The Patterns That Emerge From History
There's often quick and immediate lessons in studying a narrow part of history relevant to your field. If you're the portfolio manager of a mutual fund, you should of course know the recent history of the various asset classes. If you're a Naval Admiral, you should of course know at least the history of naval warfare down cold. If you're a hostage negotiator, you should study a variety of hostage negotiation situations and how they played out.
This is all pretty obvious stuff. And indeed, most high-level practitioners study the recent history of their field at the very least.
It takes a bit more effort to explain why you should study the history of your country and how it emerged... but it doesn't take that much energy. Understanding the American Civil War, for Americans, has some obvious value. It still effects the modern day.
This still not a very hard sell. Most people learn something about how their country came to be where it is.
Once you get into why you should study all of history, we're in much harder territory to explain. Why do the Asian Vespers of 88 BC matter? Who cares about the Investiture Controversy? Does it matter why did the Christian Fourth Crusaders sacked Christian Constantinople? And the Battle of Nagashino seems pretty irrelevant to even the Japanese, let alone non-Japanese, no?
And, despite my passion for history, I would concede: yes, indeed. Studying isolated parts of history at first is not particularly fruitful.
Of course, if you like history, that's terrific. It can be wildly entertaining at times, and certainly history is often far more interesting than fiction.
But in terms of practical lessons, I think this come much later. They come once you can weave patterns together that keep recurring over and over again.
I started on the path towards being a serious amateur historian in 2009, though I didn't realize it at the time. I'd just gotten fascinated with the Warring States Era of Japanese History from the 15th to 17th century.
It's hard to say exactly when the patterns started showing up frequently. 2012, perhaps?
One of the more interesting revelations, I started to form the inklings of at the end of 2013 -- I started realizing that most historical narratives that are told locally within a culture have a "sense of predestination" about them which cripples them.
After really learning a lot about George Washington's life, I started to sit down and estimate: What's the highest percentage chance that he was able to live long enough to make a difference for the United States?
My argument is this: if we want to know merely what happened in history looking backwards, it is not really a tragedy for stories of national origin to be dressed up in myth and fable and heroism. Probably it's even valuable.
But if want to use the lessons of history to inform our own conduct of how to act, then myth and fable becomes very dangerous.
As I read about the early disasters in Washington's military career, I came to think about how extraordinarily unlikely it was that he was alive at all in order to become Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and to survive that to become President.
Let's look at two of Washington's early battles, as described by the very thorough historian Ron Chernow in his "Washington: A Life." Skim the italicized history if you're in a hurry; note the bold parts.
The Battle of Fort Necessity
At age 21, Washington led a minor expedition against the French. His Indian allies had just left the colonials:
“As it happened, Washington had much graver problems than his minor interpersonal drama with Captain Mackay. On June 18 he huddled with the Half King and other chieftains for three days to plot strategy against the French. In the end, the Indians concluded that Washington and his flimsy fortress couldn’t shield them against the huge French force gathering at Fort Duquesne. This ended their short-lived alliance and threw young Washington back on his own resources. [...] The Half King, for his part, painted a portrait of Washington as a “good-natured” but naively inept young commander who “took upon him to command the Indians as his slaves” and refused to “take advice from Indians.” He derided Fort Necessity as “that little thing upon the meadow."
And the French attacked:
“Washington received a costly lesson in frontier fighting as swarms of French and Indians kept up a scalding fire “from every little rising, tree, stump, stone, and bush.” Their well-protected marksmen took clear shots from woods as little as sixty yards away. Then late in the afternoon, a torrential rain began to fall—“the most tremendous rain that can be conceived,” in Washington’s words—and it soaked both his men and their weapons, turning the fort’s floor into a treacherous mud bowl. Worst of all, the water pooled in the ditches, trapping soldiers in their own defenses. Exposed to the sky, the men couldn’t keep their cartridges and fire-locks dry, rendering their muskets useless. By the end of the day, the rain-drenched stockade was a horrific swamp of mangled bodies, lying in blood and rain. The appalling casualty toll—a hundred men dead or wounded—represented a full third of Washington’s soldiers.”
