All throughout history we see this pattern:
There are people at the top. Once they get to the top, they pass their influence, legacy, and resources to their heirs or successors.
Then out of nowhere, a person at the bottom of the totem pole finds their way to the top like a rocket going into space and usurps the status quo.
The ancient Greeks and Romans called these people “New man.”
In America, we call these people “new money.”
Sometimes it’s because there is turmoil going on and a need for a new leader with ideals that align with the common people arises.
Sometimes the people at the top become blindly incompetent and vulnerable.
Either way. How people start at the bottom and climb to the top is knowledge worth having.
Why can a person like Benjamin Franklin, who grew up in poverty and ran away from home at the age of 14, find himself mingling with the King’s of England and France, and famous political exiles like Voltaire?
How does someone like Barrack Obama have similar beginnings and find himself the first African American President of the US in a system full of competitors that have the same last name as the leaders multiple generations ago?
How did John D. Rockafeller grow up with a father that perfectly resembles the term “Traveling Snake Oil Salesmen,” and become the richest and most infamous man of the 19th century?
Although it may be difficult to put all the answers in a short article, one thing is clear.
They all started with nothing. Nothing was their birthright. Their power, their influence, wasn’t passed down. It was earned in a single lifetime.
The two types of power
Generally, we think of power as access to, and influence of, resources. And that’s not wrong. Access to resources definitely gives you the ability to enforce your will in a given environment.
We’ll call that position power: power offered by your position in life.
But the people mentioned above had access to something else. Something that didn’t translate directly into dollars. What they had was practical power.
- Position power relies on resources, legacy, tradition, influence, and force.
- Practical power relies on awareness, creativity, courage, resourcefulness, strategy, knowledge, and skill.
In a way, they are opposites. Although, they aren’t mutually exclusive. You could have both. But in the larger scheme of things, they are in a constant battle with each other. They have a Yin and Yang relationship.
Consider a first-generation rich man that comes from poverty.
That man had to cultivate practical power to raise his status in the world. He probably had to work really hard to become competent at something that pays well and continue to make good financial decisions along the way. Eventually creating a fortune. Now, with his fortune, he probably fits into both buckets. Practically powerful with a high position and the powers that come along with it.
Now consider that man’s children.
They don’t need to cultivate practical power. So they don’t. They’re used to being in a high position in life and enjoying the type of power that comes along with it. Why would they do the tough work of cultivating practical power? They simply don’t feel the necessity.
The truth about generational wealth is that it doesn’t last long.
$100 million split between 5 kids who don’t care to learn what it takes to make that kind of money lose it on stupid investments and luxuries.
Rockefeller’s hundreds of decedents are left with a few million each at this point. (I’ll admit.. ‘as far as we know’)
This story happens over and over again on small and massive scales throughout history.
A person rises to power from the ground up, then his heirs or successors slowly lose their power because they weren’t the ones who learned how to build from the ground up. They are not competent, and that makes them vulnerable to the people who have practical power.
This isn’t the case every time, obviously, but it happens more than you’d think.
How to Cultivate Practical Power
At its roots, practical power comes from competence. In other words, it’s not who you know, but what you can do.
Rockefeller was an amazing and strict accountant and business strategist.
Obama is an incredible public speaker.
Franklin was a master at writing, thinking, and public service.
When what you can do is amazing things, the who you know falls in line. You don’t need to have an amazing network or massive resources when people need what you can do.
It didn’t matter that Barack Obama was only a senator for three years. It didn’t matter that his opponents had bigger networks, more experience, and bottomless resources. When it came to getting in front of a camera and speaking to a nation, he was unbeatable.
It didn’t matter that John D. Rockefeller was born without a penny to his name. Nobody was as disciplined with a dollar as he was. When his competitors in the “gold rush” style oil business were in trouble, he had the cash they needed.
It didn’t matter that Benjamin Franklin came from a no-name family of candle makers. He was so good at writing and capturing the mood in Philadelphia, every business that needed an ad used his publication. He became the ad-mogul of his time.
These people didn’t rely on a powerful network. They weren’t given resources.
They practiced. And got so good at what they do you had to go through them.
They have another thing in common as well. A type of character trait that, stacked on top of practicing, made them unstoppable.
They were constantly learning and adding to their knowledge base.
Nobody exemplifies the power of constant learning like Warren Buffett.
Buffett is another character who started with next to nothing. Fortunately for him, he developed the skill of accurately evaluating businesses.
On top of his incredible skill in that department, look at how he says he spends his days at work.
“I just sit in my office and read all day.”
It’s reported that he estimates he spends 80% of his day reading.
His cardinal advice for everyone is to read 500 pages a week.
“That’s how knowledge builds up. Like compound interest,”
Buffett makes it clear that his success comes from the fact that he reads all day.
The Art of Underdog
One thing everybody who relies on practical power has in common, is they start out as the underdog.
And well… Underdogs have to think differently.
Obama didn’t play by the same rules as the other candidates. He was the first presidential candidate to rely on a Twitter and email-based campaign strategy. It worked.
While most people were looking for Oil deposits to go through the risky endeavor of attempting to build a rig and hoping to strike oil, Rockefeller decided to buy refineries instead. He saved himself from most of the risk and decided to sell the consumer product instead of sourcing it.
Benjamin Franklin published his first articles under fake names like Silence Dogooder, because no one would publish an article written by a 14-year-old. Ms. Dogooder became a local icon.
So what is the art of the underdog?
At its basic level, it’s the willingness to do the unconventional and creative.
You know the show “The Office?”
Of course, you do. Because since the show was acquired by Netflix, it’s been the most-watched show on the platform. Year after year after year. And it doesn’t look like those numbers are going anywhere.
Based on those numbers. Whatever company owns the rights to stream The Office has the advantage in the streaming wars.
How does a show with a mediocre budget become the most valuable collection of content ever?
The answer is, they did everything you’re not supposed to do on television.
80% of the show is filmed in a room that resembles stuffiness most of us avoid.
Other than the theme song, there is absolutely zero music in the entire show.
There are no big-budget shots. And the camera work is intentionally amateurish.
Yet, NBC recently signed a contract to pay $100 million a year for streaming rights. Outbidding Netflix.
Parks and Recreation followed a similar concept. And they had noteworthy success and a loyal following as well. But nothing like The Office.
Because the style wasn’t unconventional anymore. The Office had already done it.
Being unconventional alone has power. It grabs people’s interest and their own curiosity draws them in.
It’s the same reason a trick play in football works. The other team is not expecting it. As soon as they are, the trick doesn’t work anymore.
If you’re trying to bring this art to your job or your craft, you have to be willing to try things that either haven’t been done before or no one expects you to do.
Warren Buffett has a similarly controversial strategy. Unlike most financial advisors and investors, he doesn’t believe smart investors should diversify their portfolios.
“Diversification is a protection against ignorance,” according to Buffett. “[It] makes very little sense for those who know what they’re doing.”
This unpopular strategy is how Warren Buffett grew a $100,000 investment to $86 Billion while sitting in his office reading all day.
You don’t need to be born with power to gain power. In fact, because you weren’t born with power, you can cultivate a completely different kind of power. A kind of power that’s arguably better and more reliable than a fragile legacy.