Dobby the House Elf is set free when Harry Potter gives him a sock. Because Dobby now owns something, he is no longer enslaved and discovers his own power and autonomy. Someone give me a sock!
I'm back at university this year and I'm finding it challenging. I'm a lot older than the other students and even though I have gathered a certain amount of information in my 50 years – knowing the difference between Hegel and kegels, who sang "Free Nelson Mandela" and why Franz Ferdinand started WWI – I'm still back at humbling square one with everyone else on my course.
I feel as wobbly as a kitten. My therapist says I need to "sit with my own power" and "claim my mana". But what does that even mean? I looked up 'mana'. It's a word in a number of Polynesian languages that means power, effectiveness and prestige.
When you have mana, you don't have to prove anything, you don't have to please anyone or be stuck in the idea of what other people expect you to be. Mana seems to be an indefinable concept, but here's what I've tried or learned so far to inch towards it.
1 Learn to say "no."
"No" is a complete sentence. Billionaire Warren Buffett says the difference between successful people and really successful people is that the latter say no to almost everything. Some things I've said no to lately: invitations to give a speech, most social events, anything with crowds, small talk, business cards. The more you do it, the easier it gets. And don't give excuses.
2 Know that engaging with people is your own choice
Have a zip on the inside. Imagine we all spend our lives in our own sleeping bag. If the zip is on the outside, anyone else can open up your bag, even when you don't want them to. You need an inside zip. That way you can be in charge of what or who you let in and keep out.
3 Have standards for the people you interact with and how they treat you
Imagine you were a club. Every club has rules. What are yours? Do you let in liars? Or people who don't keep their word? Club rules are the rules your friends, partners and work colleagues have to stick to, but they're for you too. If you don't stick to them, your behaviour will signal to other people that they don't have to either, and the club will cease to exist.
4 Don't ask for permission
Stop asking for permission. "Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be," said novelist James Baldwin. A few things you can do without asking for permission: write a book, end a relationship, hustle up a new business.
5... And don't ask for forgiveness either
Stop explaining yourself. Women are prone to trying too hard to be understood – to justify, to contextualise, to apologise for seeming any way other than how we're meant to. We'll sacrifice time, energy or even dignity to make it easier for someone else, but we forget to make it easier for ourselves. We have a right to make statements and requests that don't end in question marks. Sit with the silence.
6 Make your opinion a commodity
Speak quietly. I have a beautiful friend with a gap in her front teeth who's very successful in the corporate world, but is also a soft and gentle talker. Everyone strains to hear what she says, because they really want to know. I can't manage to be like her, but sometimes I try to turn down the volume a notch or two.
7 Thinking and acting powerfully are not shortcuts
It's not about power.
Harvard professor Amy Cuddy, whose TED talk has been watched 40 million times, investigated how assuming dominant body postures (think Wonder Woman) for as little as two minutes can affect people's feelings, behaviour and hormone levels.
This was widely reported and the New York Times summarised her findings: "If you act powerfully, you will begin to think powerfully."
Yeah, nah. The study has since been found to have been falsified. Cuddy lost her job. There are no dinky shortcuts.
8 Get rid of social media
Get off Facebook. I deleted my account and can't imagine going back. (For work, I have an account under a nom de plume.) Being bombarded with other people's judgments, projections, rejection, disapproval and show-off sunset cocktail pictures is diminishing and draining. These days, I only care what a few people in real life think of me.
9 Respect yourself, be in charge of yourself
Respect yourself. Maybe having mana out there in the world comes down to having mana with yourself? Yes, there are certain things you have to do in modern life – fill in your tax return, pick up your children from school, occasionally floss – but after that, it's up to you. You're the authority in your world.