Knowing How or Needing the Chance?

My blog friend Mark Safranski’s recent musings on the nature and sources of strategic thinking brought to mind an old politically incorrect joke whose punchline is “Know how; need chance.” He opens the post with a substantial list of strategic thinkers and then tries to find commonalities among them. I found his list of commonalities uncompelling. I don’t think these commonalities illuminate what strategic thinking is comprised of but rather what circumstances provide the greatest opportunity for strategic thinking.

For all we know the greatest strategic thinker of all time is sticking components onto a circuit board in Chengdu. We’ll never have the opportunity to see the results of her strategic thinking because she’s just struggling to make money to send to her parents back on the farm.

33 comments… add one
  • Ben Wolf

    “For all we know the greatest strategic thinker of all time is sticking components onto a circuit board in Chengdu. We’ll never have the opportunity to see the results of her strategic thinking because she’s just struggling to make money to send to her parents back on the farm.”

    Totally agree. It’s like annual voting on men’s websites for the world’s most beautiful women: we get to see the ones who’ve been discovered, while the actual most beautiful women are probably working in a sweatshop or living in a burqa or never left their small town in Idaho.

    I don’t buy for a minute that Steve Jobs is a one-off who can’t be replaced. The reality is that a million people are out there who could do as well or better but didn’t have the opportunities, and fixing that is the best thing we could ever do for building a better world.

  • It’s like annual voting on men’s websites for the world’s most beautiful women: we get to see the ones who’ve been discovered, while the actual most beautiful women are probably working in a sweatshop or living in a burqa or never left their small town in Idaho.

    There’s an amusing story along those lines. Several years back a modeling scout went to Iceland and began telling people that he was looking for the most beautiful women in world. He was amazed at how frequently people recommended he go to one particular small remote fishing village. He went. They were right.

  • Icepick

    I don’t understand your second paragraph at all. Perhaps that’s because I don’t know the joke you reference in the first paragraph.

    Chance isn’t everything, but it is THE most important thing. I’m currently reading a biography of US Grant*. His circumstances prior to the outbreak of the Civil War weren’t much better than the person you describe – three years prior he had been reduced to cutting and selling firewood on street corners in St. Louis, having failed at everything he had done to that point. Where I’m at now is just past Shiloh; Grant has been relegated to second-in-command of Halleck’s army, and Halleck has just won a hollow victory by taking a big Southern rail junction at Corinth while letting the entirety of Beauregard’s army escape to fight on for another 18 months or so. Grant’s entire military career (entire life, for that matter) has been ruled by luck, good and bad, from posting assignments to not getting shot. Hell, after his first major victory (taking Fort Henry), his theatre commander and the General in Chief conspired to have Grant arrested so he wouldn’t eclipse them. Only Grant’s remoteness and fame kept that from happening.

    That factory worker in Chengdu is just waiting for China’s invasion of Siberia and the subsequent eight way (but limited) nuclear war and 40 or 50 nation unlimited conventional war featuring the US, China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, North Korea and Russia to show her mettle.

    * Hell, the fact that he’s US Grant instead of Hiram Ulysses Grant, as his parents named him, is part of the luck. He sure as Hell couldn’t have been “Unconditional Surrender” Grant is he had been HU Grant. Huggy Bear is a great name for a pimp, but just doesn’t inspire confidence in a general.

  • Icepick:

    You might want to take a look at Grant’s autobiography. It remains after all these years the best presidential autobiography. It’s available via Project Gutenberg here.

  • Icepick

    I’ve got it on my shelves, and read part of it. (I couldn’t concentrate long enough to finish last year – a bleak time that killed concentration, only starting to return now.) It was chance that I picked up the biography at a library last week, and I’m interested to get to the part concerning his post military career, which Grant largely ignores. So it’s the best autobiography written by a President that doesn’t actually cover the Presidency in question. (Circumstances around the wrting of the auotbiabraphy partly limited the scope, but I doubt Grant relished rehashing that phase of his life anyway.)

