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Knowledge is power… wait, is that really true?

The merriam-webster dictionary defines knowledge as: “the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association”. The same dictionary also defines power as: “the ability to act or produce an effect”.

Knowledge is powerWhether we human beings want to admit it or not, all of us are power hungry to varying extents. The preceding statement might not be politically correct, but it is the blatant truth. The natural desire for power is nothing to be ashamed of because it is a very fundamental part of human nature. If we look closely, we find that our thirst for power is readily apparent at almost every level of human development. For example “terrible twos” cry, scream, and throw tantrums in a bid to bend the actions of their parents to their will. Little girls love the absolute control they have over their dolls and dollhouses. Teenage boys love the measure of control they wield over the video games or musical instruments they might have mastered. Company CEOs love the control they have over the vision and employees of their respective companies. The general theme with power is as follows – those who have it will in many cases do whatever it takes to keep it, while those who do not yet have power will either try all sorts of things to get it for themselves, or spend an eternity complaining about their lack of power. This has always been and will continue to be the way of the world simply because something very fundamental to our base nature cannot stand the feeling of powerlessness. As a result of this dynamic, the subject of gaining power has sustained a remarkably high level of interest in our collective human consciousness. We humans always want to know the answer to the following simple question… How do I get more power?

Assuming you grew up somewhere on planet earth like I did, you have probably heard the popular saying that goes something like “knowledge is power”. In line with this saying, and in search of the power that the accumulation of knowledge “promises”, most of us spend the first quarter century of our lives at a variety of learning institutions acquiring knowledge. We spend years sitting through lectures, working out problem sets, and poring over textbooks. If we manage to stay out of trouble for the entirety of this process, all of our efforts eventually yield a degree or two or three. Armed with our degrees, we are now ready to face the real world… or at least so we think. After all, knowledge is power. No?

A lot of us grew up content to just assume that the saying “knowledge is power” was the incontrovertible truth without taking a deeper dive to really question its correctness. You might be quietly muttering the following sentence to yourself in response to the last one… “Well yes I took it at face value, because it is impossible to think critically about every little thing that crosses my path”. In all honesty, that line of thought is absolutely correct. Truth be told, none of us have the intellectual stamina to think critically about every little thing we encounter in each of our lifetimes. That being said, when one hears something as definitive and potentially life shaping as “knowledge is power”, it should precipitate a cause to pause and reflect. So if you will, let’s look a little closer.

Upon deeper reflection I think we’ll come to agree that although the saying “knowledge is power” isn’t necessarily false, it is somewhat incomplete. Having had the good fortune to experience the heights of intellectual pursuit in many different fields or areas of study, I can honestly tell you from experience that there is nothing powerful about knowledge by itself. For instance, a person who has spent years reading up on architectural theory may know the theoretical principles of architecture inside out, but without the discipline to actually put those principles to work in bringing a beautiful and utilitarian structure to form, all that knowledge cannot possibly be deemed powerful. Accumulating all the knowledge in the world doesn’t really mean anything in the absence of the will and discipline required to apply it to the benefit of people who are ready and willing to accept and consume the fruits of our labor and services. This might be a devastating realization to come to, especially for those of us that focus on accumulating knowledge purely for the sake of money and/or prestige. However, it is better to realize this now when you can still do something about it than it is to realize this on your deathbed.

Although service to others is the purest source of a real sense of fulfillment that we humans have at our disposal, it is important to note that there is a qualifier here. In particular, it is the disciplined application of the knowledge we’ve acquired in service to people who are ready to receive the fruits of our labor that is of utmost importance and of the highest value. As a practical example, it doesn’t do much good to use your hard earned money to encourage the bad overspending habits of a loved one. While this loved one may be happy with you in the short term for succumbing to their pleas and giving them more money, you aren’t really helping anyone at all. If you take a step back and carefully examine this hypothetical situation, you will see that it is a situation in which no one wins. For one, you are giving away money that you could otherwise invest in a project that benefits society to that sibling, friend, or cousin, who acts as a “bottomless money pit”. Also, that “bottomless money pit” of a sibling, cousin, or friend will never really learn the appropriate lesson on how to respect money that the universe is probably trying to teach them since you keep obstructing the learning process by feeding them more money. On the other side of the coin, it doesn’t add to the collective good to try and force our skills or services onto other people. If people decide that they don’t want a beautiful ornament we made or some solid knowledge based piece of advice that we might want to give to get them out of their current predicament, it would behoove us all to recognize and respect the fact that it is their own prerogative to decide. As a general rule of thumb, the only place where the use of the will is appropriate is on your own self, and perhaps your children until they are old enough to make their own decisions.

In conclusion, the reality is that knowledge by itself isn’t power. However, the disciplined and practical application of knowledge towards providing value for others is probably the ultimate form of power that any human can attain. Till next time friends, take care of yourselves and each other.
Without Wax
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.
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