The Courtier

There is a character in society that has for thousands of years evoked outrage and envy –  the courtier. This character is very much alive today. Who is the courtier? He is the king’s companion, the teacher’s pet, the adviser, aide, henchman.

The courtier’s strategy is extreme pragmatism. The courtier understands that the king has the power and he has learned that defying the king would only lead to negative consequences. So he implements his subtle mastery of interpersonal skills in his interactions with the king, flattering him while at the same time disclosing valuable information.

The courtier believes that it is necessary to get the king’s blessings, but knows that he is expendable. He knows that the king is powerful and has many other potential courtiers at his disposal. Thus the courtier constantly feeds the king a steady diet of information and flattery. This information needn’t convey the real interests of the courtier for he is not interested in his own entertainment, but predominantly seeks the satisfaction of the king. Likewise, he needn’t be sincere in his use for flattery, for it is used as a device of manipulation.

The courtier’s main battle is to prove that he is irreplaceable since this is counter to reality. Here is where his genius is most required, but also where his frailties are most deeply exposed. When the courtier tries to impress the king, he takes a risk by doing so. There is the possibility of failure. If the courtier does not succeed in carrying out the mission he promised, his reputation will be tarnished in the eyes of the king, and there can be nothing more debilitating and embarrassing to him than this.

But the courtier is shrewd and will not take unnecessary risks. He will constrain himself to the realm of the achievable. It is not so much the extent of what can be achieved, but rather, the fact of achievement itself that the courtier is after. Remember, he wants to build credibility with the king and this requires a consistent streak of victories. The courtier’s eternal rival is the indentured servant.

The indentured servant also exists in the king’s royal court, but he is treated badly. He is given the mundane tasks and unnecessary work. The servant despises the skilled courtier because he sees in him an unfulfilled ideal. The servant has convinced himself that by being obedient, he will gain favor with the king – that all his good works will be repaid in kind. But the servant inevitably discovers that this is not the case. As he neglects his himself further for the service of the king, he sees that the courtier is being showered with gifts, attention, and trust. Here the servant’s blood boils and he begins to seek revenge, not on the king, but on the courtier.

On the other hand, the courtier sees the servant as an unrighteous version of himself, an undeserving, lazy, and stupid imitation of his art. The courtier cajoles and plans and entertains while the scornful servant merely does what he is told and expects the same benefits.

In your own court, whether at work or in your relationships with people, take note of who the king, servant, and courtier are. They are the archetypal characters of the power hierarchy. Whenever there have been kings, there have always been courtiers and servants.

Blindly Furious Diligence

Blindly furious diligence, for example, the typical virtue of an instrument, is represented as the way to riches and honour, and as the most beneficial antidote to tedium and passion : but people are silent concerning its danger, its greatest dangerousness. Education proceeds in this manner throughout: it endeavours, by a series of enticements and advantages, to determine the individual to a certain mode of thinking and acting, which, when it has become habit, impulse and passion, rules in him and over him, in opposition to his ultimate advantage, but ” for the general good.” How often do I see that blindly furious diligence does indeed create riches and honours, but at the same time deprives the organs of the refinement by virtue of which alone an enjoyment of riches and honours is possible; so that really the main expedient for combating tedium and passion, simultaneously blunts the senses and makes the spirit refractory towards new stimuli!

– Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Don’t get stuck in one path for too long, especially if it gives you what you want. The most powerful form of self-deception is the one you trust the most.

Nietzsche describes an individual that is too familiar; the lawyer who has spent too many years honing his craft, training his mind to think and feel a certain way. Careful and analytical, he becomes blind to life’s pleasures, and to the things that can justify his sacrifices.

The foregoing of too much for too little is not a typical problem – it is usually the reverse for most people. But if you belong in the former category, you usually have no way of knowing how you are being blinded by your own diligence. An instrument is suitable for this kind of intensity, but not so much an agent – that is, if you wish to remain an agent. The person that wants to be free must not be too efficient, otherwise, they become nothing but the tool. Their identity becomes inseparable from their function.