  • PD Shaw

    @icepick, Brooks D. Simpson is in the middle of writing a two volume biography of Grant that should be pretty good. The first volume goes up to 1865. That was published in 2000 and were waiting for the second volume. He blogs at Crossroads and alluded to forthcoming news about the second volume early last year IIRC, but haven’t heard much.

    AFAIK, Grant was the first person who sought and thought he deserved a third term as POTUS, so I’m not sure he would have been reluctant to write about it, if he had the time and it paid.

  • Icepick

    PD, opened the bio I’ve got (by Jean Edward Smith) to a random page in the library and saw that Grant sought, or at least allowed his supporters to seek on his behalf, a third term. (I’m not that far yet, but I believe the third term would NOT have been consequetive to his first two terms.) That was the point when I decided to check out the book.

    I’ve still got the impression that he wouldn’t have beent that interested in writing about it. (I’m willing to change my mind as I learn more.) I infer that you already know the circumstances of his decision to write what he did. Remember that he had to be coaxed into that by Twain and the prospect of leaving his family destitute.

  • Icepick

    And thanks for the recommendation on the bio, but I imagine that after this bio and Grant’s Memoirs I’ll probably move on to other reading. (I keep meaning to read up on the French Revolution, so I’ll probably head that direction for historical reading.) I’m not really a Civil War buff, but I am finding Grant’s approach to war very interesting. Foreshadowing future generals, plus interesting parallels to my favorite game and its development over time. Grant is so totally a Tal/Morozevich type: Initiative, initiative, initiative!

  • michael reynolds

    Grant is the pseudonym I use and it’s from Ulysses S..

    First because he survived some very hard times, some humiliation. IIRC he once sold firewood to Longstreet.

    Second because he realized he didn’t need to follow each battle by withdrawing and spending months readying for the next: if he won he got up the next day and fought, and if he lost he did the same.

    Third because he wrote as he was dying very painfully and managed thereby to make his family financially secure. The man wrote himself into the grave.

  • PD Shaw

    Grant seems to be an odd direction for the post, since Grant never wanted a military career, he seems to have been directionless in much of his life, and I’m still not quite clear he was a great strategic thinker, as opposed to being one of the few Union generals who understood the necessary strategy. Prior to Fort Donelson, he is someone of whom it could be written that if it wasn’t for bad luck, he’d have no luck at all. And he also strikes me as someone possessing a broad, general competence; in another time and place like the 20th century he might have risen to upper management.

    I’m more reminded of George Bailey, someone for whom his life choices weren’t entirely his own, his life ambitions were largely unmet, but we, as in posterity or the town of Bedford Falls, were lucky he was around (when dad died, uncle so-and-so was revealed to be too incompetent, and there were evil men about).

  • Drew

    I read this this morning, and decided to think about it today before commenting. I’m just not sure what utility there is in the notion that some physical feature or thinking feature some obscure person might have supercedes folks we know of. Further, does it make sense that these people would toil in obscurity?

    OK, the most beautiful woman in the world lives in rural Spain and cleans toilets. So what? I’m making news here, but I’m the most beautiful man in the world………OK, I made that up. So what?

    If we look to objective results, let’s talk Tiger Woods. He clearly was the best golfer in the world the past decade. His wins and stroke average tell us so. And this comes from a Michelson-ophile. But intellectual honesty makes me acknowledge the truth. Anyone want to posit that the best golfer in the world the last decade was really a caddie laboring anonymously in, oh, China? I don’t think so.

    So what is the point of musing that the most strategic thinker is of similar background? The best of the best toil in obscurity? Not in my experience.

    More importantly, suppose the smartest man in the world is in fact a sheepherder in Mongolia. This is an anomoly in the farthest reaches of the statistical tail. And of no practical interest. Being the pragmatist I am, I ask aren’t the majority of the most capable people exploiting their talents, and not relegated to using sheep dung for fuel?

  • Icepick

    IIRC he once sold firewood to Longstreet.

