Nobody succeeds by chance. Look around you. Even the most honest, intelligent, friendliest, and courageous individuals can fail miserably in their life. While the despicable, the ugly, and the cowardly can be highly successful. Coincidence? Perhaps. But it is not enough. To succeed, we must first be ambitious and have proper goals. These primordial forces will push us to discipline and motivate ourselves. And that's not all: we must also know how to apply some basic principles that humans have been exposed to since the early stages of civilization.
Here's one of them: "to succeed, always satisfy the expectations of the one you want to get something from" (for example, your employer or client). Using the human mind's weaknesses (his need to be beloved, recognized, and valued), we are most likely to seduce, impress and conquer.
Cynical? Evil? No, just realistic. Just look around you. Look at how the business or corporate world works. Despite the fine speeches about equality and inclusivity, the game remains the same. It's a never-ending battlefield dominated by fierce competition in which the rules are not always fair.
You don't want to succeed by paying that price? Fair enough. But be sure that even if you do not, some will, and you better be aware of these techniques rather than living in willful ignorance.
In this article, I summarize each critical skill taught by classical works of literature so you can learn from them. In any case, nothing prevents you from reading these texts yourself, often unknown by the general public and yet fundamental.
As we learn how to defeat, we also learn how to resist. Those are the rules of the game. But unfortunately, most people fail because they simply don't understand human nature and how the world works. And in a society filled with sharks obsessed with power, this is also how we can thrive and manage to reach our highest potential.
I. Communication, the art of seduction
The art of convincing others bases itself on immemorial techniques—a never-ending game of influence. Of course, we can tweak it and improve it. But at what point does it stop becoming an art to become a mere tool for manipulation?
Mankind has always needed to persuade and convince. From Instagram influencers to Crypto scammers, this is something that we can experience regularly in our daily life. Of course, convincing is not constantly manipulating. But there is always a little manipulation in the art of persuasion. Politics and marketing are good examples of this.
Through charisma, eloquence, and cunning abilities, a good speaker can shake an assembly or awaken a crowd from its torpor by channeling their emotions.
Of course, many will say that these benefits are innate. Just look at Alexander the Great or Napoleon; they didn't need advice from a consultant to know how to win a battle or motivate their troops. That's right: they were good, exceptionally gifted even. But they also took lessons. Alexander the Great from Aristotle, the greatest expert in the art of speech (rhetoric); Napoleon, from the previous two.
Rightly or wrongly, people have always sought advice deemed wise to improve themselves. The market for self-improvement has never been so flourishing. This type of work is sometimes sold in thousands of copies. But the countless books on «How to become a millionaire» that clutter the shelves of booksellers more than often only shamelessly repeat two thousand years old writing.
So the fundamental question remains: how to communicate effectively?
Rhetoric: how to win with words
Born to resolve conflicts by words rather than weapons, rhetoric is a sophisticated art of combat that has imposed itself on everyone, including politicians, philosophers, and even salesmen.
Introduced in 427 B.C. in Athens, rhetoric was conceived as a technique for training winners in a peaceful arena. Through words, a qualified individual can form his judgment thanks to reflection and logos (reason or wise words). Back then, rhetoric was exercised in the context of Athenian democracy, where citizens could express themselves by offering their personal views on the good governance of the state.
The mastery of public speaking and writing has, thus, always been an essential skill to play an important role in society.
Persuasion (peithô) is the core principle of the rhetorical process. And being able to persuade is, above all, being able to seduce. «To instruct, to please, and to stir» is the triad defining the speaker's mission in Greece and later in Rome.
Because it is a matter of persuading the crowd, and the latter is not a rational being, it is necessary to play on the shared values and interests, on what is called the doxa, the opinion. The public must recognize itself in the one who speaks to be able to listen and approve it.
According to Aristotle, rhetoric involves three means of persuasion:
1. Knowing how to speak (your style: monologue, dialogue, etc.)
2. Understanding the audience (who are they? what do they want?)
3. Convincing through your character (charisma).
The speech must begin with a call to benevolence from the listeners (the "hook"). Then at the end, with a call to pity or passion. The qualified speaker thus plays on emotions (pathos). At the same time, he seeks to build a character (ethos), which means to give himself an image of credibility by using his competence or moral qualities. It consists of embodying an authority figure that will earn the listeners' support, even if there is nothing to guarantee his sincerity.
