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“Being defeated is hateful, and besting one’s boss is either foolish or fatal,” wrote Baltasar Gracián in one of his many profound aphorisms found in his timeless book on the art of living. He continues: “Most people do not mind being surpassed in good fortune, character, or temperament, but no one, especially not a sovereign, likes to be surpassed in intelligence.”
In the The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene echoes these sentiments in the first law, which is aptly called Never Outshine the Master. Greene writes:
Always make those above you feel comfortably superior. In your desire to please or impress them, do not go too far in displaying your talents or you might accomplish the opposite – inspire fear and insecurity. Make your masters appear more brilliant than they are and you will attain the heights of power.
Outshining the master is the worst mistake of all…
Everyone has insecurities. When you show yourself in the world and display your talents, you naturally stir up all kinds of resentment, envy, and other manifestations of insecurity. This is to be expected. You cannot spend your life worrying about the petty feelings of others. With those above you, however, you must take a different approach: When it comes to power, outshining the master is perhaps the worst mistake of all.
Almost everyone, including you, wants to seem more brilliant than we rightly deserve. And we don't like people to remind us of our fallibility. Greene observes:
Those who attain high standing in life are like kings and queens: They want to feel secure in their positions, and superior to those around them in intelligence, wit, and charm. It is a deadly but common misperception to believe that by displaying and vaunting your gifts and talents, you are winning the master’s affection. He may feign appreciation, but at his first opportunity he will replace you with someone less intelligent, less attractive, less threatening …
There are two important points to consider.
First, even if you are not trying to outside the master you can do so just by being you. This happens easily. If your boss is particularly insecure, natural wit and charm will be enough to draw unwanted attention. If they are incompetent than obvious competence will do the trick. Either find a way to mute the side of you most likely to draw ire, or avoid people where being you is likely to naturally outshine them.
Second, never imagine that being valued or loved affords you the freedom to do what you want. Your status is only secure to the point your master is secure that they are better than you.