The French and Indian War had begun. The British would send Imperial General Edward Braddock to avenge the sleight. It did not work out very well...
Braddock's Expedition; The Battle of the Monongahela
Braddock had refused to listen to Benjamin Franklin, Washington, or anyone else about the nature of North American guerrilla warfare. He had been impatient at the slow advance westwards over bad roads, and had his troops advance with minimal supplies and minimal defensive positions. Combat started at Monongahela.
“As at Fort Necessity, the French and their Indian allies practiced a terrifying form of frontier warfare that unnerved the British. Letting loose a series of shrill, penetrating war whoops—“the terrific sound will haunt me till the hour of my dissolution,” a shaken British soldier later said—the Indians swooped down suddenly and opened fire on the startled British. Before British grenadiers could fire a retaliatory round, the enemy had melted nimbly into the woods. For a short interval, it seemed they had vanished. Then it became clear that they had split into two wings and encircled the British, releasing a hail of bullets from behind trees and well-protected elevated positions.
“Even as officers tried vainly to subdue the hysterical fears of their men, the latter threw down their muskets and fled helter-skelter. All the while, Indians scalped and plundered the British dead in what became a veritable charnel house by the river.
"As Braddock and Washington rode toward this scene of helpless slaughter, panic-stricken redcoats streamed back toward them. After Braddock sent thirty men under Captain Thomas Waggener to climb a hillside and secure a high position, British troops fired at them in the smoky chaos under the mistaken assumption that they were French, while British officers fired at them thinking they were deserters. All thirty men under Captain Waggener were killed by French or British fire. For Washington, who had warned Braddock repeatedly about the unorthodox style of wilderness combat, the situation grimly fulfilled his worst premonitions. Braddock had clung to the European doctrine of compact fighting forces, forming his men into platoons, which made them easy prey for enemy marksmen.”
“With exceptional pluck and coolheadedness, young George Washington was soon riding all over the battlefield. Though he must have been exhausted, he kept going from sheer willpower and performed magnificently amid the horror. Because of his height, he presented a gigantic target on horseback, but again he displayed unblinking courage and a miraculous immunity in battle. When two horses were shot from under him, he dusted himself off and mounted the horses of dead riders. One account claimed that he was so spent from his recent illness that he had to be lifted onto his second charger. By the end, despite four bullets having torn through his hat and uniform, he managed to emerge unscathed.
"One close observer of Washington’s heroism was a young doctor and future friend, James Craik. Handsome, blue-eyed, and urbane, Dr. Craik had studied medicine in Edinburgh and was the illegitimate son of a wealthy man in western Scotland. He watched Washington’s exceptional performance that day with unstinting admiration: “I expected every moment to see him fall. His duty and station exposed him to every danger. Nothing but the superintending care of Providence could have saved him from the fate of all around him.”
“So many intrepid British officers were killed or wounded—nearly two-thirds of the total—that it led to a complete collapse of the command structure. Among the wounded were Braddock’s two other aides-de-camp. When Braddock was felled by a bullet that slashed through his arm and pierced his lung, only Washington was left to tend him. Braddock had fought with more valor than wisdom, having four horses shot from under him. Washington stretched out the general in a small cart and shepherded him back across the Monongahela. Henceforth Washington received orders from an intermittently lucid Braddock who lay groaning on a stretcher. “I was the only person then left to distribute the general’s orders,” Washington said, explaining that it was difficult to do so because of his own “weak and feeble condition.”"
Washington's Highest Possible Chance of Surviving to Lead
There's repeated documentation and credible witnesses on both sides of the conflicts that Washington was a vigorous frontline participant in these early battles.
