Of course. Yes, love it.
Robert: Okay. Well, in “Mastery,” that’s basically…oh, yeah, you did mention, I’m sorry. Basically, that’s what I’m trying to lay out for you: is, it’s almost like a physical journey, you know? I talk about Charles Darwin going to South America on a journey to discover what he was meant to do. We may not travel for it, but that’s what it entails. And if you’re someone that’s only focused on the end result–which is money, power, fame–you won’t have the patience to get there. You almost have to enjoy the process itself. So hopefully, it won’t take as long as me, but that’s sort of the path I think any entrepreneur needs to follow.
Nathan: You know, that…and that’s so true. It’s funny. So often more than not, the things that you end up finding yourself doing were not the things that you’d ever planned. And that’s something that I see quite common amongst many people that I interview.
Robert: Yes. And that can be good and that can be bad. So how that is bad is–and it happens to a lot of people–you’re not really sure of who you are or what you are meant to do. You follow a path like going to law school, because that’s lucrative and your parents tell you to do that. Then, you end up going into law and you get your practice and you end up in some obscure type of law. And you’re 40 years old and you go, “How the hell did I end up practicing international contract law when I was really interested in being a writer?” Now, that’s a bad sort of path to take, where you end up in something that you never intended to.
The good way of doing it is, I know I’m meant to be a writer, or I meant to start my own business. I’m trying different businesses and suddenly, after 10 years of experience, I hit upon an idea based on a lot of my experience and my interests that I never really realized before, but this is the right one, it’s very exciting. That’s the good one. And the difference between the two is the knowledge of where you are meant to be headed. You can have surprises. You’re out to sea, you’re on your way from United States to Australia and you come upon an island you didn’t expect, great. But if you’re out to sea and you have no idea where you’re going, then you’re lost.
So it’s a difference of having a sense of direction and then, the surprises are positive and beneficial.
Nathan: It’s a great insight. I’m just curious. With where you are today with your writing and the level of success you’ve had with your books, what did you have to sacrifice to be where you are today? What did you have to give up to get to where you are today?
Robert: Well, that’s a great question. It’s a…you know, I’m always surprised when somebody asks me a question that no one else has ever asked. And it’s been 15 years I’ve had these questions. You know, I had to give up some of my laziness. I tend to wander around and do things that I just like and kind of oh, I read a book and then, I pick up something I want to write. I’ve had to be much more disciplined and focused and give up kind of all my eclectic interests and give up playing this sport or playing the piano and focus on something.
That would probably be the only thing I’ve really had to give up for my work and it’s a good thing. Being focused and knowing what you have to do and giving up the things that really aren’t that important, in the long run, makes you a lot happier. And I’m sure there’s something else I could think of, but everything that I’ve gotten from my…the writing career’s a positive. So having to give up looking for bad jobs and having to give up worrying about money, I guess those don’t really count. So I’d just say having to be so disciplined and giving up other activities that distract from the writing.
Nathan: I see. It’s one of my favorite questions that I quite often like to ask people. Sometimes, it throws people off and they often say, “You know, I’ve never received that type of question,” because that’s what really interests me, because the people that we feature, the people that we interview, they’re living their life like most other people wouldn’t, or a lot of other people in this world wouldn’t. And I’d like to understand that and I want to know what it takes.
Robert: Well, one thing I did…if you put it that way, one thing I’d have to say is, I don’t have as much of a social life as I used to. I have a social life, I’m not a hermit. But the time that I used to have for that, I had to sacrifice, because to write, you have to be alone. And you…sometimes, for a year, I disappear and don’t answer emails and just focus on writing. So I’d have to say that would maybe be one of the things you have to…I’ve had to sacrifice: is a very rich, active social life, which sometimes, I miss.
Nathan: And then, let’s talk about your writing. What’s been the hardest thing about writing for you?
Robert: Well, you know, the hardest thing has been the physical element. The reason is that my…the books that I write are kind of different. I do a lot of research. I don’t want to write a book about power or seduction without the feeling that I’m standing on something solid. I don’t want to simply imagine or blow bubbles out of my mind. I want to have actual research and studies and books to back it up. So for that, I will read, on average, 300 to 400 books to produce one book. And I have to organize all that material in a very elaborate system, because it can get very complicated.
