Interviews

Power Money Fame Sex is written as a how-to manual, but do you intend for it to be read as a guide? 

Power Money Fame Sex is social commentary in the guise of a how-to manual. My aim was to couch real analysis in an accessible format.

The how-to format has always seemed inherently funny to me-it’s funny that someone would write a book explaining How to Win Friends and Influence People. And a user’s guide lends itself to engaging formats. Instead of describing “the trophy wife,” I devised a quiz, “Are you a trophy wife?” Few readers need a quiz to find out if they’re trophy wives! They read the quiz to find out who qualifies.

But don’t be fooled by the breezy style. And don’t be so lulled into agreement that you miss the irony.

So, although it’s written as a how-to guide, it is clear that you’re not seriously recommending many of the things you suggest. 

It seemed to me that an examination of power, money, fame, and sex should include all the methods that people actually use-not just the methods that people ought to use. So I include techniques that I’d never endorse.

The guide is supposed to help you understand all the methods that work – so that you understand what your boss or neighbor is doing, even if you’d never do it yourself. If you’re determined to use sex to get money, a paternity suit against a basketball player is a successful approach.

The Introduction claims that this book is for “strivers” and “non-strivers.” It’s easy to see why a striver would read it. But why should a non-striver read it? 

If you’re a non-striver, you use this guide defensively.

It helps you precisely because you’re not plotting your path to a corner office or penthouse apartment. “I refuse to deal with office politics,” you congratulate yourself – but you can’t opt out. Even if you don’t practice these principles, you should understand how other people think. After all, even if you wouldn’t use these techniques yourself, you don’t want them used against you.

How do people use power, money, fame, and sex to get ahead? 

Once you’ve got power, money, fame, or sex, it becomes much easier to grab more. And once you’ve got money, it’s easier to become famous, and once you’re rich, it’s easier to use sex, and so on. I call this the Platinum Rule: To whom much is given, more is given. Powerful people are asked to join boards; rich socialites get flowers for free. Power Money Fame Sex explains how and why that happens.

It’s astonishing to see how different people chasing power, money, fame and sex repeat the same methods – mostly without conscious effort. Hugh Hefner and Dennis Rodman applied the same rule of fame. Lyndon Johnson and Barry Diller applied the same rule of power, as did Henry Kissinger and Madonna and J. Edgar Hoover. These rules really exist, even if people aren’t consciously aware of them.

What are some of the valuable insights into American success and wealth that your book provides? 

It’s astonishing the degree to which our sense of ourselves is bound up in our possessions. I call this signaling – the way we exhibit possessions to reveal our sensibility, status, knowledge, and fortune. Whether a person is donating a wing to the Met, or forming a non-profit to teach technology to inner-city kids, the signaling process is the same. Look what I’ve got: more.

Because we are what we buy, signaling permits reinvention. Shrewd owners manipulate their identities through their possessions: a Prada bag, a pair of Nikes, a basketball team. On the plus side, because our culture is based on possession and display, it’s fluid; a society that emphasizes breeding, race, or religion is more stagnant. On the other hand, our culture-because it’s organized around signaling-breeds materialism and ostentation.

How did you get the idea to write the book? 

The idea hit me when I was clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The Court’s term had just started and I was feeling the pressure, so I went for a lunch-time walk around the Capitol to relax. As I watched the tourists, I asked myself, “What interests me, that interests everyone else, too?” Well, power. Money. Fame. Sex.

Before starting work on the book, I’d felt the goad of ambition, but gave little thought to strategy. Hard work and good manners, I thought, should get me whatever success I deserved. But I began to notice that merit wasn’t always enough. At times I felt outmaneuvered by people who exploited techniques that never occurred to me. I saw that people with distasteful methods often won spectacular success.

I wanted to figure out how people used power, money, fame, and sex. What worked? That’s what got me started.

Why is American society today so fascinated by power, money, fame, and sex? 

American society is obsessed with self-help; we believe so fervently that people can remake themselves, that anyone can achieve anything. Because everyone dreams that power, money, fame, and sex could be within their grasp, everyone takes an interest.

Plus we’re bombarded with information about the rich, powerful, famous, and sexy-we feel like we’re part of their world. I know an awful lot about Donald Trump. That feeds the desire for more-people without much money aspire to the same possessions and pastimes as the rich, and so on.

This guide is provocative. Forthright statements-for example, use sex to get access to power and wealth-are sure to spark controversy. How do you think readers will react to the advice and concepts in your book? 

Readers may initially be taken aback by the book’s startlingly frank principles, like “to boost your fame, adopt extreme views.” But after initial surprise, readers will discern that the guide isn’t quite the straightforward account it appears to be, and I am not advocating that they apply every principle in the book.

Paradoxically, a reaction might be that reading the book makes its techniques less effective. Once these principles are exposed, their grip slackens. “Ah ha!” you realize. “Now I understand why my neighbor spent a fortune to decorate her house in a style so minimalist that I thought it was still under construction.” Once you see that using intimidating rages is a common technique of asserting power, the boss’s furies lose some of their terror, and effectiveness.

Also, seeing these principles laid out brazen and naked may cause readers-as it caused me-to consider, more earnestly than ever before, the moral effect of chasing these worldly prizes.