Tag: History

Human Misjudgment and the American Revolution

We try to look at mental models in history through the lens of people who got it right, but once in a while, it’s beneficial to examine a model through the lens of those who got it wrong.

In this case, let’s take a look at the remarkable series of misjudgments that resulted in the British losing their American colonies.

Our list of mental models includes 24 models in the human nature + judgment category, and at least seven of those were a factor in the British being driven out of America. Sometimes it helps to understand how great the consequences of these very human tendencies can be. And, perhaps more significantly, how a large group of people can succumb to them at the same time.

Bias from Incentives

Money, the root of stupidity.

In the mid-18th century, the British had a parliament, but it was very different from what exists today. As Barbara W. Tuchman describes in The March of Folly, the House of Commons was made up mostly of second sons of the nobility – the landowning class. Urban centers such as London were poorly represented, and not surprisingly Parliament tended to pass laws that were primarily good for its members.

A lot of the issues which ultimately led to the revolution were about money.

The British wanted to tax the colonies, as Tuchman explains, so they would at least pay for their own defense, which was costly. The colonists felt that, with the exception of trade tariffs, the British had no right to tax those who were not represented in Parliament.

So part of the reason Parliament passed incendiary legislation, taxing, for example, stamps and tea, was so that the members of parliament, the landowners, could pay less tax. This was short-sighted — an incentive that could never be realized. As Tuchman describes, some more thoughtful dissenters pointed out that the cost of collecting the taxes from the hostile colonists was more than what the taxes would bring in.

Tendency to distort due to disliking/hating

We have written before that “Our inability to examine the situation from all sides and shake our beliefs, together with self-justifying behavior, can lead us to conclude that others are the problem. Such asymmetric views, amplified by strong perceived differences, often fuel hate.”

One of the things that Tuchman points out a few times is the complete ignorance of the British when it came to the sensibilities and interests of the Americans. And we can’t blame this on the distance or comparative slow speed of communication. Tuchman highlights what is most startling is those in positions of power in the Parliament literally had no desire to understand the colonists’ position. “That the British were invincibly uninformed – and stayed uninformed – about the people they insisted on ruling was a major problem of the imperial-colonial relationship.”

Parliament did not seek the advice or opinion of those Brits who had spent time in the colonies as Administrators, nor did it interview the well-educated and thoughtful Americans who were in London, such as Benjamin Franklin.

Due to their own sense of superiority, the British nobility believing they were the pinnacle of humanity, allowed their dislike of the colonists to distort the policies they pursued. (Remember history doesn’t repeat but it rhymes.) As Tuchman writes, “Attitude was again the obstacle; the English could not visualize Americans in terms of equality.”

You certainly don’t declare war on people you admire and respect.

Denial Tendency

To stubbornly pursue a course of action in the face of evidence that it will eventually blow up in your face is denial. We all do it, but to do it as a political group can lose you a war.

The American revolution did not start without warning. There were years of attempts by the British to assert control over the colonies. As Tuchman describes, they would institute taxes then rescind them, only to reinstate them later. The colonists had the same response every time. They rejected the ability of the British to tax them. It was total denial that kept the British trying.

The British passed a series of acts, called the Coercive Acts that seemed designed to piss off the Americans. But in reality, it was more about the total inability of the British to see the situation clearly. Tuchman says, “if Britain had really been pursuing a plan to goad the colonies to insurrection in order to subjugate them, then her conduct of policy becomes rational. Unhappily for reason, that version cannot be reconciled to the repeals, the backings and fillings, the haphazard or individual decisions.”

As we mentioned earlier, the cost of bringing in the tax was more than the tax itself. And if taxation was the issue that was driving the colonies to war, then why keep doing it? Denial is likely part of the answer.

Social Proof

“When we feel uncertain, we all tend to look to others for answers as to how we should behave, what we should think and what we should do.”

This is social proof.

The House of Commons was not a homogenized unit; there were dissenters to the British approach in the American colonies, though these voices were always in the minority. Some people argued against the taxes and the war, offering alternatives to Parliament to act in the interest of keeping the colonies part of the empire. But the majority followed their peers.

Added to this was the fact that, as Tuchman describes, the situation in America wasn’t a hot issue for most British. The nobility of the House of Commons was frequently more occupied with the various social scandals that occurred in their ranks.

What this helped to create was a situation of largely uninformed people responsible for voting on legislation that could have significant impacts. It is a human tendency to look to the majority for guidance on behavior when we are unsure about what to do. It is always easier to go with the majority than to oppose it. In the House of Commons, it was easier to vote with the majority than to take a stand against it, particularly if one wasn’t all that interested in the issue.

First-Conclusion Bias

We tend to stick with the first conclusion we reach. Because of our commitment to our own narrative, it becomes very hard for us to change our minds once we form a definite opinion. This involves us admitting we made a mistake — something we avoid, as it can challenge our very sense of self.

The core issue that started the conflict between Britain and the American colonies, which eventually led to the war, was, as Tuchman describes, the absolute conviction of the British that they had a right to directly tax the colonies, and the equal conviction of the American that no right existed.

At the beginning, the Americans did attempt some compromise. The British, however, never did.

