An Idea That Didn’t Come Easily

It is not an exaggeration to say that I spent a large chunk of my life working towards what I am writing in this article. I knew there was something here, and I was searching for specifics, but those specifics – and words useful for describing them – were very elusive. Finally, I have found a proper mental frame for this.

In political thought, there are basically, when you boil everything down, two theories.

Theory #1 is that the human mind is a battlefield to be conquered and taken over. You break a person’s “prejudices” down (another word might be “culture”) and instill a wholly new set of values that reflect the will of the conqueror. I first wrote about this idea here, but the basic notion is at the core of all Western argument and debate.

Radicals tend to apply this concept to government and society as well. Although much of radicalism surrounds obtaining control over money, in fact, it is really the other way around: it is about obtaining money to gain control. Control is the heart of this theory: control over thought, control over behavior, control over circumstances. Exercising this control is the radical’s proof to himself, and other radicals, that he has won. Therefore, there is a constant search for control and a constant effort to display this control, even – or especially – over the most petty of issues.

Theory #2 is what I would call the stereotypical oriental ideal of agreement through mutual understanding: two wholly formed, adult sides discussing an issue for as long as it takes, without putting any pressure on each other whatsoever. This approach is not tried in the West because it never results in anything substantive. It is only tolerated in the East because “resulting in anything” is culturally besides the point. This is great at maintaining harmony between people who are on the same side, broadly speaking. It is really bad at resolving genuine differences.

So, I realized that neither of these theories suffice for the behavior I was trying to quantify. It is not about conquest, nor about talking each other to death.

Rather, it is about stretching.

Redefining Comfort Zones

We all enter situations with our own personal comfort zones. We have our own well developed ideas of the self, of what we can do and what we are willing to do.

Stretching the human psyche means taking a person out of that comfort zone, but without going beyond a person’s breaking point.

Yes, you can do this. The human mind can be stretched. If it could not, no labor contract would ever be signed. Until forced by deadlines and the credible threat of losing negotiated gains, no union wants to sign a deal; doing so, even for something that seems reasonable, will only convince people that either management is weak and could have been squeezed for more, or management is diabolical and has pulled the wool over the negotiators’ eyes. Whether management is mastermind or dunce, the union side believes that nothing is to be lost, and everything is to be gained, by intransigence. That is, until the proverbial or literal eleventh hour.

Contracts are signed because people redefine what they are willing to do when faced with an adverse circumstance.

However, people have a breaking point. Further, this breaking point is relative.


The Physical Characteristics of the Mind

Imagine an elastic band.

If you slowly pull on opposing sides of the band, the band will stretch a great deal.

If you violently tug on the band, the band will either reach a point beyond the capability of your hand strength to expand, or will snap without warning.

That is what “breaking” people is like. It works on some people; some people can be broken down and remade with rhetorical violence. Those upon whom it does not work will dig in their heels and resist you with all their might.

That is why real leadership is not about control. It is about influence.


Influence Peddling

Once upon a time, there were reasonably well functioning monarchies on the face of the Earth. These tended to decline greatly when the main raison d’etre of monarchy – leading the nation in war – became a quaint relic in the middle of the modern era. Nonetheless, monarchies were not established on a pure merit system, even in the days of Charlemagne or Henry V; ruling was not about your ability to physically crush all your immediate opposition.

Nor, however, was it about control. Control in a feudal monarchy was… impractical, and moreover, politically toxic. Proud peoples directly descended from what the Romans would have called barbarians, and perhaps at that time, not incorrectly, were filled with the sword and shield era’s equivalent of American advocates of the right to bear arms. Having conquered less warlike peoples, those who became “nobility” by virtue of their ancestors’ deeds clung to their arms, their rights, and their freedoms. Of course, this also went hand in hand with land, the financial security land provided (even in the cash-less or low-cash Dark Ages), and technological advantage (which in that day meant the cavalry warhorse).

No, it was not about control. It was about influence.

Kings found influence to be a far more reliable basis for running things. Knowing that they couldn’t control everything even if they tried, they didn’t try; rather, they established courts to take care of the really big and egregious problems and left local affairs to local rulers. After all, these same local rulers provided troops to the crown. Treating them like children would not work.

Having said this, successful kings had firm control over that which was theirs exclusively. Failure to keep your own house in order cost you influence fast.

But how does one influence a nation one does not directly control?

