Power, Confidence and the Danger of Comparison

'Every human has four endowments - self awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom... The power to choose, to respond, to change.' ~ Stephen CoveyClick To Tweet

What do you think when you look at someone with immense personal power? Say Oprah Winfrey, or Nelson Mandela, or Jane Goodall, or Helen Clark, or Ghandi, or George Clooney, or Bill Gates? Someone who eschews confidence and wields influence? Someone who is humble and dedicated to making a difference?

Power Confidence Pose

I’m sure you have a view about whether or not they are good people. Whether you like them. Whether you aspire to be like them. You may be familiar with some of the things they have done. You may even have met one of them.

Chances are though, that pretty quickly after that initial ‘fact check’, you start making comparisons. Not only between that person and someone else you admire (or despise), but also between that person and yourself…

“I’m not like that.”

“I could never do that.”

“They had opportunities I never had.”

“If only I’d been born in that time/place.”

“Yeah, but they’re exceptional. I’m just ordinary.”

“I’m just normal…”

“I’m just… me.”

Our brains are exceptionally skilled at rationalising why we are where we are (and why that’s OK). Either by making it someone else’s fault or by convincing you that it wouldn’t be a good thing anyway.

Our brains don’t like change… but our egos hate feeling inferior. And the only way these two things can co-exist when we are presented with examples of phenomenal people doing extraordinary things is to:

  1. Dehumanise them “normal people aren’t like that, I’m just normal”
  2. Find fault with them to make us feel superior “yeah but I heard he had an affair…”
  3. Convince ourselves they aren’t happy “but money/influence/fame doesn’t buy happiness – I bet they’re miserable”
  4. Blame someone “if I had the opportunities she had…” or
  5. Some combination of these

Why? Because it makes you feel better. It makes you feel ‘OK’.

So here’s another question for you. (Technically it’s two questions.)

Were you born to be ‘OK’? Or were you born to achieve something a bit better than OK?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find ‘OK’ very inspiring. I don’t find it exciting. I don’t think ‘OK’ is enough to get me out of bed in the morning, let alone showing up with my best self.

So in this article, we’re going to look at some of the ways you can break out of ‘OK’ and start living up to your potential. Will it be uncomfortable? Sure. A little bit.

But most things worth having require a little sacrifice on our part.

What is power… and do you have it?

'You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.' ~ Marcus AureliusClick To Tweet

Dachar Keltner’s book The Power Paradox lays out the results of his research into human social systems and power dynamics. In it, he defines power as “your ability to alter the state of other people”.

Power Confidence Strength

It isn’t about the size of your army, or the amount of money you have. These things can result in influence over others, absolutely, but so can information/knowledge, innovation and culture.

I think there is something implicit in Keltner’s definition that warrants stating: that our ability to alter the state of other people is entirely up to them. We can craft the perfect sales pitch for what we want to happen… and we can be ignored. We can demand our kids clean their rooms… and we can be ignored. We can implore our colleagues get involved with the big project we’re leading… and we can be ignored.

Our power is granted to us by other people’s willingness to respond to our influence.

And obviously the counter to this is true. Part of our power – our influence – lies in how we respond to the influence and power of others. Do we see it as something we have no choice in? We are coerced? Or have we deliberately chosen to allow their influence to sway us?

According to Keltner’s research, the greatest and quickest way to obtain power is to be kind, generous and co-operative. To demonstrate gratitude or to offer resources. In other words, what psychologists refer to as ‘pro-social behaviour’. And the wonderful thing about such behaviours is that they make you feel good (the dopamine reward centres in your brain activate) and it makes the person you’re being kind and generous to feel good as well!

Fortunately, our social networks are also – if we are attuned to them – very effective at letting us know when we’ve let the power go to our heads too. Because yes, the research also shows that power corrupts. Quickly.

For a potted version of Keltner’s thesis, you might like to watch this video.

What is confidence… and do you have it?

'When we're sad, we slouch. We also slouch when we feel scared or powerless.' ~ Amy CuddyClick To Tweet

If Keltner wrote the book on power… then Amy Cuddy wrote the book on confidence. Her book Presence explores the bi-directional relationship between our bodies and our minds. For example, when we feel powerful and confident our bodies expand to take up more space… we stand taller, shoulders back, head up… And here’s the great part – when we expand our bodies to take up more space, we feel more powerful and confident.

How cool is that!

Power Confidence Puppy

And the bottom line is, other people read that body language and make it causal to their trust and confidence in us. In other words, if we look like we don’t have confidence in ourselves, they don’t have confidence in us either.

And if you were following the power section above, you’ll know that other people grant us power by allowing us to influence them… so maybe this is important. There is a damning and compelling body of evidence emerging about the impact of powerlessness on health and wellbeing. So feeling confident (even if it’s faking it) makes us feel more powerful, and feeling powerful has significant benefits to our health. Adopt that power pose!

How to break free from the danger of comparison

'When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.' ~ Jimi HendrixClick To Tweet

Now I started this article by asking you what came to mind when you thought about successful and influential people… people with power. People who you have granted power by allowing them to influence your decisions.

Power Confidence Baby Hands

Now, knowing what you know about power and confidence, what do you think happens when you start comparing yourself unfavourably with highly successful people?

You start creating feelings of “I’m not good enough”. You start assuming that those people were destined to be powerful and influential. You start losing sight of the power you have in determining who can influence you… This reduces your confidence – you take up less physical space, and consequently you diminish your own power.

And most importantly you lose sight of the fact that they are just people too. They gained their power the same way everybody does – the exact same way you do.

And whatever it is that you care about in the world… you can influence, because you have the power, and the confidence. And because the only person you need to compare yourself to is who you were yesterday.

So who are you going to be today?

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