And then, I have to take all that material and I have to write it. And it is a physical, physical drain that by the end of the book–like, by the time I finished my third book on “The Strategies of War”–I was physically done. I was so exhausted, I thought I was going to get seriously ill and it took me, like, a year to kind of recover. And I’ve been working on it. I’ve been trying to get myself stronger and more mentally prepared, so I’m not so drained by the end of the process. But that’s probably been the most difficult thing, in terms of the books that I write.
Nathan: Wow, fascinating. And can you tell us about how you’ve developed your own system or routine of working every day, to work on these books?
Robert: It depends on where I am in the process. So in the beginning, like now where I’m working on my sixth book, I’m just reading. And it’s pretty open, I just read all day long and that’s a lot of fun. And then, a few months later, I’ll be starting to take notes on what I’ve read and I have to put those on the cards. And that gets…is starting to get a little bit tiring and tedious and I’ve worked on that pretty, pretty hard. And then, maybe a year or a year and a half after I’m through that, then I’m writing. And I only can really write about three to four hours a day, or it’s too much.
So at that point, I put in a few hours in the morning, or sometimes, I write best in the afternoon and then, that’s it. I’m too drained, I’m too exhausted, because I have to take all of my notecards and then write from them and then rewrite and rewrite and there’s a lot of thinking going on. So if I have an idea, like I had in my last book about the apprenticeship and the learning process, I don’t like if I feel like an idea isn’t fully fleshed out. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe what I’m saying is actually wrong. So I have to think and rewrite and rewrite and re-think and rewrite. And you do that for four hours and there’s not much left in the tank. So that’s pretty much my process.
Nathan: Interesting. Now, I read about your cards from a post that Ryan Holiday did…
Nathan: …and I found it extremely fascinating. How did you come up with that system of having all these cards that you have in this suitcase that you carry around with you everywhere, especially in today’s age with technology and things like Evernote? Can you tell me about that?
Robert: Yeah. I’m a bit of a caveman that way. Back in my home where I grew up…and I was looking at one of my drawers when I was a kid and there were notecards. When I was 14, I was sort of using notecards, so maybe there is something that goes pretty deep inside me. I was writing “The 48 Laws of Power” and I had all of this research and I was writing notes in a notebook and I got, like, “It’s too…this is way too confusing.” Now, of course, we’re talking about 1996 and there were computers back then and I was working on one. But I like to take notes in a notebook and then, you never really thought of doing notes on a computer.
And I’m thinking, “I can’t look at all of my different ideas at the same time. It’s getting way too confusing,” so I just naturally turned to putting things on cards. And I developed a system and I think the system…I wouldn’t be able to write the books I do without the system. And I tell people as…in my consulting work that being organized in whatever field you’re in is the most important skill of all. You have to develop your own organizational method.
But if I didn’t have these notecards on which I could take my 50 different ideas and put them on color-coded cards and file them under categories and then, quickly sift through them and see, “Ah, these are all of the ideas that pertain to the counter attack strategy in business and war…” If I wasn’t able to suddenly look at those 50 cards, I couldn’t literally write a book. I’d be overwhelmed by my material and the book itself would reflect it. I read a lot of books nowadays where I go, “The writer has not organized his material.” He or she is overwhelmed by the research and the book, you find they’re repeating the same ideas or they run out of energy.
So I literally evolved a system where I could not function without and I…each book is a little bit different. The “War” book, I had 2000 notecards, “The 50th Law” was more like 400 notecards. It just depends, but it’s a great system. And as you said, Ryan, I taught it to him, he wrote about it, you can read about it through Ryan. I can only say it’s a great way to work or organize your thoughts.
Nathan: Yeah, no, it’s fascinating. It strikes me as, you use the notecards as your external brain.
