Old Books, Strategy, and Tactics

Though it's fading recently, a major pursuit of the front half of my life was trying to become prematurely wise.

I did the "work": I studied great humans, read all of the classics (minus the Brothers Karamazov), read books acclaimed for their wisdom, searched out wise people to be around, et cetera, et cetera. But it didn't have the effect that I thought it would.

I don't think my time was misspent. I crush it with anecdotes at cocktail parties, I've made friends by discussing books with interesting people... I always have a great quote for the situation and usually a witty one.

It's useful stuff, but nothing that will make me wealthy, help me create beautiful art, help me live longer or more fully, or any of the things worth doing during our short stint in this world. Put another way: Studying wisdom didn't make me wise.

Old Programming Books

These programming books are one of the weirder aspects of my current profession (software engineering). Go to pretty much any library in the United States and there will be a small section of books on general IT topics, like using a computer, doing web design, and programming.

From what I've seen these books are always horrifically dated, frequently covering dead/dying languages, ancient frameworks, and software that doesn't even exist anymore. Bookstores are only slightly better- they have the new books but by the time that they're published things have already changed.

Every time I see the library section or the programming section in a bookstore... I'm always asking myself: "What gives? Why would someone dedicate so much time to crafting a book that will be obsolete so soon?" These books seem to be the opposite of the books I read all of my youth - so devoid of "wisdom" that they can't be read more than 5 years after they were written.

Years later I've come to realize that books are written for different reasons, for different audiences, and there are even some books that aren't meant to be read. BUT there is more wisdom in these obsolete books than I had realized when I thought books were supposed to be for reading. As an example, Authors Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Ryan Holiday (and others) seemed to have picked up on this. Their writing careers are primarily re-writing 3000+ year old "wisdom" for modern audiences.

Wisdom not found in books

Here's a thing you can try. Think of the most successful or talented person that you know. Now go ask them how to become either as successful/talented as them (or more if possible). Listen to their answer. Chances are they either won't be able to explain it in any detail, that is, they won't be able to provide the steps to reproduce their success.

Many of the successful people I know have difficulty explaining "how" they do it. 2 main reasons:

  1. Learning how to accomplish great things is complex. Becoming a great athlete, artist, business person, etc may be as complex as building a skyscraper or nuclear reactor, but it doesn't feel that way to the rest of us.
  2. Successful/talented people might not actually know how they do some of the things they do that are difficult.

Much wisdom can't be documented, but why?

Strategy and Tactics

It took me way longer than I'd like to admit to figure this out, but I spent the vast majority of my life conflating wisdom, strategy, and tactics. It's an easy mistake to make and it's difficult to interpret the nuances. But here goes...

Strategy will describe how to interact with the world at a high level. People tend to avoid describing where they failed, fell short, or nuances they discovered when they are talking about things at a high level. They skip the little things. They avoid the details of the process, the surprises, or things that only an expert could execute.

This makes sense - they are the narrator and they get to shape the way people experience their description. As an example: Saying that everyone is right-handed, is incorrect, but saying "pretty much everyone" is right-handed is accurate.

Most books by virtue of the media form are typically strategy. The book would become outdated if it focused on tactics.

Tactics are how to do a thing effectively.

Tactics change quickly because more effective tactics are discovered and counter-tactics are developed... But strategy is useless without tactics.

Wisdom is possessing a beyond-expert vocabulary of effective tactics that will work in a given discipline at that time.

  • You need to know WHEN to use a tactic.
  • You need to know when tactics are no longer effective.
  • You need to be able to create more effective tactics to continue to be successful.

Wisdom is expensive. It requires resources, experimentation, trial and error when you find a tactic you need to retain it and know when to apply it.

Putting a bow on it

What are the take-aways? I think there are a lot of different take-aways so "to each their own" for what you can take away from this.

For me, "strategy" might be over-rated since effective tactics are probably more valuable day-to-day. Would you rather be really good at 3 point shooting or know how to coach someone to be a good 3 point shooter? Would you rather be really good at making money or know how people make money? Not really a straight-forward answer, but I'd probably take "tactics."

Also, after coming up with this observation I'm less concerned about "wisdom" these days. Both acquiring it and/or the general concept. Don't take me the wrong way, it's definitely valuable... but I just want to focus on the underlying structure... in the words of Steve Martin: "be so good that they can't ignore you," or put another way, the journey is the destination.

Lastly, I can't help but think that some extra existentialism has crept into my life around this topic. Even the wisest of us will still end up 6 feet under, so we should enjoy the journey - that predominantly means tactics.

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