And I was rubbing makeup all over my legs to cover up my freckles I was 11 years old, because I hated them, and I thought they were so ugly. I was 15, and I lived with my dad and my stepmom, and I lied about my mom. I lied about her because she was a waitress, and she lived in a tiny apartment, and because she was a recovering drug addict. I lied about her because I was too ashamed to tell the truth. I was 17, and I was down on my knees on a bathroom floor, and I was forcing myself to throw up everything that I’d eaten that morning. I was desperate to be thin; I was trying so hard to be perfect. I was 21, and I didn’t even realize what I was doing, but I was droning on and on to my friend Julie, telling her about all the people we knew and how great they were, and how amazing their lives were, and how much I wanted to be like them, how jealous I was! And my dear friend Julie, she stopped me, and she said, “Niko, you need to meet yourself.” And when she said that to me, it was like something changed.
It was like she held a mirror up for me, and what she was showing me was so different from what I’d ever seen before. She said, “Niko, you should be jealous of yourself. You’re gutsy; you’re hard-working; you’re resilient. If you could meet yourself, you might really like her. But as quickly as she painted that image of me, it was gone! And I was totally confused because I, I see myself as embarrassing, unlovable, awkward. But I loved that image that she created, and I wanted it back. So I set out on this journey to find it and to try to make it stick. So eventually, I landed myself a job, working with young women. My job was to create a program for them to help them increase their self-esteem, which, of course, was kind of laughable because I had no self-esteem myself.
But I started to wonder, I started to wonder, could we create our own self-esteem? Could we build it ourselves? And I did a little research, and it turns out that self-esteem, it’s just based on our own thoughts of ourselves. And I knew that we could control our own thoughts, so I thought, “Yeah.” Maybe we could actually start to build our own self-esteem, and I was willing to try. So the first session I had with these girls, I had no idea what to do. I mean, I’ve never done this before, so I was totally making it up. So I decided I was going to have them each say one thing that they were proud of about themselves. We were going to test out this idea of starting to build more positive thoughts about ourselves.
It didn’t go so well. These girls, they couldn’t say one single thing about themselves that they were proud of. And I understood because I totally related, I mean, I felt the same way. So … I decided to create an exercise for them, for all of us to do. So the idea was that every time we had a positive thought about ourselves, we would imagine turning up the volume, like literally turning up the volume on that thinking, and every time we had a negative thought about ourselves, we were going to press “delete,” just press “delete” in our brain, let it magically disappear.
And it worked! It worked! This idea of kind of stepping outside of ourselves so that we could see ourselves better. Little by little, we each came up with little things about ourselves that we liked. But for me, for every little thing that I came up with that I liked, it was like there were ten things that I didn’t like – ten things that I felt critical about. So I checked it out with the girls. They said, yeah, they felt the same way. So, we decided that at the end of each class that we had together, we would have one of us stand in the middle, and the rest of us would stand around the others, and we would each tell the girl that was standing in the middle one thing that we admired about her, one thing that we really liked.
And it was so hard to stand in the middle. It was like we didn’t want to let it in. We wanted to just keep those compliments out. And so we made up a rule. The rule was that when someone gave us a compliment, we would simply say, “Thank you.” At the end of every session that we spent together, we all wrote down one thing about ourselves that we admired. We forced ourselves to sort of build this list, to get our thinking going about the things that were important about ourselves. And I want to read to you just a couple of things. These were the things we wrote on the very first day, I kept the list. On the first day I wrote: “I’m proud of my work with these girls,” and the girls wrote: “I’m proud that I stood up for the girl who was bullying my best friend.” “I think I’m smart.” “I like that I’m different.” “I’m a really fast sprinter.” And “I’m a good artist.” At the end of that year, these girls started to change. It was like they were walking a little taller.
They were kinder to themselves, they were kinder to each other, and I, I started to change too. It was like they showed me that I could rewrite my story. And I realized, I realized that we weren’t the only ones struggling with that story; boys were struggling too; teenagers, even adults were having a tough time coming up with one or two things to say about themselves that they felt good about. And this negative self-image that we were holding on to, it was showing up in our culture in alarming ways.