You may be effective to society and gain the material rewards you crave, but you have forgotten how to enjoy them. Your laborious lifestyle has subdued your senses. This doesn’t mean that you should not work hard or pursue a challenging career, but it is important to routinely break away from routine.

When you disrupt the regular flow of activity that you are engulfed in, you gain a fresh perspective, and a new appreciation for life. It is the antidote to one of the most pernicious forms of self-deception.

The Law of Scarcity

A man said to a Dervish: “Why do I not see you more often?” The Dervish replied, “Because the words ‘Why have you not been to see me?’ are sweeter to my ear than the words ‘Why have you come again?”’

– Mulla jami, quoted in ldries Shah’s Caravan of Dreams

The Assyrians commanded upper Asia for hundreds of years. The people of Medea (north western Iran) rebelled against them and broke free. The Medes had to form a government and wanted to avoid dictatorships. They feared making one man too powerful. But without a leader, Medea was in chaos. There was constant fighting between the villages. But one man, Deioces, who lived in one of these villages was building a reputation as a fair arbiter of disputes. As the Medeans relied on him more, he became more powerful.

Deioces was overwhelmed with how much work he had to do. He stopped to tend to personal affairs. But his absence brought about chaos once again, and the Medeans quickly learned about the value of the arbitrator. They asked him for help and he agreed, but under strict conditions. He was not to be approached directly, but through messengers, and he had a palace built for him in the capital city. Everyone worked according to his schedule.

The Medes gave him everything he asked for, and he ruled for 53 years. His reign brought peace and prosperity. His grandson Cyrus inherited this power and developed Medea into the Persian empire. This is a story that Greene cites in The 48 Laws of Power; the lesson from this is that Deioces became powerful only after his absence was felt. Before he went to tend to his personal matters, the Medeans took him for granted. The law of scarcity in economics also makes this point. When something is withdrawn from the market, it increases in value. In seventeenth-century Holland, the elites wanted to make the tulip the most valuable flower, and they wanted it to be a status symbol. They pulled the tulips from the market and this sparked tulipomania – the flower multiplied in value.

Use absence to create respect and esteem. If presence diminishes fame, absence augments it. A man who when absent is regarded as a lion becomes when present something common and ridiculous. Talents lose their luster if we become too familiar with them, for the outer shell of the mind is more readily seen than its rich inner kernel. Even the outstanding genius makes use of retirement so that men may honor him and so that the yearning aroused by his absence may cause him to be esteemed.

– Baltasar Gracián

Abundance breeds complacency. Marketers never tell their potential customers that the reduced prices will remain low, or that they will never run out of stock – it’s always ‘only 1 left!’ and ‘limited time offer’. It is human nature to take things for granted. When things are going right, when supplies are plentiful, and when time is abundant, you will not feel compelled to change your behavior.

People become addicted to gambling because of the existence of intermittent rewards. A reward can motivate behavior, but a normal reward is not as powerful as an intermittent reward.

The gap between getting the reward and waiting for another one is the element of scarcity that gets people hooked. The same is true for social media. An example is notifications. Users get notified of ‘likes’ and ‘replies’ after variable time intervals. When 10 people like your post, you won’t get notified of about this as it happens, but you will get delayed notifications of the likes over the course of the day.

In his book Influence, Cialdini tells us the story of a Native American jewelry store catering to travellers to Arizona. The owner of the store noticed that her turquoise jewelry was not moving, so she moved them to a different location. But the change of location didn’t help. One day, she was leaving on a business trip and left a note that instructed her employee to halve the price of the jewelry display. Her employee misread the “1/2”, she thought it said “2” – so she doubled the price instead. When the owner returned, all the turquoise jewelry had been sold.

The perception of customers changed. When they saw that the jewelry was expensive, they figured that it must be valuable.

Going back to the example of scarcity. When an object is rare, it becomes expensive – as the laws of supply and demand dictate. And when something is expensive, it is valuable in the eyes of the people.

The implication isn’t that anyone can be absent and make their absence felt. It is only after that person has created value in a tangible way, that he is missed when he is not present. But after your value has been established, even if taken for granted, your absence will interrupt a pattern of automatic behavior that depended on you.

