"The greater a man's successes, the less it must be trusted to endure."
In school, I remember reading about Hannibal and how he crossed the Alps with elephants to attack the Romans. While I was familiar with the Roman empire I had heard little about Carthage, Hannibal’s home. If Hannibal and his troops accomplished such a feat why don’t we read about the Carthaginian contributions to the modern world? Andreas Kluth, an investment banker turned journalist and author of Hannibal and Me: What Histoy’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us About Success and Failure, believes that while Hannibal’s successes were impressive, they nevertheless were impostors that in the end cost him his ultimate objective. Kluth believes that we can learn from Hannibal and his encounters with success and failure.
The Big Idea
Are your successes impostors?
"Pointless… victories may… be the single biggest threat to talented and ambitious people… for they lead them away from where they actually want to go."
You’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase “win the battle but loose the war.” This principle is the crux of Kluth’s idea that Hannibal’s successes were impostors. Hannibal won every battle on his way from Carthage, across the Iberian peninsula, through the Alps, and ultimately each clash with the Romans; but, he eventually left having lost the war. Why? These victories came at a detrimentally high cost to Hannibal. His army had a limited number of men and provisions. Fabius, a senator in Rome, understood that Hannibal was not invincible and could be beat by simply waiting him out. Fabius knew that Hannibal’s men were tired and worn from their journey and had little hope for reinforcements. By contrast Rome was well fortified, had ample provisions, and had several times the number of men than Hannibal’s forces. This required Hannibal to meet the Romans on a stage that played to his weaknesses.
Hannibal’s successes were impostors, they were impressive battles but they did not move him towards his ultimate goal of making Carthage a more free and prosperous Mediterranean power. Hannibal spent 13 years moving around Italy but never directly attacked Rome nor did he come close to having the Romans return control of vital trading routes which had been the genesis of the conflict. This is why we read about the single event of the elephants and the voyage across the Alps but use Roman architecture for our buildings and model our transportation systems on Roman ideas. The author explains that victories should be employed as tools rather than as goals in order to avoid having your successes become impostors.
Play Green To Tee
"Ordinary golfers, and ordinary people in life, play ‘tee-to-green,’... They hit the ‘best’ shot every time, which they assume to be the longest and most impressive drive, or the job with the highest pay and most power, or the rhetorical victory during a conference, or perhaps an Alpine crossing. Afterward they sometimes find that their big shots have led them into a ‘bad lie’—in the rough, where they can no longer see the pin—and they get frustrated and fail."
Kluth uses the example of golf to explain what Hannibal should have done to be victorious in his conquest against Rome. Rather than tee up and attempt to drive the ball as far as possible, a green to tee golfer frames every shot by working in reverse from the green. Therefore, the optimal shot is not necessarily the one that goes the farthest nor is the most entertaining to watch, but the one that places the ball in the best location for the next shot. Golf is a simple game with the goal being to put the ball in the hole in the fewest number of shots, but often people loose sight of that objective and swing for the fences rather than align their efforts with a strategy of getting to the green.
Hannibal fell prey to the same dilemma. His goal was to improve Carthage’s power and dominance in the Mediterranean. Yet often the battles he fought placed Carthage in an increasingly defensive position and farther from reclaiming lost territories and trade routes. Sure the battles are interesting to read about some 2,000 years later but they were inconsistent with Hannibal’s overall goal and came at too high a price.
In playing “green to tee” you can work backwards from where you want to end up and fill in the steps that will get you there. Your efforts may not be flashy or entertaining for others to observe. But in playing “green to tee” it is not about show, it is about acting in a way that moves you towards your goal.
Don't be a victim of your own success
"Success, [is] a kind of death, I think, and it can come to you in a storm of royalty checks beside a kidney-shaped pool in Beverly Hills or anywhere at all that is removed from the conditions that made you an artist."
Why mess with success? After all, success is never guaranteed so once we obtain some why mess with the formula, right? Wrong. Treating success in this manner, Kluth says, will leave us trapped and will make us unlikely to continue to produce success. He explains that because Hannibal had remained undefeated in Italy, it made it difficult for him to abandon his pursuit since he hadn’t lost. But his successes left him trapped. Had he lost he could have reevaluated his strategy and decided how to proceed. However, since he hadn’t he was trapped in “the catastrophe of success.”
The author shares the story of American playwright Tennessee Williams who, in the 1940s, had a blockbuster hit with The Glass Menagerie, which thrust him into the spotlight. For some time after that hit, the playwright was unable to create anything else. He stopped writing and abandoned all that had made him a success and coined the phrase “the catastrophe of success.” You become unwilling to try something new because now people are paying attention, you don’t want to disappoint them. What if your new work isn’t as good as your first work? The solution: Don’t become distracted once you experience even a modicum of success, for it is a fickle friend. If you are a writer don’t spend all your time doing things other than writing. If you have developed a number of faithful customers don’t skimp on service once the pace quickens.
“Don’t agonize about success or failure. Just do what you must do as well as you possibly can. In the process you may eventually transcend triumph and disaster.”
Reading about Hannibal helped me to understand that all success is not equal and rather than strive to be successful every time, one must be willing to turn down some success in order to head in the right direction. It helped me realize that for my version of success in graduate school it is not about the grade in the specific class but my desire to educate myself and grow. I’ve had classes where I have received above average marks but didn’t learn much, so my desire to grow and educate myself wasn’t furthered. Hannibal helped me realize that I was playing tee to green therefore the “success” of the grades I received were impostors.
How do you plan to avoid an impostor of success?