Be Slightly Evil: A Playbook for Sociopaths

Be Slightly Evil: A Playbook for Sociopaths



The Pequod Review:

Be Slightly Evil is a compilation of blog posts from Venkatesh Rao's early 2010s website, where he explored the role of power and influence in the workplace. The pieces have the tossed-off feel typical to blog posts — which is both good and bad — but Rao has some good no-nonsense advice. Here he explains the value of not letting status matter to you:

Now, here’s why all this is important. Status is a variable whose importance is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you gravitate to preferred locked-status patterns, then you will expend energy preserving those patterns. You can be manipulated. Status matters if it matters.

Conversely, if status doesn’t matter to you, it becomes available to you as a situational control variable when dealing with those to whom status does matter. We all start out in a locked-status mode, but if you start breaking locked felt-played patterns then a curious thing happens: felt status of any sort weakens. Turns out felt status needs the nourishment of being hooked to a projected (and perceived-as-hoped and validated) status in order to survive. If you spend enough years breaking patterns in unpredictable ways, felt status starts to vanish altogether, leaving a sort of “status vacuum” inside you. The designated part of firmware dedicated to status seems to decay. The variable can nearly completely vanish. I suspect this happens to really good actors, like William H. Macy, who play a large status spectrum convincingly. This is one reason I don’t consider Denzel Washington a good actor: he never seems to play convincing low-status roles.

When two status-vacuum people meet, they typically recognize each other and abandon status-based manipulation altogether and spar with other weapons. There is a subtle failure mode here: if you break locked patterns in predictable ways, you simply lock in new patterns. I knew a guy who figured all this stuff out, but then got hooked on “pushing buttons” and enjoying the reactions. That reinforced a “felt high” pattern rather than shriveling felt status to a vacuum. He could be manipulated by hooking his button-pushing instincts. The best way to break patterns in random ways is simply to play situations in ways that suit your situational objectives. Your objectives and the related optimal patterns, will generally be in a random relationship to any locked patterns.”


How important is it to play status right? Overwhelmingly important. You can do everything else right and play status wrong and you’ll fail. You need to constantly practice status playing skills, and even then the game gets tougher all the time as you meet more complicated people, in more demanding situations. You will play things wrong often, so you need to spread risk over multiple situations and people.

Can you choose not to play? Yes, if you find a group of people whose locked-status patterns are complementary to yours (either via co-dependent game-playing patterns or more productive patterns), and stay within that group, and within a small universe of situations, as much as you can. If your life involves constantly meeting all sorts of new people, in unfamiliar situations, and getting all sorts of different things from them, you don’t have a choice. Play status or crash. Even if you aren’t being played yourself, the mere randomness of complementary/ toxic status collisions with a changing cast of locked-status people will eventually make you crash. The unmanaged, baseline “complementary” hit rate will be too low.

This is useful and practical advice.