Guest: Rubin, Gretchen
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THE OPEN MIND
GUEST: Gretchen Craft Rubin
TITLE: “Power Money Fame Sex”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, a program that over the years has, for the most part, been about ideas. About what goes into and comes out of those wonderful minds here at this table that I always so much hope will be opened rather than closed. Sometimes, of course, The Open Mind is about books. The vehicles that power these ideas. When their author’s join me here I usually ask them the “what”, the “how”, the “where” and the “when” that concern us. But seldom “why”?
This time, however, with Pocket Books recently published “Power Money Fame Sex” very much in hand and it’s author ,too, Gretchen Craft Rubin, I do want to ask this Yale College and Law School graduate, this Editor-in-Chief of The Yale Law Review, this former Clerk for United States Supreme Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, this former counsel to the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, this teacher at Yale’s Law and Management Schools and Columbia’s Law and Business Schools, just why? Indeed, I trust its not simply rude for me to ask my guest why, just why in the world she wrote this “users guide”, as she calls it, to “Power Money Fame Sex”. Are you putting us on?
RUBIN: Well, it seemed to me that power, money, fame and sex were things that we thought about and talked about all the time, though we didn’t really understand. Or at least I felt that I didn’t really understand them. So I thought I’m going to crack the code. I’m really going to figure out how these things work, what do people do. Why are they doing what they’re doing. What’s working? And so, and that’s the book that I wrote. Which is just to unlock the mysteries of how power, money and fame and sex work.
HEFFNER: How did you crack the code?
RUBIN: Well, I started by looking at my own life. Sort of the things that I saw, you know, in my office, office politics. What I was reading in the newspapers and magazines. And I tried to relate them to the great classics like “The Art of War”, and “The Prince”, “Plutarch”, books like “The Power Broker” Robert Caro‘s brilliant biography of Robert Moses. And tried to figure out what are the principals that people are using? What really underlies power, money, fame and sex. And I really felt like I was discovering natural law. I really, once I started figuring out the principles everything started to fall into line and I saw … very different people using the same methods, over and over again. So I really felt like I was discovering something that actually did exist.
HEFFNER: But why didn’t you stop with the first word? Power. Isn’t that really what it’s all about?
RUBIN: Well, it’s funny that you say that because several people, as I’ve been talking to people about the book say “well, it really all comes down to power”. Or people say, “it all comes down to money”. Or it all comes down to sex. No one has said “fame” yet. And they think that all the other things are really related to that thing. But they don’t realize that other people disagree as to really what the fundamental one is. So, you think it’s power? You think it really all comes down to power?
HEFFNER: Well, I was going to say, just between the two of us, don’t you think that it’s power and that’s why power is first. Power, money, fame, sex.
RUBIN: For me, I think it’s power. I agree. But I think that other people disagree. That other people would think well, you really only want power so that you can get money. People really do have different takes on what really is the fundamental motivator.
HEFFNER: Yes, but you make the point so clearly in your book that money, even when you build up a great deal and have money over several generations …
HEFFNER: … eventually, in most instances, it goes.
RUBIN: That’s right. That’s right. That’s the shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves principle. That’s true, that’s true of power as well. Fame as well. I mean you can’t really hang on …
RUBIN: Yeah, you couldn’t hang on to power through the generations.
HEFFNER: But isn’t power something we don’t want to pass on. And that we’re only concerned with for ourselves? Isn’t that the point about power?
RUBIN: I’m not sure that that’s true. I mean look at the political dynasties that we have like the Bushes and the Gores. I think those families are very interested in perpetuating power within their families. Whether consciously or subconsciously. In the book I really only talk about a person using it for themselves. I talk a little bit about dynastic principles, but not as much. So I really think most people are really concerned about just using it for themselves.
HEFFNER: And sex? You’re not going to pass that along.
RUBIN: Nope. Can’t pass sex along. It’s really something that only you can use. Because about it as a “User’s Guide”. So this is how you can use sex, not, not sort of sex in a colloquial sense.
HEFFNER: A “User’s Guide” I would assume to using sex, even using fame and money for the purpose of accumulating your own personal power.
RUBIN: Well, that what’s … that’s what you think and, and … but others disagree. And it’s been real interesting, there’s kind of a Rorschach Test.
HEFFNER: Oh, tell me about the Rorschach Test.
RUBIN: Well, some people say …
HEFFNER: How do I fit in?
RUBIN: You fit into the power.
