How to be Powerful
Today, we’re going to be talking about power. Because power is the result of several factors, it’s a very complicated subject. I’m by no means claiming to be an expert on power; I don’t know if anyone can comfortably make that claim. Instead, I want to give you some food for thought, in the form of a framework, about power. It’s a force that permeates into all aspects of our lives. So, it’s important to have at least some conception of it. While I don’t expect everyone to adopt this framework, I think it serves as a good starting point for discussion and hopefully urges you to think more about constructing your own. But, before we can even discuss power, we must define it.
What Does it Mean to be Powerful?
What does it mean to be powerful? It’s not a simple question to answer. This is the definition that I’ll put forward:
I believe that this definition is broad enough to cover various forms of power, yet specific enough to remain useful.
Power can be thought of as a spectrum; one end of the spectrum represents a complete lack of power, and the other end represents absolute power. If you accept this definition, we can move on to the next question: why?
Why Would Someone Want to be Powerful?
A Modern Misconception
It seems that, in modern times, power has taken on a negative connotation. For many, power has become synonymous with evil, tyranny, authoritarianism, dictatorship, or manipulation. These beliefs are not completely unjustified.
In a not too distant past, we’ve seen what happens when power - the ability to actualize - accumulates in the wrong hands. Furthermore, a lot of popular literature on power takes the machiavellian approach of obtaining it by any means necessary; for a lot of people, these approaches are considered immoral.
However, I think defining power as intrinsically negative is incredibly unproductive. Just as power is used to make negative changes, it is also used to make positive changes. If we define power too narrowly, we lose the ability to have productive discussions about how we can obtain it, use it, and distribute it for positive change. For these reasons, I feel motivated to put forth a different conception of power.
The Utility of Power
Is power a bad thing? I think not.
In the context of our definition, it’s simply the ability to make potential ideas into realities. My ability to pick up the pencil on my desk and draw a letter is a form of power. First, I must conceptualize that I want to move the pencil in my mind and then act it out. There’s nothing right or wrong about the action - it’s amoral.
Power is simply the ability to actualize any idea; so, why would someone want power? Why and what do they want to actualize? This is a deeply philosophical question in itself and depends on an individual’s worldview. For example, let’s use a worldview that we’ve discussed in the past: preference hedonism.
From the view of a preference hedonist, the ultimate goal in life is maximizing pleasure where:
Therefore, a preference hedonist may want power to actualize ideas that can reduce suffering and increase pleasure, for themselves and others, which should increase net pleasure for the world.
Looking at power through this lens, it becomes quite clear that it isn’t right or wrong to wield it. Evil doesn’t emerge out of power; rather, it emerges from the worldview of the person who wields it.
How Do You Become Powerful?
If power is the ability to shape reality, I would argue that there are two fundamental ingredients to accomplishing that: a true understanding of reality and the resources to shape that reality. Let’s start with the former.
It’s debatable whether humans can ever have an absolutely true understanding of the world. But, I do believe that we can approach it; some conceptions of the world are more true than others. True beliefs tend to be more useful than untrue beliefs. For example, understanding the laws of nature allows us to construct planes and fly them. Understanding that there are biological reasons for sickness allows us to provide the appropriate treatment. On the other hand, the belief that bloodletting is a great way to cure all illnesses is an untrue belief that leaves us powerless in actually curing them.
Therefore, it’s not difficult to accept the claim that a true understanding of our reality is the first step to being powerful. Certain ideas simply cannot be actualized without a true understanding of the world; you can’t make a rocket ship without understanding physics.
The next key to power is having the resources to shape reality. What do I mean when I say, “the resources to shape reality”? There are a lot of them, but here’s a few:
- natural resources
- the right to vote
- a political voice that matters
- societal support
- a labour force
Without the proper resources, one cannot shape reality. Here’s the catch: access to these resources is often limited and controlled by society. This brings us to The Resource Problem.
The Resource Problem
To understand the resource problem, let’s think of a spectrum. On the extreme left there are unhealthy societies, and on the extreme right there are healthy societies. At this point in the video, I think it would help to have a definition of society:
I like this definition because you can scale it down to the level of a club on your university campus, but you can also scale it up to the level of a city or a country. Now, how does this collection of people decide what ideas to actualize? You can see where politics start to arise but we will leave that aside.
In a perfectly healthy society, resources would be distributed fairly such that the best ideas are always the ones that get actualized. Of course, what constitutes the “best ideas” is a matter of debate and not really important to the current discussion. In an unhealthy society, resources are unfairly distributed or distributed at random. All societies fall on this spectrum. As you can imagine, the way a society grants resources acts as a barrier to power.