Despite the dissent, the cost, and the effects, the British never reexamined their first conclusion. It became layered with other issues but remained at the core of their position. Tuchman demonstrates that “they persisted in first pursuing, then fighting for an aim whose result would be harmful whether they won or lost.”

Their first conclusion, the right of the British state to tax the American colonies, was never abandoned or modified in light of what enforcing it would actually result in. Even if it were true, the absolute nature of their position prevented them from finding a compromise. This bias was a contributing factor in the result the British finally had to accept. The loss of the war.

Commitment and Consistency Bias

Partnered with the first conclusion bias, this one essentially reinforces the pain. This is what causes us to “stick with our original decision, even in the face of new information.”

Although consistency is generally perceived to be good, uncompromising consistency is more synonymous with ignorance and fear. If torpedos are aimed at your boat, your crew might appreciate you turning it around, giving yourself time to regroup.

The British made attempts to solve their problems, but these were halfhearted at best. Tuchman actually depicts the British policy as not being consistent at all. The levied taxes, then they repealed them. They eventually sent a peace delegation but gave it no power to actually come to a compromise.

But they were fully committed to their overall attitude, which was, as Tuchman writes, “a sense of superiority so dense as to be impenetrable. A feeling of this kind leads to ignorance of the world and of others because it suppresses curiosity. [All] ministries went through a full decade of mounting conflict with the colonies without any of them sending a representative, much less a minister, across the Atlantic to make acquaintance, to discuss, to find out what was spoiling, even endangering, the relationship and how it might be better managed. They were not interested in Americans because they considered them rabble or at best children whom it was inconceivable to treat – or even fight – as equals.”

Given that this attitude of superiority was so entrenched, is it any wonder that the decisions made were those that reinforced this image?

Tendency to Want to Do Something

Busyness signals productivity. The faster you are walking the more important you are. Having time on your hands means you aren’t doing enough, not seizing the day, not contributing anything of value. Slow walkers are assumed to be seniors, students, or those who have nothing going on.

We can see the same trends in governments. Strong governments defend their position at all costs, while those who value negotiating or finding common ground are perceived as weaker. Powerful governments go to war. Those with less power find a compromise.

Tuchman claims, “Confronted by menace, or what is perceived as menace, governments will usually attempt to smash it, rarely to examine it, understand it, define it.”

So many times during the decade of conflict between the British and the Americans, the British might have put themselves in a better position if they had been willing to pause, regroup, or even walk away. Given some space, they might have compensated for the load of biases they were operating under and better defined and focused on a win-win solution.

But all the misjudgments flying around, combined with the innate human tendency to do something, led to chasing bad decisions with even worse ones.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that we can learn from our mistakes so as to not be perpetual victims of our misjudgment tendencies.

Tuchman concludes that the British did learn from their experiences during the American Revolution.

“Fifty years later, after a period of troubled relations with Canada, Commonwealth status began to emerge from the Durham Report, which resulted from England’s recognition that any other course would lead to a repetition of the American rebellion.”

People Don’t Follow Titles: Necessity and Sufficiency in Leadership

“Colonel Graff: You have a habit of upsetting your commander.
Ender Wiggin: I find it hard to respect someone just because they outrank me, sir.”
— Orson Scott Card


Many leaders confuse necessary conditions for leadership with sufficient ones.

Titles often come with the assumption people will follow you based on a title. Whether by election, appointment, or divine right, at some point you were officially put in the position. But leadership is based on more than just titles.

Not only do title-based leaders feel like once they get the title that everyone will fall in line, but they also feel they are leading because they are in charge — a violation of the golden rules of leadership. This makes them toxic to organization culture.

A necessary condition for leadership is trust, which doesn’t come from titles. You have to earn it.


Necessary conditions are those that must be present, but are not, on their own, enough for achievement. This is an exceptional mental model that will help you achieve outcomes.

Perhaps an easy example will help illuminate. Swinging at a pitch in baseball is necessary to hit the ball, but not sufficient to do so.

War offers another example. It’s necessary to know the capabilities of your enemy and their positions, but that is not sufficient to win a battle.

Leadership can be very similar. Being in a position of leadership is necessary to lead an organization, but that is not sufficient to get people moving towards a common goal. Titles, on their own, do not confer legitimacy. And legitimacy is one of the sufficient conditions of leadership.

If your team, organization, or country doesn’t view you as legitimate you will have a hard time getting anything done. Because they won’t work for you, and you can’t do it all yourself. Leadership without legitimacy is a case of multiply by zero.

There is a wonderful example of this, from the interesting history of the Mongolians. In his book The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, Jack Weatherford tells an amazing story of the unlikely, but immensely successful, leadership of Manduhai the Wise.

250 years after Genghis Khan, the empire was in fragments. The Mongols had retreated into their various tribes, often fighting each other and nominally ruled by outsiders from China and the Middle East. There was still a Khan, but he exercised no real power. The Mongol tribes were very much at the mercy of their neighbors.

In 1470 the sitting Khan died, survived only by a junior wife. There were immediate suitors vying for her affection because by marrying her the title of Khan could be claimed. Her name was Manduhai. Instead of choosing the easy path of remarriage and an alliance, she decided to pursue her dream of uniting the Mongol nation.

