Tag: History

First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge

First-principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complicated problems and unleash creative possibility. Sometimes called “reasoning from first principles,” the idea is to break down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up. It’s one of the best ways to learn to think for yourself, unlock your creative potential, and move from linear to non-linear results.

This approach was used by the philosopher Aristotle and is used now by Elon Musk and Charlie Munger. It allows them to cut through the fog of shoddy reasoning and inadequate analogies to see opportunities that others miss.

“I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!”

— Richard Feynman

The Basics

A first principle is a foundational proposition or assumption that stands alone. We cannot deduce first principles from any other proposition or assumption.

Aristotle, writing[1] on first principles, said:

In every systematic inquiry (methodos) where there are first principles, or causes, or elements, knowledge and science result from acquiring knowledge of these; for we think we know something just in case we acquire knowledge of the primary causes, the primary first principles, all the way to the elements.

Later he connected the idea to knowledge, defining first principles as “the first basis from which a thing is known.”[2]

The search for first principles is not unique to philosophy. All great thinkers do it.

Reasoning by first principles removes the impurity of assumptions and conventions. What remains is the essentials. It’s one of the best mental models you can use to improve your thinking because the essentials allow you to see where reasoning by analogy might lead you astray.

The Coach and the Play Stealer

My friend Mike Lombardi (a former NFL executive) and I were having dinner in L.A. one night, and he said, “Not everyone that’s a coach is really a coach. Some of them are just play stealers.”

Every play we see in the NFL was at some point created by someone who thought, “What would happen if the players did this?” and went out and tested the idea. Since then, thousands, if not millions, of plays have been created. That’s part of what coaches do. They assess what’s physically possible, along with the weaknesses of the other teams and the capabilities of their own players, and create plays that are designed to give their teams an advantage.

The coach reasons from first principles. The rules of football are the first principles: they govern what you can and can’t do. Everything is possible as long as it’s not against the rules.

The play stealer works off what’s already been done. Sure, maybe he adds a tweak here or there, but by and large he’s just copying something that someone else created.

While both the coach and the play stealer start from something that already exists, they generally have different results. These two people look the same to most of us on the sidelines or watching the game on the TV. Indeed, they look the same most of the time, but when something goes wrong, the difference shows. Both the coach and the play stealer call successful plays and unsuccessful plays. Only the coach, however, can determine why a play was successful or unsuccessful and figure out how to adjust it. The coach, unlike the play stealer, understands what the play was designed to accomplish and where it went wrong, so he can easily course-correct. The play stealer has no idea what’s going on. He doesn’t understand the difference between something that didn’t work and something that played into the other team’s strengths.

Musk would identify the play stealer as the person who reasons by analogy, and the coach as someone who reasons by first principles. When you run a team, you want a coach in charge and not a play stealer. (If you’re a sports fan, you need only look at the difference between the Cleveland Browns and the New England Patriots.)

We’re all somewhere on the spectrum between coach and play stealer. We reason by first principles, by analogy, or a blend of the two.

Another way to think about this distinction comes from another friend, Tim Urban. He says[3] it’s like the difference between the cook and the chef. While these terms are often used interchangeably, there is an important nuance. The chef is a trailblazer, the person who invents recipes. He knows the raw ingredients and how to combine them. The cook, who reasons by analogy, uses a recipe. He creates something, perhaps with slight variations, that’s already been created.

The difference between reasoning by first principles and reasoning by analogy is like the difference between being a chef and being a cook. If the cook lost the recipe, he’d be screwed. The chef, on the other hand, understands the flavor profiles and combinations at such a fundamental level that he doesn’t even use a recipe. He has real knowledge as opposed to know-how.

Authority

So much of what we believe is based on some authority figure telling us that something is true. As children, we learn to stop questioning when we’re told “Because I said so.” (More on this later.) As adults, we learn to stop questioning when people say “Because that’s how it works.” The implicit message is “understanding be damned — shut up and stop bothering me.” It’s not intentional or personal. OK, sometimes it’s personal, but most of the time, it’s not.

If you outright reject dogma, you often become a problem: a student who is always pestering the teacher. A kid who is always asking questions and never allowing you to cook dinner in peace. An employee who is always slowing things down by asking why.

When you can’t change your mind, though, you die. Sears was once thought indestructible before Wal-Mart took over. Sears failed to see the world change. Adapting to change is an incredibly hard thing to do when it comes into conflict with the very thing that caused so much success. As Upton Sinclair aptly pointed out, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Wal-Mart failed to see the world change and is now under assault from Amazon.

If we never learn to take something apart, test the assumptions, and reconstruct it, we end up trapped in what other people tell us — trapped in the way things have always been done. When the environment changes, we just continue as if things were the same.

First-principles reasoning cuts through dogma and removes the blinders. We can see the world as it is and see what is possible.

When it comes down to it, everything that is not a law of nature is just a shared belief. Money is a shared belief. So is a border. So are bitcoins. The list goes on.

Some of us are naturally skeptical of what we’re told. Maybe it doesn’t match up to our experiences. Maybe it’s something that used to be true but isn’t true anymore. And maybe we just think very differently about something.

“To understand is to know what to do.”

— Wittgenstein

Techniques for Establishing First Principles

There are many ways to establish first principles. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Socratic Questioning

Socratic questioning can be used to establish first principles through stringent analysis. This a disciplined questioning process, used to establish truths, reveal underlying assumptions, and separate knowledge from ignorance. The key distinction between Socratic questioning and normal discussions is that the former seeks to draw out first principles in a systematic manner. Socratic questioning generally follows this process:

  1. Clarifying your thinking and explaining the origins of your ideas (Why do I think this? What exactly do I think?)
  2. Challenging assumptions (How do I know this is true? What if I thought the opposite?)
  3. Looking for evidence (How can I back this up? What are the sources?)
  4. Considering alternative perspectives (What might others think? How do I know I am correct?)
  5. Examining consequences and implications (What if I am wrong? What are the consequences if I am?)
  6. Questioning the original questions (Why did I think that? Was I correct? What conclusions can I draw from the reasoning process?)

This process stops you from relying on your gut and limits strong emotional responses. This process helps you build something that lasts.

“Because I Said So” or “The Five Whys”

Children instinctively think in first principles. Just like us, they want to understand what’s happening in the world. To do so, they intuitively break through the fog with a game some parents have come to hate.

“Why?”

“Why?”

“Why?”

Here’s an example that has played out numerous times at my house:

“It’s time to brush our teeth and get ready for bed.”

“Why?”

“Because we need to take care of our bodies, and that means we need sleep.”

“Why do we need sleep?”

“Because we’d die if we never slept.”

“Why would that make us die?”

“I don’t know; let’s go look it up.”

Kids are just trying to understand why adults are saying something or why they want them to do something.

The first time your kid plays this game, it’s cute, but for most teachers and parents, it eventually becomes annoying. Then the answer becomes what my mom used to tell me: “Because I said so!” (Love you, Mom.)

Of course, I’m not always that patient with the kids. For example, I get testy when we’re late for school, or we’ve been travelling for 12 hours, or I’m trying to fit too much into the time we have. Still, I try never to say “Because I said so.”

People hate the “because I said so” response for two reasons, both of which play out in the corporate world as well. The first reason we hate the game is that we feel like it slows us down. We know what we want to accomplish, and that response creates unnecessary drag. The second reason we hate this game is that after one or two questions, we are often lost. We actually don’t know why. Confronted with our own ignorance, we resort to self-defense.

I remember being in meetings and asking people why we were doing something this way or why they thought something was true. At first, there was a mild tolerance for this approach. After three “whys,” though, you often find yourself on the other end of some version of “we can take this offline.”

Can you imagine how that would play out with Elon Musk? Richard Feynman? Charlie Munger? Musk would build a billion-dollar business to prove you wrong, Feynman would think you’re an idiot, and Munger would profit based on your inability to think through a problem.

