This is exciting to me because thousands of new people will be exposed to philosophy for the very first time. I say that half-jokingly, knowing that many people including some who majored in it, think they studied philosophy in school. They didn’t–what they read about and did was an interesting intellectual stimulation but it was not philosophy.
Philosophy, as the Stoics saw it, was not abstraction. It was not theoretical. It was designed to help with the problems of life. And in Ancient Greece and Rome, the problems of life were quite real: murderous tyrants, war, plague, civil strife and banishments existed as very real and daily threats–alongside all the other things we deal with today like jealousy, injuries, greed, sickness, envy, and fear.
The Stoics developed a practical philosophy to make sense of this world, one designed to help its adherents thrive, succeed and live good lives. In my eyes, stoicism posits a very simple premise: We do not control the world around us; we control only how we respond. And so we may as well respond well–respond virtuously.
What does this all mean? It means that whatever problem you’re dealing with this week–or in this life–stoicism can be of help.
A few favorites:
“Ambition means tying your well being to what other people say or do.
Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you.
Sanity means tying it to your own actions.” – Marcus Aurelius
“No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be good. Like the gold or emerald or purple repeating to itself, “No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be emerald, my color undiminished.” – Marcus Aurelius
“What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend.’ That is progress indeed. Such a people will never be alone and you may be sure he is a friend to all.” – Seneca
On Other People:
“It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Stick to what’s in front of you—idea, action, utterance.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Don’t let the force of an impressions when it first hit you knock you off your feet; just say to it: Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.” – Epictetus
On Success or Failure:
“To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.” – Marcus Aurelius
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” – Epictetus
“The wise man looks to the purpose of all actions, not their consequences; beginnings are in our power, but Fortune judges the outcome, and I do not grant her a verdict upon me.” – Seneca
“Life’s no soft affair. It’s a long road you’ve started on: you can’t but expect to have slips and knocks and falls, and get tired and openly wish–a lie–for death.” – Seneca
I was fortunate enough to be introduced to stoicism when I was 18 or 19 years old. Not during a week of practice and contemplation, but a week where I nonetheless needed it very badly. I was going through a terrible break up. I was stuck in this apartment with some roommates who I absolutely detested. I was in my second year of college, not sure in which direction to take my life.
A chance encounter led to me picking up Marcus Aurelius and his wonderful Meditations. The wisdom in this book not only helped me with my immediate problems–helped me see some perspective about my romantic woes and helped me realize there was no reason to resent these people I was living with. But more importantly, it set me on an intellectual journey (going “directly to the seat of knowledge” as Marcus put it) that changed my life and set me on a course I never would have expected.
In the years since, stoicism has something that strengthened me in failure, comforted me in pain, gave meaning to events and cautioned humility and conservatism in moments of success. It helped me publish five books—one of which, I can proudly say, is about stoicism. How this all would have played out otherwise, I really have no idea. But what stoicism teaches is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is what happened and that we must be grateful for it–the good and bad alike.
I am. I am so grateful for the windows and doors that stoicism opened. And I hope for everyone participating in 2016’s Stoic Week that you feel the same. And don’t let it stop after 7 days either.
Even after two disastrous debate appearances, overwhelming poll numbers and one of the worst campaign scandals in modern history, if you talk to many reasonable people you’ll still hear this whisper: I really think he might win.
It’s the fear of an electoral surprise—that the pollsters are wrong, that faith in logical, rational voters is faith without evidence. Post-Brexit this sort of skepticism seems even more reasonable. In light of recent events—after all the predictions that were wrong before—how do we even know what everyday people even think these days?
I’ll tell you this attitude is absurd and wrong.
It reminds me of a story that Ulysses S. Grant tells in his memoirs about a night he spent on the wild prairies of East Texas. He and a fellow officer were near Goliad when they heard “the most unearthly howling of wolves” directly in front of them. They couldn’t see the wolves through the tall prairie grass, but the men knew they were near. The other officer asked Grant how many wolves he thought were in the pack. Grant, not wanting to seem afraid, tried to lowball the number at twenty—knowing well enough, he said later, that it was still enough “to devour our party, horses and all, at a single meal.” Grant thought that maybe they should turn around, but the other officer, having come from a part of Indiana where the wolves hadn’t been completely driven out, smiled and pushed on.
