PHIL “Whereas before we humans might think first of the tribe, we now think primarily of ourselves, our careers and our narrow interests. Office politics is the extreme end point of this trend.” Now, I’m just going to say, so that you know which way this podcast is going to go, that I feel embarrassed reading that quote from the book.
JAY Wow. Oh, my God, this is going to be a drastic. Welcome to Dog-eared and Cracked, the podcast where each host subjects the other to his taste in books. Sometimes we are rewarded with the experience of reading a book we may not have otherwise picked up. Other times our patience is tested and our friendship goes on shaky ground. Best of all for our podcast listeners, we do the reading so you don’t have to. If you do want to read along with us, head to dogearedandcracked.ca to see our upcoming titles. We’ll also tell you more about what we have coming up at the end of the show. I’m Jay.
PHIL And I’m Phil.
JAY And this week we’re discussing my pick, The 50th Law by Robert Greene.
PHIL And before we get into the book, I just want to say that if you like the podcast, please head over to Apple podcasts or wherever you listen, give us a rating and a review. Those ratings and reviews help other people find us… those ratings and reviews help other people find us. And it’s great to have some feedback, too. I’ve got to say, I am sitting here with my Dog-eared and Cracked mug, which has tea in it at the moment, thanks to Jay, who made a very limited edition run of two. So folks, if you want merch, head over to dogearedanddcracked.ca or to our Facebook page and let us know. Maybe we can do a slightly larger run and expand our range of swag. I have to say, it’s a very nice mug.
JAY All right. Excellent, excellent. So, Phil, before we get into what you thought of this book, let’s start off slowly. What can you tell us about the book’s author, Robert Greene?
PHIL Robert Greene grew up in Brentwood, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, and he went to Berkeley, then on to the University of Madison, where he studied ancient Greek, which he said he had a real affinity for, and classics. And, you know, after he after he finished school, he kind of puttered around, did, by his count, 80 different jobs, kind of menial jobs, didn’t really get anywhere in his life. Then he met this guy who described himself as a book packager. So basically not really an agent — he’s credited apparently as the producer on a couple of Greene’s early books. And this guy he was chatting with was like, do you have any book ideas? And Greene, of course, didn’t, but kind of bullshitted his way along and came up with a pitch for what was going to become, I guess, his most famous book, The 48 Laws. So, the 48 Laws, a book that claims to reveal, I guess, these these kind of underlying laws of power and how to get it. And hip-hop artists love The 48 Laws, apparently. A lot of rappers were passing this book around. Big in some film circles as well. And so all this led to Greene meeting 50 Cent. And in their first meeting, 50 told him, “It must be amazing to hang with you. All kind of shit must fall out of your ass in passing.” That’s what I got on him. Do you want more details? Is that good enough?
JAY No, that’s that’s plenty. I’m starting to get a feel for how this review is going to go. And I think this is going to be pretty exciting. And we’ve chosen our corners of the octagon. Well, let’s actually — before we come out to spar a little, you’re probably wondering why I wanted you to read it, I’m guessing.
PHIL Yeah, I guess so, yeah. When you told me you wanted me to read The 50th Law, I had no idea what it was about. So I thought probably some kind of business book or something. Then I saw oh, it says it’s co-written by 50 cent, OK. Then I read the description of it and I thought, “Is he trolling me? Like, is he deliberately trying to pick like a book that he will… that he knows I’m going to hate? Is it revenge?
JAY Yeah, it was revenge for BS Jobs. You know, this is where it’s going to get really interesting, Phil, because I’m actually a massive fan of Robert Greene, and his early books are the ones I started with. And they are actually better books than The 50th Law, I will say that. But they’re massive tomes. 33 Laws of War, 48 Laws of Power. They’re not very accessible. Well, they are accessible. They’re just, they’re a lot to read. They’re accessible because you can, you can choose to either make the investment in time, you can pick and choose. He’s got historical anecdotes put in the margins. Real-life stories includes as parables. It’s got quotes from philosophers, scientists. And what really got me about his books is that for me, I thought he had a really good handle on human psychology. And maybe this is where our opinions will vary. At any rate, his view resonated with me and I picked this book because it’s a lot shorter than the other ones. It’s fairly accessible and I thought it might make a good introduction to his writings. And at the end of the day, whether we agree to disagree or disagree to agree, that’s kind of what Dog-eared and Cracked’s always been about, you know, picking books that we think might be outside the other’s comfort zone.
