Category Archives: History

The Rise and Fall of Napoleon

They called him Napoleon the Great.

His list of achievements is staggering: He restored order in post-Revolutionary France. He abolished feudalism and serfdom, established legal equality and religious tolerance, and created an Egalitarian system based on the highly controversial idea that government jobs should go to the most qualified!

He was a military genius who reinvented the art of warfare, won some forty battles, and came dangerously close to total domination of Europe.

So how did Monsieur Bonaparte achieve all this?

Napoleon leading his troops (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The most important thing to remember about Napoleon’s rise to power is that it would never have happened, if it hadn’t been for the French Revolution.

Napoleon was a nobody from Corsica, a Mediterranean island that had recently acquired by France, and in pre-Revolutionary France only men from the French aristocracy were allowed to rise to the upper echelons of the military.

But fortunately for Napoleon (and less fortunate for the French aristocrats!) the revolution broke out and it presented Napoleon with a once in a lifetime opportunity to break through the glass ceiling.

He seized the moment and supported the revolution from the beginning. His brilliant talent for winning battles meant that he quickly rose through the military ranks as he beat the Royalists again and again.

His success as a military man gave him political clout. He used his influence to first become consul, then consul for life, and finally nothing less than “His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of the French”.

“His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of the French” (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

So what can we learn from this?

The first lesson is that skills are everything, and without skills you are going nowhere.

Napoleon used all his pre-revolutionary career to build his incredible military skills. Even if the French Revolution had never happened, Napoleon could still have had a decent (but less memorable) career by growing his talents into incredible strengths.

The second lesson is that turbulent times always bring new opportunities with them, because they shake up the status quo.

Yes, turbulence is often frightening (as the French Revolution without doubts was) and many people will be paralyzed by fear and be involuntary pulled along by an unstoppable force of change. But Napoleon seized the changes, jumped to the front and let the forces push him forward.

So what can we learn from this? That you should just take it easy, enjoy the good life, and hope that opportunity will someday come knocking on your door?

No, my friend!

It’s true that the future is so hard to predict that it’s almost impossible to know what opportunities will come by or when. To paraphrase Monty Python: “Nobody expects the French Revolution!”

But it’s also true that turbulent times almost always bring new opportunities with them.

So in turbulent times you should rely less on long-term planning, but instead learn to lookout for opportunities. For opportunities are easily missed because, as Edison said, they are often dressed in overalls and look like hard work.

So what should you do while scanning for opportunities?

You should get to know your talents and practice them until you reach mastery, like Napoleon did with his military talents. So when the opportunity arrives, you know exactly how a person with your strengths should chase it and you can seize it with everything you got!

Napoleon’s disastrous defeat at Waterloo (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Now, as you might know, one of Napoleon’s more recent honors has been to be immortalized in an ABBA song. But wait a minute, you might think, wasn’t this song about his defeat and surrender at Waterloo?

How did an extraordinarily gifted man, who followed the first two lessons to the letter, end up being utterly defeated by his enemies?

The short version is that Napoleon’s brilliant victories in the first part of his career gave him a false sense of invincibility and this made him arrogant and sloppy. He started wars that he should have stayed out of, and he no longer applied his tactical genius with the same vigor as in his earlier battles.

So the final lesson from Napoleon’s amazing life is that when you have become successful, you must be wary of the arrogance that success often breed, and remember that “all glory is fleeting” as they used to say to victorious generals in Ancient Rome.

Winston Churchill: A First-Class Writer

Bernard Shaw wrote that, “the reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” This statement is perhaps exemplified no place better than in the life of Winston Churchill, Shaw’s contemporary.

Churchill was born into an English aristocratic family with all the expensive habits of this class, but unfortunately his late father had failed to leave him a family fortune that is needed to sustain such a lifestyle. A reasonable man would have reduced his expenses to meet his actual income — but Churchill never thought small — so he decided to simply raise his income until it met his expenses and if his expenses outgrew his income again, he would simply grow his income even more.

Now the curious reader will probably agree with Churchill’s logic in theory, but may ask if an English aristocrat in the 20th century was educated with lots of market-relevant skills that could actually produce an income? And on top of that a substantial income that could support an extravagance lifestyle with French champagne, Cuban cigars, world travels, country house, servants and so forth?

