Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

Some Thoughts on Power and Control

A friend of mine recently wrote that he was focused on “isolating and removing those elements in my life where others have power over me; financial, emotional, physical, mental, etc.”

I responded as follows:

It’s pretty much impossible to operate in this world without entering into power relations with others (unless you want to become a hermit, something that has sadly disappeared from the world). We live in a society in which mechanisms of power operate at every level.

That being said, it’s important to distinguish between situations in which people have power over you (which, unless you are in prison or the military or a religious order or a child, is fairly rare for people of a certain class living in non-authoritarian societies) and situations in which obligations are created between yourself and others.

Even situations of employment, to the extent that they are not abject servitude or outright slavery, involve elements of exchange — my time and skills for your money and the opportunity to participate in a project directed, more or less, by someone else — and obligation (I have committed to this, you have committed to that).

My assumption is that you are struggling not so much with questions of power but with questions of control. You don’t feel in control of your time, your resources, your relationships.

It’s probably worth thinking about that and why that might be. Along the way, you will have to come to terms not only with power, but also with weakness and vulnerability. All the gurus of success and strength and manifesting power don’t want to deal with this and, in fact, relegate weakness and vulnerability to a “victim mentality.”

I recommend, on the contrary, wondering why an ego feels threatened and out of control, and experimenting with what it might mean to be completely powerless, not in the sense of being a victim, but in the sense of being someone whose entire mission is to serve others.

Here’s something else to consider.

The other day I wrote on Twitter, “Everywhere I see more successful versions of myself.”

An acquaintance saw that and reached out to see if I was ok and how he might help me be more “successful.”

Along the way, he asked what “success” meant to me. I wrote: “…to have and maintain a sense of openness and equanimity towards others and the world.”

As you can see, this has nothing to do with “success” in terms of prestige, fame, or accomplishment.

That being said, it does have something to do with power, specifically, the power to understand myself and work with those habits, behaviors and attitudes that stand in the way of openness and equanimity.

The Very Crown of Wisdom

“There, thought Arren, lay the very heart of wizardry: to hint at mighty meanings while saying nothing at all, and to make doing nothing at all seem the very crown of wisdom.” – from Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Farthest Shore

I recently returned to a corporate blog I launched a few years back and discovered, much to my surprise, that a post I wrote in 2008—“What Do You Want to Do with Your Life?”—is still listed in the sidebar as a “popular post.”

I say “to my surprise” because the post, which described a dispute I had with my father while I was temping back in 1988, elicited an intensely negative response from at least one commenter. To wit:

This blog post doesn’t help anything. It’s a filibuster, and if this is what [your company] pays you to write about, I really wonder about [your company]. Correct me if I’m wrong, but your blog is called “The [your company] Talent Blog: Career Advice and Insights for Marketing Professionals”. Are you advising me to respond to straightforward questions with quotes from Heidegger? Is that good advice? What’s the insight here? “Many cultural traditions support doing nothing”? I’ll make sure to bring that up the next time my boss and I have a performance review.

While some friends of mine offered comments of their own in my defense, I actually agree with this person. In my attempt to “keep it real” and make our blog “human,” I totally lost sight of the types of stories, lessons, or advice that would be most useful to our readers (or intended readers). The image of someone brandishing my rhetorical flourishes—or a copy of Heidegger for that matter—as self-justification during a performance review shone an appropriately laughable light on my pretensions.

So, do I still believe that our culture puts undo emphasis on productivity, achievement, and doing for the sake of doing? Yes. Myriad political, ecological and personal problems find their root here.

Am I still fond of the Buddhist retort to this productivity imperative, “Don’t just do something; sit there”? Quite.

Have I learned, however, that when you are billing what you do as “career advice,” people will want concrete, practical suggestions on how best to advance their careers and not philosophical conundrums that make all activity seem futile, vain or worthless? Definitely.

In fact, this last bit of insight is something that I’ve learned over and over. In most cases, when people are looking to learn something from you, they don’t want context, history, or meta-level musings; they really prefer that you just tell them what to do.

Godin Don’t Preach

2542806590_92f8bd299e_mFor a long time it’s kind of stuck in my craw that marketing “thought leaders” seem less like marketing professionals than preachy proselytizers of the human potential movement.

I was thinking specifically of Seth Godin and was grumbling that I would have to dig through his blog to find an example of the aforementioned proselytizing preachiness when, lo and behold, a random Twitter followee pointed me to a post he wrote for JobDig’s What Would Dad Say.

To whit, in a piece entitled, “Don’t Try to Get a Job,” His Seth-ship admonishes us with the following: “Don’t you dare. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that the act of trying to get a job corrupts you. It pushes you to be average, to fit in and to do what you’re told.”

Aside from the problem of telling people what to do (or what not to do, as the case may be) while criticizing a “do what you’re told” mentality, the word that jumped out at me was “corrupts.” Specifically, how did we move from the pragmatic issue of looking for work to the moral peril of falling from purity to corruption?

I understand that, upon our exile from Eden, we were cursed to toil by the sweat of our brow and that, since that dark day, work has been stigmatized as a punishment. I understand also that, in petit bourgeois dreams of small business success, telling people what to do is a mark of honor and indication of membership among the Elect. Nevertheless, I would like to offer an opposing, even dissenting, view.

When we work for someone, we are providing them a service and must of necessity, and within reason, bend our wills to theirs. This is the case whether we are tasked with specific duties within a larger enterprise or whether we are attempting to sell the fruits of our self-directed labor on the open market.

In the latter circumstance as in the first, if not exactly “doing what we are told,” we must at least “do what others want,” and if a source of corruption nests in the one, than it must assuredly be just as at home in the other.

In other words: don’t hate the player (the job seeker), Seth, hate the game (the system in which everybody needs a source of money if they want food, shelter, healthcare, etc.).

Or, to quote the late, great Curtis Mayfield: “If there’s a Hell below/We’re all gonna go.”

Image Courtesy of geraintwn.

Do It Now

Speaking with my friend, Rando Calrissian, about a woman who used to work for him, quoth he, “One great thing about her was, if she had something to do, she always did it right away.”

I often think of Rando, and this lady, whenever I’ve got stuff on my plate and I have the option of putting it off or just doing it. The sad truth is that, if I don’t do it now (whenever that may be), there is a strong chance that it won’t get done at all.

If you have made this same experience or are in any way like me in this regard, I strongly urge you to DO IT NOW! RIGHT NOW! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR???? C’MON! IT’S NOT GOING TO DO ITSELF!!!!

Got me?