I’m something of a history nerd and have been since I was a tween. One of my favorites from history is Napoleon Bonaparte, who Goethe called, Die Weltseele zu Pferd. The World-Soul on Horseback.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from him. Mostly from his successes, but there are some invaluable ones drawn from his failures too.
1. If Short, Wear A Big Hat
Standing somewhere between 5’4″ and 5’5″ Napoleon wasn’t really that short for his era. But that’s the mythology peddled by the British at the time, and which we’ve inherited, so let’s run with it and learn something from Napoleon’s big, sexy, hat.
We all have shortcomings, weaknesses, challenges, and flaws of various kinds and degrees, real and imagined. The trend now is to whine, complain, and petulantly demand that the rest of the world ignore our shortcomings, ignore our weaknesses, eliminate our challenges, and even positively celebrate our flaws! None of these are healthy or mature options.
More often than not the best thing to do when faced with a personal limitation is to simply acknowledge it, compensate for it as best we can, then get the hell on with life.
Have anxiety? Go to a shrink or start meditating.
Broke? Get a second job, at least for now.
Fat? Buy stretch pants or get a gym membership.
Short? Stop complaining about it. Buy a fancy, big ass, hat. Then go conquer Europe.
2. Own Your Otherness
Napoleon was originally from Corsica; basically an Italian island owned by France. By French standards it was a provincial backwater, so when Napoleon decided to join the King’s military academy he was prettymuch viewed as a country bumpkin by all his snooty, bewigged, too-french-for-school, aristocratic classmates.
Did Napoleon start listening to Emo music and hide behind mopey bangs? No.
Did he whine about being offended and demand the administration take action to protect him from hate speech? No.
Did he say, “I may be Cis-Corsican . . . but I identify as French.” No, but that would have been funny.
What he did was own his otherness. He bragged about how Corsica rocked, and France was lame. He responded to snooty Frenchery with punkrock Corsican cool. He didn’t do this just to shock, but as a way to lay claim to his otherness and to make it absolutely clear that he couldn’t give a single fuck about the opinions of the cool kids.
He was GenX before his time.
He intuited what Emerson would later write: “Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist.”
3. Believe In Your Destiny
Napoleon had total and–at least until the battle of Waterloo where he was finally defeated–unwavering belief that he was chosen for greatness, and that a Star of Destiny guided him. This kind of positive fatalism seems to be a common theme among History’s greats too, which I think speaks volumes about the power of stubborn, unwavering, self-belief.
After all, if a little nobody from the French sticks can believe himself into an Imperial throne of his own invention, and change the entire course of history itself, then surely you can muster enough self-faith to finish that book you’ve always wanted to write, learn to paint, ask that cute guy or gal at the bar out, or quit your crappy job and start your own business.
I’m not talking about being a self-aggrandizing twat, either. What I’m talking about is at least reclaiming some wild and even ostensibly “irrational” faith in your own potential, and goals, and refusing to compromise that faith no matter what obstacles you may face, or how much the scoffers may scoff.
Fuck ’em. You’re following your Star of Destiny.
4. Stand In Harms Way
In Andrew Roberts epic, Napoleon A Life, he writes that at the Siege of Toulon, “Napoleon showed considerable personal bravery in the batteries and redoubts . . . at one point picking up a blood-soaked ramrod from an artilleryman who had been killed near him and helping to load and fire the cannon himself.”
I, for one, am far too giant a pussy to imagine doing anything but huddling under Napoleon’s coat tails, and crying in a pool of my own piss, if cannon shot was exploding around me. I’m even scared of loud noises. And spiders. And airplanes. And balloons.
It’s really quite pathetic.
BUT . . .
I can at least extract a lesson in bravery here that applies even to a wimp like myself. Namely: Be brave enough to take risks in the pursuit of important goals, despite all the shit I imagine may happen if I fail.
After all, you know it and I know it: Most of the shit we fear never happens. Instead we use imagined catastrophes as excuses to avoid taking risks, and changing our lives for the better.
I’m reminded of Mark Twain who wrote, “I am a old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
So, let’s try not do that anymore, eh? Let’s stand in harms way more often, while reminding ourselves that all those cannonballs we think are coming at us are really just in our heads.
