Power — Why Certain Levels of Success Aren’t Available To You: Lessons from The Power Broker
Power changes people because it ties into most aspects of our lives. Various roads can develop power, so it inherently plays out in various ways. But it includes a core ingredient: an effective command — mastery — of a skillset. For instance, career success hinges on how you effectively command a skillset. The more mastery commanded over certain skills equates more power gained in a role. In the political arena, if socialists take down capitalists, the socialists now hold the power they replaced. And those who seeded the idea to take down the capitalists, and then compelled others to act, required power. Power can become a skill in and of itself. But power isn’t learned in a leadership book. Nor is it hasty generalizations about greedy capitalists destroying the world or socialism leading to a nanny-state. The Power Broker by Robert Caro, arguably one of the greatest non-fiction books ever written, details not only the rise and fall of Robert Moses, but closely details how power is obtained, shaped, and the many ways it can play out.
The Master Builder: Robert Moses.
What powerful kingdoms accomplished in hundreds of years, during eras when they had open land to build on, Moses accomplished inside of fifty years. And he built an unimaginable scale on top of New York City.
And likely, Moses affects your daily life.
For close to fifty years, Robert Moses controlled New York City and New York. During his time, he influenced urban and highway planning not only in America but also worldwide. If you live in a city and a highway cuts through the middle of it, if the city lacks a decent rapid transit or subway system, or if your city is not very walkable — you can thank Moses. If you don’t live in a city, but if you ever wondered why America lacks a well-equipped interstate train system, or if your state struggles against growing traffic problems, you can thank Robert Moses. On the flip side, if your city or town has beautiful public parks, gorgeous public beaches, maybe public basketball courts, or playgrounds — again, you can thank Robert Moses.
He was never a mayor, a governor, or an elected official. Yet famous mayors, governors, and even a few United States Presidents — bent the knee to Robert Moses. Moses worked as an unelected government employee. He earned a measly paycheck; in fact, he never earned a paycheck until he was over thirty. But for fifty years, he wielded and brokered power. Millions worldwide still deal with the consequences — good and bad — he initiated in the 1920s.
What creates otherworldly power?
Power can stem from some common ingredients: greed, manipulation, success, and narcissism. Although those ingredients can exist, they don’t always forge the supreme heights of power. Distinct hereditary advantages equipped Moses. One advantage, his intellect. We could plausibly call him a prodigy. And tied to his mind, another advantage, his otherworldly arrogance. In short, Moses fits the term: outlier.
Many try to reduce an outlier’s hereditary gifts into — hard work. Because it feels nihilistic to accept that certain people possess rare gifts empowering them to perform on a different level; likewise, the idea can chain others to futile thinking. We all possess individual strengths. And we can each enrich those talents. Still, and what upsets many, outliers exist.
Again, many claim determination or hard work paves the way to success. Those factors certainly help. But a prodigy-like talent separates a good player from the rare generational all-star player. And Moses owned an exceptional mind. It’s not to say he’s a “better” person. It’s not to say give up if you don’t possess a genius-level mind. It’s simply a matter of accepting reality.
Let’s view this idea in a business setting. People who succeed in business often figure out a system. They figure out what works and what doesn’t. Then, they run the system. And run it well. Someone uses a sales script that works or the coding method that leads them to code better than others. Many attain high levels of success mastering a system. But the rare person who owns the rightprodigy-like genius in the right setting does more than figure out a system: they create a system best suited to their vision. And this goes beyond the platitudes — Innovator and Disruptor.
For instance, Robert Moses wrote bills that became law. He drafted laws that best fit his vision. Smart Democrats, Republicans, lawyers, judges, and Governors passed his laws. Not many leaders can actually rewrite the law — laws upheld by the Supreme Court — for themselves. And Moses didn’t necessarily abuse the legal system; rather, he knew the system — how it was created, its history, where it was strong and weak — and he knew how he could change it. That sort of knowledge goes beyond hard work and waking up early; it takes genius-level understanding.
How Moses shatters a few generic myths about finding success or power.
The young Robert Moses resembled a success coach’s wet dream: resolute focus, zero procrastination, conquered tasks, disciplined schedule, rigorous fitness routine, voracious reader, early riser, never took no for an answer, saw every obstacle as the way, and relentlessly chased excellence. And all of that attached to a burning dream. But the vision and incessant drive slammed Moses into setback after setback. So much so that Moses teetered close to being a forgotten, low-level government employee. But his finished projects — his work, his writing, what he delivered — saved him. The skills infused into that work — clear and compelling prose, above and beyond research, and a shrewd philosophy — resonated with the right people. Granted, his work ethic and his intelligence were respected, but Moses owned an element, an element available to anyone, that paved his path to success.
