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Don’t Be The Kaiser or the Fuhrer

This entry is part 2 of 17 in the series The Art of War of Learning

The original title of this post was “Don’t Be Germany”, but praising or insulting entire groups of people (as this post, frankly, does) never sat well with me. Too much individualism isn’t the problem, rather, the lack of it is. Failure to treat people as individuals is what caused so many problems in the 20th century especially. Nations are just convenient legal fictions that seem real because we believe in them so unquestioningly. So I changed the title a bit to reflect the two actual individuals whose respective behavior as commanders-in-chief we’re actually trying to reverse-model (i.e. avoid): Kaiser Wilhelm II and some Austrian politician who did Charlie Chaplin cosplay.

Don’t be Germany in the 1910s or the 1940s.

Until almost the halfway point of the 20th century, Germany was unquestionably the world’s premier scientific and engineering nation and yet lost both 1 of her major 20th century military conflicts, flirting with famine at least once. This is Greek theatre-level irony: the country that produced the man who literally wrote the book on war lost its most important wars.

How do you go from being a nation of geniuses, insofar as it’s fair to make broad characterizations like that, to being unable to do what any decent subsistence farmer, caveman or animal can do, namely, feed yourself?

That’s like being the smartest, most diligent, most perfectionistic student in the class and still failing academically (it can happen by the way…I’ve seen it happen).

The Wehrmacht should have pressed on at Dunkirk. The Luftwaffe, specifically, should have seen the Battle of Britain through. Because if they had, they would have won. Instead, their leadership divided their attention between the Brits and the Russkies. Which is all the more ridiculous given that the Soviet Union lacked both the will and the skill 2 to attack Germany — they’d just signed a non-aggression treaty FFS!

Do I claim to truly know what Germany did or should have done? No. I know enough history to know that none of us know what we’re talking about — especially me. Still, even this simplified, Mickey Mouse-ified analysis of the situation contains valuable life lessons for us. Fiction can teach us many lessons. There’s no reason that history — even misrecorded, misremembered and/or misunderstood history — can’t either.

The point is this:

Ability and intelligence are great and you should develop both. But they alone will not save you, that is, they will not earn you an exemption from certain higher, deeper, more fundamental, more universal laws, like those related to common sense and tenacity. Common sense tells us that if we’re doing one hard (i.e. big) thing already, we shouldn’t start doing a second. The “laws of tenacity”, such as they are, tell us that tenacity matters more than “talent”. Ability gets you in the door, but only tenacity will get you over to the other side.

We can get so lost in interesting, powerful and counterintuitive tools, techniques and concepts that we lose track of good old common sense 3. We ignore her. And she, attention whore that she is, goes apeshizzle when we do that.

Yeah, I said it. Common sense is a bee arch.

If common sense is a boring, generic-looking forest, then our awesome techniques are distractingly sexy trees (getting a woody for wood, amiright? No? Too gross? #MeToo). The trees keep changing but the forest stays the same. One of the things that stays the same is this: resources are always limited and must be used judiciously creatively. The more limited the resource, the more carefully creatively it must be used 4. Are there exceptions to this? Yes, but they’re not important enough to concern yourself with. One twig, one weed, does not cancel the forest.

It doesn’t matter how rich you are if you waste your money. It doesn’t matter how strong or smart you are if you waste your time and energy 5. Richard Koch has argued that Einstein wasn’t that smart. He wasn’t dumb, but he wasn’t off-the-charts-smart, what he was was focused on memes — ideas and lines of inquiry — that were themselves very powerful. 6

Common Sense is a default position that should be given up only reluctantly and returned to frequently. She doesn’t mind if you screw around on her a little, but she expects you to show up and fly straight most of the time. She’s not an “attention whore” at all. If anything, we’re the unethical sluts who leave her hanging while we chase down the Next Big Thing just because the media/zeigeist says it(the NBT)’s hot. But Common Sense stays at home waiting for us, always ready to welcome us back and give us good results. She’s a kind and permissive partner who only ruthlessly enforces boundaries when people get seriously out of hand. Like when a nearly-landlocked, resource-poor country lets itself get sandwiched by multiple powerful enemies because of fights it picked.

Are you tired? Are your burnt 7 out? Are you stressed? Well, then, stop doing so much. You can’t decisively solve the problem of doing too much by working harder or even smarter (more efficiently). You literally need to do less. Get out of whatever metaphorical “wars” you’re involved in by simply stopping. You can’t multiply yourself. And if you divide yourself across multiple tasks simultaneously, then, well, you’ll be early 20th century Germany, the one thing you don’t wanna be. You need subtraction, not addition, not multiplication, not division.

Fight one war, one front, one battle, one opponent, one dish, one tabletop, one countertop, one drawer, one kanji, one SRS card at a time.

It’s a cliché, but it’s true: the sun’s rays are warm, but they only burn when brought into focus on a single point, as by a magnifying glass. Force concentration is your magnifying glass. Force concentration is itself a force multiplier. With it, you win. Without it, you fizzle out.

Start winning. Start being the one doing the burning, not the one burning out 8. Yeah, you’re smart. Yeah, you’ve got potential. But you can and must 9 and will go beyond that. Don’t just be bright. Start burninating. Be a laser, not a lightbulb. Be a fire, not a spark. 

#timeboxing #forceConcentration

P.S.: If you’re German and reading this, please don’t be offended. I’m actually a huge Teutonophile and feel that Germany doesn’t get the respect it deserves. In the late nineties and early aughts, my German friends taught me how to be punctual in meatspace; they changed my life for the better, and for that I will always be grateful. But this doesn’t make Germany infallible — Germany, as a nation, has made mistakes and has, from time to time, come into the thrall of bad ideas (to put it mildly), and this is all the more interesting and paradoxical given the great ideas that have come out of that country and culture.

A better title for this post might be this: Be German (productive, punctual, practical) but Don’t Be Germany At Its Worst (self-destructive, angry, irrational). ‘Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, though 🙂 . The events of 1900-1945 do not by themselves define Germany 10. They are just a great example of what not to do in life.

Series Navigation<< You’d Be Speaking German Right Now If…The Art of War (Sort Of) Applied to Learning A Language: Logistics, Supply Lines and Force Concentration >>


  1. (Now, the first one was arguably a political loss rather than a tactical one, but that’s neither here nor there)
  2. Russia has a long, unprovoked history of being invaded from the West
  3. This is why the smartest people fall for the dumbest investment scams.
  4. Not that you asked, but I would venture that the most precious resource is human attention and energy, that is, the mental and physical energy of individual human beings.
  5. Or fail to show up to class — there are people who do well at school without ever going to class but that’s a kind of roulette you don’t want to play. For reasons I won’t go into today, showing up and sitting front and centre will bring you victory with far more ease and certainty than any of those crazy zero-attendance methods 😉
  6. Christopher Langan, on the other hand…
  7. burned?
  8. There’s a Homestar Runner joke in here somewhere.
  9. I hate being told what I “must” do so I usually shy away from “shoulds” and “musts”, but today is Exception Day 😀
  10. For one thing, the Treaty of Versailles was ridiculous, and none of that is Germany’s fault.

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