Power vs. Strength
Power and strength are often confused for one another, but in truth are diametric opposites, insofar as what they represent, and how they impact people. One builds up the world, while the other invariably tears it down.
To understand the difference between power and strength, we need to look at the psychological motivation that drives the development of each. When we do that, we discover that they are sought for very distinct reasons, and wielded to achieve very divergent aims.
Power is sought in order to win titles, rewards and/or control. Power is also a limited commodity; and it increases, like anything finite, proportional to its scarcity. Not everyone can enjoy the same power, because it is meaningless if everyone has the same amount of it — meaning, no people over whom to exert it. For power to exist, there must be a limited supply, won in contest, whose reward creates a differential — an imbalance — between those who have it and those who do not. That means, power necessitates losers. The absence of power weakens the agency of those without it. The search for power is what is called a finite game — one played to win what others have. Finite games are zero-sum, because there is no net gain or loss — only a trade, or a consolidation. Finally, the goal of a power game is to end it, and be declared the winner at its conclusion. Because of this, all future play constitutes a threat to the power a player has accumulated in the process of past games. Thus the winner of a past power game plays future games only as an act of preservation of the status quo — aka their power base.
The global economy, which aims most of human activity, including titles, income, hierarchies, productivity, influence, competition and control, as well as possessions, resources, physical beauty, sports, inequality, incarceration, laws, political systems, and everything that feeds off of — or into — all of these things, are finite games played to gain power, of some kind — an advantage.
Strength, on the other hand, is limitless. Everyone can — conceivably — be strong. In this way, the search for strength is an infinite game — one in which there is no loser. That’s because my strength gain — whether it’s emotional, psychological, intellectual or physical — has no impact on your ability to become strong, as well. To gain strength is a non-zero-sum game because there is no finite amount of it, nor to the number of people who can possess it. As James Carse writes in the book Finite and Infinite Games, “Power is finite in amount. Strength cannot be measured, because it is an opening act and not a closing act.” He adds, “Power is concerned with what has already happened; strength with what has yet to happen.” And finally, “Power refers to the freedom persons have within limits [of time and quantity], strength to the freedom persons have with limits [imposed by external forces].”
Strength also grows when more people have more of it. Because of this, one of strength’s core missions is to replicate and share itself with others. When an entire population is strong, it improves outcomes for all other players, in the future, in spite of limits. Here as well, unlike power, the more strength more people have, the better the outcomes are for all players. As Carse writes, “Infinite [strong] players do not oppose the actions of others, but initiate actions of their own in such a way that others will respond by initiating their own.”
Strength begets strength. The only people who fear strength are either those who feel they don’t have enough of it, and are therefore jealous (in spite of having access to an infinite supply of it, should they invest in creating it); or they believe they will lose something when others gain strength— i.e.: some of their power — because in a finite game, one must have things others don’t, for power to have any value.
Parents, not Executives
Executives — very powerful people — exert their power over their subordinates. Hierarchical businesses — most of them — operate in this manner, like armies. Those without power yield to those with it, by doing work; and in exchange, they gain power of their own to spend, in the form of money — things that convey status and access — or in the form of promotion to a position of increased power in the workplace, and in society.
The ultimate goal of executive power is to improve outcomes for the self, regardless of what happens to those over whom we wield it. Market penetration, increased control, profit, productivity and its twin, efficiency are all measures of power. Executives lose when their subordinates ignore them, and act on an individual basis to exert their own strength. When a subordinate exerts strength, it threatens the power of the executive, and is normally dealt with as the threat that it is: swiftly, and powerfully.
Parents are also powerful. Parents exert considerable power over their children legally, with rules, admonishments, and other coercive strategies to achieve their offspring’s compliance. Often, these turn into power plays, in which exasperated, lazy or unthinking parents demand that their children do what they tell them… ‘because I said so’. But unlike executives, (most) parents’ ultimate goal is to improve outcomes for their children, and in this way, the coercive (powerful) tactics that parents use are, in some way, exertions of strength, cloaked as power. To say it another way, executives exert power to safeguard the past (money, titles and power already won), while parents exert power to protect and improve the future (the prospects of their children). In this spirit, there are parenting tactics that are better for building strength than our parental power tactics, such as when we teach our children to make good decisions per se, without us, and give them rope to learn from their own mistakes, without us, supporting them as needed and requested, rather than by making demands on them.
With that said, the truth is that some parents act selfishly. They lend power to their children in the form of money, possessions, an elite education, improved job access, and inherited titles. When they do, those parents live in a proxy world in which they justify their children’s successes as outcomes of their influences as parents; and in doing so, they ‘win’ the game by burnishing their own power. We’ve all seen parents who crow about their “brilliant, ivy-league-trained, whatever-the-status-achievement-is” children, as though it is primarily a reflection of the quality of parenting they received, and therefore confers rights on the winning parent(s) to claim superiority in that sphere, too, when measured against parents whose children didn’t quite gain so many entitlements. In these cases, the parental loans I described above are actually investments, made to grow their children’s future success in order to further protect the parents’ own past achievements.