Rather than compete with every knight in the realm, kings addressed what their subjects could not. A lone knight might be better at swinging a sword or riding a horse, but he cannot build a cathedral. A baron might be able to build a small castle, but he cannot build and maintain a highway. A merchant might be able to establish a small fleet, but he cannot sustain a national navy, even a small one.

More importantly, the pageantry surrounding kings was a core part of the system. The idea was simple: stretch the existence of the monarchy beyond what others know in their daily lives, even the ranks of the nobility. That is, don’t be in a different dimension completely, but do establish yourself as something higher and apart.

You can’t just concede everything and expect to be respected. French kings who made themselves look like knights and act the part once every thirty years, only to lose spectacularly in actual battle, made a real hash of the Hundred Years War until things were quite desperate, but they were doing this during the decline in the battlefield role of the horseman. A king trying too hard to live up to the ideal of a knight has it backwards; the king needs to be a good king first, and let other people worry about being good knights. Anything else is just showing your own lack of confidence.


With The People, But Not Of Them

A businessman who will remain nameless for purposes of this article is known to me.

This businessman has fairly good relationships with his employees, and has a tendency to work them rather hard in the context of a thriving construction based business. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement for the well compensated employees and, of course, for the businessman owning the enterprise.

This man has been invited to the homes of his employees for dinner, and he has, on occasion, accepted such invitations, treating the homes of his employees with respect. However, there are two very important caveats.

First, he never shows any favor for anything like that. No one is buying him off with a dinner.

Second, he never goes drinking with his employees. He could, he is free to, but he does not.

He is their boss. He is not their drinking buddy. He can be friendly with them, he can eat at the same table without reservation, but the lines are never blurred. Authority is kept black and white so that no one expects favor for social relationships – because no one is going to get any with him, so they’d better not get that idea.

Thus, he is able to interact with his employees in a no-nonsense, personable way, but he is never mistaken for “one of the guys.” If he was, that would be the funeral for his influence. No matter what his levers of control might be, only brute financial force would be useful for maintaining any order in his business.

Instead, he keeps it clean, people know where he stands, and they respect that.

Now, I’ve seen a film where a Roman Consul drinks with the men and even engages in fistfights with them, but that’s not really how it’s done, and it’s not because consuls were stuck-up pricks (though I imagine a lot were). It’s because they can’t have people thinking they are the same as others. The leader must be different.

It doesn’t take much, and a leader who stays close to the men is often much appreciated for it, but there is a line that must not be crossed, or contempt will be the result.


Applying These Lessons

Maybe it doesn’t seem like a big thing, but when you see how mental conquest is the foundation of enormous quantities of social and political activity in modern times, maybe it becomes more obvious how the limitations of breaking into someone’s mental house and beating him up are big factors in judging where to show restraint.

But, a lot of people see “judicious restraint” as nothing but pure weakness. Sure: if you see the world as all control and no influence, any let-up in control is weakness.

It’s just not so, that’s all.

Even considering the oriental philosophy bit, real business is done by making the other party stretch its psyche without breaking it.

That is, it may be outside what we call “the comfort zone,” but the person or group is still comfortable enough to do business.

This is the sweet spot of life.

This is where you attract customers but don’t scare them off. This is where you invite people in your life without wearing your heart on your sleeve. This is where you bring people to your side without crowding them. This is where you use a crisp, clean logo rather than one that beats the customer over the head.

What makes it more complicated is that people are different and have different properties. Some respond well to extremes; others shy away from them. Some people like roller coasters; others would be terrified to ride them (in a bad way).

Yet the principle is the same.

Once you understand the principle, the rest is just fine tuning for specific circumstances.

blue rose


The destination of all this thought is the idea of elegance.

Elegance means ramping back on the control freak business without simply bringing things to an end. Where control ends, art begins.

Art that acts as a vehicle, gently carrying a person’s mind forward, is something that influences without appearing to command a particular outcome. It is the carrot, not the stick.

The stick still exists. The stick is out of the way, out of sight and out of mind. It never comes out unless it has to.

The carrot is relied upon. The carrot is made interesting and attractive. The carrot is made the centerpiece of existence, but subtly and without force.

This is the art of elegance.

By employing elegance, the human psyche is gently stretched in the direction the artist desires. The other party is permitted to enjoy that which fills the gap between control and pure nothingness. The other party is empowered to discover what has been laid along the path.

There is nothing crude about this. Yet by the same token, there is nothing weak about this.

Crudeness is not strength; it is fear of weakness.

Elegance, on the other hand, is proof of confidence; and thus, strength.

These are my observations of the world around us, the people in the world, and life. – J