To start from the beginning, when Churchill was a young officer in the British Army, he was desperate to seek out action as courage in battle was essential for promotion. So when a military expedition started in Northwestern India (today, Pakistan) to punish the local tribes, he wanted to join despite the travel expenses were more than what his mother’s endowment could support. So he made an agreement with The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper, that he would write articles about the expedition to the newspaper in exchange for them paying his travel expenses.

Churchill as a young war correspondent (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The series of articles showed that he had a talent for words and after the expedition had ended, he turned the articles into his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, which is still a highly readable book about his baptism of fire, which he describes as a delightful experience: “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.

Churchill quickly realized that his talent for words could be his road to financial freedom, so he continued to hone his writing skills and moved from journalism to more substantial literary works. He was never afraid of demanding a high fee for his writings and he refused to give in to anyone who wanted a low price. At some point the frugal Rockefeller family approached him to write the biography about the late John D. Rockefeller, supposedly the richest man in history, but the Rockefellers withdrew their offer in horror once they saw the fee that Churchill demanded for writing the biography. So Churchill never wrote the Rockefeller biography, but instead continued with other works supported by more generous sponsors.

His Writing Habits

Obviously you can only demand unreasonable high fees, if your writings are of such an outstanding quality that people still think they get value for their money. And at the same time you need to produce them at a rapid pace, so your income stream doesn’t run dry. So how did Churchill manage to produce great works at a high speed while still having time for a political career?

Churchill preferred writing late in the evening and usually started around 10 PM when dinner ended and continued writing until 2 AM. In these late-night writing sessions Churchill would be standing by his upright desk with a whisky soda in one hand and a cigar in the other while using his formidable oratory skills to turn historical events — for he wrote mostly about history and politics — into a captivating narrative that his sectary would dutifully write down. His research assistant would also be there ready to supply facts as needed and spot inaccuracies in the narrative.

Chartwell House: Churchill’s Victorian home where he wrote most of his books (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As Churchill sharpened his writing skills over the years, he also developed a set of habits that he followed to produce his successful works:

  • Give the reader a good ride: When Churchill wrote Marlborough: His Life and Times he said to his research assistance, “I aim to give the reader a good ride”. This focus on telling a great story, rather than being overly analytical, is probably why his books are still a good read for the casual reader.
  • Dictate, rather than write: Churchill dictated his words to his sectary, rather than writing them himself. The reason for this might be that speaking is the natural medium for a great orator, such a Churchill, so it gives the narrative a more natural flow. Another reason is that it’s faster to speak than to write, so he could simply get more done in less time by dictating.
  • Use short words: Churchill said, “Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all.” Churchill knew that short English words (which are often derived from Anglo-Saxon, rather than Latin) have a more powerful effect on the reader. As noted in this style guide, when Churchill asked for material help from America in the fight against Hitler, he didn’t say “Deliver to us the implements, and we will complete the assignment”, instead he simply said, “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.
  • Seek feedback: When working on a manuscript Churchill was relentless in seeking feedback from others. For instance, when writing the Marlborough book he sent 308 letters asking for answers to specific questions, or for the recipient to review his manuscript.
  • See it in print before it’s final: Churchill would always get his draft manuscript set up by a typographer and printed, so he could see what the final product might look like while he still had a chance to edit it — and this was before the computer, so it was a cumbersome process. Even if his publisher insisted that this was an unnecessary step in the creative process, Churchill would offer to pay for this out of his own pocket.
  • Take a siesta: When Churchill was a young war correspondence in Cuba, he picked up two lifetime habits — the first being smoking Cuban cigars and the second being taking a siesta. At around 5 PM each day, he would sleep for 1½ hour and this was no power nap where he just sat in a chair. No, he would get his clothes off and go to a proper bed and sleep. Afterwards, he would take a bath and get dressed for dinner. Churchill said that taking a nap allowed him to work 1½ day in a single day and the nap was probably also needed to have the energy for his late-night writing sessions.
  • Set a daily aim: While writing his biography on Marlborough and building a cottage, at the same time, Churchill had the aim of laying 200 bricks and writing 2,000 words per day. He knew if he managed to do both then it had been a good day.

Churchill followed these writing habits throughout most of his career and was a highly productive author who wrote 15 books — some of which were multi-volume works consisting of more than 4,000 pages — together with a vast amount of articles, speeches and letters. You can almost be surprised that he also had time for a political career…

His Finest Hour

When Churchill was chosen as Prime Minister in 1940 to lead England in the war against Hitler, he wrote in his diary, “I felt as I was walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.

