خصومت پنهان شده پشت نمای رو به رو را ببینکتاب: قوانین طبیعت انسان / درس 17
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16 See the Hostility Behind the Friendly Façade
The Law of Aggression
On the surface, the people around you appear so polite and civilized. But beneath the mask, they are all inevitably dealing with frustrations. They have a need to influence people and gain power over circumstances. Feeling blocked in their endeavors, they often try to assert themselves in manipulative ways that catch you by surprise. And then there are those whose need for power and impatience to obtain it are greater than others. They turn particularly aggressive, getting their way by intimidating people, being relentless and willing to do almost anything. You must transform yourself into a superior observer of people’s unsatisfied aggressive desires, paying extra attention to the chronic aggressors and passive aggressors in our midst. You must recognize the signs—the past patterns of behavior, the obsessive need to control everything in their environment—that indicate the dangerous types. They depend on making you emotional—afraid, angry—and unable to think straight. Do not give them this power. When it comes to your own aggressive energy, learn to tame and channel it for productive purposes—standing up for yourself, attacking problems with relentless energy, realizing great ambitions.
The Sophisticated Aggressor
In late 1857, Maurice B. Clark, a twenty-eight-year-old Englishman living in Cleveland, Ohio, made the most important decision yet in his young life: he would quit his comfortable job as a high-level buyer and seller for a produce firm and start his own business in the same line. He had the ambition of becoming yet another new millionaire in this bustling city, and he had nothing but confidence in his powers to get there: he was a born hustler with a nose for making money.
Clark had fled England some ten years earlier, fearing imminent arrest for having struck his employer and knocked him unconscious. (He always had a bit of a temper.) He had emigrated to the United States, traveled west from New York, landed all kinds of odd jobs, and then ended up in Cleveland, where he quickly rose through the ranks of merchants. Cleveland was something of a boomtown, located on a river and Lake Erie and serving as a key transportation hub connecting the East to the West. There would never be a better time for Clark to push his way forward and make a fortune.
There was only one problem—he did not have enough money to start the business. He would need a collaborator with some capital, and as he thought about this, he came up with a possible business partner, a young man named John D. Rockefeller whom Clark had befriended at a commercial college both had attended a few years before.
At first glance, it seemed an odd choice. Rockefeller was only eighteen years old. He was working as a bookkeeper at a fairly large produce-shipping firm named Hewitt and Tuttle, and he was in so many ways the polar opposite of Clark: Clark loved to live well, with a taste for fine things, gambling, and the ladies; he was feisty and combative. Rockefeller was fiercely religious, unusually sober and mild-mannered for his age. How could they possibly get along? And Clark had calculated that his partner would have to put up at least $2,000 to get the company under way. How would a bookkeeper from a family of limited means have such savings? On the other hand, in his two years at Hewitt and Tuttle, Rockefeller had earned a reputation as one of the most fiercely efficient and honest clerks in town, a man who could be relied upon to account for every penny spent and keep the company in the black. More important, as Rockefeller was so young, Clark could dominate the relationship. It was worth asking him.
To Clark’s surprise, when he suggested the partnership, Rockefeller not only jumped at the opportunity with uncharacteristic zeal but quickly came up with the $2,000, somehow borrowing the funds. Rockefeller quit his job and the new company, called Clark and Rockefeller, opened for business in April 1858.
In its first years Clark and Rockefeller was a thriving enterprise. The two men balanced each other out, and there was much business to be had in Cleveland. But as time went on, Clark began to feel increasingly irritated by the young man, and even a bit contemptuous of him. He was more straitlaced than Clark had imagined; he had no discernible vices. His main pleasure seemed to come from the accounting books that he kept so well and finding ways to save money. Although still so young, he already had a slumped posture from poring over his ledgers day and night. He dressed like a middle-aged banker, and acted that way as well. Clark’s brother James, who worked in the office, dubbed him “the Sunday-school superintendent.” Slowly Clark began to see Rockefeller as too dull and dreary to be one of the faces of the company. Clark brought in a new partner from an elite Cleveland family and dropped Rockefeller’s name from the company title, hoping that would draw even more business. Surprisingly, Rockefeller did not seem to object to this; he was all in favor of making more money and cared little about titles.
Their produce business was booming, but soon word spread through Cleveland of a new commodity that could spark the region’s equivalent of a gold rush—the recent discovery of rich veins of oil in nearby western Pennsylvania. In 1862 a young Englishman named Samuel Andrews—an inventor/entrepreneur who had known Clark in England—visited their offices and pleaded with Clark to become partners in the oil business. He bragged of the limitless potential in oil—the lucrative series of products that could be made out of the material and the cheapness of producing them. With just a little capital they could start their own refinery and make a fortune.
Clark’s response was lukewarm—it was a business that experienced tremendous ups and downs, prices continually rising and falling, and with the Civil War now raging, it seemed a bad time to commit so fully. It would be better to get involved on some lower level. But then Andrews gave his pitch to Rockefeller, and something seemed to spark to life in the young man’s eyes. Rockefeller convinced Clark that they should fund the refinery—he would personally ensure its success. Clark had never seen Rockefeller so enthusiastic about anything. It must mean something, he thought, and so he relented to the pressure from the two men. In 1863 they formed a new refining business called Andrews, Clark and Company.
That same year, twenty other refineries sprouted up in Cleveland, and the competition was fierce. To Clark, it was quite amusing to watch Rockefeller in action. He spent hours in the refinery, sweeping the floors, polishing the metal, rolling out barrels, stacking hoops. It was like a love affair. He worked well into the night trying to figure out ways to streamline the refinery and squeeze more money out of it. It had become the principal generator of profit for their firm, and Clark could not help but be pleased that he had agreed to fund it. Oil, however, had become Rockefeller’s obsession, and he constantly bombarded Clark with new ideas for expansion, all at a time when the price of oil was fluctuating more than ever. Clark told him to go more slowly; he found the chaos in the oil business unnerving.
Increasingly, Clark found it hard to hide his irritation: Rockefeller was getting a bit puffed up with the success of the refinery. Clark had to remind the former bookkeeper of whose idea it had been all along to start their business. Like a refrain, he kept telling Rockefeller, “What in the world would you have done without me?” Then he discovered that Rockefeller had borrowed $100,000 for the refinery without consulting him, and he angrily ordered Rockefeller to never go behind his back again and to stop looking to expand the business. But nothing he said or did seemed to stop him. For someone so quiet and unassuming, Rockefeller could be annoyingly relentless, like a child. A few months after Clark had berated him, Rockefeller hit him with another request to sign for a big loan, and Clark finally exploded: “If that’s the way you want to do business, we’d better dissolve, and let you run your own affairs to suit yourself.” Clark had no desire to break up the partnership at this point—it was too profitable, and despite the qualities that grated on his nerves, he needed Rockefeller as the man to look after the dull details of their growing enterprise. He simply wanted to intimidate Rockefeller with this threat, which seemed to be the only way to get him to back off on his tireless quest to quickly grow the refinery business. As usual, Rockefeller said little and seemed to defer.
Then, the following month, Rockefeller invited Clark and Andrews to his house to discuss future plans. And despite all of Clark’s previous admonitions, Rockefeller outlined even bolder ideas for expanding the refinery, and once again Clark could not control himself. “We’d better split up!” he yelled. Then something odd happened—Rockefeller agreed to this and got Clark and Andrews to affirm that they were all in favor of dissolving the partnership. He did this without the slightest trace of anger or resentment.
Clark had played a lot of poker, and he felt certain Rockefeller was bluffing, trying to force his hand. If he refused to budge on the young man’s desire to expand the business, Rockefeller would have to back down. He could not afford to be on his own; he needed Clark more than the other way around. He would be forced to realize his rashness and ask to resume the partnership. In doing so, Rockefeller would be humbled. Clark could set the terms and demand that Rockefeller follow his lead.
To his amazement, however, the next day Clark read in the local newspaper the announcement of the dissolution of their business, the notice obviously placed there by Rockefeller himself. When Clark confronted him later that day, Rockefeller calmly replied he was merely putting into action what they had agreed upon the day before, that it had been Clark’s idea to start with, and that he thought Clark was right. He suggested they hold an auction and sell the company to the highest bidder. Something about his dull, businesslike manner was infuriating. At this point, agreeing to the auction was not the worst option. Clark would outbid him and be rid of this insufferable upstart once and for all.
On the day of the auction in February 1865, Clark used a lawyer to represent his side, while Rockefeller represented himself, yet another sign of his arrogance and lack of sophistication. The price kept ticking upward, and finally Rockefeller bid $72,500, a rather ridiculous and shocking price to pay, a sum that Clark could not possibly afford. How would Rockefeller have so much money, and how could he possibly run this business without Clark? He clearly had lost any business sense that he had had. If that was what he was willing to pay, and he had the funds, let him have it and good riddance. As part of the sale, Rockefeller got the refinery but had to let go of the produce business with no compensation. Clark was more than satisfied, although it bothered him that Andrews had decided to go along with Rockefeller and remain his partner.
In the months to come, however, Maurice Clark began to reassess what had happened: he started to have the uneasy feeling that Rockefeller had been planning this for months, perhaps more than a year. Rockefeller must have courted bankers and secured bank loans well before the auction, to be able to afford the high price. He must have also secured Andrews to his side in advance. He could detect a gloating look in Rockefeller’s eye the day the refinery became his, something he had never seen before in the sober young man. Was that quiet and dull appearance of his merely an act? As the years revealed the immense wealth Rockefeller would accumulate through this first move, Clark could not help but entertain the thought he had somehow been played.
Colonel Oliver H. Payne was the equivalent of Cleveland aristocracy. He came from an illustrious family that included one of the founders of the city itself. He had attended Yale University and had become a decorated Civil War hero. And after the war he had started several successful business enterprises. He had one of the finest mansions in town on Euclid Avenue, nicknamed Millionaire’s Row. But he had larger ambitions, perhaps politics; he thought of himself as presidential material.
One of his thriving businesses was a refinery, which was the second biggest in town. But toward the end of 1871, Payne began to hear strange rumors of some kind of agreement between a few refinery owners and the largest railroads: the railroads would lower their rates for the particular refineries that had joined this secret organization, in exchange for a guaranteed volume of traffic. Those outside this organization would find their rates rising, making business difficult if not impossible. And the chief refinery owner, and the only one in Cleveland, behind this agreement was apparently none other than John D. Rockefeller.
Rockefeller had expanded to two refineries in Cleveland and had renamed the company Standard Oil. Standard Oil was now the country’s largest refining business, but the competition remained stiff, even within Cleveland and its now twenty-eight refineries, including those of Standard Oil. Because of this booming business, more and more millionaires had built their mansions on Euclid Avenue. But if Rockefeller controlled entrée into this new organization, he could do great damage to his competitors. It was in the midst of these rumors that Rockefeller arranged for a very private meeting between him and Payne at a Cleveland bank.
