Napoleon Bonaparte was not a nice man. I did not know this. A lot of the people and ideas on this blog exist in the idea of the “adjacent possible.” Introduced by Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From it’s the idea that before you can see the future, you have to be next to it. It’s like having a flashlight in the woods. The beam of light gets you down the path, then once you are further down the path, so is the light, and you continue on. Elon Musk calls this idea “the semantic tree.” If you’ve ever read a Wikipedia article, not understood something, and clicked link to read more, you’ve see this idea.
We need a jumping off point.
Napoleon’s era was never an adjacent possible for me, but I wanted him to be. Thankfully, Paul Johnson wrote a packed little book, Napoleon. More books should be like this one. Here are a few things I learned about Napoleon.
1/ Historical bifurcations. We can add Napoleon’s name to the list of the great ‘what-ifs.’ We were close to never having a Napoleon.
- Had he been born two years earlier, he wouldn’t have been a citizen of France.
- Had he not read about Corsica Boswell, he wouldn’t have had revolutionary ideas.
- Had he been accepted into the British Navy, he wouldn’t have joined the French.
- Had the town ruler not had an (alleged) affair with his mother, he never would have gone to military school.
- Had the French government made good on their financial promises after his first defeat, he may have toiled on as the King of Elba rather than heading to Waterloo.
Alternative histories are a helpful tool to think about outcomes. I wrote about this in the breakdown of Sam Hinkie’s resignation letter but a more popular treatment comes from Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens. There, Harari notes that if Charles Darwin hadn’t articulated natural selection, someone else would have.
This isn’t uncommon in science. The adjacent possible in Darwin’s day was a packed room, the doorway under the sign “Evolution” has people clambering over one another to get through.
Whether Napoleon specifically, or history generally, is like science (this probably would have happened anyway) or more like how the dollar became the world’s premier currency (hear NPR tell that story), I don’t know, but it is worth thinking about.
2/ Conditions matter. Paul Johnson writes, “revolutionary France of the 1790s provided the perfect background for an ambitious, politically conscious, and energetic soldier such as Bonaparte to make his way to the top.”
It was enough of a meritocracy, and Napoleon, thanks in part, to his military school education barely made it. There were also parts of Napoleon’s temperament that helped. “Few successful men,” Johnson writes, “have ever carried a lighter burden of ideology.” Napoleon wasn’t committed to any group. He wasn’t beholden to any ideas. This would prove to be his weakness in sustaining power, but strength in accumulating it.
There were also the physical conditions of war that influenced Bonaparte. In France, Italy, and Germany he chose the choicest spots for the butchers of war. In Spain and Russia, he did not. Johnson writes that the summers in the countries were “eaters of armies” and Napoleon ended up retreating through the Russian winter.
In a speech from Charlie Munger to the USC Business School, he explains that after the great depression, Benjamin Graham could “run his Geiger counter over this detritus from the collapse of the 1930s and find things selling below their working capital per share.” A great deal.
Munger notes that this worked for Graham, but not for him and, partner Warren Buffett. “If we’d stayed with classic Graham the way Ben Graham did it, we would never have had the record we have. And that’s because Graham wasn’t trying to do what we did.”
The book, How Music Got Free explains the confluence of conditions too. There had to be new technology (mp3, high speed networks) AND a decline in album quality AND a certain approach from music executives for the digital music revolution to occur.
3/ A Venn Diagram of skills. Napoleon succeeded in specific ways because he was the only one at the time who had such skills. “He became a master map reader, with a gift amounting almost to genius for visualizing terrain… few young officers of his day had this skill or bothered to acquire it.”
“I’m a perfect example of the power of leveraging multiple mediocre skills. I’m a rich and famous cartoonist who doesn’t draw well. At social gatherings I’m usually not the funniest person in the room. My writing skills are good, not great. But what I have that most artists and cartoonists do not have is years of corporate business experience plus an MBA from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.”
Dave McClure started his VC fund because he had the engineering and marketing sides and “there weren’t that may people doing investing that had both disciplines.”
What Napoleon, Adams, and McClure have done is compete against non-consumption. They found a country, medium, and market they could dominate because no one of their skill level was there. It was their new approach to a problem that helped them succeed.
Toward the end of the book, Johnson notes that Napoleon could have gone even further. Had he tried to rule the America’s he would have had a better chance.
4/ Chesterton fences. Napoleon missed a Chesterton fence. Johnson writes, that in destroying the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleon made a mistake. “The Holy Roman Empire filled a role. It was a driver for stressing the cultural unity of Germany while making it difficult to bring about its political and military unity.”
It reminded me of a story that Mardi Jo Link tells in Bootstrapper. Link’s hen house was a mess. The rooster, she thought, was terrorizing the hens. He was always pushing them out the way, taking their spots, waking them up. Enough of that Link thought, and she moved the rooster to another pen. That night a fox got in the hen house and killed a hen. She realized that the rooster served a purpose. His aggression kept the foxes away. She moved him back.
As I noted in episode #01 of mike’s mental models podcast, we should consider the history of something. Ask, why is this this way and not another? After we do that, we can then decide whether to overthrow the Holy Roman Empire, take out the rooster, or tear down the fence.