How Much Power Does An Individual Have?

It can be difficult to properly judge the role of an individual in our society.

On one hand, one person can feel completely powerless. With institutions like political parties or religious groups consisting of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people, an individual has a limited voice. Some individuals, due to wealth or fame, can influence many people all at once, but if you are not one of those people, what recourse do you have?

Alternately, in our culture we often mythologize the lone creator. Steve Jobs was Apple, Jeff Bezos is Amazon, and Elon Musk is Tesla. We often associate an individual with large and powerful groups, even when it isn’t proper to do so.

Amazon, for example, is a huge company, filled with innovative people. Jeff Bezos didn’t design or build the Kindle. He didn’t develop or program the Amazon Web Services. He doesn’t fulfill orders, doesn’t make deals with distributors, doesn’t manage inventory. There are thousands of people employed by Amazon to do all of these tasks and more.

One of the greatest talents one person can have, however, is the ability to inspire others. One person can inspire a second to join them, and a third, and so on. That’s the ability that Steve Jobs had, and why our society revered him.

Everything that happens in our culture is done by individuals. A song becomes a hit because individuals listen to it. A book becomes a best seller because individuals each buy a copy. A movie is culturally significant because people — one person at a time — think it is.

Who really wields the power, the crowd or the people who make up the crowd? How much power does an individual have?

Related questions: How can we turn ideas into actions? Why do we feel the need to belong? How important is the artist to art? Where does authority come from?

4 thoughts on “How Much Power Does An Individual Have?”

  1. Individuals possess tremendous power. As an advocate for economic justice for well over 20 years, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to watch in awe as countless citizen advocates have stepped outside their comfort zone and made a huge difference for their communities.

    For instance in 2011, I looked on as Peggy, a low-income renter, completely changed the tone of a legislative committee hearing about the Minnesota Tenant Bill of Rights. After she described the neglect of her landlord and\her family’s resulting poor living conditions, she was asked by an unsympathetic legislator, “If it’s so bad, why don’t you just move?” She shared with the committee the importance of keeping her kids in the same school. If that alone weren’t a good enough answer, she also detailed some of the steep costs of moving — expenses her income certainly couldn’t cover. As I said, the tone changed. Our legislative champions were able to use Peggy’s story as a platform to talk about why Minnesota tenants deserved a leveler playing field if they wanted to find and maintain quality rental housing.

    Another time, a few years later, I witnessed Braden, a high schooler I had been organizing with for quite some time, as he totally rocked the house and shared with hundreds of other students how easy political advocacy could be. He helped demystify Minnesota’s legislative process so that many students would go on to call their legislators and ask for more money to help homeless youth.

    And years ago, I heard from a street outreach worker about a man named David who led a group of homeless folks to the St. Paul mayor’s office. I don’t know what they said to the staff or the mayor — other than that it was bone-chilling cold out — but by the end of their visit enough resources were found to increase the hours a shelter could stay open to keep those struggling on the streets safe and warm at night at least through the winter months.

    In another instance, I laughed joyfully as an intern and I agreed that she should devote all 200 hours of her internship to drawing for justice. Over the next several months she created and gifted to a number of legislators sketches of them as superheroes to recognize their valiant — and successful — effort to fight off cuts to the Minnesota Renters Credit. While I coaxed her on, she helped me commit to my belief that there are so many forms advocacy can take. She used he talents to lend clever support to our legislative allies in a difficult fight.

    These are just a few examples of the power individuals have. But to be honest, their power came not only in their individual actions. In each case they had the support of others they could join forces with. Peggy teamed up with other renters. Braden drew support from his family and his church. David banded together with what soon would become the X-Committee, a group of, by, and for the homeless living in St. Paul. And my former intern belonged to and swapped ideas with a cohort of interns at HOME Line, which included seven other’s there at the time.

    And lastly, I should add that the individual actions — with the support of others and/or institutions — were also parts of larger campaigns. Yes, the people’s stories I recounted above made a huge impact. However, their actions fit within a larger context. When we see the whole picture, we realize our true role in creating lasting change.

    1. Thanks, Michael, for sharing these stories. I don’t think I can add much to what you’ve already said, but I just wanted to let you know I read this and to thank you for your time and effort. I like this question and hope to come up with a response of my own.

  2. Both the context provided for the question and Michael’s response capture something important. It’s about the power of individuals to impact the group. Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk had power as individuals because of their power to impact groups. First, the businesses they founded and then large groups of consumers and the American and international marketplace.

    Similarly, the stories Michael shared about Peggy, Brandon, David, and the intern were about their power as individuals to impact groups. First, those who agreed with them or were experiencing similar circumstances and then a decision-making body.

    Ultimately, I see power as the ability to organize a sense of the meaning of things. Sometimes that organized meaning is a negative one: that some people are just simply special and should be rewarded disproportionately with far more money, control, and authority than others. Other times the organized meaning is a positive one: that we are all of equal value and are entitled to be treated in a fair and equitable way.

    I remember seeing an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee where Jerry Seinfeld and Joel Hodgson (creator of MST3K) were talking about how neither of them had really had a traditional boss and how strange they found the concept. Jerry summed it up this way: “So, if I tell you I’m your boss, and you agree, then it’s true.” There are obviously more layers to power and control, but, at it’s root, is an explicit or implicit acceptance that things have a certain meaning.

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