Payne knew Rockefeller well. They had been born two weeks apart, had gone to the same high school, and lived near each other on Euclid Avenue. He admired Rockefeller’s business savvy but also feared him. Rockefeller was the kind of man who could not stand to lose in anything. If someone passed him by in a horse-drawn carriage, Rockefeller would have to whip his horses and overtake it. They worshipped in the same church; Payne knew he was a man of high principle, but he was also quite mysterious and secretive.
In their meeting, Rockefeller confided in Payne: he was the first outsider to be told of the existence of this secret organization, to be called the Southern Improvement Company (SIC). Rockefeller claimed it was the railroads that had come up with the idea of the SIC to increase their profits, and that he had really had no choice but to enter into the agreement. He did not invite Payne to join the SIC. Instead he offered to buy out Payne’s refinery at a very nice price, to give Payne a hefty amount of Standard Oil stock that would certainly mint him a fortune, and to bring him in as a high-level executive with an illustrious title. He would make far more money this way than by trying to compete with Standard Oil.
Rockefeller said all of this in the politest tone. He was going to keep expanding and bring some much-needed order to the anarchic oil industry. It was a crusade of his, and he was inviting Payne to be a fellow crusader from within Standard Oil. It was a compelling way to present his case, but Payne hesitated. He had moments of exasperation in dealing with this unpredictable business, but he had not thought of selling the refinery. It was all so sudden. Sensing his indecision, Rockefeller gave him a look of great sympathy and offered Payne the chance to examine Standard Oil’s ledgers, to convince him of the futility of resistance. Payne could hardly turn that down, and what he saw in a few short hours astounded him: Standard Oil had considerably higher profit margins than his own. Nobody had suspected to what extent Standard Oil was outpacing its rivals. For Payne, it was enough, and he accepted Rockefeller’s offer.
News of the sale of Payne’s refinery, as well as the growing rumors of the existence of the SIC, completely rattled the other refinery owners in town. With Payne’s refinery in his pocket, Rockefeller was in a very strong position.
Within weeks, J. W. Fawcett of Fawcett and Critchley, another major refinery in town, received a visit from Rockefeller. His pitch was ever so slightly more ominous than what he had delivered to Payne: the business was too unpredictable; Cleveland was farther away from the oil-producing towns, and the refiners had to pay more for crude oil to be shipped there; they were at a continual disadvantage; with the prices of oil continuing to fluctuate, many of them would go bust; Rockefeller was going to consolidate them and give Cleveland some leverage with the railroads; he was doing them all a favor, relieving them of the tremendous burdens of the business and giving them money before they went broke, which with the SIC was certain to happen.
The price he offered for Fawcett’s refinery was certainly less generous than what he had paid Payne, as were the shares and the position within Standard Oil that went along with the proposition, and Fawcett was quite reluctant to sell, but a glance at Standard Oil’s books overwhelmed him, and he surrendered to Rockefeller’s terms.
Now more and more refinery owners received a visit from Rockefeller, and one after another succumbed to the pressure, since holding out put them in a weaker negotiating position, as the price Rockefeller offered for their refineries kept getting lower. One holdout owner was Isaac Hewitt, Rockefeller’s former boss when he was a fledgling bookkeeper. Selling the refinery at such a low price could ruin Hewitt. He begged Rockefeller for mercy and to be left alone with his business. Rockefeller, ever gentle and polite, told him that he could not possibly compete with Standard Oil moving forward. “I have ways of making money you know nothing about,” he explained. Hewitt sold his refinery for more than half the price he had wanted.
By the middle of March, the existence of the SIC had become public and the pressure had mounted for such an organization to be disbanded or suffer legal consequences. The railroads relented, and so did Rockefeller, who did not seem all that upset at this news. The matter was settled, the SIC disappeared, but in the months to come some people in Cleveland began to wonder if all was not what it had appeared to be. The SIC had never really taken effect; it had remained just a rumor, and Standard Oil, it seemed, was the principal source of that rumor. In the meantime, Rockefeller had effected what had become known as the Cleveland Massacre—in just a few months, he had bought out twenty of the twenty-six refineries outside his control. Many elegant mansions of former millionaires on Euclid Avenue were now being sold or boarded up, as Rockefeller had carefully knocked them out of the business. He had acted as if the railroads were calling all the shots with the SIC, but perhaps it had been the other way around.
In the years to come, those in the railroad business began to greatly fear the growing power of Standard Oil. After the Cleveland Massacre, Rockefeller applied the same tactics to refineries in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York. His method was always the same: aiming first for the biggest refineries in the respective town, showing them his books, which were now even more impressive, getting a few big fish to surrender, and instilling panic in the others. Those who held out he would ruthlessly undersell and drive out of the market. By 1875, Rockefeller controlled all of the major refining centers in the United States and virtually monopolized the worldwide market for kerosene, the principal product used for lighting.
Such power gave him far too much leverage over railroad rates, but to make matters worse, Rockefeller had begun to dominate the pipeline business, the other way of transporting oil. He built up a whole series of pipelines throughout Pennsylvania and had gained control of several railroads that helped ship the oil the rest of the way to the East Coast, giving him his own transportation networks. If he continued unimpeded in this campaign, his position would be impregnable. And nobody was more afraid of this prospect than Tom Scott, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, at the time the largest and most powerful corporation in America.
Scott had led a most distinguished life. During the Civil War, he had served as Lincoln’s assistant secretary of war, in charge of ensuring the smooth functioning of the railroads in aiding the North’s effort. As head of the Pennsylvania Railroad, he had ambitions of endlessly expanding the company’s reach, but Rockefeller stood in the way, and it was time to do battle with Standard Oil.
Scott had all the necessary resources to take on Rockefeller, and he had a plan. For the past few years, anticipating Rockefeller’s maneuvers, he had built up his own enormous network of pipelines that would work in conjunction with his railroad to move oil to refineries. He would ramp up the construction of new pipelines and purchase new refineries that sprang up, creating his own rival network, ensuring his railroad enough business to check Rockefeller’s progress, then work to weaken him further. But as it became clear what he was up to, Rockefeller’s response was totally unexpected and rather shocking: Standard Oil shut down almost all its Pennsylvania refineries, giving Scott’s pipelines and railroads virtually no oil to ship. If they managed to get their hands on some oil, Rockefeller rigorously undersold them to any refineries outside his system, and he seemed to not care how low the price would go. He also made it hard for Scott to get his hands on the oil the company needed to lubricate train engines and wheels.
Pennsylvania Railroad had overextended itself in this campaign and was losing money at a rapid rate, but Rockefeller had to be losing just as much. He seemed to be aiming for mutual suicide. Scott was in too deep to back out of this war, and so he was forced to cut costs by firing hundreds of railroad workers and reducing wages for those who remained. Scott’s workers retaliated with a general railroad strike that quickly turned violent and bloody, as workers spread throughout the state destroying thousands of Pennsylvania Railroad freight cars. Scott retaliated brutally, but the strike persisted and the shareholders in the Pennsylvania Railroad were growing quite nervous. All the while, Rockefeller seemed unperturbed and continued with his pressure campaign, as if he had nothing to lose.
Scott had had enough. Somehow Rockefeller could absorb these huge losses, but he could not. He had literally run out of money. Not only did he agree to put a stop to his campaign, but he had to sell to Rockefeller the lion’s share of his refineries, storage tanks, steamships, and pipelines. Scott would never recover from this humiliating and rather sudden defeat: a year later he suffered a stroke, and within a few years he died at the age of fifty-eight.
Although it appeared that Rockefeller’s control of the oil business was now complete, a businessman and engineer named Byron Benson had an idea about how to poke a hole in his expanding empire. Rockefeller could call the shots with his immense resources, but he could not compete with technological progress. What gave Rockefeller an advantage was that pipelines were relatively short, at most thirty miles long. He could dominate by creating pipeline networks all across Pennsylvania and by controlling many of the railroads operating between the refineries and the pipelines. Even if someone had an independent pipeline, at some point he would depend on Standard Oil to transport the oil the rest of the way.
What if, however, Benson could design something new—one long, continuous pipeline that would run from the oil fields of western Pennsylvania to the Eastern Seaboard? In that way he could deliver oil directly to the few independent East Coast refineries that remained and guarantee low prices for them, bypassing Rockefeller’s network. This would halt Rockefeller’s momentum, and with more of these long-range pipelines, rivals to Standard Oil could begin to compete on fairer terms.
It would not be easy. The pipeline would require some novel engineering to make the oil flow upward over the hills and mountains that would inevitably be in the way, but Benson had been working on this. And because Rockefeller had made so many enemies and so many feared his growing monopoly, Benson was able to raise very large sums of money from investors, more than enough to cover the high cost of building such a pipeline.
Benson named his enterprise the Tidewater Pipeline Company, and in 1878 construction began. But almost immediately he had to deal with an insidious campaign to halt the work on the pipeline. Benson depended on railroad tank cars to transport the heavy materials to the construction site, but it seemed that over the years Rockefeller had bought up the lion’s share of such cars and had virtually cornered the market. Wherever he turned to find tank cars, Benson ran into Standard Oil subsidiaries that controlled them. Benson had to find other means of moving the material, and this added to his costs and wasted valuable time. All of this only made him more determined to finish the job and outwit Rockefeller.
This, however, was only the beginning. Benson needed to make his route to the sea as easy as possible, to save money, and that would mean running it through Maryland. But now word reached him that, through lots of generous bribes, Rockefeller had gotten the Maryland legislature to give an exclusive pipeline charter to Standard Oil. This meant Tidewater would have to pass through the hillier and even mountainous areas farther north in Pennsylvania, making the route more circuitous and the job more expensive.
Then, however, came the most threatening blow of all: Rockefeller suddenly went on a real estate buying spree, purchasing large tracts of farmland in Pennsylvania, right in the way of Tidewater’s advance to the sea. No price seemed too high for Standard Oil to pay. Benson did what he could to fight back and buy his own land, but rumors began to spread among the farmers in the area of the danger if they sold parts of their land to Tidewater—being so long, the pipeline would be subject to leaks that could ruin their crops. Clearly, Standard Oil was the source of the rumors, and they had an effect.
To Benson, Rockefeller was like a relentless, invisible demon attacking him from all directions, ratcheting up the costs and the pressure. But Benson could be just as relentless. If Rockefeller bought out an entire valley, Benson made the pipeline change course, even if it meant going over more hills. The route became a ridiculous zigzag, but the pipeline kept inching its way east and finally reached the coast in May of 1879.
Once the pipeline went into operation, however, no one could predict if its elaborate pumping system could move the oil up steep climbs. Slowly the first flow of crude oil made its way through the pipeline, ascending even the highest mountain, and after seven days the first drops reached the end point. The Tidewater Pipeline was considered one of the great engineering feats of the day, and Benson became an overnight hero. Finally someone had outwitted and outfought Standard Oil.
