J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

How to Accumulate (Non-Coercive) Power, Part I

As it turns out, the door to power isn’t even locked.

This post is a follow up to The Four Types of Power, in which I described different types of power, as follows:

  1. Tyrannical (Coercive, Zero-Sum)
    Ex. monopolies, unregulated financial markets
  2. Diabolical (Coercive, Non-Zero-Sum)
    Ex. slavery, colonialism, human trafficking, illegal tax havens, cons
  3. Competitive (Non-Coercive, Zero-Sum)
    Ex. sports, reasonably regulated economies, marketing/advertising
  4. Progressive (Non-Coercive, Non-Zero-Sum)
    Ex. invention, innovation, infrastructure, education, exploration, creating new markets, connectivity, information sharing

There is of course “bleed” between areas; you could have a tyrannical leader working for a generally progressive, wealth-creating organization.  You could innovate in the pursuit of exploitation.  Still, I think it’s helpful to ask, when considering the use of power, two questions:

  1. Is it coercive? (Does it use violence, the threat of violence, or withholding resources necessary for survival?)
  2. Is it wealth creating? (Does it create new wealth and possibility, either by tapping an external source, or by increasing efficiency, connectedness, productivity, collaboration, intelligence, knowledge, quality of life, etc.?)

Badly drawn power graph (click for bigger version)

The most damaging use of power answers “yes” to both questions … new wealth is creating by exploiting others, or the environment.  “Creative evil” creates new wealth for the beneficiaries by opening up new realms of exploitation.  Slavery, human trafficking, colonialism … all of these institutions still exist.  As late as the 1850’s, it was socially acceptable to march into another nation and attempt to convert it into a slave state.  These days the use of “creative coercion” is more secretive and insidious.  Shell Oil infiltrates the Nigerian government, is complicit in the murder of dissidents, and all the while takes massive profits.  In addition to corporate wrongdoing, you have warlords with child soldiers, international crime syndicate leaders, private mercenary armies who smuggle weapons and murder innocents while parasitically leech U.S. tax dollars, and all manner of creative criminals and evil geniuses.

The use of power that has lifted us up the most, as a species, answers “no” to the first question and “yes” to the second.  Most humans enjoy clean water on tap, electric lights, abundant food, connection to the internet, fast transportation, and access to vast libraries of scientific, historical, and cultural knowledge because of our collective accumulation of non-coercive, non-zero-sum power (which I’ve dubbed “progressive”).

So how do we acquire more of this kind of power, both as individuals and as communities?

Is J.D. Moyer Powerful?

You might wonder if I’m qualified to write this post.  I’m just a middle-class American, neither rich nor famous.  I’m not particularly well connected.  I don’t have any superpowers or hold any world-records.

And yet, I’m immensely powerful.  For example:

  • I control all of my own time.
  • I can express myself freely, to a potentially unlimited audience.
  • I can start businesses and/or political organizations at will.
  • I can travel.
  • I can learn anything I want.

If I asked you to imagine a “powerful person,” would you come up with something like this? (“Opulence, I has it.”)  Or this? (Kanye, displaying his seraphim fetish.)

Obviously I’m neither of those things.  Still, my U.S. citizenship, my fluency in English, my education, my specialized skills, my ability to write, my large network and mailing lists, my businesses, my personal wealth, my health, my attitude, and my friendships and family afford me immense power.  Pretty much anything that I can think up, I can do (allowing for reasonable effort and planning).

Make your own list of power assets.  It might be larger than expected.

Life doesn’t dole out power evenly.  Some nationalities are born more powerful than others.  Some ethnicity-age-gender combinations are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to starting levels of power.  For example, even with equal skills, it’s harder for a young black man to get a job than a thirty-something white woman (of course it also depends on the field and who is hiring).  Racism and xenophobia are real.

Still, anyone can increase their power.

How To Accumulate Non-Coercive, Non-Zero-Sum Power

I’ll divide this post into two parts.  In this part I’ll write about how to accumulate lower left quadrant power as an individual.  In Part II I’ll cover how to accumulate lower left quadrant power as a community.

