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2021-02-26

3. Align or differentiate:

Build a monopoly

Robert Greene's third law of power is to "conceal your intentions." To use red herrings and smoke screens to distract your enemy and hide your aims. So their attempts at sabotage will hit the wrong mark.

Sure, if you're starting a business, you'll probably want to keep your proprietary technology secret.1 And you shouldn't leave your hand out in the open while you're playing cards.

But what Greene gets wrong (and it's the same mistake over and over again) is that intentions are not as mutually exclusive in daily interactions2 as on Greene's contrived battlefield.

Game theory The kinds of games we usually play are not zero-sum. Both players stand to win.

When you do find yourself at an impasse, first consider whether you can change the rules. If you stumble into a game of prisoner's dilemma, your optimal outcome is the worst possible outcome for your opponent and vice-versa. It would seem your intentions are opposed. But if you change the rules so you're playing iterated prisoner's dilemma, well, suddenly, the stable strategy, tit for tat, allows for mutual cooperation.

Rather than conceal our intentions, our first effort should be to align them. That requires us to be honest3 about what we want.

This isn't just some romantic drivel about needing world peace and unity. Real-life games are in constant flux. The rules are not set in stone, and we have some say in which rule book we choose to play by.

Of course, you won't always be able to align your intentions. If you're competing for the same finite, indivisible resource, only one of you can come out on top.

When you find yourself in such a situation, unless you already have a decisive advantage, your first reaction should be to flee. Quit the game. The world is probably big enough for the both of you if you just get out of each other's way. Because conflict is for suckers.

In ecology, "conflict is for suckers" is formalized as Gause's law or the competitive exclusion principle. It's why you won't find "perfect competitors" in nature. If two species start out occupying the same niche, then the slightest advantage in one will compound over millions of years to become a dominant position. The pressure pushes the other species to differentiate or go extinct.

Beyond ecology, a corollary is that we should preemptively avoid competition through specialization. In entrepreneurship, this becomes Peter Thiel's advice to build a monopoly (because, as he puts it, "competition is for losers")4. In families, Gause's law might explain why siblings drift into different subjects. In academia, why disciplines fracture into ever more specialized fields. In management, why Thiel recommends that every employee take on a unique role:

"The best thing I did as a manager at PayPal was to make every person in the company responsible for doing just one thing. Every employee's one thing was unique, and everyone knew I would evaluate him only on that one thing. I had started doing this just to simplify the task of managing people. But then I noticed a deeper result: defining roles reduced conflict." — Peter Thiel 4

When your intentions conflict with those of another–the two of you are stuck in a zero-sum struggle—take a step back. Consider whether the prize is really worth it. Rather than conceal your intentions, change arenas (or inspire the other to leave). Better to differentiate your intentions.

Sometimes you can't run. Because the stakes of quitting would be too high. That's the moment when Greene's battlefield tactics start to make sense. When maybe, just maybe, you should consider concealing your intentions. But these tactics of deceit and insincerity should be your last option. Don't stoop low until all other options are exhausted.


Summary

If you find yourself in a conflict of intentions:

  1. Try to align your intentions. Change the rules of the game you're playing.
  2. If that doesn't work, differentiate your intentions. Quit the game or get the other player to quit the game.
  3. If all else fails, resort to Greene and conceal your intentions.

Footnotes

Footnotes

  1. There are exceptions, notably Tesla.

  2. Between family, friends, coworkers, etc. "Politics" is going to have to wait for another post.

  3. Radically honest, as I'll argue for the 12th law of cooperation: Be radically honest.

  4. Peter Thiel, Zero to One (2014) 2


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