HEFFNER: No, I understand, but the Rorschach Test is designed to show us something more than the choices that we make or what we see in those figures. What’s your analysis of those who see it as power. Or those who see it as sex or money or fame? Well, you said no one has …
RUBIN: No one has said “fame” which is very interesting because we live in a very fame-preoccupied time. I mean, you now, “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” , “Survivor”, the reality TV shows, I think are really all about people wanting to be famous, wanting to get their moment on TV. And yet no one I’ve spoken to really seems to think that that’s a fundamental motivator. But maybe that’s because for most people they feel like fame is really out of their reach. You know, unless they go stand outside “The Today Show” and wave, or something.
HEFFNER: Oh come on the people who’s names you mentioned here …
RUBIN: Oh, but I mean of readers, people that I’ve spoke to about the book. I don’t, I don’t know, you know, if Jennifer Lopez read my book, I imagine she would turn to the fame section first because that’s definitely seems to be what motivates her. But as for power, well, one distinction I make is direct power versus indirect power. Direct power is the ability to directly, you know, change events and act on the world. And then there’s indirect power, which is more related to what people think. So, in your position you have a lot of indirect power. Because you have a platform where you can reach a huge number of people and effect the way they see the world. Whereas, a surgeon, you know, is like cutting open someone’s stomach, and that’s kind of a direct power. So that’s one, one way to think about how people approach power.
HEFFNER: And the people you’ve worked with?
RUBIN: Uh …
HEFFNER: What’s motivated them?
RUBIN: I think power mostly. But, you know, if I were an investment banker, I probably would say money. So I think it very much depends on your own experience in the world.
HEFFNER: And I guess the question that I keep coming back to, as I read your book. If you say the answer to my question is power …
RUBIN: Ahh, ha.
HEFFNER: … for you. Do you think that money … do you not think that money is the primary way of achieving power in our time?
RUBIN: It’s definitely a very quick and easy route to getting power. But it’s not the only way. Someone who writes a very influential column, you know, in The New York Times, has a tremendous amount of power. No matter, even if they were to do that for free, and …
HEFFNER: And where does that fit?
RUBIN: That’s indirect power. That‘s indirect power.
HEFFNER: No, no, no. Where does the column fit? It’s not money?
RUBIN: It’s power.
HEFFNER: It’s just plain power.
RUBIN: It’s indirect power, it’s the power to influence your life. But, but an important thing about this “User’s Guide”, and there’s sort of many puns on the word “user’s” …
HEFFNER: I would think so.
RUBIN: Is that on the one hand it really looks like a “how to guide”, that’s full of information that you could use Monday morning when you go into work. But at the same time it’s really a criticism of a lot of the methods that people use and a social critique and it even calls into question the fact that people are striving after these things. So, I think some people who have read the book have been very taken in by it’s appearance as a “how to” guide. and they haven’t realize that they’re being asked to question a lot of the methods that are in here. Which has been surprising to me as an author.
HEFFNER: Well, that’s why I begin by asking whether you’re putting us on.
RUBIN: it is, it is a little bit of a put-on.
HEFFNER: Explain that.
RUBIN: Well, it seemed to me that if you really wanted to have a guide that was going to help people understand power, money, fame, and sex you had to include everything, not just , not just what ought to work, but what actually does work. So say something like intimidating rage or arbitrary punishment or excluding other people, those are methods that help people consolidate their power. They’re, they’re not techniques that most people consider admirable and they certainly don’t particularly like to be around people who use those techniques. But they can work. So that, well, if I really want to help people understand what goes on, you have to include the things that are not admirable. So that people can make sense of what they see around them. But rather than saying in the book, you know, sometimes this works, people don’t like this, you might not want to do this, I just laid it all out. And so it describes how to use arbitrary punishment, or how to exclude people to consolidate your power. And to me that seems interesting and provocative, and you, as a reader, have to ask yourself, well, how far would I be willing to go? How much am I willing to be a self-promoter. Or whatever. I think that’s interesting. Some people really believe that I, as the writer, am completely advocating all these methods. And they’re shocked. And it would be shocking because a lot of these methods are, are not admirable, they’re not things that I would endorse personally. But they do work. So you have to understand them if you want to understand the way the world works.
HEFFNER: What wouldn’t you recommend or advocate?
