Fog of War

Photo by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash

In this post, I want to deconstruct a classic phrase: “If you work hard and make the right decisions, you will succeed.”

It doesn’t take a PhD to tell that there’s some obfuscation here. What exactly are “right decisions”? What exactly is “working hard”? I would argue here that the sentence itself is solid structurally speaking (we wouldn’t say “If you work lazy and make the wrong decisions, you will succeed” is a valid sentence). I would also argue that this obfuscation is the “fog of war” that makes success so damn hard in the first place.

Okay, let’s start by cutting this down to a very simple micro phrase. Let’s say that “making the right health decisions includes a daily meditation practice”. Here we’ve straight up chopped off the working hard section and specified a microcosm of decisions and, most importantly, gave a concrete example for what a right decision might look like.

With this, we can see wherein the issue lies. For example, who gets to decide whether a daily meditation practice really is a “right decision”? We can assume that right decisions must be correlated in some way with success. So is having a daily meditation practice correlated with success? Is getting a job at a high-growth startup correlated with success? Is writing 500 words a day correlated with success?

What we end up finding is that there is a finite (but very large!) sets of categories we can make append with finite (but very large!) “right decision” items. And these subsets can be described as a list of all activities correlated with success. Of course, correlation is not causation. Because of this, we cannot guarantee that these events generate success; however, there is likely an optimal mix of items that maximize chance of success.

Speaking of optimums, this is how the first part of that sentence, “work hard”, can be defined as. Once again, let’s break it down; let’s focus on, say, running. Now, we can say some level of running is good for you, given our current information. Because of this, it would be considered a “right decision” item. There’s one issue with this, however: run too hard, and you’ll end up straining and injuring your legs. On the other hand, run too little and you won’t get the long-term gains that make it a “right decision” in the first place. Based on this, there must be some optimal point in which you can milk a right decision for the maximum amount.

So, at this point you’re probably wondering what the hell I’m trying to get at with all of this. Well, the point is that there is a specified, probabilistically optimized path to success that occurs in nature, but this path is obscured by the “fog of war”, which is our knowledge (and lackthereof) of what items correlate and optimize for success. Put another way: if you go about your day taking life as it comes, you might have a (for sake of example) 30% chance of success. However, if you a) find the “right decisions”, and b) optimize the “right decisions”, your chance of success shoots up. In fact, if you’re really good, you may very well be able to have a chance of success well above 90%!

Of course, now we hit another elephant in the room: what is success? We’ve defined how to get success, but we haven’t defined success itself. Is success the ability to hit your goals? That would make sense; we could say that 90% chance of success is exactly the same as 90% chance of achieving goal A. But, at the same time, isn’t goal-setting a “right decision” item? How can having goals be both a right decision and the thing which success effects in itself?

Well, it could be that goal-setting is simply removing the fog of war from the goals we have. This means that we all have goals that inherently exist, we just might not know how to adequately describe them in terms that would allow us to develop a path towards them. This is pretty believable, and it’s the thesis I personally follow; everyone has something they’re passionate about, or some vague interpretation of what they’d like to become, and that vague interpretation really serves as the true goal covered in the fog of war.

So, to sum all this up: we can translate the phrase “If you work hard and make the right decisions, you will succeed” by splitting it into three subphrases. Firstly, “make the right decisions” refers to the set of decisions that are correlated with success. Secondly, “work hard” refers to the optimal amount of work to obtain the highest probability of success from a right decision. Thirdly, success can be defined as achieving your personal goals — though you’ll have to figure out what those goals are first. 

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