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A world without strategy
Is such a place possible? Are we there yet?
Is a world without strategy possible?
Let’s dispense with suspense. There is no world without strategy. It isn’t possible.
Put it this way. Choice-making beings compete, and some will always find a philosophy of success—a North Star and compass—that’ll steer them better than most. (Enter Darwin.)
One of two conditions would have to be true for there to be no strategy.
First, there would have to be no competition, everything and everyone either the same or slotted so perfectly that nobody ever wanted to leave their perfect place in life. No rat race, no dog eat dog, no lions and no lambs. Everyone’s in perfect harmony. Which seems like a nice thought.
Or is it? A completely static society is as static for the individual as it is for society. Society would go nowhere. Society would accomplish nothing. At the individual level this is an extreme version of a caste system, a close-cousin to slavery in that you’re born to wear invisible chains you can never take off.
My PhD advisor was a guy named Colin Gray, a scholar and writer on strategy who’d worked as a political appointee in the Regan administration in the US Department of Defense. So he’d been at the nexus between ideas (his Oxford PhD was on Eisenhower’s nuclear policy) and action. I remember him telling me all about the jousting matches he’d had with historians over a fairly simple concept. Colin argued that strategy existed beyond time, that the strategic function and instinct were there from the time the first ape slapped another ape to get something.
In contrast, some historians argued that you couldn’t apply a term like “strategy” to criticize historical figures. For example, if the term didn’t come into common use until the 19th Century, how could you use it to castigate Caesar in Roman times, or even evaluate Washington in the 18th century?
Naturally, I’ve come down on Colin’s side. Lack of a word for something doesn’t negate the thing’s existence. Gravity comes to mind. Gravity surely existed before Newton, yet we humans just lacked an explanation for the phenomenon and had yet to widely share a useful term.
So it doesn’t seem appropriate to insist strategy didn’t exist in the time before the word came into popular usage.
It’s hardwired into most of us, or at least some of us, to reach for success in life. No matter how low the stakes. Maybe it’s the next math test, and a student’s worked out a way to hold mathematical patterns in their head in such a way that increases odds for outcompeting others. Maybe it’s a guy or gal angling for their next date, maybe it’s leaning in to one project at work over all others on the odds that one will bring outsized rewards, or maybe it’s a general choosing when and where to attack.
The point is a world without strategy would mean either that we’d be kept from any and all competition, or we’d all have lost our will for success.
I find it hard to believe that world ever could exist.
But I equally believe it already does exist for some people, some people that choose not to engage to improve or succeed, or that have convinced themselves that they cannot.