Saints and Traders: The John Henry Fable Reconsidered

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 survivalguardian 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.

  1. Saints define and defend boundaries between sacred and profane. To traders, boundaries are profane and openness is sacred.
  2. Saints believe in the perfectibility of humans, traders in the perfectibility of markets.
  3. Saints play finite games, traders play infinite games, in the sense of Carse.
  4. Saints in their ideal form are cognitive psychologists. Traders in their idealized form are behaviorists.
  5. Saints are highly vulnerable to cognitive biases. Traders are highly vulnerable to sociopathic adventurism.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Perhaps John Henry never expected to win?
    Maybe he just enjoyed the competition?

  2. Did you ever get around to reading “The true believer”? It’s successfully persuaded me that humans are “communitarian by default, individualist by aberration”.

  3. The statement “innovation as a system of survival and preservation as a path to death” is something I’ve been thinking about. With reference to that, what are your thoughts on the “progress trap” as discuss in this (lengthy and uneven) piece?

    • Ankur, that was fantastic. Thanks.

      (I wrote, which was “trying to magic us out of the progress trap” and is quite possibly doomed to fail.)

    • Why do you think the text is uneven?

      After reading the text and also a bit into which is one of Kingsnorth’s targets of criticism I see much coincidence in the analysis but a radical gap in pragmatics. Somehow tries to keep the society constant, while everything else is allowed to change. Kingsnorth goes the opposite way. He responds to the challenge of mass culture by making a deliberate lifestyle decision against it: “Withdrawal” is first of all a decision against mass culture and political population management. His praise for ancient, human scale technologies can be easily dismissed, like all of neo-luddism but for me it contains first of all a design discourse which is not centered around unskilled human labor, equipped with cool machines. For that reason it might resonate quite a bit with the most technologically avid people in the hacker subculture.

      Lots of critical thinking is going on on which is not only targeted against “green tech” ( with quite good arguments ) but also against ecological economics. I don’t think they simply paddle back into neoliberal backwaters. However their pragmatics might still be poor and falls back easily into 20th century style political management i.e. mass culture maintenance. At one point they even celebrate fracking as a “revolution” and just like Kingsnorth argued they might appreciate each and every new technology which hasn’t yet shown its dark side. They still don’t have any skin-in-the-game and maybe this is the shared characteristic of both the traders and the saints.

    • Thanks, hoppered. Gathering reading deficit at incredible rate :)

  4. Venkat, I stumbled 3 weeks ago with ribbonfarm trying to order my thoughts about competition vs collaboration in organizations (specifically searching for Gareth Morgan’s Images, which I had the luck to read 20 years ago as student) and since then I have been enjoying to dive around your thoughts. I wanted to hold off comments to first digest properly your thinking and read other great books you recommend but that’ll take me months and I couldn’t resist the itch about the paragraph containing ‘I wanted to circle compete’.

    You WANTED to circle compete but (maybe your engineering background?) leans you towards prowess and you even apologize about this. Now, I suppose you apologize for not being modern but I wonder if there is an American culture bias going on here also. Because you could match quite well Traders with Anglosaxons and Guardians with continental Europeans (Orwell’s 1984 Oceania and Eurasia respectively…)

    For the record, I am a continental European, unhappy with Saint-3rdStageOfGervais continental European institutions and therefore lurking lately Anglosaxon world as a nomad. That has given me the freedom I yearned for but on the other side, I also feel this inner engineering tension.

    Thing is, I suspect that the tension that bothered me lately on which I wanted to dive, was more about Saints – Traders rather than Collaboration – Competition. And I’m starting to think that we are not talking here about different stages of evolution but about a Ying-Yang thing. I’m thinking about big American (big trader, competitive darwinist nation) successes like the aerospace program, achieved thanks to V2 ex-nazi German engineers. I’m not really that sure that your Darwinist-ChampionsLeague-12-people-Crucible could achieve products like the iPhone, still thinking about it. Who was Steve Jobs, a Saint or a Trader?

    You mention Patton. I think WWII is quite revealing. The Germans, clearly ‘Saints’ trying to play a finite blitzkrieg game, and superior in technology, were crushed by a strategically superior, lower tech, long run, competitive game from both sides, America and Soviet Union. They won by the numbers, especially Soviets, using cheap tanks and planes in big numbers. Moreover, in the later stages of the war they were competing in a race of the sorts of Union – Central Pacific to get to the German technology hubs, both sides benefited in the Cold war from that.

