Law 48: Assume Formlessness

The 48 Laws Of Power Summary Series


“By taking a shape, by having a visible plan, you open yourself to attack. Instead of taking a form for your enemy to grasp keep yourself adaptable and on the move. Accept the fact that nothing is certain and no law is fixed. The best way to protect yourself is to be as fluid and formless as water; never bet on stability or lasting order. Everything changes.”

I want to discuss how the concept of ‘water’ applies to these laws. When we talk about water, we’re talking about the symbol for the idea of assuming formlessness.

But what is formlessness?

Formlessness is simply having no regular shape or form, constantly adapting, constantly changing, and that is one of the main characteristics of water. It is constantly changing and adapting to its circumstances. Whatever is in front of water, it will find a way to move around it, whether that be the natural rock eroding from the sea water, or whether that be a tsunami wiping out an entire town. The Hoover Dam will one day collapse, whether that be 100 years, a thousand years, or a million years. Water, will always find its way around the object in front of it.

Water is such an incredible symbol for life. If you can assume formlessness, and if you can assume the characteristics of water — constantly adapting and changing, never taking one shape, never reacting, always responding, being methodical, the list goes on. If you want to be great, you have to be like water. If you want to be the strongest version of yourself, you have to be like water.

“Nothing is weaker than water, but when it attacks something hard or resistant, then nothing withstands it, and nothing will alter its way.”

The following passages from the Tao Te Ching are not derfrom the actual 48 Laws of Power book. I wanted to illustrate them from my own interpretation, that I feel is very relevant and very extremely important to understanding not just this law but all the laws. Not just this life, but all of your life, everybody’s, so for those who don’t quickly know, the Tao de Ching is a fundamental Chinese that was, that covers and encapsulates the philosophies of Taoism, and it was written by Lao Su.

“Water is so fine that it is impossible to grasp a handful of it. Strike it, yet it does not suffer or hurt. Stab it, and it is not wounded. Sever it, yet it is not divided. It has no shape of its own but molds itself to the receptacle that contains it. When heated to the state of steam, it is invisible, but has enough power to split the Earth itself. When frozen, it crystallizes into a mighty rock. First, it is turbulent like Niagara Falls, then calm like a still pond, fearful like a current, refreshing like a spring on a hot summer’s day.” — Laozi (Tao Te Ching)

People asked me numerous times, the time. How do you balance the laws? How do you know when to implement this law, or that law? Can apply them all at once? How can you do that? It’s impossible, isn’t it?

You balance these laws by executing law 48 — assuming formlessness — by being like water. All this simply means is playing in the context to which you are within. Adapting to the circumstances you find yourself within. No, you do not apply all 48 at the same time. It’s not possible to apply all 48 laws at once, because they contradict each other.

There are two traditional games that can symbolize the contrast of this law, and that is chess, and the other is the ancient Chinese game of Go. Chess is quite linear and direct, whereas Go is closer to the kind of strategy that will prove relevant to the chaotic world we live in, where battles are fought indirectly, in vast, loosely connected areas.

“It’s strategies are abstract and multidimensional, inhabiting a plane beyond time and space. In this fluid form of warfare, you value movement over position. Your speed and mobility make it impossible to predict your moves. Unable to understand you, your enemy can form no strategy to defeat you.”

“Instead of fixing on particular spots, this indirect form of warfare spreads out, just as you can use the large and disconnected nature of the real world to your advantage. Be like vapor. Do not give your opponents anything solid to attack. Watch as they exhaust themselves pursuing you, trying to cope with your elusiveness. Only formlessness allows you to truly surprise your enemies. By the time they figure out where you are, what you are, it is too late.”

Keys To Power

We understand what formlessness is now, but what is a ‘form’.

Form is the visible shape or configuration of something. It’s a particular way in which a thing exists, and lives within reality.

“The human animal is distinguished by its constant creation of forms. Rarely expressing its emotions directly gives them form through language, or through socially acceptable rituals. We cannot communicate our emotions without a form. The forms that we create, however, change constantly in fashion, in style, in all those human phenomena representing the mood of the moment. We are constantly altering the forms we have inherited from previous generations, and these changes are signs of life and vitality. Indeed, the things that don’t change, the forms that rigidify, come to look to us like death, and we destroy them.”

This can be seen so often in younger generations tearing down and reshaping previously held ideas, philosophies and cultural ways of living.