“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”

— Carl Sagan

Examples of First Principles in Action

So we can better understand how first-principles reasoning works, let’s look at four examples.

Elon Musk and SpaceX

Perhaps no one embodies first-principles thinking more than Elon Musk. He is one of the most audacious entrepreneurs the world has ever seen. My kids (grades 3 and 2) refer to him as a real-life Tony Stark, thereby conveniently providing a good time for me to remind them that by fourth grade, Musk was reading the Encyclopedia Britannica and not Pokemon.

What’s most interesting about Musk is not what he thinks but how he thinks:

I think people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They’ll say, “We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.” Or they’ll not do it because “Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good. But that’s just a ridiculous way to think. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up—“from the first principles” is the phrase that’s used in physics. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past.[4]

His approach to understanding reality is to start with what is true — not with his intuition. The problem is that we don’t know as much as we think we do, so our intuition isn’t very good. We trick ourselves into thinking we know what’s possible and what’s not. The way Musk thinks is much different.

Musk starts out with something he wants to achieve, like building a rocket. Then he starts with the first principles of the problem. Running through how Musk would think, Larry Page said in an

interview, “What are the physics of it? How much time will it take? How much will it cost? How much cheaper can I make it? There’s this level of engineering and physics that you need to make judgments about what’s possible and interesting. Elon is unusual in that he knows that, and he also knows business and organization and leadership and governmental issues.”[5]

Rockets are absurdly expensive, which is a problem because Musk wants to send people to Mars. And to send people to Mars, you need cheaper rockets. So he asked himself, “What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. And … what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two percent of the typical price.”[6]

Why, then, is it so expensive to get a rocket into space? Musk, a notorious self-learner with degrees in both economics and physics, literally taught himself rocket science. He figured that the only reason getting a rocket into space is so expensive is that people are stuck in a mindset that doesn’t hold up to first principles. With that, Musk decided to create SpaceX and see if he could build rockets himself from the ground up.

In an interview with Kevin Rose, Musk summarized his approach:

I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So the normal way we conduct our lives is, we reason by analogy. We are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing… with slight iterations on a theme. And it’s … mentally easier to reason by analogy rather than from first principles. First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world, and what that really means is, you … boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “okay, what are we sure is true?” … and then reason up from there. That takes a lot more mental energy.[7]

Musk then gave an example of how Space X uses first principles to innovate at low prices:

Somebody could say — and in fact people do — that battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be because that’s the way they have been in the past. … Well, no, that’s pretty dumb… Because if you applied that reasoning to anything new, then you wouldn’t be able to ever get to that new thing…. you can’t say, … “oh, nobody wants a car because horses are great, and we’re used to them and they can eat grass and there’s lots of grass all over the place and … there’s no gasoline that people can buy….”

He then gives a fascinating example about battery packs:

… they would say, “historically, it costs $600 per kilowatt-hour. And so it’s not going to be much better than that in the future. … So the first principles would be, … what are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the spot market value of the material constituents? … It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, and some polymers for separation, and a steel can. So break that down on a material basis; if we bought that on a London Metal Exchange, what would each of these things cost? Oh, jeez, it’s … $80 per kilowatt-hour. So, clearly, you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.

BuzzFeed

After studying the psychology of virality, Jonah Peretti founded BuzzFeed in 2006. The site quickly grew to be one of the most popular on the internet, with hundreds of employees and substantial revenue.

Peretti figured out early on the first principle of a successful website: wide distribution. Rather than publishing articles people should read, BuzzFeed focuses on publishing those that people want to read. This means aiming to garner maximum social shares to put distribution in the hands of readers.

Peretti recognized the first principles of online popularity and used them to take a new approach to journalism. He also ignored SEO, saying, “Instead of making content robots like, it was more satisfying to make content humans want to share.”[8] Unfortunately for us, we share a lot of cat videos.

A common aphorism in the field of viral marketing is, “content might be king, but distribution is queen, and she wears the pants” (or “and she has the dragons”; pick your metaphor). BuzzFeed’s distribution-based approach is based on obsessive measurement, using A/B testing and analytics.

Jon Steinberg, president of BuzzFeed, explains the first principles of virality:

Keep it short. Ensure [that] the story has a human aspect. Give people the chance to engage. And let them react. People mustn’t feel awkward sharing it. It must feel authentic. Images and lists work. The headline must be persuasive and direct.

Derek Sivers and CD Baby

When Sivers founded his company CD Baby, he reduced the concept down to first principles. Sivers asked, What does a successful business need? His answer was happy customers.

Instead of focusing on garnering investors or having large offices, fancy systems, or huge numbers of staff, Sivers focused on making each of his customers happy. An example of this is his famous order confirmation email, part of which reads:

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow. A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing. Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box money can buy.

By ignoring unnecessary details that cause many businesses to expend large amounts of money and time, Sivers was able to rapidly grow the company to $4 million in monthly revenue. In Anything You Want, Sivers wrote:

Having no funding was a huge advantage for me.
A year after I started CD Baby, the dot-com boom happened. Anyone with a little hot air and a vague plan was given millions of dollars by investors. It was ridiculous. …
Even years later, the desks were just planks of wood on cinder blocks from the hardware store. I made the office computers myself from parts. My well-funded friends would spend $100,000 to buy something I made myself for $1,000. They did it saying, “We need the very best,” but it didn’t improve anything for their customers. …
It’s counterintuitive, but the way to grow your business is to focus entirely on your existing customers. Just thrill them, and they’ll tell everyone.

To survive as a business, you need to treat your customers well. And yet so few of us master this principle.

Employing First Principles in Your Daily Life

Most of us have no problem thinking about what we want to achieve in life, at least when we’re young. We’re full of big dreams, big ideas, and boundless energy. The problem is that we let others tell us what’s possible, not only when it comes to our dreams but also when it comes to how we go after them. And when we let other people tell us what’s possible or what the best way to do something is, we outsource our thinking to someone else.

The real power of first-principles thinking is moving away from incremental improvement and into possibility. Letting others think for us means that we’re using their analogies, their conventions, and their possibilities. It means we’ve inherited a world that conforms to what they think. This is incremental thinking.

When we take what already exists and improve on it, we are in the shadow of others. It’s only when we step back, ask ourselves what’s possible, and cut through the flawed analogies that we see what is possible. Analogies are beneficial; they make complex problems easier to communicate and increase understanding. Using them, however, is not without a cost. They limit our beliefs about what’s possible and allow people to argue without ever exposing our (faulty) thinking. Analogies move us to see the problem in the same way that someone else sees the problem.

The gulf between what people currently see because their thinking is framed by someone else and what is physically possible is filled by the people who use first principles to think through problems.

First-principles thinking clears the clutter of what we’ve told ourselves and allows us to rebuild from the ground up. Sure, it’s a lot of work, but that’s why so few people are willing to do it. It’s also why the rewards for filling the chasm between possible and incremental improvement tend to be non-linear.

Let’s take a look at a few of the limiting beliefs that we tell ourselves.

“I don’t have a good memory.” [10]
People have far better memories than they think they do. Saying you don’t have a good memory is just a convenient excuse to let you forget. Taking a first-principles approach means asking how much information we can physically store in our minds. The answer is “a lot more than you think.” Now that we know it’s possible to put more into our brains, we can reframe the problem into finding the most optimal way to store information in our brains.

“There is too much information out there.”
A lot of professional investors read Farnam Street. When I meet these people and ask how they consume information, they usually fall into one of two categories. The differences between the two apply to all of us. The first type of investor says there is too much information to consume. They spend their days reading every press release, article, and blogger commenting on a position they hold. They wonder what they are missing. The second type of investor realizes that reading everything is unsustainable and stressful and makes them prone to overvaluing information they’ve spent a great amount of time consuming. These investors, instead, seek to understand the variables that will affect their investments. While there might be hundreds, there are usually three to five variables that will really move the needle. The investors don’t have to read everything; they just pay attention to these variables.