    What I’m trying to say is that I think the trader – competition game keeps you playing (alive) but I’m not sure it leads to a more innovative world easily. You need both players, a nucleus of (Saint ?) engineers wanting to automate things protected by an army of Trader soldiers, to really build big things. The trader – competition game alone creates a lot of inner attrition which in US gets solved with much bigger budgets for projects than, say, continental Europe. But again, maybe that’s only my low-budget continental European engineering view :)
    Final thought: the nomadic, competitive life is good for middle stages of life. But not for children or old people. Not sure I would like to raise children in an Anglosaxon country and certainly I don’t want to retire there unless I arrive to retirement being millionaire. It’s not just the sun that makes a great percentage of Brits to retire in Southern Spain but a better, cheaper, more ethical health system, which are quite important things when your inner machine starts to rust. Compare life expectancy stats in USA and UK vs countries like Spain…

    • Wow, quite a lot of thoughts packed in there. Quite a bit I disagree with there, but it would take quite a long debate to sort it all out, so I’ll let your comment simmer on the backburner and perhaps deal with some of the issues you raise in another post.

      • Well, myself I’ll need LOTS of polishing and reading, my thoughts are way too coarse yet. It’s intuition who’s talking here more than anything, and your post was so good I couldn’t resist to post but not quite ready to debate with you yet oh genius messianic sociopath :-) but in any case disagreement is awesome, it’s what keeps us playing and alive (my trader side talking here)… Like the perennial wars in Orwell’s 1984 (that book is a freaking mine)

  5. Well, Hitler was a psychopath, which is perhaps like a hyper-trader (I don’t mean to pathologise traders generally), but the German war machine, which he did not invent, operated on “Saint” principles. Hitler believed in no rules except for the purposes of controlling others. He had nothing but contempt for anyone Bourgeouis enough to be scandalized by rampant homosexuality in the SA. But when the anarchic SA could no longer serve him well, he decapitated them in the night of the long knives as they would have bid for positions in the regular military, which he knew to be a superior instrument for the next phase of what he had in mind.

  6. The power and longevity of the John Henry story quite obviously comes from its resonance with Marxist class struggle — it’s the fight between labor and capital, with labor achieving a tragic yet heroic victory in this small battle in the larger war.

    Yes, it would have been better for John Henry if he was cagier and put down the hammer and opened up a distributorship for steam drills. But most people don’t have the inclination or resources to do that, and they are the ones who need the myths.

    Machines often serve as a synecdoche for capitalism or oppressive forces in general in song and story. If large forces are tearing up your world, they are the visible manifestations, so make a good target.

    • “Put down the hammer and opened up a distributorship for steam drills…But most people don’t have the inclination or resources to do that” is I think an accurate representation of the Marxist view. It is also I think the sort of false choice that undermined and scuttled Marxism by 1989.

      We don’t necessarily have a better answer within capitalism yet, but the fact that it’s survived for long before and after the heyday of Marxism suggests there is reason to be optimistic there’s better answers within capitalism.

  7. Liked this passage a lot:

    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.

    and it brought to mind this recent tweet.

    Hey the finale of Silicon Valley is (spoiler warning) almost this exact story! Heroic programmer competes to the point of collapse with a Google-like company that is not AI but might as well be.

  8. I wouldn’t get too hung up on this. Folk songs and folk tradition generally is full of people dying in ways that seem, when you think about it, quite senseless. A guy falls in love with a girl; she snubs him, he dies of a broken heart, and then she dies of remorse or realization that he should have been the great love of her life.

    Maybe the power of the John Henry song (for those on whom it exerts any power) comes from the image of a man doing what he was “made to do” and shutting everything else out. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” as Camus said.

  9. BTW, I really don’t like the “saints” terminology. The prototypical guardian is a cop or soldier or something like that, and while we expect them to be less purely self-interested than traders, and adhere to some codes of honor or virtue, “saint” means something quite different, and the dissonance makes these two posts hard for me to process.

    Possibly related, this read weirdly to me (not arguing, it just indicates some conceptual disconnect): “Saints play finite games, traders play infinite games, in the sense of Carse.” It’s more common to view this the other way around, that traders are playing for low, worldly, and hence finite goals (that is, accumulation) while the saints are serving something higher, and hence closer to the godlike infinite. Trade has always been held in disdain by the nobility for something like this reason.

