I only recently learned (from Sarah Constantin, whose new blog is worth checking out) of the American folk legend of John Henry, a steel driver who raced against a steam drill and won, only to drop dead right after. Wikipedia tells the story thusly:
He worked as a “steel-driver”—a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock away. He died during the construction of a tunnel for a railroad. In the legend, John Henry’s prowess as a steel-driver was measured in a race against a steam powered hammer, which he won, only to die in victory with his hammer in his hand and heart giving out from stress. The story of John Henry has been the subject of numerous songs, stories, plays, books and novels.
The amazing thing about John Henry is not that he chose to race against a machine. The amazing thing is not even that he won a Pyrrhic victory. The truly amazing thing is that he was turned into a folk hero rather than a cautionary tale, and a symbol of human dignity when in fact his behavior was what you might call morally robotic: based on non-negotiable values that killed him.
The key word above is prowess. It’s a rather archaic word, one I’ve never heard used in conversation, but a useful one. It has connotations of both skill and valor, bundled together in a notion of dignity. On a level playing field with a closed and bounded set of fixed rules, prowess could also be considered synonymous with competitive drive.
Unfortunately, a human racing against a steam drill is not exactly a level playing field and the economic activity of building profitable railroads is not exactly a cleanly circumscribed Olympic competitive sport. Asymmetric and open-ended conditions separate prowess from competitive ability and turn it into a liability. A large fraction of the labor force today is in a John Henry situation within protectionist sectors of the economy, so it is important to knock down this particular idol with some unsentimental revisionism.
What, besides sheer stupidity, would make somebody enter a completely asymmetric situation with a severe handicap, and then proceed to compete sincerely? I don’t think John Henry (if the character was real) was stupid. He merely had his identity completely wrapped up in his prowess as a steel driver. If he couldn’t be a steel driver, a model of steel-driverly virtues, death was preferable. And he got exactly what he wanted.
To be John Henry is to prefer to perish with dignity in a final dazzling display of redemptive prowess than survive as a fumbling beginner thrown into a new world with no prowess and therefore no identity.
Systems of Survival
The word prowess in the John Henry story reminded me of another idea I encountered recently, thanks to reader Bill Seitz, who turned me on to Jane Jacobs’ very interesting model of two kind of value systems underlying two systems of survival: guardian and commerce syndromes.
As a fun personality test, try counting your relative guardian versus commerce personality scores by forcing yourself to choose from one of two columns for each value (even if both or neither seem to fit perfectly).
I scored 11:4 commerce over guardian, with only 3 bits flipped as I’ve grown older (from guardian to commerce on the show fortitude and be exclusive rows, and in the other direction on the be loyal row). If you’re more guardian than commerce, you might be a John Henry, and you should probably save more than you currently are for retirement.
Looking at the rest of the rows, I’ve been surprisingly stable in my traits, going back as far as I can remember. Here’s my full chart. Some of my choices surprised me quite a bit. You can make one like this for yourself:
Of course, what made me pause and reflect was the fact that even though I wanted to circle compete, in all honesty I could only circle prowess. I am not yet good enough at competing to self-classify on the right on that row. My identity is more tied to things I am good at than I like to admit.
In my defense, as a friend pointed out, I choose prowess ironically, which redeems me a bit.
It’s hard to admit that your identity is built around what you’re good at. To be a competitor, you must be willing and able to constantly give up on old dimensions of prowess and develop new ones. You’re constantly a beginner in one way or another.
But to compete is more than comfort with constant beginner-hood.
Mere ability to quickly learn new things just makes you a different kind of John Henry, one in a sort of frenzied learning-to-learn race of the sort Tom Friedman wants all kids to get into. One can imagine a naive meta-story set in 2114, featuring John Henry the world’s best programmer, who can learn new technologies as fast as humanly possible, and Googlezon Drill: an AI that can learn any new programming technology rapidly by incorporating everything humans have learned.