First, she had to choose a consort that would allow her to keep the title of Queen. There was one remaining legitimate survivor of Genghis Khan’s bloodline – a sickly 7-year-old boy. Orphaned as a baby and neglected by his first caregiver, he had been under Manduhai’s protection for a few years. Because of his lineage, she took him to the Shrine of the First Queen and asked for divine blessings in installing him as the Great Khan. They would rule together, but clearly, due to his age and condition, she would be in charge.

Although her words would be addressed to the shrine, and she would face away from the crowd, there could be no question that, in addition to being the spiritual outcry of a pilgrim, these words constituted a desperate plea of a queen to her people. This would be the most important political speech of her life.

She was successful in securing the appointment. But Manduhai understood that the title of Great Khan for the little boy and Khatun (Queen) for her would not be enough. She needed the support of all the Mongol tribes to give the titles legitimacy, and here there were a significant number of obstacles to overcome.

Twice before in the previous generations, boys of his age had been proclaimed Great Khan, only to be murdered by their rivals before they could reach full maturity. Other fully grown men who bore the title were also ignominiously struck down and killed by the Muslim warlords who tried to control them.

First Manduhai had to keep herself and the boy, Dayan Khan, alive. Then she had to demonstrate that they were the right people to unite the Mongol tribes and ensure prosperity for all. This would take both physical battles and a strategic understanding of how to employ little power for great effect. Her success was by no means guaranteed.

Throughout their reign, as on this awkward inaugural day, they frequently benefited from the underestimation of their abilities by those who struggled against them. In the world where physical strength and mastery of the horse and bow seemed to be all that really mattered, no one seemed to anticipate the advantages of patient intelligence, careful planning, and consistency of action.

It was these traits that led Manduhai to carefully craft her plan of action. She needed to position herself as a true leader that could unite the Mongol tribes.

Vows, prayers, and rituals before a shrine added much needed scared legitimacy to Dayan Khan’s rule, but without force of arms, they amounted to empty gestures and wasted breath. Only after demonstrating that she had the skill to win, as well as the supernatural blessing to do so, could Manduhai hope to rule the Mongols. She had enemies on every side, and she needed to choose her first battle carefully. She had to confront each enemy, but she had to confront each in its own due time. Manduhai needed to manage the flow of conflicts by deciding when and where to fight and not allowing others to force her into a war for which she was not prepared or stood little chance of winning.

She made an important strategic alliance with one of the failed suitors, a popular and intelligent general who controlled the area immediately east of her power base. Then she went to battle to secure her western front. Some tribes supported her from the outset, due to the spiritual power of her partnership with the boy, the ‘true Khan’. The rest she conquered, support snowballing behind her.

In addition to its strategic importance, the western campaign against the Oirat was a notable propaganda victory, demonstrating that Manduhai had the blessing of the Shrine of the First Queen and the Eternal Blue Sky. Manduhai showed that she was in control of her country.

Grinding it out in the trenches inspired support. Manduhai demonstrated the courage and intelligence to lead and to provide what her people needed. She was not an empire builder, seeking to conquer the world. Rather, she was pragmatic desiring to unify the Mongol nation to ensure they had the means to thwart any future attempt at takeover by a foreign power.

In contrast to the expansive territorial acquisition favored by prior generations of steppe conquerors, Manduhai pursued a strategy of geographic precision. Better to control the right spot rather than be responsible for conquering, organizing, and running a massive empire of reluctant subjects. … Rather than trying to conquer and occupy the extensive links of the Silk Route or the vast expanse of China, she sought to conquer just the strategic spot from which to control them.

Her story teaches us the difference between necessity and sufficiency when it comes to leadership.

Manduhai ticked all the necessary boxes, being a Queen, choosing a descendant of Genghis Khan to rule by her side, and asking for meaningful spiritual blessings. While necessary these were not sufficient to rule. To actually be accepted as a leader, she had to prove herself both on the battlefield and in strategic negotiations. She understood that people would only follow her if they believed in her, and saw that she was working for them. And finally, she also considered how to use her leadership to create something that would continue long after she had gone.

Manduhai concentrated the remainder of her life in protecting what she had accomplished and making certain that the nation could sustain itself after her departure. With the same assiduous devotion she had applied to the battlefield and the unification of the Mongol nation, Manduhai and Dayan Khan now set to the reorganization of the Mongol government and its protection in the future.

In this, she succeeded. She cemented her power as Queen by ultimately working for the peace and prosperity of the entire Mongol nation. Perhaps this is why she is remembered by them as Mandukhai the Wise.

Understanding the Limitations of Maps

Maps are flawed but useful. For instance, we can leverage the experiences of others to help us navigate through territories that are, to us, new and unknown. We just have to understand and respect the inherent limitations of maps whose territories may have changed. We have to put some work into really seeing what the maps can show us. Here are three things you need to think about when using a map: The perspective, the author, and the territory.

The Perspective

Maps are an abstraction, which means information is lost in order to save space. So perhaps the most important thing we can do before reading a map is to stop and consider what choices have been made in the representation before us.

