How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Carl Von Clausewitz

Kein Operationsplan reicht mit einiger Sicherheit über das erste Zusammentreffen mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht hinaus.”

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800-1891)

Or, translated and paraphrased into plain English: no plan survives contact with the enemy.

If the change you seek to make in the world lights up your bones when you think about it, then it is unlikely you have sold yourself short – small goals just don’t have that kind of bone-lighting-up power. You have likely chosen something grand, something daring, something that puts you at risk of being mocked by non-believers. I hope so. For anything else is a waste of time.

It’s important not to let yourself be embarrassed about having grand aims. Ambition is not a dirty word. You have my applause for even daring to dream that something better is possible. Just know that the path to get from where you are now to where you wish to be will not be easy. Nor will it be straight. It will zig, it will zag, and it will go off on tangents and subplots.

Of course, it would be wonderful if there were some way to straighten your path in advance. Some way you could craft a perfect, omniscient plan that made not just failure but any kind of temporary setback impossible. But there isn’t.

There is no value whatsoever in trying to plot a rigid path to your giant goal, because the moment you take any action, the playing field changes. Think about it this way: if you knew enough right now to plot out an invincible, fool-proof path to your goal, wouldn’t you have done it already?

It’s better instead to – as Jeff Bezos would say – “focus on the things that don’t change.” Life is, if anything, unpredictable. It always has been and it always will be. So instead of wishing for predictability, embrace unpredictability. Make it a feature, not a bug.

Carl von Clausewitz, everyone’s favourite 19th century Prussian, called the difference between our plans and what actually happens “friction.” If you attempt anything in this world, you are going to experience friction before long. The only difference between reaching your goal and not reaching your goal is how you respond.

If you work with the friction, finding ways to incorporate it, surfing it like a wave, then you will forge a rich, elegant, soulful path to your goal. And as you look back on where you’ve been, you will be amazed at how you somehow made the dots connect, and you will be grateful for everything that arrived unexpected and unannounced, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

If you rally against the friction, on the other hand, trying to control every little thing, allowing yourself to become disheartened and disillusioned every time something unforeseen occurs… you will quit. And you will wrongly assume that your mistake was either to have not spent enough time planning, or to have picked too large a goal to begin with. But more planning wouldn’t have saved you from friction, nor would a smaller goal.

If I could boil what I’m trying to say down to one sentence, it would be this: Allow friction to change your plans, never your aims.

Aim for the sky. Please. And when things go “wrong” – which I guarantee they will – turn shit into sugar.

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