RUBIN: Oh, I wouldn’t advocate getting pregnant for money. I wouldn’t advocate using arbitrary punishment. I wouldn’t advocate some of the more extreme self-promotion measures. So there’s a lot of it that I would think is wrong. And there’s certainly even more things that I don’t think are wrong, but that I personally wouldn’t be able to do. Because one of the things that you see is that when you’re using these techniques you’re very much constrained by your own personality. You know Dennis Rodman can be outrageous. But not everyone can be a Dennis Rodman. Not everyone can be a Jennifer Lopez standing up there in a Versace dress and, and you have to know your own personality and you have to recognize what you feel is appropriate. And I … there’s a lot in here that I just … I couldn’t live with and I couldn’t make myself do even if I wanted to. But it’s still interesting to understand what other people are doing, even if you wouldn’t do it yourself.
HEFFNER: Have you shocked the people back at the Yale Law Review? Or on the Supreme Court?
RUBIN: Oh, I think they all thin it’s … they get a big kick out of it. But sort of from reading Amazon I can tell that there has been some readers who have been shocked by it. Most of the people who know me, I think they, they expect to see the joke coming. So, they’re not so surprised.
HEFFNER: And, you think it basically is a joke? You say, “the joke coming”.
RUBIN: No, it’s both. It’s both. That’s the thing about this book, is that it’s working on a number of levels. One the one hand it’s absolutely true … to my mind, it’s all absolutely true. This is what people do do. The joke of it is that you need to figure out what is beyond, what is actually a … what a “User’s Guide” would actually tell you to do. Because you think of a user’s guide being like “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and you’re supposed to put those rules to work in your everyday life and that’s how you’re going to be a success.
RUBIN: Americans love self-improvement, they love self-help. You know, Dale Carnegie’s book has been … I don’t know how many times it’s been re-issued, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. So this sort of fits into that tradition. But it’s really asking yourself, “Okay, this is what people do. This is what works. But where do you stand?”. So that’s the part that’s edgy.
HEFFNER: Are you describing your friends and associates here?
RUBIN: Somewhat. Yeah. A lot of it were things that I witnessed in my own life, things that people said in meetings. I have a whole thing about how you can exercise your power in meetings. These are things that I heard, you know, that definitely rang true to me. I was able to understand my own experience much better. It was interesting. Looking back on things that had happened to me, I felt like I was able to make sense of it. In a, in a richer way.
HEFFNER: Now, is this the counterpart of “The Prince”?
RUBIN: You could argue that. Because definitely that’s one thing that people have always said about “The Prince” is that it’s seems to amoral because he’s just saying what you could do. And he even has a line in there where Machiavelli says, “This is for me to tell the Prince what his options are basically”. You know in sort of Italian translated language. And the Prince has to decide what he want to do. So it fits into that tradition. But I’m not sure that Machiavelli meant to be arch, but it definitely is in that, is in that … I studied the tone of “The Prince” very much while I was writing this book.
HEFFNER: Now, if you had written this book … turn the hands of the clock back a century …
HEFFNER: … would it essentially be the same?
RUBIN: I think …
HEFFNER: What’s happened to us in this century that’s … would make this perhaps whether our attitudes toward power or money or fame or sex or the concept of “The Reader’s Guide”, or the concept of a beautiful young woman writing this kind of book. What’s changed?
RUBIN: Well, I think we’re much more focused on fame now than we used to be. And part of that is because so many more people can be famous. There is cable television, there’s the Internet, there’s this explosion of media, and that means that many, many more people can be famous. And we’ve become much more focused on fame. So I think that the emphasis that I put on … I mean fame has always been important. You know back to Home people have been obsessed with fame. But I think that the idea that “everyday” people are interested in fame is very … is much more salient now. I think power and money a hundred years ago probably would have been pretty much the same. I mean some of the, some of the subtleties are … may have changed. For example, right now in our culture a good way to show your money is to have extreme simplicity and plainness. And the more that things match and are very refined, that’s a way that you show money. Now, a hundred years ago, I can’t really remember what the fashion was, but there was definitely a time when things were very baroque, very, you know, laced and curtained and people really liked things very fancified. So that’s sort of a fashion that has changed over time. But the principles that you show your money by the way that you spend it, and you know, by how much time you can save, how convenient your life, those things have pretty much stayed the same. So I think there’s a lot more here that would have been true a hundred years ago than, than would be different.
HEFFNER: Except that as I was reading “Power Money Fame Sex” and trying to pause between the words …
RUBIN: They keep turning into each other though is the problem.
HEFFNER: Well, but I was interested in, in … no, in the typography here or the design rather. They’re set apart, there are no commas here …
RUBIN: Ah ha, yeah.
HEFFNER: And I was trying to figure out what you were thinking or what your publishers were thinking when they designed the cover. They’re separate entities.