“All the good ideas are taken.”
A common way that people limit what’s possible is to tell themselves that all the good ideas are taken. Yet, people have been saying this for hundreds of years — literally — and companies keep starting and competing with different ideas, variations, and strategies.

“We need to move first.”
I’ve heard this in boardrooms for years. The answer isn’t as black and white as this statement. The iPhone wasn’t first, it was better. Microsoft wasn’t the first to sell operating systems; it just had a better business model. There is a lot of evidence showing that first movers in business are more likely to fail than latecomers. Yet this myth about the need to move first continues to exist.

Sometimes the early bird gets the worm and sometimes the first mouse gets killed. You have to break each situation down into its component parts and see what’s possible. That is the work of first-principles thinking.

“I can’t do that; it’s never been done before.”
People like Elon Musk are constantly doing things that have never been done before. This type of thinking is analogous to looking back at history and building, say, floodwalls, based on the worst flood that has happened before. A better bet is to look at what could happen and plan for that.

“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

— Harrington Emerson

Conclusion

The thoughts of others imprison us if we’re not thinking for ourselves.

Reasoning from first principles allows us to step outside of history and conventional wisdom and see what is possible. When you really understand the principles at work, you can decide if the existing methods make sense. Often they don’t.

Reasoning by first principles is useful when you are (1) doing something for the first time, (2) dealing with complexity, and (3) trying to understand a situation that you’re having problems with. In all of these areas, your thinking gets better when you stop making assumptions and you stop letting others frame the problem for you.

Analogies can’t replace understanding. While it’s easier on your brain to reason by analogy, you’re more likely to come up with better answers when you reason by first principles. This is what makes it one of the best sources of creative thinking. Thinking in first principles allows you to adapt to a changing environment, deal with reality, and seize opportunities that others can’t see.

Many people mistakenly believe that creativity is something that only some of us are born with, and either we have it or we don’t. Fortunately, there seems to be ample evidence that this isn’t true.[11] We’re all born rather creative, but during our formative years, it can be beaten out of us by busy parents and teachers. As adults, we rely on convention and what we’re told because that’s easier than breaking things down into first principles and thinking for ourselves. Thinking through first principles is a way of taking off the blinders. Most things suddenly seem more possible.

“I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can,” says Musk. “They sell themselves short without trying. One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”

***

Members can discuss this on the Learning Community Forum.

End Notes

[1] Aristotle, Physics 184a10–21

[2] Aristotle, Metaphysics 1013a14-15

[3] https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/11/the-cook-and-the-chef-musks-secret-sauce.html

[4] Elon Musk, quoted by Tim Urban in “The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce,” Wait But Why https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/11/the-cook-and-the-chef-musks-secret-sauce.html

[5] Vance, Ashlee. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (p. 354)

[6] https://www.wired.com/2012/10/ff-elon-musk-qa/all/

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-s_3b5fRd8

[8] David Rowan, “How BuzzFeed mastered social sharing to become a media giant for a new era,” Wired.com. 2 January 2014. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/buzzfeed

[9] https://www.quora.com/What-does-Elon-Musk-mean-when-he-said-I-think-it%E2%80%99s-important-to-reason-from-first-principles-rather-than-by-analogy/answer/Bruce-Achterberg

[10] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-estimate-boosts-the-human-brain-s-memory-capacity-10-fold/

[11] Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today, George Land

[12] https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/2rgsan/i_am_elon_musk_ceocto_of_a_rocket_company_ama/cnfre0a/

The Terror of Totalitarianism Explained

We all hope totalitarianism — a form of government in which the state has no limits in authority and does whatever it wants — is a thing of the past.

Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia showed what the end of humanity would look like, and it terrified us. But it’s important to understand that totalitarianism didn’t just spring up out of a mystical vacuum. As Hannah Arendt explains in The Origins of Totalitarianism, it is, rather, just one possibility along a path that most countries are on at one time or another. And that is why it is so important to understand what it is.

The People

One of the most disturbing things about Nazism in Germany is how quickly the country changed. They went from democracy to concentration camps in fewer than ten years.

Most of us assume that the Germans of the time were different from us — we’d never fall for the kind of propaganda that Hitler spewed. And our democracy is too strong to be so easily dismantled. Right?

Wrong.

Arendt writes that “the success of totalitarian movements … meant the end of two illusions of democratically ruled countries….” One illusion was that most citizens were politically active and were part of a political party. However,

… the [totalitarian] movements showed that the politically neutral and indifferent masses could easily be the majority in a democratically ruled country, [and] that therefore a democracy could function according to rules which are actively recognized by only a minority. The second democratic illusion exploded by the totalitarian movements was that these politically indifferent masses did not matter, that they were truly neutral and constituted no more than the inarticulate backward setting for the political life of the nation.

In many modern democracies, we can see evidence of indifference and pervasive feelings of helplessness. There is low voter turnout and an assumption that things will be the way they are no matter what an individual does.

There is pent-up energy in apathy. Arendt suggests that the desire to be more than indifferent is what totalitarian movements initially manipulate until the individual is totally subsumed.

The disturbing factor in the success of totalitarianism is … the true selflessness of its adherents: it may be understandable that a Nazi or Bolshevik will not be shaken in his conviction by crimes against people who do not belong to the movement…; but the amazing fact is that neither is he likely to waver when the monster begins to devour its own children and not even if he becomes a victim of persecution himself….

How does totalitarianism incite this kind of fanaticism? How does a political organization “succeed in extinguishing individual identity permanently and not just for the moment of collective heroic action”?

As Arendt demonstrates, both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia capitalized on tensions already present in society. There was essentially a massive rejection of the existing political system as ineffectual and self-serving.

The fall of protecting class walls transformed the slumbering majorities behind all parties into one great unorganized, structureless mass of furious individuals who had nothing in common except their vague apprehension that the hopes of party members were doomed, that, consequently, the most respected, articulate and representative members of the community were fools and that all the powers that be were not so much evil as they were equally stupid and fraudulent.

How does a totalitarian government harness this attitude of the masses? By completely isolating individuals through random “liquidating” (mass murder) so that “the most elementary caution demands that one avoid all intimate contacts, if possible – not in order to prevent discovery of one’s secret thoughts, but rather to eliminate, in the almost certain case of future trouble, all persons who might have not only an ordinary cheap interest in your denunciation but an irresistible need to bring about your ruin simply because they are in danger [in] their own lives.”

It’s important to understand that it is simple to isolate people who already feel isolated. When you feel disconnected from the system around you and the leaders it has, when you believe that neither your vote nor your opinion matters, it’s not a huge leap to feel that your very self has no importance. This feeling is what totalitarianism figured out how to manipulate by random terror that severed any form of connection with other human beings.

Totalitarianism “demand[s] total, unrestricted, unconditional, and unalterable loyalty of the individual member. … Such loyalty can be expected only from the completely isolated human being who, without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement.”

The Politics and Propaganda

Totalitarianism does not have an end goal in the usual political sense. Its only real goal is to perpetuate its own existence. There is no one party line that, if you stick to it, will save you from persecution. Remember the random mass murders. Stalin repeatedly purged whole sections of his government — just because. The fear is a requirement. The fear is what keeps the movement going.

And how do they get there? How do they get this power?

Arendt argues that there is a “possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition.”

This battle with truth is something we see today. Opinions are being given the same weight as facts, leading to endless debates and the assumption that nothing can be known anyway.

It is this turning away from knowledge that opens the doors to totalitarianism. “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”

These fabrications form the basis of the propaganda, with different messages crafted for different audiences. Arendt makes the point that “the necessities for propaganda are always dictated by the outside world and that the movements themselves do not actually propagate but indoctrinate.” Thus, propaganda can be understood as directed to those who are out of the control of the totalitarian movement, and it is used to convince them of its legitimacy. Then, once you are on the inside, it’s about breaking down the individuality of the citizens until there is nothing but a “subdued population.”

The success of the propaganda directed internally demonstrated that “the audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.”

