A conversation about the book
The following is a transcript of a conversation between my publisher and me:
The focus of your book is on success and failure. Why do you say that they’re often impostors? And how can we tell what true success is?
I borrowed the word “impostors” from a poem by Rudyard Kipling. I mean simply that life teaches us – Hannibal’s life, my life, your life, anybody’s life – that whatever at first seems like failure or success does not necessarily turn out that way. It’s what success or failure makes you become that matters. If your success takes your imagination and creativity captive like a prisoner – and it has a strange way of doing that, as I describe by looking at Hannibal and Einstein, for instance – then it is really disaster. If your failure liberates you from staying on the wrong path – as it did for Hannibal’s enemy Scipio, for Steve Jobs or for Eleanor Roosevelt – then it is really a blessing. But you have to see it as such, of course. You have see through the impostors.
Who was Hannibal, and what led you to write a book about him?
Hannibal was perhaps the greatest military genius in all of history. He was an ambitious young aristocrat and later the commander-in-chief of Carthage, which used to be the superpower of the ancient Mediterranean world. His life dream, which he inherited from his father, was to defeat Rome, and he went about that with an adventure that made him famous: crossing the Alps with elephants in the winter, then crushing the Roman armies every time he met them.
But what fascinated me about him was a mystery or paradox hiding in his story: Why, if he was practically invincible, do we speak Latinate languages, not Punic? Why do we have Roman columns everywhere not Carthaginian ones? Clearly, Rome won, not Carthage. So Hannibal must have confused tactics with strategy at some point, and in an epic, tragic way. His successes must have been impostors, and must have lessons to teach us.
It helped that, unlike Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar – the two other “greats” of ancient history – Hannibal lived a full life into old age. In the completeness of his life – ups and downs, mid-life crisis and all that — I recognized him to be modern, to be like us, and therefore to have recognizable lessons for us. I’m also fascinated by Caesar or Alexander, of course, but those two cannot really teach us much; for that, they were too grand. Hannibal was simultaneously grand and life-size, epic and human, ancient and modern. I guarantee you that you will see yourself in him as you read the book.
Tell us a little about the drama and boldness of Hannibal’s invasion – his crossing of the Alps, his use of elephants in battle, his huge and very bloody victories, the way he absolutely terrified the Romans, and his fourteen-year occupation of Italy. How different would history have been if Hannibal had succeeded in defeating Rome?
That’s the romance of his story, the stuff that has kept boys and girls throughout the ages up at night. Hannibal did something utterly crazy, something that seemed impossible. He started at his base in Spain and took a huge army of Libyans, Numidians, Gauls and all sorts of other people who did not even speak the same language — and of course those famous war elephants — and he marched up Spain, across France and then over the Alps. At that time there were no maps of the Alps. And the winter had started. The Romans thought that it was impossible for a mortal to cross, much less an army. So when Hannibal came out of the Alps and showed up in Italy, he had surprise on his side, and that’s an understatement. Half the army died during the crossing, but the elephants seem to have survived, which is amazing.
But that was only the start. Hannibal then won one battle after another, huge and crushing victories, even though he was always outnumbered. He killed a quarter of the Roman male population. If he had fought against America today, that would mean 38 million American men. So obviously the question for us is: How did he do that? How was he so good at winning?
I devote an entire chapter to this question, because this is where it gets quite subtle. Hannibal’s style of winning is one of the things that make him so modern and universal, so relevant in martial arts, in business, in sports, in politics and so forth, even in erotic seduction. Hannibal basically made his enemies defeat themselves. I compare him to an Aikido master. Hannibal, like an Aikido master, “allowed” his opponents to lose their balance, then “allowed” them to fail. It was genius, but I think you and I can copy aspects of his method in our daily lives.
But those victories, as you mentioned, did not lead to victory. If you have to keep winning battles, at some point you have to ask yourself: Why am I not winning the war, why am not winning the peace? Clearly, I must have a strategy problem. Clearly, I must have overlooked something big. And that is the heart of the book. That’s the mistake that so many successful people make today. They confuse the means with the ends, the tactics with the strategy.