First, there are some limitations based on the medium used, like paper or digital, and the scale of the territory you are trying to represent. Take the solar system. Our maps of the solar system typically fit on one page. This makes them useful for understanding the order of the planets from the sun but does not even come close to conveying the size of the territory of space.

Bill Bryson explains in A Short History of Nearly Everything, “such are the distances, in fact, that it isn’t possible, in any practical terms, to draw the solar system to scale. … On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with the Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over a thousand feet away, and Pluto would be a mile and half distant (and about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn’t be able to see it anyway).”

Maps are furthermore a single visual perspective chosen because you believe it the best one for what you are trying to communicate. This perspective is both literal — what I actually see from my eyes, and figurative — the bias that guides the choices I make.

It’s easy to understand how unique my perspective is. Someone standing three feet away from me is going to have a different perspective than I do. I’ve been totally amazed by the view out of my neighbour’s window.

Jerry Brotton, in his book A History of the World in Twelve Maps, reveals that “the problem of defining where the viewer stands in the relation to a map of the world is one geographers have struggled with for centuries.” Right from the beginning, your starting point becomes your frame of reference, the centre of understanding that everything else links back to.

In an example that should be a classic, but isn’t because of a legacy of visual representation that has yet to change, most of us seriously underestimate the size of Africa. Why? Because, as Tim Marshall explains in his book Prisoners of Geography, most of us use the standard Mercator world map, and “this, as do other maps, depicts a sphere on a flat surface and thus distorts shapes.” A world map always has to be distorted, with a bent toward the view you are trying to present. Which has led to a northern hemisphere centric vision of the world that has been burned into our brains.

Even though Africa looks roughly the size of Greenland, in fact, it is actually about 14 times larger. Don’t use the standard Mercator map to plan your hiking trip!

Knowing a map’s limitations in perspective points you to where you need to bring context. Consider this passage from Marshall’s book: “Africa’s coastline? Great beaches – really, really lovely beaches – but terrible natural harbors. Amazing rivers, but most of them are worthless for actually transporting anything, given that every few miles you go over a waterfall.”

A lot of maps wouldn’t show you this – the lines that are rivers are all drawn the same. So you’d look at the success the Europeans had with the Danube or the Rhine and think, why didn’t Africans think to use their rivers in the same way? And then maybe you decide to invest in an African mineral company, bringing to the table the brilliant idea of getting your products to market via river. And then they take you to the waterfalls.

The Author/Cartographer

Consider who draws the maps. A map of the modern day Middle East will probably tell you more about the British and French than any inhabitants of the region. In 1916 a British diplomat named Sykes and a French diplomat name Picot drew a line dividing the territory between their countries based on their interests in the region and not on the cultures of the people living there, or the physical formations that give it form.

Marshall explains, “The region’s very name is based on a European view of the world, and it is a European view of the region that shaped it. The Europeans used ink to draw lines on maps: they were lines that did not exist in reality and created some of the most artificial borders the world has seen. An attempt is now being made to redraw them in blood.”

The map creator is going to bring not only their understanding but also their biases and agenda. Even if your goal is to create the most accurate, unbiased map ever, that intent frames the decisions you make on what to represent and what to leave out. Our relatively new digital mapping makes a decision to respect some privacy at the outset and so Google doesn’t include images of people in its ‘streetview’.

Brotton argues that “a map always manages the reality it tries to show.” And as we have seen before, because there really isn’t one objective reality, maps need to be understood as portraying personal or cultural realities.

“No world map is, or can be, a definitive, transparent depiction of its subject that offers a disembodied eye onto the world.” All maps reflect our understanding of the territory at that moment in time. We change, and maps change with us.

The Territory

This leads to another pitfall. Get the right map. Or better yet, get multiple maps of the same territory. Different explorations require different maps. Don’t get comfortable with one and assume that’s going to explain everything you need. Change the angle.

Derek Hayes, in his Historical Atlas of Toronto, has put together a fascinating pictorial representation of the history of Toronto in maps. Sewer maps, transit maps, maps from before there were any roads, and planning maps for the future. Maps of buildings that were, and maps of buildings that are only dreams. Putting all these together starts to flesh out the context, allowing for an appreciation of a complex city versus a dot on a piece of paper. Maps may never be able to describe the whole territory, but the more you can combine them, the fewer blind spots you will have.

If you compare a map of American naval bases in 1947 with one from 1937, you would notice a huge discrepancy. The number increased significantly. Armed only with this map you might conclude that in addition to fighting in WWII, the Americans invested a lot of resources in base building during the 40s. But if you could get your hands on a map of British naval bases from 1937 you would conclude something entirely different.

As Marshall explains, “In the autumn of 1940, the British desperately needed more warships. The Americans had fifty to spare and so, with what was called the Destroyers for Bases Agreement, the British swapped their ability to be a global power for help in remaining in the war. Almost every British naval base in the Western Hemisphere was handed over.”

The message here is not to give up on maps. They can be wonderful and provide many useful insights. It is rather to understand their limitations. Each map carries the perspective of its creator and is limited by the medium it’s presented in. The more maps you have of a territory, the increased understanding you will have of the complexities of the terrain, allowing you to make better decisions as you navigate through it.

