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.”

Thought of the Day: On Success, Personality Types and the Personal Mission Statement

I noticed a common pattern among the people I’ve been communicating with lately: even though they all are successful in their own ways they still think that they haven’t achieved many things. In the following lines I will attempt to explain my idea of success. It’s not bad to want to achieve more and be more successful but this modern prevalence seems to be the effect of the availability heuristic of success and survivorship bias. The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that returns a fast example in one’s mind when he/she is thinking about something or deciding. When not engaged in cognitive demanding processes the mind tends to wander off and a frequent subject of its ruminations is the status of one’s life. Am I happy? Am I successful? Am I doing something useful with my life? Do I feel like I have a purpose in life? There is also the tendency to compare ourselves with others, to assess our socio-economic hierarchy and the availability heuristic serves us immediate examples learned, usually, from sources like the news and social media. The news tend to present only the most successful companies and on social media people tend to “cheat” by presenting themselves only in positive contexts. So, in appearance, there might seem like a lot of success is going around us and we might feel left out.

Survivorship bias: “Survivorship bias or survival bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. This can lead to false conclusions in several different ways. Survivorship bias can lead to overly optimistic beliefs because failures are ignored, such as when companies that no longer exist are excluded from analyses of financial performance”. In other words, humans have an innate tendency to see only what worked, what succeeded.

The way success is commonly portrayed is by achieving a high socio-economic status: money in the bank, an expensive house, expensive car(s), expensive traveling in exotic places and so on. If money, fast cars, a big house and a trophy wife truly motivate you than great for you, go for it! but it should be noted that not all people are motivated by the same things, different personalities are motivated differently but unfortunately many tend to acquire and internalize the notion that success = money&high status. Albert Einstein is considered to have said the following quote: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Let’s change it a bit: If you judge yourself by your ability to become a multimillionaire even though you don’t really want to or don’t need to but everything around you makes you believe that, then you will live your life thinking you are a failure. The word millionaire can be replaced with whatever notion of success that doesn’t really motivate you.

Update: meanwhile, I also came upon the concept of Strain Theory.  Strain theory states that this kind of pressure from the society to achieve the “American Dream” can lead to nefarious consequences. From Wikipedia:

Strain theory is a sociology and criminology theory developed in 1938 by Robert K. Merton. The theory states that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (such as the American dream) though they lack the means, this leads to strain which may lead the individuals to commit crimes. Examples being selling drugs or becoming involved in prostitution to gain financial security.

.thinking intp

According to the Myers-Briggs personality test my personality is INTP-A also known as the “Logician” personality type. INTP’s are introverted and thinking types, shy in social settings, need intellectual stimulation, love patterns, constantly come up with ideas and solutions, are inventive and creative. Given this short description is not hard to infer that a lot of money in the bank and/or a high social status is not something that really motivates this personality type but rather what motivates them are ideas, discoveries, exploration. Money should be seen as a means to an end not an end in itself. My definition of success is tightly related to my Personal Mission Statement. I first learned about the concept of the Personal Mission Statement about 3 years ago while reading Stephen Covey‘s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

What is a Personal Mission Statement?

“In ones life, the most effective way to begin with the end in mind is to develop a mission statement one that focuses what you want to be in terms of character and what you want to do in reference to contribution of achievements. Writing a mission statement can be the most important activity an individual can take to truly lead ones life. Personal mission statements based on correct principles are like a personal constitution, the basis for making major, life-directing decisions, the basis for making daily decisions in the midst of the circumstances and emotions that affect our lives. Your mission statement becomes your constitution, the solid expression of your vision and values. It becomes the criterion by which you measure everything else in your life.”

For example, this is part of my personal mission statement:

Live free and exercise the right to be free, be the master of my own destiny.

Learn about my self, my family, my peers, my surroundings, nature, the universe.

Experience the best that humanity has to offer: it’s beauty in all of its forms, architecture, events, art, movies, literature, music, its emotions, culture, history, languages.

Experience the best that nature has to offer: scenic places with mesmerizing beauty.

Challenge myself, grow each day, learn each day, experience each day, connect each day, test myself, get out of my comfort zone.

No day goes to waste.

Influence and make a difference so my existence is not meaningless.

Add value. Don’t forget to smile and laugh.

The founder of the universe, who assigned to us the laws of life, provided that we should live well, but not in luxury. Everything needed for our well-being is right before us, whereas what luxury requires is gathered by many miseries and anxieties. Let us use this gift of nature and count it among the greatest things.



Like I was saying, my idea of success is strongly intertwined with my personal mission statement. I am practicing my personal mission statement on a daily basis and thus I consider myself to be a successful person given this criteria. It can be clearly seen that it doesn’t take a lot of money in order to achieve most of the things in my list. Now, obviously, this is not a one-size-fits-all solution, each should take some time off to figure out what they truly want.
I was stating that each day I am practicing my personal mission. How do I know that? Today, at the end of the day I will know it because I just recently did it, the memory of doing it is fresh. How will I know it tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow? How will I know it decades from now or if I get Alzheimer’s disease or another memory related disease? The answer is that I also keep track of what I do on a daily basis, it’s a very basic journaling system: I have a file where I write down the current date and what I have achieved that day on a personal and work level. For example, if I read from a book, I just put in its title, nothing more or nothing less, or if I go for a run I just write down “run”, sometimes “run (6)” to hint out the number of kilometers even though I don’t usually do that now, if I read from Wikipedia some articles I put in Wikipedia and the titles of the articles in parenthesis like this “Wikipedia (Unconscious thought theory, Unconscious cognition, Attention restoration theory)”. It doesn’t take a lot of time to put down these short notes and this system makes it very easy to keep track of what you do daily, your achievements. I check this file daily and I also do some quick checks from time to time on what I did for the past week, the past month or year and so on. Each year has its separate file, now I’m taking notes in 2017.txt. This process really helps me to strengthen my memory. I might hear about some important concept or theory, read about it on Wikipedia or some other place, close the tab and one week after I might forget about it already. With this system, I am reminded again about it and if my memory doesn’t do very well I will just check the article again. I also have a separate file in which I note down just my better-than-usual or first-of-the-kind achievements like the title of a book I just completed reading, a semimarathon I managed to run or a new personal best in speed or distance, a new skill that I learned like skiing for example, a new experience and so on. I write down all these thing because they are important to me. I have another file in which I write the most significant achievements of my life like writing a book for example, obviously, I rarely write in this file. Some of my bucketlist items also go into this file. I find this 3 level system very useful in tracking out how I exercise my personal mission statement and thus my success. Our memories are usually bad, mine included, and we tend to forget what we did a few days ago or a week ago including our achievements of various degrees.

It’s important to remind ourselves from time to time that even though we don’t live in a castle or traveled in space we still achieved plenty of smaller but meaningful things.

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look
back and realize they were the big things.” 
Robert Brault