So going meta is not the answer. Learning-to-learn is still prowess thinking.
To exhibit prowess is to play to win once and for all and retire in glory. And only by a static notion of “honorable means.” To truly compete is to play to stay in the game, and preferably never retire, in glory or otherwise, until you die. By any means necessary.
It’s the difference between finite and infinite game orientations.
Saints and Traders
I haven’t read Jacobs’ book yet, and I don’t know where she goes with this dichotomy, but I’ve taken to calling people who live by the Guardian syndrome saints and people who live by the Commerce syndrome traders. I introduced those terms in my last post.
I’ll state without argument, the following understanding of the distinction (many aspects of which I’ve written about in the past) and leave it to you as an exercise to figure out the underlying reasoning.
- Saints define and defend boundaries between sacred and profane. To traders, boundaries are profane and openness is sacred.
- Saints believe in the perfectibility of humans, traders in the perfectibility of markets.
- Saints play finite games, traders play infinite games, in the sense of Carse.
- Saints in their ideal form are cognitive psychologists. Traders in their idealized form are behaviorists.
- Saints are highly vulnerable to cognitive biases. Traders are highly vulnerable to sociopathic adventurism.
- Saints are civilized with fundamentally settler sensibilities whether or not they stay put in one place. Traders are barbarians with fundamentally nomadic sensibilities whether or not they physically wander.
- Saints try to build perfectly virtuous organizations and communities in their own image, seen inside out. Traders try to build perfectly predictable incentive structures that reflect an outside-in understanding of themselves.
- Saints work towards incorruptible, impregnable conditions of virtuous stasis: honorably attained heavenly utopias. Traders work towards the maximal rate of change that behavioral adaptation allows.
- Saints insist that their prowess comes with immunity from moral hazard and principal-agent conflicts and are deeply offended when not taken at their own estimation. Traders prefer to trust, but verify and are deeply surprised when taken at their own estimation.
- Saints value relationships based on others spiritually recognizing them. Traders don’t care to be understood and don’t set much store by self-reported understandings divorced from behavioral data.
We could go on, but this is enough of a compare-and-contrast to make the distinction clear.
Be careful not to jump to conclusions though. While by default you could say that the military (for instance) is a saint profession and banking a trader profession, those can be turned around. Patton’s famous line, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country” is a very traderly sentiment. Uberreaction, which is typically seen in businesses that have gotten too comfortable is a saintly kind of hypocrisy.
You could restate the lesson the John Henry fable in Patton’s terms as follows: “No bastard ever won a real competition by dying in a grand display of his prowess. You won it by making the other poor bastard die in a grand display of his prowess.”
The guardian syndrome maps to Rousseau’s model of man in the state of nature (communitarian by default, individualist by aberration), while the commerce syndrome maps to the Hobbes model (individualist by default, communitarian by contract). Saints are all about getting ahead and getting along within communities defined by closed and defended boundaries. Traders are all about getting away and exploring beyond boundaries. Saints versus traders is dog people versus cat people.
In hindsight, this is a much clearer understanding of a diagram I made a while back in this post.
The top cluster is the trader lifestyle and is based on the commerce syndrome. The bottom cluster is the saint lifestyle and is based on the guardian syndrome. The top cluster is the infinite game. The bottom cluster is the finite game.
I really need to update this thing and give it more gravitas. I think I used it too flippantly in a relatively superficial post.
Historically and biologically, it seems fairly clear that Rousseau was right about where we came from. Humans are communitarian by default, individualist by aberration. Individual curiosity and solitary exploration was a good recipe for getting yourself killed until fairly recently (like a millennium ago). Innovation was death, preservation was life.
Which is why every modern socioeconomic conflict tends to be between guardians of the old order and traders of the new order. We are fundamentally not wired to think of innovation as a system of survival and preservation as a path to death. But that in fact is the modern human condition. We aren’t in the paleolithic era anymore. Except ironically.