“Uncomfortable with the forms that society imposes on them, having no set identity, they play with their own characters, trying on a variety of masks and poses to express themselves. This is the vitality that drives the motor of form, creating constant changes in style. The powerful are often people who in their youth have shown immense creativity in expressing something new through a new form. Society grants them the power because it hungers for and reward this sort of newness. The problem that comes later is when they often grow conservative and possessive. They no longer dream of creating new forms. Their identities are set. Their habits congeal, and their rigidity makes them easy targets. Everyone knows their next move. Instead of demanding respect, they elect boredom. When locked into the past, the powerful look comical. They are overripe fruit waiting to fall from the tree.”

This is a cycle that the majority of people seem to go through. Our grandparents and parents likely boasted about how creative and progressive their ideas were, only to now find decades later they’re stuck and stagnated in those very same traditions they prided themselves on. It’s a cycle that repeats among the majority.

It wouldn’t be surprising to witness the people who were assuming formlessness now, got stagnant in their own ways after their youth had passed.

So many get lazy, complacent and stagnant as they age. But you don’t have to be locked in the past and appear comical as you grow older. You don’t have to be the overripe fruit waiting to fall from the tree. If you’re willing to remain open minded, constantly challenge yourself and your beliefs you can adapt and grow with the zeitgeist as you age.

Assuming formlessness is not just for the youth. It is for everybody who wants to constantly adapt to their circumstances bringing new forms of creativity into the world.

“Power can only thrive if it is flexible in it is forms. To be formless is not to be amorphous. (Amorphous means to be without any shape). Everything has a form. It is impossible to avoid. The formlessness of power is more like that of water, or mercury, taking the form of whatever is around it, changing constantly. It is never predictable.”

“An example of this in real life, is maritime warfare, which requires tremendous creativity and abstract thinking, since the lines are literally constantly shifting. Naval captains distinguish themselves by their ability to adapt to the literal fluidity of the terrain, and to confuse the enemy with an abstract, hard to anticipate form. They are operating in a third dimension, the mind.”

The first important psychological requirement of formlessness is to train yourself to take nothing personally. Never show any defensiveness. When you act defensive, you show your emotions, revealing a clear form. Your opponents will realize they have hit a nerve, an Achilles heal, and they will hit it again and again. Train yourself to take nothing personally. Never let anyone get your back up. Be like a slippery ball that cannot be held. Let no one know what gets to you, or where your weakness lies. Make your face a formless mask, and you will infuriate and disorient your scheming colleagues and opponents.”

“Throughout history, the formless style of ruling has been most adeptly practiced by the queen who reigns alone. A queen is in a radically different position from a king because she is a woman. Her subjects and courtiers are likely to doubt her ability to rule. “

For the small number of women who watch my videos and read my writings. This is especially relevant to you because you women hold a mysterious, underappreciated, undervalued potential for power. If more women could harness the characteristics illustrated in these laws of audacity, confidence, aggression, and a little more of the masculine energy that is needed to assume formlessness, you can elevate your life and the life of those around you with greater profundity. The same can be said of men of the feminine energy.

“A queen (women) is in a radically different position from a king because she is a woman. Her subjects and courtiers are likely to doubt her ability to rule. Her strength of character. If she favors one side in some ideological struggle, she is said to be acting out of emotional attachment, yet if she represses her emotions, and plays the authoritarian in the male fashion, she arouses worse criticism still, either by nature or by experience. Then, queens tend to adopt a flexible style of governing that in the end proves more powerful than the more direct male form.”

Elizabeth I was Queen of England and Ireland from 17 November 1558 until her death on 24 March 1603. Sometimes called The Virgin Queen, Gloriana or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth was the last monarch of the House of Tudor. Wikipedia

An iconic female leader who has exemplified this formless style that you could study further is Queen Elizabeth of England.

“In the violent wars between the Catholics and the Protestants, Elizabeth steered a middle course. She avoided alliances that would commit her to one side, and that over time would harm the country. She managed to keep her country at peace, until it was strong enough for war. Her reign was one of the most glorious in history because of her incredible capacity to adapt, and to have flexible ideology.”