    So maybe “traders” is a bad name too, I think you are trying to indicate something much more subtle and powerful than the word usually implies.

    BTW book recommendation for you: The Jewish Century, by Yuri Slezkine, which parses humanity into “Apollonians” (nobles, settled types, or saints in your terminology) and “Mercutians” (traders, nomads, and borderless types, of which Jews are the prototype).

    • That discomfort is *precisely* what I am trying to trigger here!

      Saint is not a positive term for me. It denotes pretension to virtues above the normal fallible human level. And the flip of finite/infinite is also what I am trying to suggest… I think the claim that higher = godlier = more infinite than thou is precisely the fragility in saintly thinking. What keeps the infinite game going is the low-level apparently “base” stuff that saints turn their noses up at. The grubby business of surviving, doing the dirty work of keeping society going so the saints in their various monasteries and godly-gatekeeper abodes can continue to exist.

  10. Interesting direction, but I still think “saint” is the wrong word for the point you are trying to make. To me, saints are often challengers to the established order. What you mean are nobles, priests, soldiers, aristocrats, wise men of the establishment, I think. People who pretend to virtue, but not to an inhuman holiness.

    Also: “traders believe in the perfectibility of markets”. Do they? Libertarian ideologues believe in that, actual traders are presumably smart enough not to buy that kind of crap. At least I hope they are.

    ” What keeps the infinite game going is the low-level apparently “base” stuff that saints turn their noses up at. ” — you sure you aren’t a Marxist? Because I see a continuity between Christianity’s transvaluation of values, Marx’s proletarian revolution, and the above. The last shall be first.

    Also want to quibble with you about the role of the sacred in both camps. But enough.

    Anyway, I warmly support the project, at some abstract level, of inverting societies values. It needs it. But don’t believe market values can do the job, which is a long and possibly boring discussion. Do not want to start another iteration of standard stupid left/right debate.

    • It’s fun, the extremes touch each other: extreme capitalism means no stablishment, no barriers, everybody needs to show everyday that they are worth their bread. The infinite game. This is my understanding of the trader and that’s a very American capitalist thought. A thought I remark because if they really put it in practice to the extreme, first thing they should do would be to eliminate barriers like work visas. They would see then what it’s happening now anyway at a slow pace controlled by their establishment: an avalanche of developing countries’ workers who lower the price of the workforce. Suddenly your high rate of contractor born in Cincinnati drops because there’s a dude beside you from Bangalore who can do your work at 1/10th of your rate. And when the dude from Bangalore gets too comfortable don’t worry because there’s a fella from Maputo who can lower the rate even more. A fair leveling of the world, because we are all humans and should have the same rights. Rings the bell? Extreme capitalism = Comunism. Creating a perfect and better world through infinite game and competition would lead to an average level and that means necessarily that the first, developed world would suffer and drop their standards, plus the third world would increase theirs making a more leveled planet. All is happening anyway at a slower pace controlled by Guardian structures. All this is fair, but my point before was that in such environment is practically impossible to do certain kind of long term innovation. If ALL the cavemen had to fight EVERY day each other to hunt the best prey, none would have sit down and found that by burning certain rocks you can cast iron.

      • I wouldn’t go to the extremes so easily precisely because of capital. Money as a pain killer also reliefs from the pain to work and being highly engaged in the kind of global actor network created by traders. There is still an aristocracy which maintains the infinite game of capitalism and owns its resources. What is on stake right now is the proletarization and acculturation of the bourgeois and democratic middle class which did grow considerably after WW II. With a loss of profile during its own growth it also failed to maintain the idea that economy is instrumental to them, not they themselves, their education, culture and political life are economies instruments. They also didn’t perceive themselves in terms of survival of the fittest within a Darwinist great narrative but followed a long thread of reflections about the good life, the ideal life style.

        Anyway, the observation that capitalist discourse turns into a Marxist one, emphasizing equality of all man in the face of our new Lord, is both ironic and important. Not sure about idleness as a precondition for innovation but maybe we’ll see if we get our aristocratic amateurs back who then perform fundamental research, fine arts, philosophy and life style experimentation?