To Benson’s amazement, however, Rockefeller now only ratcheted up the pressure. Tidewater had bled money and had little left in reserve, but here was Rockefeller drastically reducing rates on Standard Oil’s own pipelines and railroads, transporting oil virtually for free. Tidewater could not find a drop of oil to ship, and this was bringing the company to its knees. By March of 1880 Benson had had enough, and he struck a deal with Standard Oil on the most favorable terms he could get, joining the two companies. But this was only a preliminary move. In the months to come, Rockefeller bought up more and more shares in Tidewater, bringing it completely under his control. Like so many others before him, in trying to fight against Rockefeller, Benson had only made him stronger and more invincible. How could anyone hope to fight against such an indomitable force?
In the 1880s the demand for kerosene to light houses and offices exploded, and Rockefeller controlled the market. And in cities and towns across America, local grocers and retailers began to notice a revolutionary new system introduced by Standard Oil. The company had set up storage tanks in all corners of the country and financed tank wagons to transport the kerosene to almost every town. Not only would Standard Oil salesmen personally sell the company’s kerosene to stores, but they would also go from house to house, selling heaters and stoves directly to homeowners, at the lowest prices.
This threatened the business of many local retailers, and when they protested, Standard Oil representatives would tell them that they would stop the practice if the retailers sold exclusively Standard Oil products. For those who refused, Standard Oil would start its own grocery store in the area and, with cheap prices, drive the rebellious store owners out of business. In some areas, furious retailers would turn to a rival company, such as Republic Oil, which specialized in selling to retailers who hated Rockefeller. Little did they know that Standard Oil had secretly set up and owned Republic Oil.
With all of these practices Rockefeller had created a growing number of enemies, but none of them was as dogged and fanatical as George Rice, a man who had managed to maintain a small, independent refinery in Ohio. He tried to get lawmakers to investigate the company’s practices. He published a newsletter called Black Death, which compiled all the muckraking articles on Rockefeller. And to somehow find a way to make a profit and snub his nose at Rockefeller, he decided he would personally travel and sell his own oil in several towns, bypassing the new system that had cornered the market.
It was hard to imagine that Standard Oil could possibly care about him; the amount of oil he was trying to sell was miniscule and his success was quite limited. But when he managed to sell a mere seventy barrels of kerosene to a retailer in Louisville, suddenly he learned that the railroad that had agreed, while he was on the road, to ship his oil to him now refused to carry his product. He knew who was behind this, but he managed to find other, more expensive means to get shipments of oil.
He moved to another town near Louisville, only to find Standard Oil salesmen there who had anticipated his presence and carefully kept underselling him. He found himself pushed to ever-smaller towns farther south, but once again there were the Standard Oil men blocking his way, and soon he could not sell a drop of oil. It was as if they had spies everywhere and were tracking his progress. But more than anything, he felt the ubiquitous presence of Rockefeller himself, who clearly knew of his little campaign and was out to crush this tiniest of competitors at all costs. Finally realizing what he was truly up against, Rice gave up the fight and returned home.
In the early 1900s, after Rockefeller had resigned as head of Standard Oil, he began to fascinate the American public. He was by far the wealthiest man in the world, the first billionaire on the planet, but the stories of the way he had conducted his battles and the monopoly he had forged made them wonder about his character. He was a notorious recluse, and few knew anything concrete about him. Then some among his many enemies initiated a series of court cases to break up the Standard Oil monopoly. Rockefeller was forced to testify, and to the public’s amazement, he was not at all like the devil they had imagined. As one newspaper writer reported: “He seems the embodiment of sweetness and light. His serenity could not be disturbed. . . . At times his manner was mildly reproachful, at others tenderly persuasive, but never did he betray an ill temper or vexation.” As he emerged as the world’s most generous philanthropist, and as the public came to appreciate the cheap oil he provided, they changed their opinion of him. After all, as the major shareholder in Standard Oil he had immense influence, and he had agreed to the breakup of the Standard Oil monopoly. Little did they know that behind the scenes he operated as he always had done: finding loopholes in the law, keeping the monopoly together through secret agreements, and maintaining his control. He would not allow anyone to block his path, and certainly not the government.
• • •
Interpretation: The story of the rise to power of John D. Rockefeller has to be considered one of the most remarkable in history. In a relatively short period of time (some twenty years), he rose from the bottom of society (his family had suffered periods of poverty) to become the founder and owner of the largest corporation in America, and shortly after that to emerge as the wealthiest man in the world. In the process, as so often happens in such cases, his story became shrouded in all kinds of myths. He was either a demon or a god of capitalism. But lost in all of these emotional responses is the answer to a simple question: how did one man—with little help—accumulate so much power in so little time?
If we examine him closely, we must conclude that it wasn’t through supreme intelligence or some particular talent or creative vision. He had some of those qualities, but nothing strong enough to account for his outrageous success. In truth, what we can attribute it to more than anything is the sheer relentless force of will that he possessed to utterly dominate every situation and rival he encountered, and to exploit every opportunity that crossed his path. We shall call this aggressive energy. Such energy can have productive purposes (see the last section in the chapter for more on this), and certainly Rockefeller had some achievements that benefited the society of his time. But as so often happens with highly aggressive people, this energy pushed him to monopolize virtually all power in a complex industry. It made him wipe out all rivals and any possible competition, bend laws to his benefit, standardize all practices according to his desires, and in the end, depress innovation in the field.
Let us divorce Rockefeller’s story from the usual emotional responses and simply look at him dispassionately, as a kind of specimen to help us understand the nature of highly aggressive individuals and what makes large numbers of people submit to their will. In this way we can also learn some valuable lessons about human nature and how we can begin to counter those who continually work to monopolize power, often to the detriment of the rest of us.
Rockefeller grew up in peculiar circumstances. His father, William, was a notorious con artist. And from the very beginning, the father set a rather unpleasant pattern for the family: He would leave his wife, Eliza, and four children (John being the eldest) for months on end in their flimsy cabin in western New York and travel the region plying his various con games. During this time, the family would have barely enough money to survive. Eliza had to find a way to make every penny count. Then the father would reappear with wads of cash and gifts for the family. He was amusing (a great storyteller) but at times rather cruel and even violent. Then he would leave again, and the pattern would reset. It was impossible to predict when he would return, and the members of the family were continually on edge when he was there and when he was not.
As a teenager, John had to go to work to help bring some stability to the family’s finances. And as he advanced in his career, he could not escape the anxieties that had plagued him in his childhood. He had a desperate need to make everything orderly and predictable in his environment. He immersed himself deeply in his accounting books—nothing was more predictable than the pluses and minuses on a ledger sheet. At the same time, he had great ambitions for making a fortune; his father had instilled in him an almost visceral love of money.
And so, when he first learned of what could be accomplished with an oil refinery, he saw his great opportunity. But his attraction to the oil business may seem at first glance rather strange. It was a Wild West environment, totally anarchic; fortunes could be made or lost in a matter of months. In many ways, the oil business was like his father—exciting, promising sudden riches, but treacherously unpredictable. Unconsciously he was drawn to it for those very reasons—he could relive his worst fears from childhood and surmount them by establishing rigorous control over the oil industry. It would be like conquering the father himself. The chaos would only spur him to greater heights, as he would have to work doubly hard to tame its wildness.
And so, in these first years of business, we can see the motivating factor that would drive all his subsequent actions—the overwhelming need for control. The more complicated and difficult this task, the more relentless the energy he would summon to achieve such a goal. And out of this need came a second one, almost as important—to justify his aggressive actions to the world and to himself. Rockefeller was a deeply religious man. He could not live with the thought that what drove his actions was a desire to control people and acquire the vast sums of money necessary for such a purpose. That would have been to see himself in too ugly and soulless a light.
To repress such a thought, he constructed what we shall call the aggressor’s narrative. He had to convince himself that his quest for power served some higher purpose. There was a belief at the time among Protestants that to make a lot of money was a sign of grace from God. With wealth, the religious individual could give back to the community and help support the local parish. But Rockefeller took this further. He believed that establishing order in the oil business was a divine mission, like ordering the cosmos. He was on a crusade to bring cheap prices and predictability to American households. Turning Standard Oil into a monopoly blended seamlessly with his deep religious convictions.
Sincerely believing in this crusade, it did not bother his conscience to ruthlessly manipulate and ruin his rivals, to bribe legislators, to run roughshod over laws, to form fake rival enterprises to Standard Oil, to spark and use the violence of a strike (with Pennsylvania Railroad) that would help him in the long run. Belief in this narrative made him all the more energetic and aggressive, and for those who faced him, it could be confusing—perhaps there was some good in what he was doing; perhaps he was not a demon after all.
Finally, to realize his dream of control, Rockefeller transformed himself into a superior reader of men and their psychology. And the most important quality for him to gauge in the various rivals he faced was their relative willpower and resiliency. He could sense this in people’s body language and in the patterns of their actions. Most people, he determined, are rather weak. They are mostly led by their emotions, which change by the day. They want things to be rather easy in life and tend to take the path of least resistance. They don’t have a stomach for protracted battles. They want money for the pleasures and comforts it can bring, for their yachts and mansions. They want to look powerful, to satisfy their ego. Make them afraid or confused or frustrated, or offer them an easy way out, and they would surrender to his stronger will. If they got angry, all the better. Anger burns itself out quickly, and Rockefeller always played for the long term.
Look at how he played each of the antagonists in his path. With Clark, he carefully fed his arrogance and deliberately made him irritable, so that he would quickly agree to the auction just to get rid of Rockefeller, without thinking too deeply about the consequences.
Colonel Payne was a vain and greedy man. Give him plenty of money and a nice title, and he would be satisfied and surrender to Rockefeller his refinery. For the other refinery owners, instill fears about the uncertain future, using the SIC as a convenient bogeyman. Make them feel isolated and weak, and sow some panic. Yes, his refineries were more profitable, as shown by his books, but the other owners failed to reason that Rockefeller himself was just as vulnerable as they were to the ups and downs of the business. If only they had united in opposition to his campaign, they could have countered him, but they were made too emotional to think straight, and they surrendered their refineries with ease.
When it came to Scott, Rockefeller saw him as a hothead, enraged by Standard Oil’s threat to his preeminent position in business. Rockefeller welcomed the war with Scott and prepared for it by amassing vast amounts of cash. He would simply outlast him. And the angrier he made Scott with his unorthodox tactics, the more imprudent and rash Scott became, going so far as to try to crush the railroad strike, which only made his position weaker. With Benson, Rockefeller recognized the type—the man enamored with his own brilliance and wanting attention as the first one to defeat Standard Oil. Putting up obstacles in his path would only make him try harder, while weakening his finances. It would be simple to buy him off in the end, when he had grown tired of Rockefeller’s relentless pressure.
As an extra measure, Rockefeller would always strategize to make his opponents feel rushed and impatient. Clark had only one day to plan for the auction. The refinery owners faced imminent doom in a few months unless they sold to him. Scott and Benson had to hurry up in their battles or face running out of money. This made them more emotional and less able to strategize.
Understand: Rockefeller represents a type of individual that you will likely come across in your field. We shall call this type the sophisticated aggressor, as opposed to the primitive aggressor. Primitive aggressors have very short fuses. If someone triggers in them feelings of inferiority or weakness, they explode. They lack any self-control, and so they tend to not get very far in life, inevitably bullying and hurting too many people. Sophisticated aggressors are much trickier. They rise to top positions and can stay there because they know how to cloak their maneuvers, to present a distracting façade, and to play upon people’s emotions. They know that most people do not like confrontation or long struggles, and so they can intimidate or wear people down. They depend on our docility as much as on their own aggression.
