How Did Napoleon in 1819 Stop You Taking Risks in Business Today?

by Daniel Batten on March 3, 2010

What you are about to read may surprise you. It may even shock you as it shocked me when Educator Andrew Mowat at Group8 Education told me. Whether you in business or not, this article will speak to you.

Firstly, be warned that this article is controversial. Not in because it contains obnoxious opinions, but because thanks to Mr Mowat, it benefits from others’ well-research truths, not commonly known.

But first, I have a question.

Have you noticed that a child has no problem asking for what it needs? She has no problem applying what she learns to her life. And she acts free of limiting fear.

You on the other hand, like me, probably don’t experience this level of freedom daily. Why?

If you have ever found it difficult to – apply new things you read or hear to your life, – overcome paralyzing fear or making mistakes – take the risk to leverage the skills you have mastered this article reveals why.

To understand how this came about we need to understand Prussia in around 1819.

Napoleon had just decimated Prussia. The Prussians’ analysis revealed that defeat occurred because in times of battle, soldiers were thinking for themselves: they were thinking like entrepreneurs, not soldiers. To save their country, key board meetings, committee meetings and forums were held. The solution was found: re-educate 94% of the population to follow orders without question.

Among a host of sweeping “innovations” designed to train 94% of the population to think like soldiers, the school bell, the division of subjects into silos, and the removal of “real life” context were introduced.

I call this system the “PRUSSIAN keyboard”, for reasons that will become clear. The Prussian KEYBOARD was carefully constructed to tell people when to think, how much to think, and what to think (Origins & History of American Compulsory Schooling, Flatland Magazine #11). The result was a success. A new generation of people grew up to follow orders and do a better job defending their country.

During the Civil War, The Northern States of America saw the payoff and adopted this system. Soon the PRUSSIAN keyboard became the universal standard for the whole world.

The modern school is a QWERTY keyboard. While typewriters have changed to computers, the QWERTY keyboard lives on. The QWERTY keyboard was carefully designed to overcome the problem of neighboring keys “clashing and jamming together when typing at speed”. The resulting design was perfect in 1870, but the QWERTY innovation is no longer necessary – in fact it slows down typing.

Similarly, school uniforms and buildings have changed, but the PRUSSIAN keyboard lives on. And the PRUSSIAN keyboard was carefully designed to overcome the problem of neighboring nations jamming together in protracted wars that damaged the home country. The resulting design was perfect for Prussia in the 1820s, but the Prussian innovation is no longer necessary – in fact it slows down thinking.

Now step forward 191 years into a world where today billions of people who use or have used the PRUSSIAN keyboard each day of their school lives.

In times of war, a society of entrepreneur-thinking is dangerous. In times of peace, a society of soldier-thinking is disastrous.

Today, the impact of the PRUSSIAN keyboard includes the following:

  • Because knowledge was silo-d, not integrated, we feared the unknown areas outside our subject expertise: we learnt to avoid the unknown.
  • Because exams penalized mistakes, and wrong answers resulted in poor “success” – we learnt to avoid mistakes at all costs.
  • Because saying something different, unique, unexpected in front of a group of peers engendered ridicule from our peers and/or teacher, we learned to give predictable answers or no answers: we learnt to avoid being the fool at all costs.

These strategies worked inside school, but were disastrous outside school.

  • The cost of avoiding/fearing the unknown knew meant that outside school, we could not adapt as fast, think creatively, or look at the “big picture” so well.
  • The cost of avoiding/fearing mistakes meant that we avoided taking calculated risks such as doing things we loved doing, but which there wasn’t a ready-made job for.
  • The cost of avoiding/fearing being a fool meant that we wouldn’t venture unique opinions or ideas. Instead, we would wait until the mainstream adopted our social-vision, or someone else commercialized our product-vision.

Observing children, you will notice that they start off as entrepreneurs, adventurers and calculated risk-takers. The PRUSSIAN keyboard then turns our entrepreneurs into soldiers.

Remember, the PRUSSIAN keyboard was the right solution for the time. What is needed now is not to attack the keyboard. But having become aware of the keyboard, look for every opportunity to re-educate your mind past the three lessons that school taught you without your permission

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Pat Armitstead March 3, 2010 at 9:08 pm

oh yes….i see me in there …but i am shouting as i come out,…lollove your languaging…pat

Andrew Melville March 3, 2010 at 10:05 pm

I knew it, we’ve all become a bunch of ‘grunts’ food soldiering our way through education, business and life. Makes so much sense, we have become very dis-integrated in our thinking, relying on learning by rote, intellectual and academic acumen. It is time to re-integrate, thinking with the whole of ourselves, mind, body and spirit, then business and life flies!