The men arrived to find just two lone wolves sitting on their haunches. These were the sole animals who had made all the noise that had scared Grant so badly, that had convinced him he was overwhelmingly outnumbered. Four decades later, after a full life in public service and politics, Grant would relate that he often thought of this incident when he heard of a group changing course due to criticism or someone giving up because they were deterred by an unseen enemy. The lesson in such situations, he concluded, was this: “There are always more of them before they are counted.”
Which brings us to a lesson we would do well to remember in modern media when it comes to politics: There is always less behind the noise than you think.
Certainly this is true in our current election, where the media had tried to convince us that behind Donald Trump is an overwhelming mass of white male blue collar workers who will be rising up as one (or in more extreme characterizations, a raging army of white supremacist lunatics who will riot in the streets if he’s not elected.) Conversely, we’re expected to believe that the unexciting Hillary Clinton is supported by no one, that she’s a candidate created by vested interests, defended by “the media”, and propped up by illusory political correctness—but insufficient votes. The results on election day, the narrative goes, may just shock us.
As David Plouffe, President Obama’s former campaign manager and current informal advisor to Hillary’s campaign, has observed:
“This race is being covered in a way that suggests it’s a dead heat. And it’s not…Some polls closely capture where the race stands. But they’re very incomplete. The Clinton campaign is doing large samples for modeling surveys of everybody on the voter file. So you have a very good understanding of how you believe 100 percent of the electorate will be allocated on election day. When you look at how 100 percent of the vote is likely to be allocated in Florida, I get very optimistic….I can get Donald Trump to within two or three in Pennsylvania, but I can’t get him to a win number. The same is true in Virginia and Colorado. I know everybody goes crazy about the latest Cheetos poll, but I feel very confident about both New Hampshire and Florida. So that puts her over 300 [in the electoral college]. Trump has to pull off a miracle in the electoral college.”
To think that since Plouffe wrote that, Trump not only hasn’t pulled off any miracles, he was caught in one of the most embarrassing hot mic scandals since the invention of recorded sound.
But I actually want to put that aside for a second so we can look at the boom-and-bust cycle of political movement in this country, particularly as it pertains to the media. Because it, as opposed to the surprising results of Brexit, is a far more predictable historical record to study.
We seem to have forgotten the burst of enthusiasm and interest in the largely internet and college-driven campaign of Howard Dean in 2004 (then he finished third in Iowa). We forget Ron Paul at the beginning of the 2008 election as another internet-driven sensation which caused many to ask whether we’d finally found a viable outsider candidate. If you spent any time online in 2007, it was really made to look like we might have (when the reality, of course, was we hadn’t). Very few seem to remember that the 2012 election was presented as a horse race (and in fact, Romney so believed it, he thought he might win!) Of course, the results were anything but close, with Obama securing 332 electoral votes and nearly 5 million more popular votes. How quickly we forget just months ago that Sanders was on the rise, that he was activating loyal young voters who would drive him past Hillary (and then, if they didn’t, at the very least wouldn’t back the ultimate nominee)? And let’s not even get into the Gary Johnson and other third party candidate nonsense of earlier this summer.
All these failed movements were defined by their claims to an ascendent voter bloc—one that the elites didn’t understand, that hadn’t been tracked before, that was going to surprise everyone. The only real surprise was how much none of this materialized.
Yet here we are again.
I think it’s about time we start to recognize that in an insatiable media system, fringe candidates—from Dean to Ron Paul to Sanders to Trump—operate a lot like those wolves that Grant met out on the plains. It’s a fact that in a system which favors extreme views and has an insatiable need for conflict, extreme and conflicting stories will be overrepresented. When candidates without a coalition see the bandwagon effect as their only hope, they will attempt to exaggerate their reach and the size of their base. They will over-rely on the rabidity of their fans to compensate for the big gaps in the lines. It will seem like there are many millions of them…until they are ultimately counted. Because noise carries further than signal right up until the point that the signal gets dialed in.
I’m not saying there were no Sander supporters and certainly no one denies that millions of people will be voting for Donald Trump. It’s just that enough non-stop coverage can skew the estimates and expectations of even the most rational observers. When you’re on Reddit or Facebook and every reasonable comment is followed up by dozens of intensely argumentative responses from Bernie Sanders or Gary Johnson supporters it can start to feel like there are a lot of them out there—that there is a real movement afoot.
