The Conundrum

External Authority Subdues Empowerment

Empowerment Unseats Outside Authority

How do we navigate our way through power struggles?


 The point: Intangible outside authority subdues us and often makes us feel “wrong”. Empowerment is the only thing that effectively unseats this psychological and sociological oppression.


Exploring the Intangible Power of External Authority:

Example: “Women Shouldn’t Yell and “Men Shouldn’t Cry”

This idea and ideas like this are prevalent in our society. We grow up “knowing” these things that have a subduing effect on our consciousness and ideas. This starts on day one. This idea occurred to someone originally as a viable one. That person probably did not think about how extensively their compartmentalized thoughts would be adopted. Or maybe they did. Either way, as a result, it often feels like we can’t do it “right”. There is an inherent sense of outside authority that knows better than we do. These are ideas that are often unacknowledged yet are very wide spread in the societal mentality. They become unconscious beliefs and the roots stop being explored. Throughout this article, in which I explore power, I would like to look at the roots rather than the external manifestations. The roots seem to be at the heart of people’s internal conflicts that are perpetuated by the silent subjugation that the intangible power of external authority creates.

We may ask: Is there an alternative to this? Gandhi shows another path.

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” –Mahatma Gandhi

This quote illustrates the need for fully owning an initiative, fully embodying what you believe in and see is needed, an initiative that has its seeds and fruit in the core of your being; an initiative that you could never change your mind about. I’m convinced that everyone has this spark inside of them. Yet, the imposing beliefs of the world, which impact us from inside our own mind, and from outside our door, are a very effective and silent ‘candle snuffer’ to those struggling sparks.

Getting your fire snuffed out is an experience that can make you want to harden and never feel that again. Then, through closing up, a spark-less life may ensue.  In not allowing that internal seed to blossom and bear fruit, we are likely to feel insignificant and seek some type of worldly validation or power. These inauthentic substitutes can become easily disappointing and leave us hollow because they do not grow from our true nature and passion, but instead, are often attempts to fit in, look good, or feel good. Or they can become monsters because substitutes never fulfill our real needs so we will keep trying to get more and be more. When power is actually empowerment of our own spark, it is rooted in being true to ourselves – even with life’s hard decisions. This sincerity can be readily felt by others, and, in resonating with such authenticity, love can be felt. On the other hand, when power is a ‘candle snuffer’, there is a deadening of the spirit and people feel like they can’t trust – not even themselves. This creates internal and external division.

It is important to realize that power is a very intangible thing. There is always an entity that has power over us in some capacity and we always have power over something as well. It typically feels like we have less power over our domain than other people have over us. I have the impression that even the highest executive feels similarly. This has a drastic impact on our sense of self and our decision-making. Powerlessness can feel like we are out of alignment with the way things are “supposed to be,” as defined by many un-chosen internal and external authorities. And also out of alignment with our own organic impulse, our selves, our intuition.

This division between our internal and external worlds is the problem. Unifying those worlds would allow us to feel integrated: in integrity with ourselves. Closing that gap would free us from the desire to manipulate our way to validation and power.


Home Life vs. Work Life | Home Self vs. Work Self

There is an observable gap between the ways people operate in their lives due to this division. It is the difference between your true self and your projected self. This manifests in a few ways, I will outline two theoretical possibilities here:

The first is when you sacrifice the passion or calling in you, to do “the thing” for the paycheck and then you go home and you are the loving spouse and parent. (Perhaps a troubled spouse and parent?)

home self

“We design databases for collecting information, without giving a second thought to what that information will be used for.” (Ethics –Mike Monteiro, 2017)

This quote is in reference to the design and development of databases created to round up immigrants. When you are robotic in your execution or are in service to a corrupt entity at your day job, it is impossible that the effects of that work will not follow you home.

My mom used to have a similar message when I was taking my first course in entrepreneurship using my federal financial aid money that had been compounded by entrepreneurial endeavors to do with selling plants (thanks government) to put myself through community college. My argument was always “If I’m not making the money, somebody else will.” That justification was obviously just that, justifying the actions that I knew, on the interior, was not my highest calling.

“Just because the person next to you might be an asshole, that’s not a very good excuse for you to be one.” (Ethics –Mike Monteiro, 2017)

 Again, I want to tap into the intangible patterns of power.

The second way this can look: Someone rides on the ego of their job as a substitute for taking full ownership in the actions of the rest of their life.

work self

“Nearly all men (& women) can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” –Abraham Lincoln

We are all aware of abuses of power. It is fascinating that in all of the articles I have read on power the writers were, for the most part, trying to tear apart manipulative initiatives and practices – using these examples for what not to do and how not to operate. There were not articles written advocating for manipulation. But we do see how it is used to play on vulnerability.