It turns out that teens’ suicide, it’s the third leading cause of death amongst young people. One out of four girls says they have sex for the first time to be more liked, to be more popular. And boys and girls alike, they’re joining gangs, and the number one reason is not to feel safer, it’s to feel more important. But here is the good news; the good news is that we can counteract this. The work that I did with those girls and the work I’ve done for the last 15 years, we’ve come up with ways for us to feel good about ourselves right now, today, and I want to share some of those things with you, OK? So, the first thing that we can do to feel good about ourselves is we can spend time with people who make us feel good. This is me and Julie when I very first met her. Find your “Julie” and spend time with her or him. The second thing is that we can turn up the volume on our positive thinking. We can build up those thoughts about ourselves that are good, and we can delete the negative thoughts, just press “delete.” The third thing.
Start to tell the people around you – maybe the people around you today – start to tell them what you see about them that you like. Help them jumpstart their own positive thinking. And the last thing is, when you receive a compliment, when we receive compliments, let’s stand our ground, let’s look them in the eye, and let’s just say, “Thank you.” Let’s create a new culture: a culture where we all get to grow up feeling good about ourselves. A culture where we can rewrite our histories, we can create new stories about ourselves. I will start. I’m 11, and I like these legs because someday they’re going to help me run marathons. I’m 15, and I’m proud of my mom for getting herself sober and for making a better life for us. I’m 17, and I know that nobody is perfect. I’m 21, and I think I’m just as successful as my friends. I’m 37, and now, this is my story. I invite you today. I invite you to do two things with me. First, be “Julie” for someone; invite him/her to meet themselves. Because it might change their lives. And second, I want you to get out a piece of paper, and I want you to write down ten things about yourself that you admire.
The ten things about yourself that if you were someone else, you might even be jealous of. And I want that to be the beginning of your story today. I’ll help get you started, OK? So, I just met you a couple hours ago, literally, just a couple hours ago. And I can already say that you are gutsy; you are hardworking; you are unique; you are resilient; you are talented, you are gentle; you are calm; you are all amazing! Thank you. (Applause) (Cheering).
“Life is suffering”. Right. Indisputable. What do you do about that? You… you voluntarily accept it, and then strive to overcome the suffering, that’s a consequence of that. And… you do that for you, and you do that in a way, that makes it better for other people. And then – that works. And, one question might be: “Well, how well does it work?” And the answer is: you- The only way that you can find out, is by trying it.
That’s it, that’s the existential element of it. The proof is to be derived, by the incarnation of the attitude in your own life. No one can tell you, how it’ll work for you. It’s the thing – that your destiny is to discover that. And, you have to make… you have to make the decisions to begin with. It’s like… Because you can’t do this without commitment. You have to commit to it first, that’s the act of faith, that Kierkegaard was so insistent upon. You have to say: “I’m going to act, as if being is good”. “I’m going to act, as if truth is the pathway to enlightenment”. “I’m going to act, as if I should pursue the deepest meaning possible in my life”. And there’s- there’s reasons to do none of those. They’re real reasons. So it’s really a decision. But – you can’t find out what the consequence of the decision is, unless you make the decision.
I think the same thing happens, when you get married by the way, it’s that… If you think you might leave, you’re not married. And then, you think: “Well, the marriage didn’t succeed”. It’s like, “Well, maybe you were never married”. Because, the rule is: You don’t get to leave. And there’s a reason for that rule. Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t situations, where there should be exceptions made for that. That’s not the point. The point is, that there’s some games you don’t get to play, unless you’re all in. And y- the other thing, that’s so interesting about being alive, is that you’re all in No matter what you do – you’re all in, this is gonna kill you. So, I think you might as well play the most magnificent game you can, while you’re waiting. Because – do you have anything better to do? Really? Why not pick the best thing possible, that you could do? Why not do that? Maybe you could justify your wretched existence to yourself that way.
I think you could! That’s what it looks like. You know, people find such meaning in the responsibilities they adopt, it stops making them ask questions about what life is for. If you have a newborn child, for example, (like, unless you’re really in a bad way – – psychotically depressed, or maybe your personality really needs some retooling), you stop thinking about… anything but ensuring, that that baby is doing well. And, if someone comes along, and asks you an existential question about your commitment to that, the right response is: “Why are you asking me such stupid questions, [stutter] when this this is manifesting itself, right in front of your eyes?” It’s like, how blind can you be? That isn’t a time for- for questions about the meaning of life. The answer is right in front of you. And if you can’t see it, it’s not because life has no meaning, it’s because you’re blind! I mean, that’s what the image of the virgin mother and the child is all about. It’s like, “what’s the answer to the meaning of life?” Here’s an answer.