You also asked how history would have been different if Hannibal had won. Well, that’s the sort of counterfactual speculation that drives historians crazy. But we’re allowed to imagine. For a start, take our modern world as we know it and throw it out. I mean, just start with America. No “Senate”, no “Capitol”, no Greco-Roman columns in front of banks, et cetera. Those were all Roman imports. You can throw out the calendar (mainly invented by Caesar). No Romance languages: no Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French, Rumanian, not even English as we know it, because half of that is Norman French. No Roman law, therefore no Napoleonic law, and no modern European law. And on and on and on.
But we don’t know what there would have been instead. That’s because the Romans erased Carthage so completely, in an act of vengeful genocide. They murdered the world we would have lived in instead. That’s part of what makes this story so eerie.
Your book is also filled with many other important people from the past and present, from Caesar and Cleopatra to Harry Truman and Tiger Woods, all of whom, like Hannibal, had both great successes and great failures. But to choose just a couple, how did Eleanor Roosevelt and Steve Jobs turn what they thought were utter disasters into amazing success?
Yes, that’s the ambition of this book, to make you see yourself in the life of Hannibal, by comparing his life in every chapter with the lives of other people who faced similar issues.
So you ask about Eleanor Roosevelt and Steve Jobs. They both reminded me of Scipio, who was a Roman general and eventually became Hannibal’s nemesis. So let me first tell you about Scipio, and then about Jobs and Roosevelt.
In his youth, Scipio was one of those Romans who lost everything to Hannibal. He was a soldier in the Roman armies Hannibal defeated, and narrowly got away with his own life. And he was the son and nephew of Roman commanders whom Hannibal’s brothers killed in battle. So Hannibal’s family wiped out Scipio’s family. Disaster.
But for Scipio, disaster was an impostor. It had the paradoxical effect of liberating his imagination, once he had nothing left to lose. So he became, in effect, a younger Hannibal. He had bold ideas, and reinvented Roman strategy. And that defeated Hannibal. Scipio is, in a word, reversal.
Now look at Steve Jobs. When Jobs was 30, about the age at which Scipio went through these things, he was fired from Apple, the company he had co-founded. He went into this deep depression, anger, denial and all the other stages of grieving. But then, at some point, he felt paradoxically liberated, just as Scipio once had felt. For about a decade, during which he was in what we now sort of consider an “exile”, he pursued all his creative whims: he bought a film studio called Pixar and started a company called NeXT and tried this and that. And then, after about a decade in this wilderness, with radically new and fresh ideas, he came back to Apple and turned the situation around, just as Scipio turned the war around. The rest is history. The iPod, iPhone, iPad, and so forth. Jobs later said that he needed that disaster in his early career to liberate his imagination so that he could have the real successes he was meant to have.
Now Roosevelt: She was also about that age when her world collapsed in disaster. That’s when she discovered the love letters between FDR and Lucy Mercer, their social secretary. She realized that her husband had been cheating on her the whole time. And she had built her entire identity on that relationship of wife and mother. So her identity and life collapsed.
Like Scipio and Jobs, she went through hell. Depression, anger, despair. But eventually she felt that same paradoxical sense of liberation that Scipio and Jobs felt. And that’s when she reinvented herself, which she never would have done without the disaster. She became the Eleanor we now know and love. The one who drove fast cars and flew airplanes, and visited miners in the shafts, and stood up for women and African Americans, who had affairs and fought for human rights at the United Nations. This would not have happened if she had not first suffered a personal disaster. So, her disaster was also an impostor, because she used it to become free.
On the other hand, you write about Einstein, who after the stunning accomplishments of his youth became a captive of his own success – rigid in his thinking and resistant to the discoveries of a younger generation of scientists. Where did he go wrong, and what is the parallel with Hannibal?
