The map of Hannibal’s march and life

Join me for a moment in having fun with this map below.

It comes to us, via the Wikimedia Commons, from Frank Martini, a cartographer in the Department of History at the United States Military Academy.

There are two ways of looking at this map–one obvious and one surprising and cheeky–and I will avail myself of both. Bear with me. First the map, and the obvious:

What we see here, obviously, is the western Mediterranean at the time of the Second Punic War (the “Hannibalic War”). Notice Carthage at the tip of northern Africa (in today’s Tunisia); Cartagena or “Little Carthage” in Spain, which I mentioned in an earlier post; Gades, which is today’s Cadiz; Saguntum (Sagunto), which was ethnically Greek; Massilia (today’s Marseilles), also ethnically Greek; Turin (Torino) which was not yet party of “Italy” but part of Gaul; and Ariminum (Rimini), the Roman colony at the edge of their frontier with the Gauls.

Now look at Hannibal’s march itself. In 218 BCE he crossed the Pyrenees and into Gaul. The line casually crosses the Rhone, even though this involved one of the most colorful operations in history (of which more in a later post–think elephants on rafts), and then, equally casually, crosses the Alps (of which much, much more in later posts).

You then see where Hannibal won his famous victories, at the Ticinus (more of a skirmish), at the Trebia, at Lake Trasimene and at Cannae. And then you see the line of his path getting…. confusing!

Now the less obvious way of looking at this map: Squint! As you squint, look only at the line of the march. It is a fitting life trajectory for Hannibal himself. It rises early and steeply, peaks, then declines and loses itself completely in a confused and erratic hairball.

How would you draw the map if it were proportionate to time, rather than distance? The entire stretch from Cartagena to Cannae, his greatest victory, took a little over two years. All the twists and turns after Cannae (there were actually far too many to draw on a map) took…. fourteen years!

After those fourteen years, Hannibal lived another nineteen years until he committed suicide, but most of that took place on a different map, in the eastern Mediterranean.

And yet, if you read the existing histories, you would think that 90% of Hannibal’s life took place in those initial two years.

Those years are the impostor years. The next thirty-three are the story of how and why he realized that his triumphs had been impostors. And this, in my book, is where his life becomes universal and directly relevant for our own lives today.

Now, let’s have even more fun and turn the map around:

Now you have, more or less, the life trajectory of the Romans, in particular Fabius and Scipio, my two other main characters.

Kipling’s impostors, you see, visited with them in mirror image.

Why and how did all this happen over all those decades? In exactly the same way as it happens to most of us in our much smaller(-seeming) lives, it turns out. That’s why I’m writing a book about it.

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The Narcissism of John Edwards: Impostor Success or Failure?

In my first preview of one of Kipling’s two impostors, triumph, I casually nodded to hubris as the most obvious mechanism that turns success into disaster, then went on to give another example that I thought was a bit subtler.

And now John Edwards forces me to come back to hubris. In case, you’ve been behind the moon, we now know that he cheated on his wife. More interestingly, we have now heard why he thinks he cheated. The key phrase in his mea culpa to ABC’s John Woodruff, was this: Becoming a “national public figure”, he said:

fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe you can do whatever you want, you’re invincible and there will be no consequences.

We always knew, of course, that Edwards had a narcissist in him, at least since we watched him preening here:

Narcissus, at least in Ovid’s version of the myth, was the handsome youth who fell in love with his own reflection as he bent down to drink from a stream, and then wouldn’t touch the water lest he ruffle the beautiful image in it, and so died of thirst. So it goes, as Vonnegut would say. Impostor beauty, as we might paraphrase.

So narcissism is slightly different from hubris, although Edwards conflates the two. Hubris is the classical Greek notion that power and success make people arrogant, and that this arrogance then invites disaster. Think Ken Lay, Eliot Spitzer, et cetera. And now, John Edwards?

Maybe, maybe not. I’ll give you one contra and one pro. The contra is Steven Berglas, a specialist in “narcissistic disorders” at Harvard Medical School for many years, who writes here that Edwards is kidding himself, and that it was in fact Edward’s failure to become Vice President in 2004 that is to blame:

I feel that Edwards had a need to re-assert his power and his masculinity (via an affair) because of his history of believing that his entire self-worth derived from success. Had Edwards not “proved his potency,” I feel he would have suffered ego-annihilation when he failed.

The pro comes from research by Cameron Anderson at Berkeley’s Haas School and Adam Galinsky at Northwestern, who found that perceived power does make people excessively optimistic and blind to risk. In one of their experiments, they discovered that those participants who were more powerful were less likely to use condoms. Who says academics never have fun?

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Writer’s Koan of the day

Amy Tan, best-selling author, in today’s New York Times Magazine, when asked whether writing is a kind of performance, thus giving her anxiety:

No. It’s a meditation. It does not have to do with personal humiliation until after it gets done.

(Incidentally, she will feature in two of my chapters. I’m intrigued in the effect her mother had on her success and perceived failings, and of course whether any of it has been a Kiplingesque impostor. Amy, if you’re googling yourself, will you give me an interview?)

