How to Be Unpredictable: The Ultimate Guide

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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Do you ever wonder how to be unpredictable? Do you wonder why you’d want to be?

Learning how to be unpredictable can help you gain power by taking your enemy by surprise. We’ll cover how to be unpredictable, why you’d want to be unpredictable, and what history can teach us about the power of unpredictability.

How to Be Unpredictable—And Why You Should Be

Because people crave predictability and a sense of control, you can throw others off balance and even terrify them with random, unpredictable acts.

Why would you want to do this? While your opponents are stressing themselves out by trying the explain and anticipate what you’re doing, you can achieve your objectives almost unnoticed. Sometimes, in order to achieve power over a situation, you need to learn how to be unpredictable.

Why Be Unpredictable?

Unpredictable, sudden events like tornadoes and flash floods terrify people, leaving them in fear of the next one. You can have a similar effect on people by being unpredictable.

We want other people to be predictable, and we ourselves follow patterns and routines, out of laziness, a preference for comfort, or a desire to keep the peace. Animals follow patterns as well, which allows us to hunt them successfully.

But unpredictability is an important tool for wielding power — by suddenly doing something no one expected you create fear and confusion, which keeps others off balance, allowing you room to maneuver. It may also prompt them to make mistakes. This is why you should learn how to be unpredictable.

You can use this tactic effectively even if you are the underdog. For instance, during the Civil War, General Stonewall Jackson confused and stymied the much larger Union forces that were marching on Richmond, by repeatedly moving north and then back south again. In response, Union General George McClellan slowed his forces, while trying to figure out what was going on, which gave the South time to reinforce Richmond. This turned certain defeat into a draw. General Jackson knew how to be unpredictable, and it worked to his advantage.

Jackson used this tactic repeatedly with great success. When you’re outgunned, be unpredictable. Or use the tactic in more typical day-to-day situations — you’ll intimidate people and keep them on the defensive with random, inexplicable acts.  

Besides unsettling people, you’ll draw attention and get people talking, as they try to understand your motives. When you’re unpredictable, you generate not only fear but also respect.

Example: How to Be Unpredictable Through Erratic Behavior

Learn from Bobby Fischer how to be unpredictable.

In 1972 chess great Bobby Fischer so unnerved Russian champion Boris Spassky with unpredictability, that Spassky had a meltdown and left without completing the match in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Identifying patterns, and understanding and predicting an opponent’s moves, is particularly important in chess, and Spassky was a master at it, but when these skills failed to work with Fischer, he fell apart.

Among other things, Fischer, arrived late to the games, complained loudly and constantly about everything, behaved erratically, and made inexplicably poor moves, even losing the first game for seemingly foolish reasons. He forfeited the second game for not showing up on time.

Spassky became convinced that Fischer had hypnotized him, drugged the orange juice, or had altered the chairs in some way. Then he started complaining of hallucinations, finally resigning from the match. 

Fischer defeated Spassky by keeping him in a state of confusion and, ultimately, terror. This is a great example of how to be unpredictable.

How to Be Unpredictable by Being Elusive

Be flexible, fluid, and unpredictable — formless — so your opponents can’t get a fix on you and figure out how to respond. When you look and behave in conventional ways that your enemy can grasp, you’re easy to attack. Change constantly to suit ever-changing circumstances and needs.

Principle: Be Formless

Learn to be formless — that is, flexible, fluid, and unpredictable — and your opponents won’t be able to get a handle on you. Formlessness is strategic. It gives you room to maneuver, create surprises, and bewilder your opponent. It’s a tool that increases your power. Don’t be locked into a single system, process, strategy, or approach. Change to suit your needs and circumstances. Sometimes, we’re unpredictable even to ourselves. Be OK with that. This is an important lesson about how to be unpredictable.

Guerrilla warfare is formless (without a clear or definite shape or structure). T.E. Lawrence, a British officer and diplomat, put formlessness into practice as a guerrilla strategy during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in World War I. While working with the Arabs fighting the Turks, he made the Arabs fade into the desert, never presenting a target. The Turks wasted enormous energy trying to find them, but the Arabs never revealed themselves until they attacked. Their indirection and elusiveness prevailed. They knew how to be unpredictable.

Formlessness is useful in many arenas other than war, as it frustrates your opponents by giving them nothing solid to attack. When you’re not weighed down by a system and inflexible ways of doing things, you’re able to move fast, sense change, and adapt to it.

How to Be Unpredictable by Being Adaptable

When in conflict with someone stronger and more rigid, be formless and adaptable — then catch them off guard.

In interactions with others, people use your visible emotions to figure you out and manipulate you. For instance, when you respond to something defensively, your opponent knows he’s hit a nerve and presses his attack. In contrast, a bland facial expression (formlessness) confuses scheming opponents; they don’t know how to read you. This is an advantage of learning how to be unpredictable.

As a German Jew in the unfriendly culture of Paris, banker James Rothschild never took any attack personally, or showed frustration or hurt. By projecting a calm, unreadable demeanor, he successfully adapted and grew his business in the changing political climates of multiple monarchies.

The Japanese accepted foreigners graciously for centuries, without harm to their culture. They appeared on the surface to adopt some foreign styles and customs, but underneath, their culture continued to thrive. Had they been rigid and tried to fight foreign influences, they would have suffered. But they adopted a kind of formlessness, appearing to accept other cultures, thus giving the foreigners nothing to fight. This was unexpected. The Japanese knew how to be unpredictable and used it to their advantage.

When you’re unreadable and impossible to pin down, you keep initiative on your side while your opponent must constantly react to you. This is how to be unpredictable.

Example: How to Be Unpredictable Through Adaptation

Protective armor only protects to a point. Those who depend on such heavy, inflexible defenses, ultimately lose to nimble, unencumbered, formless opponents.

Ancient Sparta learned this lesson. It had created a culture focused on one thing: an invincible infantry. Sparta trained boys from age seven to be soldiers. The entire culture and economy focused on building and supporting the military; there was no money or art, and no skills other than fighting were taught. For a while, it was the most powerful infantry in the world. 

But after a 27-year war in which Sparta conquered Athens, Sparta’s world changed. Its rigid, militaristic system ultimately couldn’t withstand the winds of cultural change it unleashed with its victory. Athenian wealth and culture overwhelmed and broke down Spartan discipline. Spartan governors sent to Athenian lands quickly became corrupt. 

Thirty years after defeating Athens, a much weaker Sparta went to war against Thebes and lost. Soon thereafter, it collapsed. Its lack of adaptability spelled doom. It didn’t know how to be unpredictable.

Exceptions: When to Be Predictable

Occasionally, it’s better to be predictable. For instance, you can use predictable actions as a smokescreen. People become complacent when you behave as expected and don’t notice what you’re really doing.

If you’ve been predictable for a while and then do something completely different, people may be so surprised that they don’t believe what they see. Muhammad Ali used this tactic to defeat George Foreman in 1974. Forman expected him to dance around to wear him out as Ali typically did. Ali announced he would go on the attack instead, but Foreman didn’t believe it. Foreman was shocked that Ali came out punching, and he responded with wild punches and wore himself out. With a sudden right cross, Ali knocked him out.

When you’re in a subordinate position, being unpredictable can upset your boss and prompt closer supervision, or an unfavorable performance review. You can come across as indecisive or as someone who keeps things stirred up, and your boss won’t trust you. So use this tactic wisely.

But, in general, learn how to be unpredictable and you’ll gain power in many situations.


How to Be Unpredictable: The Ultimate Guide

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  • Why you should never outshine your boss
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  • 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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