While unrelated to Robert Moses, Cal Newport’s book, Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You,spells out that element. The element? It’s in Newport’s title. And getting that good breaches uninspired teachings: hustle, vision, passion, salesmanship, chasing excellence, and never giving up. Success demands a purposeful learning, understanding, and application of required core skills. And Moses owned the skills he needed in spades. Yet even armed with effective skills, to attain higher levels, it requires another step. For Moses, his step, learning human nature. He eventually learned how to shape his vision into finished results others used for their own ends. He learned how his results could force others to depend on him. He then learned how to broker results in ways that gave him more power.
Consider politics. Consider Progressive Democrats versus Traditional Republicans (and I don’t mean the current Trump version). Let’s take a traditional Republican who adheres to the values of Edmund Burke. And let’s say they own a belief in American Values and Identity. And this person and Robert Moses sit on a couch and watch the current Democratic Debate. And our person intimates to Moses concerns regarding some ideas expressed during the debate. Just mild, reasonable concerns. Once mentioned, however, Moses owned that person.
Moses learned the beliefs, principles, and moral codes that made people tick. He knew their doctrines cold. And we could flip the tables. A Progressive Democrat could intimate mild concerns about a Republican, and once again, Moses owned that person. He learned how to make a Republican or a Democrat dig in on their beliefs. He learned how to broker results both sides coveted and coveted because it gave them a win and not just any win, but a literal, concrete win. One they could touch. And a symbolic win, where either party could say, see, we do know what’s best!
But Moses imposed a dark element: fear. For instance, let’s say you’re trying to get a park in your town. And you’re considered a wonderful leader; you’re an ardent member of your political party. Your party adores you. Heck, even the other side respects you. You own a stellar track record. And voters love you. You go to Moses — the Master Builder, the man who transformed Long Island, the man who created incredible parks in New York City — to get a park in your town. If you don’t outright show you need Moses, or if you show any criticism to his plan… he will utterly discard you. No matter how much you fight back. And he doesn’t only say no, he takes his no to unimaginable ends. Soon, you’re a poison in the eyes of others. Your party sees you as a toxic virus. The public believes the appalling ad hominem attacks he aims at you. The press paints you as an inept monster. In short, Moses slaughtered people. Some went broke because Moses ensured that person could never get another job. Some ended up with ruined careers, forced to eke out an existence far away from Moses, some were completely ostracized from their own political party, others died of heart attacks. But this dark side eventually triggered his downfall.
Why It Wasn’t Capitalistic Greed That Made Moses Powerful
Many believe greed fuels the insatiable drive that possessed Moses. Moses grew up affluent, yet he never chased the dollar. While he surrounded himself in opulence, he never took a wage until he was past thirty; in fact, his mother financially supported him. He often turned away high paying jobs. But he turned down those jobs for two reasons. One, he sustained a dream of how he would shape New York. Two, he knew if he made big bucks, it would tarnish an image he painted. He painted himself as a tireless public servant, doing his duty for the public, and how money or politics couldn’t sway him. An image he knew in the public eye that placed him on a meta-level. He looked like a living philosophical sage. And this image awarded him a powerful guise. The press and the public — despite the fact that Moses disliked people — adulated his accomplishments. Moses blinded the public into seeing him as above corruption that he could do no wrong. A mirage he leveraged for close to forty years.
But Moses did fall.
The young Moses created marvelous benefits. Benefits we still enjoy today. His ability to finish projects — before his dark side swallowed him — stands as a rare quality, a quality lacking in most current governments. Yet he fell how many individuals and businesses fall: Moses grew dependent on what increased power. In other words, he became enslaved to tactics that caused short-term results.
Here’s how the common fall plays out.
A business or person will yoke to a method that promotes a certain result, a result that feeds a rapacious want. A want they tasted and got addicted too. The want? Perhaps power, status, fame, money, profit, popularity, or attention. And then they squander their talents and focus on whatever causes that particular result. For instance, a certain sales tactic creates higher conversions, thus generating fast profits. But then higher conversions turn into a drug, and the company’s best resources fixate on the tactic. Soon the business transmogrifies into something like a cold calling center that pressure-sells cruise time-shares.