The Medeans automatically went to Deioses for help, but when he wasn’t there to settle their disputes, this pattern of behavior was interrupted. The trigger in this scenario is the dispute, without which, people would have forgotten about Deioses.

In the jewelry store, the trigger was the increase in price. Usually, things that are more expensive are higher in quality. This correlation has developed into a mental heuristic or rule of thumb. People will assume that anything that is expensive must also be high in quality. Of course, this isn’t necessarily true, but such a simplification of reality can save a lot of time and energy.

The lesson is that we are victims of our previous patterns of behavior. We look for practical shortcuts, even if imperfect. We will trust the rule that expensive is good, and we will give Deoices whatever he wants if he resolves our disputes. It is easier to rely on Deoices than to find a more sustainable long-term solution. This isn’t always bad. There are cases when using shortcuts is wiser than over-deliberating. But becoming aware of how scarcity appeals to the lazy part of our psyche is important to avoid being deceived.


Find Each Man’s Thumbscrew

Find out each Man’s Thumbscrew. It is the art of setting their wills in action. It needs more skill than resolution. You must know where to get at any one. Every volition has a special motive which varies according to taste. All men are idolaters, some of fame, others of self-interest, most of pleasure. Skill consists in knowing these idols in order to bring them into play. Knowing any man’s mainspring of motive you have as it were the key to his will. Have resort to primary motors, which are not always the highest but more often the lowest part of his nature: there are more dispositions badly organised than well. First guess a man’s ruling passion, appeal to it by a word, set it in motion by temptation, and you will infallibly give checkmate to his freedom of will.

– The Art of Worldly Wisdom, Baltasar Gracian

Everyone has weaknesses. You should know what these are, and you should know which weaknesses you have yourself. Man is a victim of their his impulses – that is, Man suspends higher principles for the service of basic pleasures. Man is greedy and weak, and willing to exploit others for their fix.

When you are aware of what makes people tick, then you can control their actions. What they presume to be free will will be merely a pattern of behavior that you have set in motion, either with a phrase or a question. The people that know your thumbscrew the most are the people that are closest to you.

Notice when you are being manipulated by understanding your vulnerabilities. The most susceptible to manipulation is the person who affirms they have no weaknesses. They set the largest trap for themselves – all that is left for their enemy to do, is to tap gently on potential problem areas, and notice when the ferocity of  denial reaches its peak  – that is when the victim finally reveals his hand.

If you have reason to suspect that a person is telling you a lie, look as though you believed every word he said. This will give him courage to go on; he will become more vehement in his assertions, and in the end betray himself. Again, if you perceive that a person is trying to conceal something from you, but with only partial success, look as though you did not believe him. The opposition on your part will provoke him into leading out his reserve of truth and bringing the whole force of it to bear upon your incredulity.

– Arthur Schopenhauer




Reciprocity (Influence)

Everything turns gray when I don’t have at least one mark on the horizon. Life then seems empty and depressing. I cannot understand honest men. They lead desperate lives, full of boredom. – Count Victor Lustig

The manipulator will prey on countless victims, and does not restrict themselves to only one type of victim. As with an addiction of any kind, after a certain threshold has been crossed, there will be a yearning for a higher threshold. Lustig not only tricked honest men and easy targets, he went for the biggest shark of all, Al Capone, and managed to squeeze money out of him. Frank Abagnale started with small deceptions, and then gradually his ploys increased in complexity and risk.

In one story, described in the 48 Laws of Power, Lustig tells Capone that he can double his money, $50,000, in a couple of months. Capone agrees, sensing there was something different about this man, he was curious to see where this was going. A couple of months later, Lustig appears before Capone with $50,000. Lustig did nothing in those two months. He returned the original sum to the gangster.

Capone expected to either double his money or get nothing at all – in the latter case, he was prepared to kill him. But he was shocked to see the tall man return his money to him. Capone paid him $5,000 out of mere charity. Lustig used selective honesty to disarm Capone, who was surrounded by thieves and liars. Capone couldn’t believe that for once, someone didn’t try to scam him. Lustig was subsequently rewarded for his troubles of doing nothing.