It’s like, “well, I’m going to criticize that”. Well, go right ahead! You know, it’s like, it’s like… what- what- you’re like a, you’re like a… What do you call that. Termite gnawing on a temple. There’s no- there’s no utility in that sort of criticism. You’re- It’s blindness. And it’s the same thing with regards to the path of the hero. It’s like, it glistens in front of you – and you can criticize it. It’s like… Fine, put the cart before the horse, and- and see how far you get. So, I thought – to bring full closure to the class – I was trying to solve this terrible puzzle, that confronted me for- and many other people, about how it was, that human beings got themselves in such a tangle, about what they believed? Such a tangle, that we were pointing the ultimate weapons of destruction at one another.
Which by the way, we are still doing. I thought “Okay well, I understand that. We need our belief systems, they orient us”. And, that means there will be conflict between belief systems, and that can be a catastrophe; and that’s being played out everywhere – again, in very many ways. What’s the solution to that? Well, one possibility is [that] there’s no solution. It’s just… mayhem all the way around. [It] could be the case. But it seemed to me, as I delved into it, that the proper solution to that was to live properly. As an individual. Because you’re more powerful than you think. Way more powerful than you think. I mean, God only knows what you are, in the final analysis. You’re blind to your own weaknesses, but you’re also blind to your own strengths. And so, then I think: Well, if you’ve got your act together, it’d be better for you, and instantly, it would be better for your family – assuming they wanted you to get your act together.
And not everyone does, but… And then, it would be better for the community. It’s like, how far could you take that? If you stopped wasting time, and if you stopped lying, and if you oriented yourself to… to the highest possible good, that you could conceive of, and you committed to that. How much good could you do? Well, I would say “Why don’t you find out?” So, that’s what I think you should do. You should find out. You don’t have anything better to do. And there’s nothing in it, as far as I’ve been able to tell, there’s nothing in it, but good. So… Maybe you could… sort yourself out, so that you wanted nothing but the good. And… and then maybe you could help make that manifest in the world.
And… maybe we wouldn’t have all these terrible problems then. At least we’d have fewer of them, and that would be a start. So… [stutter] The answer to the problem of humanity, is that- is the… is the integrity of the individual. That’s the answer. So. And states, that are predicated on that realization, are healthy. So… and states that aren’t, are doomed to stagnation, and catastrophic collapse. And… Personalities, that are predicated on… self-tyranny and the tyranny of others, are doomed, and… doomed to collapse. So… And then, you think: “Well, what’s the barrier?” And the barrier is: “Are you willing to accept the responsibility?” And part of the answer to that is: reduce the damn responsibility, until it’s tolerable.
You don’t have to fix everything at once. You could just start by fixing the things, that you could fix. Y- or you could even do it more… You can do it with even less self-sacrifice. You can start by fixing only the things that you wanna fix. God you can get a massive way that way. So… do it! See what happens. That’s what you should have been taught in university, right from the beginning. It’s like, aim at the highest good! Tool yourself into something, that can attain it. And go out there, and manifest it in the world. And everything, that- everything, that comes your way will be…
Everything, that comes your way, will be a blessing. And so… All you have to do, is give up your resentment and your hatred. I know that’s a hard thing to give up, because you have plenty of reason for it. That’s probably a good place to stop. So… it’s been a pleasure. [applause].
After the publication of my first book “The 48 laws of power,” I began to receive requests for advice from people in every conceivable profession and at every level of experience. Over the years, I have now personally consulted with over 100 different people. In so many of the cases, the following scenario would play itself out. They would come to me with a specific problem, a boss from hell, a business relationship that had turned ugly, a promotion that never came. I would slowly direct their attention away from the boss and the job, and instead get them to search inside themselves and try to find the emotional root of their discontent. Often, as we talked it out, they would realize that at their core, they felt deeply frustrated – their creativity was not being realized, their careers had somehow taken a wrong turn – what they actually wanted was something larger; a real and substantial change in their careers and in their lives.
It would be at this point that I would tell them a story about myself, about my own peculiar path to change and transformation from a highly unsuccessful writer, eking out an existence in a small, one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica, to best-selling author seemingly, overnight. I have never publicly related this story before, but for this special occasion, my first TEDx talk, I thought I would share it with you because it’s actually very relevant to the subject of change.