    Not quite. Longstreet, still in the service, was traveling through St. Louis. He dropped in on some old friends at a hotel, and they proposed a game of brag (sort of an early form of poker). One short, one of the men went out to find someone else to play, and brought back an old friend of theirs, Grant. He had been out selling firewood and looked pretty bedraggled. Quoting the book I’m reading:

    It was a happy reunion but Longstreet was saddenedbecause he saw “Grant had been unfortunate, and he was really in needy circumstances.”

    The next day I was walking in front of the Planters’, when I found myself face to face again with Grant who, placing in the palm of my hand a five dollar gold piece, insisted that I should take it in payment of a debt of honor over fifteen years old. I peremptorily declined to take it, alleging that he was out of the service and more in need of it than I.

    “You must take it,” said he. “I cannot live with anything in my possession which is not mine.” Seeing the determination in the man’s face, and in order to save him mortification, I took the money, and shaking hands we departed.”

    Longstreet said, “The next time we met was at Appomattox, and the first thing that General Grant said to me when we stepped aside, placing his arm in mine, was: ‘Pete, let’s have another game of brag, to recall the old days which were so pleasant to us all.’ His whole greeting and conduct was as though nothing had ever happened to mar our pleasant relations.”

    Just to be clear, Longstreet was on the side that surrenedered to Grant at Appomattox.

  • Icepick

    Grant seems to be an odd direction for the post, since Grant never wanted a military career, he seems to have been directionless in much of his life, and I’m still not quite clear he was a great strategic thinker, as opposed to being one of the few Union generals who understood the necessary strategy.

    Grant started out not wanting a military career, but by the time he returned fromt he Mexican career he wanted to make a go of it, and did for several years. In other words, he was like lots of people who stumble into something unexpectedly and find they enjoy it.

    When that went south (so to speak), it’s no wonder he seemed directionless. More to the point, he kept plugging away at farming but kept getting snake bit. One year commodity prices collapse when he’s got a bumper crop, another his crops get destroyed by bad weather. He ended up back in his father’s employ because he busted out of what he wanted to do first, and had horrible luck at what he wanted to do second. Chance heppened to him.

    As for his strategic thinking capabilities – if he was one of the few Union generals (or Confederate generals for that matter) to understand what needed to be done, doesn’t that mean that his strateigc thinking was better than almost everyone else’s? It looks like about the only one to fully think in the same way he did AT THE START was his mentor Charles Ferguson Smith, and Smith seems to have believed Grant was his superior in more than rank.

    And look at Grant’s conduct with the armies he defeated – he started the healing process for the nation when a great many wanted the Confederate leadership hanged. That’s strategic too, in a different realm. And he was ahead of the game in US political leadership with respect to the need for a canal across Central America.

    And we went down this path because I’m reading a bio of the man, and brought it up. Dave’s Chegdu factory worker reminded me of Grant selling firewood on street corners about ten years before he got elected President. Life can turn fast.

  • Icepick

    Anyone want to posit that the best golfer in the world the last decade was really a caddie laboring anonymously in, oh, China? I don’t think so.

    As usual you are being a dumbass. Everyone knows Kim Jong-Il was the best golfer ever.

  • michael reynolds

    Ice:

    I read — and I don’t recall where — an anecdote involving Grant manumitting a slave he inherited. I’d like to believe it’s true but it seemed too convenient a story and I never tracked it down. I’d be interested if you came across it in the bio you’re reading.

  • Icepick

    More importantly, suppose the smartest man in the world is in fact a sheepherder in Mongolia. This is an anomoly in the farthest reaches of the statistical tail. And of no practical interest.

    Right. Grant selling firewood. Einstein having to get a job working in an obscure government office because he can’t get a job in the acadamies. Clearly people of no consequence. Einstein at least had a chance of getting published (and did, obviously), Grant had almost no chance of showing what he could do. As it was, getting command of any troops at all in the Civil War was an iffy thing for him, and revolved around luck, as no one wanted him.

    Drew, just admit it – you only care about people that make a lot of money, it is the ONLY way you judge anyone as a human being.

  • Icepick

    He did manumit a slave. The slave had come from his father-in-law. Give me a few minutes and I’ll have it.