The pillars of non-coercive, non-zero-sum power are as follows:

  1. Escaping from coercive and tyrannical control.
  2. Acquiring metaprogramming skills (internal control).
  3. Defining life purpose, setting goals, determining strategy.
  4. Acquiring skills and actionable knowledge that further your goals.
  5. Building a large, real-life social network based on mutual like.
  6. Creating new wealth and retaining significant ownership.
  7. Collaborating with and empowering others.

Item #1 (Escape from Coercive Control) is the most important and the most difficult.  I’ve never had to do it personally, so I can only imagine situations in the abstract.  Examples of people living under coercive, tyrannical control would include:

  • a child living with a parent or guardian that beats or abuses them, or withholds food or affection
  • anyone living in North Korea
  • a young woman sold into sexual slavery
  • an employee working for a sadistic bully of a boss
  • a cult member

Cute, but doomed (unless they get out).

These are just a few examples.  Anyone in one of these difficult situations needs to consider the cost of non-consent.  In some cases, the price of non-consent is death.  In other cases it might be a beating, a humiliating reprimand, or getting fired.  What is clear is that for the subject to have any chance at freedom, happiness, and acquiring non-coercive power, they need to get out.  They need to plan and execute an escape from their oppressor.  Complete cybernetic discombobulation might be necessary.

Item #2 (Acquire Metaprogramming Skills) is the process of learning how to operate your own body and mind.

Meditate and practice to acquire powers.

It’s self-improvement in the broadest sense.  It’s creating a system of living that results in vibrant health, high energy levels, a clear conscience, a focused mind, and a love of life.  Some people might find a “preset” system that works for them as is (Yoga, Zen Buddhism, Sufism, psychoanalysis, etc.) but many will choose to devise their own system.  Elements might include a diet and exercise plan, a code of personal ethics, some sort of meditation, some system of understanding and processing emotions, and so on.

The way I see it, coming up with such a system is a means, not an end (I realize many will disagree with me on this point).  I don’t have any interest in crossing some sort of enlightenment Rubicon.  Instead, I want to be able to “firing on all cylinders” more often than not, so that I have the energy and motivation to do what I want to do in life.  I believe that happiness doesn’t come from the pursuit of happiness, but rather from the pursuit of a grander purpose.

Item #3 (Define Purpose, Goals, and Strategy).  Many people go through life without explicitly choosing a purpose.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with the “take life as it comes” approach, but at the same time these people aren’t maximizing their own lower left quadrant power, or contributing the most they can to our progress as a species (becoming more intelligent, compassionate, and creative, and having more control of our collective destiny).

Steve Pavlina has shared one way to explore the question of life purpose.  There are hundreds of other techniques.  If you are dogged and/or lucky enough to discover a life purpose that creates a powerful and persistent emotional resonance within your whole being, you’ll have a solid framework on which to base every single one of your subsequent life decisions.

Once you have pointed yourself in a general direction, setting goals and determining strategy are the easy part.  David Allen’s Getting Things Done provides some incredibly useful tools.

Item #4 (Acquire Skills and Knowledge That Further Your Goals) is the most obvious item.  We’ve all heard the saying “knowledge is power.”  I would refine that saying to the more-clunky but also more-true “actionable knowledge is power.”  Acquire the knowledge you need, in the order that you need it.  There are ways to enhance learning speed and learning retention, but we also live in a world of unlimited knowledge.  Nobody can learn everything there is to know.  Prioritize your knowledge acquisition.

Nunchuk skills, tetherball skills …

If you need to learn a new language, start with core grammatical structure and the 100 most commonly used words (or, if you’re learning a programming language, the 10 most commonly used functions).  If you’re learning about a new scientific field, start by reading the 10 most popular and/or controversial published articles from the past year.  Get up to speed quickly.

In terms of skill acquisition, practice makes perfect.  Malcom Gladwell has observed that 10,000 hours of attentive practice leads to mastery more often than not.  The trick is finding something that interests you enough to do it for 10,000 hours without burning out.

Acquiring a specialized skill that is in economic demand can bring you a lifetime of financial security.  It’s good to have at least one specialized skill that you enjoy doing and for which people are happy to pay you. Life just gets easier when people are willing to give you large amounts of money to do something that you essentially enjoy doing.  Skill areas in which supply exceeds demand (like DJing, blogging, or writing poetry) are generally practiced for the love of the craft.  On the other hand, programming in .NET, or becoming a plumber, easily translate into billable hours.