PHIL That’s true, so a good pick.
JAY Well, all right, let’s start with Greene’s writing style.
PHIL Wait, should we do about the book?
JAY Oh, that would be great.
PHIL It’s — very simple structure to the book, 10 chapters, and at the start of each one, each chapter opens with some information about 50 Cent’s life and then moves into what that teaches us about whatever topic Greene wants to expound on. So, one of the things I was thinking is that, you know, Curtis Jackson, 50 Cent, I don’t know if he — well, I know he read The 48 Laws — what kind of power move he made in order to get his name on the cover of this book. Because from what I can gather, it seems like maybe Greene had one conversation with him. Because I was actually looking forward to the biographical parts. But there’s not a lot of information there that you couldn’t get from the Wikipedia page. And the start of each chapter is just incredibly repetitive. The same couple of stories over and over and over again, including “Curtis, now known as 50 Cent” in each chapter. So that’s how they start. And then, and then from there, you know, there’s a different topic that Greene uses as a starting point to illustrate — he uses that anecdote to illustrate some topic and then he’ll bring in, like you were saying with his other books, stuff from historical figures, philosophers and so on. He he’s fond of ALL CAPITALS, too, when he has a really important point he wants to make.
JAY Yeah, this is probably the third time I read this book, and I wouldn’t disagree with you on that point about repetition. I found on my third reading that the the stuff about 50 Cent becomes really — it’s almost distracting. What do you what do you think of Greene as a writer in terms of style?
JAY I would, I would say, I would say you’re right. He’s prescriptive, he comes off as dogmatic or pretentious. He starts sentences with the word “understand,” which I found really annoying. It’s like he’s teaching those of us who were too ignorant to know otherwise. I do like how he always brings in a story every few pages about the historical characters and tries to relate that to the lesson, if you will, that he’s, that he’s trying to teach in his book.
PHIL Right. So he’s not just expounding. I do have to say I found his writing — while I found most, mostly, you know, I didn’t enjoy his writing, but there was one part of it that I actually found truly objectionable. And that was when he would he would expound on “in the hood.”
JAY I know.
PHIL “This is how it is.”.
JAY I know.
PHIL And, you know, I should have actually had one of the quotes in front of me, but there’s one about how in the hood every second of your life is, you know, fighting for survival. And I was like, come on. You know, like I’ve read lots of accounts of people who grew up in supposedly terrible neighbourhoods who talk about close-knit family relationships. And, you know what I mean? Like this guy from the suburbs who went to Berkeley.
JAY It’s ridiculous. He’s a middle-aged white guy talking about the dangers of the hood. And it’s, it’s so obvious that he’s living vicariously through 50 Cent.
JAY He’s got a very cynical perspective of people as well. Do you buy into that at all or did it just totally turn you off?
PHIL I I did notice there was an interview he did in which one of his quotes was “I am not evil.” You know, I think we can all be cynical. I don’t have a particular problem with with cynicism. I think when I was younger, I was definitely more drawn to being more full-on cynical. But I — here’s my issue, OK? Or one of my issues is, I think, what he’s doing is that he’s presenting — it’s an ideology. He’s presenting a particular ideology, except he sees it or presents it as if it’s some kind of immutable human nature, right? I mean, I don’t know, should I be, should I be thinking about how you’re using me right now in order to further your own goals? I don’t know. Like, there’s some sense — and I haven’t read The 48 Laws, but from what I gather, you know, and from what people have said about that book, they talk about it as though he’s discovered some laws of how stuff works, right, as if they’re immutable. And so I think that’s my issue more. It’s not the cynicism, but that this is just the way it is. So I just think it’s too binary.
JAY It is, yeah. And I don’t know how you get around that, except I think the idea is as a reader and — this is the approach I took — is I take what I need. I take what I, I think is relative and I agree with you. So he’s a, I would probably guess he’s a huge fan of Niccolo Machiavelli and…
PHIL He says he is.
JAY Yeah. And you can tell as well, right? Because if you’ve read The Prince or any or Discourses or any of his stuff…
PHIL I have read The Prince, but a long time ago.
