Resilience from Xerxes to Taylor Swift: Hedgehogs, Conditioning, and Trait Adaptivity (Mental Models Memo, August 2018)

Theory extracts lessons from infinite variety. It sketches, informed by what you need to know, without trying to tell you too much. For in classrooms, as on battlefields, you don't have unlimited time to listen. - John Lewis Gaddis Click To Tweet

Isn’t that a great quote?  It represents what we’re trying to do around here by building a latticework of mental models.

Welcome to Mental Models Memos, a recap of the most important lessons learned by Askeladden each month, overviewing what we’ve added to the ever-expanding encyclopedia of mental models that is Poor Ash’s Almanack.  In the vein of Howard Marks’ famous memos, I hope these will be as entertaining as they are educational.

Conditioning x Correlation vs. Causation x Trait Adaptivity: Hedgehogs, Swamps, and Overlearning Generals from Particulars

Why do we fall, Master Wayne? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up. - Alfred Pennyworth Click To Tweet

In very different contexts, the two best books I read this month are tied together by the concept of resilience.  [If you’re impatient, the books are “On Grand Strategy by Pulitzer Prize winning historian John Lewis Gaddis (OGS review + notes), and Surviving Survival” by Laurence Gonzales (SvSv review + notes). ]

Bouncing back from adversity can be challenging.  Shortly after the launch of PAA, one reader emailed me seeking advice on a thorny career challenge.  After experiencing a professional setback that, as far as I could tell, was in no way their fault, they felt like a shipwrecked survivor lost at sea, clinging to a tenuous fragment of driftwood – not sure where they were or what to do next.  In their words:

“I feel overwhelmingly underachieving and lost. The past [year] has been especially hard for me… I sometimes no longer recognize myself. I know I experience [negative emotions], but I didn’t know I could be affected as much as I did in the past [year].”

They’re not alone – turns out that feeling lost is a recurring condition of being human.  One purpose of history, says Gaddis, is to make us feel less lonely,” and the same can be said for other types of reading.

Feeling lost can be terrifying, as explored in Laurence Gonzales’s fantastic Deep Survival (DpSv review + notes) – an amazing book about cognition / intuition / habit / stress, among other mental models in the latticework.x It analyzes(via well-told stories) the fascinating neuroscience of why some people live – and some die – when faced with real-life shipwrecks, and other impossibly awful situations.

Gonzales’s follow-up book – Surviving Survival (SvSv review + notes) – covers how to find your way back from being existentially rather than physically lost, and honestly, it might be even better than his first (very high praise, coming from me).

Again with the phenomenal juxtaposition of storytelling and neuroscience, Gonzales examines how surviving is merely half the battle – getting through a traumatic event is one thing; getting over it, unfortunately, is a completely different beast.  As Gonzales puts it poetically about a lady who survived a crocodile attack, she never really escaped the crocodile: after the attack, it took up residence in her head, even when she was inside a locked house on very dry land.

Resilience, Gonzales explains, is both an art and a science.  What makes it so difficult is the interaction of the conditioning and trait adaptivity mental models: our brains are hardwired to encode what Gonzales calls “emotional bookmarks.”

I walked away from the book with a much better understanding of the physical, neurological basis of our tendency to mix up correlation with causation.  Our brain’s auto-associative tendency is generally adaptive – it helps us rediscover pleasures, and avoid losses.

Especially the latter, thanks to loss aversion – better safe than sorry.  We’ve all heard the Twainism about the cat that once sat on a hot stove and never again sat on a cold one.

But of course, like any adaptive trait, its adaptivity is context-dependent; put differently, drop the greatest land predator in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and they’ll become fish food.  Just as learning too little from experiences can be dangerous, so too can learning too much.

Gonzales explains, in reference to people trying to recover (both physically and emotionally) from animal attacks or domestic violence:

“In the brain, the cardinal rule is: future equals past.  What has happened before will happen again.  

In response to trauma, the brain encodes protective memories that force you to behave in the future the way you behaved in the past.  

The trouble was that in all likelihood, [you] would never again face a similar hazard.”

