Being clever: “How’s that working out for you?”

Two of the books I’ve been reading this week – Thinking In Systems and Wolf Hall – connected in a surprising way.

Let’s start with the thoughts of a furious Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, confronted by the tactical success one of his enemies:

Christ, he thinks, by my age I ought to know. You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook; somehow he thinks that’s what Norris is, and he feels an irrational dislike taking root, and he tries to dismiss it, because he prefers his dislikes rational, but after all, these circumstances are extreme, the cardinal in the mud, the humiliating tussle to get him back in the saddle, the talking, talking on the barge, and worse, the talking, talking on his knees, as if Wolsey’s unravelling, in a great unweaving of scarlet thread that might lead you back into a scarlet labyrinth, with a dying monster at its heart.

Cromwell should suffer from imposter syndrome. A Hackney lad with an informal education he got on the road running from a violent father and on the job as a soldier and then a city trader in Italy. He understands things those with the money and the power don’t because he has seen behind the curtain, how the system of the world really works. Where the nobility have been raised on ideas of nobility, courtly love and glory through war, he has fought in the wars and then seen how they were financed.

In this passage above we see a brief flash of his deepest fears, the fear of being dragged back into the wreckage of his origins. His master, Cardinal Wolsey, is being taken down by the establishment and it could well ruin him as well. He has risen so far by applying his insight and practical knowledge about how the world works and – “he likes his fears rational” – suppressing the emotional. Through skills in practical professions – law and finance – he makes himself valuable to the establishment. While playing this game has helped him achieve massive success and a growing reputation, he is reminded that his is not the only game, the strategy does not always work. The idiots sometimes win, the game of favours and hereditary privilege and courtly intrigue will sometimes be won by the wrong people with the wrong ideas and whom history is not behind. Just because he is smarter and in many ways better than his enemies, doesn’t mean they can’t bring him down.

At the end of Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems: A Primer, she talks about understanding the limits of being original, being bright, perhaps of being right. She wrote the book in the 1990s but was thinking back to when she was early in her career and part of a cohort of clever systems thinkers who were advancing the field in the 1970s. Fired with the zeal of their insights and a desire to make things better they went out like missionaries to fix the systems around them:

Our first comeuppance came as we learned that it’s one thing to understand how to fix a system and quite another to wade in and fix it. We had many earnest discussions on the topic of “implementation,” by which we meant “how to get managers and mayors and agency heads to follow our advice.”

Having an insight feels great. It gets you a bit high. You do stupid things sometimes. Like think the idea will win because it feels so damn good.

Naive leaders act as if the idea itself is the ultimate selling point. Experienced leaders, on the other hand, understand that the process is just as important, if not more so.

– Act Like a Leader Think Like a Leader, Herminia Ibarra

Advice to my younger self, then: Smart isn’t enough. It’s one of the reasons you should pull your head out of your rear and read Machiavelli, himself a prime example of why being right and being smart doesn’t mean you get to win.

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