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The men who fooled history: look at the END GAME, skip the hype

The last book I'm reviewing paints Cleopatra as a genius politician.

And it hit me how some (wo)men are over-represented in history books for some feats they achieved... While failing to deliver long-lasting, meaningful impact.

To me, this is looking at the noise, at the smoke and mirrors, rather than the actual results.

Some examples:

  • Napoleon

A military genius...

... For winning battles, that ultimately set him up to lose the war.

When you look at it from a broader perspective, all he did was starting wars and campaigns, then fighting -and losing- for his life against allied enemies that outnumbered, out-lasted, and out-performed him.

Look at the end game:

Napoleone ended his life in exile, powerless and alone.

In terms of what he achieved, he wrought devastation and led his country and people to ultimate defeat.

Despite the military genius, that genius was largely misused.
I don't see much genius in that end game.

Compare it to its biggest enemy, the English empire, which masterfully championed and formed the colation against Napoleon, beat him twice, decided powerless Napoleon's fate, outlasted him, and out-performed him throughout Europe and the world.

To me, the real power is in the opponents that out-lasted him and decided his fate, not with Napoleon.

  • Cleopatra

A Machiavellian politician, astute player, and a world-level seductress.

Yet, what did she ultimately achieve?

The Roman empire decided her fate like she was a puppet on a string.

For all her seductive genius, she died alone and, literally, suicidal to avoid capture and public shame.

With Cleopatra's death, Egypt as a sovereign empire ceased to exist, and became a Roman province.

If it's true that leaders must be judged by what they leave behind... Cleopatra had the dubious merit of capping millennia of history with a foreign-power tutelage.

  • Hannibal

The Napoleon of the old world.

Hannibal was probably an even bigger military genius than Napoleon.

He scored astounding victories deep within enemies' lines in an era when logistics posed big challenges -he even crossed the Alps with elephants :S-.

Yet, let's look again at the end game:

Hannibal stopped before Rome, right when he might have had the change of inflicting the winning shot.

He kept hanging around on the Italian peninsula, scoring some more astounding battles wins... Which, you might have guessed, still led nowhere.

Hannibal finally had to leave Italy, Rome intact, to defend his motherland.
Enter, Scipio.

Scipio is the far less famous Roman general.
He was also a military genius. He also went deep into Carthage's territory, Hannibal's "headquarters".
And guess who won the final war?

Yep, you got it.

Contrary to Hannibal, Scipio's exploits were long-lasting.
Scipio won the battles and the war.
He didn't mysteriously stop when it mattered most. He did conquer Carthage, and turned out to be an exemplary, high-quality man as well. He achieved his military objective, and was magnanimous in victory -it wasn't his plan to destroy Carthage-.

He went back to Rome, refused all the fanfare, refused the big-name titles, and ultimately withdrew to private life.

Scipio was the emblem of the humble total winner, the embodiment "veni, vidi, vici".

And he ensured the hegemony of the Roman empire and, in good part, ensured the foundations of the Western civilization.


In good part, it's the hype that fogs people's brains to the actual results.

Sometimes the hype happens people actively seek personal glory, rather than effectiveness.

For example: did Napoleon really believe he could conquer the whole world alone?
But possibly he wasn't thinking too straight, because all he cared about was personal glory.

Today, some examples would be Jose' Mourino as a football coach, or McGregor as a fighter.
Both stellar performers, but in both cases the hype far outstrips their actual performance.

People's minds also easily fall prey for the hype, and when the hype is big enough, most people lost track of what really matters: the end game.

But if you want to learn what actually works to maximize your effectiveness, train yourself to look at the end game.

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Matthew WhitewoodStefselffriend
Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

This is very interesting.
Thanks a lot for sharing Lucio.

I think that achieving this mindset is very challenging.
Because, on the way to the end game, we look for external validation to see if we are on the right path.
And we should look externally to see if we are on the right path.
The problem comes when we are also unsure what the end game actually looks like and what are the intermediate milestones that you look like on the way there.