Consider Boeing. Boeing used to be a company mainly run by engineers. They built cutting-edge airplanes. But soon selling those planes, selling them on time, making huge profits, and keeping the shareholders happy — turned into the purpose. Engineers became a tax, an obstacle to higher profits. The business model changed. Boeing switched to a business model that works for mass-produced t-shirts: slash costs, boost profit margins, make it good enough, keep the shareholders happy, and just sell the damn thing. This model doesn’t work for a company making fragile tubes soaring 30,000 feet in the air carrying humans. Nor does it work for an industry that needs not only safety but ingenuity to stay competitive.
Once Moses tasted power and realized that his results intensified his power, he grew dependent on rapidly building — highways, bridges, and razing city blocks for public housing. It’s here he lost track.
Moses caused consequences we still deal with today. Many impoverished ghettoes in New York City today trace back to Robert Moses’ decisions. Why many cities and states are scrambling to figure growing traffic problems, a lacking train system, an embarrassing rapid transit, or an un-walkable city, many roads lead back to Moses. The myth that says to build more highways or more highway lanes to solve traffic (it doesn’t, more highways and more lanes increase traffic, an effect called induced demand), and the politicians doggedly leashed by voters to that myth, because saying otherwise loses votes, ties back to Robert Moses. Last, America’s ill-equipped inter- and intra-state train system, we can thank Moses and his hate for trains.
The book offers a guide into how we can critically think about power, and how we can unmask accomplishments.
The Power Broker offers countless lessons. From politics to urban planning to power and beyond, Caro gifts us a momentous book. I did find one unexpected lesson: critical thinking. In particular, how we can put huge accomplishments, incredible results, or those in high levels of power — into a balanced view.
Let’s cozy up a little to Caro’s style. Robert Caro spends years meticulously researching his works. He spent over seven years writing The Power Broker. His four famed works on Lyndon Johnson, the fifth still in the works, he began soon after The Power Broker was published in 1974. He finished the first Lyndon Johnson work, The Path To Power,in 1981. Caro takes so long because he’s ruthless to not overlooking anything. For instance, he’ll discover a random note written by a secretary. He then walks every possible avenue where that note leads. When he wrote his first Lyndon Johnson book, Caro went so far as to move to Johnson’s childhood town in rural Texas Hill Country.
Here’s why we benefit from this digging: Caro presents multiple sides. He shows us the reality behind accomplishments, what went into those accomplishments, and what can follow from those accomplishments. Caro puts status, accomplishments, and power into perspective. Most books about a man like Moses, or a woman like Margaret Thatcher, often praise with anecdotes or tear down with ad hominem attacks. Caro doesn’t praise or attack; he collects every detail and presents the evidence.
When we put accomplishments or those in power into perspective, we gain the skill to reasonably question that accomplishment. Now, Caro isn’t asking us to become radical anarchists and start tearing down all power; he puts us into a position to understand power. You can respect the feat, the man or woman, but Caro helps us remove what often slips into unquestioning bias.
I’ll argue that a great skill to learn in life is the ability to keep people on equal ground. This doesn’t entail tearing someone down. Nor does it entail judging, opining, or generalizing. Caro helps us understand people maintain ideologies, beliefs, and biases. Caro helps us recognize someone’s strengths. Sure, a person might be better at us in something, but Caro helps us acknowledge the talent and not contrive that person as above or below us. Caro shows us how to approach matters with an even-hand.
Another key lesson: Caro shows us how to not get blinded with results.
In nearly all endeavors, results matter. A business must sell a product to maintain a healthy bottom line. A writer must write clearly to communicate ideas. Again, how we best do that relies on sharpening specific skills.
In almost all ventures, athletics, or being Warren Buffet, mastering the basics matter. For instance, in freestyle skiing — the event with the moguls — the greatest freestyle competitors constantly practice skiing in a wedge. Yes — they pizza pie down the mountain, oftentimes without poles. This is what a child does on their first day ever skiing. The same goes for business. Warren Buffet knows his basics and sharpens his basics. He runs his plans through his basic economic, mathematic, and philosophical formulas.
Basics build on each other; basics generate novelty, basics keep you, a musician, or a Fortune Five company on the right path. When we lose sight of basics, ourselves, or our company, is when the focus turns into a tactic that got the result.
