After the publication of my first book “The 48 laws of power,” I began to receive requests for advice from people in every conceivable profession and at every level of experience. Over the years, I have now personally consulted with over 100 different people. In so many of the cases, the following scenario would play itself out. They would come to me with a specific problem, a boss from hell, a business relationship that had turned ugly, a promotion that never came. I would slowly direct their attention away from the boss and the job, and instead get them to search inside themselves and try to find the emotional root of their discontent. Often, as we talked it out, they would realize that at their core, they felt deeply frustrated – their creativity was not being realized, their careers had somehow taken a wrong turn – what they actually wanted was something larger; a real and substantial change in their careers and in their lives.
It would be at this point that I would tell them a story about myself, about my own peculiar path to change and transformation from a highly unsuccessful writer, eking out an existence in a small, one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica, to best-selling author seemingly, overnight. I have never publicly related this story before, but for this special occasion, my first TEDx talk, I thought I would share it with you because it’s actually very relevant to the subject of change.
The story goes like this, I had known since an early age that I wanted to become a writer. I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to write. Perhaps it was novels, or essays, or plays. After university, I drifted into journalism, as a way to, at least, make a living while writing. Then one day, after several years of working as a writer and editor, I was having lunch with a man who had just edited an article I had written for a magazine. After downing his third martini, this editor, an older man, finally admitted to me why he had asked me to lunch, “You should seriously consider a different career,” he told me.
“You are not writer material. Your work is too undisciplined, your style is too bizarre, your ideas are just not relatable to the average reader. Go to law school, Robert, go to business school, spare yourself the pain.” At first, these words were like a punch in the stomach, but in the months to come, I realized something about myself. I had entered a career that just didn’t really suit me, mostly as a way to make a living, and my work reflected this incompatibility. I had to get out of journalism. This realization initiated a period of wandering in my life. I traveled all across Europe, I worked every conceivable job, I did construction work in Greece, taught English in Barcelona, worked as a hotel receptionist in Paris, a tour guide in Dublin, served as a trainee for an English company, making television documentaries, living not far from here in Brixton.
During all of this time, I wrote several novels that never made it past 100 pages, and dozens of essays that I would tear up, and plays that never got produced. I wandered back to Los Angeles, California, where I was born and raised. I worked in a detective agency, among other odd jobs. I entered the film business, working as an assistant to a director, as a researcher, story developer, and screenwriter. In these long years of wandering, I had totaled over 50 different jobs. By the year 1995, my parents – God bless them! – were beginning to get seriously worried about me.
I was 36 years old, and I seemed lost and unable to settle into anything. I too had moments of doubt, but I did not feel lost. I was searching and exploring, I was hungry for experiences, and I was continuously writing. That same year, while in Italy for yet another job, I met a man there, named Joost Elffers, a packager and producer of books. One day, while we were walking along the quays of Venice, Joost asked me if I had any ideas for a book. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, an idea just gushed out of me. It was about power. I told Joost that I was constantly reading books on history, and the stories that I read about Julius Caesar, the Borgias, and Louis XIV, were the exact same stories that I had personally witnessed with my own eyes in all of my different jobs, only less bloody.
(Laughter) People want power, and they want to disguise this wanting of power so they play games. They covertly manipulate and intrigue, all the while presenting a nice, even saintly, front. I would expose these games. I gave him numerous examples of what I meant, and he became increasingly excited. He said I should write a treatment, and if it was good enough, he would pay me to live while I wrote half the book, enough to sell it to a publisher. Suddenly, in writing what would become “The 48 laws of power,” everything in my disjointed past seemed to click into place, like magic, like destiny. All of those various writing experiences – the journalism, the television, the theater, the film – had given me the skills to tell stories and organize my thoughts; all of that reading of history had given me a vast storehouse of ideas that I could draw upon; and my work as a researcher had taught me how to find the perfect anecdote. Even those different, seemingly random jobs had exposed me to every type of psychology and to the dark corners of human psyche.
Even the languages I learned while traveling taught me patience and discipline. All of these experiences added up to rich layers of knowledge and practice that altered me from the inside out. In my own very weird and intuitive way, I had given myself the perfect education for the writing of ” The 48 laws of power.” The book came out in 1998, and it was a success. The course of my life was forever altered. The moral of this story, as I told the people who would come to me for advice, and as I’m telling you now, is the following. We humans tend to fixate on what we can see with our eyes. It is the most animal part of our nature. When we look at the changes and transformations in other people’s lives, we see the good luck that someone had in meeting a person like Joost, with all of the right connections and the funding. We see the book or the project that brings the money and the attention. In other words, we see the visible signs of opportunity and success.