The Power

What does totalitarian rule look like? These states are not run by cliques or gangs. There is no protected group getting rich from this control of the masses. And no one is outside the message. For example, “Stalin … shot almost everybody who could claim to belong to the ruling clique and … moved the members of the Politburo back and forth whenever a clique was on the point of consolidating itself.”

Why no clique? One reason is that the goal of totalitarianism is not the welfare of the state. It is not economic prosperity or social advancement.

The reason why the ingenious devices of totalitarian rule, with their absolute and unsurpassed concentration of power in the hands of a single man, were never tried before is that no ordinary tyrant was ever mad enough to discard all limited and local interests — economic, national, human, military — in favor of a purely fictitious reality in some indefinite distant future.

Since independent thinkers are a threat, they are among the first to be purged. Bureaucratic functions are duplicated and layered, with people being shifted all the time.

This regular violent turnover of the whole gigantic administrative machine, while it prevents the development of competence, has many advantages: it assures the relative youth of officials and prevents a stabilization of conditions which, at least in time of peace, are fraught with danger for totalitarian rule….

Any chances of discontent and questioning of the status quo are eliminated by this perpetual rising of the newly indoctrinated.

The humiliation implicit in owing a job to the unjust elimination of one’s predecessor has the same demoralizing effect that the elimination of the Jews had upon the German professions: it makes every jobholder a conscious accomplice in the crimes of the government….

Totalitarianism in power is about keeping itself in power. By preemptively removing large groups of people, the system neutralizes all those who might question it.

Possibly the one ray of hope in these systems is that because they pay no attention to actually governing, they are not likely to be sustainable in the long run.

The incredibility of the horrors is closely bound up with their economic uselessness. The Nazis carried this uselessness to the point of open anti-utility when in the midst of the war, despite the shortage of building material and rolling stock, they set up enormous, costly extermination factories and transported millions of people back and forth. In the eyes of a strictly utilitarian world the obvious contradiction between these acts and military expediency gave the whole enterprise an air of mad unreality.

But in the meantime, what these regimes create is so devastating to humanity that it would be naive to assume that humanity will always bounce back. “They have corrupted all human solidarity. Here the night has fallen on the future. When no witnesses are left, there can be no testimony.”

Even though totalitarianism doesn’t produce countries with a variety of strengths and a robustness to fight off significant challenges, they should not be easily dismissed. The carnage they create tears apart all social fabric. And we must not assume that they exist only in the past. Thus, from Hannah Arendt, a final word of caution: “Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.”

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Pyrrhic Victory: Winning the Battle, Losing the War

“War ends at the moment when peace permanently wins out. Not when the articles of surrender are signed or the last shot is fired, but when the last shout of a sidewalk battle fades, when the next generation starts to wonder whether the whole thing ever really happened.”

— Lee Sandlin

The Basics

In a classic American folktale, a stubborn railroad worker decides to prove his skill by competing with a drilling machine. John Henry, enraged to hear that machines might take his job, claims that his digging abilities are superior. A contest is arranged. He goes head to head with the new drill. The result is impressive — the drill breaks after three meters, whereas John Henry makes it to four meters in the same amount of time. As the other workers begin to celebrate his victory, he collapses and dies of exhaustion.

John Henry might have been victorious against the drill, but that small win was meaningless in the face of his subsequent death. In short, we can say that he won the battle but lost the war.

Winning a battle but losing the war is a military mental model that refers to achieving a minor victory that ultimately results in a larger defeat, rendering the victory empty or hollow. It can also refer to gaining a small tactical advantage that corresponds to a wider disadvantage.

One particular type of hollow victory is the Pyrrhic victory, which Wikipedia defines as a victory that “inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat.” That devastating toll can come in the form of an enormous number of casualties, the wasting of resources, high financial costs, damage to land, and other losses. Or, in that folktale, the death of the railroad worker.

Another hollow victory occurs when you engage in a conventional war and prompt a response from an opponent who has significantly more firepower than you do. The attack on Pearl Harbor was considered a victory for the Japanese. However, by provoking an army with superior forces, they set something in motion they could not control.

While the concept of a hollow victory arises in military contexts, understanding the broader principle allows you to apply it to other areas of life. It can often be helpful in the context of non-zero-sum situations, in which both parties suffer even if one has technically succeeded.

We have won a battle but lost a war whenever we achieve some minor aim that leads to wider loss.

We have won a battle but lost a war whenever we achieve some minor (or even major) aim that leads to wider loss. We might win an argument with a partner over a small infraction, only to come across as hostile and damage the relationship. We may achieve a short-term professional goal by working overtime, only to harm our health and reduce our long-term productivity. We might pursue a particular career for the sake of money, but feel unfulfilled and miserable in the process.

“Grand strategy is the art of looking beyond the present battle and calculating ahead. It requires that you focus on your ultimate goal and plot to reach it.”

— Robert Greene, The 33 Strategies of War

The Original Pyrrhic Victory

The term “Pyrrhic victory” is named after the Greek king Pyrrhus of Epirus. Between 280 and 279 BC, Pyrrhus’s army managed to defeat the Romans in two major battles. Striding into Italy with 25,000 men and 20 elephants — a new sight for the Romans — Pyrrhus was confident that he could extend his empire. However, the number of lives lost in the process made the victory meaningless. According to Plutarch, Pyrrhus is said to have told a friend that another victory against the Romans would “utterly undo him.”

Pyrrhus did not have access to anywhere near enough potential recruits to replenish his army. He had, after all, lost most of his men, including the majority of his friends and commanders. Meanwhile, the Romans were only temporarily defeated. They could replace their lost soldiers with relative ease. Even worse, the two losses had enraged the Romans and made them more willing to continue fighting. The chastened king gathered his remaining troops and sailed back to Greece.

The Battle of Bunker Hill

A classic example of a Pyrrhic victory is the Battle of Bunker Hill, fought on June 17th, 1775, during the American Revolutionary War. Colonial and British troops grappled for control of the strategically advantageous Bunker Hill in Massachusetts.

Four days earlier, on June 13th, the colonial army received intelligence that the British were planning to take control of the hills around Boston, which would give them greater authority over the nearby harbor. About 1200 colonial soldiers situated themselves on the hills, while others spread throughout the surrounding area. The British army, realizing this, mounted an attack.

The British army succeeded in their aim after the colonial army ran out of ammunition. Yet the Battle of Bunker Hill was anything but a true victory, because the British lost a substantial number of men, including 100 of their officers. This left the British army depleted (having sustained 1000 casualties), low on resources, and without proper management.

This Pyrrhic victory was unexpected; the British troops had far more experience and outnumbered the colonial army by almost 2:1. The Battle of Bunker Hill sapped British morale but was somewhat motivating for the colonials, who had sustained less than half the number of casualties.

In The American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the situation is described this way:

… the British were stopped by heavy fire from the colonial troops barricaded behind rail fences that had been stuffed with grass, hay, and brush. On the second or third advance, however, the attackers carried the redoubt and forced the surviving defenders, mostly exhausted and weaponless, to flee. …

If the British had followed this victory with an attack on Dorchester Heights to the South of Boston, it might have been worth the heavy cost. But, presumably, because of their severe losses and the fighting spirit displayed by the rebels, the British commanders abandoned or indefinitely postponed such a plan. Consequently, after Gen. George Washington took colonial command two weeks later, enough heavy guns and ammunition had been collected that he was able in March 1776 to seize and fortify Dorchester Heights and compel the British to evacuate Boston.… Also, the heavy losses inflicted on the British in the Battle of Bunker Hill bolstered the Americans’ confidence and showed that the relatively inexperienced colonists could indeed fight on par with the mighty redcoats of the British army.

In The War of the American Revolution, Robert W. Coakley writes of the impact of Bunker Hill:

Bunker Hill was a Pyrrhic victory, its strategic effect practically nil since the two armies remained in virtually the same position they had held before. Its consequences, nevertheless, cannot be ignored. A force of farmers and townsmen, fresh from their fields and shops, with hardly a semblance of orthodox military organization, had met and fought on equal terms with a professional British army. …[N]ever again would British commanders lightly attempt such an assault on Americans in fortified positions.