Caro shows us why we should carefully consider anything that leads to a result. The result happened, but at what cost? Why should we chase more clients? Why do you want more sales? Is it sales you need or an honest look at your financial model? What is a tactic really doing? Are we growing obsessed with the metrics, the conversions, and not the experience our customer gets?
Loving incredible results can create an echo chamber. We need to look at the many sides of results, or what causes a result. We need to be able to stare down a certain method that can generate say, immense profit, and know when to say no.
How to NOT read this book like a guru.
Gurus or success coaches could easily mine the Power Broker for cool, pollyanish quotes about power. Like this, “Another way is that accomplishment proves the potential for more accomplishment. The man who gets things done once can get things done again. And the potential for accomplishment has very strong political connotations indeed.”
Simply lop off the last sentence, and voila —you can morph it into: “just win” “people who get things done chase excellence.” This strips the quote from context and morphs into a placebo pill for motivation.
Let’s take a trite, Tony Robbins or Grant Cardone turn. “The mind was brilliant, but even a brilliant mind is only good as the material — the input — fed into it.”
A very cool sentence, indeed. We can slop on reading widely, you’re the sum of the five people you hang out with, hang out with winners, don’t watch TV, and all those old chestnuts. But again, this strips the quote from context. The original context refers to when Moses surrounded himself with different thinkers, and when Fiorello La Guardia and Al Smith kept him in check. Later, when Moses surrounded himself with “like-minded hustlers” and “achievers” and “people who believed in him” —perfectly applying most success coaches standard advice — that’s when he turned into a tyrant.
No doubt, your input needs good material. Good diverse material from friends, mentors, books, even music. But diverse material doesn’t source from sayings that pump up personal fantasies about success. This doesn’t mean: seek points that deflate your dreams; rather, avoid mashing quotes into humble-braggy life-hacks.
Here’s another quote I could see the Jocko Wilnick’s of the world stripping from the context: Get used to it!’ One has to think twice about what those words, so casually uttered, really mean. One has to realize that the man uttering those words has accepted discomfort and exhaustion as a part — a substantial part — of the fabric of his life. Accepted them so completely that he no longer really thinks about them — or about the amount of his life of which they are, day by day, robbing him. We learn to tolerate intolerable conditions. The numbness that is the defense against intolerable pain has set in — so firmly that many of the victims no longer even realize that the pain is pain.”
A stirring quote. We’d do well to question anyone who says, “that’s just how it’s done.” But the quote isn’t a supercilious Jocko Wilnick bromide on how weakness is a mindset, and your unhappiness in life is because “you tolerate what you expect.” Nor is the quote a pious message about rising up and kicking ass, and the world is all about you, and you must defeat those mysterious outside forces that put you down. Nor is the quote an excuse to take a titillating selfie at the gym, then write a rambling Instagram post how the struggle is real, but you rise and grind to live 100. No. It’s about being willing to question what’s being done with even-handed reason.
The Power Broker could easily be mined for political arguments too. For instance, an anti-capitalist could quote, “Power is being able to ruin people, to ruin their careers and their reputations and their personal relationships.”
Tie that into how billionaires shouldn’t exist, and billionaires exist because of horrific failings in a capitalist government, and, BOOM, you got a pithy statement from a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Philosophers call this An Appeal to an Irrelevant Authority. The fallacy: using Caro’s iconic book — the authority — and using it out of context to make a point. But Caro’s book doesn’t deal with billionaires or failed government policies.
Undoubtedly, Moses ruined neighborhoods, ruined lives, and we’re still dealing with his mistakes.
Let’s flip it around. Someone on the alt-right could use the same quote. Blame the socialist-leaning government on ruining our private liberties, and leashing us to live in a nanny-state. And once again, arguing that powerful government, a left-leaning one, wrecks society. But, again, Caro’s book isn’t about a government’s overarching reach into people’s personal liberties.
In short, the book is chock full of pithy quotes concerning power — the good and bad of power — but those are just memorable quotes, not the books premise. The context shows how power contains many sides and how they can play out, and it also narrates how Moses rose to power and then fell and how his rise and fall produced a rise and fall of New York City.
The book is widely considered one of the greatest non-fiction works ever written.
I highly recommend this book. It’s long, but Caro’s prose is extraordinary, and it makes for great reading. If you’re into politics, power, it’s a must-read; in fact, I think it’s a must-read in general, even if you hate politics. The book offers many lessons from how a city works, how something gets voted in, to how we can understand power.