Life lessons litter history. In studying the past, we learn from the experiences of other people; an exercise designed to help us avoid pitfalls and setbacks in our own life. Next to nothing we see in our lifetimes is unique; nothing more than a re-occurrence of something that’s happened over and again in the past. However, our time is limited and we have unlimited access to mountains of information. Where should we focus when trying to find an edge?
This article will study some of the world’s greatest military minds, focusing on 4 shared characteristics and beliefs that we can apply to our own lives today. Whether your focus is on your career, family, friends, or another passion, the lessons in this article will be applicable. There are several pillars of success that can be applied to almost any endeavor.
1. Attack the Flanks
This tactic was not a novel idea; it had been used some 2000 years earlier by another historic conqueror.
Two years after invading Italy through the Alps (an action perceived as impossible at the time), Hannibal Barca, Carthaginian general stood on the doorstep of Rome. The year was 216 BC and the encounter would come to be known as the Battle of Cannae. Hannibal successfully executed tactical brilliance; a double envelope (pincer) movement that surrounded and utterly destroyed the Roman forces opposing him. As military historian Theodore Ayrault Dodge wrote:
Few battles of ancient times are more marked by ability … than the battle of Cannae. The position was such as to place every advantage on Hannibal’s side. The manner in which the far from perfect Hispanic and Gallic foot was advanced in a wedge in échelon … was first held there and then withdrawn step by step, until it had the reached the converse position … is a simple masterpiece of battle tactics. The advance at the proper moment of the African infantry, and its wheel right and left upon the flanks of the disordered and crowded Roman legionaries, is far beyond praise. The whole battle, from the Carthaginian standpoint, is a consummate piece of art, having no superior, few equal, examples in the history of war.
We all have strengths unique to us, things we do better than other people. Brainstorm some of your strengths – what sets you apart from your peers? The surest path in life is one down a road already paved. If you have an inherent advantage in something, this is worth exploiting and building upon. Hannibal knew his strengths were not in numbers (as the Romans had more men), but in experience, ability, and leadership.
Be stealthy and make moves on the peripherals until you are ready to unleash your talents. Toil away and master consistency, making moves in a way that you aren’t perceived as a threat until it’s far too late to stop your growth.
You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel, simply using your talents to improve upon some existing offering works just as well. Find a problem and sell a solution using your natural and cultivated talents.
2. Stay on Offense
Hannibal went on to ravage Italy for 15 years before finally being defeated. He kept the pressure on the Romans, instilling fear and anxiety for almost 2 decades. His aggressiveness almost led to the destruction of the empire, and most of what we know today about the Romans would not have occurred. However, the Romans learned much from Hannibal’s exploits. Although almost defeated, they accepted and analyzed their failures, making drastic changes that would ensure Roman domination for several hundred more years.
Napoleon was another general who knew that offense was the best defense. It was his maxim: Where is the enemy? Let us go and fight him! He always preferred action because it usually forced the opposition into making mistakes.
The great generals of history liked to stay on the offensive, recognizing the massive benefits of fighting on ground of their choosing. Risk taking defined men like Napoleon, Caesar, Alexander, Hannibal, etc. Most of their greatest achievements only seem genius through hindsight; only their supreme leadership and tactical brilliance willed their armies to victory.
Too many people fall into a routine of complacency. Life as we know it today is relatively risk-less. It’s easy to make a little money and get lazy; accepting our current situation as our “best life,” even though we are capable of much more than we are doing. Too many of us relax after the slightest achievement.
The high achievers of the world are always going; they are never satisfied with their accomplishments. One certainly needs balance, but it goes without question that those people who have filled their lives with commitments are generally more fulfilled and content than those who accept mediocrity and the lazy life. To be content is to play defense. To achieve great things, we must take risks and be willing to fail at something to learn and grow.
Always keep moving. Stay positive, even through setbacks and failures. Look around you and see those who have given up, friends and family who are content wasting away their days. Do the opposite; seek out challenges and stay busy working on making yourself a formidable adversary.
3. Stay Lean & Nimble
Napoleon would often move his army with nothing more than their weapon and a bit of food and water. Other European armies at the time had baggage trains that stretched for miles, severely limiting their speed and maneuvering. Napoleon had other ideas and expressed his rationale for staying nimble and quick: The ability to maneuver strategically had been seriously handicapped for years by the necessity to provide a wagon train for supplies. … The French, lacking this military train and having the ability to live off the land they were traversing, were able to march as fast as their soldiers’ legs could carry them, instead of at the pace of the oxen pulling the wagons.
The fast marching army gave Napoleon the advantage of selecting one or another part of enemy line and forcing the enemy to waste time regrouping and causing disorder in the ranks. He believed always in the attack, speed, maneuver and surprise.
During the American Civil War, Stonewall Jackson was the Confederate’s most talented commander. He was renowned for his speed of movement; often relocating his entire army in the matter of days, completing stunning his opponents on many occasions. From Stonewalls Bounty:
It was the most grueling of the forced marches for which Gen. Stonewall Jackson was justly famous — 56 miles in 36 hours across the rolling Virginia Piedmont. To move faster, at the beginning his men were ordered to “unsling knapsacks.” They were going to live off the land. But the land didn’t offer much to sustain 23,000 Confederates. On the second day, remembered a South Carolina soldier, Berry Benson, “My only food…was a handful of parched corn and three or four small sour green apples.”
In life, practice minimalism. Less stuff and more focus on what matters. This helps to cut the amount of time we spend doing unnecessary tasks. Getting rid of physical clutter also helps declutter our mind, opening up new opportunities and clarity of thought. It’s a relief to rid ourselves of useless junk we no longer need. The less we own, the easier it is to live and move. Because most of our days consist of mindless routine, we must work hard to go beyond and really work to change ourselves in a way that will induce positive change and lasting results. Only we can do that for ourselves.
4. Singular Focus
One key difference that separated Napoleon from his contemporaries was his decisiveness. He strongly believed that victory came from quick strikes aimed at decimating the enemy forces. Napoleon had incredible focus leading up to battle. He wasn’t distracted by the nuisances of battle as so many other general’s were; he knew his army would prevail as long as he didn’t get distracted. Other generals focused on too many things at once. They were unable to see the “forest through the trees,” and were defeated by Napoleon who could single in on an objective and hammer it home. It’s a characteristic shared by the best tacticians; the ability to block out distractions and noise and focus on a movement that will crush the enemy.
Most of us try to do too much at once. We think we can multitask and get things done quicker, but instead, we weaken our focus and the quality of our work suffers. Our brains can only focus deeply on one task at a time.
To be relevant, you need to go beyond the expected,” says Ravi Raman, former director at Microsoft, “This takes effort, concentration and creativity. You are built for single-tasking and can only do one piece of detailed creative work at once. You might choose to hop around across various projects over a certain span of time (an hour, a day, a week, etc.). However, if you are switching among different projects too often, or worse, trying to think simultaneously about multiple projects at once, you will be massively hurting your productivity.”
To take our attention back requires discipline and self-determination. I challenge you to work on your focus; to cultivate a strong sense of dedication to a single output. Multitasking is keeping too many of us from building up the levels of focus and concentration needed to realize breakthroughs and achievement. Given how important our work is to our livelihoods and happiness, this is a crucial issue.
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