“I wish we could sell them another hill at the same price.”

— Nathanael Greene, leader of the colonial army

The Battle of Borodino

Fought on September 7, 1812, the Battle of Borodino was the bloodiest day of the Napoleonic Wars. The French army (led by Napoleon) sought to invade Russia. Roughly a quarter of a million soldiers fought at the Battle of Borodino, with more than 70,000 casualties. Although the French army succeeded in forcing the Russians into retreat, their victory was scarcely a triumphant one. Both sides ended up depleted and low on morale without having achieved their respective aims.

The Battle of Borodino is considered a Pyrrhic victory because the French army destroyed itself in the process of capturing Moscow. The Russians had no desire to surrender, and the conflict was more costly for the French than for their opponent.
By the time Napoleon’s men began their weary journey back to France, they had little reason to consider themselves victorious. The Battle of Borodino had no clear purpose, as no tactical advantage was gained. Infighting broke out and Napoleon eventually lost both the war and his role as leader of France.

History has shown again and again that attempting to take over Russia is rarely a good idea. Napoleon was at a serious disadvantage to begin with. The country’s size and climate made tactical movements difficult. Bringing supplies in proved nearly impossible, and the French soldiers easily succumbed to cold, starvation, and infectious diseases. Even as they hastened to retreat, the Russian army recovered its lost men quickly and continued to whittle away at the remaining French soldiers. Of the original 95,000 French troops, a mere 23,000 returned from Russia (exact figures are impossible to ascertain due to each side’s exaggerating or downplaying the losses). The Russian approach to defeating the French is best described as attrition warfare – a stubborn, unending wearing down. Napoleon might have won the Battle of Borodino, but in the process he lost everything he had built during his time as a leader and his army was crushed.

Pyrrhic victories often serve as propaganda in the long term – for the losing side, not the victors.

Something we can note from both Borodino and Bunker Hill is that Pyrrhic victories often serve as propaganda in the long term – for the losing side, not for the victors. As the adage goes, history is written by winners. A Latin saying, ad victorem spolias – to the victor belong the spoils – exemplifies this idea. Except that it doesn’t quite ring true when it comes to Pyrrhic victories, which tend to be a source of shame for the winning side. In the case of Borodino, it became an emblem of patriotism and pride for the Russians.

“[I]t is much better to lose a battle and win the war than to win a battle and lose the war. Resolve to keep your eyes on the big ball.”

— David J. Schwartz, The Magic of Thinking Big

Hollow Victories in Business

A company has won a Pyrrhic victory when it leverages all available resources to take over another company, only to be ruined by the financial costs and the loss of key employees. Businesses can also ruin themselves over lawsuits that drain resources, distract managers, and get negative attention in the press.

American Apparel is one instance of a company ending up bankrupt, partially as a result of mounting legal fees. The exact causes of the company’s downfall are not altogether understood, though a number of lawsuits are believed to have been a major factor. It began with a series of sexual harassment lawsuits against founder Dov Charney.

American Apparel’s board of directors fired Charney after the growing fees associated with defending him began harming the company’s finances (as well as its reputation). Charney responded by attempting a hostile takeover, as unwilling to surrender control of the company he founded as Czar Alexander was to surrender Moscow to Napoleon. More lawsuits followed as American Apparel shareholders and board members seemingly sued everyone in sight and were sued by suppliers, by more than 200 former employees, and by patent holders.

As everyone involved focused on winning their respective battles, the company ended up filing for bankruptcy and losing the war. In short, everyone suffered substantial losses, from Charney himself to the many factory workers who were made redundant.

Hollow Victories in Court Cases

Hollow victories are common in the legal system. For example, consider the following scenarios:

  • A divorced couple engages in a lengthy, tedious legal battle over the custody of their children. Eventually, they are given shared custody. Yet the tense confrontations associated with the court case have alienated the children from their parents and removed tens of thousands of dollars from the collective purse.
  • A man unknowingly puts up trees that slightly cross over into his neighbor’s property. The man tries to come to a compromise by perhaps trimming the trees or allowing the neighbor to cross into his property in exchange for leaving the trees up. No dice; the neighbor sticks to his guns. Unable to resolve the matter, the neighbor sues the man and wins, forcing him to cut down the trees and pay all legal expenses. While the neighbor has technically won the case, he now has an enemy next door, and enemies up and down the street who think he’s a Scrooge.
  • A freelance illustrator discovers that her work has been used without permission or payment by a non-profit group that printed her designs on T-shirts and sold them, with the proceeds going to charity. The illustrator sues them and wins for copyright infringement, but costs herself and the charity substantial legal fees. Unhappy that the illustrator sued a charity instead of making a compromise, the public boycotts her and she has trouble selling her future work.
  • A well-known business magnate discovers that his children are suing him for the release of trust fund money they believe they are owed. He counter-sues, arguing publicly that his children are greedy and don’t deserve the money. He wins the case on a legal technicality, but both his public image and his relationships with his children are tarnished. He’s kept his money, but not his happiness.

A notable instance of a legal Pyrrhic victory was the decade-long McLibel case, the longest running case in English history. The fast-food chain McDonald’s attempted to sue two environmental activists, Helen Steel and David Morris, over leaflets they distributed. McDonald’s claimed the contents of the leaflets were false. Steel and Morris claimed they were true.

Court hearings found that both parties were both wrong – some of the claims were verifiable; others were fabricated. After ten years of tedious litigation and negative media attention, McDonald’s won the case, but it was far from worthwhile. The (uncollected) £40,000 settlement they were awarded was paltry compared to the millions the legal battle had cost the company. Meanwhile, Steel and Morris chose to represent themselves and spent only £30,000 (both had limited income and did not receive Legal Aid).

Although McDonald’s did win the case, it came with enormous costs, both financially and in reputation. The case attracted a great deal of media attention as a result of its David-vs.-Goliath nature. The idea of two unemployed activists taking on an international corporation had an undeniable appeal, and the portrayals of McDonald’s were unanimously negative. The case did far more harm to their reputation than a few leaflets distributed in London would have. At one point, McDonald’s attempted to placate Steel and Morris by offering to donate money to a charity of their choice, provided that they stopped criticizing the company publicly and did so only “in private with friends.” The pair responded that they would accept the terms if McDonald’s halted any form of advertising and staff recommended it only “in private with friends.”

“Do not be ashamed to make a temporary withdrawal from the field if you see that your enemy is stronger than you; it is not winning or losing a single battle that matters, but how the war ends.”

— Paulo Coelho, Warrior of the Light

Hollow Victories in Politics

Theresa May’s General Election win is a perfect example of a political Pyrrhic victory, as is the Brexit vote the year prior.

Much like Napoleon at Borodino, David Cameron achieved his aims, only to lose his role as a leader in the process. And much like the French soldiers who defeated the Russians at Borodino, only to find themselves limping home through snow and ice, the triumphant Leave voters now face a drop in wages and general quality of life, making the fulfilment of their desire to leave the European Union seem somewhat hollow. Elderly British people (the majority of whom voted to leave) must deal with dropping pensions and potentially worse healthcare due to reduced funding. Voters won the battle but at a cost that is unknown.

Even before the shock of the Brexit vote had worn off, Britain saw a second dramatic Pyrrhic victory: Theresa May’s train-wreck General Election. Amid soaring inflation, May aimed to win a clear majority and secure her leadership. Although she was not voted out of office, her failure to receive unanimous support only served to weaken her position. Continued economic decline has weakened it further.

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

How We Can Avoid Hollow Victories in Our Lives

One important lesson we can learn from hollow victories is the value of focusing on the bigger picture, rather than chasing smaller goals.

One way to avoid winning a battle but losing the war is to think in terms of opportunity costs. Charlie Munger has said that “All intelligent people use opportunity cost to make decisions”; maybe what he should have said is that “All intelligent people should use opportunity cost to make decisions.”

