We like to think that time will heal everything, it’s that overwhelming force that can rid us of our troubles. Machiavelli states that time can easily make things worse rather than better. He explains that tuberculosis in its early stages is easy to cure and hard to diagnose, but as time goes by and the disease is left untreated, it gets easier to diagnose and harder to cure.
We defer solving problems in our lives to avoid them. We run away from tackling the hard stuff until it becomes critical and then we suffer trying to correct something that has been left to fester and grow strong. Never fail to respond to trouble just to avoid war because in the end you will not avoid it, you will just make life more difficult for yourself. When we address problems as they present themselves, we are much more emotionally stable, we can approach them from a more neutral angle and solve them quickly. When problems brew in our mind, we can’t help but get emotionally charged about them, they become part of our identity, solving the problem feels like tearing out a part of us. The pain is excruciating.
You have a choice about what you accept and reject in life. When it comes to your problems, you must either accept them or remove them. There’s no inbetween, let’s say you are struggling to save money so you cancel your Netflix subscription this month. While that’s progress you will not solve your savings problem without going all the way. When problems are only partially solved, they hit back. You can’t be a casual heroin user. You either are one or you’re not. You either accept something or you destroy it and remove it from your life. If you complain or are not happy about something in your life, yet you are not doing anything significant about it, then you lose the right to complain. You have accepted your fate and you will have to deal with the consequences.
Everyone loves talking about change but very few people have a solid experience of it. Change is just another buzzword that politicians and people in positions of power use to give hope to the rest. There are two types of change, external and internal. We are a hostage to external change, it just happens to us and we try to embrace it as best as we can and try to move on with our lives. Brexit is a good example of external change.
Change within yourself is what many people claim to have experienced but even during their years of youth, many people remain the same throughout their lives. What does it take to make significant internal change then?
First, you have to come to terms with the idea that you are not that special, something which goes against so much in western philosophy that many get upset even to contemplate the thought. Once you have gotten over your “uniqueness”, Machiavelli instructs us to set out to follow a trail blazed by someone who was truly great, someone really worth imitating, so that even if you’re not on the same level yourself, at least you will reflect some of their brilliance. Reading books is perhaps the best way to do this because it’s very unlikely you have access to the greatest minds because some of them are dead and the rest are not going to speak to you. Working with individuals you admire and respect is another great way to raise your skills but this is much harder to achieve than reading a book.
Now when you are implementing change you have to ask yourself: Are you relying on your own resources to implement change or do you depend on other people’s support? If you are begging for help to achieve a goal, you’re bound to fail and you will get nowhere. You have relinquished all power from yourself and put it in the hands of people who are much less invested than you are. Also begging for help at an early stage means you do not have the required skills or resources to take the project forward in a considerable way. People love to talk about visionaries, we say Elon Musk is a visionary, that’s why he has achieved so much, yet he has what Machiavelli would refer to as ‘armed forces’ but I interpret this as capital.
Elon Musk has career capital – he has founded multiple successful companies and sold them for lots of money which has also given him economic capital; Musk also has human capital – he is known as an engineer among his many titles because he is hands-on with the companies he has founded, plus he’s a smart guy and he works alongside many other smart people. He does not need to beg for help, he can implement change on his own terms and he literally has an army of employees to carry out his vision.
A vision means nothing without a system grounded in reality. It’s better to have an army with no intention of building an empire than to dream of an empire stretching across continents without an army. The former is a pragmatist, the latter is an idealist. Pragmatists build and implement what the idealists wish for. You can be both an idealist and a pragmatist but simply being an idealist makes you little more than a wishful thinker.
Idealists too are often swayed by the opinion of the day, but we must remember that the general public’s mood will swing. Machiavelli wrote about people’s fickle opinion in a time without social media. He writes that it is easy to convince people of something but hard to keep them convinced. When people stop believing in you, you must be in a position to force them to believe. If you have no way of applying force then how can you expect others to believe? You are all bark and no bite.