If you accept that premise (as I do), and you don't believe that there was divine predestination protecting him (and I don't), then I think the highest possible chance you can assign to the 21-year-old Washington surviving those battles are as follows:
In the first battle, Washington has at most a two-thirds chance of surviving (66.66%) and in the second battle, one-third (33.33%).
In looking Survive-to-Lead numbers, I'm only looking at dying through human agency following from the age of maturity onwards (more about this in a moment).
If a commander goes through no situations with a chance of dying, his STL number is 1, or 100%.
Every event that has a chance of killing the commander drops that number.
Washington (like everyone) starts at 100%, and it gets multiplied by the chance of surviving Fort Necessity of 66.66% and the chance of surviving Braddock's Expedition (33.33% at the highest).
1 * .6666 * .3333 = .22217 = 22.22%
That's the highest possible number I can assign to Washington living long enough to have a chance at commanding the Continental Forces during the American Revolution.
This is neither a criticism nor a praise. Many factors are at play here. Washington was seen as a hero when people saw the bullet holes through his clothing that nearly missed him, and heard eyewitness accounts of the horses that got shot from under him.
Would he have risen to Commander-in-Chief without such actions? It's hard to say. Maybe not.
Many of Washington's battles had no realistic chance of him getting killed. In the Siege of Boston, Washington and Henry Knox daringly fortified Dorchester Heights in the middle of the night with artillery, forcing the British to evacuate with minimal casualties to either side -- an epitome of winning without danger or frontal assault.
But let's look at his worst two events as Commander of Continental Forces --
The Fall of New York
There are two more times when Washington could have fallen under enemy fire; the first is when the Continental Congress demands that New York be defended, even though the Continental Army is outnumbered 3 to 1 with worse equipment, less experienced officers, and less well-trained.
“BY MID-AUGUST [of 1776] fresh contingents of British ships had converged on New York, rounding out an expeditionary force of 32,000 troops, including 8,000 Hessian mercenaries, and revealing the magnitude of the threat to the Continental Army. Making a major statement about the peril of the American revolt, the Crown had enlisted seventy warships, a full half of the Royal Navy, to deliver an overwhelming blow against the Americans. It decided to gamble all on a military solution to a conflict that was, at bottom, one of principle and that depended ultimately on recovering the lost trust of the former colonists.
"A subdued Washington knew the stage was set for a major confrontation. “An attack is now therefore to be expected,” he wrote, “which will probably decide the fate of America.” His army of only 10,500 men, 3,000 of them ailing, was sadly outnumbered and outgunned.”
“Unlike other battles, where Washington rode at the head of his troops, at Brooklyn Heights he hung back in the rear, surveying the fighting to the south through his telescope.
"South of Gowanus Creek, the rotund, bibulous Lord Stirling led 1,600 men in fierce combat. With exceptional valor, the American troops fought for four hours until they were overwhelmed by more than 7,000 British and Hessian soldiers. In an unequal contest with a larger enemy force, the First Maryland Regiment under Colonel William Smallwood, experiencing battle for the first time, obstinately refused to surrender a small hill that ensured an escape path for Stirling’s men. Though they saved many retreating Americans, their casualties were frightful: of 400 men sent into the fray, only 144 survived. “Good God!” Washington reportedly said, wringing his hands as he watched this action. “What brave fellows I must this day lose!”
"General Sullivan dealt with an equally hellish situation as his 3,500 men tried to prevent any British advance beyond the densely wooded Heights of Guana. The Americans were stretched perilously thin along a defensive line that extended for miles. An enormous number of Hessian soldiers suddenly scrambled up the slope toward them. When Sullivan tried to retreat, he discovered that British soldiers had encircled his men amid ferocious blasts of gunfire. Thousands of terrified Americans, lacking bayonets to defend themselves, tried to straggle back toward Brooklyn Heights across a blood-drenched plain. The Hessians, reacting with slashing brutality, bayoneted many men to death and impaled some captives against trees.”