While his military and political careers had undoubtedly prepared him for this grand challenge, his mastery of words was an equally indispensible tool when he needed to strengthen the moral of the British people, which was seriously needed as Hitler continued to move from one aggressive triumph to another.

“Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization…” (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

And Churchill did indeed mobilize his formidable writing skills in the defense of England. In less than two weeks, he wrote three speeches Blood, toil, tears and sweat, We shall fight on the beaches and This was their finest hour which are all are among the greatest speeches delivered in the history of mankind.

The voice of a master orator in action…

And England did not back down, but stayed in the fight until Russia and America also joined the war effort and together they defeated Hitler and won the war.

In 1953, his literary career was crowned with a Nobel Prize in Literature. When reading his books, or listening to his speeches during the war, you tend to agree with the Nobel committee that awarded him the prize for “his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.

Writing Habits of Ian Fleming

Most people know James Bond, but fewer people know Ian Fleming who wrote the Bond novels, and even fewer know the leisurely, yet effective, habits he followed when writing the novels about the secret agent.

Ian Fleming didn’t start writing until he was in his forties. Before his novelist occupation he had an admirable career in the British Naval Intelligence. During World War II he planned “Operation Goldeneye”, which was the contingency plan for how the British would defend Gibraltar, if the Germans had attacked it through Spain. He was also involved in “Operation Mincemeat”, which was a deception manoeuvre that misled the Germans into thinking that the Allied forces in Africa would invade Southern Europe through Greece, rather than Sicily where it actually happened. And after the D-Day, he helped selecting targets for T-Force, which was a special military unit that captured high-value targets (e.g. individual scientists, nuclear research, rocket technology) before the Russians got them.

After the war he stopped in the Naval Intelligence with the rank of Commander and decided that his new objective in life would be the pursuit of pleasure. He secured a job as Foreign Manager at Kemsley Newspapers where his contract included 8 weeks of holiday per year, so that he could spend January and February in the Caribbean, rather than live through the cold winter in London.

He bought a piece of land on Jamaica (then, a British Colony) with a private beach and reef, and got a local contractor to build a simple house with a great view of the Caribbean Sea. He christened the house Goldeneye.

Goldeneye (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Goldeneye would always be the destination for Fleming’s long winter holiday, and he used these winter months in Jamaica for sunbathing on the beach, sailing out to the reef to swim with a mask and a spear, catch lobsters for dinner and entertain visitors from near and far.

This easy and pleasurable life lasted rather uninterruptedly till 1952. Ian had been the most professional bachelor and had never established any deep emotional connections with any of his many girlfriends. However, at the age of forty-three he had finally ended up marrying his long-term mistress, Lady Anne Rothermere (later, Ann Fleming) as he had made her pregnant and her husband therefore wanted to divorce her.

That winter due to the pressure caused by the pending divorce, there weren’t many visitors to Goldeneye. There were many different worries that haunted Fleming. Would he manage to take care of a family at this age? Would it change his life? Would he be able to provide Ann with the same stability as her former and much wealthier husband, Lord Rothermere? All those questions kept circling around in his head, but remained unanswered…

Ann kept herself occupied by sitting in the garden wearing her large straw hat and painting flowers. Ian didn’t find any pleasure in painting, so Ann suggested that he should start writing something to distract his thoughts.

So to “take my mind of the shock at getting married at the age of forty-three” as he later said, he decided to write the spy novel to end all spy novels, and gave it the title “Casino Royale”.

Ian was a man with a boyish enthusiasm, so when he started such a project, he poured all his energy into it. He was also a man of habits, so he integrated writing into his daily routine, which he would follow day in and day out without exceptions.

His Daily Routine

He started his day with a morning swim in the Caribbean Sea followed by a breakfast with Ann. The breakfast always consisted of scrambled eggs, bacon and black coffee as he insisted that tea tasted like mud and was the reason behind the decline of the British Empire.

At 9am, he would give Ann a kiss, leave the breakfast table and go inside into the main living room in Goldeneye. He would close the jalousied windows to create a cool and shady room with a hint of a tropical breeze. Then he would take out his old Imperial portable typewriter and type for the next three hours.

He used his wartime experiences as a starting point for activating his imagination and created the world of James Bond. He would write non-stop and wouldn’t worry about what he would put in as he could always edit it later.

At noon, he would stop writing and go outside in the warm Jamaican sun. Together with Ann he would go down to the beach to sunbathe and swim before lunch. After lunch, he would sleep for an hour or two.

