Tag: History

Yuval Noah Harari: Why We Dominate the Earth

Why did Homo sapiens diverge from the rest of the animal kingdom and go on to dominate the earth? Communication? Cooperation? According to best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari, that barely scratches the surface.

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Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens is one of those uniquely breathtaking books that comes along but rarely. It’s broad, but scientific. It’s written for a popular audience, but never feels dumbed down. It’s new and fresh, but not based on any new primary research. Sapiens is pure synthesis.

Readers will easily recognize the influence of Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, The Third Chimpanzee, and other similarly broad-yet-scientific works with vast synthesis and explanatory power. It’s not surprising, then, that Harari, a history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has noted Diamond’s contributions to his thinking. Harari says:

It [Guns, Germs, and Steel] made me realize that you can ask the biggest questions about history and try to give them scientific answers. But in order to do so, you have to give up the most cherished tools of historians. I was taught that if you’re going to study something, you must understand it deeply and be familiar with primary sources. But if you write a history of the whole world you can’t do this. That’s the trade-off.

Harari sought to understand the history of humankind’s domination of the earth and its development of complex modern societies. He applies ideas from evolutionary theory, forensic anthropology, genetics, and the basic tools of the historian to generate a new conception of our past: humankind’s success was due to our ability to create and sustain grand, collaborative myths.

To make the narrative more palatable and sensible, we must take a different perspective. Calling us humans keeps us too close to the story to have an accurate view. We’re not as unique as we would like to believe. In fact, we’re just another animal. We are Homo sapiens. Because of this, our history can be described just like that of any other species. Harari labels us like any other species, calling us “Sapiens” so we can depersonalize things and allow the author the room he needs to make some bold statements about the history of humanity.  Our successes, failures, flaws and credits are part of the makeup of the Sapiens.[1]

Sapiens existed long before there was recorded history. Biological history is a much longer stretch, beginning millions of years before the evolution of any forbears we can identify. When our earliest known ancestors formed, they were not at the top of the food chain. Rather, they were engaged in an epic battle of trench warfare with the other organisms that shared their habitat.[2]

“Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

— Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

These archaic humans loved, played, formed close friendships and competed for status and power, but so did chimpanzees, baboons, and elephants. There was nothing special about humans. Nobody, least of all humans themselves, had any inkling their descendants would one day walk on the moon, split the atom, fathom the genetic code and write history books. The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.

For the same reason that our kids can’t imagine a world without Google, Amazon and iPhones, we can’t imagine a world in which have not been a privileged species right from the start. Yet we were just one species of smart, social ape trying to survive in the wild. We had cousins: Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, Homo rudolfensis, and others, both our progenitors and our contemporaries, all considered human and with similar traits. If chimps and bonobos were our second cousins, these were our first cousins.

Eventually, things changed. About 70,000 or so years ago, our DNA showed a mutation (Harari claims we don’t know quite why) which allowed us to make a leap that no other species, human or otherwise, was able to make. We began to cooperate flexibly, in large groups, with an extremely complex and versatile language. If there is a secret to our success—and remember, success in nature is survival—It was that our brains developed to communicate.

Welcome to the Cognitive Revolution

Our newfound capacity for language allowed us to develop abilities that couldn’t be found among our cousins, or in any other species from ants to whales.

First, we could give detailed explanations of events that had transpired. We weren’t talking mental models or even gravity. At first, we were probably talking about things for survival. Food. Water. Shelter. It’s possible to imagine making a statement something like this: “I saw a large lion in the forest three days back, with three companions, near the closest tree to the left bank of the river and I think, but am not totally sure, they were hunting us. Why don’t we ask for help from a neighboring tribe, so we don’t all end up as lion meat?”[3]

Second, and maybe more importantly, we could also gossip about each other. Before religion, gossip created a social, even environmental pressure to conform to certain norms. Gossip allowed control of the individual for the aid of the group. It wouldn’t take much effort to imagine someone saying, “I noticed Frank and Steve have not contributed to the hunt in about three weeks. They are not holding up their end of the bargain, and I don’t think we should include them in distributing the proceeds of our next major slaughter.”[4]

Harari’s insight is that while the abilities to communicate about necessities and to pressure people to conform to social norms were certainly pluses, they were not the great leap. Surprisingly, it’s not our shared language or even our ability to dominate other species that defines us but rather, our shared fictions. The exponential leap happened because we could talk about things that were not real. Harari writes:

As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled. Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, “Careful! A lion!” Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, “The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.” This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language…. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.

