Last updated on 2023.06.13
The purpose of this missive is to give you a simple blueprint for structuring your life and career for maximum effectiveness and minimum burnout.
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Said Napoleon: “In war, three quarters turns on personal character and relations; the balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter.”
In modern memery, this is also rephrased as: “Morale is to the physical power of an army as three parts are to one.”
And routinely misunderstood.
When he talked about character and relations, Napoleon wasn’t just talking about the commander’s character or the courage of the troops. The character and relations – or “morale” – that he talked about goes much deeper than that, touching each of the four elements of an army.
In modern war studies, military performance is routinely divided into four necessary parts: tactics, organization, supply and logistics, and strategy.
We can use that army structure as a model to parse our own individual performance into elements that are easier to measure, manage and maximize.
Tactics: Much of what Napoleon calls morale and character would actually come to tactical training and expertise. The ability to hold a line or fight well under pressure isn’t just a matter of courage or madness. At the highest levels, it relies even more on experience and expertise gained through training and actual combat.
On a personal level, that means that much of the morale that we bring to a task arises from our having performed before. Our mental attitude and disposition is cultivated just as the substantive skill is – through repeated use until failure and through it.
This is different from having the actual skill or even having performed well in what it’s supposed to do. You may not have the best skill yet, and still be able to outperform more technically adept people just because you can keep your cool under pressure and get the basics right. At a minimum, you can keep going when others have quit.
This is anecdotally common in competitive job interviews for high-flying fields such as tech, banking and management consulting. Being able to perform the basics in your sleep is often more valuable in an actual “battle” than being the best in the field or having a fantastic track record of accomplishments.
To learn to perform well under pressure, perform repeatedly under pressure. Where pressure is lacking, you can create it artificially in order to improve your “morale”. Time the task or introduce stressors such as noise, lack of sleep, or whatever you find most troubling to you personally.
Organization: One of the things that made Napoleon incredibly successful during his most famed campaigns was the massive reorganization of the French army. Napoleon transformed the massed armies of the prior era into highly mobile corps that could move quickly and independently to surprise or encircle the enemy. Individual corps commanders had a lot of leeway to make tactical decisions, each corps being able to fight as a complete army in its own right. You can think of the military strategy of the prior era as TAKING MASSIVE ACTION – versus Napoleon’s being smart about when, where and how he deployed troops to strike and disperse, encircle or force the enemy to withdraw.
Instead of just massing all the troops like a fist, Napoleon could be a lot more selective about when and where to fight, with what force, and which troops to use for what purpose. More than that, he didn’t need to micromanage and second-guess his commanders. He just told them where to go or how long to hold a position. The rest was “automatic”.
In your personal organization as an army of 1, you have to think about two sets of questions: 1) what skills and abilities you are bringing to bear in each situation; and 2) how to organize your work to maximize your effectiveness given the skills and abilities you have.
As you can see, these are two approaches to the same interaction – between context and abilities. In one case the choice is about the relevant abilities given context. In the other, the choice is about the best context given your abilities. Rather than brute-forcing things – and being predictable – deploy your skillset in a smart way to get more out of it with less effort and expenditure of decision juice.
As an example of the first aspect of organization, think about the stereotypical person who is very professional and reserved at work, but becomes an embarrassment at the company retreat. It’s like having the best drilled troops – then throwing them into battle like a horde of children at an ice-cream truck. You have to be mentally “organized” – intentionally! – not to drop your guard and reserve just because the boss is having a drink with you.
Conversely, think about how you organize your work during the day/week/month.
As one example of this organization of context, for most people the most important tasks are best performed first. Those would be the things that will bring you more of your core objective – more sales, finishing the product prototype faster, getting the promotion, whatever the most important objective is.
Some people are most focused and productive in the morning or early in the week, while others are most effective at night or while working from a coffee shop. See what works best for you and implement it in your personal organization to the point it becomes an unconscious reflex.
This context-picking is especially important in interpersonal relationships. The right move with one of your suppliers can be to threaten legal action or “review” the account. The right move for another might be to keep calling them super polite-like and emphasize how you value them and the relationship. The type of “force” you apply in each case could determine whether you get the stuff you want – regardless of the money and energy you invest in the interaction.
You have to be mentally indoctrinated to remember this when the going gets tough and you’re in a rough spot. Am I approaching this person in a way that would get me what I want, or am I just being emotional and brute-forcing it?
Supply and logistics: As the cliché goes, an army fights on its stomach. If troops lack basic provisions, their morale and capacity to fight will inevitably deteriorate. If they don’t have arms and munitions, they can’t fight at all.
This applies to things like sleep, food, fasting, exercise but also to more subtle matters in your environment. Your bed, desk, chair. Your tools. Your physical environment in the place you work. Even the clothes your wear while expected to perform the task – from construction to driving a truck to a social call at your boss’s house.
Are these “supplies and logistics” dialed in to help you work, want to work, and work well?
Have you removed distractions from your office space? Do you turn off your phone when you sit down to write? Do you lock your office door when you want to do long hours of focused work? Do you have the tools that it’s a pleasure to work with or do they create aggravation and displeasure?
Supplies and logistics can hurt both ways. Fasting too long could end up leaving you anxious and unable to focus, eating too much can make you drowsy and avoidant of work. Make a list of what’s relevant to your performance and think about how to improve your conditions of work.
Strategy: Having a winning strategy is extremely important for your morale. When you have a “theory of victory”, you’re much less likely to quit AND more likely to actually win. One of the classic tropes in war studies is that of countries going to war without a theory of victory – and routinely losing to weaker opponents.
A theory of victory must answer at least two questions:
1) How do we define victory – what do we really want out of this?
2) How do we get the adversary to acquiesce – i.e., to stop fighting and let us take what we want?
It’s very common in traditional careers to suffer from burnout and stagnate in advancement for lack of a clear strategy and theory of victory. There is no clear goal about where people are going with this (other than collecting a paycheck) and no clear strategy for getting there (beyond showing up for work like a drone).
You want a promotion. You want to move from the public prosecutor’s office to one of the top law firms. You want to go from being a master mason to managing your own construction company.
OK, how do you get there?
Let’s take the promotion as the simplest example.
Who makes the decision to promote you? Is it your direct supervisor or someone else?
What does really matter in regard to the people involved? Sales numbers? Shipping product on time? Customer service? Office politics? Shared budgets?
Focusing your efforts on what specifically can really help you, and what can be relegated to minimally acceptable effort as a sideshow?
You well could be passed up for promotion because there are budget cuts being implemented across the organization from the higher-ups. In which case, you could be better off looking for another job to get the raise and career advancement you want – instead of slaving at the same company.
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Go forth and conquer,