Beat the competition without competing
“And here comes in the question whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved,” Niccolò Machiavelli pondered some 500 years ago. “It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be both; but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”
In his now-infamous treatise on power and politics, The Prince, the 16th-century Italian diplomat made his position clear: If you are commanding an army or a mass group of people, loyalty is best retained by reminding people of what they have to lose than by reminding them of what you have to offer. People get used to what they have, and they tend to be risk-averse, so the thought of a potential loss hurts more than that of a potential gain. This idea is supported by many experiments done in the behavioral sciences, too.
This question matters a lot in the realm of politics for obvious reasons. Politics is an act of coordinating, managing, and distributing shared resources, and this game is impossible to play without hierarchies and power structures. But it matters, too, in the personal realm of the self because the will to power is fundamental to our psychology, and although it is most visible in the political arena, it nonetheless exists in everything else we do, too, whether or not we realize it. No animal has ever had the same drive to conquer as we do, and that drive has taken us from a world of scarcity to a world of abundance. We no longer hunt; we do groceries. We don’t build huts; we buy houses.
Being the social animals we are, our interactions are a strange mix of competition and cooperation, and the rules of power are what dictate them because they determine our access to resources. One of the external measures of someone’s power is their relative status in a society, which is generally measured as a rank, position, or association. What Machiavelli refers to in his pondering about fear and love is mostly a consideration for people in higher leadership positions, but this dance of fear and love is also what we use to climb the status hierarchies in our own, smaller worlds.
When scientists have tried to map out how human tribes form and who ends up leading them, they have broadly found two different paths to the top: the path of dominance and the path of prestige. The astute reader might note how dominance is what Machiavelli would have used to instill fear, and prestige is what he would have used to inspire love. Dominance is competitive, a zero-sum game of Me vs. You where I’m clearly in charge unless you want to suffer the consequences, and prestige is cooperative, a positive-sum game where I’m only in charge because you respect me enough to let me lead. Joseph Stalin was dominant, and Mahatma Gandhi had prestige.
Like Machiavelli, scholars studying these hierarchies note that both have their strengths and their weaknesses in different scenarios. Broadly speaking, the most obvious difference is that strategies of dominance thrive in times of instability, and strategies of prestige thrive in times of stability. When the general mood of a population is fearful, acts of dominance pay off. When the general mood is content, prestige comes out on top.
From this vantage point, it makes sense that Machiavelli suggested what he did. Just as it is for the general population, someone hoping to lead limits downside — the risk of absolute ruin — by reminding others that they have something to lose, even though prestige is perhaps more consistently diplomatic in how it works. In bad times, in times of scarcity, you want to make sure what you already have is protected. In good times, in times of abundance, you have the luxury to take the risk it takes to trust someone who you like and who makes promises of hope.
The question, of course, is why this matters for the average person. What can we learn about the laws of power that make us better as individuals?
If you take a second to think about it, the idea of changing and evolving as a person traveling through time in modern civilization, as a person unconsciously attached to the idea of growth and development — this idea is fundamentally about power. Regardless of whether your goal is to master your personal fears and desires through practices that cultivate inner peace, or whether you are driven to create and capture financial wealth in the material world, you are trying to control something and that act of controlling is about overcoming something in the past for a gain in the future.
Again, from an evolutionary point of view, this makes sense. We need a portion of limited resources to survive and thrive, and we will do anything to get them, whether that means competing or cooperating. In fact, we will do so to the point of lying not just to others but also to ourselves. Even when we pretend we are above power games, or that we have bigger and better things to care about, unconsciously, we are still doing things to the contrary. Just because you shun the wastefulness of capitalism and refuse to make money your sole goal in life, it doesn’t mean you’re not playing your own power game in your own subculture where different things are valued and respected. In fact, denying this shadow is often just as dangerous as pathologically thinking that materialistic power is all there is to life.
One of the benefits of the modern world is that scarcity-fueled fears aren’t as prevalent. Sure, people still live in poverty, and some have brutal living conditions, so it’s not a world of complete abundance, but we are constantly making progress, and those numbers are going down and down by the year. The real problem, however, is that humans are never satisfied. Our fears get outsourced to other things. If we aren’t worried about food or shelter, we worry about how we look in certain clothes, or whether or not we have enough furniture in the house, or whether or not our latest opinion signals intelligence to our friends.
We constantly compare ourselves. We want more, and this more-ness comes from one thing: our deep-seated drive for status. We look around, and we imitate, and by virtue of imitating, we end up playing dominance games. Even if on the surface we are playing what looks like the prestige game, the fact that power relative to someone else is the goal negates the overall cooperative nature of the play, whether sooner or later.
The will to power is what drives the process of individualization — it’s what motivates one to become the best version of themselves. Power in a society — whether earned through rank, position, or association — is relative power, and it’s the kind of power that often corrupts and leads to a downward spiral of competition with someone else playing the same game. Power as differentiation is different — it’s absolute, a satisfaction of an inner yearning reaching for authenticity, and it creates people who are so deeply themselves that it would be an insult to compare them to anyone else in the world, regardless of what their external position is in society.
The problem of relative power is just that — it’s relative, and that means that there is always someone else to compete with, and simply knowing that fact breeds fear and suspicion, which feeds every action you engage in. There is always someone else who can dominate you depending on the context, and it doesn’t matter if you are a Fortune 500 CEO or the President of the United States. Absolute power, however, is personal and can only really be acquired if you act from a place of love, whether that’s towards a cause or an idea or an experience, and the second-order effect of that is that people willingly give respect to you, precisely because that’s not the point.
In a world of scarcity, the individualization process takes the backseat to mere survival, and in that world, we do what we do to get by. If you have the luxury of abundance, however— which most people in developed countries do — then the only thing that is going to quench that inner drive to reach towards the sky is if the target in the future is a differentiated version of yourself, one who has transcended rivalrous competition.
If you want to live a life of safety, then Machiavelli was right: You never know when the tides are going to turn, and it’s better to limit downside than it is to inspire warm and soft feelings like hope and beauty. But, broken down, life as we know it is fundamentally about risk-taking, about action and about striving, and in a world where most of the truly dangerous threats to our physical body no longer exist, it is not only more courageous to act from a place of love, but over the long-term, it’s also more rational.
When you work to differentiate yourself, you beat the competition without competing. When you reach towards your best self, the fear removes itself.