Who survives?

Apocalyptic scenario. I’ll leave you to imagine the particulars—nuclear event, AI annihilation, resource depletion, whatever you prefer. My question is this: in such a scenario, who survives?

My first thought was that the able and fit are most likely to endure. Here, “fit” means suited to a specific task, not possession of ten percent body fat and a good one-rep-max in the deadlift. For example, if electrical infrastructure was knocked out indefinitely, the first to go would be those who rely on electrical appliances for survival—the hospitalised.

But that’s a superficial answer. There’s more to survival than ability and fitness. The real answer, I think, has to do with two things; luck and risk.

First off, the lucky are more likely to survive than the unlucky. Running with the idea of an electrical infrastructure outage, those in a small-to-medium sized town will be “luckier” than those in a city like London or on an estate in the middle of nowhere. They’ll have access to a community of people without an immediate scarcity of resources.

Second, risk. In any scenario, those who embody the extreme approaches to risk are more likely to survive than those in the middle. The risk averse will survive because they won’t take unnecessary chances. Every action will be weighed; every deed will be weighted according to circumstance. Such mindfulness will keep many dangers at bay and allow for the slow accumulation of resources, understanding and time. 

But the risk seeking will also fare well. Being willing to hazard and sacrifice means they will gain where others lose. Where others see danger and crisis, they will see opportunity, and often, they will transform it to achievement. Theirs will not be a slow accumulation, a steady buildup. Theirs will be a rollercoaster of rises and falls.

The middlers—those who don’t risk everything, but also don’t risk nothing—will not fare as well. They will be cautious where courage is required, and make sacrifices where none is necessary. Their lack of strong conviction gives them a weak chance of survival.

Hopefully, the veracity of the above will never be tested by real life events. But even without the imposition of an apocalypse, I think the model holds some utility. In modern society, those who survive—those who prosper—are the ones who seek risk, mitigate it, or are just plain fortunate.

A quest for calibration

Life is an endless quest for calibration: “Am I doing too much? Am I doing too little? Is my allocation of resources in sync with my priorities?” I say “endless” because we’re never quite calibrated. Rarely do we spend just the right amount of time, energy and attention on a task and no more. More often, we under- or over-allocate. The difficulty, I suppose, is knowing when enough is enough, knowing when to add and when to take away. 

When I look at my own life and my own attempted accomplishments this is vividly apparent. Some things get way too much of my time and attention; others get way less than they truly deserve. But I can only figure this out ex post facto, which means I’m constantly using the present to try and make adjustments to the past. 

I’ve tried to put an end to this seesawing with the adoption of certain heuristics. For a time, I plastered my notebooks with “Less, better”. I deliberately under-allocated in order to counteract over-allocation. Didn’t work. So I adopted another conflicting heuristic instead: “Do more.” I deliberately over-allocated in order to counteract under-allocation. That didn’t work either. So now, I’m trying a different approach. A hybrid. 

Because I lean towards the “less” side of the less-more spectrum, I’m going with the following heuristic: “Less is better, but you can do more than you think.” The aim is to do less, better, whilst retaining the option of doing more. 

I’m doubtful that such an approach will make anything but a marginal difference, but I’ve been wrong in the past. Maybe I’ll be wrong again and stumble upon a way to calibrate my life with unerring accuracy.

Asking for recognition

The instructor took us through the movement. First, slowly, then, faster. And as I saw it again and again it made more and more sense. After he finished his demonstration we were told to try it for ourselves, so off we went with our training partners.

As I did the movement, I worked out that what the instructor performed as one fluid motion was actually two separate stages chained effortlessly together. Upon realising this, I smiled—for me, the fluctuation between struggle and insight is what gives learning its charm. I then called the instructor over and asked him to confirm my insight: “So, this part of the sweep is two separate movements?” “Exactly,” he said.

For the last few months, a good friend has been managing my physical training. He writes programs and provides support that helps me become stronger and move better. Recently, I’ve been toying with the idea of changing rest periods during the sessions he sets me. Instead of “rest for sixty seconds”, I thought I could try “rest for thirty breaths”. This would allow me to get some breathing work in and eliminate dependency on a clock or watch during my sessions—I have a vendetta against the quantification of time, see.

I congratulated myself for having this idea and made a note to ask him about doing it that same night. I never did because I realised that in that instance—and in the example above from a recent Brazilian jiu-jitsu session—I was using questions as tools for recognition. 

Ordinarily, a question is used like a pickaxe, as a way to chip away the edifice of rock and get at what lies beneath. I wasn’t doing that. I was asking in order to assuage my own ego. I was using a question to get two people I respect to respect me more. 

How foolish.

Blinded by strength

One of the takeaways from Robert Greene’s Mastery: take weaknesses and turn them into strengths. My favourite example of this is related in the tale of Thomas Edison:

“Through books, experiments, and practical experience at various jobs, Edison gave himself a rigorous education that lasted about ten years, up until the time he became an inventor. What made this successful was his relentless desire to learn through whatever crossed his path, as well as his self-discipline. He had developed the habit of overcoming his lack of an organized education by sheer determination and persistence. He worked harder than anyone else. Because he was a consummate outsider and his mind had not been indoctrinated in any school of thought, he brought a fresh perspective to every problem he tackled. He turned his lack of formal direction into an advantage.”

The obvious way to use this idea is to ask yourself, “What are my weaknesses and how can I use them?” But there’s another less obvious question that relates to the relationship between strengths and weaknesses: “Am I blinded by my strengths?”