Certainly, the Republican party fell for this in the primary, mistaking the fact that Trump seemed louder and bigger than his early opponents for a realistic chance of putting enough electoral points on the board to win. In fact, Trump has often touted—and exaggerated—the sizes of his rallies, as if that stat mattered. Today, Republicans and Democrats are falling for it again.
When you go on Facebook and see endless amounts of anti-Hillary memes, you might start to think: Man, people really hate her. Sure some do—and many polls show that Americans have trouble finding her trustworthy—but even her “unpopularity” is not as unclear as it looks. The Daily Beast recently outed the almost-billionaire and founder of Oculus, Palmer Luckey, for secretly “putting money behind an unofficial Donald Trump group dedicated to “shitposting” and circulating internet memes maligning Hillary Clinton.” There are also the reports that have shown how potentially a significant number of Trump’s Twitter followers are fake accounts. And of course, there were the internet trolls of suspected Russian origin which broadcast pro-Donald support and propaganda. In Business Insider’s piece on astroturfing, they quote Adrian Chen, who researched Russian trolls for a New York Magazine story in 2015, talking on the Longform podcast,
“I created this list of Russian trolls when I was researching. And I check on it once in awhile, still. And a lot of them have turned into conservative accounts, like fake conservatives. I don’t know what’s going on, but they’re all tweeting about Donald Trump and stuff.”
I don’t know if those were the people who started tweeting at me when I wrote two Trump pieces over the summer, but I can tell you, I don’t normally receive many responses to my writing from people with 7 followers (in one case, the “person” had literally zero followers—which I didn’t know was even possible). I do know that the people who disliked the article were far more vocal and loud and obnoxious that the ones who agreed. I happened to have a pack of coyotes living near my house—which can often sound like they’re right next to my window—and the upside is that I’ve gotten good at ignoring empty noise.
Another version of this throwing of sound is in internet polls, which candidates like Ron Paul, Donald Trump and even Bernie Sanders have often dominated. People don’t understand that this is often deliberate manipulation. For instance, Trump’s fans on 4chan and reddit made an explicit effort to have Trump win in every online poll around the outcome of the first debate—which Trump excitedly tweeted the results of—with users explaining how to cheat the system and vote again and again in each poll. Philip Bump in The Washington Posthas compared this online behavior to a Trump rally: “These online polls are, again, garbage, no more representative of the population as a whole than is the crowd at a Trump rally. That comparison is very apt, in fact. The crowd at a Trump rally 1) is open to all comers, 2) is geographically isolated, meaning that while anyone can attend, it doesn’t include a huge swath of people who vote, and 3) it rewards enthusiasm in a way that tends to obscure actual interest.” (I’d also add that many attendees admit to showing up to Trump rallies “for the spectacle.”)
It’s those last few points that are most interesting to me—in fact, they point to a fundamental reality of the internet. Not only does research show that anger is the most viral and provocative emotion—meaning that angry Trump supporters are going to be far more active than a resigned Clinton voter—but silence is often misinterpreted. Going back to what one programmer defined as Warnock’s Dilemma, it’s very hard to know what to make of a lack of response. The media’s typical reaction is to cater to active audiences. If something is being shared, they cover it more. There is no positive sign of people simply nodding their head and moving on—a common reaction to common sense, middle of the road content—so there is no way to skate to that puck. By definition, normal, reasonable people are not an audience you can pander to.
In the same way that no amount of media fawning makes HBO’s Girls more popular than The Big Bang Theory, no amount of Trump media coverage changes his fundamental demographic issues. It has been the inability of his now alt-right driven campaign to realize this that doomed him from truly capitalizing on voter’s real desire for change. It’s what makes his most recent debate performance irrelevant. He landed plenty of punches on Hillary…but it pleased the crowd and not the referee-like undecided voters he needed so desperately to add to his base.
Yes, it seems like there are huge amounts of Trump supporters out there. They are by definition louder and more motivated. They are naturally more compelling to cover. They are also engaged—or complicit—in forms of manipulation designed to create the sense of a movement which can’t be stopped. Clinton hides from media coverage and doesn’t make herself available even to be interviewed. Both approaches create feedback loops in which support for the former appears greater than support for the latter, because one is vocal and loud while the other is implicit and begins and ends at the ballot box.