Consider a businessman, well versed in opportunity cost economics, who chooses to work late every night instead of spending time with his family, whom he then alienates and eventually becomes distanced from. The opportunity cost of the time spent at the office between 7-10 pm wasn’t just TV, or dinner, or any other thing he would have done were he at home. It was a good long-term relationship with his wife and children! Talk about opportunity costs! Putting in the late hours may have helped him with the “battle” of business, but what about the “war” of life? Unfortunately, many people realize too late that they paid too high a price for their achievements or victories.

Hollow victories can occur as a result of a person or party focusing on a single goal – winning a lawsuit, capturing a hill, winning an election – while ignoring the wider implications. It’s like looking at the universe by peering into one small corner of space with a telescope.

As was noted earlier, this mental model isn’t relevant just in military, legal, or political contexts; hollow victories can occur in every part of our lives, including relationships, health, personal development, and careers. Understanding military tactics and concepts can teach us a great deal about being effective leaders, achieving our goals, maintaining relationships, and more.

It’s obvious that we should avoid Pyrrhic victories wherever possible, but how do we do that? In spite of situations differing vastly, there are some points to keep in mind:

  • Zoom out to see the big picture. By stepping back when we get too focused on minutiae, we can pay more attention to the war, not just the battle. Imagine that you are at the gym when you feel a sharp pain in your leg. You ignore it and finish the workout, despite the pain increasing with each rep. Upon visiting a doctor, you find you have a serious injury and will be unable to exercise until it heals. If you had focused on the bigger picture, you would have stopped the workout, preventing a minor injury from getting worse, and been able to get back to your workouts sooner.
  • Keep in mind core principles and focus on overarching goals. When Napoleon sacrificed thousands of his men in a bid to take control of Moscow, he forgot his core role as the leader of the French people. His own country should have been the priority, but he chose to chase more power and ended up losing everything. When we risk something vital – our health, happiness, or relationships – we run the risk of a Pyrrhic victory.
  • Recognize that we don’t have to lose our minds just because everyone else has. As Warren Buffett once said, “be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.” Or, as Nathan Rothschild wrote, “great fortunes are made when cannonballs fall in the harbor, not when violins play in the ballroom.” When others are thrashing to win a battle, we would do well to pay attention to the war. What can we notice that they ignore? If we can’t (or don’t want to) resolve the turmoil, how can we benefit from it?
  • Recognize when to give up. We cannot win every battle we engage in, but we can sometimes win the war. In some situations, the optimum choice is to withdraw or surrender to avoid irreparable problems. The goal is not the quick boost from a short-term victory; it is the valuable satisfaction of long-term success.
  • Remember that underdogs can win – or at least put up a good fight. Remember what the British learned the hard way at Bunker Hill, and what it cost McDonald’s to win the McLibel case. Even if we think we can succeed against a seemingly weaker party, that victory can come at a very high cost.

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Making the Most of Second Chances

We all get lucky. Once in a while we do something really stupid that could have resulted in death, but didn’t. Just the other day, I saw someone who was texting walk out into oncoming traffic, narrowly avoiding the car whose driver slammed on the brakes. As the adrenaline starts to dissipate, we realize that we don’t ever want to be in that situation again. What can we do? We can make the most of our second chances by building margins of safety into our lives.

What is a margin of safety and where can I get one?

The concept is a cornerstone of engineering. Engineers design systems to withstand significantly more emergencies, unexpected loads, misuse, or degradation than would normally be expected.

Take a bridge. You are designing a bridge to cross just under two hundred feet of river. The bridge has two lanes going in each direction. Given the average car size, the bridge could reasonably carry 50 to 60 cars at a time. At 4,000 pounds per car, your bridge needs to be able to carry at least 240,000 pounds of weight; otherwise, don’t bother building it. So that’s the minimum consideration for safety — but only the worst engineer would stop there.

Can anyone walk across your bridge? Can anyone park their car on the shoulder? What if cars get heavier? What if 20 cement trucks are on the bridge at the same time? How does the climate affect the integrity of your materials over time? You don’t want the weight capacity of the bridge to ever come close to the actual load. Otherwise, one seagull decides to land on the railing and the whole structure collapses.

Considering these questions and looking at the possibilities is how you get the right information so you can adjust your specs to build in a margin of safety. That’s the difference between what your system is expected to withstand and what it actually could. So when you are designing a bridge, the first step is to figure out the maximum load it should ever see (bumper-to-bumper vehicles, hordes of tourist groups, and birds perched wing to wing), and then you design for at least double that load.

Knowing that the infrastructure was designed to withstand significantly more than the anticipated maximum load makes us happy when we are on bridges, or in airplanes, or jumping on the bed in our second-story bedroom. We feel confident that many smart people have conspired to make these activities as safe as possible. We’re so sure of this that it almost never crosses our minds. Sure, occasional accidents happen. But it is remarkably reassuring that these structures can withstand quite a bit of the unexpected.

So how do we make ourselves a little more resilient? Less susceptible to the vagaries of change? Turns out that engineers aren’t the only ones obsessed with building in margins of safety. Spies are pretty good at it, too, and we can learn a lot from them.

Operation Kronstadt, by Harry Ferguson, chronicles the remarkable story of Paul Dukes, the only British secret agent working in Russia in 1919, and the equally amazing adventures of the small team that was sent in to rescue him.

Paul Dukes was not an experienced spy. He was actually a pianist. It was his deep love of Russian culture that led to him to approach his government and volunteer for the mission of collecting information on Bolshevik activities in St. Petersburg. As Ferguson writes, “Paul had no military experience, let alone any experience of intelligence work and yet they were going to send him back into one of the toughest espionage environments in the world.”

However, MI6, the part of British Intelligence that Paul worked for, wasn’t exactly the powerful and well-prepared agency that it’s portrayed as today. Consider this description by Ferguson: “having dragged Paul out of Russia, MI6 did not appear to have given much thought to how he should get back or how he would survive once he got there: ‘As to the means whereby you gain access to the country, under what cover you will live there, and how you will send out reports, we shall leave it to you, being best informed as to the conditions’.”

So off went Paul into Russia, not as a musician but as a spy. No training, no gadgets, no emergency network, no safe houses. Just a bunch of money and sentiments of ‘good luck’. So it is all the more amazing that Paul Dukes turned out to be an excellent spy. After reading his story, I think the primary reason for this is that he learned extremely quickly from his experiences. One of the things he learned quickly was how to build margins of safety into his tradecraft.

There is no doubt that the prospect of death wakes us up. We don’t often think about how dangerous something can be until we almost die doing it. Then, thanks to our big brains that let us learn from experience, we adapt. We recognize that if we don’t, we might not be so lucky next time. And no one wants to rely on luck as a survival strategy.

This is where margins of safety come in. We build them to reduce the precariousness of chance.

Imagine you are in St. Petersburg in 1919. What you have going for you is that you speak the language, understand the culture, and know the streets. Your major problem is that you have no idea how to start this spying thing. How do you get contacts and build a network in a city that is under psychological siege? The few names you have been given come from dubious sources at the border, and the people attached to those names may have been compromised, arrested, or both. You have nowhere to sleep at night, and although you have some money, it can’t buy anything, not even food, because there is nothing for sale. The whole country is on rations.

Not to mention, if by some miracle you actually get a few good contacts who give you useful information, how do you get it home? There are no cell phones or satellites. Your passport is fake and won’t hold up to any intense scrutiny, yet all your intelligence has to be taken out by hand from a country that has sealed its borders. And it’s 1919. You can’t hop on a plane or drive a car. Train or foot are your only options.

This is what Paul Dukes faced. Daunting to be sure. Which is why his ultimate success reads like the improbable plot of a Hollywood movie. Although he made mistakes, he learned from them as they were happening.

Consider this tense moment as described by Ferguson:

The doorbell in the flat rang loudly and Paul awoke with a start.