Predictably, Harari mentions religion as one of the important fictions. But just as important are fictions like the limited liability corporation; the nation-state; the concept of human rights, inalienable from birth; and even money itself.

Shared beliefs allow us to do the thing that other species cannot. Because we believe, we can cooperate effectively in large groups toward larger aims. Sure, other animals cooperate. Ants and bees work in large groups with close relatives but in a very rigid manner. Changes in the environment, as we are seeing today, put the rigidity under strain. Apes and wolves cooperate as well, and with more flexibility than ants. But they can’t scale.

If wild animals could have organized in large numbers, you might not be reading this. Our success is intimately linked to scale. In many systems and in all species but ours, as far as we know, there are hard limits to the number of individuals that can cooperate in groups in a flexible way.[5] As Harari puts it in the quotation at the beginning of this post, “Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

Sapiens diverged when they—or I should say we—hit on the ability of a collective myth to advance us beyond what we could do individually. As long as we shared some beliefs we could work toward something larger than ourselves—itself a shared fiction. With this in mind, there was almost no limit to the number of cooperating, believing individuals who could belong to a belief-group.

With that, it becomes easier to understand why we see different results from communication in human culture than in whale culture, or dolphin culture, or bonobo culture: a shared trust in something outside of ourselves, something larger. And the result can be extreme, lollapalooza even, when a lot of key things converge in one direction, from a combination of critical elements.

Any large-scale human cooperation—whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city, or an archaic tribe—is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights, and money paid out in fees.

Not only do we believe them individually, but we believe them collectively.

Shared fictions aren’t necessarily lies. Shared fictions can create literal truths. For example, if I trust that you believe in money as much as I do, we can use it as an exchange of value. Yet just as you can’t get a chimpanzee to forgo a banana today for infinite bananas in heaven, you also can’t get him to accept three apples today with the idea that if he invests them wisely in a chimp business, he’ll get six bananas from it in five years—no matter how many compound interest tables you show him. This type of collaborative and complex fiction is uniquely human, and capitalism is as much an imagined reality as religion.

Once you start to see the world as a collection of shared fictions, it never looks the same again.

This leads to the extremely interesting conclusion that comprises the bulk of Harari’s great work: If we collectively decide to alter the myths, we can relatively quickly and dramatically alter behavior.

For instance, we can decide slavery, one of the oldest institutions in human history, is no longer acceptable. We can declare monarchy an outdated form of governance. We can decide women should have the right to as much power as men, reversing the pattern of history. We can also decide all Sapiens must follow the same religious text and devote ourselves to slaughtering the resisters.

There is no parallel in other species for these quick, large-scale shifts. General behavior patterns in dogs or fish or ants change due to a change in environment, or to broad genetic evolution over a period of time. Lions will likely never sign a Declaration of Lion Rights and suddenly abolish the idea of an alpha male lion. Their hierarchies are rigid, primal even.

But humans can collectively change the narrative over a short span of time, and begin acting very differently with the same DNA and the same set of physical circumstances. If we all believe in Bitcoin, it becomes real for the same reason that gold becomes real.

Thus, we can conclude that Harari’s Cognitive Revolution is what happens when we decide that, while biology dictates what’s physically possible, we as a species decide norms. This is where biology enables and culture forbids.  “The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology,” Harari writes. These ever-shifting alliances, beliefs, myths—ultimately, cultures—define what we call human history.

A thorough reading of Sapiens is recommended to understand where Harari takes this idea, from the earliest humans to who we are today.

 

 

 

Sources:

[1] This biological approach to history is one we’ve looked at before with the work of Will and Ariel Durant. See The Lessons of History.

[2] It was only when Sapiens acquired weapons, fire, and most importantly a way to communicate so as to share and build knowledge, that we had the asymmetric weaponry necessary to step out of the trenches and dominate, at least for now, the organisms we co-exist with.

[3] My kids are learning to talk Caveman thanks to the guide at the back of Ook and Glook and it doesn’t sound like this at all.

[4] It’s unknown what role ego played, but we can assume people were not asking, “Oh, does this headdress make me look fat?”

[5] Ants can cooperate in great numbers with their relatives, but only based on simple algorithms. Charlie Munger has mentioned in The Psychology of Human Misjudgment that ants’ rules are so simplistic that if a group of ants starts walking in a circle, their “follow-the-leader” algorithm can cause them to literally march until their collective death.