5. Give Rousing Speeches
How’s this for a speech. It’s a 27 year old Napoleon’s proclamation to his troops during the Italian campaign of 1796:
“You have won battles without cannon, crossed rivers without bridges, made forced marches without shoes, camped without brandy and often without bread. Soldiers of liberty, only republican phalanxes could have endured what you have endured. Soldiers, you have our thanks! The grateful nation will owe its prosperity to you!”
Fuck. Now I almost want to invade Italy myself.
This lesson isn’t about giving rousing speeches to your friends, co-workers, or fellow commuters on the bus. Though that would be hilarious. What I mean here is taking time to give yourself some good pep talks, especially when you are confronted with a big challenge or opportunity.
One of the speeches I repeat to myself on such occasions consists of just three words:
I. Got. This.
6. Find And Dominate Your Niche
When still at the academy Napoleon had to choose what was the military equivalent of his major. He chose Artillery. The choice was a smart one . . .
First, because he had a natural talent with mathematics, and artillery was all about that.
Second, it was hard to master, which meant that few of his privileged, lazy, classmates wanted anything to do with it, which in turn meant that he would have less competition for rising in the ranks.
And that’s just what he did. At a mere 24 years old, after kicking British ass at the Siege of Toulon, he was elevated to the rank of brigadier general.
Whereas at 24 I was probably passed out on your couch after a long night of bewailing capitalism between pints of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
There’s practical wisdom here. Identify a skill that you are naturally good at. Find a niche where you can leverage that skill and be something of a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Use this as a stepping-stone to greater things.
7. Study Voraciously (And Employ What You’ve Learned)
Napoleon was ravenous learner all his life. He read everything he could get his hands on: history, literature, philosophy, religion, natural sciences, and everything in between. At 29 years old he was named to the French Academy of Sciences. During the Egyptian campaign he brought along over 160 scientists and archaeologists to catalog everything from plant life to the construction of the pyramids.
In short Napoleon was a nerd.
But he was a practical nerd too. While I suspect he learned for the sheer love of it, he always found ways to use what he’d learned for practical ends. For example, when on the Egyptian Campaign he studied the Koran to better negotiate alliances with Muslims.
Learning is like a tool box. The more widely you study, the more tools you have for succeeding in life.
8. Keep Worthwhile, And Diverse, Company
There’s an adage often repeated in the success literature that says, “You are the average of the seven people you spend the most time with.” Something along those lines. The idea is that if someone who never met you were to look at your closest friends they could predict a lot about you. Everything from how you dress, your interests, your values, how you spend your free time, and even your income level.
So if, say, your closest friends are all early 19th century Parisian whores who follow armies about offering their services, I can pretty confidently guess that you are a sultry skank, don’t have much money, and are quite handy with the handy-Js.
I can also predict that should probably get checked for syphilis immediately.
The point is: Be mindful of the company you regularly keep. Even practically speaking, if you’re constantly investing your time with a group of whiners, moaners, bitchers, and cynics that will rub off on you and sap you of both energy, and motivation.
This is not to say that you should ditch your wonderful loser friends and upgrade to fancier, less whorish and syphilis riddled ones. Rather, it just means that you should appropriately value you own time and be mindful of how, and with whom, you invest most if it.
And at least be open to some diversity and befriending people outside of your comfy circle. People that can teach you something new, give you perspective you might not have considered before, challenge you, add some breadth to your experience and outlook.
If you’re a math and science type, get to know some artists. If you’re poor, pick the brain of someone who is good with money. If you’re young, befriend an old fogie, and visa versa. Most importantly, lately: Don’t follow the tragic and foolish trend of intolerance that’s become increasingly prevalent of late which condemns all political opponents out of hand, refusing to even listen to their perspective.
Cloistering yourself in groups that believe just as you believe, think like you think, and act like you act can only reduce you as a person. Not to mention, make you a twit and, likely, a twat.
Napoleon didn’t pick prattling yes-men to surround him. He picked confident, competent men who could discuss and debate strategy, and who he could trust to take their own initiative when that was called for. He also hobnobbed with philosophers, theologians, artists, writers, scientists, common soldiers and peasants. He welcomed debate, while remaining civil. This diversity of interpersonal experience made him, I think, a well-rounded and broad-thinking man, entirely unlike the other rarefied sovereigns of his era. And, frankly, unlike most people of our own era.