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    Image via NASA

Galilean Relativity and the Invasion of Scotland

A few centuries ago, when Galileo (1564-1642) was trying to make a couple of points about how our world really works, one of the arguments that frequently came up in response to his ‘the earth orbits the sun’ theory was “if the earth is moving through space, how come I don’t notice?”

Not that I have much to begin with, but I don’t feel the wind constantly in my hair, I don’t get orbit-induced motion sickness, so why, Galileo, don’t I notice this movement as the earth is spinning around over 100,000 km per hour?

His answer is known as Galilean Relativity and it contains principles that have broad application in life.

Understanding Galilean Relativity allows you to consider your perspective in relation to results. Are you really achieving what you think you are?

First, an explanation of the theory.

Imagine you are on a ship that has reached constant velocity (meaning without a change in speed or direction). You are below decks and there are no portholes. You drop a ball from your raised hand to the floor. To you, it looks as if the ball is dropping straight down, thereby confirming gravity is at work. You are able to perceive this vertical shift as the ball changed its location by about three feet.

Now imagine you are a fish (with special x-ray vision) and you are watching this ship go past. You see the scientist inside, dropping a ball. You register the vertical change in the position of the ball. But you are also able to see a horizontal change. As the ball was pulled down by gravity it also shifted its position east by about 20 feet. The ship moved through the water and therefore so did the ball. The scientist on board, with no external point of reference, was not able to perceive this horizontal shift.

This analogy helped Galileo explain why we don’t notice the earth moving — because we’re at the same constant velocity, moving with our planet.

It can also show us the limits of our perception. And how we must be open to other perspectives if we truly want to understand the results of our actions. Despite feeling that we’ve got all the information, if we’re on the ship, the fish in the ocean has more he can share.

History offers an illuminating example of this principle at work.

In the early fourteenth century, two English kings (Edwards I and II) were repeatedly in conflict with Scotland over Scottish independence.

Nationalism wasn’t as prevalent as an identity characteristic as it is today. Lands came and went with war, marriage, and papal edicts, and the royal echelons of Europe spent a lot of time trying to acquire and hold on to land, as that is where their money ultimately came from.

There were a lot of factors that led Edward I, King of England, to decide that Scotland should be his. It has to do with how William the Conqueror divided things up in the area in 1066, the constant struggle by the English for the strategic upper hand against France, and more generally, the fact that the King of England was at the head of a feudal system that, “by enlarging a class of professional soldiers who owed military service in payment for land, it enabled it,” says William Rosen in his book The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century.

Edward I wanted to rule Scotland. The Scots weren’t interested. He invaded half a dozen times and succeeded only in giving birth to a separate Scottish identity. His desire for Scotland became his Galilean ship. He couldn’t see beyond that desire to understand how his actions were actually fundamentally undermining his goals.

History regards Edward I as a decent king. Strategic in battle, a good administrator, and so one can assume that what he generally wanted was to rule over a prosperous and powerful country. In his mind then it may have been a very simple equation – since prosperity in the middle ages was tied up with land, then to have more of it must be good. And Scotland was in a convenient location, as opposed to, say, Mongolia.

What Edward I did not see was that the repeated invasion of Scotland was undermining the very prosperity and power he was hoping to augment. It was costing tons of money, money that had to be raised from the nobility that supported his monarchy, which in turn had to be raised via the peasants from the land. People were getting sick of watching their taxes go up in flames on the Scottish border. And, as Rosen claims, “A king’s authority depends utterly on the loyalty and faith of his people.” Lose your popular support and you lose everything.

When Edward I died, his son, Edward II, inherited his father’s quest to own Scotland. He too repeatedly invaded with no lasting success. And he had it even worse. The beginning of his reign coincided with a major famine that decimated the population. This was followed by diseases that swept through the agricultural animal populations. So there was less money to support war.

But Edward II kept taxing and invading Scotland anyway, indifferent to the plight of his people. This contributed to widespread disgust with his reign and eventually led to his being disposed of, and likely murdered, in favor of his son. A cautionary tale on what happens when you lose the loyalty of the people you are meant to be leading!

This all begs the question, was Scotland really such a great prize to justify the repeated attempts to conquer it?

The answer is no. As Rosen writes, “the conquest of medieval Scotland was, by any rational economic calculus, a poor bargain for both of England’s King Edwards, who together spent more than the entire value of the country in one failed expedition after another.”

They certainly did not see this.

It is important to know that in Galilean relativity, neither the perspective of the scientist on the ship nor the fish in the ocean is incorrect. Both perspectives are true for those doing the observing. Because the scientist has no external frame of reference, he is not mistaken when he says that the ball moved only vertically, and not horizontally.

You aren’t always going to be able to adjust for Galilean relativity. Given the roles, expectations, and mythology surrounding kings, both Edwards were acting according to the viewpoint they had.

So discussing the attempted conquest of Scotland by both Kings is not about revealing that their assumptions were incorrect. From their perspective acquiring land was always a good thing. But by failing to consider other perspectives they didn’t achieve their intended results – control of Scotland – and, more importantly, were unable to appreciate the results they were affecting. More land cannot come at the expense of support for your leadership.