"“If George Washington stared into the abyss at any single moment of the war, it must have been as he contemplated the vast British force arrayed below him, poised to shatter his army forever. Luckily, General Howe didn’t press his advantage and withdrew his men from cannon range, even though his troops scented blood and “it required repeated orders to prevail on them to desist.”"
"In a prodigious effort, operating on his last reserves of energy, Washington pushed himself past the point of exhaustion and personally led the evacuation. He would later claim that, for forty-eight hours, he scarcely dismounted from his horse or shut his weary eyes. He now trusted his intuitions, as if a powerful survival instinct simplified everything. Earlier in the day he had perpetrated an excellent hoax to prepare for the operation. On the pretense of bringing over fresh troops from New Jersey, he had instructed General Heath to collect boats of every description that he could find. Now, right after dark, the Continental Army lined up to begin its silent retreat across the water. Washington himself, an indomitable presence, presided at the ferry landing. At first the crossing was impeded by rough winds, and only rowboats could be used, their oars covered with cloth to mute sounds. Then winds rose from the southeast, and sailboats could be used as the river turned smooth as glass. In another piece of deceptive theater, Washington kept campfires going in Brooklyn Heights to conceal the evacuation.”
"The Hessian major Carl Leopold Baurmeister said that a Captain Krug of the artillery fired two shots at Washington and his retinue, “and he would have fired a third if their horses had not kept moving.” As in the French and Indian War, Washington seemed blessed with a supernatural immunity to bullets."
What is the highest chance we can assign to survival here? 95% at the very highest?
The Retreat From Harlem Heights
The last one we'll discuss --
“Four miles north, in the Dutch village of Harlem, George Washington heard “a most severe and heavy cannonade” and saw puffs of smoke rising from Kip’s Bay. He traveled south as fast as he could. As usual, he plunged into the thick of the action, heedless of his own safety. Coming to a cornfield on Murray Hill, a half mile from Kip’s Bay, he was shocked to encounter troops “retreating with the utmost precipitation and . . . flying in every direction and in the greatest confusion.”42 Faced with collapsed discipline, Washington flew into a rage. He was momentarily relieved by the appearance of Massachusetts militia and Connecticut Continentals and hollered at them to “take the wall” or “take the cornfield,” motioning toward various spots. Then as sixty or seventy British grenadiers came up the hill, these terrified men also succumbed to panic and ran in confusion, dumping muskets, powder horns, tents, and knapsacks without firing a shot. William Smallwood claimed that Washington, Putnam, and Mifflin, appalled by the disorder, resorted to whipping fleeing men with their riding crops.”
“The man of consummate self-control surrendered to his emotions. Fuming, he flung his hat to the ground and shouted, “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” According to another account, he swore, “Good God! Have I got such troops as these?” This display of Washington’s wrath still could not stem the panic. As he told Hancock, “I used every means in my power to rally and get them into some order, but my attempts were fruitless and ineffectual.”
"Colonel George Weedon says that Washington grew so distraught that “he struck several officers in their flight.” It is extraordinary to think of Washington flogging officers amid a battle—a measure of his impotent frustration and shattered nerves. Finally he was stranded alone on the battlefield with his aides, his troops having fled in fright. Most astonishingly, Washington on horseback stared frozen as fifty British soldiers started to dash toward him from eighty yards away. Seeing his strangely catatonic state, his aides rode up beside him, grabbed the reins of his horse, and hustled him out of danger. In this bizarre conduct, Nathanael Greene saw a suicidal impulse, contending that Washington was “so vexed at the infamous conduct of his troops that he sought death rather than life.”
“Weedon added the compelling detail that only with difficulty did Washington’s colleagues “get him to quit the field, so great was his emotions.” It was a moment unlike any other in Washington’s career, a fleeting emotional breakdown amid battle."
Washington's Highest Possible Chance of Surviving to Lead All the Way to Presidency
It's hard to assign a number to that last one -- the highest number we could give it, again, would be what? 90%? Lower? Let's say 90%.