These techniques will be refined and generalized, first to politics and advertising, then to human relations in companies. The era of crowds is an era of slogans, which are pure and simple affirmations, concise and repeated. People want concrete examples and arguments based on generalities and current trends.
This problematic, Alexis de Tocqueville exposed it very well in his study: On Democracy in America. He pointed out how citizens enthusiastically rallied behind simplistic and demagogic discourses:
«Generally speaking, only simple conceptions can grip the mind of a nation. An idea that is clear and precise even though false will always have greater power in the world than an idea that is true but complex.»
In his essay Rhetoric, Aristotle describes mainly:
- The passions but also the expectations of the listeners (how to live better lives).
- How to organize a speech (1. Hook; 2. Premise; 3. Outcome; 4. Moral).
- The proper style to adopt (clarity).
- How to grip an audience's attention by using metaphors and anecdotes.
So, when we talk about success, most influencers generally talk exclusively about the wealthiest and best-known CEOs of the day (Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos) to sell their newest self-help book about the Top 10 most efficient routines practiced by billionaires. This is also how YouTubers can easily get consumers' attention and desires by selling productivity courses promoting cold showers and meditation.
Courtesy: learning to be loved by others
Once we know how to express ourselves correctly and formulate ideas that can conquer an audience, we can also use communication as a skill to build solid and meaningful relationships with those around us.
Being a good communicator also means having leadership abilities, team spirit, negotiation skills, and empathy because as social animals and no matter what, no one can succeed alone. We continually evolve within a social hierarchy.
The lessons offered to us by the various experts in the art of communication all have common ideas :
- The first rule, seen previously, is to put yourself at the level of your interlocutor and to understand their expectations.
- The second one is to be kind. It is the basis of politics. It is also the intangible rule of the courtesan because humans prefer the sweet to the bitter—the lie to the truth.
Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century French philosopher who wrote The Art of Persuasion, was convinced that in order to change someone else's mind, one must first understand human nature and its limitations. Because we are sensitive beings dominated by impulses and emotions, we are then naturally conquered by outbursts of kindness.
Published in 1936 and sold several millions of copies, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie is the first best-seller in the self-improvement genre. His number one piece of advice :
- Take time to listen to others and try to make new friends: empathy and influence are the two sides of the same coin.
«Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, people don't criticize themselves for anything, no matter how wrong it may be.»
For Carnegie, the best way to counter this defect is to deal with it by accepting it. There is no point in over-criticizing colleagues, employees, friends, or relatives other than taking the risk of escalating the situation.
Above all, anyone looking for success must first change his attitude.
According to him, this is the key to motivating our entourage and growing our network. But, likewise, nothing can replace a smile and the genuine ability to care about other people to make a good impression.
Stay positive. Your vibe is essential to creating connections. Having a good outlook on life and giving it back to people is our most precious gift.
II. Embrace the "Reality Principle"
Both self-awareness and critical thinking are necessary to acknowledge the complexity of reality. The first revolves around understanding ourselves well enough to determine our strengths and limitations.
On the other hand, critical thinking is about creating our personal judgment based on observations and knowledge. Essentially, it is about questioning and challenging our world's perceptions.
The psychological freedom given by these two skills allows us to experience a life where we consciously choose how to improve ourselves. Instead of ruminating in self-pity, we exercise our autonomy to pursue a better life. The journey toward personal growth is thus possible by committing ourselves to the pursuit of excellence in any self-chosen field, which is the most fulfilling path possible.
Sadly, this ability is lacking by most people today: addictions, compulsions, and other self-sabotaging behaviors are now the norm.
It has become more and more common in western culture to see people put off maturity and responsibilities without suffering immediate penalties thanks to external assistance. But all it does is delay the inevitable.
Many young people lack the guidance to show them the way to maturity. As individuals stuck in a prolonged state of dependence, they remain within the unwilful ignorance of infancy.
Because they were not taught how to embrace struggle and become self-reliant, many are consumed by lethargy, the desire to escape reality and danger by seeking comfort and leisure at all costs.