The traveling salesman is a well-known example of manipulation of power. The unknown salesman would ride into town with a lofty slogan on his wagon, “Watkins Remedies”, and say that he was there to help. However, he was often there to sell falsity and make a profit on the people’s lack of ability to truly understand what he was doing. When he was found out, he would pack up and leave town. This was a common occurrence. That is what you do when your business is corrupt. This looks different now with the modern complexity of global markets, massive companies and customer bases. However, the core of the traveling salesman concept still persists and this dynamic furthers the trajectory of internal separation for the person that is the decision maker in a company when things go wrong. We may again be caught in: The Home Self vs. the Work Self; the True Self vs the Projected Self.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” –Martin Luther King Jr.


An Example: My Story

 In attempt to close this gap for myself I will use examples from my own life.

I came into this life as the product of an affair. My father chose not to be a part of my life. I never could understand why that happened to me without the blame somehow senselessly falling on myself.  In order to avoid feeling that pain, I largely categorized and dismissed him. I became angry and depressed, essentially disempowered. I tried getting life-satisfaction from outside myself instead of growing on the inside, because inside was pain, partially caused by rejection.

Then, at 16, I got a girl pregnant. It gave me a visceral understanding of how it feels to not want to take responsibility for something you inadvertently created.

“Fundamentally, its about taking responsibility for the things we unleash in the world.” (Manipulation -Jon Kolko, 2013)

I could finally empathize with my father. I was seeing him as bad, and myself as rejected, until I had an experience that provided a platform for me to personally understand. Empathy changed my sense of him and of myself.

Consequently, I want to explore the possibility of cultivating empathy for people creating and directing huge endeavors and often seeming to sell-out for power. There are significant parallels to this idea of taking responsibility across personal life and business decisions. Shit can go unexpectedly sideways, fast. And when serious problems occur, people scramble for anything that will make it right again. We saw this in the design of our product bitesized that helps people eat healthier. My team and I were working on a way to provide people with incrementally healthier recommendations for the items they were already purchasing in the grocery store. When our first couple pilots were failing, we got scrambled with the intention of our initiative and were considering paying people to buy the healthier items, to prove that people would accept our healthy recommendations. This is not behavior change and we did not go forward with it; but it expresses a blatant form of manipulation, conceived when our initial motive was unsuccessful. I now understand that temptation. However, ‘what-will-work’ is the wrong approach.

Institutional power. Societal power. Manipulative power. The big powers of the world subdue individual empowerment. This seems like a given, like we have no choice. But this is actually unnecessary. On the contrary, personal empowerment is the only thing that can undo this subjugation and unseat external power. Which founds evolution. But we must answer the question; how do we fill the gap between the two? Can we fill it?


The Realization Moment

What often happens, when these cycles go on for long enough, is the most intriguing part. There is a moment of realization: “do I like the world I am helping to create?”

Empowerment 2

Empowerment lights up and people can see how they can be influential.

Empowerment 3Everyone’s realization point comes at different times, for different reasons but the prevalence of this pivot is observable. From that point, it is exponentially easier to see what is possible.Empowerment 4Empowerment 5

Filling the Gap: Authenticity

I sit on the Board of a non-profit called the Amala Foundation. We bring young people, ages 14-18 years old from ~30 different countries and we live together for a week. The week is facilitated on a foundation of cultural exchange, self-exploration, and authenticity. Watching young people be witnessed by each other, in the expression of the parts of themselves they wrestle with the most, is jaw dropping in and of itself. Kids from Israel and Palestine have the opportunity to see eye to eye in a neutral and supportive environment. But to see the lasting impact that is created is what is truly astounding. They may have hated themselves and the world before they went into our programs (I did) and yet, after rejoicing in the “humanity calamity” together, all they want to do is provide that unity to others. When I found Amala (or got bribed by my mom) (healthy manipulation) (nice move ma) I was a cynic – cynical about myself, all of you people, and the world. And when I stood up in front of a global village, tears running down my face, and explained things I had never put words to… getting a girl pregnant at 16, never knowing my own father, being addicted to drugs, the ownership of those truths triggered a newness in me. It merged the projection of myself with the truth that was inside, for the first time in a long time. Speaking your truth will make a lot of people cringe. It may make you lose your job (or make certain company leaders not want to hire you or me). But in a world that is being destroyed and created every day, where everything,

Both the bad and good are our ongoing fault and responsibility.” (Misguided focus on Brand and User Experience -Jon Kolko, 2009)

Can we really afford to live low and take orders for six figures? Or is it time to live out the seeds sprouting on the inside and embody what we’re here for? The answer to this is what my “newness” through Amala taught me. It’s not easy and its needed.

In the creation of the world we need to be abductive, inductive, and deductive; in other words, we need to take into account what is now, what has been and would could be – because if we don’t strategize around what could be; then we won’t have a part in what will be. Being over analytical is perilous. It limits our minds to what has already happened as the only reference point. You can only reorganize the furniture in the house so many times before you need to throw something out to make space for a new piece.