Robert: Yeah. Well, there’s a writer who talks about the external memory system–I forget his name–saying essentially that writing is an external memory system, that the human brain could not handle the amount of information it had thousands of years ago and so, writing was established as a way to extend our basic memory. And so, this system, why it works so well is, I’m taking cards on all of these things that I obviously could never remember. But I can compare each card to the other and say…and take this bit of knowledge or information and compare it and say, “Oh, these are related,” or, “These contradict each other.”
If you had a computer…if you put all of your cards on a computer–which you can do now and I might do, just for backup purposes–you don’t have that functionality. You can’t compare quickly 12 cards on 12 different ideas, where you can look at the back and the front and sift through them with your fingertips and see this and that. So it is a complete memory system that extends my memory, so that 400 books are now at my fingertip and I don’t have to rely on anything and I can use that. So you’re very accurate in what you say.
Nathan: This is the kind of stuff that I find really interesting, so no, thank you for sharing that. Let’s switch gears and talk about strategy. Now, I know you’re a business consultant and you’re on the board for American Apparel.
Nathan: When you come across businesses with challenges, what are the most common problems that you see and what are common remedies that you have to provide? Pretty much, I want to know, in your opinion, what do you think it takes to build a successful business?
Robert: Well, I make it clear in my consulting work that I’m not a technical person, I don’t have a business background. So when it comes to numbers and X’s and O’s and telling you a business plan and all these things, don’t come to me, I really am horrifically ignorant. But I know strategy and I know people. And business–I tell the people who come to me–is 99% psychology, working with people and strategy. And then, those numbers come in, in the technical aspect and they’re important, but they’re actually the easiest part to learn and master.
What’s absolutely impossible to master…or not impossible, but very difficult…is working with people, figuring them out–their weirdness, their complexity–and having a good, sound strategic mind. So the people that come to me generally are very technically brilliant, they know their work well, they’ve come up with a great idea. But they’ve partnered up with a person who’s awful, who’s got really bad character. Or they have employees that are just totally unmotivated and couldn’t give a damn about the company. Or they have colleagues who they thought were on their side, but that are scheming against them.
Or they say and do things that they thought were really smart, but now, they realize that it’s offended someone and they’re in a battle and they didn’t understand how it happened. Or they come up with a plan that is just so irrational that has no sense of really what’s going on in the world, it’s just a function of what they want to see. These are the kinds of things I can deal with and I get a lot of them. And I’ll tell people, “The main quality after…” I’ve consulted with over 100 different people in very intense ways. And then, as you said, I’m on the board of American Apparel. The quality that’s most important for a leader–an entrepreneur–that I know is the ability to learn.
The greatest danger you face is, even if you’re successful, you come to believe that you’re just God himself or herself, that you’ve possessed this wisdom, that you know exactly what needs to be done. And I get people who come to me for advice and they don’t listen to me. I tell them exactly what their problem is, they don’t listen to me. And then, a year later, they come back, realizing that they didn’t follow it because they don’t want to listen. They want to hear a reflection of what they are already wanting to see.
So you give me a leader–particularly someone in their 30s, because it’s a little easier when you’re in your 20s–who can listen, who can learn, who can take a step back and say, “I’m not going to repeat the same thing that I did five years ago with this company, because repeating a strategy is a recipe for disaster. I’m going to learn, I’m going to be modern, I’m going to be up to date,” you have a mind that’s flexible, you’re going to make it. And I find I can work with people like that and people like that will always land on their feet.
There are other bits of wisdom I could share with you, but I really swear, that’s the main thing: is, are you willing and open to learning and not constantly repeating what you’ve done before or what…the things that you…the conventional wisdom? That’s sort of the main quality.
Nathan: Awesome. Now, learning and reading and consuming information, is that something that you’ve always had inside of you?
Robert: It’s hard to say, because I only live with myself and I don’t know what other people are like. So I take my life as normal, but maybe it’s not normal. And you know, I love reading books, but the main thing is–I guess I’d have to say–I really, really hate it when people think they know the answer. I like beginning from a point of view where I’m probably wrong, I don’t know, I’m ignorant and I think A is right, but it’s actually B. Okay, that’s great. That’s really good. I like the fact that I was proven wrong.
