he First Step to Being Powerful; Own your story, and you own your life. Talk to yourself as a friend, not an enemy. And remember, you cannot change anything unless you first see your own self as powerful enough to act. The way we talk of ourselves and to ourselves grants power – narrative power — to what happens next.

The First Step to Being Powerful

by Nilofer Merchant  |   9:00 AM November 8, 2013

“I am such a big failure. I can’t believe that I’ve made this mistake and it’s cost me months and months of time.  I might never recover…What an idiot to not see that one coming.” On and on, he went. In distress, my colleague was clearly suffering because of a recent fiasco. Seeking counsel, he had come to me supposedly to problem solve. But all he could focus on was how this incident made him a failure. I got frustrated listening to him. Not at his words, but at how vicious he was being to himself. In the end, my advice was not as cogent and articulate as I had intended — I used a popular vernacular term for bovine droppings — but I stand by it.Talking to yourself like you are worthless is not helpful. Yes, mistakes  mean you might be in hot water, or that there is a lesson to learn. But there is a huge cost to telling your story in such a limiting way. You give away your power. When you define your “I” as what I call a “weak I” you have lost your ability to effect change.

Sometimes it’s less important to know how to learn specific things, than how growth itself works. You cannot change anything unless first you believe in your ability to drive change. That’s what lets you start to engage ideas, problem solve, enlist others, and focus your energy. In other words, to have an impact, you need to think of yourself with a “strong I”, not a “weak I.”

Most of us talk to ourselves in ways we’d never talk to anyone else. More than likely, you are unkind to yourself when you’ve had a failure. You expect yourself to “get it right” — every single time. More often than not, you hold yourself responsible for the whole of the failure. You believe you should have seen it coming. As if somehow you can actually control everything. But, let me ask you – would you speak to someone else this way? Would you talk to them in an unforgiving, demanding, and invalidating way? Likely not. Were you to say it to someone else, you would almost see him or her shrivel up from the inside. A label given to another person can transform a person’s sense of self and their ability to contribute and create. So can a label you give to yourself.

This is a not about self-help, though it might help you. This is an opportunity to talk about the role of narrative power, through the form of “weak I” and “strong I,” and how it affects our entire economy.

Talent of all sorts is valuable to an organization only when people feel free to bring their differences to work. But all too often, difference is not seen, nor valued. Instead, our difference makes us unseen. I myself fell for this, when someone powerful told me “as a brown woman, the likelihood of you being seen in the world is next to nothing.” I wrote about that experience in a piece on cultural bias. But what I didn’t share then is how much it formed a new weaker narrative in my mind. The “you’ll never been seen” narrative changed my power from a “strong I” to a “weak I” because of the societal group I belonged to. I was a mess for many months. When I didn’t get the role I wanted on a particular board of directors, I thought to myself, “Yes, there! That’s proof that he’s right!” And I started to step back, to stop trying, to deny my own creativity. I had so easily adopted his frame of the world, as my own. It was disempowering, and debilitating.

When I share this personally awkward story in public, I do it to point out a truth about unlocking our economy. New ideas and sources of innovation are abundant. Right, in fact, in front of us — and often hidden in plain sight.

The problem is when those who do not see (the ideas right in front of them, but different than what they expect), believe this means the unseen is not actually there. The argument goes – for example– if there were strong women leaders, OF COURSE we’d see them, maybe even put them on our board. We can’t see them so, of course, they must not exist. (As Claire Cain Miller pointed out of Twitter’s all-male board, this is ridiculous.) Or, when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos list of favorite books includes only books written by men, some folks online posit that women must not have written important works. To which one might want to look up circular logic.

The debate that often arises when the topic of not-seeing comes up is this:  Maybe the people — those not being seen  — haven’t not done enough, accomplished enough, or tried hard enough. And unfortunately, this “not enough” narrative plays to some fears on the part of the people not being seen. Me, included. I convince myself that this is something I can control with an action plan. It’s just a matter of jumping a higher hurdle. The thinking goes… once that is done, then I  will finally be seen.

But that puts the power of your being seen in someone else’s hands, doesn’t it?

What if the first step in being seen is learning to see ourselvesWhat if, in our desire to fit in and be seen, we have forgotten how first to belong to ourselves? The more you believe in yourself, the less you need others to do it for you. This doesn’t mean that I deny the role of structural power or cultural power that limit many from being unseen. To make all power about the individual is to privatize power, and to imply that if an entire group of people is unseen, or less seen, that it’s somehow “their fault.” (I’m reminded of the term for bovine droppings, again!)

Yes, it is hard to silence that inner critic — especially if outer critics are also chiming in. If you can’t silence it, make peace with it. I have a standing appointment with fear, where I listen to it and make a plan based on what I learn. In return, fear has learned manners and keeps quiet until our next appointment, thus allowing me to get to work.

You can’t ask other people to make a “weak I” go away. Only you can live your life. And only you have lived the life you’ve lived thus far, only you can have the dreams you choose to have. By asking someone else to validate that, you are not only giving away your power, you asking someone to validate something that they can’t possibly understand. Each of us is standing in a spot only we are standing in; it’s a function of our history and our vision. Until you own this spot – your onlyness — in the world, you will never stand in your power. Without it, you will never fully own your “strong I”. Until you celebrate who you already are, you will always be hustling your way to worthiness, as notable researcher and storyteller Brene Brown would say. She defines hustling as the need to please, perfect, pretend, and to prove your worth. All this is an effort to show the world what you think it wants, not what’s really happening because you don’t believe that your experience, your reality is already good enough.

Professor Amy Cuddy of Harvard knew of research that powerful people have powerful body language—taking up more physical space–and thus appearing more confident to others. She proved that the reverse is also true: just doing powerful poses can actually create the feeling of power. Similarly, I’d argue that by doing the work you’re called to do and by owning your difference, you own your narrative power – and owning it is what lets you create the future.

You do not need to “be seen” before pursuing your ideas. Enjoy yourself. Work. Create. Add value. Do what you can, consider everything an experiment to be held lightly, and then see what it leads to. Trust that in the doing, you are learning and growing, and being powerful. While it is quite possible you will be left “unseen” by some of society, at least you’ll see yourself. In this way, power stretches to become dignity.

Own your story, and you own your life, Justine Musk recently wrote. Talk to yourself as a friend, not an enemy. And remember, you cannot change anything unless you first see your own self as powerful enough to act. The way we talk of ourselves and to ourselves grants power – narrative power — to what happens next.

own your story + you own your life

Your voice is the connecting force between your inner and outer world. Your voice takes your inner life and makes it manifest: gives it shape and substance and meaning for others.

Says: Here it is.

Says: Here I am.

It tells a story.

Online, your voice is who you are. Readers take that voice and construct their sense of your identity around it. If you show your inner life and it connects with their inner lives, it creates emotional resonance (what we’re all hungry for), and they will follow you wherever you lead them.


On some level you have to feel entitled to speak: to stake your claim and take up space in the world with your opinions, the contents of your psyche. This is why voice can be a sign of privilege. Often it’s the person in the group with the most status and power who talks the most.

When I was much younger, I was involved with some people who had a man at the head of their clan whom I shall call M. M was from a different generation, a different culture. This is maybe why the others didn’t call him on his (blatant) misogyny, but treated it more like an irritating quirk, like someone who stands too close to you at a party. “Women are like dogs and children,” he was reported to have said, “they should be seen and not heard.” This meant that at certain dinners, he and two other men would monopolize the conversation and treat us women and children as if we didn’t exist.

I would sit for well over an hour, maybe two, bored out of my skull.

One night I interrupted a conversation these three men were having about the demise of America as a world power. I don’t remember the point I was making. I just remember M. smoothly cutting me off: “Now I think what Justine is really trying to say is –”

“No,” I snapped, and he looked at me in surprise. Looked at me for what was possibly the first time that night. “You have no idea what I was going to say and absolutely no right to speak for me.” I said a few more things, the gist of which was that he had no respect for women and I was tired of it.

The table fell silent.

Then one of the younger men laughed and said, “She’s right.”

I learned something valuable that night, something I knew intellectually and had even discussed in post-colonial literature classes in college, but didn’t hit me on a visceral level, didn’t become the kind of knowledge I felt in my body, until that encounter with M.

It was simply this: silence is not a neutral position, whatever your intentions. Silence automatically supports the status quo. When you are a presence that lacks a voice, you create an empty space that another voice – a dominating voice that knows no boundaries – is only too happy to fill.

If you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you.


A voice is a story.

A story is a powerful thing.

You only have to look at politics. The war between the Republicans and the Democrats is a war between two conflicting stories of America.

Only one can win.

Stories don’t just explain who we are and where we’ve been, they set the course for our future. If our story denies climate crisis, then we’re not going to take action against it. If our story characterizes women as little more than overgrown children, as it used to, then their demand for the vote would seem shocking and laughable.

Change the story, and you change the culture.

This is true on a personal level as well. The past is the past, and it’s true that you can’t change it.

But you can change the way you interpret it.

You can view it through the lens of a different perspective and see things you overlooked before. You can make yourself out to be the victim of circumstance (and thus powerless to change anything). You can make yourself out as the star of your own hero or heroine’s journey, in which case everything that happens to you has a deeper purpose: to force you to change and grow, to become the person you need to be in order to meet your true destiny.


‘Finding your voice’ becomes a kind of code for finding yourself. Voice is what you say and how you say it; the two seamlessly weave together, the dancer and the dance.

Which means it’s not just something you find, but develop and practice.

You find it through paying attention to what attracts you, to what you’re drawn to: the ideas, people, subject matter, and also the medium. Maybe your true voice isn’t a spoken one; maybe its purest form comes through visual art, or sports or dance, or writing, or invention, or math, or multimedia, or music, or fashion. Discovering your medium can be a revelation. It makes possible a conversation that you didn’t even know you could have.

Which is why it’s so important not to quit searching until you find it.
You develop your voice through practice, and also through mastering your tools. When you can use those tools in a way that others can’t, you have a decided advantage. You can also move more deeply into yourself and the world, manifesting your inner life with greater depth and nuance.

Magic happens when you learn a technique so well that it becomes a part of you. You become more of what you are. You push past the boundaries, stop mimicking others and start truly creating yourself: your signature style, your voice.

When you get really good, you can draw other people into your story and make them a part of it.

This is known as creating a movement.

This is why, I think, there are so many people who feel pent-up, restless and yearning inside; they want to create but have the mistaken notion that they are “not creative”. Nobody wants to feel trapped and silent. We all have the innate human drive to express ourselves, to speak, to make meaning from the stuff of our lives.

The ultimate creative act is to invent (and reinvent) yourself.

Own your story, and you own your life. click to tweet

Somewhere out there is your audience. They are waiting for you, and always have been.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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