9. Show Appreciation
A famous Napoleon quote goes: “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” It’s pretty cynical sounding, but there’s a more positive spin we can put on it . . .
Everyone craves praise and recognition. Often we are so preoccupied with ourselves and our own troubles that we may forget this, and forget how easy it is to make someone’s day a bit brighter. Reclaiming a bit of those dying arts called civility and courtesy is all it takes sometimes. A few words and a smile.
Does your buddy have new shoes? Compliment him on them.
Did the barista make a great mocha? Compliment her on it.
Is your friend showing you his newest drawing? Take time to really look at it and voice your appreciation.
Write a thank you note to someone.
Call your mom more often. She misses you.
10. Go On The Offensive
Napoleon didn’t like sitting around waiting to be attacked. Instead he’d look for opportunities to go on the attack himself, even when more cautious generals might think that foolhardy. When waging war on life in pursuit of our goals, we should be like Napoleon. Always on the attack.
Take a moment to bask in victories, but don’t celebrate too long. Instead, identify your next goal and get moving on it asap.
Conversely, when confronted with challenges and setbacks the normal thing to do is react, to crisis manage, to go on the defensive. This is sometimes necessary, but too often we get stuck there and lose all of our momentum. It’s better to look for some opportunity or opening in the apparent catastrophe.
11. Know Your Terrain And Have Solid Plans
Napoleon was a planning freak. Whenever possible, before a battle, he’d send spies to reconnoiter every last detail of the terrain, find out the positions of enemy troops, and bring back any and every other detail that might be useful. Then he’d hover over his maps for hours on end planning and trying to anticipate every last contingency he could think up to maximize his chances of success.
Most of us don’t have the fate of thousands of men, and the whole of Europe, in our hands so we probably don’t need to plan that much. But if our goals are important then they deserve some solid planning and strategizing.
You don’t want to wing your future.
12. Concentrate Your Forces
One of the reasons Napoleon was, arguably, the greatest military commander in history was that he repeatedly mopped the floor with armies much larger than his own. A secret to his repeated success on the battlefield was that he would concentrate his forces (and artillery) on key spots in the enemy line, like at the Battle of Austerlitz where he kicked the asses of not one, but two, opposing armies.
This is a Napoleonic lesson I still frequently struggle to keep in mind, and perhaps you do as well. We have so many goals and competing responsibilities that we end up dividing our time and focus too thinly to make any real headway on any one of them. Or we jump from one exciting project to another to another, without ever finishing a damn thing.
If that’s you, I invite you to join me in working on changing that and learning how to better concentrate forces. Pick one or two important goals to tackle with laser focus, and back burner all the rest. For now. Don’t stop until you achieve that goal. Then, and only then, move on to one of those back-burner goals.
13. Adapt Your Plans As Needed
Goals, like Napoleonic battles, rarely if ever go perfectly according to plan. Reinforcements are late. The weather turns crappy. You have a bad case of diarrhea on your way to the battle, or job interview. Shit happens.
When it does, there’s only one thing to do: Adapt.
Keep the end goal in mind and do whatever you must, and can, to get there.
Remember that plans are means to an end, nothing more. They are mutable. Only the goal, the final victory, matters.
14. Know When To Cut Your Losses
Napoleon invaded Russia in June of 1812 with upwards of 685,000 soldiers. The largest army ever amassed in history, to that point. By December of that same year his army had been decimated, with only some 155,000 ragged survivors limping their way out of Russia.
To use a fancy academic term favored by Historians, it was a “royal clusterfuck.”
This is one of the few negative lessons I take from Napoleon’s predominately super-human career: Know when to cut your losses.
What makes this lesson so hard to implement is that we never really know WHEN those losses should be cut. After all, probably the biggest determinate of success when pursuing any goal is the ability to stubbornly stick with it, to refuse the very option of surrender. To believe in our destiny with positive fatalism, like I talked about earlier.
With that said, I think on a gut level we all know when our reasons for wanting to quit are poor ones, like laziness, cowardice, or the like. And we also know how this differs from that feeling of “I don’t REALLY want this goal anymore.” Or, “This part of my life was great, but I’ve changed.” Or, “Why am I working so hard to get another measly raise, when I haven’t even liked this job for the last two years?”