Daniel Batten March 3, 2010 at 10:11 pm

Hi Andrew – Yes, it was like “taking the blue pill” (or was it the red one) for me when I found out about the Prussian system.
The implications are enormous –
I read an ebook on “Job Interviewing Technique” yesterday to find out what other people in this space are writing about. 75% of the ebook was
about “model answers” which you could learn by rote to each of a number of behavioural based questions an interviewer could ask.

Might be enough to get you the job – but what sort of job?

Daniel Batten March 3, 2010 at 10:14 pm

Thanks Pat. I can see myself in there too. With my daughter now 19 months, I have until 2013 to make sure she goes to a school that
keeps her desire for learning and calculated risk-taking alive.

Grant March 5, 2010 at 8:02 pm

Interesting point of view but not necessarily correct, I would like to put a different angle out there.

I get your point that children do not have society taught boundaries set in yet so think outside the square and act based on their needs and wants however socialisation (the role of the state to teach one standard format) is a concept that has been around for thousands of years, so also the state should be a central organisation to teach what the family unit does not. Read Platos and Socrates notes on society. This concept has clearly helped technology, religion and society’s grow. (I’m living proof that this has happened, if society was like what’s suggested I sure wouldn’t be typing this out on a laptop that weighs less that 1kg now would I!). This ‘sweeping innovations to train the population to think like soldiers’ is not new and the basis of the great Asian dynasty’s, also James Burkes work (and alot of other economists) have analytical evidence to show it’s not until you introduce structures of restraints into education will you actually see break throughs. Look at the lotus bike, the best example in history of seeing firsthand how regimented teaching and convergence creates new amazing breakthroughs.

Brett and other economists would also argue that there is a common collective convergence of old technologies that once present will create new breakthroughs and have proven this is independent one off genius or any notion of single brilliance. Einstein was collectively educated with a set regimented school curriculum but was able to produce new realms of knowledge within this framework, was this because he was taught in this restrictive framework or in reaction to trying to break free? Most probably neither, he grasped the concept that the more knowledge you gathered the easier it is to jump to the next level

I think too many people write articles with a point of view that society and the current education systems breaks your ability to act truly free and think in unique ways, I’m not 100% against this argument but I would like to suggest a different interpretation. That this one education system actually is the best way to teach but for people to act ‘freely or not’ is actually based on the knowledge picked up. Einstein was a prolific reader, so was Darwin and a host of other greats. Einstein was reported to be a chain reader and was often observed arguing a point and producing both points of views. A recent survey from the American institute of marketing announced that the average American director read on average one business book a year. Now ask yourself if that business men fails is it because he’s conditioned to be a soldier or is it hes stopped learning, gathering new knowledge to make informed decisions and has limited resources to pull upon. How can a business man argue two points of view on a topic if he reads at best one book a year? Why if a person is focused on breakthroughs would you not learn or read every book for and against, only then can you truly make an informed decision

Instead of people trying to find a person or point in society to blame were our downfalls are I would suggest it’s more important to continually learn, structure and regiment is fine but lack of knowledge and stopping learning is where failure becomes to emerge

Daniel Batten March 8, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Hi Grant,
Interesting information about Einstein arguing a point and producing both points of view. There was an article in the Harvard Business Review recently about “Integrative Thinking” saying that the main innovation of the human was not the opposable thumb but the “opposable mind” – the ability to hold 2 seemingly contradictory ideas in the mind to achieve a new synthesis.

Key points: the Prussian system educated 94% of the population to think like soldiers. 1% were taught to lead, and the 5.5% in the middle were the professionals that were taught to innovate within guidelines – hence the marvellous technical innovation you talk about – completely consistent result of the Prussian system.

– in terms of Plato and Socrates. As I recall from my undergrad days – too many years ago now, they advocate a “system of education, rules, and inquiry” which encourages integrative thinking, the connection between different subjects and constant enquiry without acceptance of an idea simply because someone says it to be so. This is in every respect opposite to the Prussian system. When they were around, philosophy, poetry, mathematics, and physics were taught in unison.

In terms of “think like soldiers” not being new, that is correct. However, the specific innovations of the Prussian system and how they specifically carried it out are new. They are also relevant to me now in a more direct way to historical instances in other nations.

In terms of not “trying to find a person or point in society to blame” – I could not agree with you more. Blame is of no value. Understanding the origins of something, as Darwin would agree, is.

In terms of the average American reading one business book/year on average – consider the possibility that school has by that stage done such a good job of encouraging learning where there is a direct extrinsic reward (a grade) that few are motivated to learn without this carrot beyond this time. That is also a possible interpretation.

Thanks for the health dialog.


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