How to Be Mysterious and Intimidating: The Key to Gain 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.

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Ever wonder how you can be mysterious? Or how being mysterious might benefit you in work and life?

Mystery can bring you power. If you’re mysterious, people want to know more, and their lack of knowledge and desire to figure you out gives you power over them. Use the examples below to learn why and how to be mysterious to gain more power over others.

Be Mysterious

People are attracted to those who seem mysterious, so cultivate an air of mystery. Be vague about what you’re doing or plan to do. Don’t show all your cards and you’ll create an atmosphere of anticipation — people will pay attention to see what you do next. Use mystery to deceive, enthrall, and intimidate.

Principles: How to Be Mysterious

In ancient times, when the world seemed frightening and inexplicable, people invented gods and myths to explain diseases, natural wonders, disasters, and other things they couldn’t understand. Today, we explain natural phenomena with science and reason, but people still crave the inexplicable and mysterious. People gravitate to enigmas. They have drawing power because they’re open to interpretation, imagination, and awe, unlike our mostly familiar and predictable world.

You can attract attention the same way, by being inscrutable. You don’t need to be extraordinary to create a sense of mystery about yourself — you can succeed while being more subtle, making mystery part of your mien.

By practicing silence and restraint, making occasional ambiguous remarks, being purposely inconsistent, and appearing eccentric, you’ll project an aura of mystery, which others will build up by trying to interpret what you say and do. This is how to be mysterious.

Con artists attract people by seeming mysterious, then distract them while fleecing them. For example, a stylish swindler, Victor Lustig, pretended to be a count; he dressed expensively, but always wore an odd accessory. He hung around hotels acting in ways that got people buzzing. He was so interesting and distracting that people who got close to him didn’t notice they were being robbed. Lustig used his mysteriousness for crime, but we can still learn tips on how to be mysterious from him.

The Benefits of Mystery

Some benefits of seeming mysterious include:

  • An element of mystery can make you appear brilliant and profound, even if you’re average or mediocre. For example, Mata Hari, the famed dancer, wasn’t a great beauty or an extraordinary dancer, but she enthralled her audiences because she seemed exotic and kept changing her background story.
  • You have the upper hand when you force others to try and figure you out. It puts them on the defensive.
  • You can inspire fear because people are unnerved by uncertainty and things they don’t understand.
  • Mystery draws attention and gives you an intimidating presence as a leader. Example: Mao Tse-tung mystified everyone, including his wife, by being unpredictable and contradicting himself. People felt they had to pay attention because no one knew what he might do next.

If you can’t be mysterious all the time, create enigmas. Do something periodically that doesn’t jibe with others’ perceptions and expectations of you, to keep them on edge and focused on you. This is one tip for how to be mysterious.

Example #1: How to Be Mysterious

Find inspiration from this example on how to be mysterious.

Hannibal famously created a mystery that enabled his army was to escape a trap. Hannibal’s army had become boxed in between some swampland, the sea, and the mountains, which the Romans occupied.

One night, as Roman sentries looked down, they saw thousands of lights heading toward them, which they thought were reinforcements. Soon fire and noise broke out below and the sentries fled. The next day they saw that Hannibal had escaped.

He had created the puzzle of lights and noise by tying torches to the oxen carrying his supplies. The animals soon stampeded, making noise and setting fires everywhere. As Hannibal demonstrated, when you find yourself in a tight spot, if you do something that can’t be readily understood or explained, you’ll provoke fear and confusion.

Example #2: How to Be Mysterious

Get tips from a dancer on how to be mysterious.

In the early 1900s, a young dancer Mata Hari became a sensation in Europe. She claimed to be from the Far East and danced while wrapped in veils that she periodically removed. She varied her music (Hindu, Javanese) and changed the colors of her outfits. She told different stories about her background and the origin of her dances.

She succeeded as a dancer, not because of beauty or skill, but because of the mystery she created with her stories, music, and costumes, which she continually changed. People didn’t know what to expect. Their fascination made her wealthy and powerful, at least for a time.

Eventually, her reputation for deception caught up with her — near the end of World War I, she was falsely accused and eventually executed as a spy. During the trial, it was revealed that her name was Margaretha Zelle and she was Dutch.

Exceptions to these Principles

Although you want to attract as much attention as possible, you need to evolve your tactics as you succeed so you don’t bore the public. Also, don’t build your sense of mystery to the point where it seems threatening; it should seem like a game.

Appearing to crave attention too desperately is a sign of insecurity, which undercuts power. Knowing when to dial-up and when to tone down the show is key to understanding how to be mysterious.

How to Be Mysterious and Intimidating: The Key to Gain Power

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  • 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 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.

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