And when you have that, then you’ve just got a hunger for absorbing as much knowledge and information as possible, because that’s the way to cover your ignorance. That’s how you figure things out. Recently, I’ve been in a couple of situations. To this day, if I have somebody read something that I’ve done and they say, “This isn’t right,” or, “This isn’t very good,” I just take a step back and I go, “You know, you’re probably right,” or I see the wisdom in what they’re saying.
I haven’t reached the point after 15 years of this–and I’m pretty successful–where I feel like I know it all and I can’t listen to people. So I’ve been that way for a long time and hopefully, I can stay that way into my 60s, 70s and 80s, you know?
Nathan: You know, look, you’re a very humble man and that’s something…you know, something I was curious about. There’s something that I wanted to ask you and that’s pretty much from your book, “Mastery.” If I were to sum it up, a big part of it is that there’s no shortcuts to success. It’s going to take 10,000 hours.
Nathan: Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Robert: Well, that’s the main point of the whole book, because I mean, there were several reasons why I wrote “Mastery.” But one of the main inspirations was, I’m a little concerned with people in the age that we’re living in who believe that because our technology is so powerful that we can almost just do anything and that I can learn a skill in a lot shorter time. And it’s a different world than 100 years ago and I don’t need to spend as much time learning something as people did in the past. We have so much more information and da, da, da, da, da.
And I just see a lot of people out there who never finish with their ideas, they build something that’s really badly built or organized. a lot of shoddy work out there, where people who build a business and they’re lazy. They don’t put enough thought into it, they’re not consistent, they don’t see it all the way through. And I wanted to kind of combat this mental disease–I think that is spreading across the planet–that things can come easily and quickly because technology is allowing us to do that.
Technology’s wonderful, it’s brilliant, it’s a tool. It’s a tool just like a hammer. It’s a tool, but it depends on the human brain using the tool and that brain hasn’t changed. It took hundreds and thousands of years for your brain to evolve into the way it is now. You’re not going to change that because you have an app, or because you went to a good school, or because you’re on a good diet. You’re not going to change it. The brain goes a certain way, which means basically, the longer you spend learning something–the more you practice a skill, the more deeply you go into it–the better you get at it, the more layers of reality you uncover, the more creative you become.
Now, there are parts of that that aren’t completely true. In other words, you could practice something for 10 years and it gets stale and you hit a dead end and your mind isn’t working anymore. I cover that in the book, that particular problem. So you have to stay fluid and creative with what you’re doing. But the longer you spend doing something, the closer you get to the reality of it. And so, that was what I wanted to show you in the book. Let’s say you wanted to learn a foreign language, just as a simple thing and as a simple metaphor.
You think that you can learn it in three months, because there are new books and tapes and methods out there. And you buy them and you spend hundreds of dollars and you practice with the books and tapes and then, you go to France and you still can’t say anything. It’s still…you’re still mumbling and you can’t understand what the hell people are saying. You have to go to France and you have to immerse yourself in the language and you have to hear it in your head and you have to have a French girlfriend whom you are speaking with French, day in and day out. And after a year, you’re suddenly speaking pretty good French and after two years, you’re almost fluent and after five years, you are fluent.
There are no shortcuts to that. Just put that into your brain and file it away under “Truth.” There are no shortcuts to learning and speaking French fluently. And I can say the same for running a business, for learning the piano, for physics or whatever. So that’s the inspiration behind “Mastery.”
Nathan: It was a great book and I loved it so much. Something that shouts out at me, though–and this might challenge you–is, are you familiar with Tim Ferris’s latest show, “The Tim Ferriss Experiment?”
Robert: Well, I knew that…I knew this was coming and I knew that Tim Ferriss would be…you would mention him. I don’t know the show, I know his books and his methods and “The 4-Hour Chef” and things like that. His book came out just as “Mastery” was coming out and Tim and I have some common friends and he’s a great person. I haven’t delved deeply into his books to be able to refute them.