The Disproportional Power of Anecdotes

Humans, it seems, have an innate tendency to overgeneralize from small samples. How many times have you been caught in an argument where the only proof offered is anecdotal? Perhaps your co-worker saw this bratty kid make a mess in the grocery store while the parents appeared to do nothing. “They just let that child pull things off the shelves and create havoc! My parents would never have allowed that. Parents are so permissive now.” Hmm. Is it true that most parents commonly allow young children to cause trouble in public? It would be a mistake to assume so based on the evidence presented, but a lot of us would go with it anyway. Your co-worker did.

Our propensity to confuse the “now” with “what always is,” as if the immediate world before our eyes consistently represents the entire universe, leads us to bad conclusions and bad decisions. We don’t bother asking questions and verifying validity. So we make mistakes and allow ourselves to be easily manipulated.

Political polling is a good example. It’s actually really hard to design and conduct a good poll. Matthew Mendelsohn and Jason Brent, in their article “Understanding Polling Methodology,” say:

Public opinion cannot be understood by using only a single question asked at a single moment. It is necessary to measure public opinion along several different dimensions, to review results based on a variety of different wordings, and to verify findings on the basis of repetition. Any one result is filled with potential error and represents one possible estimation of the state of public opinion.

This makes sense. But it’s amazing how often we forget.

We see a headline screaming out about the state of affairs and we dive right in, instant believers, without pausing to question the validity of the methodology. How many people did they sample? How did they select them? Most polling aims for random sampling, but there is pre-selection at work immediately, depending on the medium the pollsters use to reach people.

Truly random samples of people are hard to come by. In order to poll people, you have to be able to reach them. The more complicated this is, the more expensive the poll becomes, which acts as a deterrent to thoroughness. The internet can offer high accessibility for a relatively low cost, but it’s a lot harder to verify the integrity of the demographics. And if you go the telephone route, as a lot of polling does, are you already distorting the true randomness of your sample size? Are the people who answer “unknown” numbers already different from those who ignore them?

Polls are meant to generalize larger patterns of behavior based on small samples. You need to put a lot of effort in to make sure that sample is truly representative of the population you are trying to generalize about. Otherwise, erroneous information is presented as truth.

Why does this matter?

It matters because generalization is a widespread human bias, which means a lot of our understanding of the world actually is based on extrapolations made from relatively small sample sizes. Consequently, our individual behavior is shaped by potentially incomplete or inadequate facts that we use to make the decisions that are meant to lead us to success. This bias also shapes a fair degree of public policy and government legislation. We don’t want people who make decisions that affect millions to be dependent on captivating bullshit. (A further concern is that once you are invested, other biases kick in).

Some really smart people are perpetual victims of the problem.

Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan wrote an article called “The weirdest people in the world?” It’s about how many scientific psychology studies use college students who are predominantly Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD), and then draw conclusions about the entire human race from these outliers. They reviewed scientific literature from domains such as “visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans.”

Uh-oh. This is a double whammy. “It’s not merely that researchers frequently make generalizations from a narrow subpopulation. The concern is that this particular subpopulation is highly unrepresentative of the species.”

This is why it can be dangerous to make major life decisions based on small samples, like anecdotes or a one-off experience. The small sample may be an outlier in the greater range of possibilities. You could be correcting for a problem that doesn’t exist or investing in an opportunity that isn’t there.

This tendency of mistaken extrapolation from small samples can have profound consequences.

Are you a fan of the San Francisco 49ers? They exist, in part, because of our tendency to over-generalize. In the 19th century in Western America and Canada, a few findings of gold along some creek beds led to a massive rush as entire populations flocked to these regions in the hope of getting rich. San Francisco grew from 200 residents in 1846 to about 36,000 only six years later. The gold rush provided enormous impetus toward California becoming a state, and the corresponding infrastructure developments touched off momentum that long outlasted the mining of gold.

But for most of the actual rushers, those hoping for gold based on the anecdotes that floated east, there wasn’t much to show for their decision to head west. The Canadian Encyclopedia states, “If the nearly 29 million (figure unadjusted) in gold that was recovered during the heady years of 1897 to 1899 [in the Klondike] was divided equally among all those who participated in the gold rush, the amount would fall far short of the total they had invested in time and money.”

How did this happen? Because those miners took anecdotes as being representative of a broader reality. Quite literally, they learned mining from rumor, and didn’t develop any real knowledge. Most people fought for claims along the creeks, where easy gold had been discovered, while rejecting the bench claims on the hillsides above, which often had just as much gold.

You may be thinking that these men must have been desperate if they packed themselves up, heading into unknown territory, facing multiple dangers along the way, to chase a dream of easy money. But most of us aren’t that different. How many times have you invested in a “hot stock” on a tip from one person, only to have the company go under within a year? Ultimately, the smaller the sample size, the greater role the factors of chance play in determining an outcome.

