The big new book on all your flaws and how to turn them around

Underneath the mask.
Underneath the mask.
Image: Reuters/, February 10, 2018. REUTERS/David Mercado
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Sometimes it seems like people really suck, to put it bluntly. We struggle with ourselves and others. We don’t handle difficult situations graciously. We’re deceptive, trying to appear generous, nice, and polite to hide mean-spiritedness. And when we aim to please, it’s often out of greed or weakness.

But do not despair. There’s a way to discern your own flaws and what makes others monstrous, learn through observation, and turn it all around so that you’re neither awful nor miserable—and neither a pawn in other people’s schemes nor subject to their weaknesses. With this discernment, argues bestselling writer Robert Greene—best known for his somewhat Machiavellian 2000 book The 48 Laws of Power (pdf)—you can become wiser, find your calling, and pour your energy into making dreams come true, all while improving your relationships.

If that sounds like a tall order, it is. Which is why Greene’s new book is big. In The Laws of Human Nature, published on Oct. 23, Greene provides 588 pages on 48 aspects of humanity through the lens of history, philosophy, psychology, and wisdom to explain how people behave. He argues that, as social animals, it is essential to understand our own motivations and those of our associates in order to function more effectively. And he tells the tales of cultural heroes and demons throughout time to show how their tendencies were used positively or negatively, or both. 

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Truth be told, it’s a slightly painful read, and not just because it’s a long book. The writing is engaging and the ideas are fascinating, but it’s hard not to feel a little bad when you’re faced with such an incisive examination of human nature. You will see yourself in this tome many times over, and if you’re following Greene’s instructions to be honest with yourself, to assess who you are, it can be a damning experience and slightly disheartening in parts.

For example, take these chapter headings: See Through People’s Masks, Get to Know Your Dark Side, Beware the Fragile Ego, Make Them Want to Follow You, Become an Elusive Object of Desire. It’s not all pretty stuff. Basically, it’s a guide to observing the workings of your personality so that you aren’t a prisoner to psychological habits and weakness. It provides insight on the ways others are manipulating you and advice so that you can harness your powers and become more socially intelligent.

As such, it can all feel a bit creepy and not very sweet. And that’s what Greene is known for. His previous books, The Art of Seduction and The 48 Laws of Power, are widely read by prisoners and businesspeople alike and provides all kinds of useful but unseemly advice like “never outshine the master,” counsel that recognizes the fragility of the egos of even the most charismatic and seemingly confident leaders. In fact, these books are banned in Utah state prison because they are all about manipulation.   

The author argues that his latest work is a little different, however. As Greene puts it in a statement, “The 48 Laws of Power advocates a strategic approach to life and teaches you to better defend yourself against the sharks out there. The new book requires some similar skills, but it goes much more deeply into the psychology behind people’s behavior… It gives you a more profound understanding of people’s motivations, including your own.” 

The idea is that by understanding what drives us we can not only learn to thrive but to be better people who are easier for others to deal with. Still, seeing through our illusions and masks is not a pleasant task. On the upside, Greene also offers hope. The author argues that through observation, by becoming aware of our deepest secrets, we can master our natures. Every characteristic can be channeled into positive outcomes, and Greene urges readers to see more clearly, or “develop third eye vision” as he puts it, so that we can be more creative, empathetic, and friendly.

Dig in, dig deep, see

Although this is an occasionally painful read, it’s worth your time (in my experience, to read it straight through requires an entire weekend) because we could all use the insights Greene provides and it puts our lives in context. Greene shows that though much has changed throughout history, people have remained fundamentally the same, for better or worse.

We’re not more warlike than in the past, not sweeter or more nasty. And each of us is the beneficiary of the advancements that great humans imagined and executed historically because they had channeled their natures into creativity, whether scientific, artistic, political, or otherwise.

Greene makes ancient Greeks and and queens of yore relatable, turns revered novelists like Anton Chekhov and Flannery O’Connor into just people dealing with their psychology, and reminds us that business giants like John D. Rockefeller weren’t just market geniuses but wounded humans driven by a relentless aggression borne of childhood pains. He shows that heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. had to find their greatness and struggle against parental expectations, that our edginess can be our strength, as in the case of Malcolm X. 

The author’s portrayal of historical and contemporary figures is illuminating and wide-ranging and decidedly not sexist. We get to know what motivated Coco Chanel, a poor girl educated by nuns who went from unremarkable courtesan to someone who ran a fashion empire that persists today. We meet the 15th-century Italian noblewoman Caterina Sforza, born out of wedlock but adored by her stepmother and father alike, who was a political mastermind undeterred by gender stereotypes. She courageously challenged any man who wanted to battle her even when she was pregnant, wearing a sword over her super stylish maternity dress. Greene explains how Warren Buffett perfectly blends classically masculine and feminine approaches to analysis and how this fluidity is the key to his investments’ success. 

Indeed, the writer points out that each of us needs to get in touch with our masculine and feminine sides. We are oppressed by expectations to conform to certain norms that do not entirely suit us and which prevent us from blooming into complete humans. And though Greene’s book is full of insights on our less admirable aspects—our desire for power (whether suppressed or expressed), our sense of superiority (and its twin evil, the fear we may be inferior), our tendencies to adopt a group’s point of view (rather than thinking independently)—he also offers specific advice on how to get better. We can make these negative tendencies into the stuff of creativity, to improve ourselves, our relationships, and the world. 

No human exists in a vacuum—we are shaped by our relationships. Greene argues that by getting to know human nature, we are not just learning how to advance socially for personal gain but also developing emotional intelligence that helps everyone. Ultimately, he believes, if we can see people more clearly, we can also accept them for who they are and become more adept at relating, making interactions less painful for all. “We are social animals, gifted with remarkable powers to take other people’s perspective,” he explains. “Developing social intelligence in general should make you a much better person to be around, a better leader, a more tolerant member of the group. This does not preclude being aware of your uniqueness and your calling in life.” 

Greene acknowledges what is good and evil in the human spirit, but he assigns our characteristics no ultimate value. Ultimately, he says, we are all formed by the conditions of our birth and all live in the shadow of our fear of death. But if we face facts and learn to act on what we observe, we can make greatness out of flaws. In all, it’s a hopeful book that advocates freedom and creativity. In Greene’s words, “[O]nce we experience some of this freedom, we will want to explore further and expand our possibilities as far as time will allow us.”