They are succumbing to what Sigmund Freud called the Pleasure Principle, which is the child's instinct to seek pleasure and avoid suffering, thus satisfying our subconscious biological and psychological needs. The immature adult focusing sorely on its pervasive addiction to pleasures is then victim to what Carl Jung called the Spirit of Regression, reducing individuals to a state of permanent stagnation.
By succumbing to the Spirit of Regression, we adopt lifestyles preventing us from reaching our highest potential. Video games, Netflix binge-watching, and social media scrolling are all examples of the adoption of lifestyles centered exclusively around the avoidance of struggle and suffering. But paradoxically, this brings people to suffer symptoms of psychological decay. As Eric Neumann pointed out:
«Regressions of this sort… give rise not only to typical anxiety neuroses and phobia but also, and especially to addictions and, if the ego is extensively destroyed, to psychoses.»
To free oneself from the Spirit of Regression and move towards adulthood, we must cultivate a heroic attitude toward life:
You need to be at war. You need to act like a warrior. You need to be terrified of wasting your life. Life rewards you according to the energy you give. If you go through life with a warrior's courage and discipline, life will treat you like one.
That approach is a requirement for anyone looking for success.
There is a sacrificial element in maturation because we must sacrifice the pluri-potentiality and comfort of childhood to acquire a lifelong purpose. It is what Freud called the Reality Principle. It is the ability to assess the world's reality and act upon it accordingly by sacrificing immediate gratification and replacing it with delayed gratification.
The ability to focus, time management, and organization are some of the most important skills for optimizing our potential. To gain excellence in any given field, we must be able to exert a single-mindedness in the cultivation of our skills and the performance of our work.
Unfortunately, our mobile devices are inhibiting our ability to focus. Constant notifications, along with an endless supply of mindless distractions, are turning minds capable of producing some of the most outstanding work into minds that can barely focus for more than five minutes.
However, being able to focus can be trained like any muscle. To do this, we must devote consistent daily work sessions and practice in a distraction-free environment. What matters is to start, so a session of 15 minutes per day should do in the beginning. Then, over time works up to 60 or 90 minutes per day into your side hustle, project, or art.
As we devote time and effort to practicing our skills and performing our work, we will progressively feel the benefits provided by delayed gratification in order to attain excellence.
It is the price to pay to get the results we want!
«Boredom, passivity, stagnation: these are the beginning of a mental illness, which propagates itself like the scum on a stagnant pond.» ~ Colin Wilson, New pathways in Psychology.
In his book "New pathways in Psychology," Colin Wilson shows how passivity and mental illness are closely intertwined. To face this reality, we are confronted with the two following options:
1. Waste our life on mindless entertainment. Give up and let our untapped potential untouched.
2. Strive to spend most of our free time creating, exploring, and learning, to challenge our capacities and improve our talents.
While most will dedicate their entire life to fit with the mediocre herd, a minority will devote themselves to uncommon skills, produce works of the highest quality, or choose the path to the pursuit of excellence and greatness.
Here lies the Reality Principle that anyone looking for success must embrace.
III. Acknowledge "The Will to Power"
"The Will to Power" is endlessly seductive. No one can deny this. For better or worse, power can have different meanings to many people, but what is certain is that whether we want to admit it or not, we all desire power. You may give someone every enjoyment possible on this earth, and it still won't be enough. The attainment of power and how we manage to satiate this need will dramatically influence the course and quality of our life.
Power is usually deemed a corruptive force that can awaken the human psyche's worst side. Yet, it is undeniably a primordial part of our nature. Every organism on this planet has the desire to expand itself for its survival.
«Every animal. .instinctively strives for an optimum of favorable conditions under which it can expend all its strength and achieve its maximal feeling of power; every animal abhors, just instinctively . . . every kind of intrusion or hindrance that obstructs or could obstruct this path to the optimum of power.»
~ Nietzche, On the Genealogy of Morals.
Human beings have this innate propensity to expand beyond their limits. It is what drives us to reach our highest potential. We all want to feel that we have the ability to influence our community, that we can choose our careers and ultimately gain greater control over our destiny.