If on a gut, emotional, level we repeatedly feel unease, boredom, or just plain “blah” about a goal or life pursuit, it’s probably a good sign that sweet lady Star Of Destiny is saying, “Get the fuck out of Moscow.” That we reevaluate our priorities and goals. That we choose something better suited to where we are now in life and where we want to go in life.
15. Become A Sovereign Individual
I conclude with the following story which first made me fall in love with Napoleon, and demonstrates why he’s mythic . . .
The big N is about to be crowned Emperor of France. Not king, mind you, but Emperor. You know, just because he could.
He also decides it’s politic to make peace with the Church so he invites old Pope Pius the VII to crown him, thereby legitimizing his coronation in the eyes of France’s many Catholics, and the other crowned heads of Europe.
Through wafting incense the crowd watches as the Pope intones some ancient Latin blessing. He lifts the crown from the silk pillow. He raises it solemnly over the soon-to-be Emperor’s head.
And then . . .
Napoleon pulls off perhaps the most impressive dick move in history: He snatches the crown from the Pope’s hands and crowns himself. Then he crowns his wife, Josephine, as Empress.
It was a monumental, completely public, totally epic, Papal cock block.
The valuable lesson I take from this — possibly apocryphal — story is closely related to the earlier one of owning your otherness. More accurately, I think of it as the next step after owning your otherness.
I view embracing your otherness as just a step or stage of personal identity and life development. One that we hopefully mature past to be ultimately crowned with a powerful sense of ourselves as Individuals. Sovereign individuals.
We see this in how the young Napoleon first had to assert his otherness against his snobby French classmates by hyper-emphasizing his outsider Corsican identity. But by the time he crowned himself Emperor he had done away with even that. He was no longer merely a tribal other; he was his own, unique, man.
No longer content to be merely a son of the revolution, he instead declared, “The revolution is over. I AM the revolution.”
And, again, not even the super-elite clique of European kings and queens was unique enough to contain his identity. He would settle for nothing less than full on Emperor, oldschool, ancient Rome, style.
(How can you not get a History woody for that?)
I think that too many of us today suffer from an arrested development, evidenced most glaringly by the hysterical herd-think typical of identity politics. People are embracing their group otherness — which is good to a point — but not moving beyond that to proud, individual, identity.
Which is very, very bad. Unequivocally.
I could here offend the fuck out of everyone by pointing to the various group identities I think are currently most prone to this, but instead I’ll use myself as an example.
I’ve loved cock and balls for as long as I can remember. When puberty came a’knocking it brought with it a terrifying realization that there was a then-despised identity associated with this: “Gay.”
As a result my adolescence was very painful, involving a great deal of self-loathing and a hell of a lot of fear.
Fortunately, with the help of some amazing and supportive friends, teachers, and a school counselor I came to grips with my cock-lovery. I began to own my otherness.
Oh, and how I owned it. Gay this, Gay that, Gay Gay Gay. In a rainbow flaggy version of Napoleon thumbing his nose at Frenchies, I even went through a stage of pontificating about the evils of oppressive “Breeders.”
While that, thankfully, toned down somewhere in my early twenties, I still clung to the group identity “Gay” for years. Too many years, really.
Not to say I found Jesus and turned my back on the magnificence that is penis. Nor that I don’t still like to talk about, write about, and have romantic walks on the beach with penises, either. I only mean that the Gay thing is only one part of my larger identity, not what defines me.
I realized too that a small group identity is only a little better than a large group identity. That truly affirming your otherness means affirming yourself as — you guessed it — a sovereign Individual above and beyond all those identities.
Of course none of us will ever be perfectly sovereign individuals. We are a social species. We have countless interpersonal connections and responsibilities that help define us, which is good. But I am still convinced that radical affirmation of ourselves as sovereign individuals is THE target to aim for.
And not just by way of identity, but by way of beliefs and values. Critically challenge every ideology, every holy writ, every pronouncement by politicians, every analysis by the talking heads on the “news,” every inherited wisdom.
Be first sovereign of mind.
Everything else, I’m now persuaded, follows from that.
And I think my man Napoleon would agree.