Jun 2, 2023 3 min read

You're More Powerful Than You Think

In his book, You're More Powerful Than You Think, Eric Liu tells us that we all have the ability to generate power and, more importantly, he goes about showing us exactly how it is done.

If you haven't heard of Eric Liu, this book is a wonderful introduction to his work. Eric Liu is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University, which works to build a culture of powerful and responsible citizenship in the United States. He also directs the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship & American Identity Program. He is the author of several other acclaimed books, including The Accidental Asian Notes of a Native Speaker; The Gardens of Democracy (co-authored with Nick Hanauer); his most recent, Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility, and Democracy — a New York Times New & Notable Book; and this book, You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen. His TED talks have been viewed by millions.

In our last newsletter, I wrote about individuals who are leading initiatives to help their communities and cities become more inclusive and equitable. As I was working on that newsletter, it was this book of Eric's that I came back to read again. Not surprisingly, each time I read it, I take away something new. It is in that spirit that I share this today, as a suggested companion reading to accompany our last newsletter.

In the early chapters, Eric starts by helping us to better understand power and sharing stories of how power is created from seemingly nothing and exercised by those we would likely consider truly powerless.

He also gives us his definition of power.

The capacity to ensure that others do what you would like them to do.

He then shares what he sees as the three laws of power, that:

  • Power Concentrates,
  • Power Justifies Itself, and
  • Power is Infinite.

In his examples and references, each of these laws is illustrated in a way that gives us a deep understanding of how true these laws are across all aspects of our lives, not only our civic life.

Eric doesn't stop with describing power. In the heart of the book, he goes about helping us understand how to practice power and dispelling any notion that power is inherently bad. He lays out strategies for practicing power with such clarity it made me wonder why I had never thought of power this way before.

He describes three arenas across which we exercise power: the Game, the Story, and the Equation. Then, in each of these arenas, he gives us strategies. For example, in Changing the Game, he suggests one possible strategy as adjusting the arena. He describes shrinking the arena or enlarging the arena as a way to Change the Game. One example he gave for this was HB2, or the transgender bathroom bill, in North Carolina. Transgender advocates and their allies immediately enlarged the arena making this bill something more than about child safety. In their advocacy, they made it about state-sanctioned discrimination. This took the fight to overturn the bill far beyond the NC state legislature and they ultimately prevailed.

Eric goes on to describe, in detail, nine different strategies for exercising our power. It is hard to consider yourself powerless after you see so many ways that power has been wielded in the past and the options available to you to exercise your own power.

In his conclusion, Eric sums up the core of the book in three powerful sentences:

Power creates monopolies and is winner-take-all -> You must change the game.
Power creates a story of why it's legitimate -> You must change the story.
Power is assumed to be finite and zero-sum -> You must change the equation.

Yet, in his conclusion, he also challenges each of us by reminding us that our use of power is "an expression of our moral mindset, our moral purpose."

And he leaves us with three questions about our own relationship to and our own use of power. Asking us:

Do you integrate character and power?
Do you try to ensure that more people can participate in power?
Do you define your self-interest as mutual interest?

The structure of this book is deceptively simple. It isn't hard to read, or even a very big book. The what and how of power unfolds so clearly and logically under Eric's pen that I instantly become a student eagerly learning and reflecting on the ebb and flow of power all around me. Yet, this book reminds me that it is one thing to be a student of power and quite another thing to master the use of my own infinite sources of power to build a more just, inclusive, and equitable world.

Sometimes, the simplest and most straightforward books challenge me the most.

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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