The sophisticated aggressors that you encounter do not have to be as spectacularly successful as a Rockefeller. They can be your boss, a rival, or even a scheming colleague on the way up. You can recognize them by one simple sign: they get to where they’re going primarily through their aggressive energy, not through their particular talents. They value amassing power more than the quality of their work. They do whatever is necessary to secure their position and crush any kind of competition or challenge. They do not like to share power.
In dealing with this type, you will tend to become angry or fearful, enlarging their presence and playing into their hands. You obsess over their evil character and fail to pay close attention to what they are actually up to. What you often end up surrendering to is the appearance or illusion of strength that they project, their aggressive reputation. The way to handle them is to lower the emotional temperature. Start by looking at the individual, not the myth or legend. Understand their primary motivation—to gain control over the environment and the people around them. As with Rockefeller, this need for control covers up vast layers of anxieties and insecurities. You must see the frightened child within, terrified by anything unpredictable. In this way you can cut them down to size, diminishing their ability to intimidate you.
They want to control your thoughts and reactions. Deny them this power by focusing on their actions and your strategies, not your feelings. Analyze and anticipate their real goals. They want to instill in you the idea that you have no options, that surrender is inevitable and the best way out. But you always have options. Even if they are your boss and you must surrender in the present, you can maintain your inner independence and plot for the day in which they make a mistake and are weakened, using your knowledge of their vulnerable points to help take them down.
See through their narrative and their shrewd attempts at distraction. They will often present themselves as holier-than-thou or as the victim of other people’s malice. The louder they proclaim their convictions, the more certain you can be they’re hiding something. Be aware that they can sometimes seem charming and charismatic. Do not be mesmerized by such appearances. Look at their patterns of behavior. If they have taken from people in the past, they will continue to do so in the present. Never bring on such types as partners, no matter how friendly and charming they might seem. They like to piggyback on your hard work, then wrest control. Your realistic appraisal of their actual strength and their aggressive intentions is your best defense.
When it comes to taking action against aggressors, you must be as sophisticated and crafty as they are. Do not try to fight with them directly. They are too relentless, and they usually have enough power to overwhelm you in direct confrontation. You must outwit them, finding unexpected angles of attack. Threaten to expose the hypocrisy in their narrative or the past dirty deeds they have tried to keep hidden from the public. Make it seem that a battle with you will be costlier than they had imagined, that you are also willing to play a little dirty, but only in defense. If you are particularly clever, appear relatively weak and exposed, baiting them into a rash attack that you have prepared for. Often the wisest strategy is to band together with others who have suffered at their hands, creating strength and leverage in numbers.
Keep in mind that aggressors often get their way because you fear that in fighting them, you have too much to lose in the present. But you must calculate instead what you have to lose in the long term—decreasing options for power and expansion in your own field, once they assume a dominating position; your own dignity and sense of self-worth by not standing up to them. Surrender and docility can become a habit with devastating consequences for your well-being. Use the existence of aggressors as a spur to your own fighting spirit and to build your own confidence. Standing up to and outwitting aggressors can be one of the most satisfying and ennobling experiences we humans can have.
Men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if attacked. . . . A powerful desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their . . . endowment.
Keys to Human Nature
We like to think of ourselves as relatively peaceful and agreeable members of society. We are social animals to the core, and we need to convince ourselves that we are loyal to and cooperative with the communities we belong to. But on occasion, all of us have acted in ways that go against this self-opinion. Perhaps it came in a moment when we felt that our job security was threatened, or that someone was blocking our career advancement. Or perhaps we believed we were not getting the attention and recognition that we deserved for our work. Or maybe it came in a moment of financial insecurity. Or perhaps it occurred in an intimate relationship in which we felt particularly frustrated in our attempt to get the other to change his or her behavior, or we sensed that he or she was going to abandon us.
Out of frustration, anger, insecurity, fear, or impatience we suddenly found ourselves becoming unusually assertive. We did something a bit extreme to hold on to our job; we tried to push a colleague out of our way; we reached for some dubious scheme to secure easy and fast money; we went too far in trying to get attention; we turned belligerent and controlling with our partner; we became vindictive and attacked someone on social media. In such moments, we crossed a line and became aggressive. Most often, when we act this way, we rationalize our behavior to ourselves and to others: we had no choice; we felt threatened; we were being treated unfairly; people were being unresponsive and harming us; we did not start it. In this way we are able to maintain our self-opinion as the peaceful creatures we imagine ourselves to be.
Although we will rarely notice this, we can also observe a subtler example of our aggressive tendencies coming to the fore. When we face intimidating types who are more aggressive than we are, we often find ourselves acting more submissive than usual, and maybe a bit sycophantic if they have power. But when we face people clearly weaker and meeker than us, often the lion in us unconsciously emerges. Perhaps we decide to help them, but mixed in with this is a feeling of contempt and superiority. We become rather aggressive in trying to help them, ordering their life, being forceful with our advice. Or if we have little sympathy for them, we might feel compelled to use them in some way for our own purposes, and maybe push them around. All of this occurs unconsciously; we generally do not experience this as aggressiveness, but nonetheless, as we compare our inner strength with others’, we cannot help but lower and raise our aggression level.
We can notice this split—between what we think of ourselves and how we actually act at times—in the behavior of our friends, colleagues, and those in the news. In our workplace, inevitably certain people push their way forward and grab more power. Perhaps they take credit for our work, or steal our ideas, or push us off a project, or ally themselves rather vigorously with those in power. We can see on social media the delight people take in feeling outraged, in attacking and bringing down others. We can see the energy with which the press exposes the slightest flaw in those in power, and the feeding frenzy that ensues. We can observe the rampant violence in our films and games, all masquerading as entertainment. And all the while nobody admits to being aggressive. In fact, more than ever people seem so modest and progressive. The split is profound.
What this means is the following: All of us understand that humans have been capable of much violence and aggression in the past and in the present. We know that out there in the world there are sinister criminals, greedy and unscrupulous businesspeople, belligerent negotiators, and sexual aggressors. But we create a sharp dividing line between those examples and us. We have a powerful block against imagining any kind of continuum or spectrum when it comes to our own aggressive moments and those of the more extreme variety in others. We in fact define the word to describe the stronger manifestations of aggression, excluding ourselves. It is always the other who is belligerent, who starts things, who is aggressive.
This is a profound misconception of human nature. Aggression is a tendency that is latent in every single human individual. It is a tendency wired into our species. We became the preeminent animal on this planet precisely because of our aggressive energy, supplemented by our intelligence and cunning. We cannot separate this aggressiveness from the way we attack problems, alter the environment to make our lives easier, fight injustice, or create anything on a large scale. The Latin root of the word aggression means “to step forward,” and when we assert ourselves in this world and try to create or change anything, we are tapping into this energy.
Aggression can serve positive purposes. At the same time, under certain circumstances, this energy can push us into antisocial behavior, into grabbing too much or pushing people around. These positive and negative aspects are two sides of the same coin. And although some individuals are clearly more aggressive than others, all of us are capable of slipping into that negative side. There is a continuum of human aggression, and we are all on the spectrum.
Being unaware of our true nature causes us many problems. We can turn aggressive in the negative sense without realizing what is happening, and then pay the consequences for going too far. Or, feeling uncomfortable with our own assertive impulses and knowing the trouble they can stir, we might try to repress our aggressiveness and appear to be paragons of humility and goodness, only to become more passive-aggressive in our behavior. This energy cannot be denied or repressed; it will emerge in some way. But with awareness, we can begin to control and channel it for productive and positive purposes. To do so, we must understand the source of all human aggression, how it turns negative, and why some people become more aggressive than others.
The Source of Human Aggression
Unlike any other animal, we humans are aware of our own mortality, and that we could die at any moment. Consciously and unconsciously this thought haunts us throughout our lives. We are aware that our position in life is never secure—we can lose our job, our social status, and our money, often for reasons beyond our control. The people around us are equally unpredictable—we can never read their thoughts, anticipate their actions, or totally rely on their support. We are dependent on others, who often don’t come through. We have certain innate desires for love, excitement, and stimulation, and it is often beyond our control to satisfy these desires in the way we would like. In addition, we all have certain insecurities that stem from wounds in our childhood. If events or people trigger these insecurities and reopen old wounds, we feel particularly vulnerable and weak.
What this means is that we humans are continually plagued by feelings of helplessness that come from many sources. If this feeling is strong enough or lasts for too long, it can become unbearable. We are willful creatures who crave power. This desire for power is not evil or antisocial; it is a natural response to the awareness of our essential weakness and vulnerability. In essence, what drives much of our behavior is to have control over circumstances, to feel the connection between what we do and what we get—to feel that we can influence people and events to some extent. This mitigates our sense of helplessness and makes the unpredictability of life tolerable.
We satisfy this need by developing solid work skills that help us secure our career status and give us a feeling of control over the future. We also try to develop social skills that allow us to work with other people, earn their affection, and have a degree of influence over them. When it comes to our needs for excitement and stimulation, we generally choose to satisfy them through various activities—sports, entertainment, seduction—that our culture provides or accepts.
All of these activities help us to have the control that we crave, but they require that we recognize certain limits. To gain such power in our work and relationships, we must be patient. We cannot force things. It takes time to secure our career position, to develop genuine creative powers, to learn how to influence people and charm them. It also requires abiding by certain social codes and even laws. We cannot do just anything to get ahead in our careers; we cannot force people to do our bidding. We can call these codes and laws guardrails that we carefully stay within in order to gain power while remaining liked and respected.
In certain moments, however, we find it hard to accept these limits. We cannot advance in our careers or make a lot of money as quickly as we would like. We cannot get people to work with us to the degree that we want them to, so we feel frustrated. Or perhaps an old wound from childhood is suddenly reopened. If we anticipate that a partner could be ending the relationship, and we have a great fear of being abandoned stemming from parental coldness, we could easily overreact and try to control him or her, using all of our manipulative powers and turning quite aggressive. (Feelings of love often turn to hostility and aggression in people, because it is in love that we feel most dependent, vulnerable, and helpless.) In these cases, our hunger for more money, power, love, or attention overwhelms any patience we might have had. We might then be tempted to go outside the guardrails, to seek power and control in a way that violates tacit codes and even laws. But for most of us, when we cross the line, we feel uncomfortable and perhaps remorseful. We scurry back to within the guardrails, to our normal ways of trying for power and control. Such aggressive acts can occur at moments in our lives, but they do not become a pattern.
This is not the case, however, with more chronically aggressive types. The sense of helplessness or frustration that we may feel upon occasion plagues them more deeply and more often. They feel chronically insecure and fragile and must cover this with an inordinate amount of power and control. Their need for power is too immediate and strong for them to accept the limits, and overrides any sense of compunction or social responsibility.