Einstein is fascinating in so many ways, but most people don’t realize that perhaps the most interesting aspect of his story is the way his genius stopped. Not abruptly, but gradually, after he achieved this phenomenal success, at about the same age at which Hannibal peaked. So, at the age when Hannibal crossed the Alps, Einstein discovered special relativity and quantum physics, and when Hannibal occupied Italy, Einstein gave us General Relativity. But what happened NEXT?
For both of them, it was essentially the opposite of that liberation I talked about in the case of Scipio, Jobs and Roosevelt. Their success became more like a prison, a captivity, except not a physical prison but a prison of the imagination. To become successful, Hannibal and Einstein had been bold and irreverent iconoclasts. Their greatest ideas were considered unthinkable by reasonable people. But once they triumphed, they became conservative, defensive. They stopped having outlandish ideas. Hannibal had to defend Italy, which he now occupied, and that meant he could not evacuate it and try a totally new strategy against Rome. Einstein had to defend relativity against – irony of ironies – the strange new world of quantum physics that he himself had birthed. He could not accept things like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the other radical ideas of the young upstarts in physics.
So Einstein, like Hannibal, kept looking for ultimate success in the same places where it could not be found: Hannibal in Italy, long after Scipio had moved the war to Spain and then Africa. Einstein in the Unified Field Theory that he kept searching for and never found. Once they became heroes, they could not free their minds anymore. That’s how their triumphs became prisons. That’s how their successes were impostors. That was their tragedy.
Who were Hannibal’s chief Roman opponents, Fabius and Scipio? What very different lessons do they teach us about how to deal with disaster?
Fabius and Scipio were both Roman aristocrats from very old families, but a generation apart and totally different in every other way, and really archetypal for us, because they embody the two responses we need in order to overcome disaster and failure.
Fabius was old and wise but stubborn and slow-moving. He was the only Roman who did not totally despair when Hannibal slaughtered nearly all Roman soldiers. The Romans seemed to be getting stuck in some of the stages of grief — like denial, anger, and depression. But Fabius went one step further, to acceptance. He accepted the disaster of Hannibal.
Having accepted the disaster, Fabius then responded in a way that the ancient Chinese Taoists would recognize: by doing nothing, or Wu Wei in Chinese. He simply refused to fight Hannibal. And in the following years, Fabius proved that the best response to disaster is often just that: not fighting at all, doing nothing. But that is harder than it sounds.
If Fabius is about accepting, enduring and non-doing, Scipio is the next stage in resilience: the liberation of the imagination, then renewal and reinvention and ultimately reversal. He was a lot younger, and even clashed with Fabius in the Senate, but he stood in the rubble of defeat, with nothing left to lose, like Jobs and Roosevelt later, and he had ideas that were so radical that other Romans thought they were crazy. And those were the ideas that won the war.
So you need to have Fabius in you to survive when disaster strikes. And then, at some point, you need to find Scipio in you to come back and achieve a new success greater than you could have imagined. You need them both.
Why is the need to distinguish strategy from tactics so important – in Hannibal’s life and in our own lives?
The greatest strategist in history is Clausewitz, a Prussian officer who witnessed the disaster of the Napoleonic wars the way a Roman officer might have seen Hannibal’s war. And he was the first to spell out the connection between tactics and strategy in war and, crucially, in all spheres of life. Tactics is about means. Strategy is about ends. So you need to be clear about what you want in life to know what you need to succeed at. If you succeed at something that does not lead to your goal, you’re actually failing. On the other side, if it looks like you’re losing in something that actually doesn’t matter, then that could be neutral or even count as success. It just depends on what the ultimate objective is, and most people aren’t clear about that.
Example: During the Korean War, Douglas MacArthur, a swashbuckling American general, wanted to nuke the Chinese to win the war. He thought that would mean success. But Harry Truman, who was president, realized that “winning” that particular war was not the objective. Avoiding World War III was the objective. So Truman the strategist had to fire MacArthur the tactician to save us from disaster. He succeeded by making the war end not in victory for us but in a stable draw so that we can all still be here today.