Robert: But I am refuting the notion that you can master something with a shortcut. And until somebody…and I’ve come up with examples and people have brought up his examples, such as martial arts, etc. And there are things you have to understand about what I’m talking about. You can master a basic skill. Let’s differentiate between basic skills and complex skills. A basic skill is something simple, manual: driving a car, learning certain basic self-defense movements, learning the game of chess and playing it well. Those are…basic skills are simple, they revolve around basically one thing.
And perhaps there is a way to shorten that a little bit, only that the accumulated wisdom of the years, people have come up with systems that can speed it up. And with my example of language, people have come up with systems to speed up, a little bit, the learning process, because we’ve learned things from the past. Okay, I agree with that. But a complex skill is what’s going to make you famous, successful, happy. You’re not going to be successful just because you know how to drive a car, or you know certain self-defense movements, or you can basically put together some ingredients that you cook.
You’re going to need to put those skills together in a way that’s creative and meaningful and nobody else has done in the world. And there is no shortcut to that. You can’t get everything from other people or a system, you have to go through the process itself. So let’s say there’s a way to learn the basics of chess in a fast way, based on all of the wisdom of the ages. You still have to have 10,000 hours of playing, because you have to have played so many games before those patterns are imprinted in your brain and you’re thinking in terms of what are called chunks.
There’s nobody that’s going to get you to that point quicker unless they invent, in the future, some matrix type way of literally implanting it into your brain. So I should qualify it that way. There’s no way to break through a shortcut to get you to the point where you’re thinking in chunks. What upsets me is the idea…if you’re thinking like, “I want a shortcut,” you already have a problem. You already might be on your way to becoming a loser, because you have to love work, you have to love discipline, you have to love the repetitiveness, the learning process itself. And if you can speed it up through this or that, that…okay, great, I’ll use that. But I enjoy the time that it takes and I embrace the process.
So are you a person that embraces the process, or are you this nervous, impatient person that has to learn things faster than other people? That’s, to me, the dividing line between someone who’ll be successful and someone who’ll just be a dilettante.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. Look, I love that answer, that was brilliant. And it just makes me think that we live in a society and a world now, where people want everything now. They want faster Internet… And I can totally understand where you’re coming from and your…the reason you wrote the book, “Mastery.” And you look at someone like Richard Branson and you only see the end product.
Robert: That’s right.
Nathan: And so often, his story is commercialized and…and this is not me bagging out Richard Branson, not in the bit, because we actually interviewed him for the magazine. And I wanted to go down and find out what it took him and how much time he’d spent and really try and get behind the scenes, just to show people that there is no shortcut.
Robert: Well, I mean, on that point, when my book came out, it was too late for me to put Steve Jobs in there, because he was dying and there wasn’t really enough detailed information. And the book came out just as I was finishing “Mastery,” so I read the biography after the book was finished and I go, “Damn, I wish I had been able to include him.” But just go read the 800, 700-page biography of Steve Jobs and you’ll see the same thing. He starts at an early age with a love of computers and design, but he has a lot of failures. He’s brash, he’s not good with people, his Lisa Macintosh was kind of a disaster.
He leaves Macintosh after eight years or so with the company and then, he founds this company called Next–the kind of cube computer that he did in the late 80s, early 90s–and that’s a total failure. If you could add up, he’s 20 years now and…when we come to the 1990s. And if that had been Steve Jobs’ legacy, he wouldn’t be anywhere famous, really. He’d be another little footnote in the history of computing.
It’s when he comes back to Apple and now, all of a sudden…it’s the late 90s, early 2000s. And suddenly, that 10,000, 20,000 hours of work, the things he…lessons he learned, the mistakes he made, the feel that he has for what’s going on in technology all comes to blossom and he’s now suddenly on another level. And it begins–to me–with the idea for the iPod that starts the whole ball rolling. He would have never come up with such an idea…of course, the technology didn’t exist…but earlier on in his life.
So what are you…? You look at somebody like that and you can literally see the demonstration of what I’m talking about. He was brilliant, no doubt, and he had some success early on. But the truly real creativity that he demonstrates didn’t come along until literally after 20 years of intense experience in computing and designing computers. So there you have it. He’s sort of the icon that we hold up for modern creativity and mastery and he demonstrates it through and through.