Influence over other people may be immoral in most cases. Unfortunately, history books are filled with examples of individuals ready to use force, coercion, and manipulation to impose their domination. But the power to influence others can also be positive in multiple ways, such as through an appeal to truth, and beauty, by guiding others to excellence, or even by making allies fighting toward the same purpose.
The feeling of powerlessness, of impotence over our surroundings that make us feel like we were some kind of domesticated creatures, is deeply unsettling to the human species. This powerlessness that plagues our lives causes all kinds of negative behaviors such as passive aggression, self-harm, and depression.
The capacity to express power promotes survival in a world full of internal and external threats. It gives us a life worth living by empowering us against suffering and boredom. For Carl Jung, it is the ultimate antidote to "the eternal experience and the eternal problem of mankind", namely "our greatest weakness"; thus, power is necessary if we want to flourish. Without power, we stagnate. With it, we venture out into the world to actively pursue happiness and fulfillment.
We live in a society where the popular culture denies this fact entirely and puts up against it by implementing codes of conduct that have gotten stricter about what is acceptable and what is politically correct. According to mainstream media, we are all supposed to be these «paragons of virtue», these «paragons of fairness», while in the real world, everyone is trying to obtain various degrees of power and success, whatever the costs may be.
It then creates a strange dynamic where we must always be cautious and hypocritical towards each other. The social world is dominated by deceptions that very few can grasp. To varying degrees, we must hide our true thoughts and intentions to adapt ourselves to the social situation we face for fear of being rejected or ostracized.
By over-adapting to what society dictates us to be, we might repress the negative elements of our personality, but also the positive and life-promoting characteristics brought by our "Will to Power". And because we subdued so much of these facets of our personality, we are made tame, obedient, predictable, and fakely likable at the cost of our vitality and authenticity.
In other words, our lives could be summarized by:
"Do what you're told. What you think doesn't matter. Be just smart enough to fill the paperwork, and certainly don't try to go further than that. Eat. Work. Consume. Repeat. Die!"
In his book The Art of Seduction, Robert Greene writes:
«Everyone wears a mask in society; we pretend to be more sure of ourselves than we are. We do not want other people to glimpse that doubting self within us. In truth, our egos and personalities are much more fragile than they appear to be; these masks cover up feelings of confusion and emptiness… you must never mistake a person's appearance for the reality.»
~ Robert Greene, The Art of Seduction
Anyone looking for success must learn to ascertain what lies beyond the masks that others wear. With this knowledge, you will be able to understand what makes people tick, and upon what their self-worth rests.
Observing people makes our "psychological sharp sightedness" more acute. So, naturally, it becomes easier to see beyond the facades of wealth and status. Rather than falling for those who proudly strut with status symbols, we recognize that despite their power, they are all-too-human with just as many flaws, weaknesses, and doubts as we do.
However, if being able to pierce the masks others wear is essential, becoming powerful necessitates gaining self-awareness over the mask we unconsciously wear. And by being cognizant of its existence, we can sculpt it as we see fit according to our goals and values.
Or, as Robert Greene puts it:
«The world wants to assign you a role in life. And once you accept that role you are doomed. Your power is limited to the tiny amount allotted to the role you have selected or have been forced to assume. Do not accept the roles that society foists on you. Re-create yourself by forging a new identity, one that commands attention…your power will be enhanced and your character will seem larger than life.»
~ Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power.
In becoming aware of our shortcomings and aspirations through introspection and reflection, we can shape a new persona according to our true selves instead of wearing the mask imposed by the social world.
By breaking the mask of social conformity, we carry ourselves with grace and dignity and gain self-assurance and self-validation. At the same time, this helps prevent other people from manipulating and sabotaging us. For power is not only the capacity to bring change but also to prevent it when needed.
Once we realize that, we will likely ascertain how much hypocrisy, complacency, and cowardice embody most social norms we blindly obey. In response to this realization, we can start reconnecting with the parts of our personality we denied and repressed for too long.
The Integration of the Shadow
Carl Jung referred to these parts of our personality as our "unconscious shadow side": all the elements deemed evil or immoral by society, like anger and untamed animal impulses.