It is possible that there is a genetic component to this. The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, who specialized in the study of infants, noticed that some babies were decidedly more anxious and greedier than others. From their very first days, they would suckle on the mother’s breast as if they were attacking it and wanting to suck it dry. They needed more coddling and attention than others. Their crying and tantrums were almost impossible to stop. They felt a higher degree of helplessness that verged on continual hysteria.
Such babies were in the minority, but she noticed them often enough. She speculated that those who are chronically aggressive could be adult versions of the greedy baby. They are simply born with a greater need to control everything around them. They brood more over feelings of hurt or envy—“Why should other people have more than me?” When they feel like they are losing control to any degree, their tendency is to exaggerate the threat, to overreact and grab for much more than is necessary.
It is also true that early family life can play a decisive role. According to the psychoanalyst and writer Erich Fromm, if parents are too domineering, if they repress their children’s need for power and independence, such children are often the types who later like to dominate and tyrannize others. If they were beaten as children, they often resort to beating and physical abuse as adults. In this way, they turn the enforced passivity in their childhood into something active as adults, giving them the feeling of control they sorely lacked in their earliest years, through aggressive behavior.
Whatever the cause of their tendencies, these types do not scurry back within the guardrails but rather continually resort to aggressive behavior. They have an unusually strong will and little patience to satisfy their desires through the socially acceptable channels. They find the normal ways of gaining stimulation too dull. They need something stronger and more immediate. If they are the primitive type, they may turn to criminal behavior or simply become the overt bully; if they are more sophisticated, they will learn to control this behavior to some extent and use it when necessary.
What this means is that human aggression stems from an underlying insecurity, as opposed to simply an impulse to hurt or take from others. Before any impulse to take aggressive action, aggressors are unconsciously processing feelings of helplessness and anxiety. They often perceive threats that are not really there, or exaggerate them. They take action to preempt the perceived attack of another, or to grab for things in order to dominate a situation they feel may elude their control. (Such feelings also provoke the positive type of aggression as well. Feeling the need to fight an injustice or create something important is preceded by feelings of anxiety and insecurity. It remains an attempt at control for positive purposes.) When we look at any chronic aggressor around us, we must search for the underlying insecurity, the deep wound, the reverberating feelings of helplessness from their earliest years.
We can notice the following interesting phenomenon: people who are domineering often are extremely intolerant of any kind of dissent. They need to be surrounded by sycophants and constantly be reminded of their greatness and superiority. If such types have political power, they work to tamp down any negative publicity and control what people say about them. We must see this hypersensitivity to criticism as a sign of great inner weakness. A person who is truly strong from within can endure criticism and open discussion without feeling personally threatened. Generally, aggressors and authoritarian types are expert at concealing this profound inner weakness by constantly projecting toughness and conviction. But we must train ourselves to look past their façade and see the inner fragility. This can greatly help us control any feelings of fear or intimidation, which aggressors love to stimulate.
There are other qualities of the chronically aggressive that we must understand. First, aggressors have less tolerance for feelings of helplessness and anxiety than the rest of us. What might cause us to feel frustrated or insecure will often trigger in them a much more powerful reaction, and rage. This is perhaps why chronic aggression is much more common among men than women. Men find it harder to manage feelings of dependency and helplessness, something psychologists have noted in male infants. Men are generally more insecure about their status in the work world and elsewhere. They have a greater need to continually assert themselves and gauge their effect on others. Their self-esteem is tied to feelings of power, control, and respect for their opinions. And so it often takes less to trigger the aggressive response in men. In any event, we must always be aware that the chronic aggressor is more thin-skinned than we are, and if we know we are dealing with this type, we must be particularly careful to not inadvertently trigger their rage response by challenging their self-esteem or criticizing them.
Another common aspect of aggressive behavior is that it can easily become an addiction. In acting out their desires in an overt and immediate way, in getting the best of people through their maneuvers, aggressors receive a jolt of adrenaline that can become addictive. They feel stimulated and excited, and the more socially acceptable ways of relieving boredom can seem tepid in comparison. (Certainly the thrill of getting easy money, whether as Wall Street brokers peddling dubious investments or as criminals stealing what they can, has an immensely addictive quality.) At first glance, this might seem self-destructive, as each aggressive outburst creates more enemies and unintended consequences. But aggressors are often adept at upping the ante with even more intimidating behavior, so that few will challenge them.
This often leads to the phenomenon of the aggressor’s trap: the more power they get, and the larger their empire, the more points of vulnerability they create; they have more rivals and enemies to worry about. This sparks in them the need to be more and more aggressive and gain more and more power. (Certainly Rockefeller fell victim to this dynamic.) They also come to feel that to stop acting in this way would make them seem weak. No matter what aggressors might say to us or how they try to disguise their intentions, we must realize that their past pattern of behavior will inevitably continue in the present, because they are both addicted and trapped. We must never be naive in dealing with them. They will be relentless. If they take a step back, it is only momentary. They are rarely capable of changing this essential pattern in their behavior.
We must also be aware that aggressors see the people around them as objects to use. They might have some natural empathy, but because their need for power and control is so strong, they cannot be patient enough to rely solely upon charm and social skills. To get what they want, they have to use people, and this becomes a habit that degrades any empathy they once had. They need adherents and disciples, so they train themselves to listen, to occasionally praise others, and to do favors for people. The charm they may display upon occasion, however, is only for effect and has little human warmth to it. When they are listening to us, they are gauging the strength of our will and seeing how we can serve their purposes down the road. If they praise us or do us a favor, it is a way to further entrap and compromise us. We can see this in the nonverbal cues, in the eyes that look through us, in how thinly they are engaged in our stories. We must always try to make ourselves immune to any attempt at charm on their part, knowing what purpose it serves.
It is interesting to note that despite all of the socially negative qualities that aggressors inevitably reveal, they are frequently able to attract enough followers to help them in their quest for power. The people who are attracted to such aggressors often have their own deep-seated issues, their own frustrated aggressive desires. They find the confidence and sometimes brazenness of the aggressor quite exciting and appealing. They fall in love with the narrative. They become infected with the leader’s aggression and get to act it out on others, perhaps those below them. But such an environment is tiring, and those serving the aggressor are constantly taking hits to their self-esteem. With most aggressors, the turnover is high and the morale low. As the ancient Greek dramatist Sophocles once wrote, “Whoever makes his way into a tyrant’s court becomes his slave, although he went there a free man.” —
Your task as a student of human nature is threefold: First, you must stop denying the reality of your own aggressive tendencies. You are on the aggressive spectrum, like all of us. Of course, there are some people who are lower down on this spectrum. Perhaps they lack confidence in their ability to get what they want; or they may simply have less energy. But a lot of us are in the mid-to-upper range on the spectrum, with relatively strong levels of will. This assertive energy must be expended in some way and will tend to go in one of three directions.
First, we can channel this energy into our work, into patiently achieving things (controlled aggression). Second, we can channel it into aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior. Finally, we can turn it inward in the form of self-loathing, directing our anger and aggression at our own failings and activating our internal saboteur (more on this later). You need to analyze how you handle your assertive energy. A way to judge yourself is to see how you handle moments of frustration and uncertainty, situations in which you have less control. Do you tend to lash out, grow angry and tense, and do things you later regret? Or do you internalize the anger and grow depressed? Look at those inevitable moments in which you have gone past the guardrails and analyze them. You are not as peaceful and gentle as you imagine. Notice what pushed you into this behavior, and how during such times you found ways to rationalize your behavior. Now, with some distance, you can perhaps see through those rationalizations.
Your goal is not to repress this assertive energy but to become aware of it as it drives you forward and to channel it productively. You need to admit to yourself that you have a deep desire to have an effect on people, to have power, and to realize this you must develop higher social and technical skills, must become more patient and resilient. You need to discipline and tame your natural assertive energy. This is what we shall call controlled aggression, and it will lead to accomplishing great things. (For more on this, see the last section of this chapter.) Your second task is to make yourself a master observer of aggression in the people around you. When you look at your work world, for instance, imagine that you can visualize the continual war between people’s different levels of will, and all of the intersecting arrows of such conflicts. Those who are more assertive seem to rise to the top, but they inevitably display signs of submission to those higher up. It is not much different from the hierarchies we can observe among chimpanzees. If you stop focusing on people’s words and the façade they present, and concentrate on their actions and their nonverbal cues, you can almost sense the level of aggressiveness they emanate.
In looking at this phenomenon, it is important that you be tolerant of people: we have all crossed the line at some point and turned more aggressive than usual, often because of circumstances. When it comes to those who are powerful and successful, it is impossible in this world to reach such heights without higher levels of aggression and some manipulation. For accomplishing great things, we can forgive them their occasional harsh and assertive behavior. What you need to determine is whether you are dealing with chronic aggressors, people who cannot tolerate criticism or being challenged on any level, whose desire for control is excessive, and who will swallow you up in their relentless quest to have more.
Look for some telltale signs. First, if they have an unusually high number of enemies whom they have accumulated over the years, there must be a good reason, and not the one they tell you. Pay close attention to how they justify their actions in the world. Aggressors will tend to present themselves as crusaders, as some form of genius who cannot help the way they behave. They are creating great art, they say, or helping the little man. People who get in their way are infidels and evil. They will claim, as Rockefeller did, that no one has been criticized or investigated as much as they have; they are the victims, not the aggressors. The louder and more extreme their narrative, the more you can be certain you are dealing with chronic aggressors. Focus on their actions, their past patterns of behavior, much more than anything they say.
You can look for subtler signs as well. Chronic aggressors often have obsessive personalities. Having meticulous habits and creating a completely predictable environment is their way of holding control. Obsessing over an object or a person indicates a desire to swallow it whole. Also, pay attention to the nonverbal cues. We saw with Rockefeller that he could not stand to be passed by anyone in the street. The aggressor type will show such physical obsessions—always front and center. In any event, the earlier you can spot the signs the better.
Once you realize you are dealing with this type, you must use every ounce of your energy to disengage mentally, to gain control of your emotional response. Often what happens when you face aggressors is that you initially feel mesmerized and even paralyzed to some extent, as if in the presence of a snake. Then, as you process what they have done, you become emotional—angry, outraged, frightened. Once you are in that state, they find it easy to keep you reacting and not thinking. Your anger doesn’t lead to anything productive but rather melts into bitterness and frustration over time. Your only answer is to find a way to detach from their spell, bit by bit. See through their maneuvers, contemplate the underlying weakness that propels them, cut them down to size. Always focus on their goals, what they are really after, and not the distractions they set up.
If battle with them is inevitable, never engage in direct confrontation or challenge them in an overt way. If they are the sophisticated type, they will use all their cunning to ruin you, and they can be relentless. You must always fight them indirectly. Look for the vulnerabilities they are inevitably covering up. This could be their dubious reputation, some particularly dirty actions in the past they have managed to keep secret. Poke holes in their narrative. Through exposure of what they want to keep hidden, you have a powerful weapon to scare them out of attacking you. Remember that their greatest fear is to lose control. Think of what act of yours could frighten them by setting off a chain reaction of events that might spin out of control. Make the easy victory they are counting on with you suddenly seem more expensive.