— change in our own lives, but we are grasping at an illusion. What really allows for such dramatic changes are the things that occur on the inside of a person and are completely invisible: the slow accumulation of knowledge and skills, the incremental improvements in work habits, and the ability to withstand criticism. Any change in people’s fortune is merely the visible manifestation of all of that deep preparation over time. By essentially ignoring this internal, invisible aspect, we fail to change anything fundamental within ourselves. And so, in a few years time, we reach our limits yet again, we grow frustrated, we crave change, we grab at something quick and superficial, and we remain prisoners forever of these recurring patterns in our lives. The answer, the key to the ability to transform ourselves is actually insanely simple: to reverse this perspective. Stop fixating on what other people are saying and doing; on the money, the connections, the outward appearance of things. Instead, look inward, focus on the smaller, internal changes that lay the groundwork for a much larger change in fortune.
It is the difference between grasping at an illusion and immersing yourself in reality. Reality is what will liberate and transform you. Here’s how this would work in your own life. Consider the fact that each and every one of you is fundamentally unique – one of a kind; your DNA, the particular configuration of your brain, your life experiences. In early childhood, this uniqueness manifested itself by the fact that you felt particularly drawn to certain subjects and activities – what I call in my book ‘mastery, ‘ primal inclinations.
You cannot rationally explain why you felt so drawn to words, or to music, or to particular questions about the world around you, or to social dynamics. As you get older, you often lose contact with these inclinations. You listen to parents who urge you to follow a particular career path. You listen to teachers and alcoholic magazine editors who tell you what you’re good and bad at. You listen to friends who tell you what’s cool and not cool.
At a certain point, you can almost become a stranger to yourself and so, you enter career paths that are not suited to you emotionally and intellectually. Your life’s task, as I call it, is to return to those inclinations and to that uniqueness that marked each and every one of you at birth. At whatever age you find yourself, you must reflect back upon those earliest inclinations. You must look at those subjects in the present that continued to spark that childlike intense curiosity in you. You must look at those subjects and activities that you’ve been forced to do over the past few years that repel you, that have no emotional resonance.
Based on these reflections, you determine a direction you must take: writing, or music, or a particular branch of science, or a form of business, or public service. You now have a loose overall framework which you can explore and find those angles and positions that suit you best. You listen closely to yourself, to your internal radar. Some parts of that framework – for me. journalism and Hollywood – do not feel right. So you move on, slowly narrowing your path, all the while accumulating skills. Most people want simple, direct, straight line paths to the perfect position and to success, but instead, you must welcome wrong turns and mistakes. They make you aware of your flaws, they widen your experiences, they toughen you up. If you come to this process at a later age, you must cultivate a new set of skills that suit this change in direction you’ll be taking, and find a way to blend them with your previous skills.
Nothing in this process is ever wasted. In any event, the gold that you are after is learning and the acquisition of skills, not a fat paycheck. Look at what happens to you, as you adopt this very different internally-driven mindset. Because you are headed in a direction that resonates with you emotionally and personally, the hours of practice and study do not seem so burdensome. You can sustain your attention and your interest for much longer periods of time. What excites you is the learning process itself, overcoming obstacles, increasing your skill level. You are immersed in the present instead of constantly obsessing over the future, and so, you pay greater attention to the work itself and to the people around you, developing patience and social intelligence. Without forcing the issue, a point is reached in which you are thoroughly prepared from within.
The slightest opportunity that comes your way, you will now exploit. In fact, you will draw opportunities to you because people will sense how prepared you are, which is, I believe, what happened to me with Joost. Some of this might sound a bit mystical, but the results of this process that I’m talking about have been corroborated by recent scientific research. Most notably, the 1995’s study by Anders Ericsson that yielded the very famous 10,000-hour rule. In tracking people who had devoted years of their lives to learning chess or music, Ericsson discovered that somewhere near that magical mark of 10,000 hours of practice, the minds of these people suddenly became much more creative and fluid. The structures of their brains had been altered by all of those hours of practice, and at that 10,000-hour mark, we could see a visible transformation in their performance and creativity. That is a level you will reach naturally and organically if you follow this process far enough. Finally, what I’m proposing to you right now is actually, I think, rather radical, namely, the way to transform yourself is through your work.
I know this runs counter to our prevailing cultural prejudices; work is too ugly, too boring, too banal. Self-transformation, we think, comes through a spiritual journey, therapy, a guru who tells us what to do, intense group experiences, social experiences, and drugs. But most of these are ways of running away from ourselves and relieving our chronic boredom. They’re not connected to process, so any changes that occur don’t last. Instead, through our work, we can actually connect to who we are, instead of running away. By entering that slow, organic process, we can actually change ourselves from the inside out in a way that’s very real and very lasting. This process involves a journey of self-discovery that can be seen as quite spiritual if you like. In the end of this process, we contribute something unique and meaningful to our culture through our work, which is hardly ugly, boring, or banal.
Thank you very much. (Applause).
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