JAY So it’s actually it’s a great book. But again, it’s basically this idea that people are always going to maximize their own self-interest. And it’s not that I would subscribe wholly to what he’s saying, but more just recognising that there’s elements of what he says that might have some relevance to how I look at life. So we brought this up where he uses anecdotes of historic figures as examples of the point he’s trying to make in his book or that particular chapter. Did you have any favourite stories from the book?
PHIL For the most part, I thought the examples were incredibly predictable and boring. Like Machiavelli, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, it was like a greatest hits kind of thing.
JAY And, stop me if this is wrong, but I think I’ve fallen into this as well with some of them — if you think about Transmigration, right, you start to not like a book and you start to really not like it and pretty soon, you know, you just hate every aspect of it.
PHIL You know what? I did. I remember when I started it, thinking I am determined to have an open mind, OK, but I found it very — I confess I found it very difficult. You’re right. At a certain point, it was just like my mind would wander. I’d have to go back and read it again. I would — like, I had a nice nap last night while I was trying to finish it.
JAY Well, let’s just jump right ahead to a story, shall we? All right. All right. So I’m going to read a quote here for you and I’ll explain what I’m talking about. I’ll maybe — mute yourself so I don’t hear your teeth grinding as I read the quote: “Finally, do not be taken in by the culture of ease. Self-help books and experts will try to convince you that you can have what you want by following a few simple steps. Things that come easy and fast will leave you just as fast. The only way to gain self-reliance or any power is through great effort and practice.” So does that make sense, Phil? Or is it a better strategy to find work that you really like and not settle for working jobs where you’re not valued? I’m kind of referring back to David Graeber and his philosophy about being stuck in a bad job.
PHIL I think it’s — it’s one of the few things that seem to me in the book that he was, that he was right about. The last two chapters, I guess mastery and the one that’s about death, I don’t really have a lot of issues with those, although, again, they seem to me like relatively pedestrian observations. But, you know, I don’t know if you need to constantly be preparing yourself for an opportunity. But I certainly agree with him in terms of, you know, paying attention, building your expertise. So I certainly — yeah, I don’t have an issue with that. I, I do, I do feel like I want to call B.S. on his contrasting his work with self-help books, which is kind of, again, a classic trope of self-help books, just like it is of diets. Right? Every diet is going to tell you it’s not a diet. It’s like a new way of conceiving of, you know, how we eat.
JAY Well, OK. And now I’ll say this. You’re right to a degree. These are, he writes self-help books that are basically cloaked as academic, so, there are a couple…
PHIL I think basically I agree with the sentiment in the quote, it was just the part about “self-help books will tell you…”
JAY Yeah, yeah, OK, OK. We get it. You don’t like the man. Are we still going to be friends after this? OK, just checking. That’s why, it’s actually why I bought you your mug. It’s kind of an apology. So, so momentum and flow. These are a couple of concepts… Should we talk about that, or do you want to sort of move on?
PHIL Sure. I mean, you had said at one point something about how they resonated with you. So should we talk about what the types of of flow are?
JAY Yeah, momentum flow. I mean, we can if you…
PHIL I mean, it’s pretty straightforward. I wrote them down because I kept having trouble remembering all four, but there was mental flow, emotional flow, social flow and cultural flow. Mental flow, his example is basically Leonardo da Vinci and the importance of being curious. You can tell me if I’ve misunderstood these. Emotional flow seems to be about like not getting too caught up in your emotions and not letting them hinder you. Social flow — I didn’t quite get it. He used the example of how Ingmar Bergman would have his actors improvise, so it was a bit like providing leadership, but then within that, letting people do their thing. And yeah, and his example for cultural flow is Charlie Parker, who was always innovating in his art.
JAY I like the idea of flow. I’m not sure he captured in the same way I, I kind of know flow…
PHIL You talked about it when we when we talked about The Conquest of Happiness.
JAY Yeah, there’s a Czech author, and I’m not going to pretend to pronounce his name, so I’ll put it in the liner notes of the podcast, but he writes about psychological flow in a way that that really makes sense.
PHIL Well, I am curious, you know, when you talk about, you want to talk about why — how the concepts of momentum and flow resonated with you.