  • michael reynolds

    Being the pragmatist I am, I ask aren’t the majority of the most capable people exploiting their talents, and not relegated to using sheep dung for fuel?

    I’m far from the “most capable” at what I do, but had I not been in a town I had never been to before, and turned at the precisely right moment, and seen a girl through a window, and felt a very atypical compulsion to go and knock on her door, I’d most likely be living a very different life.

    I can point to a number of times in my life when it was all just the roll of the dice. There are of course many more I don’t know about.

    And right now, somewhere down inside my body, there’s a lymphocyte that maybe does it’s job and I live, or maybe fails, and I die.

    DNA, environment, free will and random chance.

  • Icepick

    I was already at the pages in question. To quote again:

    The circumstances are not clear, but sometime during his last year at White Haven [his father-in-law’s plantation in Missouri] he acquired possession of the young slave Colonel Dent [F-i-L] left behind, a thirty-five-year-old man named William Jones. Grant’s views on slavery were ambivalent and Jones was the only slave he ever owned. When he moved to St. Louis, Grant was initially tempted to rent the man out, but he soon decided against it. On March 29, 1859 he went to circuit court and filed the manumission papers to emancipate Jones. Grant never discussed his motives, but the action speaks for itself. Able-bodied slaves sold for a thousand dollars or more, and Grant surely could have used the money. Instead he set Jones free.

    That was when Grant was trying a real estate venture that eventually failed.

    Besides calling a 35 y/o a young slave, Jean Edward Smith hasn’t yet made the case about Grant’s ambivalent attitude towards slavery as of the battle of Shiloh. I’m still well within the actual fighting of the Civil War, though, so maybe he will establish that later. Or perhaps I missed it in the footnotes.

  • michael reynolds

    Grant was a real mensch many years before that term was in common use. Thanks, Ice.

  • PD Shaw

    As I recall, Grant is drummed out of the military under rumors of binge-drinking and goes to St. Louis where his father-in-law sets him up with adjoining land to build a house and farm. He hires free blacks to help cut down the timber to clear land, which he ends up selling on the streets of St. Louis for the next few years. He builds a house, which his wife doesn’t like, and the farm itself is not successful. About this time his father-in-law moves into the city (he might be ill) and sells/rents/gifts his property, including a slave, to Grant. He uses the slave for about a year. The depictions at White Haven have Grant working the fields side by side with the slave, much as probably he worked side by side with the free blacks cutting timber.

    I believe Grant was opposed to slavery, but like many of his time, was unsure about what, if anything, could be done about it. He argued with his father-in-law about slavery while living at White Haven. He was, like Lincoln, a Whig, which meant that he respected the rule of law and favored national unity. Grant voted for Buchanan in 1856 because he feared secession if a Republican were elected and said he would have reluctantly voted for Douglas in 1860 if he’d been eligible to vote after he had moved to Illinois.

    Grant strikes me as being pretty close to Lincoln in his attitudes towards slavery; recall that Lincoln represented at least one slaveowner in claiming a fugitive slave. Both distanced themselves from abolitionism, which they fear subverted rule of law and national unity. And Grant was pretty lockstep with Lincoln on the slavery/enlistment of black soldier issues, as the war continued, necessity would dictate that blacks be enlisted and slaves be freed. Grant never did anything like Freemont in trying to use his military command to emancipate a theatre of war.

  • Icepick

    PD, Grant once quipped about the 1856 election that he voted for Buchanon because he didn’t know him, and voted againts Fremont (Buchanon’s 1856 Republican oppponent) because he DID know him. Fremont (don’t know how to put the accent aigu on the ‘e’) was not that popular with the regular Army folks.

  • Andy

    Drew,

    “Being the pragmatist I am, I ask aren’t the majority of the most capable people exploiting their talents, and not relegated to using sheep dung for fuel?”

    Suppose Tiger Woods was born in the Congo and never heard of golf? Is that really a question of people exploiting their talents?