The story goes like this, I had known since an early age that I wanted to become a writer. I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to write. Perhaps it was novels, or essays, or plays. After university, I drifted into journalism, as a way to, at least, make a living while writing. Then one day, after several years of working as a writer and editor, I was having lunch with a man who had just edited an article I had written for a magazine. After downing his third martini, this editor, an older man, finally admitted to me why he had asked me to lunch, “You should seriously consider a different career,” he told me.
“You are not writer material. Your work is too undisciplined, your style is too bizarre, your ideas are just not relatable to the average reader. Go to law school, Robert, go to business school, spare yourself the pain.” At first, these words were like a punch in the stomach, but in the months to come, I realized something about myself. I had entered a career that just didn’t really suit me, mostly as a way to make a living, and my work reflected this incompatibility. I had to get out of journalism. This realization initiated a period of wandering in my life. I traveled all across Europe, I worked every conceivable job, I did construction work in Greece, taught English in Barcelona, worked as a hotel receptionist in Paris, a tour guide in Dublin, served as a trainee for an English company, making television documentaries, living not far from here in Brixton.
During all of this time, I wrote several novels that never made it past 100 pages, and dozens of essays that I would tear up, and plays that never got produced. I wandered back to Los Angeles, California, where I was born and raised. I worked in a detective agency, among other odd jobs. I entered the film business, working as an assistant to a director, as a researcher, story developer, and screenwriter. In these long years of wandering, I had totaled over 50 different jobs. By the year 1995, my parents – God bless them! – were beginning to get seriously worried about me.
I was 36 years old, and I seemed lost and unable to settle into anything. I too had moments of doubt, but I did not feel lost. I was searching and exploring, I was hungry for experiences, and I was continuously writing. That same year, while in Italy for yet another job, I met a man there, named Joost Elffers, a packager and producer of books. One day, while we were walking along the quays of Venice, Joost asked me if I had any ideas for a book. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, an idea just gushed out of me. It was about power. I told Joost that I was constantly reading books on history, and the stories that I read about Julius Caesar, the Borgias, and Louis XIV, were the exact same stories that I had personally witnessed with my own eyes in all of my different jobs, only less bloody.
(Laughter) People want power, and they want to disguise this wanting of power so they play games. They covertly manipulate and intrigue, all the while presenting a nice, even saintly, front. I would expose these games. I gave him numerous examples of what I meant, and he became increasingly excited. He said I should write a treatment, and if it was good enough, he would pay me to live while I wrote half the book, enough to sell it to a publisher. Suddenly, in writing what would become “The 48 laws of power,” everything in my disjointed past seemed to click into place, like magic, like destiny. All of those various writing experiences – the journalism, the television, the theater, the film – had given me the skills to tell stories and organize my thoughts; all of that reading of history had given me a vast storehouse of ideas that I could draw upon; and my work as a researcher had taught me how to find the perfect anecdote. Even those different, seemingly random jobs had exposed me to every type of psychology and to the dark corners of human psyche.
Even the languages I learned while traveling taught me patience and discipline. All of these experiences added up to rich layers of knowledge and practice that altered me from the inside out. In my own very weird and intuitive way, I had given myself the perfect education for the writing of ” The 48 laws of power.” The book came out in 1998, and it was a success. The course of my life was forever altered. The moral of this story, as I told the people who would come to me for advice, and as I’m telling you now, is the following. We humans tend to fixate on what we can see with our eyes. It is the most animal part of our nature. When we look at the changes and transformations in other people’s lives, we see the good luck that someone had in meeting a person like Joost, with all of the right connections and the funding. We see the book or the project that brings the money and the attention. In other words, we see the visible signs of opportunity and success.
— change in our own lives, but we are grasping at an illusion. What really allows for such dramatic changes are the things that occur on the inside of a person and are completely invisible: the slow accumulation of knowledge and skills, the incremental improvements in work habits, and the ability to withstand criticism. Any change in people’s fortune is merely the visible manifestation of all of that deep preparation over time. By essentially ignoring this internal, invisible aspect, we fail to change anything fundamental within ourselves. And so, in a few years time, we reach our limits yet again, we grow frustrated, we crave change, we grab at something quick and superficial, and we remain prisoners forever of these recurring patterns in our lives. The answer, the key to the ability to transform ourselves is actually insanely simple: to reverse this perspective. Stop fixating on what other people are saying and doing; on the money, the connections, the outward appearance of things. Instead, look inward, focus on the smaller, internal changes that lay the groundwork for a much larger change in fortune.