Another example: Tiger Woods, before he goofed up in his private life, was known for his superior strategy on the golf course. Most golfers always hit the longest possible drive, thinking forward from the tee to the green. But Tiger always thought backwards from the green to the tee. If the pin was in the top right quadrant of the green, where did the ball have to be for an easy put? From which part of the fairway could he put the ball on that spot? Which drive would he have to hit from the tee to get to that point on the fairway? Often, he took puny little irons off the tee when other golfers pulled out their One woods, and Tiger, by subordinating his tactics to his strategy, his “strokes” to the “hole”, won.
The irony is, of course, that Tiger had his golf strategy so right but his life strategy so wrong.
And that’s the lesson for successful people: winning is more dangerous than losing, because winning makes you lose sight of your ultimate objective, of what matters and what doesn’t. For people like Hannibal or Woods or MacArthur it’s easier to win battles than to say, ‘Wait, are these battles the way to win the war, and then to have the peace that I want?’.
Your great-uncle Ludwig Erhard was once the most popular politician in West Germany, and an important economist who helped to lay the foundations of Germany’s current prosperity. Why is he such a key figure to you? How does his story parallel Hannibal’s in some ways?
Erhard — or Uncle Lulu, as we called him – was actually much more than a popular politician or important economist. He was really one of the two or three Founding Fathers of post-war Germany, or what used to be West Germany. So he’s a household name in much of Europe, though not, admittedly, in America.
But he’s especially important to me because he was so important to our family. He was not only my dad’s uncle but also his godfather and took him in when my dad’s own parents died, relatively early. That was during the years when Uncle Lulu was West Germany’s first economics minister and then chancellor.
But Erhard’s successes were not what interested me in the book. What fascinated me was, first, how Erhard got there. He was really a counterpoint to a figure like Hannibal. He was more like a Harry Truman, or a Paul Cezanne in art: a late bloomer, somebody who seems mediocre in his early years but picks up steam and gets ready for the big moment when he is needed, perhaps later in life.
In Erhard’s case, he was bombed to pieces several times in World War I and was basically crippled thereafter. Then he was a mediocre student of economics in interwar Germany. And then the Nazis took over, and Erhard went into a sort of internal exile in my grandparents’s house during the Nazi years. Toward the end of the war he was in touch with the group that plotted to assassinate Hitler, and when that attempt failed he was in danger. But basically he had not really done anything until late in his middle age, when, after the war, the Americans picked him to run Germany’s economy and currency. Literally: an American army jeep came driving through the rubble and said: “You!” There was no economy and no currency to run, of course, so that was his big moment in history. And all those years of searching and wandering and building character suddenly came in handy. It’s a story in praise of late success, I suppose.
One of the themes of your book is how envy and pettiness can bring successful people down. How is this shown in the stories of both Hannibal and the man who eventually defeated him, Scipio?
I have a whole chapter on “political death”, by which I mean the whole sordid business of other people trying to pull successful people down. The Kiwis and Aussies call it the “tall poppy syndrome”, the Sandinavians call it the Jante Law, the Americans call it the crab mentality, and everybody else seems to have some word for it.
Many successful people feel too large, or too magnanimous, for the lowly aspects of human nature in the people around them. So they leave themselves at risk by being blind to the pettiness and envy of others.
In Hannibal’s case, after his defeat against Scipio, he at one point tried to have a second career as a politician in Carthage. But he had made enemies among the aristocrats and other entrenched interests. He was totally naïve in handling that situation, and those Carthaginian compatriots slandered him, telling the Romans that Hannibal was plotting to start another war, which was not true. That’s what forced Hannibal into his final exile.
Scipio’s case is actually much more harrowing. Scipio, as the vanquisher of Hannibal, was THE greatest Roman of his time. He was the most popular person in Rome. But a lot of Romans envied him for that reason and those types, led by a man named Cato, made it their life mission to destroy him, with petty audits and litigation and so forth. Scipio ended up dying in exile, feeling bitter and betrayed.