JAY At a cursory level, or a basic level, when you think about — because I recognise that phenomenon exists and I like being reminded of that. It’s no different than if you start your day off in a good mood, chances are your day is going to turn out a lot better than if you start your day off in a bad mood. And what… Because it becomes cumulative. People respond to, they respond to that mood. And so they in turn react that way. And it’s almost like, you know, some days everything clicks and some days things don’t click yet we just continue to grind it out.
PHIL He doesn’t overtly talk about that in the book. But, you know, part of, part of mindfulness training and certain types of meditation training definitely has to do with that sort of flow idea of seeing your ideas arise and — arise and go away, right? And and not getting not getting too caught up in it.
JAY Yeah, yeah, that’s right. It’s it’s yeah, it’s getting caught up in something and it’s well, it’s how you let something impact you. And I think this is in the book as well. It’s this idea that the universe just isn’t — is indifferent. Right? So things just happen and they’re not necessarily good or bad. The impact arguably can be good or bad. But the things that happen to you, they’re not framed in anything other than what you decide to — how you decide to perceive them.
PHIL Now, the idea that, you know, things aren’t good or bad, they just are what they are. But, you know, it’s easier to deal with whatever has come your way, you know, but there are things that can be — I don’t think, I’m not, I’m certainly not saying that’s his intention, but that can become, that attitude can become a cover for excusing behaviour that is is definitely not OK as a, as a kind of like “phenomena are just what they are” right?
JAY Like I, you know, there’s degrees, obviously, if somebody comes to harm you physically, you can’t treat that as indifferent and you can’t treat that as basically being without emotion. So, but I think there are certain things — like somebody cuts you off in traffic, right, is the classic example. That’s something that you can, you can choose to look at different ways. You can choose to look at it as a personal affront to you as an individual. You can start to have another look at it as perhaps that person had a, you know, something happen and he had to swerve the car or regardless, I’m not suggesting you make excuses for other people’s behaviour, right?
PHIL But you don’t you don’t need to then tailgate them for half an hour.
JAY That’s right, yeah, yeah, you don’t have to let it, well, you don’t have to let it ruin your day as well, right?
JAY So Greene goes on about leadership and tries to apply that to 50 Cent, which I found a little doubtful. But he makes an interesting comment in this chapter about leadership. And it’s the comment I want to talk about. It’s about communication. He describes communication as, quote, a power of intensity, not extensity in numbers. And I was wondering — what do you think about that?
PHIL Is “extensity” a word?
JAY OK, we get it, you hate Robert Greene, I don’t…
PHIL No, I honestly…
JAY It didn’t…
PHIL That quote…
JAY Show up in spellcheck…
PHIL I saw that quote and I was trying to figure out what it meant. Like what? What does it mean to you?
JAY It’s the quality, not quantity.
PHIL Oh, OK. Oh, yeah, that’s classic Robert Greene from what I can see. It’s like, take a kind of pedestrian observation and make it sound fancy and make up a word too.
JAY Wait, I’m on Chrome here. I’m on dictionary.com. “is extencity a word?” The quality of having an extension.
PHIL All right.
JAY I don’t think that’s what he meant by it, but it sounds good. It’s funny, though, that they actually have a good, you know, have commonly asked questions and one of them is “Is extencity a word?”
PHIL A lot of Robert Greene readers looked it up.
JAY So, Greene frequently incorporates quotes from historical philosophers, authors or individuals who made a mark for themselves. Did you have any favourite quotes from the book? Well, I’m going to say probably not.
PHIL Macchiavelli is one of his heroes, right? “It is better to be impetuous than cautious because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to dominate her, you must beat her and batter her. It is clear that she will let herself be won by men who are impetuous rather than by those who step cautiously.” That one’s right — that’s one of the first historical quotes in the book, so it’s like setting some tone there.
JAY Did you? You don’t even like that quote. You just picked it because it basically it paints — it’s a terrible quote.
PHIL It’s right near the start of the book. I was like, I was ready to quit right then. But, but yeah, I, I like the Pascal quote. And it’s one of the things we talked about also with The Conquest of Happiness was, you know, the importance of the ability of learning how to be bored.
JAY Yeah, that’s right. Greene is talking about boredom, talking about that need for diversions and distractions, so I’m not going to ask you if you agree with him. I’m assuming you don’t.
