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What type of success?
What does "it" look like to you?
Malcolm Gladwell's job is to captivate audiences. Catch your attention. Take positions that seem strange or silly—but by the second-take, you recognize they make the most sense.
Gladwell was recently in conversation on the subject of athletic performance. He described an argument he recently found himself in, which pitted two runners against one another. One had won a Bronze and Silver at the Olympics, but who had also put up exceptional times over a twenty year period. Another had won Gold at the Olympics in a big breakthrough performance.
The distinction Gladwell drew is that we often overweight high-flying moments over longer term, steadier achievements.
"As a culture, we are somehow dismissive of long periods of elite performance, and infatuated with brief windows of extraordinary elite performance…When it comes to evaluating the greatness of elite performers, we overemphasize peak performance and underemphasize longevity."
This isn’t just a bar-room brawl or minor disagreement. If strategy is a search for success, then it ought to matter what kind of success we pursue. I’m not convinced either automatically matters more. But I do see echoes of this discussion in military genius.
Basil H. Liddell Hart once wrote about the difference, which he described, as “determining the nature of genius, as distinct from fame.” Hart found “the imagination of mankind” is often “more impressed by the flash of a meteor than by the more permanent radiance of a star that stays remotely in the sky. The career that ends with a sudden descent to earth…has a more human appeal.” Moreover, “to ensure such fame, it is more important for a general to win victories than to gain the victory. As with an artist, his ultimate standing depends not on whether success crowned his career, but on the masterpieces he produced in practising his art.” This battle-winning flash and flair is why Hart found Robert E. Lee of the American Civil War so often considered a military genius.
Lee follows this path of shooting-star-fame, in that his battlefield victories in the Civil War were spectacular yet short-lived. In May 1887, in an issue of North American Review, William T. Sherman critiqued Lee in a response essay to a British general that Sherman felt had overstated Lee’s performance in command of the Confederacy.
Sherman wrote on Lee, “His sphere of action was, however, local. He never rose to the grand problem which involved a continent and future generations. His Virginia was to him the world. Though familiar with the geography of the interior of this great continent, he stood like a stone wall to defend Virginia against the ‘Huns and Goths’ of the North, and he did it like a valiant knight as he was. He stood at the front porch battling with the flames whilst the kitchen and house were burning, sure in the end to consume the whole.”
So do we want to be the lamp or the torch? The candle or the rocket? One burns hot and bright and goes out fast, while the other is warmer for longer and across many different use-cases.
Why does this matter to the strategist?
We don’t simply aim for success, our aim should be more precisely for a certain type of success, like a sniper that sees a smaller target set than everybody else does.
I suspect the type of success that’s best for your chosen field varies depending on the field. Warren Buffett has made the vast bulk of his wealth past age 65. That's because the competition he’s in turns on longevity. It's not about being brilliant, it's about being good over a long time period that compounds in to greater gains.
Most strategists, I fear, do something great (or not so great) in an important endeavor, and then waddle off stage right. They get one shot and then move on.
That's due to the nature of the gig. Strategists often get hitched to some bigwig and follow their career, that career has some peak, you get your shot at that peak, and then you move off, never to be heard from again.
It would be more ideal for a strategist to have several opportunities over a long stretch of time. To be made "known" or identified as a strategist early on, and to get some early practice in the craft. Followed by a period of reflection, where you’re out of the chair for a time. Then another opportunity. And so on.
You can imagine that to be the ideal. As opposed to the one-off peak-career strategist, who only gets a shot with stakes once in a life, it would be better if strategists saw more wave-like careers, where the stakes rise and fall over time, where one can learn something from one wave to carry forward to the next.
On this matter, regarding Gladwell, I think he's on to something about longevity. If I had any control over the matter, I’d aim for longevity.
*Originally appeared November, 2022.