That gives us...
Starting Number: 100% (1.00)
Fort Necessity: 66.66% (.6666)
Braddock's Expedition: 33.33% (.3333)
Battle of Long Island: 95% (.95)
Evacuation of Harlem Heights: 90% (.9)
That would put the numbers at:
1 * .6666 * .3333 * .95 * .9 = .18996 = 19%
Calculating STL Numbers for Historical Commanders...
Obviously, this is an imperfect science. The further away we get from modern historical records, the harder it is to really know what happened. Obviously, there's often propaganda value in either exaggerating one's exposure to danger or in concealing one's chances of defeat. When there's multiple stakeholders and witnesses with different allegiances that survive a conflict, and the conflict is in modern times, we can be more sure of what happened and make estimates with higher confidence levels.
Here are my general groundrules:
*I only calculate from the age of majority onwards -- that a young noble's family was only barely able to escape a burning city is an interesting historical fact, but I'm most interested in when the commander has agency. Obviously, if we traced back someone's chance of being conceived, not dying during infancy, etc, etc, everyone's chance of existing wound round down to 0%. While historical conditions from childhood can be interesting, they're not very informative about a person's leadership style and risk-taking.
*Age of majority varies between societies. It's a judgment call to some extent. Tokugawa Ieyasu went back to his home clan, the Matsudaiara, at the age of 16 and instantly got into warrior's affairs -- that's probably his age of majority. It's more debatable for Temujin, who became Genghis Khan later -- you could argue it's age 12 when he was en route back home to his clan at marriageable age. Certainly, in Temujin's case, it wouldn't be later than age 14 when he and his brother Khasar ambushed and killed their tyrannous older half-brother Behter.
*I'm only interested in affairs where there is human agency involved. Pericles died of the plague in 429 BC, but Athenian doctors and medics did not know how to treat it. There was no agency involved. On the other hand, whatever chance Hannibal had of dying of exposure when crossing the Alps, you should assign that to him.
*There can be a lot of debate over what events had a chance to be lethal and what odds of survival were. What were Mao's odds of surviving the Long March? When a skilled outdoorsmen makes a difficult trek, should some chance of dying be assigned? Should we assign a generic chance of dying from palace intrigues in an era with many assassinations? These are all debatable points.
The Value of Calculating STL Numbers
STL Numbers will inform you whether a commander generally behaved in a safe and sustainable way. This helps us correct somewhat for survivor's bias... when there's a heroic and desperate action that works, it looks brilliant and there's a tendency to want to emulate it... but more impressive still are often the campaigns of Alexander Suvorov and Khalid ibn al-Walid.
Oda Nobunaga at first looks unlucky for his assassination at Honno-ji, until you actually sit and calculate his STL numbers -- and then you realize he had very little chance of being alive to even be at Honno-ji.
Likewise, a few commanders become even more impressive when you study their STL numbers. Subutai and Tokugawa Ieyasu both did a supremely good job of putting themselves and their forces in a position to win without taking desperate gambles.
I suspect very strongly that many people with low STL numbers also didn't take security, logistics, and consolidation seriously, and many people with high STL numbers did do so. Thus, someone who has a lot of battles or difficult conditions and yet manages a high STL number, is probably worth extra study.
Finally, people that employ tactics that lower their STL numbers do in fact get killed fairly often: King Gustavus Adolphus had an excellent military mind, but died at the Battle of Lutzen leading a cavalry charge even though his side won. In the first and last battle of the Persian Civil War at Cunaxa, Cyrus the Younger was killed by his brother's bodyguards leading a charge against their position -- even though his forces won an overwhelming tactical victory, and would have been in decent position to win the war with more patient tactics.
A Caution Against Using STL Numbers Wrongly
In an era that's extraordinarily brutal, anyone who survives and triumphs at all is going to have low STL numbers. These aren't necessarily informative of how "good" a commander is -- just how likely he was to survive.
