Watching the ballet of The Dream recently I was impressed by the ability of one of the male dancers to rise on his points briefly a number of times – a feat almost impossible for men because the body weight / toe-structure ratio doesn’t normally permit it. The pain involved in such an exercise must be considerable but he let none of it distract him from the beautiful choreography written for his part. His power over his pain must be quite something.

Musing about power I began to consider what it is, how we observe it, when we use it and its importance in the scheme of life. We all know a powerful person when we see one. They come in assorted sizes, sometimes visibly tough, at other times disarmingly charming and gentle. We also know phony power, the blustering, bluffing, braggart who is basically very insecure. Who is the most powerful person you ever met? Whose influence left you better equipped to handle life?

My most powerful person was an aunt, one of two who helped to raise me in the early years after my mother’s death when I was a year old. My aunt had a big family of her own, a doughty senior naval officer of a husband and a tendency to rescue the waifs and strays of the family like my sister and myself. Her horsemanship was legendary, her demeanour calm and confident, her love expressed practically more than emotionally, but that was the way of the 1940s.

In later life other powerful people appeared. I married two of them – at different times – to my great personal development. I had powerful friends, bosses, colleagues, subordinates. I began to learn what power is. I was ambitious but never lusted after the visible trappings of power as some men do. But I longed to help people who had not had the advantages I had. My neediness is not a need for material things as much as a need to be useful.

What power empowers you to achieve the impossible? What is your own version of power? Some people are tactically strong, others strategically able. Some have instinctive emotional interest and therefore great EI. Others see no souls, only transactions, calculating, measurable, definable. I think they miss a lot in life but perhaps they suffer a lot less, too. The melancholy of feeling is not without its attractive side. We mourn to recover not to forget.

One of the most powerful things that happened to me was when I got trapped under a half-ton bale sledge, dragged for four hundred yards and had my back skinned by 4-inch wheat stubble. When the tractor-driver finally stopped and came to look for me he was so shocked that the lifted the side of the half-ton sledge enough for me to scramble out. Subsequent calculations decided that the feat was impossible for one person. The police were convinced that someone else had been there to help. But they hadn’t. The power the tractor driver obtained was from sheer terror that I might be going to die.

Mental power is as powerful as physical power. To stand still in front of a mad animal that could kill you and quietly convince it that your will is stronger than its own – that is a feat we would all like to be able to claim. In practice, though not in quite the same physical circumstances, we do it all the time. We face hard choices, albeit not death threats, many times a day. A habit of facing, dealing, forgetting allows us to cope with life in ways it takes us time to learn. The emotional agonies of youth are powerful indeed.

‘Nothing to lose’ is often quoted as the basis of impartial, confident judgment. Certainly, the starving man, bereft of the wherewithal for survival, has little motive to negotiate. He sees kill or be killed as his only options. Few of us come to this state, although great pressure can lead us to believe that is where we are at times. Such terror is no basis for powerful confidence. Rather an acceptance of the what could be the worst outcome – not, as often thought, a negative approach at all – can be the foundation of taking personal, confident charge. ‘I can cope with the worst’ is a confidence building state of mind.

At what age do you begin to acquire power? I don’t think it works like that. You don’t so much acquire it as test how much you have and discover it is more than you think. In the process you also sometimes discover that it is less than you think and this can lead to embarrassing, face-losing reprimands, loss of seniority, even loss of job. That’s why you should nibble, not gorge, your way to power. Small bites digest power better.

Classic in this is the first 500 minutes (one day) in a new job. Your first day is crucial to your perceived and actual power. If you don’t establish this firmly on day one it will take you months or years to do so. There are tricks that get you power quickly, too. They are not malicious or irresponsible behaviour, just a little opportunist – something you were hired to be anyway. They are often referred to as ‘street smart’ but I think that implies greater skill than they really enjoy.

In the end, power is confidence in action. It should be clever, not cynical. It should be calm not frenetic. It should be so powerful that you don’t think of it as power at all. Its best manifestation is when you encourage someone realistically. You give them power.

That is when you can accept that you have become powerful.