This is where we may overly depend on shortcuts like short-term, external metrics:

  • Being the best in your field (Beating the competition)
  • How much you are earning
  • Prestige, recognition and status

Naturally, it's also easier to build our self-esteem and ego on quite a lot of these external metrics.

I think this is what happened to Tiger Woods.
He reached the top and sort of took his eyes off the end game.
Maybe he could have found some brilliant new ways of advancing the game of golf.
I'm not well-informed or have done much research on Tiger Woods.
So maybe someone has better insight into his life.

Focusing More on the End Game

This is what I have thought about in the context of entrepreneurship viewed from a product management perspective.
Also, feel free to point out to me if the product management doesn't resonate with you.
I may be hinging too much on this to draw analogies.

People tend to focus on the short-term and think about the long-term.
However, not much is placed upon the priorities, direction and intermediate milestones on the way to this long-term.
As a result, people get distracted.
As Lucio mentions, this happens with lots of people: great leaders, companies, etc.

Depending too much on metrics also indicates a lack of strategy.
You don't really know how to move forward so you do things to work on metrics in hope of moving forward.
Often there isn't a hard & fast quantitative way of moving things forward in the best manner.

Metrics are important.
But they are important because you set them up to track the progress of something underlying.
The problem comes when people shift their focus from progressing what's underlying these metrics to just the metrics alone.

Peter Thiel's Thoughts on Competition

This draws me back to something I read a while ago.
I was reading about Peter Thiel's thoughts on the competition.
It is good to keep an eye on the competition.
But too much focus on competition takes your focus away from the end game as well.

The article mentioned

Thiel, who is now 49, says he has become much more mindful of his tendency to become obsessed with winning.

“I’ve become, I think, much more self-aware over the years about the problematic nature of a lot of competition,” Thiel says.

To keep himself from falling back into old habits, Thiel asks himself one question every day: “How do I become less competitive in order that I can become more successful?”

Being hyper-competitive in a way stems from building your self-esteem upon being better than others.
I think feeling a need to compete is a higher level of manifestation in response to the judge role.
Competition suggests there is some sort of artificial, social hierarchy that a group of people agrees upon.
I think what I'm saying is similar to what Lucio mentions about ponds.

Not saying it's not real when I say artificial.
It is very real if you want access to resources in that hierarchy.

For example, the sports businesses are very smart in setting up competitions and introducing artificial rankings.
They get people to feel good about being placed high in the hierarchy.

I think that the corporate ladder in a way is another manifestation of this.
It does depend on the business and industry.
In finance and legal industries, they get the junior employees to be hyper-competitive with the promise of reaching the higher positions.

As Peter Thiel mentions, the problem is that being too competitive makes you too narrowly focused on sharpening skills that allow you to climb higher in this hierarchy.
We only have so much time and attention within a day to give to anything.
As such, this may cloud your personal effectiveness in being creative and focusing on new ways of producing value.

There is a risk in finding new ways of producing value.
Although I think that it may actually be less risky than the competitive routes.
It has the potential of being more collaborative as well as you are not competing within an established hierarchy.

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Lucio Buffalmano

I think we also may need to consider if the person analysed lost the end game cause of some personal vice/defect/mistake or just because since the beggining he was dealing with almost insurmountable odds against him as a result of random chance.

I am pretty sure some of this famous people are more charismatic precisely thanks to  their flaws and the great failures, it makes them more relatable to the general public, I mean, the life of a Napoleon is probably pretty removed from most people daily experiences, but at least he was not a "perfect succes till the end" that would make him less of a "tragic hero" with byronic flaws in the mind of his supporters, and more of a marble statue.

For example, did Cleopatra lose cause she did not pay enough attention to the end game, or just because she was an Egyptian and not a Roman Princess?

what could have she done better in her less advantageous position vis a vis the mighty roman empire to secure an everlasting legacy?

I have not read enough of her tale to know the causes of her ultimate failure.

what do you think guys?