All of which brings us to where we are now. A good portion of Trump’s supporters are not dumb—just as Sanders and Dean and Romney’s weren’t. Like Grant, they’ve just fallen for the noise. Some are excited by it, some are scared, some just don’t know what to believe anymore. But it’s all the same fundamental mistake.
The underlying numbers haven’t changed. We’ve just been gaslighted. The path to a Trump victory remains as unlikely—if not impossible—as it always was. Not only electorally, but personally—because every time Trump does get momentum, like clockwork, he rips off his Hannibal Lecter mask and says what he really thinks, ruining the very momentum his discretion had created. The only rotating variable is the media’s interest in keeping things interesting and the natural phenomena of how noise carries.
Hillary Clinton will almost certainly win. It is not a surprise. The only part likely to change is by how much or by how little.
I’m not just telling myself that so I’ll feel better. I’m not hoping that’s the outcome. I know the dangers of that. I’m also not running around getting worried and anxious as a form of virtue signaling.
Both are pointless exercises rooted in the same bad assumption. The Stoic philosopher Hecato has said that hope and fear were the same. They are both based on irrational projections—of following the noise and ignoring the tricks that noise can play on you.
What’s better is truth. What’s better is counting the voices, not measuring their volume.
Ego is the Enemycame out exactly three months ago and I want to thank you for your support. The book was an immediate Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller (it also hit a few lists abroad) as well as receiving 4.6 out of 5 stars on Amazon with nearly 300 reviews so far. I want to thank you again for your support and especially the many of you who took part of the preorder campaign. I’m blown away by the support you all gave the book and I am having a wonderful time finishing the strategy calls with many of you who preordered more than 50 copies of the book.
Aside from the preorder campaign and the usual press around a book launch, I was interviewed at a number of podcasts and I thought I’d put a list together of some my favorite ones:
A few months ago, Chief Medicine Crow, one of the last remaining links to the Native American tribes of the Wild West died at age 102. He had grown up hearing stories about George Armstrong Custer from his grandfather, who’d been a scout for the doomed general at Little Bighorn in 1876. A soldier himself in the Second World War, Medicine Crow was one of the last Crow people to ever accomplish the four deeds required to be considering a war chief (command a war party, steal an enemy horse, touch an enemy without killing him and taking an enemy’s weapon).
He was a fascinating man, not just for what he did but also for what he represents to us now. He was, to use a phrase coined by Jason Kottke, a “human wormhole.” His unusual and long life is a reminder to how connected the past and present really are.
A curator at the Smithsonian described meeting Medicine Crow as “you’re shaking hands with the 19th century.” Which an amazing concept. A few intrepid historians on reddit recently discovered an even more amazing one, calculating that it would take a chain of just six individuals who shook hands with one another to connect Barack Obama to George Washington across the centuries (Obama ->Queen Elizabeth II -> Herbert Hoover -> William H. Taft -> Benjamin Harrison -> William Henry Harrison -> Benjamin Harrison V -> George Washington).
I’ve become fascinated with discovering and tracking some of these reminders. For some time now, I’ve kept a file of them on 4×6 notecards in my house. My friends and I email these moments to each other as we find them — some absurd (Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman may have hooked up), coincidental (Orson Welles claimed to have been in the Biograph Theater in Chicago where John Dillinger was killed by the FBI) and some that are so unbelievable that they might just blow your mind (there’s a video from a 1956 CBS game show, “I’ve Got a Secret,” with a very old guest whose secret was that he was in Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was assassinated. Appearing with him on the show? Lucille Ball.)
Here in modern life, it’s easy to think the past is dead and distant, until we bump up against the reality of Faulkner’s admonition that it’s not really even past. England’s government only recently paid off debts it incurred as far back as 1720 from events like the South Sea Bubble, the Napoleonic wars, the empire’s abolition of slavery, and the Irish potato famine — meaning that for more than a decade and a half of the twenty first century there was still a direct and daily connection to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (The US is still paying pensions related to both the Civil War and the Spanish-American War.)
I’ll share a few more wormholes before I get to my point — because I promise there is more to this than just strange trivia.
Did you know that Tom Pratt, a football coach whose team the Arizona Cardinals narrowly missed going to the Super Bowl in 2015, was also on the coaching staff for the Kansas City Chiefs in the very first Super Bowl fifty years ago? Or that there are whales alive today who were born before Melville published Moby Dick? Or the world’s oldest tortoise, Jonathan, lives on an island in the Atlantic and is 183 years old? Or that President John Tyler, born in 1790, who took office just ten years after little Jonathan was born, still has living grandchildren?