Pretty twisted, if you see it this way.
The Power Not to Play
Margaret Thatcher said, “Power is like being a lady… if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”
Even within the zero-sum world of economies and laws, one can exhibit strength by not playing power games. True strength is often seen and expressed by what it does not exhibit. In other words, strength does not manifest as power, with its outward expressions of control, costly possessions, or bombast. Strength, put simply, is quiet. It has no interest in advertising itself, because it is not playing a finite game in order to cow — or dominate — an opponent. Rather, it works in the shadows to manifest more of itself in whomever is willing to receive it. Strength is empowering to those around us, whereas power is paradoxically disempowering to all those who do not receive it. Moreover, in truth, power is disempowering even to those with it, for two reasons: first, the powerful spend their lives in fear of losing it; and they are therefore, secondarily and paradoxically powerless. This is because in chasing power, they have let others — the game creators — dictate how they will spend their lives… in competition. Power is therefore self-defeating. The only way out of that ‘prison’ is by opting out of it.
One way is to stop chasing it. Another is to refocus on gaining strength.
Ironically, society at large treats opting out of power games as a sign of weakness — as in, “They couldn’t hack the big leagues,” or, “I’m just better than they are, clearly. I mean, who’s the boss here?”
The truth, in fact, is the opposite. Those who opt out of the power games are the people who possess enough inner strength that they have no need to define their power by external gains. Rather, they know their strength comes from elsewhere.
From the inside.
Carse writes, “Strength is paradoxical. I am not strong because I can force others to do what I wish as a result of my play with them, but because I can allow them to do what they wish in the course of my play with them.”
Strength, therefore, manifests itself quietly, gaining in potency by helping others gain strength on their own. The world’s best coaches — in sport, life or mental health, alike — know this well: they use their strength to help their charges increase their capacity and reach, without calling attention to themselves, or their actions.
It’s not just coaches who do this. The stronger any of us is in any one sphere, the less we need to talk about it, or demonstrate our strength to others. When people boast, or display conspicuous signs of power, these are acts of compensation for an insecurity, or a perceived deficit. Power exerted, paradoxically, is an act of fear — the fear that we will somehow feel, or be perceived as ‘lesser’ unless we win, secure our power base, and have others acknowledge and defer to it — to us. The struly trong need nothing external in order to feel strong, whereas the powerful need their power in order to feel powerful.
As Louis XIV said, “There is little that can withstand a man who can conquer himself.”
How This Happened
Some of this is the result of our collective inculcation. Over 12,000 years ago, as our tribes grew for the first time beyond the number of people whom we could know intimately, mistrust developed; and with it, the perceived need to establish hierarchies, and to use the tools of law and enforcement to control outcomes, so that we could continue to feel safe. The institutions we created were shaped to protect against the prospect—the future possibility—of some form of loss, due to our potential powerlessness at the hand of imagined abuses. The institution of hierarchies, laws and their enforcement was an act of fear. When we are not fearful, we need no laws! When we are not fearful, we need no enforcers! When we trust one another, or ourselves — to resolve things and find communal harmony — we need nothing external to guarantee outcomes! Because we were surrounded by relative strangers, we proactively shaped laws and their enforcement as a hedge against things going wrong. And in the act, we created the phenomenon of winners and losers. We went from strengthening relationships in order to guarantee the survival and wellbeing of the tribe — the community — to transacting with one another to compete for the benefit of our safety and wellbeing, through the accumulation of power.
In the quest for power, we lost our strength. Strength needs nothing external to flourish. Buddhist monks are strong because they have no fear, nor possessions to fear losing, nor station in life against which to fear being measured. To a monk, these things are meaningless. All that matters is self-mastery — the development of (inner) strength. They don’t play finite, win-lose games. They play infinite strengthening ones. Sadhus, mystics and shamans are similar, as are ascetics and others who have renounced a Game A, zero-sum existence for something focused on infinite — shared — growth. The Dalai Lama is perhaps the most famous paragon of strength. He is unflappable. He does nothing but give love and compassion to every human he meets. He’s not alone: Gandhi; King, Jr.; Mandela all possessed irrepressible strength. And new vitality is rising, in Gen Z: Yousafzai; Thunberg; Shahidi; bint Suhail Faris Mazrui; and Margolin — the founder of Zero Hour. None of these teenage paradigm-shifters plays a finite game. None of them lives for — or even in — a Game A existence. Their strength comes, in my view, from a place of deep investment in the future strength of others.
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.”
Said another way, love, aimed, is the strongest force on Earth.