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The Way of the Cockroach versus Clausewitz’s Bastards

This entry is part 18 of 18 in the series The Art of War of Learning

Resilience. Is what I want to talk to you about a little bit today. Buckle up, because you’re about to get a dose of academically unvetted pop psychology. But then, as the great Morpheus once said, how would that be different from any other AJATT day, amiright?

Not long ago, I was in the kitchen and I noticed that someone had left a bunch of lightly cooked meat (intended as catfood) in an uncovered Ziploc container; this alone is enough to set me on edge; I don’t like food being left uncovered, especially meat.

So, being an adult, I looked for a cover to cover it. And I couldn’t freaking find one. At this point, I was ready to go into full wrath mode — I’m not what you’d call a nice man — but then I calmed down and found some saran wrap to cover the meat with instead.

It strikes me that this is what you need to do every day in your language game. Things go wrong all the time. You don’t have the exact tools you want or wish you had. Things break. The key is to be less like a spaceship and more like an insect: be a cockroach rather than a Space Shuttle or an aircraft carrier.

Cockroaches are gross, no one’s arguing that. But they get living done very well. Really well. Crazy well. You kind of need to be OK with living on, near and from the metaphorical floor — using whatever tools you find lying around. This isn’t to say you don’t have grand ambitions, but it’s more important to not be fragile, to not be brittle Your grand ambitions, which are a great thing, need to be channeled into decidedly un-grand, un-showbizy, un-showy, pedestrian behavior, like a crawling arthropod.

Only Tom Cruise sprints everywhere all the time, and even then, only in movies. In real life, we amble and scurry. In real life, lions and cheetahs sleep 18 hours a day (this is analogous to your passive input time). That is how real nature works — it’s nothing like National Geographic or David Attenborough documentaries, the sports highlights of the natural world.

Don’t be fragile. Don’t be brittle. Don’t be a prima donna (like I unfortunately tend to be about so much in life). One line of stray computer code could easily destroy a spacecraft (I’m looking at you, every other Mars probe [Mars Observer, Mars Climate Orbiter, maybe even a couple of Russian ones as well] and Ariane 5 rocket) in quite spectacular, even explosive, fashion; I was literally ready to go to war over a Ziploc lid.

Make no mistake: I’m not here to tell you to be a better person or any of that crap; I’m not that guy. What I am saying is this: go with your next best bad idea. Bend before you break. Become a lemonade factory — all sweet and sticky, just the way them cock-a-roaches like it!

Like saran wrap on a Ziploc bag; it bugs the crap out of me, but it gets the job done. #giterdun? Sorta. Kinda. But better.

You see, the kind of people who are attracted to things like, oh I dunno, the Japanese language, tend to be sensitive, detail-oriented nutjobs. People like me. The irony is that we need to attenuate our sensitivity in order to succeed at this and in life in general: it doesn’t need to be shut down completely, but — like fine china — it should only be brought out for special occasions.

The road to mastery, to excellence, is built on (at least apparent) mediocrity and compromise. The only thing you need to do near-perfectly is not give up, not die, not quit the game. Everything else, meh, just kinda wing it. The trick to boiling water is to add more heat than you’re losing, not to have the “best heat”. Don’t do your best, that’s unsustainable, you can’t set world records every day, just do.

Do what? Something, anything — but preferably small and easy — that helps. Don’t fight your nature. Don’t fight nature in general. Embrace it. Embrace her. Dance with her. Just dance in a helpful direction — but don’t force her there like a cartoon villain, instead, glide there effortlessly. Smooooove. JB Smooooooove. What’s that? We’re doing something productive? I had no idea, darling.

If you feel productive or righteous, you’re doing it wrong. You want your “work” to be almost accidental. Almost incidental. Almost a side-effect. You weren’t trying to learn Japanese: you just watched too darn much TV and it stuck.