Aggressors generally have the advantage that they are willing to go outside the guardrails more often and more widely in fighting you. This gives them more options, more dirty maneuvers they can surprise you with. In negotiations, they will hit you with some last-minute change to what they had agreed upon, violating all rules but knowing you will give in because you have come this far and don’t want to blow it up. They will spread rumors and disinformation to muddy the waters and make you seem as dubious as they are. You must try to anticipate these manipulations and rob aggressors of the element of surprise.
And on occasion you yourself must be willing to venture outside the guardrails as well, knowing this is a temporary and defensive measure. You can practice deception and distract them, appearing weaker than you are, baiting them into an attack that will make them look bad and for which you have prepared a crafty counterattack. You can even spread rumors that will tend to imbalance their minds, since they are not used to others playing the same tricks back on them. In any event, with the stakes being high, you must calculate that defeating aggressors is more important than maintaining your purity.
Finally, your third task as a student of human nature is to rid yourself of the denial of the very real aggressive tendencies in human nature itself and what such aggression might mean for our future as a species. This denial tends to take the form of one of two myths you are likely to believe in. The first myth is that long ago we humans were peace-loving creatures, in harmony with nature and with our fellow humans. It is the myth of the noble savage, the innocent hunter-gatherer. The implication is that civilization, along with the development of private property and capitalism, turned the peaceful human into an aggressive and selfish creature. Our form of society is to blame for this, so the myth goes. By developing a more egalitarian political and social system, we could revert to our natural goodness and peace-loving nature.
Recent finds in anthropology and archaeology, however, have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that our ancestors (going back tens of thousands of years, well before civilization) engaged in warfare that was as murderous and brutal as anything in the present. They were hardly peaceful. There are also numerous examples of indigenous cultures destroying much of the flora and fauna in their environment in an endless quest for food sources and shelter, sending many species into extinction and despoiling entire regions of trees. (For more on this see War Before Civilization, by Lawrence H. Keeley, and The Third Chimpanzee, by Jared Diamond.) The great power of humans to cooperate in these cultures was just as often used to help engage in the bloodiest of skirmishes.
The other myth, more prevalent today, is that we may have been violent and aggressive in the past, but that we are currently evolving beyond this, becoming more tolerant, enlightened, and guided by our better angels. But the signs of human aggression are just as prevalent in our era as in the past. We can hold up as evidence the endless cycles of war, the acts of genocide, and the increasing hostility between states and ethnicities within states that continue well into this century. The immense powers of technology have only enhanced our destructive powers when it comes to war. And our depredation of the environment has only gotten substantially worse, despite our awareness of the problem.
We can also take note of the growing levels of inequality in power and wealth around the globe in recent times, approaching the disparities that existed centuries ago. Such inequalities continue to reproduce themselves in human society because inevitably there are individuals who are simply more aggressive than others when it comes to accumulating power and wealth. No rules or laws seem to stop this. The powerful write the rules to benefit themselves. And the monopolizing tendencies of the nineteenth century, as exemplified by Standard Oil, signs of corporate aggression, have just reshaped themselves to fit the newest industries.
In the past, people attended executions as a form of entertainment. We may not go that far, but more people than ever enjoy watching others being humiliated on reality shows or in the news, and indulging in games and movies that delight in graphic depictions of murder and bloodshed. (We can also see an increasingly aggressive edge to our humor.)
With technology, it has become easier to express and satisfy our aggressive desires. Without having to physically face people, on the internet our arguments and criticisms can become that much more hostile, heated, and personal. The internet has also created a new and powerful weapon—cyberwar. As they always have, criminals simply co-opt technology to become more creative and elusive.
Human aggression simply adapts to the newest media and technological innovations, finding ways to express and vent itself through them. Whatever the new invention is in one hundred years for communication, it will likely suffer the same fate. As Gustave Flaubert put it, “Speak of progress as much as you want. Even when you take out the canines of a tiger, and he can only eat gruel, his heart remains that of a carnivore.”
Human aggression in individuals and in groups tends to emerge or heat up when we feel helpless and vulnerable, when the impatience for control and effect rises. And as increasing numbers of people and groups are feeling this way, we can expect more of this and not less in the future. Wars will get dirtier. As insecurities rise, there will be more confrontations between political groups, between cultures, between generations, between men and women. And there will be even better and more sophisticated ways for humans to justify their aggression to themselves and to the world.
The denial is stronger than ever—it is always the other person, the other side, the other culture that is more aggressive and destructive. We must finally come to terms with the fact that it is not the other but ourselves, all of us, no matter the time or the culture. We must own this fact of our nature before we can even begin to consider moving beyond it. It is only in our awareness that we can start to think of progress.
Passive Aggression—Its Strategies and How to Counter Them
Most of us are afraid of outright confrontation; we want to appear reasonably polite and sociable. But often it is impossible to get what we want without asserting ourselves in some way. People can be stubborn and resistant to our influence, no matter how congenial we are. And sometimes we need a release from all of the inner tension that comes from having to be so deferential and correct. And so all of us inevitably engage in behavior in which we assert ourselves indirectly, striving for control or influence as subtly as possible. Perhaps we take extra time to respond to people’s communications, to signal a slight bit of disdain for them; or we seem to praise people but insert subtle digs that get under their skin and instill doubts. Sometimes we make a comment that could be taken as quite neutral, but our tone of voice and the expression on our face indicate we are upset, stirring up some guilt.
We can call this form of aggression passive, in that we give the appearance that we are merely being ourselves, not actively manipulating or trying to influence people. Nevertheless, a message is sent that creates the effect we desire. We are never quite as passive as we seem in this. In the back of our minds, we are aware that we are taking an extra long time to get back to someone or putting a dig in a comment, but at the same time we can also pretend to ourselves and to others that we are innocent. (We humans are capable of holding such conflicting thoughts at the same time.) In general, we must consider this everyday version of passive aggression to be merely an irritating part of social life, something we are all guilty of. We should be as tolerant as possible of this low-grade passive aggression that thrives in polite society.
Some people, however, are chronic passive aggressors. Like the more active aggressors, they generally have a high degree of energy and need for control but at the same time a fear of outright confrontation. They often had domineering or neglectful parents; passive aggression became their way of getting attention or asserting their will while avoiding punishment. Such behavior becomes a pattern for them as adults, as they often repeat the same types of strategies that worked in childhood. (If we observe the passive aggressor closely enough, we can often see the manipulative child peeking through the adult mask.) These chronic types operate in a personal or work relationship, in which their drip-drip passive-aggressive strategies can take effect on an individual over time. They are masters at being ambiguous and elusive—we can never quite be sure that they are attacking us; perhaps we are imagining things and are paranoid. If they were directly aggressive, we would get angry and resist them, but by being indirect they sow confusion, and exploit such confusion for power and control. If they are truly good at this and get their hooks into our emotions, they can make our lives miserable.
Keep in mind that actively aggressive types can generally be quite passive-aggressive at times, as Rockefeller certainly was. Passive aggression is simply an additional weapon for them in their attempts at control. In any event, the key to defending ourselves against passive aggressors is to recognize what they are up to as early as possible.
The following are the most common strategies employed by such aggressors, and ways to counter them.
The Subtle-Superiority Strategy: A friend, colleague, or employee is chronically late, but he or she always has a ready excuse that is logical, along with an apology that seems sincere. Or similarly, such individuals forget about meetings, important dates, and deadlines, always with impeccable excuses at hand. If this behavior repeats often enough, your irritation will increase, but if you try to confront them, they very well might try to turn the tables by making you seem uptight and unsympathetic. It is not their fault, they say—they have too much on their mind, people are pressuring them, they are temperamental artists who can’t keep on top of so many irritating details, they are overwhelmed. They may even accuse you of adding to their stress.
You must understand that at the root of this is the need to make it clear to themselves and to you that they are in some way superior. If they were to say in so many words that they felt superior to you, they would incur ridicule and shame. They want you to feel it in subtle ways, while they are able to deny what they are up to. Putting you in the inferior position is a form of control, in which they get to define the relationship. You must pay attention to the pattern more than the apologies, but also notice the nonverbal signs as they excuse themselves. The tone of the voice is whiny, as if they really feel it is your problem. The apologies are laid on extra thick to disguise the lack of sincerity; in the end, such excuses communicate more about their problems in life than about the facts of their forgetfulness. They are not really sorry.
If this is chronic behavior, you must not get angry or display overt irritation—passive aggressors thrive on getting a rise out of you. Instead, stay calm and subtly mirror their behavior, calling attention to what they are doing, and inducing some shame if possible. You might make dates or appointments and leave them in the lurch, or show up impossibly late with the sincerest of apologies, laced with a touch of irony. Let them brood on what this might mean.
Earlier on in his career, when the renowned psychotherapist Milton Erickson was a medical professor at a university, he had to deal with a very smart student named Anne, who always showed up late to classes, then apologized profusely and very sincerely. She happened to be a straight-A student. She always promised to be on time for the next class but never was. This made it difficult for her fellow students; she frequently held up lectures or laboratory work. And on the first day of one of Erickson’s lecture classes she was up to her old tricks, but Erickson was prepared. When she entered late, he had the entire class stand up and bow down to her in mock reverence; he did the same. Even after class, as she walked down the hall, the students continued their bowing. The message was clear—“We see through you”—and feeling embarrassed and ashamed, she stopped showing up late.
If you are dealing with a boss or someone in a position of power who makes you wait, their assertion of superiority is not so subtle. The best you can do is keep as calm as possible, showing your own form of superiority by remaining patient and cool.
The Sympathy Strategy: Somehow the person you are dealing with is always the victim—of irrational hostility, of unfair circumstances, of society in general. You notice with these types that they seem to relish the drama in their stories. No one else suffers as they do. If you are careful, you can detect a vaguely bored expression when they listen to other people’s problems; they are not so engaged. Because they play up their supposed helplessness, you will naturally feel sympathetic, and once they elicit this, they will ask for favors, extra care, and attention. That is the control they are after. They are hypersensitive to any signs of doubt on your face, and they don’t want to hear advice or how they might be slightly to blame. They may explode and classify you as one of the victimizers.
What might make this hard to see through is that often they do suffer through unusual adversity and personal pain, but they are masters at attracting the pain. They choose partners who will disappoint them; they have a bad attitude at work and attract criticism; they are negligent with details, and so things around them fall apart. It is not malicious fate that is to blame but something from within them that wants and feeds off the drama. People who are genuine victims cannot help but feel some shame and embarrassment at their fate, part of an age-old human superstition that a person’s bad luck is a sign of something wrong with the individual. These true victims do not enjoy telling their stories. They do so reluctantly. Passive aggressors, on the other hand, are dying to share what has happened to them and bask in your attention.