It is easy to kill a bird on the wing that flies straight: not so one that twists. Nor always act on second thoughts: they can discern the plan the second time. The enemy is on the watch, great skill is required to circumvent him. The gamester never plays the card the opponent expects, still less that which he wants. – Baltasar Gracian

The deceiver never does what you expect him to do, that is his strength.

People become cynical about the world because they witness the same disappointing patterns of behavior being repeated. The deceiver uses this information to his advantage, by approaching people of power with something new. You can call it ‘refreshing honesty’, but really, it’s merely change people are after. Repetition is boring. People who behave in ways that are predictable never win favor with anyone. Those that stand out do.

In marketing, the surest way to success is by standing out, hence the premise of Godin’s Purple Cow. You will never deceive anyone if you act and behave like the herd. It is when you take some initiative, when you dare to be different, that others will take note of you.

When you do something that is different, you distract the victim.

The essence of deception is distraction. Distracting the people you want to deceive gives you the time and space to do something they won’t notice. An act of kindness, generosity, or honesty is often the most powerful form of distraction because it disarms other people’s suspicions. It turns them into children, eagerly lapping up any kind of affectionate gesture.

One of the laws in Influence: The Science of Persuasion, is reciprocity. It doesn’t pay to be greedy. The clever salesman knows how to concede before asking for something in return. You don’t have to use this tactic to understand the power that it holds over you. You have definitely been approached by many people who simply give you something for free, without expecting anything in return.

This is how Facebook deceives people. It offers them something new, and valuable for ‘free’. The users become addicted to the platform, and more than pay for the free utility with their time and energy. Lustig paid Capone first, he gave him an honest gesture, he returned to him the full sum of money. In return, Capone gave him $5,000 which is what Lustig wanted all along.

The Need to Deceive

It is not possible to understand good without knowing evil.  It is the presumption of contrasts: without the antithesis of a thing, that thing could not exist. Light cannot exist without darkness. Positive can’t exist without negative. Strong can’t exist without weak. Masculine can’t exist without feminine.

This is because things have to be measured relative to something else, if you are to classify them. Something is only dark if there is something lighter that you can contrast it to. It is not possible to recognize honesty without recognizing deception.

But there is something fundamentally nebulous and nefarious about deception. People avoid talking about it and understanding it.

“That which you most need will be found where you least want to look” – C.G Jung

But ff you ignore the existence of deception and presume that all people are basically good, then you are an easy target for deception. If you aren’t familiar with the ways in which they can deceive you, then there are more ways to deceive you. If you are incapable of recognizing malicious intent, they will be highly capable of recognizing you as a perfect victim.

If you start with the opposite premise, that people are not basically good, the world looks very different. But the paradox is that by seeing the world in this way, you are doing more good than bad. It is the presumption of innocence that destroys people and society.

Psychologist Carl Jung thought of archetypes as sub-personalities that have their own motivations, if you suppress them or refuse to acknowledge their existence, they will find a way to manifest themselves in your life against your conscious will – and could result in neurosis and psychosis. If you project weakness, cowardice, and evil onto the world and deny these sub-personalities in yourself, then you become more likely to become a victim of your unconscious.

the joker archetype lives within you. A part of you enjoys deception. After-all, deception is a lot more fun than honesty. A case in point is games. Every single game that is worth playing contains elements of deception. Whether it is sports or chess or poker or board games – without deception, the game becomes fundamentally boring.

This is what interests me most about deception. People’s lives are routinely ruined by it, and yet the absence of it creates a boring existence. Deception is the root of most of the world’s evils, and yet one has no choice but to embrace it.






Lessons from The Retired Artist (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)

Tom Sawyer, the famous mischievous child returns home after a scuffle with a new boy in the neighborhood. He was punished by his caretaker, Aunt Polly,  and given the arduous chore of painting the fence. Tom gathered the equipment and reluctantly went to carry out his task.

He painted for a while under the hot sun, paused for a moment, and examined how much work he had left – there was a lot of more unpainted fence than there was painted fence, and upon realizing this, Tom fell into a state of melancholy. He didn’t want to go on, but he had no choice. He didn’t want to get punished with more work by his aunt.