You can not expect extraordinary results from following an ordinary path. If you want extraordinary results, than you will have to tolerate that your life will not follow conventions and will differ significantly from others. This will incite fear and hatred from others, motivating them to attack you. You must be relentless in protecting yourself from these attacks, apply ruthlessness which is short-lived and decisive, no more to defend your position and then stop. This is where Machiavelli often gets misinterpreted. Being harsh in the moment is not a bad thing, another phrase we could use instead would be tough love.
The trouble emerges when people are harsh for the sake of it or they are not drastic enough in the beginning so they grow increasingly harsh over time, rather than easing off. You go from a brief episode of harshness to outright resentment. It’s common in romantic relationships and usually we question why our partner has reacted to something so trivial in such a severe way. What has happened is your partner has failed to do what it takes in the beginning and their resentment over the issue has exploded into a flurry of emotions, which never usually ends well for everyone involved.
We are so scared to hurt people that we would rather have them hate us instead. If you get tough conversations out of the way early, there will not be time to taste their bitterness and there will be less hostility. Letting things simmer until they reach boiling point, leads to widespread consequences and a long phase of healing. The depth of a relationship is more important than the length of it. We try to prolong break-ups even when they are necessary because they are painful, yet by taking action when it’s appropriate we can preserve the depth we had with that person and not transform the relationship into something shallow and filled with hate.
Have people understand that you don’t mind being told the truth and they should not fear the truth from you either. Also be aware of the opinions you consider. If you grew up in a democratic society, you are indoctrinated to believe that everybody’s vote is equal and likewise their opinion. However, you can’t take everybody’s opinion on board because this will make you indecisive and you lose respect when anyone can tell you what to do. The people you take advice from is a good reflection of how your mind works. Despite this, it’s not simply good advice that will elevate your position, you must develop good sense to make the right advice possible.
Rulers that care more about frills than fighting lose their thrones. Machiavelli expands on this to write that the most likely thing to bring about a ruler’s downfall is a neglect of the art of war. To make this relevant to you, consider the art of war as your craft, that one thing that you want to be good at, above everything else. Being good at your craft bases your power on what you control, not on what others have the freedom to choose. To become good at something requires much isolation and time alone with one’s thoughts. Superficial people are generally held in contempt. Things that come out of nothing, inevitably have shallow roots, so they will crash in the first storm. Time will show you what solid foundations you have laid. Keep working so that when the time comes, there is simply nothing that could happen that you don’t know how to deal with.
Machiavelli references the Greek general and statesman Philopoemen who thought of nothing but military strategy. When he would go out for walks in the countryside with his friends he would ask them: If the enemy were over there on that hill and we were down here with our army, who would be in a better position? How could we attack them without breaking ranks? If we decide to retreat, how would we do it? And if they retreated, how would we go after them? And as he and his friends went along, he would list all the possibilities an army can find itself in, listening to their ideas intently and justifying his own strategies. If you can’t live through the work you do, then death is much closer than you think.
Never underestimate the power of the system to which you belong and how it will shape your outcomes. If you work in an environment when your superiors are liars, cheats and live without loyalty or morality, how can you expect to end up so different. After all if a system allows individuals like these to rise to power, then it will be too tempting for you to conform. To stay a good person you must not enter a world where most people are not good, you’ll end up worse off and morally drained.
Whenever you feel the need to attribute an event in your life to luck, remember luck shows its power when no one has taken steps to contain it. Take the situation of a village next to a river. The villagers have not taken any precautions against the possibility that the river will flood. One night, after heavy rainfall, the river bursts its banks and the village is washed away. Now if the villagers had built dams and diversion canals, the damage from the flood would have been prevented. We as individuals are a crucial factor in how luck affects our lives. We can either protect ourselves or wait for luck to wipe us out.
“But when it’s a king building on the people, and when he’s a man of spirit who knows how to lead and doesn’t panic when things get tough, a man who takes the right precautions and whose personality and style of government keeps everybody in a positive state of mind, then the people will never let him down and time will show what solid foundations he has laid.”
Inspiration: Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince
Image credit: @intel