War is perhaps the strangest source of these anomalies. Did you know that Winston Churchill and James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s father fought in the same unit in WWI? When Fleming’s father was killed, Churchill wrote his obituary. General Simon Bolivar Buckner was a Confederate general in the Civil War (he surrendered to Grant at Fort Donelson). His son Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr also became a General, and he died at Okinawa some 83 years later. General MacArthur — his father, Arthur MacArthur, Jr. — was a Civil War hero for the Union. Stonewall Jackson had a granddaughter who lived to be 104. She died in 1991.
In high school, a promising young student at the Virginia Military Institute named George Marshall petitioned the president for a military commission. Which President did the creator of the Marshall plan petition? William McKinley (just months before man’s life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet.) And most unbelievably, what of the fact that Robert Todd Lincoln was present as his father died of assassination, was at the train station with President James Garfield was assassinated, and was in attendance at the event in which McKinley was assassinated? Three assassinations, spread out over 40 years. Robert Todd Lincoln himself lived to be 82, dying in 1926. He could have read stories published by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He drove in a car. He talked on the telephone. He would have heard jazz music.
And these are just the events of the so called modern history.
We forget that woolly mammoths walked the earth while the pyramids were being built. We don’t realize that Cleopatra lived closer to our time than she did to the construction of those famous pyramids that marked her kingdom. We forget that Ovid and Jesus were alive at the same time. When British workers excavated the land in Trafalgar Square to build Nelson’s Column and its famous bronze lions, in the ground they found the bones of actual lions, who’d roamed that exact spot just a few thousand years before.
The effect of these stories — after the novelty wears off — is an intense humbling. We like to think that we are special — that we live in blessed, unprecedented times. It’s this self-absorption that disconnects us from the universe we belong to. It’s unthinking ego that makes us assume that because the photos of the past were in black and white, that the past itself was too.
Obviously, it wasn’t — their sky was the same color as ours (in some places brighter than ours), they bled the same way we did, and their cheeks got flushed just like ours do. “Think by way of example on the times of Vespasian,” wrote the wise Marcus Aurelius some 1900 years ago, “and you’ll see all these things: marrying, raising children, falling ill, dying, wars, holiday feasts, commerce, farming, flattering, pretending, suspecting, scheming, praying that others die, grumbling over one’s lot, falling in love, amassing fortunes, lusting after office and power. Now that life of theirs is dead and gone… the times of Trajan, again the same… ”
Again the same for us now. However much we celebrate our own exceptionalism.
In Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (which was a favorite of Napoleon’s) there is a scene in which Werther writes to a friend about his daily trip to a small, beautiful spring. He sees the young girls coming to gather water and thinks about how many generations have been doing that — have come and had same thoughts he is having. “When I sit there the patriarchal ways come vividly to life about me,” he says, “and I see them all, the ancestral fathers, making friends and courting by the spring, I sense the benevolent spirits that watch over springs and wells. Oh, anyone who cannot share this feeling must never have refreshed himself at a cool spring after a hard day’s summer walking.”
That’s the feeling most of us miss. Even if we don’t see it, it’s there. The whispers and the smoke and remnants never disappear. Goethe was born in 1749, wrote his first bestseller which contained those words in 1774 before America was a country, and would live well into the 19th century (overlapping briefly with Jonathan the Tortoise). A hundred years after that, another famous German writer, Stefan Zweig, would be stunned to find that his elderly upstairs neighbor was the daughter of Goethe’s doctor, who had vivid memories of meeting Goethe as a young girl. In fact, Goethe had attended her christening.
Sorry, I’m getting distracted. I have too many of these wormholes and I don’t know where to put them all.
Back to the point, Ernest Hemingway opens The Sun Also Rises with a bible verse: “One generation passeth, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever. The sun also riseth, and the sun goeth down, and resteth to the place where he arose.” It was this passage, his editor would say that “contained all the wisdom of the ancient world.”
And what wisdom is that? That we all flow into each other as part of an endless stream (slavery, Louis C.K. observed is just two old ladies back to back). It seems slow and long to us because we’re in it. It seems distant to us because it wasn’t our problem, it wasn’t us that did that terrible deed we’d like to forget. In fact, time whips by in a blur. Wounds barely have time to heal. They don’t recognize the passing of generations. Because generations don’t really exist. It is instead an endless parade.
