Genghis Khan and the Art of Winning

One of my favorite books that I’ve read last year is Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. The author did a great job researching and tracking the footsteps of Genghis Khan and his ruling descendants through Mongolia and outside Mongolia.

It was a pleasant experience to discover the complexity and depth of the Mongolian way of life through this book and to see beyond the image in the popular culture, the image of the horde with blood thirsty brute savages.

Conan’s words are supposedly attributed to Genghis Khan

I’m not going to write about that complexity in this post, I highly recommend reading the book and finding for yourself. The purpose of my post is to illustrate winning Mongolian strategies and tactics that have applicability not only on the battlefield but outside of  it as well.

Genghis Khan empire
Genghis Khan’s Empire. Source: Wikimedia.

Throughout history it’s unity and discipline that usually made the difference between winning or losing. Break the unity of the enemy, seed chaos and you gain the upper hand over him even if he has superior numbers, divide et impera | divide and conquer are winning strategies and were used not only by the Romans but by other victors as well.

The Mongol’s success arose from their cohesion and discipline, bred over millennia as nomads working in small groups, and from their steadfast loyalty to their leader.

There is no honor in only trying, there is no second place, go for total victory and finish what you start:

The Mongols did not find honor in fighting; they found honor in winning. They had a single goal in every campaign—total victory. Toward this end, it did not matter what tactics were used against the enemy or how the battles were fought or avoided being fought. Winning by clever deception or cruel trickery was still winning and carried no stain on the bravery of the warriors, since there would be plenty of other occasions for showing prowess on the field. For the Mongol warrior, there was no such thing as individual honor in battle if the battle was lost. As Genghis Khan reportedly said, there is no good in anything until it is finished.

Use the element of surprise, vary your tactics, reward loyalty and punish treachery, create a few basic but unwavering principles that should become the “religion” of your group of people:

Genghis Khan recognized that warfare was not a sporting contest or a mere match between rivals; it was a total commitment of one people against another. Victory did not come to the one who played by the rules; it came to the one who made the rules and imposed them on his enemy. Triumph could not be partial. It was complete, total, and undeniable—or it was nothing. In battle, this meant the unbridled use of terror and surprise. In peace, it meant the steadfast adherence to a few basic but unwavering principles that created loyalty among the common people. Resistance would be met with death, loyalty with security.

You are invincible until your last dying breath, never give up, keep hope alive, don’t think about death and failure, think positive and think about solutions not the problems. 

On and off the battlefield, the Mongol warrior was forbidden to speak of death, injury, or defeat. Just to think of it might make it happen. Even mentioning the name of a fallen comrade or other dead warrior constituted a serious taboo. Every Mongol soldier had to live his life as a warrior with the assumption that he was immortal, that no one could defeat him or harm him, that nothing could kill him. At the last moment of life, when all had failed and no hope remained, the Mongol warrior was supposed to look upward and beckon his fate by calling out the name of the Eternal Blue Sky as his final earthly words.

We know now from neuroscience that each thought we have forms a  unique neuronal network in our brains. The more we use that thought the stronger that network becomes and the stronger the connections between the neurons become and the more readily available that neural network becomes to your reasoning process.  You are what you thinkThe limbic system is constantly searching for threats so it can trigger a fight or flight response to the first sign of threat. Don’t feed the limbic system with imaginary threats. You want to see solution not problems. The mind is great at creating imaginary threats,  evolution favored individuals with this characteristic. However, the environment has changed, there are not that many potential imminent threats, there are not that many bushes left in the city that have a lion or a serpent lurking in them.

Don’t give in to hedonistic pursuits, once you start following them you start forgetting your focus and goals, you will be no better than a slave:

In keeping with his own sober manner and simple style of living, Genghis Khan warned them against the pursuit of a “colorful” life with material frivolities and wasteful pleasures. “It will be easy,” he explained, “to forget your vision and purpose once you have fine clothes, fast horses, and beautiful women.” In that case, “you will be no better than a slave, and you will surely lose everything.”