In addition to specialized skills, there are a few general skills that everyone should learn, because they will further any goal, and universally increase power.  For example:

    • Charm: learning to put others at ease socially, learning to give compliments, learning to be generous with your time and attention.
    • Writing: learning to write clearly and effectively will also teach you how to think clearly and effectively, and will assist your progress in any field.

Dress for success.

  • Self-defense/martial arts: mastering kung-fu, boxing, wrestling, aikido, or any martial art changes the way you move through the world.  You become immune to crude physical intimidation techniques frequently used by bullies and tyrants.  People will respect you without understanding why.
  • Dressing properly: while I won’t be recommending what color overcoat to wear, there is one simple metric to determine if you are wearing the right clothes.  Do you feel confident? If the answer is yes, then clothing = power.

Item #5 (Build a Large, Real-Life Social Network Based on Mutual Like). “Networking” is often recommended as a way to enhance economic opportunity and build your “power base.”  The problem with indiscriminate networking is that it is mutually painful for both the networker and the prospect being networked.  To experience this in real life just attend any party in Los Angeles or Washington D.C.

The sustainable alternative is what I like to call “networking based on mutual like.”  It’s as simple as it sounds.  Don’t bother trying to connect with people who don’t attract you on multiple levels.  Instead, focus on building relationships with people who you genuinely like.  This isn’t the same as only relating to people you are comfortable with … it’s often worth it to make the effort to cross the artificial barriers of age differences, cultural differences, etc.

Get connecticated.

An online connection is a respectable way to initiate a social bond, but there’s no substitute for meeting face to face.  If the relationship is going to have any depth, you need to experience a person’s vibe, their pheromones, their tics, etc. (and vice versa).  Tim Ferriss, while promoting his first book, spent his entire marketing budget flying places to meet people in person who could help him promote his book.  He didn’t bother trying to persuade people who weren’t willing to give him the time of day … he focused on building in person connections based on mutual like.  The result was massive blog coverage and a NYT bestseller.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be persistent in building new relationships, and asking for what you want.  As long as you’re unfailingly polite, there’s nothing wrong with following up with someone 100 times or more, as long as you’re not getting a definite “no.”  The director Greg Harrison, while raising money for his independently financed movie “Groove,” kept calling potential backers until he go a definite yes or no.  A surprisingly large number of his prospects were willing to ignore his first twenty or thirty calls, but were ultimately unwilling to say “no” to his fund-raising request.  Those people eventually turned into investors (and, in the case of “Groove,” they all profited).

(That’s why I’m going to keep sending music from Loöq Records to Gary Calamar, unless he asks me not to.)

The last part of the mutual like equation is how you can help others.  When you meet someone new, attempt to build a mental picture of their life and near-term obstacles.  How can you help them?  What can you offer them?  Information?  An introduction to someone with specialized skills?  Don’t underestimate your own ability to be useful.

Item #6 (Create New Wealth and Retain Ownership). Is everyone “creative” on some level?  I don’t know — I’m not everyone.  But most people I’ve met have strong opinions, in at least a few areas, of how things could be done better, ways in which the world could be run with less stupidity.  When these people spend the time and energy to actually implement their ideas, they end up creating real wealth, non-zero-sum innovation that makes life measurably better for everyone.

Some people contribute artistically (I try to be one of those people), making music, art, or writing stuff that at least a few other people appreciate.  Others write code, invent things, tweak systems, legislate, and so on.  Not every innovation or creation ends up contributing to the common good — some of it is bad or counterproductive or useless.  Cultural natural selection takes care of this problem; usually the good and/or useful stuff gets replicated and “rises to the top.”

Creative commons (distribute freely while retaining rights).

If you want to become a more powerful individual, spend time creating new wealth (in a way that is consistent with your purpose and skills), and do it in a context where you retain some ownership of what you create. Don’t pour all your creative energy into creating wealth for a company unless you own part of that company.  Don’t create valuable works and then give away the rights (which is not to say that you shouldn’t distribute your work freely — this often works to the creator’s advantage).

Ownership is, of course, ephemeral.  Ownership only exists in the context of a legal system and operating government, and only lasts as long as anyone cares (that’s what “in perpetuity” means — it doesn’t actually mean forever).  Still, if you retain and accumulate ownership of things that you “create out of nothing” (intellectual property, businesses, art, whatever), it will make you more powerful.  You’ll be able to do more (not only because you’ll be wealthier, but because you’ll have a reputation as a wealth creator).