Nathan: Yeah, no, that’s spot on. Can you tell us about…on the topic of mastery, can you tell us about apprenticeships?
Robert: Well, really, what I wanted to do with that, it’s a word that seems a little bit musty, like it goes back to the Middle Ages. And really, who…? Nobody goes through a real, formal apprenticeship like they used to in the old days. And I wanted to bring it back, because basically, it is a metaphor, but I want you to think of it…your life in terms of this metaphor. You go through the university system–if you go…take it that far–and you learned a certain way of learning which is largely passive: you read books, you write essays, you take tests and then, the professor grades you.
And then, suddenly, you’re thrust out into the real world. And suddenly, you go from having a professor, even maybe parents, to, nobody is there to really guide you in a real, one-on-one, direct way. And that’s where most people go wrong. That’s where you’re 22, you head to the real world and there, you…mistakes start accumulating and you take a couple wrong steps. And I want to try and say, okay, here’s your 20s–let’s say you’re age 22 to 30, it could vary–think of it as, now, the next phase in your education.
It is not just some random period in your life, it’s not a period for you to just party and figure out where you want to go and, “Hey, man, hang loose,” etc. It is the next step in your education. It’s an eight-year…seven, eight-year period in which you have to be the one in control of it. You have to figure out what you want to learn, what direction you want to go, who you want to be, more or less. You don’t need to know exactly. And with that, thinking in those terms, then certain changes occur that are very practical. So for instance, what matters in this period is learning: skills and not money. So that changes the decisions you make.
If you’re offered a job when you’re 24 that’s going to pay you a lot of money, it seems very alluring. It makes you look sexy, girls are going to like you, your parents will be happy. But you’re at a big firm and you’re not going to learn very much and you’re going to have responsibilities that you’re not really ready for, don’t take it. Take that job with that little, tiny company with four or five people, half the salary. People will wonder what you’re doing, the business will probably go under in three years, but you’re going to learn hands on. And that’s what you value in the apprenticeship phase, learning as many skills: life skills, technical skills, people skills. That’s the goal that you’re after.
So now, think of your…that period of your life as a learning real life, practical skills. The intellectual, abstract education is over, now you’re in a practical education phase. And when that’s over, if you go through the right apprenticeship, your whole life will just unfold in a natural progression and you’ll become successful and powerful. That’s the most critical part of any person’s life and that’s where I think a lot of people go wrong.
Nathan: Love it. Yeah, look, I look at it…when we talk about apprenticeships and…I look at my own life and I often say to my mom that, “You know, if I had my time all over again, I’d do this, I’d do that and…” But after reading your book and the way you just described it, then, to me, it makes me feel that everything that I’ve done equipped me for where I am today.
Robert: Right. Yeah, that’s very much a part of the process. You know, sometimes, you do something that’s stupid or foolish and you take a job that maybe you shouldn’t have. But there’s always something that you can learn from it and that’s part of your apprenticeship. So for instance, I was…early in my journalism career, was working for a magazine. I’d taken a job because it was a high-level position, but it was a really boring magazine. And I really hated the people there and it just…it just was soul-crunching or whatever.
And I got…another job which offered to me at a similar position, but at a magazine that was really exciting, that was just so much more interesting. And without much thought, I left and took this new job, basically burning my bridge to the old job. And in the new job, it went under after about three weeks. And now, I was left unemployed and pretty much, a burned bridge is making my employment situation a little bit difficult. And then, I went like, “Wow, I made a mistake. What did I do?”
But then, I figured…a couple of months afterwards, I go, “This was not a mistake. I really don’t like journalism. It was really a problem. I don’t want to go back and grovel and get another one of those jobs again.” I learned from it. I learned to be more patient, to do better research on the new company that I’m taking, etc. Even the worst thing that happens to you, you’re always learning something about yourself and you’re always learning something about other people.