 “We are biased, then, against new ideas – based on the way we have been trained to see the world. Moreover, our bias toward analysis of past data. But when we look ahead, the proof is only robust to the extent that the future is identical to the past.” – Roger Martin (2017)

I will take a moment to offer a space for the reader’s internal reflection.

For this moment, I invite you to stop defending your idea and perspective for a minute to consider, thoughtfully – if you are fighting, why you are fighting. What are you fighting for? Are you working for the world you wish to see? If you can’t answer that question due to having never come across it…. take the day off tomorrow. Go out into nature. Sit down. Yes – leave your fucking phone in the car. Put your feet in the dirt and contemplate what you stand for. It’s pretty scary to not know the answer to that question. If you had to fight a fight, what cause would you stand by? What problem just won’t let you go? Ask yourself the hard questions and pause long enough to answer them. Learn about yourself. Stop sprinting for a second. If you had power, what would you do with it? This is a critically essential question… because one day, when you’re the head of a company or are elected president… you should know what you want to do with that power and be able to intelligently articulate why it is important to you, so you are empowered to actually do it. If someone asked you what you wanted, would you say a faster car? Or would you be able to articulate your dream of an electric autonomous vehicle? Would you say a big house and a bounty of good food? Or would you be able to articulate the disruption that you see as possible in relation to the way houses are constructed or how we operate and maneuver our food system? Think and feel big and deeply. Now think bigger. Trust yourself. You’re not a human doing. You’re not a human thinking. You’re a human being. Integrate your being into every act of thinking and doing. Embody your values.


Finding Empowerment

In the past, the intangible internal and external power of societal norms kept me subdued from truly sharing myself. And I didn’t even know it was happening. It felt like my truth was not “okay,” and wouldn’t be accepted. I won’t get the job. And now I’m realizing that if I wouldn’t get the job because of what is, at my core, true for me… then I probably don’t want the fucking job. This is self-love.

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” -Mahatma Gandhi

 It may sound unfathomable in our culture, but imagine if everyone loved themselves. The world would be full of passion and beauty rather than cold competition and dishonest manipulation. People would be following that internal spark of what they feel they are here for, supporting each other along the way and not need to simply surrender to the powers-that-be, or sell-out with a divided self. When you love yourself, that love spreads out – to others, to your work, and to the world.

This paper is a statement of my truth. Before this Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship program, I was working on myself, discovering myself, spending time by myself, exploring what was most true for me. I was exploring how I could get comfortable in an inherently uncomfortable and messy experience. (To provide context: After leaving a $10m start-up that was inspiring and failing, I was driving for Favor and pushing packages in the warehouse at FedEx immediately before my acceptance into the program). I was graced by this school and will be forever grateful for it and speak highly of the curriculum, experience and faculty. But also, for me – learning subject matter has been very different from learning about myself and human nature. At this point, in the name of authenticity, I feel the need to bring those two worlds together. It is necessary right now in order to love myself and my life and the world, fully. I want to own my past and all that I am, including the struggle and the pursuit of self-knowledge, which felt mostly on the back burner over the past year at AC4D, as I stretched my mind and self-discipline in order to have capacity for the rich wealth of information I absorbed.

Originally, I was exploring this blog through pure academic synthesis of articles relating to power. I soon felt my essence triggered by resonance with all of the authors’ potent explorations of how and why people manipulate others. So, it felt entirely congruent to include my personal process. I believe this introspection is an integral part of what makes me an effective designer, specifically in design research extracting important patterns. I have looked extraordinarily deeply into my struggle as a human. This lens allows me to see past the external manifestations and get to the core. It allows me to take leaps into the deep of the “why”. It allows me to ask questions into the spaces that feel most “uncomfortable”. It empowers me. And that empowerment is what this article is about.

I want to share my theory that if we were all willing to take the deepest parts of ourselves and lay them on the table for others to witness we would not be able to design data bases for rounding up immigrants because we would have a visceral experience of what it feels like to be raw and vulnerable. This is the experience I carry which has helped me become an integrated human being; empowered instead of subdued by power. However, this is where academic practice fails me: I can’t substantiate my theory with hard evidence. I just know through intuition. I have seen this process be true, time and time again… in myself and in others from countries around the world.

I could have merely regurgitated points from these articles, strung together in a way that made sense, which is what I started to do. Instead, I chose to use my own voice because I want to show these insights on power, embodied through a human process.  And I want to start to cultivate my voice more thoroughly. I have my own ideas and I want to hone the craft by which I speak to them. This is a personal practice of empowerment: My own transformation from being unconsciously dominated by intangible power to speaking my independent realizations and theories. I will never learn and grow unless I venture to put my experience, thoughts, ideas and visions out in the world. I will never feel that I can be a pillar in society unless I can make a habit of taking that risk.  I’m pretty sure no one has ever become empowered or successful by hiding.