Power Games: What is Wrong with the Game?

Imagine that you were playing a game with a friend. Let’s say tennis. And let’s say that you lost every time. After a while, it would get a bit frustrating. It would not be fun. You might give up.  Or this might spur us on to practice and get better at the game. But what if no matter how hard you practiced, you would not be able to win?

And let’s say that you realized that your friend was not winning because he or she was inherently better at the game, but because they knew something about the game that you could not know. Your friend was a “tennis insider” and you were not. Now you might start feeling just a tad angry.

So , how much is life just like this? How much is life a game that we play but cannot win? How often do we feel like “outsiders”? In answering the reality of our situations may be less important than how we feel about those realities. For if we feel like a loser and an outsider and that the cards are stacked against us, we tend to stop playing the game

This is what feeling powerless does to people. And it has severe and long term negative effects on lives. We need not give statistics to prove this. We can simply look around at those who commit acts of violence. Most frequently, these acts are not strictly rational. They are the lashing out of someone who felt powerless.

I propose that we can take a huge step forward in dealing with this problem by re-thinking what power is about. Instead of taking the term as we know it from our culture and history, we can re-shape it to meet our current needs.

Ready?  I will be posting on this thread to build up a book called “Power Games”. You can follow this adventure with me. Onward!

Power Games: Once Upon a Time

As I mentioned, I am writing a book called “Power Games” and I will be doing i´t in public here on this blog. Each day, I will be adding the next step to bring the writing forward. We are still in the conceptual stage, and yesterday I wrote for the first time about the tension that will provide the foundation for our story.

This tension is between how the powerful and the powerless feel about each other. They do not connect. Indeed, you might make the case that they make each other miserable.

The next step in our story development is to think for a moment where this story starts. How did we get started on this rather dreary path?

The answer, I think, is rather obvious. Think back to historical figures who were “powerful”. They share a common characteristic, going back to Alexander. They created followers and led them to significant activity. And they were profoundly self-centered. All of them.

This was accepted as a necessary evil. Of course the king takes on airs. He has such important things to do! Well we got rid of kings, but we find that presidents, prime ministers, and now CEO’s all act the same way. They exhibit the same power trait that we saw in Alexander.

This is something that is deeply embedded in our culture. And I think this is at the root of our tragedy. Why tragedy? Because this value is embedded so deep that we cannot see it as a problem.

That is the starting point for our story.

Power Games: The Tension

A good story conveys deep tension. So, if you have a great hero, like Sherlock Holmes, you might balance him with great evil. Otherwise, Holmes and the reader get bored.

We are embarked on a journey to create a story about games of power. And what tension  holds the story together? By definition, it must be lack of power. Perhaps a weak character craving power and striving to achieve it.  Perhaps a powerful character who loathes what has obtained.

At the core of  the above examples is a dilemma. As humans we crave knowing the answers to questions. We believe in knowledge as power. But strangely, we get bored with these answers nearly as soon as we discover them.

So our weak character is not bored, and perhaps our powerful character is troubled by intense depression.

Perhaps. BTW, if this interests you, consider how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created and used the character Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was not happy with Holmes. People loved the character more than the creator of the character. And Doyle knew that he achieved the creation using a cheap parlor trick.

Want Power, then Sacrifice Listening

Most people would say that they would like more power. More precisely, they would like to be more powerful. This would appear to be especially true among young people, who are confronted with such intense life challenges.

And you can become more powerful. Here is how. But there is a catch. The more you focus on becoming powerful, the less you will be able to listen.  Now consider Mr. V. Putin. He is no doubt a “powerful” man. How well do you think he listens? Consider how well he would take to an objective assessment of Russia’s prospects in the next decade.

When I say X, I mean Y!

I just got off the phone with a colleague. She was on the way to a meeting to try to work out a conflict. I got the background, but not much detail. All I needed to hear was that there is a “communication problem”.

These things happen all the time. It is surprising, therefore, how frequently we fail to deal with communication breakdown when it happens.

Let’s be blunt for a moment. Not all communication has equal value. So when I hear, “let’s talk.” I start getting nervous. Why do we need to “talk”? Is there a problem? Of course, there is. And if there is a problem, it will affect how well we can communicate. At that moment, we should be on our guard. We are likely to start talking trash. And that just makes the underlying problem worse.

So a lesson to be learned — learn when not to listen. You stop listening to substance when you are confident that it has no value in coping with underlying problems.

The Echoes of Conflict

For the last several days, the headlines have been focused on a terrible terrorist attack in Paris and its aftermath. As I write, two killers are surrounded by French police and apparently ready to be killed as “martyrs”. There is a palpable tension in the air.

People react to these moments in many ways. In this case, some have reaffirmed their support for the journalists who were brutally gunned down. There is a sense of being “under siege”. That is understandable.

At the same time, it is much more difficult to fathom how this type of barbaric crime could have taken place. How could people have gotten so caught up in radicalism that they would kill in cold blood? At least one commentator noted that those fomenting  this type of violence hope to radicalize all sides — to empty out the middle. To force a civil war in Europe between Muslims and Christians.

It is a nightmare scenario and I do not believe it will happen. And yet, it is not so far fetched to discount that some would push for it –  that it would become a strategic idea to suck peaceful people into violence.

Well, when these types of strategic ideas take hold, many innocent people become swept up in the chaos that ensues. To see how, we don’t have to look far. Just consider the story of Petr Khokhlov in Ukraine.  it starts off like this

After their father died and their mother fell into drink, Petr Khokhlov and his brother, Sergey, were sent to an orphanage in Novouzensk, a small, dusty town of low-slung Soviet-era apartment blocks on Russia’s border with Kazakhstan. The two boys had only each other. Petr was quiet and well behaved, scolding other students at the orphanage when they addressed their teachers with the familiar ty, rather than the more formal vy.

Sometimes, it gets harder and harder to pull back from the violence. And that is a strategic problem for those who are int interested in violence.