It is likely that at least one advisor might have said to the Edwards, ‘hey, maybe you should spend some more money on preventing the starvation of the population that pays you taxes and take a break on this Scottish thing’. This is where understanding Galilean relativity is useful – you won’t shoot the messenger.

You will know that sometimes you are on the ship, and the limitations this entails, and so be open when the fish shares his perspective with you.

Cleopatra and Self-Preservation

“For the last time in two thousand years Cleopatra VII stands offstage.
In a matter of days she will launch herself into history,
which is to say that faced with the inevitable,
she will counter with the improbable. It is 48 BC.”
— Stacy Schiff


Cleopatra (69BC 30-BC) was a master of self-preservation. She lived a life under constant threat and yet never fell victim to it. Her success was so uncommon, particularly for a woman, that it seems like history has been trying to make excuses for it for over 2000 years. But as Stacy Schiff illuminates in her book, Cleopatra: A Life, her story is worth learning and taking inspiration from. Cleopatra has a lot to teach us about drawing on all our resources in the face of adversity.

Self-preservation in the biological sense is about our very profound instinct to keep ourselves alive. This instinct is exhibited by all animals and is about the survival of our genes. It’s not about spirituality or morality or about how we feel. It’s a biological desire to live until we can pass our genes onto the next generation and ensure their survival.

As John Medina explains in Brain Rules, “Without a flexible, immediately available, highly regulated stress response, we would die. Remember, the brain is the world’s most sophisticated survival organ. All of its many complexities are built toward a mildly erotic, singularly selfish goal: to live long enough to thrust our genes on to the next generation. Our reactions to stress serve the live-long-enough part of that goal. Stress helps us manage the threats that could keep us from procreating.”

This sophisticated stress response is an extremely useful system to have. It works when it needs to — no effort required — propelling us to fight, flight, or freeze. It allows us to process information so quickly that we are not conscious of the thoughts. We obey our bodies when it tells us not to move a muscle, to attack with as much violence as possible, or to run like hell.

But it has to be able to turn off. It can’t be the only system you use every day. Why? Because it is meant to come out only in situations where our life is threatened.

Our stress responses were shaped to solve problems that lasted not for years, but for seconds. … These days, our stresses are measured not in moments with mountain lions, but in hours, days, and sometimes months with hectic workplaces, screaming toddlers, and money problems. Our system isn’t built for that. And when moderate amounts of hormone build up to large amounts, or when moderate amounts of hormone hang around too long, they become quite harmful.

And so, in human society, which often seems one long, ongoing battle, we can’t exist in a constant state of fight/flight/freeze if we are to preserve both our genes and our sanity. We need to integrate other capabilities of our brain into our dealings with stress, such as rational, strategic thought that leverages the resources of knowledge we’ve built over the years. And this is where Cleopatra excelled.

To be fair, we all don’t respond the same way to stress. As Medina says, “Psychiatrists long have observed that some people are more tolerant of stress than others. … Some people’s genetic complement naturally buffers them against the effects of stress, even the chronic type.”

We will never know if this is true for Cleopatra, but there is no doubt she rose to the formidable challenges of being Queen of Egypt circa 40 BCE. She adapted, survived, and thrived despite constant peril. So maybe her story can illuminate for us a different mindset with which to deal with our daily stressors.

First she had to deal with a tradition of murder within her own family.

Schiff explains in Cleopatra: A Life:

Over the generations the family indulged in what has been termed ‘an orgy of pillage and murder’ … Over and over mothers sent troops against sons. Sisters waged war against brothers. Cleopatra’s great-grandmother fought one civil war against her parents, a second against her children.

Because, in Cleopatra’s Ptolemy line, brothers often married sisters, all children had legitimate claims to the throne and often ended up disposing of each other. In keeping up with family practices, Cleopatra got rid of a brother/husband and a sister who had designs on her throne.

So right from the beginning it was kill or be killed. There were no allies in the home.

When Caesar arrived in 48 BCE, Cleopatra’s brother was occupying the throne having banished her to the desert.

That summer she rallied a band of mercenaries, at a desert camp, under the glassy heat of the Syrian sun. She was twenty-one, an orphan and an exile. Already she had known both excessive good fortune and its flamboyant consort, calamity. Accustomed to the greatest luxury of the day, she held court two hundred miles from the ebony doors and onyx floors of home. Her tent amid the scrub of the desert was the closest she had come in a year. Over those months she had scrambled for her life, fleeing through Middle Egypt, Palestine, and southern Syria. She had spent a dusty summer raising an army.

She was resourceful. She took the throne back and held on for 18 tumultuous years.

Politics in the Mediterranean during her time were volatile. Changing allegiances, murder, competing personalities and ideologies characterized the Roman spirit. Caesar had formed a vision of how powerful Rome could be, and this was tempting to many.

Egypt was the richest country on the Mediterranean. Because it had the most fertile soil, it could grow and produce exceptional amounts of food. So it was an early stop in any attempts to conquer the world, because it could fund the efforts.