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Impostor Success, Part I: The Nobel Prize and pontificating windbags

After that digression (not the last, rest assured) about books in general, back to the book. I still haven’t introduced my main characters–Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio–but instead I’ve given two examples, Steve Jobs and J.K. Rowling, of failure being an impostor. Let me now give you an example of Kipling’s other impostor, triumph–because the book is emphatically about both impostors, just as a book about night must also be about day.

The immediate and obvious category that jumps to mind is hubris, the theme that so fascinated the ancient Greeks. Hubris is that arrogance which brings down the successful and powerful, from Xerxes the Persian to Ken Lay of Enron or Eliot Spitzer or … take your pick. So, because it’s so obvious, let’s not take an example of hubris. Instead, let’s take a more subtle example: The Nobel Prize.

Paul Samuelson is an economist who won that prize, in 1970, and who, thirty-one years later, reflected on the institution. Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist and inventor, had established the prize in 1895 to recognize the best work done in a given field and thereby to “subsidize and support the young winner’s research efforts for the rest of his life.” By rewarding success, in other words, the prize was meant to create even more success.

Instead, says Samuelson (emphasis is mine):

the reverse of Nobel’s wish is what actually happens. After winners receive the award and adulation, they wither away into vainglorious sterility. More than that, they become pontificating windbags, preaching to the world on ethics and futorology, politics and philosophy. At circular tables, where they sit they believe to be the head of the table…

Breaking it down another level of nuance, Samuelson goes on:

An acquaintance of mine in biology regarded his Nobel year as the worst one in his life. Being a research wet-lab worker, he hated the press interviews and hoopla. Others I’ve known have gloried in it: so to speak they sported their bauble on the January subway. One wife of a physical scientist attributed her divorce to the Nobel Prize. (Her spouse has not recorded his opinion.) …

Not to get too deep about this, but can we agree with Samuelson that the Nobel Prize is a) a personal triumph for its recipients and b) probably, if not certainly, an impostor? For today, I just leave you with this delightful phrase: pontificating windbags. Ever met any?

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Impostor Failure, Part II: J.K. Rowling

In my post on Steve Jobs, I suggested that his biggest failure in life turned out–certainly in his own opinion–to be a liberating event that made possible his subsequent success. In other words, his failure was an impostor, just as Rudyard Kipling would say. In this post, I want to suggest the exact same thing, with a different example: one that is female, creative, vulnerable, touching. The example of J.K. Rowling.

Rowling is one of the most successful book authors of all time, and the most successful by far of those alive today. Who knows? Her Harry Potter books may yet become classics that endure down the ages. Rowling herself would be thrilled, because she loves classics and studied them, to the distress of her poor (literally) parents, who wanted her to study something “useful”. As a classics fiend myself (in a world of blank stares whenever anything Greek or Roman comes up), I love her just for that.

But let’s get to her “failure”. Her commencement address at Harvard this year was, in its entirety, a paean to failure–its ability to help a young person navigate life and to liberate her imagination. For the first nine minutes, she reminds her audience of (mostly) successful Harvard graduates and parents of her own family’s crushing poverty when she went to university, but says that “What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.” Then failure came:

… by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

She did not see it at the time, but this turned out to be a liberating event, rather as Steve Jobs’ career disaster at the age of thirty had been for him:

Here are the key passages:

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

More disasters followed. She lost her mother, she thought of killing herself, she was depressed. But she kept writing–in cafés, whenever her baby daughter fell asleep–and letting her imagination range freely as it now, after failure, could. The irony would soon be complete: several publishers turned down her Harry Potter story! Even her book, in other words, began as a failure. Then, one publisher took it. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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Impostor Disaster, part I: Steve Jobs

Back to the book: Remember, the whole book is a long story woven around Rudyard Kipling’s poetic insight that triumph and disaster are impostors. I want to lead up to the main character, Hannibal, with a few other examples, and today Steve Jobs comes to mind. I saw him on a stage last month, launching the new iPhone, and he looked as haggard and emaciated as death. He had had–and, he said, beaten–pancreatic cancer, and everybody in the audience must have been wondering whether it had come back. Now, people are beginning to discuss his mortality more openly, for instance here and here. Jobs talked about his encounter with cancer in a commencement address he gave at Stanford in 2005. I want to talk about that speech, but not about the part where he discusses cancer (which starts at about 8 minutes, 40 seconds), even though it lends my focus some poignancy.

What hit me were his thoughts (from minute 6 to about 8 ) on the biggest failure and disaster in his life (before cancer, that is). Watch:

Just to recap, he founded Apple and it was the passion and meaning of his life, and then, at age thirty, he fell victim to a boardroom coup and was fired from his own company. He was devastated. He spent over a decade drifting from one thing to another, thinking he was lost. But, he says:

I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

Soon it turned out that the things he was dabbling in had a meaning that would become clear. In his exile, he founded NeXT, took over Pixar, fell in love and started a family. And then … Apple bought NeXT, and he was back where he belonged, only now changed. In his second coming, Apple would become more successful than he could have dreamed in his first coming, and:

I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.

I highlighted the words lightness and freed me for a reason. That is because one theme I’m exploring in the book–again, I’m always in search of the wisdom behind Kipling’s impostors–is the potential of disaster or failure to liberate. Liberate from what? I’ll get to that.

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