Chaos as multiplier

The Germans in World War II could handle chaos better than the nations they invaded. And because they could handle it better, it was in their interest to create it.

This insight feeds into productivity, creativity and philosophy. But I’d like to focus on it’s implications in strategy.

There’s this great line from Umberto Eco’s Baudolino: “When anarchy rules, the Poet said, anyone can make himself king.”

In what James Carse calls a finite game—a game where you play to win—you can achieve victory by not being the best pound-for-pound player. All you have to do is be able to function better amongst chaos.

I’ll give you an example. Two people are waiting backstage to give a talk. The first person is a fantastic speaker. He can play the crowd like a violin. He can take them from ectasy to despair in the space of a moment. He’s that good. 

But unless everything on the day is perfect—a good night’s sleep, no travel issues, he completes his pre-talk routine without interruption—he bombs. He gets nervous. He stammers. He abruptly changes tone and jars the audience out of their rapture.

The other person is not that good. She’s above average, but she’s definitely not the orator of the century. But, unlike the first speaker, she doesn’t go to pieces when things go awry. She doesn’t need her setup to be perfect. In fact, the unexpected gives her a radiance. An energy that the audience can feel pulsing off her as she speaks.

Out of the two speakers, who’s going to have a longer, more impactful career?

Think of it like this. Everyone’s ability or skill is given a value. Their tolerance for chaos is a multiplier. Some will find that their ability is cut in half in the presence of chaos. Some will find that volatility makes no difference to their ability to perform. And others will find that disorder and uncertainty will multiply their ability. They’ll get better.

You may be able to recognise which camp you fall into—harmed by, immune to, or enhanced by chaos. If it’s the last, you’re okay. But what to do if you’re in the first group, if you’re severely impacted by it?

Don’t worry. Our responses to uncertainty and the unexpected are learnt. We don’t come out the womb with an appetite for chaos, or an aversion to it. Which means we can rewire our approach. And the only way to do it is through repeated exposure. 

Adversaries, if they’re smart, will try to create chaos for you. You have to beat them to it. Create chaos for yourself, then monitor and analyse your performance. That’s the only way to get better in the presence of chaos. Expose yourself to it repeatedly.