When I lived in New Orleans, my apartment was partitioned out of 19th century convent. When I would head uptown to write what became my first book, I’d hop on the longest continually running streetcar in the world — some 181 years it had been traveling the same tracks. How many millions of people had ridden those same rails? Sat, even, in the same seat. Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, George Washington Cable, Edgar Degas — could have looked out these very windows. They, along with so many others not as easily remembered — but who lived and hustled and struggled just as I was trying to.
In moments like that, one cannot help but know what Pierre Hadot has referred to as the “oceanic feeling.” A sense of belonging to something larger, realizing that “human things are an infinitesimal point in the immensity.” And when one gets this feeling, we ask ourselves important questions about who we are and what we are doing.
On the other hand, nothing draws us away from those questions like material success — when we are always busy, stressed, put upon, distracted, reported to, relied on, apart from; when we’re wealthy or told that we’re important or powerful. Ego tells us that meaning comes from activity, that being the center of attention is the only way to matter. When we lack a connection to anything larger or bigger than us, it’s like a piece of our soul is gone. Like we’ve detached ourselves from the tradition we hail from — forgetting that we’re just like the people who came before us, and we’re but a brief stopover until the people just like you who will come after. The earth abideth forever, but we will come and go.
History on the other hand, gives us perspective. As I said, it has the power to humble us. Specifically, these wormholes — illustrating the “great span” as they do — are instant humility in bite-sized pieces. It’s proof that others have been here before you, generations of them, and that they can almost reach out and touch you. In those moments, we have a sense of the immensity of the world and also its smallness. Ego is impossible, because we realize, if only fleetingly, what Emerson meant when he said that “every man is a quotation from all his ancestors” or what John Muir tried to convey to us about his epic experiences in nature. Yes, we are small. We are also a piece of this great universe and a process.
Baldwin wrote that “if you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover them, too.” I actually think it’s the reverse. If you can examine and face the connection between other lives, and other eras, only then can you begin to understand and appreciate your own.
Every man I meet is my master in some point, and in that I learn of him. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
The legend of Genghis Khan has echoed throughout history: A barbarian conqueror, fueled by bloodlust, terrorizing the civilized world. We have him and his Mongol horde traveling across Asia and Europe, insatiable, stopping at nothing to plunder, rape, and kill not just the people who stood in their way, but the cultures they had built. Then, not unlike his nomadic band of warriors, this terrible cloud simply disappeared from history, because the Mongols built nothing that could last.
Like all reactionary, emotional assessments, this could not be more wrong. For not only was Genghis Khan one of the greatest military minds who ever lived, he was a perpetual student, whose stunning victories were often the result of his ability to absorb the best technologies, practices, and innovations of each new culture his empire touched.
In fact, if there is one theme in his reign and in the several centuries of dynastic rule that followed, it’s this: appropriation.
Under Genghis Khan’s direction, the Mongols were as ruthless about stealing and absorbing the best of each culture they encountered as they were about conquest itself. Though there were essentially no technological inventions, no beautiful buildings or even great Mongol art, with each battle and enemy, their culture learned and absorbed something new.
Genghis Khan was not born a genius. Instead, as one biographer put it, his was “a persistent cycle of pragmatic learning, experimental adaptation, and constant revision driven by his uniquely disciplined and focused will.” He was the greatest conqueror the world ever knew because he was more open to learning than any other conqueror has ever been.
Khan’s first powerful victories came from the reorganization of his military units, splitting his soldiers into groups of ten. This he stole from neighboring Turkic tribes, and unknowingly converted the Mongols to the decimal system.
Soon enough, their expanding empire brought them into contact with another “technology” they’d never experienced before: walled cities. In the Tangut raids, Khan first learned the ins and outs of war against fortified cities and the strategies critical to laying siege, and quickly became an expert. Later, with help from Chinese engineers, he taught his soldiers how to build siege machines that could knock down city walls. In his campaigns against the Jurched, Khan learned the importance of winning hearts and minds. By working with the scholars and royal family of the lands he conquered, Khan was able to hold on to and manage these territories in ways that most empires could not.
Afterward, in every country or city he held, Khan would call for the smartest astrologers, scribes, doctors, thinkers, and advisers — anyone who could aid his troops and their efforts. His troops traveled with interrogators and translators for precisely this purpose.