You have a job that you hate your boss? Well, now, you’re filing away, “First of all, I don’t like working for other people, so I’m going to become an entrepreneur. But b, I’m never going to become this boss. I’m never going to be like him or her.” So if that’s your attitude, then you’re learning from everything that’s happening to you and you’re making the most of your apprenticeship phase.
Nathan: Yeah, look, I love it. I love it. Look, we have to work towards wrapping up, but I could speak to you all day, man. I’m loving this conversation. I just wanted to say, what book have you read…? And I know you’ve read hundreds of books. What book have you read that’s had the most profound impact on your life, if you could name one?
Robert: It’s really difficult. It’s really complicated and hard to do, because it’s…you know, when you add up the books over my life, there’s just thousands upon thousands. The particular kind of books that I do and the turning point in my life in which I did “The 48 Laws Of Power,” I would have to go back in time and say it was Machiavelli–perhaps “The Prince”–in the sense of, it’s a way of looking at the world that I really like…loved and influenced me and has…sort of is the spirit behind all of my books.
And basically why is, he’s this consummate realist. He’s looking at the world and saying, “This is what people are up to, let’s analyze it. Let’s not get moralistic, let’s not judge, let’s not preach. Let’s just look at how people are, what power’s about, who has power, where they have power and let’s analyze it.” And just the realism of it, the practicality, the pragmatism just seems so refreshing to me in a world where people are so unrealistic and so unpragmatic.
So I don’t know if…you know, it’s not necessarily to tell people out there that you need to go read “The Prince” and that it’ll change your life, although it is a great book. For me, it had the biggest impact, because I thought, “This is how I want to write my books. I want to give it to you straight. You can use it or you can hate it or whatever, but you’ve got, “This is how power works,” “This is how seduction works.” So he is, like, the spirit that has most influenced me in…of all the books that I’ve read.
Nathan: Awesome. All right, look…yeah, like I said, we have to work towards wrapping up. I just wanted to say, it’s been an absolute pleasure, man. I’ve really, really enjoyed speaking with you. I feel really blessed to get an hour of your time. Do you have any final parting words to finish off this interview? Was there any questions that you wanted me to ask you that I didn’t ask you that you’d like to answer, or…?
Robert: Well, there’s so many things that it’s hard to get it all in. But one thing I try to impress on it is, the word “master” and “mastery” can be a little bit intimidating, like, “Well, I just want to be kind of good that what I’m doing,” or, “I could never get there.” And I wanted to try and get away from this sort of intimidating notion. I do…I interviewed contemporary masters who aren’t so Augustus, da Vinci or etc. But really, the thing to keep in mind is, it’s eminently attainable by anybody and it’s actually really fun.
People think of the 10,000 hours, the 20,000 hours that I’m talking about and go, “Oh, man. I don’t want to put…I want to have fun. I don’t want to be spending my life learning things and repeating and etc.” But what I’m trying to say in the book is, is your scale of fun and pleasure just having fun in the moment and going to a movie and just sort of playing around? Which has…believe me, I have nothing against that and I do a fair share, myself. Or, is your sense of pleasure a larger feeling of fulfillment, like, “Wow, I’ve spent five years building this company. And now, it’s successful and now, I can sell it and now, I can…?”
That feeling that you have from building something and the process of getting there, it’s exciting and fun. Of course, you know, there’s boredom and there’s setbacks. But it’s much better, is a much better pleasure, than just playin video games. So a, it’s eminently attainable by anybody if you go through the process, which is the point of the book. But b, it leads to something that’s a lot more fulfilling and it’s not just the sort of boring, 10,000-hour trudge through my youth, spent learning something. It’s actually really almost the most exciting adventure you can be on. So I believe that’s the last point I’d put.
Nathan: That was awesome. Love it. Well, look, Robert, we have to wrap things up. But yeah, look, thanks for your time, man. I really appreciate it.
Robert: My pleasure.
Key Resources from the Podcast with Robert Greene
- Learn about Robert Greene’s The Art of Seduction Book
- Discover and explore Robert’s bestselling book Mastery
- Explore more The 48 Laws Of Power a
- Learn about his favorite book The Prince
- Follow Robert Greene on Twitter