Obviously, acknowledging our "Will to Power", our darkest side, and challenging our sense of morality does not mean we should hurt, exploit or dominate people with malevolence. But, of discovering what our shadow side consists of, so we can unlock our true potential. For it is only by understanding the extent of human evil and what lies in the depths of the Abyss that we can undertake the path to a greater character, to a more fulfilling approach to life.
In other words, we must undergo the process toward the "Integration of the Shadow":
«...if he is to grow up, it is not merely unavoidable but actually essential that the individual should do and assimilate a certain amount of evil, and that he should be able to overcome the conflicts involved in this process. The achievement of independence involves the capacity of the ego not only to adopt the values of the collective but also to secure the fulfillment of those needs of the individual which run counter to collective values – and this entails doing evil.»
~Eric Neumann, Depth Psychology and a New Ethic.
Integrating our shadow allows us to become more grounded, more secure in our skin, more independent in our moral judgment, braver, and self-reliant. In short, we become more rounded individuals.
One characteristic of our shadow self we desperately need to integrate is our aggression. Modern society typically sees aggression sorely as the expression of toxic and destructive behaviors. But it fails miserably to recognize the existence of a positive and healthy form of aggression. Typically the vital force that fuels our sense of self-preservation and competitiveness. The one that drives our ambitions and pushes us to explore and excel.
Anger and aggressiveness can give you discipline and motivation to reach your goals. In addition, anger suppresses fear that would otherwise freeze you. As Carl Young explained, anger contains a lot of energy and power to fuel your creativity and work. If you use it wisely, you can create discipline out of it. Sit down and focus! That's where it begins.
Many aspiring entrepreneurs or creatives are pathological thinkers who tend to overthink until they paralyze themselves into inaction.
In order to act, we need to employ our feelings of discontent. By being insatiable in our desires, we always want to achieve more, create more, and conquer more.
Sigmund Freud described this as Sublimation: the redirection of our primal impulses toward creation.
The acknowledgment of "The Will to Power" through the integration of our shadow is a fundamental process for whoever is willing to obtain success. Only a self-aware individual mastering his impulses can work on becoming more decisive and assertive on his decisions, more disciplined and consistent towards his goals. And in the end, more confident and inclined to stand his ground while facing stressful situations.
IV. Efficiency over Virtue
"Nice guys, finish last." Everyone knows the saying. Although applied mainly for relationships and dating, it can also apply to almost every aspect of life. Being nice may well be a virtue, but what any ambitious people looking for success need is effectiveness, which may call upon some darker arts.
Once we understand this essential requirement, we stand to be far less disappointed and more precise about what we want in our career or entrepreneurial endeavor.
In his book The Prince (1513), Niccolò Machiavelli intended to address the central problem of politics, or any other position of power: It is almost impossible to be both a "good" politician/leader and a good person in a traditional Christian sense.
The Prince is not a theoretical study but a practical manual meant to advise any aspiring ruler wishing to conquer and preserve power. Hence the fundamental characteristic of the text is its realism. Indeed, Machiavelli does not intend to describe how mankind should be, but instead from what he is; or to put it in his own words, «the actual truth of the matter, and not to the imaginations we make of it».
While there are certainly many elements of what Machiavelli had said that are not pertinent to our modern life, many aspects of his principles apply to entrepreneurship, creative endeavor, and business. Because of the power plays that are still relevant today, we can retain four lessons to learn from:
1) The world is not always a meritocracy.
Think about all the artists who aren't that talented, who have had outstanding careers, or people in your corporate organization who have risen to power, to higher levels, who did not always seem to be the most qualified.
The world is not necessarily a meritocracy.
Having merit is undoubtedly a great asset, but talent is only one facet of success, and many other elements are at play. Unfortunately, if you don't understand this, you might get left behind.
As inequalities widen further, the very idea of meritocracy is usually under assault. In the absence of the meritocratic ethos, in the belief in productive competence, nepotism becomes rampant, and society takes the form of a hereditary aristocracy with the political infighting of a royal court.
When achievements are not determined on performance or merit, it is purely based on partisanship, manipulation, and maneuvering. It then produces a situation in which the worst people rise quickly to high positions of power.
If we can't rely on meritocracy, then we need to focus additionally on our perception.
2) Perception creates reality.