As seen, these are the characteristics that make a winning mentality. The Mongol success doesn’t consist only in prowess with the bow and arrow and prowess riding the horse, you also need wise leaders with a winner mentality to funnel collective skill into achieving goals:

“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” Alexander the Great.

Putting Yourself in Winning Situations

Not long ago I’ve read How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams, a book inspired from the author’s life. It was in this book that I first came upon the concept of systems versus goals. The author’s first encounter with this concept was while he has travelling by plane:

“I was seated next to a businessman who was probably in his early sixties. I suppose I looked like an odd duck with my serious demeanor, bad haircut, and cheap suit, clearly out of my element. He asked what my story was and I filled him in. I asked what he did for a living and he told me he was CEO of a company that made screws. Then he offered me some career advice. He said that every time he got a new job, he immediately started looking for a better one. For him, job seeking was not something one did when necessary. It was an ongoing process. This makes perfect sense if you do the math. Chances are the best job for you won’t become available at precisely the time you declare yourself ready. Your best bet, he explained, was to always be looking for the better deal. The better deal has its own schedule. I believe the way he explained it is that your job is not your job; your job is to find a better job.

This was my first exposure to the idea that one should have a system instead of a goal. The system was to continually look for better options. And it worked for this businessman, as he had job-hopped from company to company, gaining experience along the way, until he became a CEO. Had he approached his career with a specific goal in mind, or perhaps specific job objectives (e.g., his boss’s job), it would have severely limited his options. But for him, the entire world was his next potential job. The new job simply had to be better than the last one and allow him to learn something useful for the next hop.”

chess king winning

So what this systematic method does is that it iterates and eliminates hypothesis and solutions that don’t work, hence it’s normal to experience a lot of failures until the optimum solution is found. In order to find that optimum solution is important to not give up, stay focused and not to succumb to the fear of failure:

“It helps a great deal to have at least a general strategy and some degree of focus. The world offers so many alternatives that you need a quick filter to eliminate some options and pay attention to others. Whatever your plan, focus is always important.
My system of creating something the public wants and reproducing it in large quantities nearly guaranteed a string of failures. By design, all of my efforts were long shots. Had I been goal oriented instead of system oriented, I imagine I would have given up after the first several failures. It would have felt like banging my head against a brick wall. But being systems oriented, I felt myself growing more capable every day, no matter the fate of the project I happened to be working on. And every day during those years I woke up with the same thought, literally, as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and slapped the alarm clock off.”

In my case, I have a systematic approach to the process of building startups and putting ideas into practice. I don’t spend too much time overthinking if this or that idea will work or not, what I do instead is to implement the idea as fast as possible in a 3 day sprint and then market it in other 3 days sprints. If the idea doesn’t work out I will at least have learned something from the experience and move on to the next one. It’s a win situation no matter the outcome. I’m also documenting and writing about my experiences and the things that I learn during this systematic approach, adding to my credibility, making my expertise and my personal brand known so this is yet another win.

The difference between goals and systems: if you want to run a marathon, which is your goal, your system is your running schedule, let’s say that you plan to run each day, increasing the distance on a weekly basis until you manage to run a marathon. If you want to write a book, which is your goal, your system is your writing schedule, for example, you can plan to write daily 1000 words until you finish writing the book.
You can have achievements using a system without a goal but you cannot have achievements using a goal without a system.

Also, about goals and happiness: achieving your goals won’t necessarily make you happy.

Success isn’t magic; it’s generally the product of picking a good system and following it until luck finds you.

The Success Formula: Every Skill You Acquire Doubles Your Odds of Success 

“I find it helpful to see the world as a slot machine that doesn’t ask you to put money in. All it asks is your time, focus, and energy to pull the handle over and over. A normal slot machine that requires money will bankrupt any player in the long run. But the machine that has rare yet certain payoffs, and asks for no money up front, is a guaranteed winner if you have what it takes to keep yanking until you get lucky. In that environment, you can fail 99 percent of the time, while knowing success is guaranteed. All you need to do is stay in the game long enough.”