PHIL No, I do agree with him!
JAY You do?
PHIL Yeah. I mean, I think he wraps it up in bullshit evolutionary psychology that he doesn’t really know anything about. But, but I agree with the point.
JAY Yeah, well, that’s good. I mean, it did remind me of Bertrand Russell quote as well. It’s this — and I just think the concept is fascinating, because it’s, it’s like sitting still is a skill that should be continually developed. And also this idea that there’s too many paths in our efforts and we accomplish nothing, and these distractions become pervasive. And and I like the idea of being reminded…
PHIL Your mind does need the opportunity to mull over things kind of subconsciously or just to go for a walk in the woods or whatever, right? Like I had, I did find like… So there’s two, the two chapters at the end of the book. Again, I was not a fan of the the way it was wrapped up, but but I think his approach to — his points were solid in that mastery chapter. And I’m laughing because I just see that I had made myself a note saying that, you know, when it comes to mastery, that that Greene has mastered his own niche of bullshit! But no, I do. But I do think he’s he’s right in his last chapter, too, where he talks a lot about about death. You know, like we don’t like to talk about death, right? When it came to those last two chapters, again, I was not a fan of the writing, but I do think I was fine with the points he was making, like, what did you think of that last chapter where he talks about death?
JAY Well, yeah, we should maybe for the, for the listener, kind of outline. So for death, what he talks about, I’ll just read a couple of quotes. Here he goes, “Death represents the ultimate reality, a limit to our days and efforts in a definitive fashion. It is associated with physical and mental pain and to repress the thought, we must then avoid anything that reminds us of death. It’s a matter of looking inward and seeing death is something that you carry within. it’s a party that cannot be repressed. That does not mean that you should brood about it, but that you have continual awareness of reality, that you come to embrace it, valuing the days that are left remaining to us.” And I know it’s not his concept and he’s just really parroting it. But I love that and I love being reminded of that. One of the things that — is interesting about, I find about living, is that we can’t necessarily live each day like it’s our last. That’s kind of you know, you see that on bumper stickers sometimes. And truthfully, we’re planners, right? We’re long-range beings. And we have to kind of plan and save and we can’t, you know, spend all our money today on a vacation or drink ourselves to death, you know, knowing that there’s no tomorrow because there is a tomorrow — or at least we have to assume there’s a tomorrow. So I’ve always been challenged by that and the sense of how do you live? And I know it’s probably a balance. Right. Have you ever given any thought to that in terms of kind of how do you live?
PHIL I’m glad you said that thing about live each day as though it’s your last, because, of course, that’s ridiculous. You can’t do that right, because you would never get anything done. Like, why would I, why would I put any time into, you know, writing some book or researching something, if — you know what I mean. Like, it’s just, it’s nonsense. So, yeah, I do like his, I do like his approach to this.
JAY Do you think it’s more maybe the better quote then is something like, to the effect of you just appreciate each day for what it is and you know, you’re still planning for the for the future and you’re still planning for tomorrow. We don’t appreciate each day. And what happens is we just continually — one day follows the next next thing you know, a week follows a week, a month. And, you know, you wake up and you’re 42 years old and you go, where the hell did all that time go? But I have started kind of creating a journal for my kids. And I’ve been doing that for maybe a year now. And I started by writing down kind of my life story just, just so they can have it, you know, and if they’re tired of me and don’t want to read it, they can pass it on to their kids or something. And, you know, maybe a grandchild or great-grandchild will know who I was. All right. I put you through enough. Well, we’re at the point now we’re going to rate this book.
PHIL So I do have one thing I want to say before we get to the rating, because I was thinking as I was reading the book and, you know, we talked about how it’s it’s repetitive. There’s stuff about 50 Cent and his life and, and Greene has the, you know, the story about how an assassin tries to kill him and at one point he says “poured nine bullets into his body.” At another point he says he was “pumping bullets into his body” and 50 Cent didn’t die. You know, the bullet came within a millimetre of killing him. And so the story is presented as if it’s like some form of strength, right? Like he survived and thrived after that. Right. You know, what if 50 Cent had been killed? Do you know what I mean? Like, it seems to me like there’s a lot of — again, I’m not saying that shouldn’t, we shouldn’t be planning, but a lot of this mythologizing and hero-making ultimately comes down sometimes to just luck. Right? Or randomness.