Access to resources is such a necessity to obtaining power that many people living in unhealthy societies are rendered powerless. In fact, without a proper system of education to teach reading and writing, people become severely limited in their ability to understand the world which was the first key to power. I think this is important to realize because power is not as easy to obtain as following a set of rules. In a lot of ways, power is granted to us by the society we live in. All societies also suffer from another difficulty that I’ll call The Pareto Distribution of Power.
The Pareto Distribution of Power
Power compounds; the powerful get more powerful and the powerless become more powerless. This is likely one of the factors that leads to the creation of unhealthy societies and societal tension. The resulting inequality is often dealt with through rules, rights, and regulations laid out by the society.
This is an incredibly complex problem to deal with that often relies on political solutions which are outside the scope of this video.
In short, the solution requires regulations that prevent one person or entity from accumulating too much power. A democratic society, for example, gives less power to the government and more to the people; the idea is that power should be more equally distributed in a democratic society. This leads me to my next point: not all power is equal.
The Spectrums of Power
Power runs on several spectrums. For example, someone with power can make positive changes or negative changes; they can make big changes or small changes. If you combine both spectrums you get a set of axis.
Let’s call someone who makes big positive changes a reformer. Someone who makes big negative changes is a destroyer. Someone who makes small positive changes is a hero, and someone who makes small negative changes is a criminal.
Positive changes tend to last in society. They either get improved upon or become a fundamental part of the structure of society. On the other hand, negative changes often need to be corrected for. Large changes require a lot of resources from society and small changes, on the other hand, require relatively little. So, how can one acquire more resources from society?
Again, I will avoid any political suggestions because that’s outside the scope of this video, but I’d like to offer a simple suggestion: become a valuable person.
What does that mean?
To simply make a place better off for having been there than not. In a healthy society, those who leave places better off than they found them tend to accumulate value in various forms such as trust, companionship, and possibly even wealth. The best way to become valuable is to start by knowing yourself.
The Big 5 Model
The Big 5 Model is the most widely accepted model, among psychologists, for understanding personality. There are several places online where you can find the test. I would suggest doing it and figuring out in which of the 5 traits your strengths lie: agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, or extraversion. This might help you figure out places to live and work where you would be most likely to excel. As a result, you’ll be more valuable in these environments and naturally accumulate more power that you can apply towards positive change.
If you’d like to understand the Big 5 Personality traits in depth, I’ve linked to some great resources you can check out in the description (start here).
Adapt to the Environment
Out of all of the Big 5 Traits, conscientiousness is shown to be the best predictor of long term school & career success. That means that society values certain conscientious personality traits. People who are high in conscientiousness are very orderly and industrious. They’re the kind of people who enjoy leading structured and disciplined lives; they like using calendars, organizing, keeping checklists, and scheduling things. [1, 2, 3, 4, 11, 12]
Although there is controversy over whether someone can consciously change their temperaments, it does seem that we can change our personality - to a degree - by adopting new habits. This does, however, take a lot of time and effort. [5, 6, 7, 8, 9]
For example, introverts can adopt the habits of an extroverted person to seem more outgoing. However, they will likely still get tired after social events and need to be alone to recharge. In a sense, they can reap some of the benefits of being an extrovert without being extroverted. 
Likewise, some people are naturally not very conscientious. But, they can adopt the habits of a conscientious person and reap some of the benefits. If you want to learn about some potential habits that you can adopt to be more conscientious, check out my playlist on productivity and habits.
However, I think this solution alone is just one side of the coin.
If the resources for power are given by a society that deems you valuable then it would be quite logical to seek out a society where you are valuable.
Recall that, in our case, a society is a collection of people trying to actualize an idea. It would be logical to seek out groups of people who value the strengths you have because you’re more likely to be valuable to them.
For example, an extroverted person would probably be valued more in a job that deals with people; a disagreeable person may be valued more in a competitive environment. In both cases, the environment is better suited to the individual’s strength.
Do What’s Meaningful
Lastly, do what’s meaningful. Whenever possible, find the places where what’s meaningful to you intersects with what society finds meaningful. These are the best places to operate. As mentioned in the last video, when we do things that are intrinsically valuable we are able to focus on the task a lot better. When we can focus better, we perform better. When we perform better, we produce more value for society and as a result we receive more resources in return.
So, we’ve discussed one aspect of power: the acquiring of resources and becoming more valuable to obtain them. However, we did not touch on the first key to power which was understanding reality. That will be the topic of the next video.