Consider the example of a professional fighter. Imagine he is gifted physically. He is the fastest, the strongest, the most agile man on the planet. That is his strength; no one can match his athletic prowess. But his prowess can become his prison. Knowing such a physical advantage, he can afford to relent his focus on his technical abilities. He can compensate for sloppy footwork or the unconscious dropping of his hands with his physical gifts. But as he ages and accumulates injuries, the gulf between his physicality and that of his opponents diminishes. His sloppy footwork results in more time defending from his back on the ground. His lowered hands means he eats more punches than he used to. What was a strength has nourished a weakness. 

The same can happen to us. We can become reliant on what we’re good at, regardless of whether that strength was inherited or earned. So yes, our strengths are our foundations, but they too can crack and destabilise the entire structure.

Masters, wizards

In this digital age, many—myself included—find comfort in the witnessing of explicitly physical work. Why else are videos of masons, smiths, carpenters, and other makers and modders so popular? For examples of what I’m talking about, check out the videos on the Northmen channel. I especially enjoyed the making of an English longbow and the birth of a dugout canoe. Or watch Building Without Nails. Or this documentary about the crafting of a samurai sword. Or any of the videos in which Peter Sripol makes something ridiculous.

Watching such films compels me to wonder what I would do differently if I could re-do my life. I’ve talked about this with Molly too. We both think it’d be good to do something physical. To make things. To work with wood or stone. To apprentice in a trade. To be someone who works with their hands

I can’t speak for her, but for me the allure of these vocations lies in their association with the ideals of mastery. I tell myself that if I were a carpenter, I’d learn all I could. That I’d study obscure contemporary and antiquated methods. That I’d care about what I did deeply. That I’d make everything with patience and skill, and imbue all I touch with love. 

Such daydreams are illusory. Dangerous even, for I cannot do it all again. And who’s to say I cannot approach my work like a master craftsman right here, right now? I don’t need to re-train or change career. Instead of being seduced by the possibility of doing physical work in a digital age, I need to remind myself that a certain material or medium does not a craftsman make. Besides, I chose my material and my craft years ago: the word.

The word is my wood, my stone, my metal. The word is the thing I agonise over, the thing I am both master of and slave to. The word is the material which I endow with my heart and soul. It is the thing I work with and leave to the world.

This realisation illustrates a truth. You, me, and everyone else can all be craftsmen. We don’t need a cabin in the woods, a workshop or a studio. We can reside in a grimy studio flat and still be attuned to our art. It’s all in the mind, in the attitude we adopt and the approach we decide upon. Which leaves us with a choice. We can drool over the subtle and significant monuments created by master craftsmen, or we can endeavour to become master practitioners of our own craft, wizards in our own right. 

So, what’ll it be?

Cutting a man down

Miyamoto Musashi was more than a swordsman; he was a conscious warrior. He thought deeply about how he fought and why. In Five Rings, his book on a warrior’s philosophy, he describes a concept called “Stance-No-Stance”:

“According to the moment, if you want to lower your sword a little from the Upper Stance, it will become a Middle Stance; if, according to the situation, you raise your sword a bit from the Middle Stance, it will become the Upper Stance. Likewise, the Lower Stance may be raised a little to become the Middle Stance. This means that the two Side Stances, depending on their position, may be moved a little to the centre to become either the Middle or Lower Stance.
This is the principle in which there is, and there is not, a stance. At its heart, this is first taking up the sword and then cutting down your opponent, no matter what is done or how it happens. Whether you parry, slap, strike, hold back, or touch your opponent’s cutting sword, you must understand that all of these are opportunities to cut him down. To think, “I’ll parry” or “I’ll slap” or “I’ll hit, hold, or touch” will be insufficient for cutting him down. It is essential to think that anything at all is an opportunity to cut him down.”

​Talk of cutting a man down seems strange in an age where physical confrontation is a rarity, where we fight with sharp words and subtle deeds, instead of muscle and merciless metal. But ideas like stance-no-stance—and others adopted from ancient warriors and the study of military strategy—can be adapted to help us become better thinkers and better humans. 

For example, consider what happens when we transform stance-no-stance into an intellectual concept. If beliefs and models become stances, then they become positions to be assumed and abandoned, to be played with and explored. They become tools with which we experiment in order to find an angle and expose flaws and vulnerabilities. Such deliberate manipulation of what we think enables us to ask questions: What would I do if I believed the opposite? How would the field of play change if we all thought X? What would I see if I believed in Y instead of Z?

This is the power of stance-no-stance. This is the power of other age-old, forgotten concepts like concentration and dispersion of force, formations of armies, espionage and deception. They help us to see the obscure and reveal what would have remained buried had we clung to our familiar, favoured positions.

Building blind

Here’s a useful heuristic for anyone implementing systems and processes in which they do not have to work. I’m looking at designers, consultants, engineers, managers—these types—when I say, Always ask the practitioners.

The practitioners know what works in practice. They know the hundreds of little things that can’t be captured in a blueprint or a design. They know why one thing comes after or before another. They know why that seemingly dead space or irrelevant feature is actually meaningful. So ask them. Work with them to build whatever system or tool you’re creating. Sure, theory and higher level conceptual ideas are a key driver. But they pale in comparison to the needs and knowledge of those who do the thing. If you evaluate every input to the planning and decision making process and allocate a significance factor to it, mark input from the practitioners as one of the most salient.

I’ll give you an example. In hospitals here in the UK, it’s common for the higher ups to instigate the nationwide adoption of a certain treatment or test. When this happens, it’s common for the people performing the test that’s being replaced to say that the new way won’t work as well. A few years pass and, lo and behold, the new way is less effective than the old. But the people implementing these changes would’ve known that had they talked to people at the grassroots. In the example of hospitals, lives are on the line. One test instead of another can be the difference between detection of a cancer and death from it. So please, please, endeavour to ask the practitioners. Don’t build blind with faceless, supposedly-flawless statistics and conceptual models. Talk to humans as well.