It is the difference between grasping at an illusion and immersing yourself in reality. Reality is what will liberate and transform you. Here’s how this would work in your own life. Consider the fact that each and every one of you is fundamentally unique – one of a kind; your DNA, the particular configuration of your brain, your life experiences. In early childhood, this uniqueness manifested itself by the fact that you felt particularly drawn to certain subjects and activities – what I call in my book ‘mastery, ‘ primal inclinations.
You cannot rationally explain why you felt so drawn to words, or to music, or to particular questions about the world around you, or to social dynamics. As you get older, you often lose contact with these inclinations. You listen to parents who urge you to follow a particular career path. You listen to teachers and alcoholic magazine editors who tell you what you’re good and bad at. You listen to friends who tell you what’s cool and not cool.
At a certain point, you can almost become a stranger to yourself and so, you enter career paths that are not suited to you emotionally and intellectually. Your life’s task, as I call it, is to return to those inclinations and to that uniqueness that marked each and every one of you at birth. At whatever age you find yourself, you must reflect back upon those earliest inclinations. You must look at those subjects in the present that continued to spark that childlike intense curiosity in you. You must look at those subjects and activities that you’ve been forced to do over the past few years that repel you, that have no emotional resonance.
Based on these reflections, you determine a direction you must take: writing, or music, or a particular branch of science, or a form of business, or public service. You now have a loose overall framework which you can explore and find those angles and positions that suit you best. You listen closely to yourself, to your internal radar. Some parts of that framework – for me. journalism and Hollywood – do not feel right. So you move on, slowly narrowing your path, all the while accumulating skills. Most people want simple, direct, straight line paths to the perfect position and to success, but instead, you must welcome wrong turns and mistakes. They make you aware of your flaws, they widen your experiences, they toughen you up. If you come to this process at a later age, you must cultivate a new set of skills that suit this change in direction you’ll be taking, and find a way to blend them with your previous skills.
Nothing in this process is ever wasted. In any event, the gold that you are after is learning and the acquisition of skills, not a fat paycheck. Look at what happens to you, as you adopt this very different internally-driven mindset. Because you are headed in a direction that resonates with you emotionally and personally, the hours of practice and study do not seem so burdensome. You can sustain your attention and your interest for much longer periods of time. What excites you is the learning process itself, overcoming obstacles, increasing your skill level. You are immersed in the present instead of constantly obsessing over the future, and so, you pay greater attention to the work itself and to the people around you, developing patience and social intelligence. Without forcing the issue, a point is reached in which you are thoroughly prepared from within.
The slightest opportunity that comes your way, you will now exploit. In fact, you will draw opportunities to you because people will sense how prepared you are, which is, I believe, what happened to me with Joost. Some of this might sound a bit mystical, but the results of this process that I’m talking about have been corroborated by recent scientific research. Most notably, the 1995’s study by Anders Ericsson that yielded the very famous 10,000-hour rule. In tracking people who had devoted years of their lives to learning chess or music, Ericsson discovered that somewhere near that magical mark of 10,000 hours of practice, the minds of these people suddenly became much more creative and fluid. The structures of their brains had been altered by all of those hours of practice, and at that 10,000-hour mark, we could see a visible transformation in their performance and creativity. That is a level you will reach naturally and organically if you follow this process far enough. Finally, what I’m proposing to you right now is actually, I think, rather radical, namely, the way to transform yourself is through your work.
I know this runs counter to our prevailing cultural prejudices; work is too ugly, too boring, too banal. Self-transformation, we think, comes through a spiritual journey, therapy, a guru who tells us what to do, intense group experiences, social experiences, and drugs. But most of these are ways of running away from ourselves and relieving our chronic boredom. They’re not connected to process, so any changes that occur don’t last. Instead, through our work, we can actually connect to who we are, instead of running away. By entering that slow, organic process, we can actually change ourselves from the inside out in a way that’s very real and very lasting. This process involves a journey of self-discovery that can be seen as quite spiritual if you like. In the end of this process, we contribute something unique and meaningful to our culture through our work, which is hardly ugly, boring, or banal.