To borrow terminology from Gaddis’s On Grand Strategy, Gonzales is describing our emotional system as, unfortunately, a natural hedgehog – it knows one big thing, which is to keep us away from what it thinks is bad, and steer us toward what it thinks is good.  Parts of our brain are hedgehogs-with-a-hammer; parts of our brain do not have a latticework of mental models: they operate on just one premise.

Using our cognition to make the other parts of our brain more fox-like to outsmart our natural hedgehog – and thereby getting the single-minded hedgehog focused on a different goal, since it can’t hold two competing ideas in its mind at once – turns out to be key.

Half a world and several millennia away from victims of brutal animal attacks or domestic violence, John Lewis Gaddis explores, in the amazingly concise On Grand Strategy (OGS review + notes), very similar underlying mental models.

Gaddis extends the zooming-in, zooming-out, building-understanding-through-metaphor approach that he extols so beautifully in The Landscape of History (LandH review + notes), deftly taking notes from  Leo Tolstoy and Isaiah Berlin (the latter of fox and hedgehog fame) and applying them, in a very multidisciplinary way, to understanding the grand strategies of historical figures – and why they succeeded (or failed).

Gaddis notes, similarly to Gonzales, that humans have more than one system for approaching the world, and benefit from this because sometimes one is adaptive while the other isn’t:

“Foxes were better equipped to survive in rapidly changing environments in which those who abandoned bad ideas quickly held the advantage.  Hedgehogs were better equipped to survive in static environments that rewarded persisting with tried-and-true formulas. Our species – homo sapiens – is better off for having both temperaments.”

Indeed, Gaddis, like Gonzales, is nothing if not multidisciplinary.  He advocates using different perspectives (i.e., schemas) to discern patterns across time, space, and scale and build richer understandings of the world around us.  He would, I think, agree with one line from Surviving Survival – perhaps the single best piece of advice I’ve ever seen – where Gonzales, discussing multicausality, advocates:

“blanketing a problem with overlapping solutions.”

Of course, the flip side is that resources aren’t infinite, which engenders the need for leaders to make utility-focused tradeoffs: walls, as Gaddis puts it,

“buffer what’s important from what’s not.”

It’s important to not get the two confused – and, problematically, they can often conflict in the short term.  What does it mean to head towards your goal?

Gaddis highlights the tension between a long-term sense of direction and near-term obstacles.  He quotes Spielberg’s 2012 drama Lincoln to illustrate. Fictitious (as opposed to Honest) Abe explains:

“A compass, I learned when I was surveying… it’ll point you true north from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps, deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way.

If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… what’s the use of knowing true north?”

So many of the mental models in the latticework show up here – local vs. global optimizationopportunity costsstructural problem solving, and many others.  Resilience requires bridging the gap between the two poles of fox and hedgehog.  Distilling lessons from millennia of major historical events, Gaddis observes:

“Assuming stability is one of the ways ruins get made. Resilience accommodates the unexpected.”

The problem, of course, goes back to what Gonzales was talking about: over-learning from short-term conditions in a dynamic environment that can and will change – perhaps dramatically – making those lessons neutral at best and counterproductive at worst. 

And Gaddis highlights how even for world leaders, emotions and short-term pressures can get in the way of clear thinking: he’d probably appreciate how Laurence Gonzales put it in Surviving Survival (SvSv review + notes), talking about cognition and intuition:

“The brain can seem at times like a confounding bureaucracy with different departments arguing with one another.  The amygdala is not in the Rational Department. It doesn’t care that, at times, its responses might make no sense.  The emotional system can’t allow you to think about your reactions.

That takes too much time. If you stop to think, you’ll be eaten.  So it’s tuned for instant reaction… Under stress, you don’t invent new strategies.  You revert to automatic behaviors.”  

Gonzales doesn’t know it – he’s talking about recovering from a crocodile mauling – but, zooming out and in as Gaddis is wont to do, Gonzales accidentally does a pretty good job, there, of summarizing why King Philip – and Napoleon – managed to lose on a spectacular scale despite commanding massive armies with nearly infinite resources compared to their opponents.

