Thinking Strategically

There is this amazing anecdote tucked away in Herodotus – I’ve used it before – but I think the moral is worthy enough of a second mention. At the height of their power, Sparta sent soldiers to Teagan to helotize the population – carrying the very chains they intended to enslave them with. Well, Sparta lost. And the soldiers stayed and toiled in the Teagan fields, bound by the fetters they had brought with them.

In many ways, this was Sparta embodied. They’d embark on a course so convinced it was infallible that they’d never consider the consequences. A simple economic accident – that subcitizens labored while men trained for war – dictated every facet of their foreign policy for almost 300 years. Once it was written, it could not be changed. Brasidas, likely the country’s greatest general, was successful almost entirely because he was “un-Spartan.” He was clever and articulate and a rule breaker. Their win in the Peloponnese was ultimately an albatross that they could not bear. The military culture they brought crashing against Athenian walls was the burden that slew Greece. Sparta died in the chains they took against others.

There’s a reason that the conclusion of the 48 Laws looks at formlessness. Sparta had everything else – the power, the brains, the courage, the money – but it meant nothing because they couldn’t think strategically. They could not change courses after they committed.

They lacked the fluidity to survive even in the Ancient world. Today is even faster – you don’t have a century to shift assumptions. It’s really easy to get locked into a path or a mindset. I know I’m more comfortable with certainty or absolutes. But that just isn’t how things work. I don’t want to end up tied to the land I was supposed to conquer. I think that means take nothing for granted, consider the alternatives, and always, always avoid the hubris of thinking there is only ONE way.

References/ Further Reading:

A History of Sparta 950-192 B.C – W.G Forrest (very short)

History of the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides

The Histories – Herodotus (skim)

The Greco-Persian Wars – Peter Green (easy read that explains Thucydides’)

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.