JAY Yeah, yeah. Yeah, agreed. I mean, I think that example was meant to play into this idea of embracing, embracing your death. And then, once you I think — in the example of 50 Cent, the idea was more along the lines of he came that close to death and he realized, OK, it’s not so bad. I just — I can lose that fear. It wasn’t so much that he was the chosen one or that he used that luck to kind of propel himself. It was more that he saw death and decided, you know what, I’m not going to hang around for the next time doing nothing. I’m going to make something of myself or maybe I’m giving in to it.
PHIL Well, you’re right. He does talk about fearlessness for sure. It’s definitely one of the themes of the book. But I just think there’s a lot of that kind of mythology of self-reliance. And he refers like kind of completely Greene refers, kind of completely unselfconsciously, I think, of America and the pioneering spirit and the frontier. And, you know, like it’s it’s it’s it’s crap. Like the idea that these guys kind of by themselves tamed the frontier. Of course, like, I appreciate that what he’s trying to say is that you’re not fully a slave to your circumstances. You can come out of difficult circumstances and you can pull yourself out of them. And your attitude is important. And I don’t have a problem with any of that. But I think there’s just too much focus on, you know, you are doing it yourself, whereas in reality you’re part of some larger web that is helping you to accomplish that.
JAY Yeah, agreed. And I — but I will add that I think I think the idea is that you need to first — you being this person, need sto first make that choice for themselves and then they can rely on others to help them do that. It’s because — I do agree that, like, I think the ideas, I agree with you. If this, if what you’re saying is that, you know, 100 percent of the time you’re not going to be able to change your circumstances, but you need to be able to believe that you have a chance of changing your circumstances. And I took that lesson from the book and that really kind of stuck with me. I do like that a lot. This is the point, podcast listeners where we rate this book. Oh, God, I don’t know how this is going to go. So a five means you’re waiting for Greene to release a 51st law and a one means that you think at 50 cents you’ve overpaid for this book. How did this work out for you? Phil? Like I don’t already know.
PHIL Well, let me tell you, I read a book — I actually don’t read a lot of self-help books, you know, but I did read one last fall that someone recommended to me, and it was called Atomic Habits, and it was maybe the worst book I’ve ever read. So I’m kind of, I would say that The 50th Law, like, it gave it a run for its money. But it’s not as bad as Atomic Habits. And so I will generously, I would generously give The 50th Law 0.5.
JAY This is literally a Dog-eared and Cracked first. You literally rated two books on one podcast…
PHIL I’m just saying Atomic Habits was a zero…
JAY Zero point five. Oh, my God. This is great, because I’m going to give it a 4.5. Have we ever had a higher variance? Oh, I feel like no, no. I feel like you make another half point? No? All right. I guess that’s it. Is that it?
PHIL I guess that’s it. We should talk about what’s coming up on the podcast, where — were, we’re going back to fiction for a couple of books. So next episode is my pick, which is, I believe, our first book of poetry, Hard Core Logo.
JAY It is. And after that it’s The Warriors!
PHIL And we will also be discussing the film. And I don’t know if you can find a copy of Hard Core Logo…
JAY I actually had that on YouTube, so I’m good to go for that. Yeah, it’s going to be an interesting podcast because rather than talk about style or get into some of the details about the book, I think a large part of that conversation is going to be, you know, was how how was that film in relation to the, to the book,
PHIL if you would like some extra credit, there is a book by the screenwriter who wrote the film, called Hard Core Road Show, as well.
JAY Extra credit for me or for the listeners?
PHIL The listeners!
JAY OK, that’s right. Maybe we’ll mail a mug to them or something. All right. That’s it for Dog-eared and Cracked. I think we’re still friends. Phil? Yes? No? Maybe? .
PHIL The mug, the mug goes along way.
JAY That’s right. Yeah. Jesus, I have to dig deep into the trunk for next time, I guess. Like a deck of playing cards or something.
PHIL Do I stop?
JAY Say goodbye to our listeners maybe. I don’t know.
PHIL All right. All right. Thanks for listening in. And we’ll see you next time.
JAY See you next time.