        • Hmmm didn’t want to sound as if idleness is a precondition for innovation. A bit of structure and work separation yes; I’ve been working all this years in both types of departments, trader-flat-Darwinist ones where the managers fomented war and competition (tend to overlap with Anglosaxon experiences) and I’ve been in more siloed, structured hierarchical ones (which tend to coincide with continental Europe; but of course you can find both types everywhere) and to be honest I’ve seen better stuff done in the second type (which may seem paradoxical). And maybe it’s just me but the best project I’ve ever done was one in which I was alone, I had time enough to think and explore and I didn’t have to worry to sell my project continuously or compete with other colleagues. No other product I’ve developed anywhere else arrives anywhere near to that one, in quality and novelty. A real pity that was my first business experience and I assumed that everything was going to be like that… In reality everything has gone downhill since then, and also a pity I was young and without commercial acumen to take that bloody product with me and sell it around… Engineers…

  11. Venkat, have You read this piece:

    I would venture to say, that the typologies above are not really at the core of the subject.
    Kruglanski argues quite well, that two thinking “styles”, the “”open””, and the “”closed””-roughly correlated with conservative and liberal or saint and trader – are two extremes of the same continuum. The main topic behind it is the problem of decisionmaking: for how long You collect new information and prepare for action? That is to say, for how long You take on the burden of uncertainity, how long can You tolerate it? If only for a short time, then authority seeking, “high need for cognitive closure” will arise. If for a longer period, then openness will be present.
    Both can kill You. In a fight it is not really optimal to wait for the good decision for too long. You might be dead till then. On the other hand: faced with a certain level of complexity, a quick decision can easily kill You.
    It MAY be about two forms of adaptation. Which can arise from the structure of problems You face, what comes from the level of resources surrounding You. Maybe…
    Which brings up some thoughts about different network topologies in face of different level of resources. See under:

    • Openness is a trait (one of the Big 5). Saint/trader is an archetype pair based on syndromes of traits. I’d be very skeptical about everything in Jacobs’ syndromes being reducible to openness, since openness is part of several different typologies.

  12. Metatone says

    Jacobs typology is either definitional, or broken.

    Fundametally, traders don’t compete in the way she thinks they do – she has a deeply unrealistic view of how market participants actually act and/or succeed…

    So you can take it as a definitional split and work with it, but I think then you need to rename even further away from “trader.”

  13. Your “getting” away, “getting ahead”, “getting along” triad seems to map pretty well onto the “autonomy”, “competence”, and “relatedness” triad of Self-Determination Theory.

  14. It seems to me that your saint vs trader maps very well onto a speed of the dynamic in question. The trader plays a fairly quick dynamic involved in the trading and day to day business. The saint on the other hand plays at the “unchanging” level of values. This seems to also map to the infinite-finite game dichotomy. The infinite game is quickly changing and iterative, while the finite-game is one that has been stable enough to appear fixed for the lifetime of an individual.

    The other thing that strikes me is that the reason for John Henry seeming saintly probably has something to do with his similarity to warriors. A warrior who fights for himself is a dangerous lone wolf, but one fighting for his people is a hero whether he dies or not. Especially when he dies, because there is no risk of him turning into a lone wolf later (the classical hero falling from grace narrative). In contrast, a trader is not playing for a collective, but for himself.

    The modern thing is now that because of innovation, even the slow dynamic is changing too rapidly for the saint strategy to work at the betterment of society. The question is still if the saintly aspects of winning for the betterment of some collective, maybe not society as a whole, is relevant. I would suspect it is, but haven’t thought it through.

    At the same time, it’s interesting that innovation centres like Silicon Valley seem to have a lot of saintly “make the world a better place”-attitude. That seems to be playing on another aspect of saint-ness that you are not exploring: A saint is someone who changes something that was very hard to change (a slow dynamic), and afterwards people think it was a change for the better. This aspect of sainthood might still be useful even with rapid technological changes.

  15. A few years back I wrote an essay on John Henry here: My take on the fable, in Venkat’s terms, is that John Henry is actually playing an infinite game: his victory is in his ability to define himself on his own terms (as a steel-driving man), regardless of whether he wins or loses the finite game of digging through a particular mountain — or even the finite game of living and dying. By defying the steam drill, he asserted his power of self-definition.

    Remember that before John Henry was a steel-driving man, he was a slave; and as a slave he had no say in his own identity. He was whoever his master told him to be. But as a free agent in a free society, he could choose his self-identity, and change that identity when he so chose. Being willing and able to redefine oneself is a necessary condition to playing an infinite game.