Gaddis explores how we, whether as individuals, businesses, or nation-states, can most effectively design and implement strategies to get us to our desired destinations while avoiding those swamps in the middle.  (It has a lot of investment implications, as will be discussed in my upcoming Q3 letter in a few months.)   

One important takeaway: successful leaders from Octavian of Rome to Queen Elizabeth of England to President Lincoln of America used structural problem solving to their advantage, just like Richard Thaler did to help people save far more for retirement without ever noticing a lifestyle haircut.

Gaddis observes that sage leaders:

“find flows you can go with… avoid shoals and rocks… and expend finite energy efficiently.”  

Sun Tzu states that generals “should act expediently in accordance with what is advantageous.”  Going back to his earlier analogy, Gaddis notes that “wise leaders… sail with the winds, not against them.  They’ll skirt swamps, not slog through them.”

In contrast, immature, unsuccessful leaders – like Marc Antony, King Philip, Alexander the Great, and so on – confused aspirations with capabilities” and “learned limits only through failures,” such as when King Philip’s Spanish Armada was massacred.

They tried, in other words, to win through grit.  Grit is neither an effective nor sustainable grand strategy.  Gaddis formally defines the term as: “The alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities.”  Opportunity costs and bottlenecks are key models here.  

This is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of lessons from these two books.

Loss Aversion x Overconfidence x Status Quo Bias x Commitment Bias x Agency: What King Philip Could’ve Learned About Resilience From Taylor Swift

Both Gaddis and Gonzales use the extraordinary to better illustrate the ordinary.  The truth – thankfully – is that most of us will never be a President tasked with abolishing slavery while keeping the Union together.  Most of us will never have to recover from the physical and mental aftereffects of a shark attack or an IED.

And, indeed, many of the practices that are adaptive in those situations may not be adaptive in our less-critical situations.  But the underlying principles remain equally adaptive.  Gaddis, like Stephen Covey in 7 Habits, differentiates between timeless (universal) principles and specific (situational) practices.  The goal of mental models learning is to find the former, our “true north” (by reading broadly) and then apply the latter, on a situation-by-situation basis (avoiding swamps along the way).

So let’s examine a more “everyday,” relatable example.  As often happens, both myself and one of my best friends, in the past six months, were faced with the unfortunate (and emotionally difficult) need to get over some Stockholm Syndrome and extricate ourselves from abusive, toxic relationships – in my case from a close friend whose constant deceit, massive ego, and profound lack of empathy all represented directionally sociopathic behavior; in my best friend’s case from a significant other who was controlling, demanding, hypocritical, and unappreciative.

I would like to pretend that I’m above listening to Taylor Swift on occasion.  But… I’m not.  I’ll blame it on social proof, i.e. my friends’ tastes in music.  (Lookin’ at you, Todd… we all see your heartfelt appreciation for Tay-Tay, no matter how much you try to hide it.)

Once upon a time, a few mistakes ago…

When I fell hard, you took a step back, without me. You never loved me, or her, or anyone. or anything.

Yeah, I knew you were trouble when you walked in.

So shame on me. Now I’m lying on the cold hard ground.

Oh, oh, trouble, trouble, trouble.

Now, our perpetually boy-challenged Ms. Swift might be succumbing to just a touch of hindsight bias here… and I might be stretching the limits of being multidisciplinary.

But there are surprising parallels between breakups and Napoleon’s follies.  To go back to On Grand Strategy, fundamentally all strategy failures, in Gaddis’s reckoning, result from confusing unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities.”

Aspirations, Gaddis stresses, must be proportioned to capabilities.  In one sense, wanting to rule an empire on which the sun never sets is really no different than wanting to have a relationship with a specific person: there is a tangible end (true north on your compass) that, for whatever reason, is desirable to you.

And that’s fine.  It’s a free country.  But that aspiration will be bottlenecked by your necessarily limited capabilities – if a bunch of swamps lie between you and your always-sunny empire (or someone you care about), then your capabilities had better be up to the task of swamp-crossing.  If they aren’t, well, either you need to find better capabilities, or you need to lower your aspirations.

