Why Reading ‘The 48 Laws of Power’ Is a Huge Waste of Time

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book being tossed into toilet

Goodreads rating: 4.15 Stars.

Over 1.2 million copies sold in the US alone.

Recommended by Will Smith, Kanye West, and Michael Jackson.

I desperately searched for a silver lining in The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene.

Unfortunately, though, I hated every second of reading this treasure map to hell. I can’t tell you how many times I buried my face in my palms or rolled my eyes so hard I could glimpse inside my skull.

If someone told me they wanted to live their life according to this book, I’d never want to be friends, do business, or even be in touch with that person. Because I don’t see any reality in which this repelling pamphlet actually makes you a better human being.

Here’s why The 48 Laws of Power is a grossly overrated book.

What’s ‘The 48 Laws of Power’ About?

The title delivers on its promise. In the book, you’ll read about 48 power dynamics you can use — and abuse — to get ahead in life. (This has its price as we’ll see shortly.)

Each chapter provides an overview of the law and then explores historical violations, applications, and reversals. Plus, there is some neat typesetting throughout the chapters.

And sadly, that’s about everything good I can say about this book.

If you hold a copy in your hand, you’ll notice its heftiness. It feels like you’re holding the complete encyclopedia of humankind. But when you actually slice and dice your way through the nearly 500 pages, you’ll be disappointed. The stories repeat themselves. The chapters are unnecessarily long. It’s a puffed-up bible for psychopaths.

This is deeply comical: The book is trying to appear powerful by presenting itself as heavy and valuable to cover up for the fluff inside.

Speaking of fluff — let’s look at some of the laws.

Law 1: A Mild Beginning That Escalates Quickly

Law 1 reads, “Never outshine the master.”

Okay, that’s not too bad, right? Build a pretentious relationship with your superiors, make them feel special, and don’t reveal your entire potential. Not my jam — but fair enough.

A few pages later, however, the book completely lost me. When I read the following passage — the reversal of the first Law — my frown imprinted permanent wrinkles on my forehead.

“… you must be selectively cruel. If your superior is a falling star, there is nothing to fear from outshining him. Do not be merciful — your master had no such scruples in his own cold-blooded climb to the top … If he is weak, discreetly hasten his downfall.”

The density of cynicism in this passage is uncanny. It’s one thing to assume your superior ruthlessly slaughtered his way to the top. But advising to capitalize on people’s weaknesses is a whole new level of indecency.

Honest career relationships build on trust. Any capable leader should have the integrity to appreciate employees outperforming him.

Oh, but this is only the beginning.

Law 2–4: How to Build Toxic Relationships

The following chapters frame relationships as something to be abused instead of something to be cherished.

  • Law 2: Never put too much trust in friends, learn how to use enemies.
  • Law 3: Conceal your intentions.
  • Law 4: Always say less than necessary.

The reversal of Law 2 suggests that friends make “convenient scapegoats” if things get hairy. According to Greene, this works so well because others won’t consider that you’d sacrifice your loved ones for gaining power.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Law 3 explains you should never reveal your real goals — instead, you should deceive people with fake dreams and desires. The author goes on to describe honesty as a “blunt instrument, which bloodies more than it cuts.” Thus, we should “lay honesty aside” and “conceal our intentions.”

Sure, this might satisfy your soulless quest for power in the short term. But if friendship, loyalty, and trust mean anything to you, you couldn’t go more wrong with this. Why? Because meaningful friendships only prosper if both parties reveal vulnerable truths about themselves. Psychology calls this concept self-disclosure.

Apparently, it doesn’t apply if you’re a power-hungry maniac.

Law 4 claims you should remain as silent as possible to appear more mysterious — and to prevent saying something foolish. In other words, pretend you’re not a flawed human being like everyone else and lie your way to the top. What a brilliant strategy.

From this point on, it’s a downward spiral of narcissism, greed, and lies.

A Guide to Unhappiness: The 7 Most Bizarre Laws

It would be redundant to list every law in detail. But I want to include the greatest hits — the laws that made me cringe and slouch in my seat.

Law 7: Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit

At this point, I actually thought I was reading humor.

“Find people with the skills and creativity you lack. Either hire them, while putting your own name on top of theirs, or find a way to take their work and make it your own. Their creativity becomes yours, and you seem a genius to the world.”