As part of this, passive aggressors may display various symptoms and ailments—anxiety attacks, depression, headaches—that make their suffering seem quite real. Since childhood, we have all been capable of willing such symptoms to get attention and sympathy. We can make ourselves sick with worry; we can think our way into depression. What you are looking for is the pattern: this seems to recur in passive aggressors when they need something (such as a favor), when they feel you pulling away, when they feel particularly insecure. In any case, they tend to soak up your time and mental space, infecting you with their negative energy and needs, and it is very hard to disengage.
These types will often prey upon those who are prone to feel guilty—the sensitive, caregiving types. To deal with the manipulation involved here you need some distance, and this is not easy. The only way to do this is to feel some anger and resentment at the time and energy you are wasting in trying to help them, and how little they give back to you. The relationship inevitably tilts in their favor when it comes to attention. That is their power. Creating some inner distance will allow you to see through them better and eventually quit the unhealthy relationship. Do not feel bad about this. You will be surprised at how quickly they find another target.
The Dependency Strategy: You are suddenly befriended by someone who is unusually attentive and concerned for your welfare. They want to help you with your work or some other tasks. They want to listen to your stories of hardship and adversity. How refreshing and unusual to have such attention. You find yourself becoming ever so dependent on what they give you. But every now and then you detect some coldness on their part, and you rack your brain to figure out what you might have said or done to trigger this. In fact, you can’t really be sure if they’re upset with you, but you find yourself trying to please them nonetheless, and slowly, without really noticing it, the dynamic is reversed, and the displays of sympathy and concern seem to shift from them to you.
Sometimes a similar dynamic is played out between parents and their children. A mother, for instance, can shower her daughter with affection and love, keeping the girl bound to her. If the daughter tries to exercise independence at some point, the mother responds as if this were an aggressive and unloving act on the daughter’s part. To avoid feeling guilty, the daughter stops asserting herself and works harder to earn more of the affection she has become dependent on. The relationship has reversed itself. Later, the mother exercises control over other aspects of her daughter’s life, including money, career, and intimate partners. This can also occur within couples.
A variation of this strategy comes from people who love to make promises (of assistance, money, a job), but don’t quite deliver on them. Somehow they forget what they had promised, or only give you part of it, always with a reasonable excuse. If you complain, they may accuse you of being greedy or insensitive. You have to chase after them to make up for your rudeness or to beg to get some of what they had promised.
In any event, this strategy is all about gaining power over another. The person who is made to feel dependent is returned to the position of the needy and vulnerable child, wanting more. It is hard to imagine that someone who is or was so attentive could be using this as a ploy, which makes it doubly hard to see through. You must be wary of those who are too solicitous too early on in a relationship. It is unnatural, as we are normally a bit suspicious of people in the beginning of any relationship. They may be trying to make you dependent in some way, and so you must keep some distance before you can truly gauge their motives. If they start to turn cold and you are confused as to what you did, you can be nearly certain they are using this strategy. If they react with anger or dismay when you try to establish some distance or independence, you can clearly see the power game as it emerges. Getting out of any such relationships should be a priority.
In general, be wary about people’s promises and never completely rely on them. With those who fail to deliver, it is more likely a pattern, and it is best to have nothing more to do with them.
The Insinuating-Doubt Strategy: In the course of a conversation, someone you know, perhaps a friend, lets slip a comment that makes you wonder about yourself and if they are in some way insulting you. Perhaps they commend you on your latest work, and with a faint smile they say they imagine you will get lots of attention for it, or lots of money, the implication being that that was your somewhat dubious motive. Or they seem to damn you with faint praise: “You did quite well for someone of your background.”
Robespierre, one of the leaders of the Terror of the French Revolution, was the absolute master of this strategy. He came to see Georges Danton, a friend and fellow leader, as having become an enemy of the revolution, but did not want to say this outright. He wanted to insinuate it to others and strike some fear in Danton. In one instance, at an assembly, Robespierre leaped to his feet to support his friend, who had been accused of using his power in the government to make money. In defending Danton, Robespierre carefully repeated all of the various charges leveled against him in great detail, then concluded, “I may be wrong about Danton, but, as a family man, he deserves nothing but praise.” As a variation on this, people may say some rather harsh things about you, and if you seem upset, they will say they were kidding: “Can’t you take a joke?” They may interpret things you have said in a slightly negative light, and if you call them on this, they will innocently reply, “But I’m only repeating what you said.” They may use these insinuating comments behind your back as well, to sow doubts in other people’s minds about you. They will also be the first ones to report to you any bad news, or bad reviews, or the criticisms of others, always expressed with sympathy, but secretly delighting in your pain.
The point of this strategy is to make you feel bad in a way that gets under your skin and causes you to think of the insinuation for days. They want to strike blows at your self-esteem. Most often they are operating out of envy. The best counter is to show that their insinuations have no effect on you. You remain calm. You “agree” with their faint praise, and perhaps you return it in kind. They want to get a rise out of you, and you will not give them this pleasure. Hinting that you might see through them will perhaps infect them with their own doubts, a lesson worth delivering.
The Blame-Shifter Strategy: With certain people, you feel irritated and upset by something they have done. Perhaps you have felt used by them, or they’ve been insensitive or ignored your pleas to stop behavior that is unpleasant. Even before you express your annoyance, they seem to have picked up your mood, and you can detect some sulking on their part. And when you do confront them, they grow silent, wearing a hurt or disappointed look. It is not the silence of someone with remorse. They may respond with a “Fine. Whatever. If that’s how you feel.” Any apologies on their part are said in a way (through tone of voice or facial expressions) that subtly conveys some disbelief that they have done anything wrong.
If they are really clever, in response they might conjure up something you’ve said or done in the past, which you’ve forgotten but which still rankles them, as if you are not so innocent. It doesn’t sound like something you’ve said or done, but you can’t be sure. Perhaps they will say something in their defense that pushes your buttons, and as you get angry, they can now accuse you of being hostile, aggressive, and unfair.
Whatever their type of response, you are left with the feeling that perhaps you were wrong all along. Maybe you overreacted or were paranoid. You might even slightly doubt your sanity—you know you felt upset, but maybe you can’t trust your own feelings. Now you are the one to feel guilty, as if you were to blame for the tension. Better to reassess yourself and not repeat this unpleasant experience, you tell yourself. As an adjunct to this strategy, passive aggressors are often quite nice and polite to other people, only playing their games on you, since you are the one they want to control. If you try to confide in people your confusion and anger, you get no sympathy, and the blame shifting has double the effect.
This strategy is a way of covering up all kinds of unpleasant behavior, of deflecting any kind of criticism, and of making people skittish about ever calling them on what they are doing. In this way they can gain power over your emotions and manipulate them as they see fit, doing whatever they want with impunity. They are exploiting the fact that many of us, since early childhood, are prone to feeling guilty at the slightest impetus. This strategy is used most obviously in personal relationships, but you will find it in more diffused form in the work world. People will use their hypersensitivity to any criticism, and the ensuing drama they stir up, to dissuade people from ever trying to confront them.
To counter this strategy, you need to be able to see through the blame shifting and remain unaffected by it. Your goal is not to make them angry, so don’t get caught in the trap of exchanging recriminations. They are better at this drama game than you are, and they thrive by their power to rankle you. Be calm and even fair, accepting some of the blame for the problem, if that seems right. Realize that it is very difficult to get such types to reflect on their behavior and change it; they are too hypersensitive for this.
What you want is to have the requisite distance to see through them and to disengage. To help in this, you must learn to trust your past feelings. In the moments they are irritating you, write down what they are doing and memorialize their behavior. Perhaps in doing so, you will realize that you are in fact overreacting. But if not, you can return to these notes to convince yourself that you are not crazy and to stop the blame-shifting mechanism in its tracks. If you don’t allow the shifting to occur, they might be discouraged from using this strategy. If not, it is best to lessen your involvement with such a passive aggressor.
The Passive-Tyrant Strategy: The person you are working for seems to be bubbling with energy, ideas, and charisma. They are a bit disorganized, but that is normal—they have so much to do, so much responsibility and so many plans, they can’t keep on top of it all. They need your help, and you strain every fiber of your being to provide it. You listen extra hard to their instructions and try to execute them. Occasionally they praise you, and this keeps you going, but sometimes they rail at you for letting them down, and this sticks in your mind more than the praise.
You can never feel comfortable or take your position for granted. You have to try harder to avoid these nasty temperamental rants. They’re such perfectionists, with such high standards, and you’re not measuring up. You rack your brain to anticipate their needs and live in terror of displeasing them. If they were actively ordering you around, you would simply do what they asked. But by being somewhat passive and moody, they force you to work doubly hard to please them.
This strategy is generally used by those in power on their underlings, but it could be applied by people in relationships, one partner tyrannizing the other by simply being impossible to please. The strategy is based on the following logic: If people know what it is that you want and how to get it for you, they have some power over you. If they follow your instructions and do your bidding, you cannot criticize them. If they are consistent, you can even grow dependent on their work, and they can squeeze concessions out of you by threatening to leave. But if they have no idea what actually works, if they can’t exactly discern what kind of behavior draws praise and what draws punishment, they have no power, no independence, and can be made to do anything. As with a dog, an occasional pat on their shoulder will deepen their submission. This was how Michael Eisner exercised dictatorial control over everyone around him, including Jeffrey Katzenberg (see chapter 11 for more on this).
If people quit on these tyrants, they are fine with that. This demonstrates that the individual retains some independence, and they will find a replacement who will be more submissive, at least for the time being. They may also increase their difficult behavior to test certain individuals and get them to quit or submit. Such tyrants may try to act like helpless children. They are the temperamental artist or genius type, so naturally brilliant and absentminded. Their pleas for assistance from you and their urgent need for you to do more seem to express their vulnerability. They use such feigned weakness to justify the ugly nature of their tyranny.
It is very hard to strategize against such types, because most often they are your superiors and have real power over you. They tend to be hypersensitive and prone to anger, which makes any form of resistance or inner detachment hard to maintain. Overt rebellion will only make the situation worse. You must first realize that this strategy of theirs is more conscious than it appears. They are not weak and helpless but cunning tyrants. Instead of lingering on anything positive they’ve said or done, think only of their manipulations and harshness. Your ability to detach from them emotionally will neutralize the obsessive presence they try to instill. But in the end nothing really will work, because if, in their hypersensitivity, they detect your distance, their behavior will only get worse. The only real counter is to quit and recuperate. No position is worth such abuse, for the damage to your self-esteem could take years to recover from.
We are born with a powerful energy that is distinctly human. We can call it willpower, assertiveness, or even aggression, but it is mixed with our intelligence and cleverness. It was revealed to us in its purest state in childhood. This energy made us bold and adventurous, not only physically but mentally, wanting to explore ideas and soak up knowledge. It made us actively search for friends with whom we could explore together. It also made us rather relentless when it came to solving problems or getting what we wanted. (Children can often be bold in what they ask for.) It made us open to the world and to new experiences. And if we felt frustrated and helpless for long enough periods of time, this same energy could make us unusually combative.