Of course, lowering your aspirations is never easy.  Loss aversion kicks in: the aspirations have become part of our endowment, and we’re loath to give them up.  There were, perhaps, few objective senses in which King Philip needed to conquer more territory than he already controlled; the same could go for Alexander and Napoleon.

But as a friend of mine put it (eloquently, I thought): many of us are moths flying toward a flame.  The flame is probably terrible for us in a very clear and non-negotiable objective sense, but we still keep chasing it anyway.

The world, as it tends to do, singes our wings when we fly too close, offering us tangible evidence that we should take another path.  But, thanks to overconfidence, we often dismiss that evidence, like King Philip did – or, worse, thanks to commitment bias, we point to all the investment we’ve made as a justification for staying the course (like Napoleon did), even if our path leads us directly into the flame… or Russian winter.

Or maybe it’s simple status quo bias: as Gonzales puts it in Surviving Survival, (SvSv review + notes):

“most people simply continue on an unconscious course throughout life without ever stopping to consider whether a different approach might be more effective.  When something really bad happens, it presents an opportunity to wake up from our life on autopilot, our state of mental models and behavioral scripts, and deliberately choose a new strategy.”

So we keep on keepin’ on.  The solution, of course, according to Gaddis, Gonzales, and the late, great Stephen Covey, is simply to CHOOSE another course of action – to use our agencyThis is the bigger half of resilience: to look at the flame and say no thanks, I don’t want to get burned again.  Gonzales, again:

“You create the world by your belief in it, so it’s important to believe this: there really is a path.  It takes you not back to your old life but onward to the new one.”

Neither Xerxes, nor Philip, nor Napoleon needed to meet the ends they did: they created the conditions that led to their own demise.  Simple (albeit difficult) choices could have led elsewhere – to more prosperity.

And this is what our boy-challenged Ms. Swift finally managed to do, unlike Xerxes and Napoleon and the rest of them: take Alfred Pennyworth’s advice to pick ourselves up, and then, critically, to stop falling into the same well over and over again.

Kind of offhand and in passing, Gaddis quotes a colonial governor who found out something that Buffett and Munger have found out too: the base rate of changing people’s behavior is… well, it’s not very good:

“I imagined, like most young beginners, that… I should be able to make a mighty change in the face of affairs, but a little experience of the people… has absolutely cur[e]d me of this mistake.”

And yet that is the trap that many people in relationships fall into, even if it’s a mistake we’ve made before: me, my friend, and our dear friend Taylor.  Thinking that this time, our capabilities (or those of others) will finally match our aspirations…

They won’t, though; there’s only one appropriate solution:

I remember when we broke up, the first time.

Saying this is it, I’ve had enough.

Then you come around again and say, baby, I miss you and I swear I’m gonna change, trust me. 

Remember how that lasted for a day?

And I’m like, I just, I mean, this is exhausting, you know? Like, we are never getting back together.  Ever.

Now, my knowledge of Ms. Swift’s discography is… limited.  Any more and I’d fall below what Gonzales calls, in Surviving Survival, the “Personal Scum Line” – the line below which you can no longer have self-respect.  It is entirely possible that Ms. Swift subsequently reverted back to old, maladaptive behaviors.  I do not wish to investigate.  For the sake of a nice clean story, we’ll leave it here.

In any event, my friend and I took a page out of Tay-Tay’s book: clearly, neither our capabilities to change others, or our respective someones’ capabilities to be fundamentally decent human beings, were well-matched to our aspirations of having a functional relationship with that person – so, since the capabilities couldn’t change, our aspirations needed to.

At some point, as Covey puts it in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (7H review + notes), the problem isn’t out there – it’s in here.

It is our willing permission, our consent to what happens to us, that hurts us far more than what happens to us in the first place. I admit this is very hard to accept emotionally…

But until a person can say deeply and honestly, “I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,” that person cannot say, “I choose otherwise.”


And those are, it seems, some of the keys to resilience, whether as a kid or as a country, along with some other tools on the keychain.  Surviving Survival, (SvSv review + notes) and On Grand Strategy (OGS review + notes) are both great books that enriched my understanding of numerous mental models; takeaways have been incorporated in a dozen or so mental models around the site.  Enjoy!