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Law 17: Keep Others in Suspended Terror: Cultivate an Air of Unpredictability (The 48 Laws of Power)

Law 17: Keep Others in Suspended Terror: Cultivate an Air of Unpredictability

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali

Unpredictability is a potent weapon you can use to rattle your opponents. Human beings are creatures of habit and expect to see patterns of behavior in others. If you manage to disrupt your patterns constantly, then you will intimidate your opponents and keep them off-balance.

Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky played against each other for the world championship of chess in 1972. Fischer lost the first game and forfeited the second after arriving very late to the event. This rattled Spassky as he was confused as to why Fischer would concede in this way. But in the rest of the games they played, Fischer had the upper hand, and was able to take advantage of Spassky’s confusion. Spassky beat his opponents by making moves that rattled his opponents.

Fischer used Spassky’s own tricks against him. By arriving late to events and performing poorly in the first event, Fischer cultivated a sense of unpredictability in Spassky that disrupted his focus. Spassky even accused Fischer of putting something in the chairs that would disrupt his thinking, but nothing was ever found. Spassky, although still young, retired from chess after losing to Fischer.

To win in chess, and in life, you have to be patient and far seeing. And the one big weakness you have is that your opponents can recognize your patterns and use them against you. This is why it is important to know how to disrupt their perception by constantly altering your behavior and keep them guessing.

Sometimes, it’s smarter – especially if you are in a subservient position, to not seem to erratic or unpredictable as it could work against you. In this case, it is better to lull your opponent to sleep with a consistent pattern, and then surprise them when they don’t expect it.

Muhammad Ali, when facing off against George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle took advantage of this. Foreman was famous for his powerful punch, while Ali was known for his speed, and movements. But in interviews before the fight, Ali claimed that he would slug it off against Foreman, trading punch for punch. Foreman, of course, didn’t believe him. It was just one of Ali’s familiar antics that the world had gotten used to and prepared to fight the elusive Ali that he had come to known. But to the surprise of everyone, including Foreman, Ali did exactly what he said he would. The confused and rattled Foreman could only muster erratic punches that Ali was able to counter with relative ease. Ali eventually tired Foreman out and managed to land counter punches throughout the fight. Foreman had not anticipated this kind of fight, and eventually Ali managed to knock him out.

Read The 48 Laws of Power

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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