RUBIN: Well, it’s so interesting that mention the no commas, because from the first minute I had the idea I knew that there were no commas. And I never have really asked myself why, but I think it is because they’re like these pillars for this great building of ambition. And, and so they seem to me like a set. That if somebody said to me that things always come in threes, it should be like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And I said which one can you leave out. You have to have all four. So maybe that’s what I was subconsciously thinking about leaving out the commas is that you have to consider them all as a whole.
HEFFNER: Well …
RUBIN: And the “User’s Guide”, that’s supposed to be a pun that tips people off. It’s a user’s guide like a “how to” manual; it’s a user’s guide like an addict, like you need it, you need to feed your craving, you’re a “user”. And then also user’s guide, you know, when people refer to other people as “users” and that they’re manipulators and schemers and that they use other people to get what they want.
HEFFNER: I assumed that that was the primary meaning.
RUBIN: Oh, really? How interesting.
HEFFNER: It wasn’t?
RUBIN: Well, it was supposed to be to show … to, to prepare people for the fact that it’s written in the form of a “how to” guide, so it’s like a user’s manual.
HEFFNER: But when I asked you the question about a hundred years ago …
HEFFNER: I notice you talked about power, money, fame, but you didn’t mention sex. That would have been different .
RUBIN: That would have been different because sexual mores were so different back then. I mean, now you can really use sex much more because people are having sex much more. I mean then, of course, there were always people who were having sex outside of marriage and that sort of thing. But now it’s, I think it’s much currency, people really do use sex to get famous, they use sex to get money, they use sex to show off their power. Because you can really, you can run through a lot of partners very quickly whereas it used to be you got married young and you stayed married, you couldn’t get a divorce. So you couldn’t really show off your sexual relationships as a way to get power, money or fame in the same way. So I don’t think it was as useful a tool in the old days. But un, oh, I’m sure people always used it, people always used sex to get money. You know, the oldest profession, and all that.
HEFFNER: I was just going to say, it is the oldest profession.
RUBIN: Well, one of the things that was fascinating to me that I noticed writing this is, and this is sort of a tangent, but why is it that our culture despises pimps … there’s like nothing lower than a pimp, but we love madams, brothel keepers. There’s movies and plays and people just … they think it’s sort of this sweet, funny thing to do. It’s very interesting to me. That was just one of those distinctions that popped up as I was doing research for the book and I sort of threw it in as a sort of side not. But, ahmmm, strange.
HEFFNER: Because no one’s every written a book about, or done a movie about some pimp who is a glorious, wonderful, big, humorous person.
RUBIN: Right. But why not?
HEFFNER: Well …
RUBIN: I’m sure there are many more pimps than madams. And yet there’s “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and there’s all, there’s sort of a long tradition of the jolly brothel keeper.
HEFFNER: You know I feel like taking a gun and putting it to my own head, I’m thinking to myself, “are we talking about this on this program?”. And I realized, “sure, it’s, it’s a very important” … whether you’re putting us on or not, it’s a series of very important questions as to the role they play in our lives. And I’ll admit that as I read “Power Money Fame Sex” my friends at The New York Times aren’t going to like this, but I was thinking of the difference between The New York Times Sunday magazine back in Lester Markels day …
RUBIN: Ah, ha …
HEFFNER: … rather dull, rather stodgy but very important and very informative. And today, when even in the colors you use on cover, reminds me of the magazine section because it’s full of power, money, fame, and sex. That’s what it’s about.
HEFFNER: You think that’s were we are at today? The beginning of the new century?
RUBIN: I definitely think it’s a pre-occupying … I mean there was just the spending issue for example … The New York Times magazine … there is … it occupies a tremendous amount of what people think about and talk about. Which, again, going back to the idea that I felt it was all around me, there was all this information that I really didn’t understand the principles that ran beneath. Or you read profiles of business leaders and over and over again you’ll see the same little details popping in, like “doesn’t need much sleep”, “very poor background, orphan”. These weird little things … “has a very modest office even though he’s worth billions.” And I kept thinking, well why does this keep happening, like why is it considered interesting enough that they’re telling us about it. And so, and so I tried to figure that out. Because I think you’re right. I think that anything you read, you pick up a magazine, you pick up a newspaper, you turn on the TV and you see, you see these topics being treated over and over again.
HEFFNER: Well, Gretchen Rubin you … in this almost McLuhan-ish like book and there is, there is a lot about McLuhan in this, what are you going to do when you grow up. Where do you go from here?