He had slept late. Stepanova had kindly allowed him sleep in one of the spare beds and she had even found him an old pair of Ivan’s pyjamas. There were no sheets, but there were plenty of blankets and Paul had been cosy and warm. Now it was 7.45 a.m., and here he was half-asleep and without his clothes. Suppose it was the Cheka [Russian Bolshevik Police] at the door? In a panic he realised that he had no idea what to do. The windows of the apartment were too high for him to jump from and like a fool he had chosen a hiding place with no other exits. … He was reduced to waiting nervously as he stood in Ivan’s pyjamas whilst Stepanova shuffled to the door to find out who it was. As he stood there with his stomach in knots, Paul swore that he would never again sleep in a place from which there was only one exit.

One exit was good enough for normal, anticipated use. But one exit wouldn’t allow him to adapt to the unexpected, the unusual load produced by the appearance of the state police. So from then on, his sleeping accommodations were chosen with a minimum margin of safety of two exits.

This type of thinking dictated a lot of his actions. He never stayed at the same house more than two nights in a row, and often moved after just one night. He arranged for the occupants to signal him, such as by placing a plant in the window, if they believed the house was unsafe. He siloed knowledge as much as he could, never letting the occupants of one safe house know about the others. Furthermore, as Ferguson writes:

He also arranged a back-up plan in case the Cheka finally got him. He had to pick one trustworthy agent … and soon Paul began entrusting her with all the details of his movements and told her at which safe house he would be sleeping so that if he did disappear MI6 would have a better idea of who had betrayed him. He even used her as part of his courier service and she hid all his reports in the float while he was waiting for someone who could take them out of the country.

Admittedly this plan didn’t provide a large margin of safety, but at least he wasn’t so arrogant as to assume he was never going to get captured.

Large margins of safety are not always possible. Sometimes they are too expensive. Sometimes they are not available. Dukes liked to have an extra identity handy should some of his dubious contacts turn him in, but this wasn’t always an option in a country that changed identity papers frequently. Most important, though, he was aware that planning for the unexpected was his best chance of staying alive, even if he couldn’t always put in place as large a margin of safety as he would have liked. And survival was a daily challenge, not something to take for granted.

The disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant taught us a lot about being cavalier regarding margins of safety. The unexpected is just that: not anticipated. That doesn’t mean it is impossible or even improbable. The unexpected is not the worst thing that has happened before. It is the worst thing, given realistic parameters such as the laws of physics, that could happen.

In the Fukushima case, the margin of safety was good enough to deal with the weather of the recent past. But preparing for the worst we have seen is not the same as preparing for the worst.

The Fukushima power plant was overwhelmed by a tsunami, creating a nuclear disaster on par with Chernobyl. Given the seismic activity in the area, although a tsunami wasn’t predictable, it was certainly possible. The plant could have been designed with a margin of safety to better withstand a tsunami. It wasn’t. Why? Because redundancy is expensive. That’s the trade-off. You are safer, but it costs more money.

Sometimes when the stakes are low, we decide the trade-off isn’t worth it. For instance, maybe we wouldn’t pay to insure a wedding ring that wasn’t expensive. You would think, however, that power plants wouldn’t cut it close. The consequences of a lost ring are some emotional pain and the cost of a new one. The consequences of a nuclear accident are exponentially higher. Lives are lost, and the environment corrupted. In the Fukushima case, the world will be dealing with the negative effects for a long time.

What decisions would you make differently if you were factoring safety margins into your life? To be fair, you can’t put them everywhere. Otherwise, your life might be all margin and no living. But you can identify the maximum load your life is currently designed to withstand and figure out how close to it you are coming.

For example, having your expenses equal 100 percent of your income is allowing you no flexibility in the load you have to carry. A job loss, a bad flood in your neighborhood, or significant sickness are all unexpected events that would change the load your financial structure has to support. Without a margin of safety, such as a healthy savings or investment account, you could find your structure collapsing, compromising the roof over your head.

The idea is to identify the unlikely but possible risks to your survival and build margins of safety that will allow you to continue your lifestyle should these things come to pass. That way, a missed paycheck will be easily absorbed instead of jeopardizing your ability to put food on the table.

To figure out where else you should build margins of safety into your life, think of the times you’ve been terrified and desperate. Those might be good places to start learning from experience and making the most of your second chances.

The Narratives of History: Applying Lessons from the Past

“History is written by the winners” is the popular view. But your winner may not be my winner. A lot depends on the narrative you are trying to build.

History is rewritten all the time.

Sometimes it is rewritten because new information has come to light, perhaps from an archeological find or previously classified documents. When this happens, it is exciting. We joyfully anticipate that more information will deepen our understanding.

But rewriting frequently happens in the service of building a cultural or national narrative. We highlight bits of the past that support our perceived identities and willfully ignore the details that don’t fit. We like our history uncomplicated. It’s hard for us to understand our groups or our countries, and by extension ourselves, as both good and not-good at the same time.

Culture is collective memory. It’s the interwoven stories that we use to explain who we are as nations, organizations, or just loosely formed groups.

Many of us belong to multiple cultural groups, but only one national group. Margaret MacMillan, in The Uses and Abuses of History, explains that “Collective memory is more about the present than the past because it is integral to how the group sees itself.” And “while collective memory is usually grounded in fact, it need not be.”

We have seen how people justify all kinds of mistakes to preserve the personal narratives they are invested in, and groups also engage in this behavior. Countries rewrite their histories, from the textbook up, to support how they see themselves now. Instinctively we may recoil from this idea, believing that it’s better to turn over all the rocks and confront what is lurking underneath. However, as MacMillan writes, “It can be dangerous to question the stories people tell about themselves because so much of our identity is both shaped by and bound up with our history. That is why dealing with the past, in deciding on which version we want, or on what we want to remember and to forget, can become so politically charged.”

For example, when Canada’s new war museum opened, controversy immediately ensued because part of the World War II exhibit called attention “to the continuing debate over both the efficacy and the morality of the strategy of the Royal Air Force’s bomber command, which sought to destroy Germany’s capacity to fight on by massive bombing of German industrial and civilian targets.” RAF veterans were outraged that their actions were considered morally ambiguous. Critics of the exhibit charged that the veterans should have the final say because, after all, “they were there.”

We can see that this rationale makes no sense. Galilean relativity shows that the pilots who flew the bombing campaigns are actually the least likely to have an objective understanding of the events. And the ends don’t always justify the means. It is possible to do bad things in the pursuit of morally justified outcomes.

MacMillan warns that the danger of abusing history is that it “flattens out the complexity of human experience and leaves no room for different interpretations of the past.”

Which leaves us asking, What do we want from history? Do we want to learn from it, with the hopes that in doing so we will avoid mistakes by understanding the experiences of others? Or do we want to practice self-justification on a national level, reinforcing what we already believe about ourselves in order to justify what we did and what we are doing? After all, “you could almost always find a basis for your claims in the past if you looked hard enough.”

As with medicine, there is a certain fallibility to history. Our propensity to fool ourselves with self-justified narratives is hard to overcome. If we selectively use the past only to reinforce our claims in the present, then the situation becomes precarious when there is pressure to change. Instead of looking as objectively as possible at history, welcoming historians who challenge us, we succumb to confirmation bias, allowing only those interpretations that are consistent with the narrative we are invested in.

Consider what MacMillan writes about nationalism, which “is a very late development indeed in terms of human history.”

It all started so quietly in the nineteenth century. Scholars worked on languages, classifying them into different families and trying to determine how far back into history they went. They discovered rules to explain changes in language and were able to establish, at least to their own satisfaction, that texts centuries old were written in early forms of, for example, German or French. Ethnographers like the Grimm brothers collected German folk tales as a way of showing that there was something called the German nation in the Middle Ages. Historians worked assiduously to recover old stories and pieced together the history of what they chose to call their nation as though it had an unbroken existence since antiquity. Archaeologists claimed to have found evidence that showed where such nations had once lived, and where they had moved to during the great waves of migrations.

