Having power is good because power will win out over agreements, rules, and laws all the time.
That’s because, when push comes to shove, those who have the power to either enforce their interpretation of the rules and laws, or to overturn the rules and laws, will get what they want.— Ray Dalio
[ pou-er ] noun
1. ability to do or act; capability of doing or accomplishing something
2. political or national strength
Power is the most important thing in the world.
This has been my model since I started reading Robert Caro’s books in my twenties. I have been looking, and I have never seen a situation that threatens this idea.
The other day, I paused Keeping Up with the Kardashians to read Bertrand Russell’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 1950. He said that all human activity is prompted by desire, and that those desires can never be satisfied.
There are four main desires.
- Acquisitiveness “the wish to possess as much as possible”
- Rivalry “a much stronger motive”
- Vanity “a motive of immense potency”
- Love of Power “which outweighs them all”
All fun topics. We are going to focus on the last one.
Most of us got our introduction to power the same way: Our parents. We depended on them. Then one day, they told us to do something and we said no or why. They said, “Because I said so.”
We, and our parents, discovered that power is fluid. The game gets really interesting from this point on.
Parents highlight that power can be a good thing because nothing happens without power. If we could veto their ideas endlessly, my diet would have been Pop-Tarts and Gushers.
An honest appraisal of our experience shows us that it doesn’t matter what is good or bad, right or wrong. Laws do not even matter.
What matters is what gets enforced. More specifically, what matters is who has the bigger gun, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically. This was put to the test in World War II, and definitively answered with the dropping of the atomic bomb.
That is why the answers to the big power questions are the United States military, the Federal Reserve, the courts, the Senate, private property rights, and the media.
Day-to-day, power looks like money, a tow truck, gaslighting, Apple making our iPhones go slower so we have to upgrade, a boss, inheritance, social media feeds, red light cameras, a partner, or a friend group.
It has complex forms.
Influence, information, and charisma can be as important as physical strength and force. Words have power (“Boomer,” “fat,” “no”). Passwords, computer language, and locks are a form of power. You have undoubtedly seen a five-foot-five-inch girl, that weighs 105 pounds, with more power than a six-foot guy that benches 255 pounds.
We intuitively know all this.
Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power has 56,817 ratings on Amazon. The most popular television shows in the world are about power: Game of Thrones, Yellowstone, Succession, Squid Game. Machiavelli’s book The Prince is one of the most hated books in the world for the same reason those shows are interesting.
This is Water
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”— David Foster Wallace
Most of us are the young fish and the water is power. We are so used to its ambience that it is invisible.
How often are we consciously asking these two questions:
- Who has the power?
- What is the mechanism for it?
People like control, and they don’t like giving it up.
It’s everywhere. Remote vs. In-Office work is kind of about productivity. It is more about power and control.
If we are unaware of the mechanisms of power and who has the power, we are going to be consistently confused and disappointed. We will hear things like, “Wow, that’s a great idea, but we are going to do it my way.”
If we are aware of these things, the world will make more sense, we will be better at predicting behavior, and more likely to get what we want.
Here is the best way to figure out where the power is: Try to change something.
Ask anyone who is part of a homeowners association or has tried to build a house in San Francisco.
The only thing stopping us from getting everything we want is power of some kind.
If I had it my way, I would get everything for free, I would have unlimited sushi and never wait in a line. Traffic? Everyone would pull to the side of the road to get out of my way. I would have a standing 7:30pm reservation at Dorsia. Employees would solve problems while I’m on the golf course or getting a massage.
It is wonderful when we get what we want, or when power is used for something collectively good. This is the ideal. It is not so wonderful when someone uses their power to get what they want at our expense, or if we use it for something that is collectively bad.
This is where many people mess up. To use a metaphor, we need to think like a Karen. We need to think, “Let me speak to the manager.”
Karen Speaks to the Manager
Power is more subtle today because of two big developments: feelings and the distribution of power. People say, “Per my last email.” 800 years ago, Genghis Khan would just come in on a horse and cut my head off.
Thankfully, we have become more civilized, and civility leads to cooperation. Cooperation is what is needed to build highways, cities, and toilet paper factories.
This happened because powerful people realized that if they let people improve their economic conditions, they can improve their economic conditions even more.
They realized that if you let people have air conditioning, they will live longer and eventually build you a yacht.
A king in a jungle may have the power, but he doesn’t have a yacht. So, distributing the power can be beneficial to everyone. #capitalism
Individually, the average person may not have much power. But, groups have a lot of power. There are a lot of feelings and there are a lot of groups. More importantly, technology has allowed people to organize themselves better than in the past. Genghis Khan’s enemies did not have security cameras, Google Reviews, and iMessage.
Let’s say the modern-day Genghis Khan is Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase. He is one of the most powerful people in the country.
Forget cutting off my head, if he was recorded saying something racist, he would lose his job, and the attendant power of his position, within the hour.
Power is an uncomfortable topic to talk about directly because most of the time it is fluid, subtle, and delicate. In the same way that observing something can change its behavior, it can be awkward or relationship-changing to say who has the power in a situation.
The boss has the power to make decisions about who works somewhere, hopefully because he is a good leader and is taking responsibility for the risks. If he came in every day and announced to everyone “I have the power,” eventually, people would find another boss and he would lose all the power.
The more we shine a spotlight on these questions, the more likely we can apply pressure in the right places to get power allocated thoughtfully, and set up collectively good outcomes.
I am probably being naïve in the application. You will probably be my boss soon.
- The Man Who Owns the News (extra guac)
- Robert Caro’s Books
- The Elephant in the Brain (Kevin Simler)
Thanks to James Bunch, Suzanna V. Wood, and Annie Payne for reading drafts of this.