RUBIN: I’m going to … I ‘m hoping to write, I need to sell the proposal, but what I’m working on is a book about Churchill, called “Forty Ways to Look At Winston Churchill”. Which is, because when I was researching about charisma, I started reading about Winston Churchill and just became so taken with him and his writing, just his tremendous brilliance. So it will be about Winston Churchill, but also about the nature of biography and trying to tell some else’s life and how you can lie with the truth. Because you know you can tell Winston Churchill’s life in so many ways. He was a loser … tremendous loser. But also this tremendous winner. And in so many ways like Hitler, and in so many ways different from Hitler. So that’s what I’m going to … that’s what I’m working on now. And it’s so interesting.
HEFFNER: It’s a long way, isn’t it, from the Supreme Court?
RUBIN: To me it seems like not such a long way, but I can see that it looks like a long way. [Laughter] But there’s so many interesting things. There’s so many interesting things in law and so many interesting things, you know, in popular culture. And in Winston Churchill.
HEFFNER: But it’s so interesting to me that the Supreme Court doesn’t figure in “Power Money Fame Sex”. Yale Law School doesn’t figure in “Power Money Fame Sex” …
RUBIN: Oh, I mentioned the “The”
HEFFNER: How come?
RUBIN: That if you want to make something sound more important, you put “The” in front of it. And “The” Yale Law School does occasionally use that.
HEFFNER: And “The” Supreme Court?
RUBIN: “The Supreme Court”, right. “The Donald” for Donald Trump. “The Queen Mother.” So I definitely did draw on those, but I didn’t, I didn’t look at them in detail. Partly because they don’t’ really resonate with most people. I tried to pick examples that people would really recognize. People know a lot about Richard Nixon, and they’re interested in reading about it. But to talk about the Supreme Court, I don’t think most people would really respond to that. And of course, being a Clerk in the Supreme Court you really don’t disclose most of how they do their work and so …
HEFFNER: But I kept thumbing through the pages looking for some hints.
RUBIN: Oh, no, no, no.
RUBIN: That’s kind of sacred ground.
HEFFNER: Seriously, how seriously is the book taken?
RUBIN: I think it’s taken very seriously in that it describes the way things actually are. And not so seriously in that it describes what you, the reader, should do. It’s asking you to decide what it is you ought to do.
HEFFNER: You say it describes the way things really are.
RUBIN: I think it does, yes.
HEFFNER: Does that mean we should engage now in mass suicide. I mean if this … we have found the enemy, we have met the enemy and he is us, or we, or I … that’s what you’re saying …
RUBIN: I don’t …
HEFFNER: … what a horrible description of a people.
RUBIN: I don’t think so. Because as I say in the introduction, it’s up to you to decide what you use. And you can look at the person, you can look at Winston Churchill, for example, who I revere, and you can see that he’s doing some of these things and choosing not to do other things. So you can be a tremendously well-respected, honorable person and use many, many, many of these techniques. Or you can be a despicable person and use many, many, many of these techniques. You don’t have to use all of them. You should understand all of them so that you understand how the world works, so that you can use them in self-defense, so that if you understand what other people are doing … but it doesn’t mean that you need to despair of human ambition, because you can definitely achieve ambition and use these techniques.
HEFFNER: Oh, I didn’t … wasn’t referring to despairing of …
HEFFNER: … human ambition or …
RUBIN: Oh, I see.
HEFFNER: Of the quest for money … I meant despairing of ourselves. Is this who we, not you, not I necessarily …
RUBIN: Aha …
HEFFNER: … but this seems to be where we are at in the year 2000. No?
RUBIN: You mean not focused on things like justice and family happiness and spiritual …
HEFFNER: Focused on power, money, fame and sex.
HEFFNER: It’s a pretty, pretty appalling picture, isn’t it? Of American life.
RUBIN: Of what people are interested in?
RUBIN: It is. It is. But, you know people said to me as I was writing it, “oh, that’s everything”. Power, money, fame, sex that’s everything. But it really isn’t everything. There is a huge amount of interest in other things, like justice, like spirituality. You know we’re … this is sort of a spiritual age. So I don’t think, I don’t think that it’s … this is all of it.
HEFFNER: Thank goodness.
RUBIN: Thank goodness. That’s right. That’s right.
HEFFNER: Gretchen Rubin, thank you so much for joining me today to talk about “Power Money Fame Sex”.
RUBIN: Oh, well, thank you.
And thanks, too, to you in the audience. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Mean while, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.