But What For Takeaways - No. 024

"The reason I'm here," he finished his story, "is that the Americans didn't run out of tanks.”

Welcome to all our new subscribers! I write a weekly newsletter, sent out every Thursday, with curated quotes and one-line takeaways from material I think is worth reading. I also share my own thoughts, inspired by others’ works, on Sundays. If you enjoy the newsletter, please share it with a few friends/colleagues.

As always, any suggested materials for our Thursday newsletter can be sent to [email protected] Thank you!

This Week from But What For?

This week has gone by far too quickly and it feels like I have more to do now than when the week started! That might be the best one can hope for, though - not everyone is fortunate enough to be busy.

But, despite the hectic week - I am looking forward to sharing an article this Sunday on a particularly competent and undeservedly unknown man who was born in the mid-1800s.

His story is a unique one. A young man who followed in his father’s footsteps to become a Baptist minister in a small town in Minnesota, he has a chance encounter that up-ends his quiet life and thrusts him into the world of business and philanthropy.

Constantly exceeding expectations and proving his merit, he ultimately ran the largest philanthropic institution of his day, with the institution’s patron patriarch sharing that…

He has been the guiding genius in all our giving.

He came to us first to undertake certain business matters requiring talent of a high order and showed phenomenal business ability. He combined with this the rare quality – born, no doubt, because he had the right kind of heart – of being able to direct the distribution of money with great vision.

We all owe much to him, and his helpfulness should be generously recognized. He combines business skill and philanthropic aptitude to a higher degree than any other man I have ever known.

If I do his story any justice, the ringing recommendation above will hopefully come across as an understatement.

Until Sunday —

I hope everyone has had a great week thus far,

— EJ


(Underlined titles are links to sources)

About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, by David Hackworth & Julie Sherman [Book - 1989]

  • Takeaway: Discipline equals freedom

I often remembered Italy in 1946, when I was detailed to guard German prisoners of war. One of the prisoners was a damn tough lieutenant captured at Salerno. He spoke English, so I whiled away my duty hours giving him a hard time. Once I asked him why, if he and all his Kraut friends were such brilliant soldiers and such supermen, was fifteen-year-old me the one holding the weapon and he the prisoner of war. He answered me with a story. "I was an 88-mm antitank battery commander," he said. "We were on a hill, and the Americans kept sending tanks down the road below. Every time they sent a tank we knocked it out. They kept sending tanks, and we kept knocking them out, until we finally ran out of ammunition. The reason I'm here," he finished his story, "is that the Americans didn't run out of tanks.”

The fact is, generally there's no "time-out" for mourning on the battlefield. But it's really no different than the father often who comes home to find his house on fire with all his kids sleeping inside. He doesn't stop and cry over the first child he finds dead. To do so would be to sign a death warrant for the other nine. A CO is often in the same situation. To do anything but continue on would be a complete dereliction of duty, and, in the larger picture, could possibly lead to even worse carnage among his troops. So you do what you have to do, and only later, when things settle down, do you allow yourself to grieve.

  • Takeaway: You will never succeed beyond the purpose to which you are willing to surrender

Of course, like most of us. I have been brought up on the popular belief that the secret of success is hard work, but I had seen so many people work hard without succeeding and so many people succeed without working hard that I had become convinced that hard work was not the real secret even though in most cases it might be one of the requirements.

And so I set out on a voyage of discovery which carried me through biographies and autobiographies and all sorts of dissertations on success and the lives of successful individuals… In short, I was looking for the common denominator of success.

The common denominator of success – the secret of success of every individual who has ever been successful – lies in the fact that he or she formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do.

It’s just as true as it sounds and it’s just as simple as it seems. You can hold it up to the light, you can put it to the acid test, and you can kick it around until it’s worn out, but when you are all through with it, it will still be the common denominator of success, whether we like it or not.

Then people go into a slump, it simply means that they have reached a point at which, for the time being, the things they don’t like to do have become more important than their reasons for doing them. And may I pause to suggest to you managers and agents that when one of your good producers goes into a slump, the less you talk about production and the more you talk about purpose, the sooner you will pull that agent out of that slump?

Many people with whom I have discussed this common denominator of success have said at this point, “But I have a family to support and I have to make a living for my family and myself. Isn’t that enough of a purpose?”

No, it isn’t. It isn’t a sufficiently strong purpose to make you form the habit of doing the things you don’t like to do for the very simple reason that it is easier to adjust ourselves to the hardships of a poor living than it is to adjust ourselves to the hardships of making a better one. If you doubt me, just think of all the things you are willing to go without in order to avoid doing the things you don’t like to do. All of which seems to prove that the strength which holds you to your purpose is not your own strength but the strength of the purpose itself.

Here’s the answer. Any resolution of decision you make is simply a promise to yourself which isn’t worth a tinker’s damn until you have formed the habit of making it and keeping it. And you won’t form the habit of making it and keeping it unless right at the start you link it with a definite purpose that can be accomplished by keeping it, in other words, any resolution or decision you make today has to be made again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, and the next, and so on. And it not only has to be made each day, but it has to be kept each day for if you miss one day in the making or keeping of it, you’ve got to go back and begin all over again. But if you continue the process of making it each morning and keeping it each day, you will finally wake up some morning, a different person in a different world, and you will wonder what has happened to you and the world you used to live in.

But as long as you live, don’t ever forget that while you may succeed beyond your fondest hopes and your greatest expectations, you will never succeed beyond the purpose to which you are willing to surrender. Furthermore, your surrender will not be complete until you have formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do.

Productivity [Link - 2018]

  • Takeaway: It is not productive to be productive in something not worth doing

I think I am at least somewhat more productive than average, and people sometimes ask me for productivity tips.  So I decided to just write them all down in one place.

Compound growth gets discussed as a financial concept, but it works in careers as well, and it is magic.  A small productivity gain, compounded over 50 years, is worth a lot.  So it’s worth figuring out how to optimize productivity. If you get 10% more done and 1% better every day compared to someone else, the compounded difference is massive. 

It doesn’t matter how fast you move if it’s in a worthless direction.  Picking the right thing to work on is the most important element of productivity and usually almost ignored.  So think about it more!  Independent thought is hard but it’s something you can get better at with practice.

The most impressive people I know have strong beliefs about the world, which is rare in the general population.  If you find yourself always agreeing with whomever you last spoke with, that’s bad.  You will of course be wrong sometimes, but develop the confidence to stick with your convictions.  It will let you be courageous when you’re right about something important that most people don’t see.

Also, don’t fall into the trap of productivity porn—chasing productivity for its own sake isn’t helpful.  Many people spend too much time thinking about how to perfectly optimize their system, and not nearly enough asking if they’re working on the right problems.  It doesn’t matter what system you use or if you squeeze out every second if you’re working on the wrong thing.

The right goal is to allocate your year optimally, not your day.

Now that I have made this catalog of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.

Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers.

People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

While freely conceding that the Soviet régime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigours which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. 

Take care and have a great rest of the week,

— EJ

But What For? Writing about anything, as long as it’s interesting

Subscribe to But What For?

Writing about anything, But What For? Because anything can be interesting.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.