It was a habit that would survive his death. While the Mongols themselves seemed dedicated almost solely to the art of war, they put to good use every craftsman, merchant, scholar, entertainer, cook, and skilled worker they came in contact with. The Mongol Empire was remarkable for its religious freedoms, and most of all, for its love of ideas and convergence of cultures. It brought lemons to China for the first time, and Chinese noodles to the West. It spread Persian carpets, German mining technology, French metalworking, and Islam. The cannon, which revolutionized warfare, was said to be the resulting fusion of Chinese gunpowder, Muslim flamethrowers, and European metalwork. It was Mongol openness to learning and new ideas that brought them together.
As we first succeed, we will find ourselves in new situations, facing new problems. The freshly promoted soldier must learn the art of politics. The salesman, how to manage. The founder, how to delegate. The writer, how to edit others. The comedian, how to act. The chef turned restaurateur, how to run the other side of the house.
This is not a harmless conceit. The physicist John Wheeler, the physicist who helped develop the hydrogen bomb, once observed that “As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” In other words, each victory and advancement that made Khan smarter also bumped him against new situations he’d never encountered before. It takes a special kind of humility to grasp that you know less, even as you know and grasp more and more. It’s remembering Socrates’ wisdom lay in the fact that he knew that he knew next to nothing.
With accomplishment comes a growing pressure to pretend that we know more than we do. To pretend we already know everything. Scientia infla (knowledge puffs up). That’s the worry and the risk — thinking that we’re set and secure, when in reality understanding and mastery is a fluid, continual process.
The nine-time Grammy– and Pulitzer Prize–winning jazz musician Wynton Marsalis once advised a promising young musician on the mindset required in the lifelong study of music: “Humility engenders learning because it beats back the arrogance that puts blinders on. It leaves you open for truths to reveal themselves. You don’t stand in your own way. . . . Do you know how you can tell when someone is truly humble? I believe there’s one simple test: because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve. They don’t assume, ‘I know the way.’” No matter what you’ve done up to this point, you better still be a student. If you’re not still learning, you’re already dying.
It is not enough only to be a student at the beginning. It is a position that one has to assume for life. Learn from everyone and everything. From the people you beat, and the people who beat you, from the people you dislike, even from your supposed enemies. At every step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learn — and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.
It’s something I’ve had to learn as an author, personally. Just because one book does well, doesn’t mean that the next one will. It certainly doesn’t mean that everything that I’ll write is good or that I know everything there is to know about this profession either. Thinking that way is a recipe for falling off and disappointing both publishers and audiences. A better attitude is to start from scratch with each project — to focus on all there is left to learn and all the room we have left improve. That’s what I’ve tried to do with each subsequent project, including this most recent one (appropriately about ego).
Too often, convinced of our own intelligence or success, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid (and are never challenged to learn or reconsider what we know). It obscures from view various weaknesses in our under standing, until eventually it’s too late to change course. This is where the silent toll is taken.
Each of us faces a threat as we pursue our craft. Like sirens on the rocks, ego sings a soothing, validating song — which can lead to a wreck. The second we let the ego tell us we have graduated, learning grinds to a halt. That’s why UFC champion and MMA pioneer Frank Shamrock said, “Always stay a student.” As in, it never ends.
The solution is as straightforward as it is initially uncomfortable: Pick up a book on a topic you know next to nothing about. Put yourself in rooms where you’re the least knowledgeable person. That uncomfortable feeling, that defensiveness that you feel when your most deeply held assumptions are challenged — what about subjecting yourself to it deliberately? Change your mind. Change your surroundings.
An amateur is defensive. The professional finds learning (and even, occasionally, being shown up) to be enjoyable; they like being challenged and humbled, and engage in education as an ongoing and endless process.
Most military cultures — and people in general — seek to impose values and control over what they encounter. What made the Mongols different was their ability to weigh each situation objectively, and if need be, swap out previous practices for new ones. All great businesses start this way, but then something happens. Take the theory of disruption, which posits that at some point in time, every industry will be disrupted by some trend or innovation that, despite all the resources in the world, the incumbent interests will be incapable of responding to. Why is this? Why can’t businesses change and adapt? A large part of it is because they lost the ability to learn. They stopped being students. The second this happens to you, your knowledge becomes fragile.