Likewise, there's a huge difference between a commander who regularly accepts some risk of being killed in risky semi-gambles and a commander who has one complete disintegration of their forces and barely survives. Almost all of the damage Tokugawa Ieyasu takes to his STL numbers are from the single overwhelming defeat at the Battle of Mikatagahara.
Finally, having a low STL number doesn't necessarily indicate neither bravery nor foolhardiness. Oftentimes, people are in risky situations early in their careers, and are putting into places orders and strategies from senior commanders.
Nevertheless, calculating complete STL numbers can inform us whether a commander's strategies are risky or not to implement, and can be very interesting.
STLPOP Variant: With Opposing "Perfect Play"
Due to the already subjective and debatable nature of STL numbers, I dislike chaining a bunch of contingent events together. "Oh, if he'd lost the battle, then the enemy likely would have pushed onwards and taken over the castle, and..." -- I prefer to just assign a chance of being felled in a battle and not putting elaborate contingencies together.
However, oftentimes a commander blunders, and only survives because the enemy doesn't exploit it. When we say "perfect opponent's play" we're not making light of combat by using the word "play," but rather referring to perfect play as a technical term from activities like Chess and poker.
STLPOP lets you debate what if the opponents had not made obvious blunders.
Julius Caesar overall has excellent STL numbers given how often he fought, but his most dangerous and deadly defeat was at The Battle of Dyrrhachium against Pompey during the Civil War.
"Caesar's blunder had put him in the worst possible position any army could find itself in. His army had no way to resupply from Rome due to the naval blockade, he couldn't resupply locally as Greece was pro-Pompey and closed their gates to Caesar, and his army was only at half strength. So dire was his situation that he made several attempts to discuss peace with Pompey but was refused at every channel. Realizing he was going to have to fight his way out, he attempted another winter blockade run back to Italy to lead his remaining forces to Greece. His luck was not with him and the rough seas and storms forced him back."
"Dyrrachium was a strong defensive position for Pompey. His back was guarded by the sea, and at his front there were hills that commanded the immediate area. This made an assault on the position nearly impossible. Caesar instead decided to revisit his Gallic Wars play-book and ordered his engineers to build walls and fortifications to pin Pompey against the sea. Pompey responded with wall and fortifications of his own to prevent any further advancement. Between these two fortifications a no mans land was created which saw constant skirmishes with little or no advancement-- similar to the trench warfare of World War I. Caesar held the out-lying farmland but it had been picked clean and Pompey, with the sea to his back, was able to be resupplied by ship. However, as the siege wore on, their positions began to change. Pompey found it difficult with the limited land to create enough fodder for his horses, and other supplies such as fresh water became more and more difficult to maintain. Harvest was approaching and soon Caesar would have enough food to prolong his position. This caused Pompey to become desperate to break out of the siege. By mid summer, though, Pompey had a fortunate stroke of luck. Two Gallic auxiliary were caught stealing the pay from legionaries, but managed to escape to Pompey. With these two men on his side, Pompey was able to discover the weakest point in Caesar's wall. A section to the south of the lines hadn't yet been completed and it was the only viable target for attack."
"Pompey mounted an attack of six legions against Caesar's line where it joined the sea and where Caesar's IX legion was stationed. Heavily outnumbering the Caesarian troops, the Pompeian army broke through the weakened fortifications, causing this segment of Caesar's force to pull back from the onslaught. Caesar swiftly reinforced the breach with twelve cohorts under Antony and then counterattacked, re-securing part of the wall and pushing Pompey's forces back. Although Caesar's counterattack was initially successful, Pompey's forces were simply too numerous and they began to outflank Caesar's right wing. This buckled as it was threatened from the rear, and as the wing collapsed, Caesar's army began to rout. At first Caesar personally tried to stem the retreat, but then realised the potentially disastrous danger his army faced and instead began to co-ordinate the withdrawal of his army."