    Of course John Henry lost in the sense that his choices led to physical death, and thus to the end of the game of physical living and dying. But John Henry was a spiritual man, as the song and fable make clear, and he wasn’t really playing that game. He knew, beyond a shadow of any doubt, that he’d be going to heaven, and he wanted to go to heaven as a steel-driving man. Physical death was the price he was willing to pay in order to continue playing the infinite game on his terms.

    Consider the alternatives. He could have lay down his hammer and said, all right Rich White Fathers, who do you want me to be now? This would cede self-determination to others, and he’d lose the infinite game. Or he could have picked up some other trade entirely, although options were extremely limited for him. Regardless of what he chose, it would mean, in a very real sense, the death of John Henry, the steel-driving man. He chose physical death, and reaffirmed his power to choose his own identity.

    The point, in other words, is not hold fast to your identity no matter what. The point is you are the one who decides who you are. It’s the choice is yours, not don’t change your mind.

    Of course, the fable could be interpreted in different ways, and its ambiguity is part of what gives it longevity. But I tend to think the lyrics of the song, and the way the tale is traditionally told, celebrates John Henry’s choice to be a steel-driving man, not his fortitude or stubbornness.

    • Thanks for posting the alternative perspective. I think this is the heart of the difference in our readings.

      “But as a free agent in a free society, he could choose his self-identity, and change that identity when he so chose. ”

      My point is that whether or not there are oppressive slavers in the picture, you don’t get to choose your identity independently of changes in the environment. Not all of which can be attributed to forces of oppression. Here, sure there were railroad capitalists. But there was also the discovery and development of steam power which… ultimately has led to our being able to exchange views on the Internet, among other things.

      Serenity prayer applies: wisdom to tell the difference between things you can change and cannot. Adaptation seems to me the smart course in the latter case. I for one, would rather be alive than go down with obsolete values. Of course, if you are religious, you have a way of thinking of death as not being the end in the infinite game.

    • Mike Cotton says

      You should read Finite and Infinite Games. Your post suggests that you have some misunderstandings of the two terms. To choose one, an infinite player (John Henry, in your example) can’t “lose” an infinite game; an infinite game is only lost if the play is brought to an end, and if that happens, all the players lose together.

      This is not to pick on you; many commenters seem to be using other-than-Carseian definitions of the two types of games and their players, and as a result, a lot of smart, thoughtful people are talking past each other.


  16. This article is very interesting, which, to me, means it got me thinking. The list this article is based on is riddled with false dichotomies. Venkat, you seem aware of this in some of your comments, but you also see this in a very different framework than I do, which leads me to suspect there are even more problems with this list.

    I score higher on the Commerce side than you do, and I have spent much of my life in commerce, but I only compete (successfully) with a collaborative strategy.

    I know the Patton quote. He was a very right wing “Saint” kind of guy, but practical in his craft.

    Bankers are not traders, they are more like casino owners who only go to work in the morning because they know the house always wins. That makes them saints, too.

    The people that match “traders” in the list the best are flea market vendors and academics. Also, that list does a pretty good job of describing Democrats.

  17. On the John Henry story; working class people know the system could destroy them at any time, and they can’t fight back directly, so they are sometimes willing to take a big loss for the chance to “stick it to the man”. This kind of defiance is remembered and celebrated in the community.

    It would take a while to explain how I am so sure of this.

  18. I hadn’t read all of the comments on the John Henry story before I posted the comment above, so I want to clarify that from my point of view John Henry was acting as a spokesperson for his community, not as a defeated and dysfunctional steel driving man.

  19. I took a break, but I was stuck trying to figure out why I was so unsatisfied, and I realized I had the answer in my second post about John Henry. The lists assume that people act primarily on their own, expressing their own personality and abilities. That is not even remotely true. People are more willing act or even to die for their communities than they are for personal beliefs. Each of us wants to be with other people. We are not very good at being hermits.

    Even though communities are not all alike, there are some striking differences in how they form, and the benefits they provide members.

    Saints form communities based on fear. They are circling the wagons to defend themselves from a hostile world. This describes the rank and file Republican “base”.

    Traders form communities to achieve goals that are beyond an individual’s capabilities. This describes the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the anti war movement, and liberals in general.

    Of course real communities can display a mix of these characters. Still, it is my feeling that you can tell more about a person based on the community they belong to than you can tell by giving them a personality inventory. Again, there is variability, a person can be in the “wrong” community due to family ties or economics.