the power move

Back in high school, I took a summer job at an insurance company based right off Times Square. It paid eleven dollars an hour and there was air conditioning—one of my better jobs overall.

Mostly, I’d sit in the back room with the IT guy. Now and then, I’d be asked to help someone make a table in Word, or sum up a column in Excel. At the end of each day, it was my role to back up all the insurance data to tape. (This was a few years before Dropbox.) The rest of the time, the IT guy dropped wisdom on me. Not a bad gig at all.

Every two weeks, the COO would join us in the back room to print the paychecks. He had a special dongle for the printer. Remember dongles? Without that dongle, the printer would not print the paychecks. Only the COO could have the dongle, and he kept that dongle under lock and key. (Can you tell I like the word dongle?) That paycheck dongle was my first glimpse of true power in the workplace.

To this day, I have a healthy respect for COOs. COOs hold the reins. At every company I’ve ever worked, the COOs have known where the bodies are buried (and who’s about to get buried). When the public complains that some terrible company’s HR department should have done something about various forms of internal malfeasance, what they don’t realize is that HR is a puppet. The COO pulls the strings.

Anyway, this particular COO wore a uniform: navy blue suit, red tie, heavy cologne. He didn’t enter a room, he wafted in.

“You know why he wears that tie?” my boss once asked me after the paycheck run. “It’s a power move.”

“What’s a power move?”

“He read about it in a book. There are books on how to have power in an office. The cologne, the red tie. They’re power moves.”

There are books on how to be more powerful? With that, dear reader, a career was born. (By the way, if you haven’t already, read editor Michael Korda’s excellent memoir, Another Life, about his career in publishing. At one point, he wrote a book called Power: How to Get It, How to Use It—as a gag—only for it to become a runaway hit. Power is beyond parody.)

I’ve always been fascinated by the power move. I see it everywhere: business, fashion, art, parenting. If you know me, you’ll know I talk about power moves constantly. The form changes, the move remains the same, and indisputably fascinating.

Take George Clooney’s Caesar haircut on ER. Or Jennifer Aniston’s “Rachel.” People asked their stylists to imitate these for years, which is sad, because in both cases they were beauty power moves. George and Jennifer looked good despite those terrible, unflattering haircuts. They looked even better because their hair made you realize, if only subconsciously, how absolutely ridiculously perfect they were to begin with. That’s why everyone else who tried to pull those styles off failed. Power move.

The IT guy couldn’t possibly come to work in a bright red tie and heavy cologne. But nobody makes fun of the guy with the paycheck dongle. Power move.

Joseph Heath writes about absent-mindedness as an academic power move. One former colleague in particular was a literal absent-minded professor:

When I was first hired, I didn’t have a driver’s license, and some of my classes were at a remote suburban campus. The fuddy-duddy professor, with whom I shared an office downtown, generously offered to give me a ride, since he drove there on the same days. One morning he was late. I sat around, getting increasingly anxious, worried about being late for my lecture. It got later and later, until eventually I had no hope of making it. Finally I went around asking if anyone knew where he was. “Oh,” I was told, “fuddy-duddy’s out of town at a conference. Didn’t he mention that to you?”

You might wonder how someone marshals the necessary talents to master a discipline and rack up a stack of PhDs only to struggle with the calendar. Heath recognized this behavior for what it was:

Promising someone that you will drive them to work, and then just not showing up, is conventionally known as a “dickhead move.” It shows total indifference to other people’s needs and feelings. And yet when a professor does it, it’s treated as though it were cute, and possibly a sign of genius. My colleague was so busy thinking important philosophical thoughts that of course he didn’t have time to think about tiny, insignificant things, like how his actions affected other people.

Yes, exactly, though “dickhead move” is a little gendered for my taste. “Power move” works for all the many genders and sub-genders. (Didn’t know I was so woke? To paraphrase a Twitter bio I spotted: I fight for women’s rights, but only women can say if I’m a feminist. Twitter bio power move.)

Of course, power moves absolutely litter the glamorous world of book publishing. Back at Penguin, I never wandered around the office in a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops with a dazed expression on my face, or leaned my head out my office (right next to the president’s) and shouted, “Ellen—where is my fucking latte?” The people who did had power.

Power moves are everywhere. In any creative profession, you can judge someone’s status by how many cracks there are in their iPhone screen. A real genius doesn’t have time to visit the Apple genius.

This goes for websites, too. Visit the site of any computer science legend. Take Donald Knuth. Or, heck, Tim Berners-Lee. The more instrumental you were to the creation of the World Wide Web, the uglier your actual World Wide Website can be. (Oddly, Al Gore’s site is perfectly elegant.) Power moves all.

There are power moves in writing. It’s not about showing off, mind you. Writing a novel entirely in the first-person plural is not a power move, just a interesting creative constraint. Turning down Oprah’s book club is a power move. Power moves carry inherent risk, because if you don’t pull them off, they just come off as incompetent. (In fact, power moves are often read as incompetent—by the incompetent.) A power move is, in short, doing something stupid that you’re good enough to pull it off. It’s like standing near the edge of a precipice and windmilling your arms like you’re about to fall just to give your family a heart attack. Look how balanced I am that I can pretend to lose—whoops! DELETE MY BROWSER HISTORY—

I can’t help you learn to use power moves. The fact is, you’ll know when you’re ready. Nobody told Sonny Mehta the moment he could get away with smoking in his office at Knopf. He just sensed it. Is it your time to light up?


p.s. With regard to my continuing preoccupation with personal website style, I realized Derek Sivers nails it right on the head with his site. That right there is the perfect “business casual” of personal websites, exactly what I’m trying and failing to achieve with mine.

Of course, its simplicity is deceptive. There are no shortcuts in life. Derek built entirely by hand. If you’re comfortable with Ruby, you can use his code, but doing so is beyond my skills. I did at least create a “now” page, a practice Derek advocates. Do you have one? If you do, share it with me.)

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