Rather than focus on the things she couldn’t overtly control (e.g. the timing of Roman invasions), she set to order those elements within her sphere of power and influence. The Greek language, “by Cleopatra’s day [was] the language of business and bureaucracy … While Egyptian speakers learned Greek, it was rare that anyone ventured in the opposite direction. To the punishing study of Egyptian, however, Cleopatra applied herself. She was allegedly the first and only Ptolemy to bother to learn the language of the 7 million people over whom she ruled.”

She worked hard to gain and maintain the support of her people because no monarch wants to be fighting on two fronts at once. She got rid of her competitors, spent money on developing Egypt’s infrastructure, and as Schiff explains, learned Egyptian culture so well that she was able to invoke their Goddess Isis as “provider of wisdom and of material and spiritual sustenance.” Rome was always going to be a problem, but she did an excellent job keeping peace on the home front. She had the longest reign of all the Ptolemies.

When the inevitable Roman intrusions came she aimed to best support Egyptian interests, sometimes backing the wrong horse. After Caesar, there was a fight for Roman leadership. When the dust settled Mark Antony was in charge of everything East of Rome and Cleopatra was in the awkward and potentially fatal position of not having supported him.

Confident though she may have been, contemptuous though she may have appeared, Cleopatra left nothing in her preparation to chance. … She would have known she was entering a sort-of sweepstakes for Antony’s attention. She seemed determined to conjure a display so stunning it would propel Plutarch to Shakespearean heights, as it would elicit from Shakespeare his richest poetry. And she succeeded. In the annals of indelible entrances – the wooden horse into Troy; Christ into Jerusalem; Benjamin Franklin into Philadelphia; the Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s stage – Cleopatra’s alone lifts off the page in iridescent color, amid inexhaustible, expensive clouds of incense, a sensational, simultaneous assault on every sense.

She was also extremely adept at framing her actions to suit whatever narrative she needed to preserve her power. By the time she was dealing with Mark Antony, “her ability to molt, instantly and as the situation required, to slide effortlessly from one idiom to another, her irresistible charm, were already well established.”

Cleopatra worked her whole life to keep her independence from Rome, to maintain her control over the land of which she was Queen. She fought to preserve her power and in doing so preserve her self and give her children the best chance of survival. “Cleopatra could generally be counted on to do the intelligent thing,” Schiff writes. “She was fighting for her life, her throne, and her children. She had ruled for two decades, and was without illusion.”

She adapted to the many vicissitudes of life by learning as much as she could, making sure her risks were calculated, and never giving up control of the position she held. Even her death was on her own terms. Although Schiff artfully argues that the actual circumstances of her death are unlikely to ever be know for sure, “for any number of reasons Cleopatra was unlikely to have recruited an asp, or an Egyptian cobra, for the job. A woman known for her crisp decisions and meticulous planning would surely have hesitated to entrust her fate to a wild animal.”

Eventually, Cleopatra could not outrun the aggression of Rome in pursuing the fertile Nile valley. But her intelligence and adaptability allowed her to last a remarkably long time in the face of a lifetime of tumult.

Emergence and Power — Four 13th-Century Sisters Who Became Queens

“[S]ome systems … are very sensitive to their starting conditions,
so that a tiny difference in the initial push you give them
causes a big difference in where they end up, and there is
feedback, so that what a system does affects its own behavior.”
— John Gribbin, Deep Simplicity


Emergence is the occurrence of genuinely new and novel qualities that are unique to a system and thus separate from its components.

Emergence can be a tricky concept, but it is an extremely useful model to explore. It allows us to understand why some things are greater than the sum of their parts. It demonstrates that power can arise from components that on their own are relatively powerless.

A school of fish is a perfect example. If you studied the movement of one fish, you would have no appreciation for the shape and behavior that 10,000 of them together will produce. Essentially, the complex behavior they exhibit as a group is more than the physical motion of each individual fish.

Understanding that organisms, including humans, can self-organize into systems that have properties that are unique to the collective is a lens through which you can better understand the behaviors of large organizations such as a bureaucracy, political system, or a marketplace.

Western Europe in the 13th century was almost dysfunctional. The borders of England, France, and Germany were not what we’d recognize today, and most rulers spent their time (and money) constantly reorganizing the geopolitical boundaries. Peace treaties were seasonal and monarchs would go into enormous debt to finance various exploits designed to take, or take back, land. Taxes were a certainty. Not so much who you’d be paying them to.

Women of the royalty and nobility were a huge component of these ‘raising funds for invasion’ schemes. Maybe beauty mattered, and there is some evidence that Kings and Queens did occasionally love each other. But money mattered more. High-class women came with dowries of lands and goods, which helped fund the ongoing conquests.

So women didn’t get to choose whom they were going to marry. It was like Monopoly trading – I’ll give you Pacific Avenue for St. Charles and Ventor and free rent for the next five rolls.

In 1230 four sisters lived in Provence, then part of the Holy Roman Empire (now part of France). Their father was a Count, which made them nobility, but not royalty. They didn’t have loads of money, but they were pretty. They had good marriage prospects, but not amazing ones. They should not have all ended up as Queens. And yet, that’s what happened.

Nancy Goldstone, in her book Four Queens, explains the geopolitical maneuverings that brought about this extraordinary set of circumstances.