"Pompey ordered a halt, believing that Caesar had been decisively beaten, and also suspecting a trap. According to Plutarch, Caesar remarked on that decision saying, "Today the victory had been the enemy's, had there been any one among them to take it.""
Caesar takes some significant STL damage here -- he really could easily have been killed as things were -- but his STLPOP damage is even higher; it was over if Pompey had pressed the attack.
My favorite possible debate over a what an STLPOP number should be is when the Roman general Marius is fleeing after being on the losing end of the Roman Civil War to Sulla. He's been declared an outlaw of the state and a bounty is on his head. As he passes through a village, the people there are both afraid of Marius with his fearsome reputation (six-time consul and one of the greatest generals in Roman history) but also very afraid of Sulla (now ruling and commanding Rome).
Eventually, a Cimbrian warrior volunteers to go kill Marius himself. He gets his sword and creeps into the darkness of the hut Marius is laid up in, wounded and exhausted, only to hear Marius's voice:
"SLAVE, YOU DARE TO KILL THE GREAT CAIUS MARIUS?"
The Cimbrian drops his sword and runs.
Does Marius get no change to his STLPOP numbers from that event, because it was always going to go that way? In other words, did the Cimbrian blunder? This one is interesting to debate because Marius's numbers there are probably either 100% STLPOP survival, or 0% STLPOP survival, depending.
Final Reflection on STL Numbers
A last thought: having extremely high STL/STLPOP numbers obviously shows an excellent embodiment of Sun-Tzu's concepts, ensuring victory before fighting, and taking security and logistics and defenses very seriously, and anyone who accomplished a lot with high STL numbers merits study.
However, there's very different kinds of people with low STL numbers. Some commanders seem to learn from it and adjust accordingly, gaining a humility and shifting strategy -- this is George Washington.
Others like Nobunaga, Napoleon, and Hitler start coming to see themselves as invincible and not bounded by reality, and thus keep doing risky and dangerous expansive things until inevitable defeat.
The campaigns of commanders with low STL numbers who then rapidly adjusted are perhaps the most worthy of study of all -- and the campaigns of low STL-commanders who didn't learn from it are probably most worth discounting and caveating.
EDIT: I've got enough early reviewers, thanks!
I'm 50,000 words in, but I suspect I'll need to cut/re-write about half of them in addition to writing another 20k or 30k to get the core stuff complete. Whoever signs up for this, you're signing up for going through some very rough stuff.
Why do it? You'll get max-honest writing (I tend to remove things that could be misconstrued or arguments that the emotional impact would outstrip the benefits to thinking for final versions; you'd get to see the raw stuff), you'll be able to shape a work that thousands of people are going to read, and we'll be in touch to swap ideas/thoughts.
I don't need any proofreading or grammar yet -- the questions are very high level / structural / what's clear and what isn't / what's persuasive and what isn't. So it's not painstaking editing so much as noting when things are clear and when they're not.
Email is: sebastian at sebastianmarshall.com
Briefly, some updates:
*I've got some bonuses and downloads for Gateless, some really good ones coming. The book is getting great reviews -- if you miss the blog here and haven't gotten your copy yet, go get it.
*My next book, aiming for Q2 or Q3 2015, has "crossed the threshold" where it's definitely going to happen. I'm going to engage in a little less conversation and a little more action as a general rule, but my writing practice goes well and the quality goes up. I'll be more publicly involved sooner or later; for now, I'm enjoying my intense private work cycles and quality improvements.
*Thanks for all the well-wishes, emails, and the positive reviews/feedback of Gateless. Love you guys.
Ok, without further ado --
Happy Black Friday.
Gateless is up on Amazon right now.
If you're normally not doing the consumer-thing on Black Friday, maybe go get yourself a copy to celebrate.
Feedback and questions are of course welcome. Happy holidays.