This is not only narcissistic but also an encouragement for plagiarism.

Law 14: Pose as a friend, work as a spy

Great, now we learn to manipulate people. Secretly trick others into believing you value them as friends but ignore their feelings and use them to get ahead in life.

Conversely, you should distrust others and suspect them as spies. To gain the upper hand, deceive them with lies. Use misinformation as a smokescreen.

These tactics might work in war. But not if you want to build long-lasting relationships — and certainly not if you’re aspiring to become a happy human being.

Law 15: Crush your enemy totally

“The idea is simple: Your enemies wish you ill … The solution: Have no mercy. Crush your enemies as totally as they would crush you. Ultimately the only peace and security you can hope from your enemies is their disappearance.”

LOL.

The world we live in already provides plenty of cruelties and inequalities. But here we find a radical argument against mercy and compassion. Is that really what we need?

No one deserves to be crushed totally. Not even your worst enemy.

Law 26: Keep your hands clean.

In this chapter, Greene expands on the idea that you should use innocent victims as your scapegoat (bonus points if they’re close and intimate friends).

Quick reminder: The very same idea wrongfully accused and killed millions of people throughout history.

To be fair, Greene admits that scapegoats must be used with “extreme caution and delicacy.” But that’s not enough. Scapegoating should never be an option.

There’s only one way to deal with mistakes: Admit them, accept the consequences, and learn from them.

Law 27: Play on people’s need to believe to create a cult-like following

Here’s another chapter that only narcissists or deeply sarcastic people could write. Greene argues in the opening paragraph:

“Keep your words vague but full of promise; emphasize enthusiasm over rationality and clear thinking.”

Yeah… who needs logic anyway?

A few pages further, we find the complete guide to creating a cult in five easy steps. So, in case you were ever interested in pursuing a career as a charlatan, here’s how:

  1. Keep it vague; keep it simple.
  2. Emphasize the visual and the sensual over the intellectual.
  3. Borrow the forms of organized religion to structure the group.
  4. Disguise your source of income.
  5. Set up an us-versus-them dynamic.

And there you have it — the deeply immoral manual to mustering your very own version of the Illuminati and becoming a psychopath along the way.

Law 30: Make your accomplishments seem effortless

This law is exactly what’s wrong with modern success culture and hustle porn. The people preaching this law create a vicious cycle of false promises, clickbait headlines, and disregard of privilege.

Paradoxically, being honest is so much easier. People crave authenticity. Lies don’t travel far.

I don’t know about you, but I’d always prefer the brutal truth about success over the if-I-can-make-it-you-can-too spiel.

Law 33: Discover each man’s thumbscrew

If anything else that came before wasn’t enough, this law puts the cherry on top.

The chapter teaches you to manipulate people to gain the upper hand. How? Act like you’re interested in others to find out their insecurities. Tell them intentional lies about yourself to bait a weakness. Exploit flaws from childhood. Stab people in the back.

These wicked tactics are discussed over dozens of pages while the risks are squeezed into one paragraph. Immoralities are rarely mentioned. Seems balanced.

Defending The 48 Laws of Power Is Hopeless

If I had to summarize this book in one sentence, it would be, “Trust no one, because the sole meaning of life is to be powerful, so screw over as many people as possible and try to save your own skin.”

And yet, I see people defending the book — or even praising it as morally valuable — because it teaches you to detect and avoid abusive behaviors. And I see that. I would even agree with that if it wasn’t for the obvious flaw that the entire book is framed as a how-to guide. It’s an actionable step-by-step manual to get rid of your morals for good.

What’s worse, the book is marketed as self-help content.

In reality, it’s more like self-hate content.

If you actually implemented the practices from this book you’d end up with no real friends, no dating life, no genuine happiness, no passion projects. What you’ll end up with is pretentious power engraved into fake commitments and toxic relationships.

Let me suggest a more fitting title: How to Abuse Friends and Exploit People.

Two Better Alternatives

If you want to learn how to build wholesome relationships based on trust, commitment, and loyalty, I recommend these two books:

  • The School of Life: An Emotional Education by The School of Life
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Go ahead and read The 48 Laws of Power if you want to have a sarcastic laugh or understand how psychopaths think. Otherwise, you can shamelessly banish it from your reading list. It’s a huge waste of time.

(All quotes from The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene.)