    People need the opportunity to discover what their talents actually are and they also need the opportunity to develop those talents. Tiger Woods had the innate talent, but he also had parents who discovered that talent at a young age and then pushed him to develop them.

    So, to answer your question

    Further, does it make sense that these people would toil in obscurity?

    Yes, it does. Opportunity matters.

  • Icepick

    Also, it is all but confirmed that Grant was drummed out for binge drinking. He had been posted to the far frontier and found his duties boring and greatly missed his wife and children. (He didn’t see his second child until the child was two years old.) Many of Grant’s friends in the military thought he should have stayed in and fought the charge of drunkenness while on duty – even though he had been in such a state they felt that with Grant’s record (particularly in Mexico) and as a first offense that he would win a court martial. Grant apparently didn’t want his wife to find out about it at all and so simply resigned his commision abruptly.

    Grant’s drinking had once affected his duty when he was putting together supplies for an expidition of McClellan. McClellan never forgot it and never trusted Grant again, and during the early part of the Civil War was much inclined to believe any bad rumor about Grant. (McClellan had also refused to even meet with Grant to discuss a job for grant at the start of the war.)

    There was another problem grant had during the war – he, like Charles Ferguson Smith whom I mentioned previously, thought the purpose of the war should be to destroy the rebel armies. Everyone else in the military thought the purpose should be protracted maneuvering designed to occupy territory but avoid fights. Thus Grant’s reputation as a general who fights put him add odds with prevailing US military doctrine.

  • Icepick

    Oh, I forgot to mention this. My wife sent me a link to a book specifically about Grant writing his Memoirs: Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year by Charles Bracelen Flood. Reynolds, I thought you might be interested in that in particular, given your background.

  • Icepick

    And here’s the book I’m reading: Grant by Jean Edward Smith.

  • sam

    “Everyone else in the military thought the purpose should be protracted maneuvering designed to occupy territory but avoid fights. Thus Grant’s reputation as a general who fights put him add odds with prevailing US military doctrine.”

    But not with Lincoln’s doctrine, the only one that counted in the end.

  • Icepick

    But not with Lincoln’s doctrine, the only one that counted in the end.

    true, but he had to get to the point where he would be recognized by Lincoln. Also, I don’t know that Lincoln had a doctrine other than he wanted to win, and expeditiously. McClellan and his ilk weren’t doing that, whatever else they were doing.

  • sam

    Oh, and Drew, how would Tiger have fared in professional golf in, say, 1955? Oh, wait, I know: PGA of America moves to right a wrong — not very well.

  • sam

    “Also, I don’t know that Lincoln had a doctrine other than he wanted to win, and expeditiously.”

    Lincoln knew he needed a killer arithmetician, and he found him in Grant. “He fights,” Lincoln said.

  • PD Shaw

    Lincoln’s grand strategy was to secure the capital, blockade and isolate the south and then strike key ports with combined land/naval forces. With later input from Winfield Scot, a Mississippi river campaign was incorporated to divide the South , the sum of which is the Anaconda Plan.

    As the initial elements came into place, Lincoln wanted to use the Union’s advantage in numbers to attack at multiple sites and undermine the South’s advantage of having shorter internal lines. Its a motion offense, he wanted to force the Rebels to make choices from which the Union would find advantage. One of the few times this worked was when Grant moved towards Cornith, Foote is descending the Mississippi River, McClellan has gone to the Penensula, and Farragut was poised below New Orleans. The Rebels brought troops up from the Gulf to block Grant at Shiloh and Farragut basically walked into New Orleans unopposed.

    Lincoln appears fairly deferential to the commander’s choices, he just wanted them to move, move, move, preferably at the same time at different locations.

  • steve

    In defense of Union generals, I think it should be noted that they performed much better in the Western campaigns than their Confederate counterparts. Grant was one of the performers. It was in the East where the Union saw a leadership deficit. PD outlines the general strategy correctly.

    Steve

  • I’ve mentioned before around here that the real turning of the tide of the American Civil War was when it became West vs. East rather than North vs. South.

Leave a Comment