Item #7 (Collaborate With And Empower Others). It is strangely impossible to empower someone else without empowering yourself.  Most power-seekers are looking up the food chain for people to work with.  Who can I work with who will lift me up?

Paradoxically, empowering people who are less powerful than you can help you just as much.

When Spesh and I started our weekly party Qoöl, we made the decision to book mostly local DJ’s, including many totally unknown “bedroom” DJ’s, as long as they had skills and good taste.  We did this instead of booking out-of-town DJ’s with bigger names.

What often surprised us was the level of contagious, manic enthusiasm these newbies brought to our event.  They would often invite every single person they knew to the party.  These “bedroom” DJ’s became a vibe multiplier.

This was one factor that allowed us to throw what eventually became known as a legendary dance music event, one that continued as a weekly for well over a decade and became internationally famous.

Find people who have skills, knowledge, habits, and ways of thinking that complement your own.  Consider working both with people who are more powerful than you (with more connections, experience, and capital), and with those who are less powerful than you (but with more enthusiasm, openness to learning, and availability).

In Part II of this post:

I’ll discuss how communities can gain non-coercive power.

I’ll discuss ethics (appeal to conscience) vs. empowerment as a means to achieving justice.

I’ll discuss the special case of Julian Assange, and how he uses power.




The Four Types of Power


How To Accumulate (Non-Coercive) Power, Part II


  1. I couldn’t help but notice the main idea of this post is in direct contrast to the theme of Obama’s State of the Union Tonight. “Win the Future.” Really? Why not “Create the Future?”

    I don’t think Obama is really stuck in a Zero-Sum paradigm … I think he was just pandering to Republicans tonight.

  2. cece

    JD~I’m grateful for your “power series!” I am absolutely gripped and compelled. I’m very interested in what you think about Tim Ferris “The Four Hour Work Week” and where that fits in the power grid.

  3. I’m a huge fan of Tim Ferriss, and he’s an inspiration. He’s a skilled strategist and very good at competing in the “Zero-Sum” quadrant (he holds world records, he wins martial arts tournaments, and he’s had two NYT best-sellers). At the same time, I think his primary mission is helping others (while getting rich and famous in the process, but there’s nothing wrong with that).

    In the context of the four-quadrant power model, Four Hour Workweek is definitely about creating progressive (non-zero-sum, non-coercive) personal power. It’s about how to create a lifestyle that maximizes freedom, learning, enjoyment, and meaning. I’m a huge fan.

    On the flip side, there are a few aspects of Ferriss that deserve parody, and this NYT review pretty much nails it:


  4. Also, I met him briefly at Qoöl, and he seemed like a good guy. He was drinking Merlot on the rocks, which proves that he just doesn’t give a shit about what other people think.

  5. cece

    Thanks for the insight, JD. I must admit that what I know of Mr. Ferris is hearsay and I don’t know if I’m quite ready to drink his Koolaid yet. Admittedly, what I know of him is mostly hearsay. But your link to the NYT article is indeed spot on about how I feel about him (sort of a nouveau-Rand/Henry Miller anarchic thing he’s got going there) and I wonder how his brand of “self-help” will get digested eventually most. Pragmatically though, I do like that he encourages people to empower themselves, albeit in that Mad Max sort of way.

  6. Josh Nelson

    Well, my html use didn’t exactly work above : )

    Was trying to title “Brilliant Article JD! with “…a href=”” title=””…”
    But cut it and hyperlinked the body in self/hyper referring manner, lol.

  7. We’re not quite that old … I was still in high school in the 80’s. But thanks!

  8. Josh Nelson

    Lol, must have been early, perhaps mid ’90s end of that window then. Cause they were definitely players on the scene. I remember buying a few of their records and actively spinning them. You look somewhat familiar to me as well.

    In any event JD, brilliant narratives abound on your blog of which I’m deriving much value! (Sire Wm. Spencer sent me your way)

  9. Josh Nelson

    Just put together that you are Jondi, lol.

    So, even better… to see meaningful works evolve from that time/culture of such elegance, wisdom and clarity! Kudos

  10. this may be my favorite JD Moyer essay yet

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