Adman extraordinaire Jay Chiat once proudly told me his secret for getting people to take his calls. “I call the person’s secretary and say, ‘Tell X it’s his doctor, and I have the results of his tests.’ X rushes to the phone; it never fails,” he said. Ten years later, he got one of those calls himself, except it wasn’t a hoax. It was news of his own cancer. What’s the worst call a person in power, at the top of his game, can get? “Hello, I have the results of your tests, and you have a brain tumor.”
Dan Case, a brilliant investment banker and brother of AOL’s Steve Case, got that call in his forties, when he was riding high in Silicon Valley. Bernie Goldhirsh, founder of Inc magazine, got a similar call three years ago, when he was thinking about selling part of his publishing empire for millions of dollars. Men in high places take long falls. But there are lessons of power that suit you perfectly when you’re experiencing its opposite: vulnerability and lack of power. When you’re powerless — sick or old, unemployed, or in a state of dwindled finances — what’s the strategy?
The answer is to find the power in powerlessness. The real tragedy is how most people try to construct a life that will protect them from catastrophe. As a student of strategy, I, too, have planned every aspect of my life to keep myself pain- and suffering-free. But I now see that that’s the way to live a very small and rather unhappy life. Worrying about the little things is death. There is a paradox at the heart of power, and of powerlessness: The power in powerlessness depends on your ability to be heroic in suffering.
I sensed that years ago but only vaguely understood it at the time. A week before Jacqueline Onassis died, I ran into her on the street. Jackie was a publishing colleague, and I hadn’t seen her in weeks while she underwent cancer treatment. But on that bright Sunday afternoon, wrapped in white cashmere like an eerie shroud, she was strolling down Park Avenue, leaning on a friend, pointing to the rooftops of the New York buildings that she loved and had fought to preserve from the wrecker’s ball. I thought, She is seeing them for the last time, and I was almost afraid to say hello. But when I approached her and saw the pleasure on her face, I realized that she was actually seeing those beloved buildings as if for the first time. Finding the power in powerlessness means welcoming your mortality, not resisting it. Jackie, a student of Greek heroes and a consummate strategist herself, had been initiated in the secrets of powerlessness that I could not have imagined at the time.
I can now. I’ve been watching a fellow student of power deal with his own tough call. Steven Lowenstam, a classics professor at the University of Oregon, Eugene, has taught lessons of heroism for 30 years. Recently, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Since then, he has embarked on a study of heroes in reverse — not as towers of strength but as the playthings of big trouble. His conclusion: Most of the time, when we think about power, we’re asking the wrong question.
“Heroes don’t care about the meaning of life,” Lowenstam says. “They search for ways of being fully alive. Power in powerlessness lies in two areas: first, working entirely for others. Tending to others when you are most in need is the first strategy for success among the legendary conquerors. Second, when you look at the suffering of heroes, you find one attitude over and over: They choose the fate that chooses them.”
Baby boomers are at the age when their lives are marked more by losses than by gains. Bye-bye, youth, health, and endless promotions. The heroic conception of power for them at this point in their lives lies in the art of loss, not gain.
According to Lowenstam, “Powerful people have the toughest lives. They rarely choose comfort; they choose to create things for others. By studying their lives rather than simply their deeds, you see that they can face pain and loss because they welcome their fate; they fall in love with it.”
“I wish I didn’t have a brain tumor,” Goldhirsh told me. “But dealing with it has been the most exciting and dangerous journey of my life.” Says Lowenstam, echoing that sentiment: “Heroes treat their lives the way that some people treat their money: It’s only good for what it buys. Heroes see their mortality as an opportunity to do great things for others.”
It’s a theme that echoes throughout history — one that boomers need to consider as they continue to draft their own generational history. “Heroes turn the constant presence of death into an opportunity to do their greatest work,” says Lowenstam. Perhaps we’re going to see the rewriting of Machiavelli. The Prince is a boy’s game. The power of powerlessness is the strategy of ripeness.
Harriet Rubin (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Fast Company senior writer, has written two books on power. Read her columns on the Web (www.fastcompany.com/keyword/rubin).