Law 20: Do Not Commit to Anyone (48 Laws of Power)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The 48 Laws of Power" by Robert Greene. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

Overview of Law #20: Do Not Commit to Anyone

Do not commit to anyone except yourself. By maintaining your independence, you remain in control — others will vie for your attention, and you can play one side against another. 

Law 20 Sub-Law: Be Courted by Everyone

Stay aloof and don’t commit yourself, and you’ll gain power and attention as people try to win you over. Give them hope, but nothing more.

Principles

You’ll get respect if you refuse to commit to a person or group, so do not commit to anyone. According to Law 20 of the 48 Laws of Power, you’ll be powerful because you’re unattainable by either side. The more independent you appear to be, the more people will want you on their side. Desire is contagious — when people see that someone else is desired, they want to get in on the action too.

However, if you commit, you’ll instantly lose your luster — you’ll no longer be desired and sought after. 

When people are courting your support, they’ll use many tactics, including gifts and favors, to create a sense of obligation. Accept the gifts if you want to, but don’t feel or accept any obligation.

Don’t offend anyone or appear to be averse to commitment. Focus instead on keeping others excited and interested in you and hoping for an alliance. Play the game for your own advantage, but do not commit to anyone.

For example, during the 1968 presidential election, Henry Kissinger secured a promise of a high-level administration post from both the Republican, Richard Nixon, and the Democrat, Hubert Humphrey. In return, he gave the Nixon camp information on the Paris peace talks about Vietnam; and he gave Humphrey’s team inside information on Nixon.

When he joined the Nixon administration, he was careful not to seem overly loyal to Nixon. He avoided being tainted by Watergate, and went on to serve under the next president.

By holding back, you retain the ability to play one side against another to get something you want. As secretary of state, Kissinger wanted a detente between the U.S. and Soviet Union. So he courted China — this brought the Soviets to the negotiating table because they feared isolation if the U.S. and China developed a relationship. Kissinger knew how to follow Law 20: Do Not Commit to Anyone.

Putting Law 20 to Work

Here’s another example of how to apply Law 20 of the 48 Laws of Power: When Queen Elizabeth I assumed the English throne in 1958, she came under great pressure to marry and produce heirs. She received all kinds of advice and many suitors, who she allowed to court her, but she never chose anyone.

Elizabeth refused to commit because she knew marriage in her position would lead to untold problems. Marrying someone from another nation could pull her into conflicts, rivalries, and wars. Her husband would become the de facto ruler, and might try to eliminate her. By maintaining her independence, she retained her power and desirability, and ruled the country through a long period of peace.

Law 20 Sub-Law: Stay Above the Fray

Don’t let people drag you into their petty fights and squabbles. Seem interested and supportive, but find a way to remain neutral; let others do the fighting while you stand back. When they tire, they’ll be ripe for the picking. Do not commit to anyone.

Principles

People will constantly try to pull you into their quarrels and conflicts. According to Law 20 of the 48 Laws of Power, if you succumb, their problems will consume your time and energy. Don’t succumb — there’s nothing in it for you; the conflict will just keep growing.

However, you don’t want to offend people, so seem interested, listen, and even make gestures of seeming support. But don’t get involved emotionally or otherwise. By refusing to commit, you preserve your autonomy and initiative. You can make your own choices rather than reacting defensively to developments in someone else’s fight.

Further, if you let others exhaust themselves, you may be able to capitalize on their exhaustion, or position yourself to benefit when one side starts losing. You can also play mediator, and look out for your own interests. You can appear to take one side, encouraging the other side to come up with a better offer. Or seem to take both sides, and play them against each other. While you may be tempted to side with the apparently stronger party, you can’t be sure who will win. Preserve your flexibility and do not commit to anyone.

While getting along with all sides for as long as possible has great advantages, dropping the supportive stance and publicly declaring your independence is the best course if you’re striving to build respect.

As president, George Washington refused to ally the young country with France because he wanted to establish autonomy so that European nations treated the United States as an equal power.

Putting Law 20 to Work

Here’s yet another example of the power of Law 20 of the 48 Laws of Power: In the late 15th century, Isabella, the ruler of a small city-state in Italy, surrounded by larger warring city-states, managed to preserve her territory’s independence and stay out of others’ wars by appearing open to overtures from other powers without accepting any, avoiding provocation, and by engaging in complicated negotiations and ruses. She employed her personal charm, flattery, and strategic skills, and while other entities and leaders rose and fell around her, Isabella’s territory, Mantua, remained intact for a century after her death.

Exceptions to Law 20

Are there any exceptions to Law 20 of the 48 Laws of Power? You can go too far with both sub-laws of Law 20: making others court you, and staying above the fray.

Various parties could gang up on you, if your manipulations become too obvious. Also, if you string too many people along for too long, they’ll lose interest in you. At that point, you may want to commit to a side, but don’t get emotionally involved, and keep open the option to back out anytime. Be careful with it, but try to follow Law 20: Do Not Commit to Anyone.

Law 20: Do Not Commit to Anyone (48 Laws of Power)

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of "The 48 Laws of Power" at Shortform. Learn the book's critical concepts in 20 minutes or less.

Here's what you'll find in our full The 48 Laws of Power summary:

  • Why you should never outshine your boss
  • How to appear like a friend but behave like a spy
  • The 6 rules you absolutely must not violate, if you want to be successful
Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *