Knowledge is power. We hear this everywhere. For those who believe they are trapped in a life void of potential or enslaved by money and obligation, I imagine you feel the course of your lives are consequent to any number of constraining conditions, all over which you have no control.  Why do you feel this way? 

We all make choices in life that lead us to our present condition and station. You may not consider your current position an option, but you have, all along the way, been making transactional trade-offs, inevitable sacrifices of power to navigate life’s obstacles.  Each encounter comes complete with its own strings attached, which may tether you to another individual (friend and foe alike) for better or worse. Make too many risky encounters with poor return on investment, and you have so many tethers you may feel quite like a marionette dancing all the time to someone else’s tune. We all make sacrifices of some measure of power or control in life to gain something else. In doing so, we become slightly more indebted to others. We make trade-offs every day:

Financial debt for institutional education

Privacy and secrecy and for another’s trust and friendship

Time, stress and longer life expectancy for a steady job and income

Financial independence and promiscuity for the reliable companionship that comes with marriage and monogamy

Recklessness and spontaneity for the incumbent obligations and vulnerability of parenthood and legacy

Relinquishment of functional and operational independence for the safety of round-the-clock nursing care

Now the above are examples of larger trades, milestones of life, but we make these exchanges on a smaller scale everyday. Every time you accept a favor from a friend or insult a new acquaintance, you hand over to that party the upper hand. Every time you lend money to a friend or aid a “frenemy” you gain the advantage. Social games are scathing and exhausting, but no one can deny that ignoring them is ostracizing at best, but potentially devastating at worst, whether referring to relationships with family, friends, or business partners. Social fluency comes easier to some than others, and it is a skill you must hone, a sport you must practice. I am not suggesting anyone rob life of spontaneity or adopt some strictly hedonistic, Machiavellian strategy for all life’s discussions, but neither am I completely discounting the valuable art of social graces, now seemingly deemed antiquated in the US except in wealthy families, country clubs and cotillion. However, if you take time to observe that charismatic friend you have that everyone seems to like or any well-liked and successful social chameleon, as suave and clever as they seem, you will see they operate in a deliberate fashion.

To play and maximize your social opportunities, you should always conduct yourself as if you are playing chess. You must survey your possible moves, consider the future ramifications of your strategic decisions and weigh their importance against your other options. The first 3-4 moves you make, big and small, set up game play and influence strategy for the game’s remainder. Life is the same way; you make moves thinking 3-4 moves ahead. Keep options open as long as possible and burn bridges only when necessary. All the while, limit your dependence on the predictability of your opponent’s (or friendly competitor’s) moves.

Lost in the metaphor?  The power you have is knowledge and your maneuvers in life are mostly all about timing.  The trick to “handling” people is to view people as assets. You must know the value of your “cards” and when to “play” them.  (I know I’m mixing metaphors, but... more people play cards than chess!) Never show your cards (share your information) unless you have no other options. It is better to bluff and leave others in the dark. Consider the cost of your social trade-offs and the powerlessness of debt, whether monetary or other.  Often the easier path is not the smartest path.  It may be better they underestimate you, than admire you. Live your life so that you owe the least debt possible. Those that feel powerless to pave a different course have undoubtedly made choices in life that limited their options, leaving them trapped and with no more moves…a checkmate (back to chess!)

People are actually simple and predictable.  With the exception of existentialists and sociopaths, all life’s creatures are most highly motivated by a need to survive or rather for their legacy to survive.  They will protect their own interests.  Those that make poor social decisions are ignorant to the game or they value the object of their debt above their own freedom or success. 

Credit all others for your feats and blame no others for your failures. Accept your part in whatever failures find you, even if it means you simply failed to anticipate another’s base or disloyal actions.  Trust placed is an unworthy companion is just as much your failure as is that friend’s treachery. Note the transgression for future interactions and move on. Cutting these negative tethers allows you forego past slights and to leave them in the past. Grudges and vengeance waste time and resources, and burn bridges. Learn that loyalty is not everyone’s strength, and duplicity can sometimes be useful. This person may still be a useful asset in other ways. It may be that you find common ground with a past enemy or even bond over a common goal, and a burnt bridge is only to your own disadvantage.

Consider adjusting the focus of your conversations to other’s business.  Redirect questions about your own business by asking another deflecting question about his life and business. It is human nature to want to talk about your self when another shows interest, but this is only to your disadvantage!  Gain as much information about others as possible, while giving up as little information as possible. Protect and reveal details of your own life, even small pieces, revealing them slowly and only when they serve to benefit your own objectives. That said; do not forego your close friendships. Everyone benefits from honest and unadulterated advice from those that know you best. Just be wary of the information you share, with both friend and foe. Knowledge is indeed power, and can only be used to harm you or upset the advantage if you hand it over to your friends and opponents.  Limiting what you say about yourself with everyone minimizes sunken ships consequent loose lips.

To take back some control in your life and maximize your own potential, actively examine your interpersonal relationships and take stock on your debts, financial and other intangibles. Then work towards repaying these debts.  If possible, owe no one. This in itself is empowering.  When your debts are paid, you are again free from influence and obligation to others. You then have many pawns and many more options and opportunities!