Around 5pm, he would be ready to continue his work. He would go into the main living room again, and use an hour or so to read through what he had written during the day and make the necessary corrections. After he finished the corrections, he would take the papers and place them in a drawer and thereby end his workday. And by 6:30, he was ready for his first drink of the day and to enjoy the evening without worrying about his work.

Six weeks after Ian had started writing for the first time, he completed “Casino Royale”. The novel was a tour through a world of gambling, violence, betrayal, torture and sex. By the end of the tour, Le Chiffre (the bad guy) had been annihilated, and so had Vesper Lynd (the girl), while Bond had completed his first mission.

And for the next many years, Ian would continue to follow this elaborate, yet simple, writing schedule and complete a new Bond novel at Goldeneye each winter.

Why Did He Follow a Routine?

His writing habits raise some interesting questions. The first is why would a man of creativity and imagination, like Ian Fleming, follow such a strict regime, rather than just write whenever he felt like it? Obviously it served as a reliable safeguard against abandoning a project when feeling moody or unmotivated. He would later advise another writer that you should always follow your routine, because that will keep you going even when you feel that your writing is nonsense and nobody will ever read it.

Another interesting question is how he managed to be so productive when only putting in 4 hours of actual work per day? The reason must be that he was much more effective during those hours than an average person. He had the luxury of not being interrupted and did not engage in any activities that were not related to the task at hand. He completely focused on the single task of writing this particular novel what probably helped him enter a flow mode where he was extremely productive.

Another reason could be that writing was his true vocation in life, which is why once started, it went so effortlessly that he only needed to spend only a few hours per day and yet remain efficient. He was undoubtedly gifted with an extraordinary imagination and ability to generate ideas (which had also served him good in his previous occupation), but he was also able to create an environment where these talents were expressed most effectively. Fleming certainly had talents, but he was also able to use them to their outmost when writing his novels, which was for the overall benefit — of his own and of his grateful readers.

There are some important lessons to be learned from Ian Fleming’s writing habits. The first is that a single-minded focus on a specific task for three hours in a row without any risk of interruptions enables you to enter a flow mode where you can enjoy a much higher productivity and creativity. The second is that forcing yourself to take daily actions, regardless of the mood, will eventually lead to success. But was Fleming successful? I would say so. His Bond novels have sold more than 100,000,000 copies, which seems like a fair amount for a project that just aimed at distracting him from the fact that he was getting married a little late.

3 Writing Tips from Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway is one of the best known authors of the 20th century. He wrote classics such as A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea — and his literary achievements were crowned with a Noble Prize in Literature in 1954.

His mastery of the word was gained over a lifetime as a journalist and author where he gradually learned the do’s and don’ts of writing. In this post I’d like to share three of the best tips he ever gave to other authors about the secrets of great writing.

1. Write in the Morning

Hemingway was a firm believer in writing in the morning — from around 9am till 2pm — because he could start with a fresh mind after a night of sleeping. He knew that a clear mind was essential, so he resisted reading anything before he started writing. He believed that reading other people’s words would fill his mind with their ideas and drown his own true voice.

He also learned that the morning was the part of the day where he was most likely to avoid interruptions. Similarly, he knew that the thought of writing in a café was seductive to most authors, but the harsh reality was that authors need tranquillity to write. His own experience proved that sitting alone in his hotel room in the morning he was much more likely to produce great literature than in a busy, noisy café with endless possibilities of being interrupted.

2. Don’t Empty the Well

Hemingway knew the importance of breaks in creative work. He was careful never to empty the well, which means keep writing until you are completely drained. Rather, he would stop writing while he knew exactly what to write next.

His experience was that if he let a little water stay in the well (i.e. not drained himself of ideas), it would automatically replenish during the non-writing part of his day and his mind would be full of creativity the next morning when he would start writing again.

He also firmly resisted talking or thinking about his writing during the non-writing part of his day, because the unconscious mind should have peace to replenish the well without being interrupted by the conscious mind. So if he started thinking of his story, he would immediately force himself to think of something else.

3. Be Concise

Hemingway started his career as a newspaper reporter when telegrams were charged by the number of words in them. In this way he learned early to keep his writing concise and use short declarative sentences.

He wrote only about 400-600 words per day — in comparison this post is 520 words — but was careful to select the right words. Some were surprised about how few words he produced per day and questioned his tight style. So to prove his point Hemingway made a bet with a few other writers whether he could write a story in just six words. He won the bet by writing on a napkin: For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.