If you want to limit the capriciousness of chance in your quest for success, increase your sample size when making decisions. You need enough information to be able to plot the range of possibilities, identify the outliers, and define the average.

So next time you hear the words “the polls say,” “studies show,” or “you should buy this,” ask questions before you take action. Think about the population that is actually being represented before you start modifying your understanding. Accept the limits of small sample sizes from large populations. And don’t give power to anecdotes.

Why Honor Matters

Quick — who’s your favorite character in The Godfather?

The most popular answer to this question surprised me. About half the people who are asked pick Sonny: Santino Corleone.

“Everyone loves Sonny,” writes Talmer Sommers in his book Why Honor Matters.

Sonny is a hothead. He’s the oldest of the Godfather’s three children and arguably the most unstable, impulsive, and violent. The guy is a moral sewer — he cheats on his wife, speaks out of turn, and almost goes out of his way to find violence. He single-handedly almost brings the whole family from the apex to ruin. He’s the reason his father gets killed. In the end, it’s his impulsive behavior that gets him killed at the tollbooth.

And yet we love Sonny. Sommers argues, “we love him for his passion, courage, guts, integrity, and most of all for his loyalty to his family.”

When he learns that his sister has been abused by Carlo, her husband, Sonny loses his temper. There is no hesitation. No deeper consideration. He just hops in his car, heads straight for Carlo, and gives him the beating we all know he deserves. “When it comes to defending his family,” Sommers writes, “Sonny doesn’t calculate the best move, the most profitable move … Sonny just acts out of stubborn passion and a sense of honor.”

Honor might be about business for Michael, the cold calculating brother, but for Sonny it’s deeper. It’s personal.

But what is honor? A word? A tangible thing with value? A shared belief?

Honor can be a verb (“Honor thy mother and father”), a noun (“We must preserve the family honor”), an adjective (honor society), and a form of address (“Your honor, I object”). … Honor spins a dizzying web of values, virtues, codes, commandments, and prohibitions that are constantly changing and evolving. And honor makes no pretense to universality. The honor of the Mafia is different from the honor of hockey teams.

So, our definition of honor can change over time and depend on context. Furthermore, our cultural attitudes toward honor are all over the map. Sommers writes:

When it comes to honor we’re positively schizophrenic. On the one hand, we have deep nostalgia for the honorable way of life. … But at the same time, we find many aspects of honor to be absurd, petty, and morally reprehensible. After all, doesn’t honor lead to blood feuds, pointless duels, vigilantism, revenge, racism, nationalism, terrorism, bullying, and violence against women? Isn’t one of the signs of civilizations progress that we’ve put honor in the rearview mirror and replaced it with a commitment to dignity, equality, and human rights?

Nobody teaches us about honor. Sommers was trained in the Western ethical tradition in school, “which meant that [he spent his] time engaging in debates between harm-based theories (such as utilitarianism) and dignity- or rights-based theories (from Locke, Kant, and John Rawls).”

Then he stumbled upon so-called honor cultures, “societies where honor was a central part of their value system.” He writes,

To my surprise these cultures had a starkly different way of understanding responsibility and its connection to freedom. Like most philosophers in my area, I was obsessed with questions about how we can be truly free in a world governed by the laws of nature. How can we blame, praise, and punish people for actions that didn’t originate in them, but were caused by factors that might trace back all the way to the big bang? Honor cultures didn’t struggle with this problem, because they didn’t think a strong form of free will was necessary for holding people responsible for their actions. They didn’t regard the absence of control as an excuse for behavior. In honor cultures, you can get blamed for actions that weren’t intentional, for actions committed by relatives, ancestors, or other members of your group.

Most societies throughout history have been on the side of honor, the exceptions being the “WEIRD (Wester, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) societies.”

Sommers was drawn to the courage, integrity, solidarity, drama, and sense of purpose and meaning that exist within honor-based cultures. He regards these as “attractive values and characteristics, important for living a good life.” He also says that he has “come to believe that the Western liberal approach to ethics is deeply misguided. The approach is too systematic, too idealized and abstract—incapable of reckoning with the messy complexity of the real world.”

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The rest of the Why Honor Matters goes on to offer a defense of honor. Sommers’ ultimate conclusion is that “honor systems flourish only when they’re effectively contained. Fortunately, honor can be contained; we can restore honor into a larger value system while at the same time limiting its potential abuses.”

First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge

First Principles

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.”

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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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