Notes of a Degenerate Dreamer: Never Outshine the Master

By Sebastian Vice

In Robert Greene’s excellent Machiavellian text The 48 Laws Of Power, his first law is a warning against outshining the master (boss or anyone in authority over you). While each law is excellent and has some degree of practical application, I suspect the first law is transgressed the most (I’m just as guilty of it).
We can observe that it’s wise to disregard the petty feelings of others in most cases (exceptions made to loved ones and friends—to an extent). If we spend too much time (or, really, any time) valuing what others think of us, we are pissing away the short time we have from the cradle to the grave. However, when it comes to those who occupy a superior power position in the game of life, your attempts to appear hyper-competent, or to showcase your talents, will often backfire.

Why you might ask? Haven’t we all been taught to work hard, go that extra mile, and show our masters our talents to get ahead?

Most of us have been indoctrinated into this myth, either by parents or schools. If you’re talented, skilled at what you do, and therefore probably highly competent, but still can’t seem to get ahead, this article is for you. I can’t repeat this enough: almost all of us have outshined the master and paid for it (myself included). This article isn’t to chastise anyone, but rather to help you avoid another bear trap.
Why, you might ask, do competent and skilled people get fucked over so often? To put it simply, they have misunderstood the game of power. Namely, a master wants to shine, and is generally self-serving. Your boss has probably risen to a level of incompetence. As The Peter Principle states: in hierarchical systems, people tend to rise to their level of incompetence. In other words, your boss is, probably, an incompetent hack (not to mention a parasite—but that’s for a different article). Consciously or unconsciously, masters knows this. This is one of his or her insecurities (often masked as faux confidence or an inflated sense of self-worth. You know the type, always boasting about their accomplishments which is a sign of insecurity—think narcissistic cunt).
Are we starting to see why flaunting your talents to such an individual would hold you back? To put this in perspective. How often have you been in a situation of relative equality and felt envy over someone else’s success or talent? Or, if this doesn’t apply to you, how often have people pulled away, or backstabbed you, or put you down, after showcasing your talents? (This applies to friends and strangers alike).
Now imagine this playing out among yourself and your master. Suppose you outshine him. This will inspire all sorts of resentment and envy. Now you, and not him, are the center of attention (and people in power typically don’t like this). And whether you’re actually an objective threat to his position is immaterial in how he reacts. If something’s a threat, real or imagined, it must be eliminated.
I invite you to take stock of your life’s past and present masters. Focus on those masters where you busted your hump for a promotion, but didn’t get it. It’s probably because you made him feel insecure by flaunting your natural talents, toomuch, to court his favor.
It’s worth noting that these observations are amoral, meaning, that neither I, nor Robert Greene (who is the inspiration for this article) are not making normative claims here. You may well have gotten a raw deal. You probably did. But like gravity, the punishment of transgressing a law—of physics or power—doesn’t track moral virtue.
Robert Greene doesn’t mention this, but one method is to appear sufficiently incompetent (Greene hints at this—mask your natural talents). Not too incompetent, but just enough to make your master sufficiently comfortable that you’re not a threat.
Another method: appear as a friend. Notice I said appear as a friend. When you do things for your master, ensure he gets the bulk of the credit. This makes him look good, and in making him look good, he will look favorably upon you (and probably promote you in the long run). Put your ego aside and play the long game. Remember, the game of power is chess, not checkers.
Another method: give credit for your accomplishments to your master. If you showcase your talents and are on the brink of outshining him, place the bulk of credit to the master to ease his petty insecurities. In the short run, you may feel like you sold out, but in the long game? You’ll have curried enough favor with the master to get ahead.
Let’s outline a case where someone transgresses this law (you can find a more eloquent exposition of it in Greene’s The 48 Laws Of Power). Louis XIV was an arrogant, narcissistic man who loved being the center of attention. In a bid to win his favor, Nicholas Fouquet threw several ever increasingly lavish banquets in his honor. This backfired in winning Louis XIV’s favor, and resulted in Fouquet rotting in prison. Why? In throwing such lavish banquets, Fouquet drew attention away from Louis XIV, and brought it upon himself. He outshined a man who loved being the center of attention.
What could Fouquet have done differently? He could put on mediocre banquets that didn’t draw too much attention to himself. This would have shown Louis XIV his loyalty, while also not offending his narcissistic ego. He could have also deflected such lavish banquets onto Louis XIV, going so far as to draw attention to Louis XIV, and away from himself (even lying and claiming such banquets were Louis XIV’s idea).
Keep this example in mind the next time you are encouraged to buy into the myth of “going above and beyond” to get ahead. That will most likely ruin you if not done with the upmost care.
If all of this sounds cold, calculating and manipulative, it is. However, a master will slit your throat the first chance he gets. He will pay you the minimum. He will deny you healthcare. And, most egregious, he will steal the fruits of your labor.
You may find this advice Machiavellian. It is. But remember: if you don’t play the power game, the power game with play you.

Sebastian Vice is the founder of Outcast-Press, an indie publishing company specializing in transgressive fiction and dirty realism. His poetry and short fiction has, or will, appear in Punk Noir Magazine, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Close To The Bone, Terror House Magazine, and the anthology In Filth It Shall Be Found.