Modern life is full of people advocating force. Let’s call these people “Clausewitz’s Bastards” (a little like “Voltaire’s Bastards”, which is the actual title of a pretty decent book). These are the people who took von Clausewitz’s On War all too seriously. First of all, it’s a treatise on war written by a man from a country that literally destroyed itself through war; I mean, like, it’s like if Siad Biarre had written a book called How Not Become A Failed State and motherlovers were quoting that noise a century and a half later like, literally, W the actual F?

Now, am I saying that your national origin determines the kinds of books you’re allowed to write? Of course not. I am saying…don’t look to Prince for advice on responsible drug use? I dunno. Sometimes people give bad advice and you can see how bad it is just by the results they got from following their own advice. And I feel like the preceding sentence may come back to bite me someday (lol) but I’m not gonna sit here and Cardinal Richelieu [it’s a verb now] every six lines I write, so, yeah.

The best that can be said about On War is that it might help if you fight a conventional war against a conventional enemy — but as soon as you face even the vapors of unconventionality, you’re basically toast.  It’s sorta like your friend who knows martial arts moves, but can only use them if you attack him at the exact angle and speed that he learned in his dojo (道場、どうじょう、doujou) exercises. He’s brittle.

Clausewitz and especially his bastards, which basically includes all of us who endured compulsory schooling, are brittle, brutal, linear thinkers.

Nature isn’t linear. It doesn’t just add or just multiply: it compounds. It’s cyclical; it’s logarithmic; it’s exponential; it’s fractal; it’s flexible — but it’s basically never linear. No straight lines. So, linear thinking will not help and indeed will harm you a great deal when applied to dynamic(al?) systems. Brutal, linear, Clausewitzian thinking is like blitzkrieg against Russia: you think you’re winning and then winter hands you your a$$ on a platter, like: “here ya go, one ess”.

With linear thinking, you enter well-dressed and in straight lines, like a handsome Napoleonic column, but leave in tatters. With cockroach thinking, you look like a loser, but you’re undoubtedly a winner where it counts — a winner where and when it matters most. The metaphor breaks down if you over think it, but hopefully you get the point.

And the point here is…

Nothing that lasts is built on brute force. Alexander and Genghis were amazing, kind of, but none of what they built lasted. Not to narrow your action repertoire or anything, but in the long run, I am finding, only guile and subtlety really “work”. You can’t beat yourself into submission on any permanent basis (it will generally end poorly and backfire just as violently as it started), you’ve got to coax yourself, invite yourself, create that desire. You don’t need big boats and big guns, just a big heart and a big mind. Your big heart graciously accepts imperfection; your big mind playfully imbibes and creates new ideas.

Throughout history, guerrillas have beat regular armies with alarming regularity even though regulars are capable of applying more force. Think about it for a moment. Isn’t that cray?!

European military advisers weaned on Clausewitz made the KMT (who had more manpower, better hardware, control of all industry and major cities, international legitimacy and ample foreign support) lose to Mao’s Communist guerrillas thanks to said Clausewitzian Bastards’ force-based, rock-em-sock-em, pitch-battle-centric advice that clearly didn’t work for crap). See Bevin “I’m a Good Writer and Analyst But a Bit Too Much of An Apologist for the Confederate States of America” Alexander’s lucid and insightful How Great Generals Win, for more. [I love his writing, but his thinly veiled boner for the South needs work — perhaps some thick sweatpants to cover it up or something — because it leads to some disappointingly emotional and tendentious sections in an otherwise rational, fair and balanced book].

Davids beat Goliaths on the daily — Malcolm Gladwell has an entire book about it (David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants). Not because of “righteousness” or any nonsense like that, but because of plugging into nature. A lot like, well, roaches.

Guerrillas, like roaches, fight “little war”. They do little things. And yet, time and time again, they are the small hinge that swings big doors of national destiny. When you give up on looking cool and start caring about getting good results, the arthropods will have answers for you.

There’s a Kung-Fu joke in here somewhere where I call you “Gokiburi” instead of “Grasshopper”, but I cannot for the life of me be bothered to dig it up right now.

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