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The 50th Law: a Book Review

Today it’s 6:30 in the morning, west coast time, and I’ve been back from the hospital for a little over 1 hour.  My father had his rosary and was reciting Hail Marys; my inconsolable mother waited anxiously for good news from the doctors; my 36 year old uncle sat shell-shocked, no doubt wondering if this was the day he would lose his father, so soon after having lost his mother, too.  I had a copy of The 50th Law in my pocket when I went into the waiting room and I sat there reading it for hours on end.  I’ve already read this book cover to cover twice; I think it will take a while before I can internalize the very valuable lessons in this book.  I could certainly use them now; particularly chapter 10…

In high school, I made an appointment to see a counselor.  Sensing a profound lack of self-esteem in me, she forced me to write down a list of 5 positive things about myself.  I struggled for 5 minutes thinking of a single answer.  It’s not that I was being modest, or even that I didn’t know.  I knew I had one positive trait, but it’s one that I didn’t want to admit.  I didn’t want to admit that the only good thing I had going for me was my intelligence.  I didn’t want to be a nerd, and all that it implied.

Fear has been my biggest obstacle ever since I can remember.  For me it was the fear of failure.  Not the everyday “I might fall on my face and look like a fool” fear.  I’m talking complete and utter failure as a human being.  Because of an inability to relate to kids my own age, I never developed the kind of social awareness that even the least popular kids seemed to possess.  On the home front I was pressured into getting good grades and not even think about socializing – school was for learning, not for friends.  Because of my lack of social skills growing up I just knew – as a kid – that I would somehow end up homeless and alone.  I just KNEW it.  As a KID.  From that I developed an intense fear of growing up that only stunted my social progress further and made me suffer the lasting consequences to this day.  I scored excellent grades in elementary school but by the time high school came around I hovered in the mid 2.0s.  Suddenly I didn’t even consider myself smart – I was a socially awkward nerd, only without the perks of being smart enough to fund a high-tech start-up that would at least make me insanely rich.

Sure enough, I developed a pattern of fatalistic thinking that still plagues me to this day.  The thing about fearful and negative thinking is the way in which it reinforces itself; little did I know then that I had the power to shape my own reality all along and that I had instead been using that power to sabotage my own success.  The 50th Law confronts the fear that hold us back. It is applied psychology for the fearful mind, disguised as self-help, only it never condescends or treats you with kid gloves.  It has profoundly affected the way I look at my own life.  I was surprised to learn the many ways in which fear manifests itself – I didn’t know I could fear being bored!  But when Robert Greene breaks it down, it makes perfect sense. I now know that the yellow lens of fear is and has always been the most paralyzing force in my life and sadly, in the lives of countless others. This is the book I wish I got for my high school graduation.  Maybe earlier.

Don’t let the fact that 50 Cent gets top billing on the cover fool you into believing that this book was written by some illiterate hoodlum with shiny teeth.  You would be grossly underestimating 50 Cent, a mistake that countless others have made in the past, to their own detriment – just ask Ja Rule.  If you don’t know who Ja Rule is, that’s exactly the point.  The book uses the story of 50 Cent – née Curtis Jackson – to illustrate the lessons in each chapter of the book.  They are lessons that Fiddy had to learn the hard way as a hustler on the street, the tools and tactics he used to make it out alive and rise to the top of the music industry and beyond.  Just like fear manifests itself in many ways, so too does fearlessness.  It manifests itself in 50’s business savvy, his leadership qualities, and even his ability to stage beefs.  In many ways 50 Cent is the idea of “Makaveli” taken to its logical philosophical conclusion – not the passion-driven, at times hedonistic, thug poet embodied by Tupac Shakur, but rather the shrewd, cold and calculating mastermind like the man who inspired him – Niccolo Machiavelli.  If he hadn’t been murdered, Tupac might have become 50 Cent.  Or maybe he always was.

But this isn’t really 50’s book.  This is a Robert Greene book all the way, from the anecdotal stories of historical figures and power players past and present such as 50 Cent, to the neat authoritative analysis of the lessons derived from each story.  With the 50th Law, Greene has identified the key human characteristic on which his other books depend on for their success – the 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, and The 33 Strategies of War – and that element is fearlessness.  The 50th Law is not a companion to these books; it is the spinal cord, the very essence of all his works to date.  For without fearlessness, you can never really apply the laws of power, seduce the fair maiden, or confront your enemies.

This book may challenge deeply held views for many.  For me it was Chapter 5, which raises questions about morality and “reaping the wages of humility”. Jesus’ idea of humility on Earth in exchange for inheriting the kingdom of Heaven always felt right to me, a righteous fulfillment of karma.  I’m not even a religious church-goer, but I always gave Jesus credit for his un-worldly wisdom; Robert Greene’s books, on the other hand, are decidedly “worldly” (Ironic how even the book is designed to look like a Bible, from the leathery cover down to the last gold-trimmed page). I’ve tried to mesh the two world views into a new paradigm that I could feel comfortable with, but I just can’t do it.  Greene’s books at times promote the use of “badness” for our own ends is the antithesis of everything Jesus talked about.  Greene argues that all of us – especially the moralizers – have flexible morals anyway.  Jesus never said we were going to be perfect, but weren’t we at least supposed to TRY?  After 8 years of Bush/Cheney in the White House, certainly the last thing I want to do is embrace the kind of selfish ideals that led to the suffering of others halfway around the world.  I read language like, “push people out of position to get our way” and I think, “what ever happened to ‘turn the other cheek?” I read words like “taking on those who stand against your interests” and remember Condi Rice talking about “protecting our interests in Iraq”; I always knew that was code for “slaughtering civilians for oil and military contracts”.  But Greene preempts my bleeding heart liberal response by making examples of FDR and Abraham Lincoln; one lifted the US out of the Great Depression by crushing his political foes and the other ended slavery and maintained the Union by baiting the Southerners into a fight.  I was even surprised to learn that Machiavelli, raised a Christian, went through the exact same thing!  So maybe the ends can justify the means.  Sometimes.

Perhaps my beliefs are based on a lack of self-esteem, but I’d hate to believe that humility and peace are nothing more than a reflection of fear.  And yet, I can’t deny that much of what has held me back in life has been fear.  I know because I’ve been able to see the same qualities it in so many others ever since reading this book.  I see it in my grandfather, who just suffered a heart attack brought on by years of alcohol abuse.  My grandfather lived with the spectre of fear for most of his life.  A deeply sensitive man raised on the streets of Mexico in dire poverty, he turned to many vices to drown the pain, not the least of which was alcohol, which have brought him no shortage of self-pity, regret, and poor health in his old age.  He could have used this book more than anybody I know.  Well, almost anybody; his son, my uncle, suffers from a potent lack of self-worth, no doubt caused by not having had a positive father figure he could look up to.  I only wish they had learned to conquer their fears when they were coming of age. I hope I can still conquer mine.

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