«Men generally judge more by the eye than by the hand, for everyone can see, and few can feel. Everyone sees what you appear to be. Few really know what you are.»
~Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince.
The first impression is, more often than not, the one that genuinely matters. People do "judge a book by its cover". The idea of paying attention to how you look and act alongside your competence is paramount for reaching high levels of success. In addition, by advantageously showing yourself in your best shape and form, you can inspire respect and trust in those around you.
As we have already seen, self-awareness is essential to evolving through a social hierarchy. To do so, we must recognize the importance of creating a favorable external image to attract allies and support in every area of our life.
When we consistently cultivate self-care habits such as sports, diet, and hygiene, we become "better than we actually are" in the eyes of the world. And by doing so, we ironically become better because of the positive feedback loop created by these self-care habits and the confidence that comes with it.
3) Do things to be remembered.
In order to progress in any chosen field, you will have to do things that get you noticed. Unfortunately, many people with talent struggle enormously at packaging themselves and their work in a way that favors their marketability. Or, to say it clearly, to be remembered by people who can pull them up above the average crowd.
One of the best measurements of success is rarety. According to the law of supply and demand, the value of an asset often derives from its rarety. When an asset is rare, it means it is difficult to obtain or produce. Thus, anyone setting career or entrepreneurial goals should aim for a big and difficult project. The bigger the goal, the less competition, or as Tim Ferriss puts it:
«It's lonely at the top. Ninety-nine percent of people in the world are convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for mediocre. The level of competition is thus fiercest for 'realistic' goals, paradoxically making them the most time- and energy-consuming… The fishing is best where the fewest go, and the collective insecurity of the world makes it easy for people to hit home runs while everyone else is aiming for base hits. There is just less competition for bigger goals.»
~Tim Ferriss, The Four Hour Work Week.
When we observe the lives of the uncommonly successful, we realize that these people have an incredible ability to do and learn things that most people don't. By doing so, they manage to get noticed and remembered.
4) Choose competence over likeability.
«Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good. Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires.»
~Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince.
History shows that it is not goodness but competence, strength, intelligence, pragmatism, and strategy which command human organizations. Therefore, it would be suicidal to act otherwise by burying our heads in the sand.
In that sense, being an overly good and virtuous person makes you a target. Being too nice in a competitive environment makes you predictable and easily threatened by cruel and corrupt individuals. Again, history and fiction are haunted by examples of the impotence of honorable and virtuous individuals.
If he is to win, a "good prince" must know how to fight, and more importantly, he must know how to inspire respect in those around him. People should neither think he is weak nor easy to disobey. Nor should they find him so cruel that he disgusts them. He should instead seem unapproachably strict but reasonable.
These lessons are vital because they remind us that we can't always be good in every situation. For instance, fields like business may often require some form of ethical trade-off in order to thrive or not get crushed by the competition.
Nobody wants to tell young people what the real world will be like. Your parents don't prepare you for this. Schools don't prepare you for this. Universities certainly don't prepare you for this.
For Machiavelli, this is the price of dealing with the real world as it is instead of how we feel it should be. The Prince is not a guide to becoming a tyrant but a guide for what nice guys should learn from tyrants. In short, it is a book about how to be efficient.
Machiavelli disturbs us for good reasons because he probes us where we are most self-serving. He informs us that we are stuck because we have been too short-sighted to learn from those who know how to win: our enemies.
Suppose we can integrate and organize our life according to these four pillars. Then, we will be on our way to discovering our work and ultimately increase our chance of cultivating a financially lucrative and intrinsically rewarding career.
"Life is a marathon, not a sprint". Yet, we might fear that our past mistakes will predetermine our future. The truth is that we all possess the ability to learn and change. As long as we maintain the right mindset and experience new routines and behaviors, it is still possible for us to redeem ourselves through hard work and perseverance.
We are ultimately the sum of what we achieve, not what we intend. If we care so much about wisdom, kindness, and truth, we should do everything we can to make these virtues triumph.
The aspiring CEOs, activists, or thinkers need weapons of similar grade steel as the slickest and most devious individuals. It is not enough to dream well. The ultimate purpose is to change the world for the better, not reside in the quiet comforts of good intentions and a warm heart.