Powerful and Powerless

(I haven’t yet read Robert Greene’s “48 laws of power”, it’s on my reading list; these are just some things that I’ve been thinking about)

Power is not binary

It’s not a question of having or not having power, but having less or more of it. Imagine you’re renting an apartment. Who has power here, you or the landlord? You provide the landlord with a steady inflow of money. Not only that, but you, if you’re a good tenant, provide the landlord with a sense of security: they know that they’ll both get the money every month and that the apartment will not be ruined in some way. So you could argue that it is you, the tenant, that has the power.

On the other hand, the name landlord doesn’t have “-lord” in it for no reason; indeed, the landlord is the owner and they have the possibility of your eviction in their hands (generally you’re protected by law not to be evicted immediately, but still). Obviously, the landlord is the possessor of power in this situation.

So who really has the power?

Answer: both of you have relative amounts of power to one another. Power is not binary, power is a quantity that can be distributed in a binary fashion, but usually isn’t. You wield some power over the landlord and the landlord wields some power over you. Sometimes you have more, sometimes they have more.

Forms of power

What is power, actually? Let’s arbitrarily define power as “good probability (>50%) that what you want actually will happen”. So, by this definition, power can come in many forms and the only thing that matters is that it brings >0.5 probability of you achieving your goals, seeing your plans to fruition.

Here are some forms of power that I can think of (there are probably others too):we-can-do-it-rosie-the-riveter-wallpaper-2

  • money
  • influence
  • strong character
  • knowledge
  • technology
  • numbers (of people)

 

So, let’s revisit the apartment example again. Let’s say you’re paying 1700 a month for the privilege of living in another person’s space (doesn’t matter which currency, I’m using arbitrary numbers). Let’s also say that your total earnings per month are usually around 4000. So, you have 2300 left to cover the bills, food and other spending. Say that it takes 800 for the bills. You now have 1500. Food, around 1200. You have 300 for any other spending (not a lot, you have to make ends meet, but you regularly survive). You are person A.

Person B, on the other hand, earns twice as much – 8000 per month. After all your costs, person B still has 4300 left to spend, enough to rent another apartment simultaneously.

It is recognizable that person B has more power than person A, but it is not immediately clear why this is so. I’ll explain.

Say your landlord starts giving you a hard time; maybe they’re broke and need to squeeze out the money, or they simply smell that you’re not really powerful. They start to demand earlier payments every month; when the equipment in the apartment breaks down, they refuse to pay for the repairs and insist you do it; they ask for advance rent payments; in short, they become very needy and demanding and “unreasonable” (funny word that – generally it’s used if you don’t have power to say no).

What does person A do? They submit, and submit, and submit, because they know that even if they find another apartment at this cost, which is unlikely, they’ll still get in the same sort of situation (a landlord that’s more powerful and demands things). And also all the hassle with moving and trying to earn a living at the same time… It’s easier to submit to the ever growing demands and small pokes and prods than to leave this increasingly abusive situation.

Person B? Hah! Person B says to the landlord at the first sight of “unreasonable” demands: “No.”

Just no. No explaining. No nothing. No.

Person B, you see, doesn’t care. Person B doesn’t try to make things work out for everyone and cooperate and compromise, because person B has enough money on their account to be able to simply say “no.” What’s the result? The landlord doesn’t even try to milk out more money because they know that they’ll lose a good tenant that gives them a steady inflow of money and a sense of security.

But did you see what just happened here? Both tenants were good tenants that provided the landlord with money and security, but only B had the possibility (>0.5) to leave. So person A has less power than the landlord, and B has more, simply because B has more options – in the form of more money.

All this serves to drive in a key lesson that I am learning: do your best to get (enough) power. This is a top-level priority. There will be kind people that will not turn to predators when they smell that you’re not strong, but the world generally doesn’t function like that, I think. Lions attack the weakest buffaloes. Street thugs attack the weakest victims. School bullies bully the weakest kids.

If you see the world as a battle between good and evil, you know that the battle will only be won if the good guys are stronger than the bad guys. So if you want to do good in the world, you have a moral obligation to get more power. Being powerless just gives more power to the evil tyrant, to the rapist, to the bully, to the corporation that puts toxic chemicals in children’s toys, to the landlord that doesn’t want to pay for repairs, to the policeman that beats on peaceful protesters. Don’t shy away from power, saying “Power corrupts!” Instead, get power and find some way in which you won’t get corrupted by it. Yes, power can corrupt, and you should be careful not to become one of the people you despise, but not all people with power are evil scum – be like them! Be Albus Dumbledore, not Voldemort. Be Luffy, not Doflamingo. Be Sherlock, not Moriarty.

Powermongering for World Optimization: the Minimal Guide for Good People

  • Money: options. More money, more options. How to get more money? (1) Be more valuable to other people and, ideally, (2) be a master of some thing. A cook is valuable (and paid), a better cook more valuable (and more paid) and a master cook is the most valuable of all (and has more money than all). Mastery, if done right, will mean a lot of money.
  • Influence: manipulation. If you know your practical psychology well, you will be able to make other people do what you want them to do. Read Influence by Cialdini. (Also, fame sometimes equals influence, but not always.)
  • Strong character: power recognition. Don’t be a weakling that feels powerless despite the fact that you actually do have power. If you are person B, don’t be anxious about your landlord giving you a hard time – you are in a position of power, recognize it.
  • Knowledge: currency of power. The more you know, the more you can exchange this knowledge into other forms of power. You could know a lot about influence and become influential. You could know some information and exchange it for money. You could know BJJ and pin some attacker to the ground. If power is the product, then knowledge is the currency with which you buy it.
  • Technology: the counter to other powers. In a world of knives, a gun makes all the difference. Tech can give you an otherwise unobtainable upper hand. If you went alone against a hundred Viking warriors, you would definitely be killed. Unless if you had an atomic bomb. Then you, alone, would beat a hundred armed warriors. Whenever you can have technology, or just learn it and use it, you should.
  • Numbers: the primal form of power. Sometimes, a lesser force will beat a bigger one. But often, it will not. If you can count on a lot of people, either for some sort of conflict or just as help, you will be a very powerful person indeed.

Power doesn’t flow from “could-happen” ideas

When the bully pins your head to the window of the bus and you’re all alone with him, you might be thinking “I could kill him. I could make an evil and ingenious plot and take his life. I could get him to- OUCH OUCH OUCH OUCH PLEASE STOP”.

Stop speaking or thinking nonsense. Power only comes from things that can actually happen. You know that you’re not going to kill anyone, despite your fantasies. The bully is powerful and you are weak. You can, in fact, obtain more power and thwart the bully: you can read books on influence and make his life really ugly by using Slytherin skills; you can earn money and pay someone bigger to beat him up; you can learn boxing and break his nose; you can get a couple of friends and collectively beat him up etc.

But dreaming up things that you’ll never ever ever do is just fantasy, and you are trying to put yourself into a position of power based on fantasy. Wrong. Don’t do that. Instead, recognize who has power, in which amount, and then do what is necessary to obtain more power. You don’t have to become the bully yourself, but you have to have enough power not to be bullied.


How do you think about power? Are you a powerful person or are you powerless? Leave a comment! I know I’m slowly getting to more power, but I originally come from a victim-mentality, zero-power personality, so I have a longer road than some. But you know, you gotta do the work, and do it every day…

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