Dashed off a quick piece about learning history at LessWrong --
Crossing the History-Lessons Threshold
Comments/questions welcome there or here.
Brief update: I'm working on longer-form writing that's more focused and deep. I've finished around a dozen pieces but haven't struck the tone I want yet. I don't know when the next iteration will come, but it's going to be terrific.
I've gotten lots of inquiries as to how I'm doing -- very well, thank you. Well, that's not 100% true. It's a difficult metamorphosis. Some days, things go exceedingly well. Others, it's frustrating. I'm studying technical materials and looking to seriously improve. There's been some results that are remarkable to me, but other days it's really tough.
My average time for writing a moderate-length piece used to be maybe 30 minutes, plus or minus 20. Now I'm up around 7 hours, plus or minus three. Lots of outlining beforehand, carefully citing facts and sources, footnoting, getting deeper points, and then editing afterwards.
Sometimes it's tough, because I'm putting a lot of work in, but I'm losing that natural free-flowing tone that I was able to strike when just writing.
The potential if I can nail this style is A+ work. But right now, I'm doing C- execution at that A+ style. The building blocks are all there, but it's slightly wooden and tough still. I think some of the core readers here will really love it, but the general public won't dig it. The stuff I'm writing is coming in at the 2500 to 7000 word range per piece, but doesn't quite move fast enough. Deep-thinking-love-to-critically-analyze people will dig it, but I can do better. I want to get that musical sense, that really grand and enjoyable tone.
A few notes --
1. Kai and I co-authored a book a while back. It’s basically done. I still keep wanting to do tweaks and edits, but I’ve got to send this baby off into the world. We’ve had some great early reviewers of which I’m grateful. Now, if you'd like to be involved, here's a good opportunity --
We’d like to have 15 small samples of the book get sent to people when they sign up via email.
I’ve been trying to do this, but I’m too close to the work — I can’t tell which samples/excerpts would be most interesting and relevant to people, in the right order.
So, if you’re interested, you get an advance copy, you read it, you get any questions answered you want, you pick out 15 sections that you think are relevant, you format them into Mailchimp. Pay is $100 for it.
I'm both surprised and flattered to get a number of concerned emails wondering where I'm at. I guess that's not-too-crazy: I used to post basically daily here, and now there hasn't been a post in almost a week.
So, where am I?
The answer is, I'm looking to do an order-of-magnitude quality improvement in my writing. Putting concepts on more solid ground, making them more actionable, writing in a more service-oriented fashion, covering things from first principles and background knowledge (so someone seeing something for the first time could put it into action right away), etc.
A problem with a lot of my writing in the past was that I wrote strictly about what interested me. This turned out some good pieces, but erratically and with no scope.
This resulted in an amazing regular readership of just absolutely marvelous people here who like to put together patterns and extract general principles from history, science, business, philosophy, etc. Which has been terrific and has greatly enriched my life, and I think a lot of readers and people in the dialog here have made some amazing gains too.
What have your favorite posts been on here? Why? What's been most useful to you?
I got a really nice mix of opinions yesterday (though there seems to a strong undercurrent on history, practical interventions, and maybe some more "narratives" instead of abstract pieces) -- now I'd really like to hear about your favorite pieces from the past, either series or specifically.
I'm going to go back and select a number of pieces that were pretty good and edit them to be something coherent and better. I really want to step my quality level up and do really great by you. This blog has long been a source of inspiration and a great way to connect with people, but I want to take it to the next level and really deliver stuff that's outstanding on all fronts.
All feedback super appreciated. Especially doubly true if you're on email and don't normally comment; the opinions of people who regularly obviously matter a lot to me, but if you're normally quiet -- your opinion matters to me too and I'd love to hear it.
So... What have your favorite posts been on here? Why? What's been most useful to you?
Any feedback on what you'd like to see going forwards?
Major changes are coming.
Thanks for reading here. I appreciate it. You'll be excited to see what comes next. Any feedback on what you'd like?