“The feminine formless style of ruling may have emerged as a way of prospering under difficult circumstances, but has proved immensely seductive to those who have served under it. Being fluid, it is relatively easy for its subjects to obey, for they feel less coerced, less bent to their ruler’s ideology. It also opens up options where an adherence to a doctrine closes them off. Without committing to one side, it allows the ruler to play one enemy off another. Rigid rulers may seem strong, but with time, their inflexibility wears on the nerves, and the subjects find ways to push them from the stage. Flexible formless rulers will be much criticized, but they will endure, and people will eventually come to identify with them, since they are as their subjects, changing with the wind, open to circumstance.”

When you find yourself in conflict with someone stronger and more rigid, allow them a momentary victory. Seem to bow to their superiority. (Law 1, never outshine the master) Then, by being formless and adaptable, slowly insinuate yourself into their soul. This way, you will catch them off guard, for rigid people are always ready to ward off direct blows, but are helpless against the subtle and insinuating. To succeed at such a strategy, you must play the chameleon, conform on the surface, breaking down your enemy from the inside.”

What this means is just biting your tongue in the face of an argument, or the face of aggression, taking the short term superficial loss in exchange for the long-term victory, and long-term win. In other words, lose the battle to win the war.

It’s this idea of materialism versus minimalism, the superficiality of garnering more things — more abundance. We live in a abundance society. We have never consumed more food, used more goods, produced more good, consumed more information and produced more information than ever in history.

This reflects on our culture, society and people’s ideologies. People think the more the better. I used to believe it myself. If only I had more money, more clothes, more food, more cars, more books. The abundance mentality eventually has to come to a stop at some point or you end up physically filling your life with junk and consequently, your mind with junk. To be prosperous, free and detached from your belongings it seem’s like consumerism approach has to fall to make room for minimalism and freedom. Instead maybe focusing on buying 100 good books, maybe you should focus on studying five to ten really great books, that apply to you. Minimalism relates to assuming formlessness. The more you have, the slower you are, the less mobility you have. The less own, possess and are attached to, the less you have to worry about.

“In 483, B.C., King Xerxes, of Persia invaded Greece, believing he could conquer the country, and easy, quick campaign, because he had the largest army that was ever assembled, totaling upwards of five million. The Persians planned to build a bridge across the Hellespont to overrun Greece from the land, while their equally immense Navy would pin the great ships in harbor, preventing their forces from escaping to the sea. Xerxes’ adviser, Artabanus warned his master of his grave misgivings. He said, ‘The two mightiest powers in the world are against you,’ but Xerxes laughed. What powers could match his gigantic army, Artabanus responded with, ‘the land and the sea’, and the land and the sea are symbols of assuming formlessness, taking two territories, and using them to their advantage instead of just using one.”

“The more land the Persians conquered, and the longer their supply line stretched, the more cost it was to feed this immense army. Thinking his adviser a coward, Xerxes proceeded with the invasion, yet as Artabanus predicted, bad weather of the sea decimated the Persian fleet, which was too large to take shelter in any harbor. On land, meanwhile, the Persian army destroyed everything in its path, but it was also an easy, slow-moving target. Meanwhile, the Greeks practiced all kinds of deceptive maneuvers to disorient the Persians. Xerxes’ eventual defeat at the hands of the Greek allies was an immense disaster.”

“The story is emblematic of all those who sacrificed mobility for size, (who choose materialism over minimalism). The flexible and fleeter foot will almost always win, for they have more strategic options. The more gigantic the enemy, the easier it is to induce collapse. While the Spartans died at the hands of the Persians, they made tremendous grounds in helping to destroy the Persian army, and through many other battles they fought, their focus as a culture was on having less.

“They were warriors, and they did not medal in the arts. They were very direct, and minimalistic, and simple with the way they behaved and studied. They had no system of money or trading. They didn’t acquire wealth, because they believed it would only sow selfishness and dissension, weakening their warrior discipline. The only way Spartans earned a living was through agriculture, through land, food. This simple linear, approach allowed them to forge the most powerful infantry in the world. Decades would pass without a single change in their system, and that had worked for them.”

“But this warlike culture came to an end, an abrupt end, in the battle with Athens. See, the Athenians actually responded to most problems they had with creativity. They adapted to their occasion, creating new social forms and new arts at an incredible pace. The Spartans did not do this. While the Athenian society was in a constant stat of flux and adaptation, the Spartans stayed more stagnant. As noble as they were, their downfall stemmed from their ingrained habits that they never changed.”

