The Futility of Force

You might have heard the fable of the wind and sun.

It starts with a wager: whichever can remove a man’s jacket from his shoulders will be deemed strongest. The wind begins by unleashing a tremendous gale upon the world, focussing chiefly on one man wandering below. The wind blows harder and harder, but the man maintains a stubborn grip on his jacket. The wind gives in and invites the sun forward.

The sun takes a moment and then gracefully emerges from the clouds. The man looks up gratefully, wipes his brow and shrugs off his jacket.


It’s a great story whose moral centre advises us to be more like the sun: generous, supportive and kind to others. But it’s the wind’s actions that capture my attention. It hints at a fundamental law of human nature: the futility of force.


In popular media, force is rarely futile.

Whether it be a stopping a moving train…

…or winning an argument.

We are told the harder we fight and the louder we shout, the more likely we are to get our way. The problem is, in the real world, this is rarely the case. In fact the opposite is true.

Scratching an itch only makes the itching worse, suppressing a thought causes it to burn stronger in our minds, and pulling a dog on a leash makes it bark louder.

It’s even applicable in war. During the Second World War, aerial bombing was seen as a viable strategy to break enemy morale. It’s since been found that civilians with the highest morale were those who were bombed the most. Instead of breaking morale, air raids raised it (Malcolm Gladwell talks about this phenomenon in David & Goliath).

Force is futile in the face of human psychology. We are rarely persuaded by arguments imposed on us dispassionately. The more we are shouted at, the less we listen. Therefore the more we shout, the less we are heard.

TV tells us that decisions are made by someone stepping forward and declaring a perfectly formed plan. Yet research shows productive conversations are born out of vulnerability, open mindedness and empathy.

Yes determination and perseverance are valuable when pursuing long-term goals. However it’s a mistake to apply the same principle to the every day. Forcing your way through life will only leave you puffed out.