Marguerite, the eldest, was the first to marry. She was chosen by the Dowager Queen of France, Blanche de Castile, for her eldest son Louis IX. Provence’s neighbor Toulouse was acting up, violating his treaty with France and the Dowager wanted friends in the region. A storm was brewing with England, and she knew France couldn’t handle a war on two fronts. So Marguerite, pretty, but of inferior rank, was chosen, as long as her family could provide a dowry of 10000 silver marks (needed for, among other things, dealing with the English). They couldn’t, so they pledged some Provence real estate which was good enough for all parties and the deal was done.

Eleanor was next, the second eldest of the sisters. She married Henry III, the King of England. Eleanor was even a less obvious choice than Marguerite. Henry III was broke, and what little liquid assets the Provence family had all went to Marguerite’s marriage. Goldstone argues that it is the first marriage that made all the difference for the second.

Marguerite’s marriage to the King of France had elevated the position of all the sisters. Plus, Henry was sick of losing to France and so sought Eleanor out. If Blanche “had selected a daughter of the count of Provence to be the wife of her eldest son [which] carried weight with Henry. … There must be something to it.” Essentially the King of England wanted what the King of France had.

The third daughter, Sanchia, was the unfortunate victim of her older sisters’ success. Also unhelpful was that she was rumored to be the most beautiful of the four. She was propositioned by Henry’s brother, Richard, the Earl of Cornwall and the richest man in England. They married, and Goldstone shows how her family connections helped him eventually buy the title of King of Germany, then part of the Holy Roman Empire (allegiances changed before Richard could be crowned Emperor.)

Finally, there was Beatrice. Because he had no sons, the father of the four sisters chose his estate, the rule of Provence, to be passed down to his youngest daughter Beatrice upon his death. When he died, she was still single and therefore had the best dowry to offer. Perhaps due to a dearth of available kings, she married the King of France’s youngest brother, Charles. Goldstone notes that they were well matched in terms of ambition. Their political and military endeavors eventually gave them the title of King and Queen of Sicily.

The key concept of emergence that is at play here is that components of a system self-organize to produce a state of affairs that is neither obvious nor predictable if you focus on the capabilities of the components themselves. The coming together produces capabilities that are new.

The internet encyclopedia of philosophy explains it this way:

Effects are resultant if they can be calculated by the mere addition or subtraction of causes operating together, as with the weight of an object, when one can calculate its weight merely by adding the weights of the parts that make it up. Effects are emergent if they cannot be thus calculated because they are qualitatively novel compared to the causes from which they emerge.

The power that each sister wielded in each marriage, if we generally consider how much power an individual woman would have had in a royal relationship, does not add up to explain their immense influence over the events of the mid-13th century.

Goldstone writes that “almost nothing of significance that occurred in western Europe during the period in which they lived was not influenced by the actions of this family. It is impossible to fully understand the underlying political motivations of the thirteenth century without them.”

The thing about emergent phenomenon is you can’t point to the components and say, ‘oh yeah, it’s because of this and that’. Like the school of fish, you can’t say, ‘they’re moving this way because of fish number 8 and number 63’. You can only look at the behavior of the school as a whole. And this whole has, for example, a power to evade predators that the individual doesn’t have.

So too with the sisters from Provence. Looking at the influence Marguerite developed over her husband or the fact that Eleanor and Henry ended up respecting each and thus worked as a team is not enough to explain what they could achieve. It wasn’t Sanchia alone who got Richard a crown, and Beatrice’s money didn’t directly buy Sicily. The sisters were, in varying degrees, determined, smart, pious, ambitious, and beautiful. And they all had sons. But although these things may have played a part, you can’t point to any of them and say it was the deciding factor in the influence they had. The reach of the collective was more than adding up the reach of each individual. A higher degree of power emerged, and one that couldn’t have been predicted.

Goldstone tells of the reaction of the family when one of the Queens’ uncles was captured in battle. “The news of his capture spread quickly to the courts of Europe and the family took immediate action. In England, Henry and Eleanor shut down trade with northern Italy, and forcibly detained all merchants and citizens from Asti and Turin who happened to be visiting at the time. In France, Marguerite had Louis follow suit, an action that resulted in hundreds of arrests. She then demanded a payment of ten thousand pounds, in addition to the release of her relative, as a condition of freedom. Beatrice of Savoy, the sisters’ mother (in a bit of a power struggle with her youngest daughter over lands in Provence), ordered her soldiers to close the roads between Switzerland and Provence and took numerous prisoners. Sanchia even persuaded Richard to do his part by forwarding the money needed to underwrite a rescue attempt. Faced with the poverty brought on by the imposition of what were, in effect, international economic sanctions, the citizens of Asti realized their mistake, and let Uncle Thomas go.”

If Marguerite was the only one of the sisters who was a Queen, would the King of England and his brother have actively participated in the rescue of an ally of the King of France? Likely not, given the history between the two countries, which, both before and after, was characterized more by war than cooperation.

The sisters didn’t always work together, but this supports the explanation of emergence, which occurs due to interconnectivity and complex causal relations, not from any organized, external control factor. The power the sisters had was not conscientiously developed and wielded, it was more a force that influenced behavior and outcomes for an entire continent for over 30 years.