“However, The Spartans actually emerged victorious against Athens, against a war that lasted decades, and because they won, they now commanded an empire. Athens was huge, but the Athenian money poured into Sparta. They had never seen this before. They had never understood what wealth felt like, what it meant to have money. They were unaccustomed to wealth, and the accompanying ways of life, and so many became seduced by it. Spartan governors were sent to rule and they succumbed to the worst forms of corruption, and eventually just like poison, it corrupted everything.”

“Sparta had defeated Athens, which was great, but the fluid, Athenian way of life was slowly breaking down its discipline, and loosening its rigid order. Athens, meanwhile, was adapting to losing its empire, managing to thrive as a cultural and economic center. Sparta grew weaker and weaker some 30 years after defeating Athens. It lost an important battle with Thebes. Almost overnight, this once mighty nation collapsed, never to recover, and that was largely due to their linear, stagnant approach to life. They never adapted, never changed, this was their demise in the end.”

“The need for formlessness becomes greater the older we get. As we grow more likely to become set in our ways and assume too rigid a form. As you get older, you must rely even less on the past. Be vigilant, lest the form your character has taken makes you seem a relic. It is not a matter of mimicking the fashions of youth. That is equally worthy of laughter. Rather, your mind must constantly adapt to each circumstance, even the inevitable change that the time has come to move over, and let those of a younger age prepare for their ascendancy. Rigidity will only make you look uncannily like a cadaver. Never forget, though, that formlessness is a strategic pose. It gives you room to create tactical surprises as your enemies struggle to guess your next move. They’ll reveal their own strategy, putting them at a decided disadvantage. It keeps the initiative on your side, putting your enemies in the position of never acting, constantly reacting.”

Most people are constantly reacting to their environment. They’re chaotically reacting out of emotion, causing irrational behavior. But if we can slow down and respond, that changes the game.

“Remember, formlessness is a tool. Never confuse it with go with the flow style, or with a religious resignation to the twists of fortune. You use formlessness not because it creates inner harmony and peace, but because it will increase your power.”

Though I disagree with Greene and believe it can also be used to create harmony and peace as well.

That very statement counteracts this book. Greene seem’s like he’s trying to send people a very critical message, he said, “It means that ultimately you must throw out the laws, the laws that others preach, and the books they write to tell you what to do.”

Not everything you read, see, watch or listen to should be taken in and used. As great as all these 48 laws may sound to you, maybe you have to disregard a lot of it and trust yourself. Don’t blindly follow ideologies by the successful. Yes, success leaves clues, but it’s just a clue, we can’t re-create our life the same way as another. Sometimes you just have to make a fucking decision for yourself.

Sometimes you just need to go for a walk, be with your own mind, and make a decision of yourself, without reading or watching anything and trying to escape from the problem that you’re facing. Though this is simply my interpretation, maybe you should disregard it as well.

“The laws that govern circumstances are abolished by new circumstances.”

These laws are relevant right now, but they may not be relevant tomorrow, or they may not be relevant to you tomorrow.

“It is up to you to gauge each new circumstance as it comes. Rely too much on other people’s ideas, and you end up taking a form not of your own making. Too much respect for other peoples wisdom can make you depreciate your own”


“Using space to disperse and create an abstract pattern should not mean forsaking the concentration of your power when it is valuable to you. Formlessness makes your enemies hunt all over for you, scattering their own forces, mental as well as physical. When you finally engage them though, hit them with a powerful, concentrated blow. When you play with formlessness, keep on top of the process, and keep your long term strategy in mind when you assume a form, and go on the attack, use concentration, speed, and power.

Thank You

A sincere thank you to every single person who has taken any amount of time to read, watch and consume any piece of content I’ve created. After creating the The 48 Laws Of Power video series I felt obliged to transcribe every law into the written word. As I began this endeavor I didn’t realize the monumental task in front of me to transcribe over 100,000+ words. It’s taken me about a year and a half to transcribe all the laws because I’ve been so preoccupied with life. But I really believe when you start something important and you say you’re going to do something, you should follow through and finish it. So I’m happy to get this done and hope it can help a few people out there improve their life in some small way. And of course, thank you to Robert Greene for writing this book, nowhere near as many people would know my name without you.


Originally Posted

Self reflective writings & book summaries on philosophy, psychology and human behaviour.

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