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Lucio Buffalmanoselffriend
Quote from Stef on April 15, 2021, 11:01 pm

I think we also may need to consider if the person analysed lost the end game cause of some personal vice/defect/mistake or just because since the beggining he was dealing with almost insurmountable odds against him as a result of random chance.


For example, did Cleopatra lose cause she did not pay enough attention to the end game, or just because she was an Egyptian and not a Roman Princess?

what could have she done better in her less advantageous position vis a vis the mighty roman empire to secure an everlasting legacy?

I have not read enough of her tale to know the causes of her ultimate failure.

what do you think guys?

Yes, this is great point, Stef.

Indeed, if one ultimately lost because the odds were stacked against him, but he gave it a good shot nonetheless, much honor to him.

Hannibal actually might fall in that category -albeit stopping short of attacking Rome when he had the chance was probably still a major strategic mistake, even considering the chances he might have lost the siege-.

We might correct the initial thesis with your correct observation to make it more accurate:

  • To assess the "false heroes", one should look at how and why an end game was lost.

And to go back to the original thesis: that's the crucial question that often gets obscured by the psychologically seductive allure of the meteoric rise -and tragic fall-.

HOW IS THIS PRACTICAL? Strategic Thinking

This might all seem rather theoretical, but I believe that's not the case.

Assessing what "real", long-lasting success really is an important part of critical and strategic thinking.

And it also helps people to choose good role models rather than learning from the crashes and burns.

Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

“My glory is not that I won forty battles and dictated the law to kings… Waterloo wipes out the memory of all my victories… But what will be wiped out by nothing and will live forever is my Civil Code.”

Napoleon did deliver long-lasting, meaningful impacts to the world.

  1. The Civil Code influenced not only more than twenty countries back to 19th, but also influenced today's legal structure. Almost all legal students nowadays still study it.
  2. The ideology of free market and relevant policies are still partly adopted in major countries in 2021.
  3. The ideology of nationalism and the nationalistic reform of land army is still adopted in most of the major countries in 2021.
  4. He reformed fiscal policy and established the central bank
  5. His government unified the monetary unit and established the national currency.
  6. Because of 2,4,5, Napoleonic war, and many other measurements and events initiated by Napoleon, France and continental Europe started their industrialization and moved toward the ideology of capitalism, which is still the mainstream ideology in 2021.
  7. The ideology of (imperial) Bonapartism influenced France and Europe for another century.

Well, I understand that popular media focused on Napoleon's military achievement, so it is of course not your fault ignoring his long-lasting impact. Here, popular media focused on military legends because they are exciting and therefore traffic generating. This is why I primarily consume original contents with at least some rigidity, rather than popular media including popular books (here I am not implying that popular books are inferior or the book you are reviewing are popular book).

Cleopatra did well enough.

  1. Being a long ruling queen is already not easy.
  2. Being a long ruling queen while fighting against one of the greatest empire in human history is an impossible task. Note that population of Egypt was about 4-8M; population of Roman Empire was about 40-180M. Yet, she almost made the impossible possible.

By beating other contenders of the throne and coming to the power, an average ruler already has higher PI than average civilian. Long-ruling rulers should have even higher PI than an average ruler. Cleopatra stayed in power for more than twenty years, ruling an empire of about four millions. Before depressing the achievements of Cleopatra or Napoleon down to "smoke" and "noise", we need to ask ourselves: have we ruled four hundreds people for two years?

I think, the answer is "no", at least for me. Well, someone else here could have led thousands or millions of people. If that person exists, I am more than happy to learn how does he think about those historical figures.

I think those tragic heroes are not overestimated, but are definitely over-advertised and over-popularized by the media and the capital behind. This is because tragic heroes generate a lot of traffic and traffic is profit.

Traffic is generated because:

  1. Emotional roller coaster effect: from the hell to the heaven to the hell
  2. Tragic heroes are more relatable as life is hard for us
  3. Tragic heroes are more debatable. For example, a lot of people will think that they are not successful because their endgames are not pleasant.
  4. Tragic heroes usually fail because they are fighting against a strong opponent. This makes us sympathetic.

Just my personal opinions.