I compare Scipio to my great uncle, Ludwig Erhard. Erhard always made a point of being above partisan politics. He did not even formally join a party, even after he became the leader of one. For a few years his popularity protected him. But as soon as he became chancellor, his enemies started plotting against him, and, without party loyalties, he had no way to fight back. It always seemed to my dad, who was with him in all those years, that Erhard refused to believe that other people could be so petty and vindictive. He was like Scipio in that way. That’s how Erhard’s career ended. He was pushed out of power and out of politics.
An even more literal example is that of Liu Shaoqi, who was president of China while Erhard was economics minister. He was one of the top Communists in China until he fell out with Mao, and until his elegant wife made Mao’s wife envious. Liu never really had a clue what was going on when Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, which was a power grab by Mao masquerading as anarchy. Liu ended up humiliated, beaten, left to die in his own vomit in some prison. He just hadn’t seen it coming at all.
That’s an extreme case, of course. But you might be able to translate those stories into the office politics where you work. The lesson is: you should not be one of those envious, petty people, but you should be ready for them.
How do you explain Hannibal’s ultimate fate? How did he lose credibility with his own people and end up as a powerless advisor to a minor king, choosing to commit suicide just as he was about to be captured by the Romans?
It was incredibly ironic. Hannibal had been hounded out of Carthage by his political enemies who had lied to the Romans, telling them that Hannibal was making a plan with a king in the Eastern Mediterranean to start another war against Rome. There was no such plan. But the rumor forced Hannibal to flee Carthage and go East. And so Hannibal ended up at the court of just that king. And that king then invited him to hatch just that plan. And so the lies about Hannibal became retroactively true.
My view is that Hannibal basically failed in what Carl Jung would call his midlife transition to a new identity. Jung himself succeeded at that transition. But Hannibal did not. After his defeat to Scipio, his only loss in battle, he could not let go the old identity of adventurous hero, he could not think of another life path than to join fights against Rome. So he became a minor figure in a foreign military bureaucracy. How frustrating that must have been.
But it’s possible that at the very end, when Hannibal was in his sixties, he became philosophical about it all. I think he always knew how it would end, and he wanted to end it on his terms. So when the Romans caught up with him at some little royal court in the East, he committed suicide by drinking poison, rather than letting himself fall into the hands of the Romans. You can interpret that in different ways. I see it as a final assertion of dignity. Even a final victory.
How is Hannibal’s story especially useful for people who are trying to turn misfortune into success?
The main thing to understand about my book is that the story of Hannibal is really a story of three people, or three archetypes or models or paradigms. They are Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio. Hannibal is the archetype of the impostor success: the risks of being at the top. Fabius and Scipio are the two archetypes of the impostor disaster: the two models for, as you say, turning misfortune into success.
So if we do suffer a disaster, it is Fabius who shows us how to endure it and how to to absorb the disaster so that it does not break us. Scipio then shows us how to turn it all around, how to achieve real and huge success after a reinvention of some sort, how to seize the power of liberation that failure brings.
Conversely, what messages does Hannibal’s story have for people who are at the top of their game and want to stay there?
Hannibal teaches us, on one hand, how to win, which is important. But more importantly, he teaches us not to confuse winning with succeeding, neither in war nor in life, because winning for its own sake can lead disaster. You need something else than victory to succeed – we could call that life strategy, but it’s an overused term – and that’s where his lessons begin.
Hannibal also warns us, like Einstein and Tennessee Williams and other creative people, how easy it is to let success become a prison. I mean a prison of the imagination. What made these people successful was a certain irreverence, an openness to radical ideas, a disdain for conventional wisdom. But success makes people less open to such ideas. So successful people must do some unorthodox things to stay open, creative, supple.
Is it possible to transcend both success and failure?
Yes, and that should ultimately be the goal. But it’s surprisingly difficult and rare. Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist who studied the lives of great people, found that only a few percent succeed in “self-actualizing”, as he called it. I think that people like Eleanor Roosevelt or Ludwig Erhard in my book, and possibly Hannibal, did self-actualize. They did what they saw as their duty, they stayed simple and down-to-earth and humorous. They each became, as they say, a Mensch.