The cumulative result was to create an unreal yet influential version of how nations formed. While it could not be denied that different peoples, from Goths to Slavs, had moved into and across Europe, mingling as they did so with peoples already there, such a view assumed that at some point, generally in the Middle Ages, the music had stopped. The dancing pieces had fallen into their chairs, one for the French, another for the Germans and yet another for the Poles. And there history had fixed them as “nations.” German historians, for example, could depict an ancient German nation whose ancestors had lived happily in their forests from before the time of the Roman Empire and which at some time, probably in the first century A.D., had become recognisably “German.” So — and this was the dangerous question — what was properly the German nation’s land? Or the land of any other “nation”? Was it where the people now lived, where they had lived at the time of their emergence in history, or both?

Would the scholars have gone on with their speculations if they could have seen what they were preparing the way for? The bloody wars that created Italy and Germany? The passions and hatred that tore apart the old multinational Austria-Hungary? The claims, on historical grounds, by new and old nations after World War I for the same pieces of territory? The hideous regimes of Hitler and Mussolini with their elevation of the nation and the race to the supreme good and their breathtaking demands for the lands of others?

When we selectively reach back into the past to justify claims in the present, we reduce the complexity of history and of humanity. This puts us in an awkward position because the situations we are confronted with are inherently complex. If we cut ourselves off from the full scope of history because it makes us uncomfortable, or doesn’t fit with the cultural narrative in which we live, we reduce our ability to learn from the past and apply those lessons to the situations we are facing today.

MacMillan says, “There are also many lessons and much advice offered by history, and it is easy to pick and choose what you want. The past can be used for almost anything you want to do in the present. We abuse it when we create lies about the past or write histories that show only one perspective. We can draw our lessons carefully or badly. That does not mean we should not look to history for understanding, support and help; it does mean that we should do so with care.”

We need to accept that people can do great things while still having flaws. Our heroes don’t have to be perfect, and we can learn just as much from their imperfections as from their achievements.

We have to allow that there are at least two sides to every story, and we have to be willing to listen to both. There are no conflicts in which one side doesn’t feel morally justified in their actions; that’s why your terrorist can be my freedom fighter. History can be an important part of bridging this divide only if we are willing to lift up all the rocks and shine our lights on what is lurking underneath.

Finding Truth in History

If we are to learn from the past, does the account of it have to be true? One would like to think so. Otherwise you might be preparing for the wrong battle. There you are, geared up for mountains, and instead you find swamps. You’ve done a bunch of reading, trying to understand the terrain you are about to enter, only to find it useless. The books must have been written by crazy people. You are upset and confused. Surely there must be some reliable, objective account of the past. How are you supposed to prepare for the possibilities of the future if you can’t trust the accuracy of the reports on anything that has come before?

For why do we study history, anyway? Why keep a record of things that have happened? We fear that if we don’t, we are doomed to repeat history; but often that doesn’t seem to stop us from repeating it. And we have an annoying tendency to remember only the things which don’t really challenge or upset us. But still we try to capture what we can, through museums and ceremonies and study, because somehow we believe that eventually we will come to learn something about why things happen the way they do. And armed with this knowledge, we might even be able to shape our future.

This “problem of historical truth” is explored by Isaiah Berlin in The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History. He explains that Tolstoy was driven by a “desire to penetrate to first causes, to understand how and why things happen as they do and not otherwise.” We can understand this goal – because if we know how the world really works, we know everything.

Of course, it’s not that simple, and — spoiler alert — Tolstoy never figured it out. But Berlin’s analysis can illuminate the challenges we face with history and help us find something to learn from.

Tolstoy’s main problem with historical efforts at the time was that they were “nothing but a collection of fables and useless trifles. … History does not reveal causes; it presents only a blank succession of unexplained events.” Seen like this, the study of history is a waste of time, other than for trivia games or pub quizzes. Being able to recite what happened is supremely uninteresting if you can’t begin to understand why it happened in the first place.

But Tolstoy was also an expert at tearing down the theories of anyone who attempted to make sense of history and provide the why. He thought that they “must be imposters, since no theories can possibly fit the immense variety of possible human behavior, the vast multiplicity of minute, undiscoverable causes and effects which form that interplay of men and nature which history purports to record.”

History is more than just factoids, but its complexity makes it difficult for us to learn exactly why things happened the way they did.

And therein lies the spectrum of the problem for Tolstoy. History is more than just factoids, but its complexity makes it difficult for us to learn exactly why things happened the way they did. A battle is more than dates and times, but trying to trace the real impact of the decisions of Napoleon or Churchill is a fool’s errand. There is too much going on – too many decisions and interactions happening in every moment – for us to be able to conclude cause and effect with any certainty. After leaving an ice cube to melt on a table, you can’t untangle exactly what happened with each molecule from the puddle. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from history; it means only that we need to be careful with the lessons we draw and the confidence we have in them.

Berlin explains:

There is a particularly vivid simile [in War and Peace] in which the great man is likened to the ram whom the shepherd is fattening for slaughter. Because the ram duly grows fatter, and perhaps is used as a bellwether for the rest of the flock, he may easily imagine that he is the leader of the flock, and that the other sheep go where they go solely in obedience to his will. He thinks this and the flock may think it too. Nevertheless the purpose of his selection is not the role he believes himself to play, but slaughter – a purpose conceived by beings whose aims neither he nor the other sheep can fathom. For Tolstoy, Napoleon is just such a ram, and so to some degree is Alexander, and indeed all the great men of history.

Arguing against this view of history was N. I. Kareev, who said:

…it is men, doubtless, who make social forms, but these forms – the ways in which men live – in their turn affect those born into them; individual wills may not be all-powerful, but neither are they totally impotent, and some are more effective than others. Napoleon may not be a demigod, but neither is he a mere epiphenomenon of a process which would have occurred unaltered without him.

This means that studying the past is important for making better decisions in the future. If we can’t always follow the course of cause and effect, we can at least discover some very strong correlations and act accordingly.

We have a choice between these two perspectives: Either we can treat history as an impenetrable fog, or we can figure out how to use history while accepting that each day might reveal more and we may have to update our thinking.

Sound familiar? Sounds a lot like the scientific method to me – a preference for updating the foundation of knowledge versus being adrift in chaos or attached to a raft that cannot be added to.

Berlin argues that Tolstoy spent his life trying to find a theory strong enough to unify everything. A way to build a foundation so strong that all arguments would crumble against it. Although that endeavor was ambitious, we don’t need to fully understand the why of history in order to be able to learn from it. We don’t need the foundation of the past to be solid and fixed in order to gain some insight into our future. We can still find some truth in history.

How?

Funnily enough, Berlin clarifies that Tolstoy “believed that only by patient empirical observation could any knowledge be obtained.” But he also believed “that simple people often know the truth better than learned men, because their observation of men and nature is less clouded by empty theories.”

Unhelpfully, Tolstoy’s position amounts to “the more you know, the less you learn.”

The answer to finding truth in history is not to be found in Tolstoy’s writing. He was looking for “something too indivisibly simple and remote from normal intellectual processes to be assailable by the instruments of reason, and therefore, perhaps, offering a path to peace and salvation.” He never was able to conclude what that might be.

But there might be an answer in how Berlin interprets Tolstoy’s major dissonance in life, the discrepancy that drove him and was never resolved. Tolstoy “tried to resolve the glaring contradiction between what he believed about men and events, and what he thought he believed, or ought to believe.”

Finding truth in history is about understanding that this truth is not absolute. In this sense, truth is based on perspective. The perspective of the person who captured it and the person interpreting it. And the perspective of the translators and editors and primary sources. We don’t get to be invisible observers of moments in the past, and we don’t get to go into other minds. The best we can do is keep our eyes open and keep our biases in check. And what history can teach us is found not just in the moments it tries to describe, but also in what we choose to look at and how we choose to represent it.