As we get older and we encounter mounting frustrations, resistance from others, and feelings of impatience for power, some among us may become chronically aggressive. But another phenomenon is even more common: we become uncomfortable with and even frightened of that assertive energy within, and our own potential for aggressive behavior. Being assertive and adventurous could lead to some failed action, making us feel exposed and vulnerable. If we express this energy too much, people may not like us. We could stir up conflict. Perhaps our parents induced in us as well some shame for our aggressive outbursts. In any event, we may come to view the aggressive part of the self as dangerous. But since this energy cannot disappear, it turns inward, and we create what the great English psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn called the internal saboteur.
The saboteur operates like a persecutor from within, continually judging and attacking us. If we are about to attempt something, it reminds us of the potential for failure. It tries to tamp down any exuberance, because that could open us to criticism from others. It makes us uncomfortable with strong sensations of pleasure or the expression of deep emotion. It impels us to tamp down our ambitions, the better to fit into the group and not stand out. It wants us to retreat inward, where we can protect ourselves, even if that leads to depression. And it makes us forge a fake self to present to the world, one that is humble and self-effacing. In the end, the internal saboteur works to lower our energy and constrain what we do, making our world more manageable and predictable but also quite dead. It is the same goal as the aggressor—gaining control over uncertainty—but through the opposite means.
The internal saboteur can also have a dampening effect on our mental powers. It discourages us from being bold and adventurous in our thinking. We limit our ideas and settle for the conventional opinions of the group, because that is safer. Creative people display great aggressiveness in their thinking, as they try out many options and search for possible solutions. By trying to rid ourselves of any kind of aggressive impulse, we actually thwart our own creative energies.
Understand: The problem has never been that we humans are assertive and aggressive. That would be to make a problem of our own nature. The positive and negative aspects of this energy are but two sides of the same coin. To try to tamp down the negative, to give ourselves over to the internal saboteur, only dulls the positive. The real problem is that we do not know how to harness this energy in an adult, productive, and prosocial manner. This energy needs to be embraced as totally human and potentially positive. What we must do is tame and train it for our own purposes. Instead of being chronically aggressive, passive-aggressive, or repressed, we can make this energy focused and rational. Like all forms of energy, when it is concentrated and sustained, it has so much more force behind it. By following such a path, we can recover some of that pure spirit we had as children, feeling bolder, more integrated, and more authentic.
The following are four potentially positive elements of this energy that we can discipline and use, improving what evolution has bestowed on us.
Ambition: To say you’re ambitious in the world today is often to admit to something slightly dirty, perhaps revealing too much self-absorption. But think back to your childhood and youth—you inevitably entertained big dreams and ambitions for yourself. You were going to make a mark in this world in some way. You played out in your mind various scenes of future glory. This was a natural impulse on your part, and you felt no shame. Then, when you got older, you probably tried to stifle this. Either you kept your ambitions secret and acted modestly or you actually stopped dreaming altogether, trying to avoid seeming self-absorbed and being judged for this.
Much of this sneering at ambition and ambitious people in our culture actually stems from a great deal of envy at the accomplishments of others. Tamping down your youthful ambitions is a sign that you don’t like or respect yourself; you no longer believe you deserve to have the power and recognition you once dreamed about. That doesn’t make you more adult, simply more likely to fail—by lowering your ambitions, you limit your possibilities and diminish your energy. In any event, in trying to appear unambitious, you are just as self-absorbed as anyone else; being so humble and saintly is your ambition, and you want to make a display of it.
Some people remain ambitious as they get older, but their ambitions are too vague. They want success, money, and attention. Because of such vagueness, it is hard for them to ever feel they have satisfied their desires. What constitutes enough money or success or power? Not sure of what exactly they want, they cannot put a limit to their desires, and although it is not the case in every instance, this can lead them to aggressive behavior, as they continually want more and don’t know when to stop.
Instead, what you must do is embrace that childish part of you, revisit your earliest ambitions, adapt them to your current reality, and make them as specific as possible. You want to write a particular book, expressing some deeply held ideas or emotions; you want to start the kind of business that has always excited you; you want to create a cultural or political movement to address a particular cause. This specific ambition might be grand enough, but you can visualize quite clearly the end point and how to get there. The more clearly you see what you want, the likelier you are to realize it. Your ambitions may involve challenges, but they should not be so far above your capacity that you only set yourself up for failure.
Once your goal is realized, however long that takes, you now turn to a new ambition, a new project, feeling tremendous satisfaction that you reached the last one. You do not stop in this upward process, building momentum. The key is the level of desire and aggressive energy you put into each ambitious project. You don’t infect yourself with doubts and guilt; you are in harmony with your nature, and you will be amply rewarded for that.
Persistence: If you observe infants, you will notice how willful and relentless they are when they want something. Such persistence is natural to us, but it is a quality that we tend to lose as we get older and our self-confidence fades. This is often what happens later in life when we face a problem or some resistance: We summon up the energy to attack the problem, but in the back of our mind, we have some doubts—are we up to the task? This ever-so-slight diminishment in self-belief translates into a reduction in the energy with which we attack the problem. This leads to a less effective result, which raises the volume of the background doubts even more, lessening the effect of our next action or blow. At some point, we admit defeat and give up. But we inevitably give up too soon. We surrender inwardly long before we surrender outwardly.
What you must understand is the following: almost nothing in the world can resist persistent human energy. Things will yield if we strike enough blows with enough force. Look at how many great people in history have succeeded in this way. It was painstaking persistence over several years that allowed Thomas Edison to invent the proper form of the lightbulb, and Marie Curie to discover radium. They simply continued where others had given up. Over the course of ten years, it was through continual thought experiments, day and night, exploring every possible solution, that Albert Einstein finally came up with the theory of relativity. In the spiritual realm, the great eighteenth-century Zen master Hakuin was able to finally reach full enlightenment, and revive a dying branch of Zen, because he applied himself to the task with relentless persistence over the course of some twenty years. This is aggressive energy, undivided from within, aimed with laser focus at a problem or resistance.
It is because the infant or the scientist or the aspiring practitioner of Zen wants something so badly that nothing will deter them. They understand the power of persistence, and so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—knowing its value, they are able to summon up the energy and self-belief to solve the problem. They are adopting Hannibal’s motto: “I will either find a way, or make a way.” You must do the same. The trick is to want something badly enough that nothing will stop you or dull your energy. Fill yourself with the requisite desire to reach a goal. Train yourself to not give up as easily as you did in the past. Keep attacking from new angles, in new ways. Drop the background doubts and continue striking with full force, knowing that you can break through anything if you don’t let up. Once you sense the power in this form of attack, you will keep returning to it.
Fearlessness: We are bold creatures by nature. As children, we were not afraid to ask for more or assert our will. We were remarkably resilient and fearless in so many ways. Timidity is a quality we generally acquire. It is a function of our mounting fears as we get older and a loss of confidence in our powers to get what we want. We become overly concerned with how people perceive us and worry what they will think if we stand up for ourselves. We internalize their doubts. We become afraid of any kind of conflict or confrontation, which will churn up emotions and lead to consequences we cannot predict or control. We develop the habit of backing down. We don’t say what we feel even when it would be appropriate, and we fail to set boundaries to people’s harmful behavior. We find it hard to ask for a raise or a promotion or the respect due to us. Losing our bold spirit, a positive form of aggression, is losing a deep part of our self, and it is inevitably painful.
You must try to recover the fearlessness you once possessed, through incremental steps. The key is to first convince yourself that you deserve good and better things in life. Once you feel that, you can start by training yourself to speak up or even talk back to people in everyday situations, if they are proving to be insensitive. You are learning to defend yourself. You might call people on their passive-aggressive behavior, or not be so timid in expressing an opinion that they may not share or in telling them what you really think of their bad ideas. You will often come to realize that you have less to fear in doing this than you had imagined. You might even gain some respect. You try this out in small ways every day.
Once you lose your fear in these less dramatic encounters, you can start to ramp it up. You can make greater demands on people that they treat you well, or honor the quality work that you do. You do this without a complaining or defensive tone. You make it clear to bullies that you are not as meek as you seem, or as easily manipulated as others. You can be as relentless as they are in defending your interests. In negotiations, you can train yourself not to settle for less but to make bolder demands and see how far you can push the other side.
You can apply this growing boldness to your work. You will not be so afraid to create something that is unique, or to face criticism and failure. You will take reasonable risks and test yourself out. All of this must be built up slowly, like a muscle that has atrophied, so that you don’t risk a large-scale battle or aggressive reaction before you have toughened yourself up. But once you develop this muscle, you will gain the confidence that you can meet any adversity in life with a fearless attitude.
Anger: It is natural and healthy for you to feel anger at certain types of people—those who unfairly block your advancement, the many fools who have power but are lazy and incompetent, the sanctimonious critics who espouse their clichés with so much conviction and attack you without understanding your views. The list could go on forever. Feeling such anger can be a powerful motivating device to take some kind of action. It can fill you with valuable energy. You should embrace it and use it throughout your life for such a purpose. What might make you hold back or tamp down your anger is that it can seem to be such a toxic and ugly emotion, as it often is in our culture.
What makes anger toxic is the degree to which it is disconnected from reality. People channel their natural frustrations into anger at some vague enemy or scapegoat, conjured up and spread by demagogues. They imagine grand conspiracies behind simple inescapable realities, such as taxes or globalism or the changes that are part of all historical periods. They believe that certain forces in the world are to blame for their lack of success or power, instead of their own impatience and lack of effort. There is no thought behind their anger, and so it leads nowhere or it becomes destructive.
You must do the opposite. Your anger is directed at very specific individuals and forces. You analyze the emotion—are you certain that your frustration does not stem from your own inadequacies? Do you really understand the cause of the anger and what it should be directed at? In addition to determining if it is justified and where the anger should be directed, you also analyze the best way to channel this emotion, the best strategy for defeating your opponents. Your anger is controlled, realistic, and targeted at the actual source of the problem, never losing sight of what initially inspired the emotion.
Most people engage in some cathartic release of their anger, some giant protest, and then it goes away and they slip back into complacency or become bitter. You want to cool your anger, bring it more to a simmer than a boil. Your controlled anger will help give you the resolve and patience you will need for what might be a longer struggle than you had imagined. Let the unfairness or injustice lie in the back of your mind and keep you energized. The real satisfaction comes not in one spasm of emotion but in actually defeating the bully and exposing the narrow-minded for who they are.
Do not be afraid to use your anger in your work, particularly if it is allied to some cause or if you are expressing yourself through something creative. It is often the sense of contained rage that makes an orator so effective; it was the source of much of the charisma of Malcolm X. Look at the most lasting and compelling works of art, and you can often read or feel the restrained anger behind them. We are all so careful and correct that when we feel the carefully channeled anger in a film or a book or wherever it is, it is like a fresh wind. It attracts all of our own frustrations and resentments and lets them out. We recognize that it is something real and authentic. In your expressive work, never shy away from anger but capture and channel it, letting it breathe into the work a sense of life and movement. In giving expression to such anger, you will always find an audience.
Power is required for communication. To stand before an indifferent or hostile group and have one’s say, or to speak honestly to a friend truths that go deep and hurt, these require self-affirmation, self-assertion, and even at times aggression.
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