Julia Child was almost 40 before she learned to cook. Her popular educational television show, “The French Chef,” didn’t premier on WGBH until she was 49.
Harlan Sanders worked in the food industry after a holding variety of other jobs. He began by selling chicken dinners out of his Corbin, Kentucky gas station. He didn’t franchise his operation until he was 62. He was nearly 70 before he achieved fame and fortune.
Mark Twain was in his 40s when “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” was published. Nelson Mandela was elected president at 76. John Fenn developed electrospray ionization when he was 67.
Some people achieve success later in life. Some earlier. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg were all young. So, for that matter, were Alexander the Great, Alexander Hamilton, and John F. Kennedy. I wonder how people fare who achieve success – and the power that accompanies it – early in life, compared to people who do so at a later age.
Power is a good and necessary thing, whether in organizational structures or in nature. However, power that is unstable or volatile, whether the personal power of a corporate officer or the impersonal power of nature, can cause serious harm.
Ordinary people possess power, which is the ability to cause something to happen. A baby exercises power when she screams her dissatisfaction and causes her mother to feed her. An infant who pushes his pacifier off his highchair and then watches his dad repeatedly pick it up is exerting power.
Whatever a person’s age, if power grows faster than the quality of character required for its rightful use, it will likely bring harm to others and will certainly bring harm to the person. Unfortunately, it seems that an early expansion of power can delay the development of the character needed to wield it.
The development of power, and the speed at which it grows, depends on a variety of factors. Alexander the Great came into power while he was still young because his father was King Philip II of Macedonia. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Donald Trump also became powerful early because they had powerful fathers.
Sometimes power grows quickly because of exceptional intelligence or ability. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg are examples. Child prodigies can exercise power from an early age because of their extraordinary abilities. Mozart could play minuets flawlessly by age 4 and was composing a year later.
There are many reasons one person will develop power and not another. But what about character? How does it develop?
Character also develops in a variety of ways. Parental influence is certainly important. Intelligence and ability may play a part. But in a way that is unique, character develops in conjunction with the choices an individual makes.
One type of choice is particularly important to the formation of character. We can think of it as the “I’m going to do it no matter what” choice. “It” may be virtuous – “I’m going to risk my life to save hers.” “It” may be corrupt – “I’m going to pursue a relationship with my best friend’s spouse.” Such choices are the nodes around which character, which Dallas Willard defined as “the internal, overall structure of the self,” forms, for good or bad.
As choices are made, especially the “I’m going to do it anyway” kinds of choices, character solidifies. When I choose to take time from what I planned to do to help someone, my character is formed in a certain way. When I choose to ignore a need because it is inconvenient, my character is formed in a different way.
It is God’s intention that people develop the kind of character that can safely wield power. God is into power sharing and always has been. The Psalmist marveled that he “crowned [humans] with glory and honor and made them rulers over the works of his hands.”
But the kind of character that can safely wield power must be developed, and that happens as choices, sometimes uncomfortable choices, are made. One place people find guidance and encouragement for making those choices is in a faith community whose members have chosen truth over expediency, love over selfishness, and character over power.