As other children walked by, Tom gets an idea. He offered to fetch a bucket of water to one boy if he agreed to paint the fence, that failed. He then offered some money, that failed too – the other boy was in a rush to fetch the bucket of water, and he too was afraid of punishment.

He thought about paying other children, but then realized he didn’t have enough money to buy more than a few minutes of freedom.

Then suddenly, he gets a brilliant idea.

When Tom was first painting the fence, he meditated on the idea of child labor, and he realized a surprising fact – other children seem to enjoy doing their boring chores. He noticed that instead of complaining or getting discouraged, they carried out their tasks with glee. This psychological fact inspired him.

Tom continued to paint, but this time, he did so slowly. And every once in a while, he paused, took a step back, and examined his work the way an artist would. He seemed to be immersed in his task truly enjoying every moment. As this was happening, another boy named Ben approaches. Ben was entertaining himself, enacting a scene where he was sailing a boat, and despite his loud and excited tones, Tom didn’t seem to notice – he was so engaged in his work.

Ben approached Tom and this conversation took place.

“Hello, old chap, you got to work, hey?”

Tom wheeled suddenly and said:

“Why, it’s you, Ben! I warn’t noticing.”

“Say—I’m going in a-swimming, I am. Don’t you wish you could? But of course you’d druther work—wouldn’t you? Course you would!”

Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said:

“What do you call work?”

“Why, ain’t that work?”

Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly:

“Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer.”

“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

This inspired a change of attitude in Ben, who was suddenly intrigued.

Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth—stepped back to note the effect—added a touch here and there—criticised the effect again—Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed.

Tom then explained to him how this job was given only to him, because he had the skill and conscientiousness to see it out successfully. He demonstrated how engaged he was in his task.

This enticed Ben too much, now he wanted to have a go and asked Tom if he could, arguing that if he was in Tom’s position, he would be act charitably. But Tom didn’t let him, saying that his aunt wouldn’t allow anyone else paint the fence, and that he couldn’t risk giving the job because it was too difficult to get it right. At this point, Ben loses his patience, begging Tom to give him the brush, and even offering an apple that Tom had his eye on. Tom agreed.

Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart. And while the late steamer Big Missouri worked and sweated in the sun, the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs, munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash. By the time Ben was fagged out, Tom had traded the next chance to Billy Fisher for a kite, in good repair; and when he played out, Johnny Miller bought in for a dead rat and a string to swing it with—and so on, and so on, hour after hour. And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.

It’s hard not to smile when you read the words “the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by.” It’s a perfect archetypal image of the trickster and it has been recreated so many times in pop culture. Despite the simplicity of this tale, there are many lessons to be gleaned.

Willingness to Experiment

Tom didn’t have to try new things. He could have just stuck to the task and slogged through the drudgery the way any other boy in his position would. But Tom refused to surrender to fate, he constantly tried new things, from bribing to offering to exchange chores – he even offered to show the first boy he saw his wounded toe – but none of this worked. His initial attempts were futile. But left with the choice of drudgery, or willingness to experiment, Tom went with the latter.

Rich Skill Set

The talented persuader must have many tricks up their sleeve. It is not enough to be relentless, there are other talents that must be put to use. Tom had the creativity to come up with the plan and several other plans, he had the acting chops to fool his victim, and the patience of a master negotiator to make Ben enthusiastically fall for his trap.


Tom understood that perception was everything. And this works on two levels. He first saw the children willing carry out their boring chores with happy looks on their faces, perhaps realizing that he didn’t feel bad for them because they seemed to having a good time. This was the seed to his imaginative plot. If he could make it seem that he was having fun, other children wouldn’t pity him, they’d want to be him!

Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.

Deception Scales 

There are many universal psychological tendencies. These commonalities make it possible for manipulators to succeed – whether through marketing, seduction, or persuasion. People generally fall into the same traps because they have the same thought patterns. If you can figure out how to trigger the right thought pattern, you win. Tom fools Ben and manages to make many other kids his victim by using the same trick. Deception scales.