Unity #1: Structural Pressures
THE GATES OF WAR
“The Romans call the double doors of the Temple of Janus ‘the gates of war’ — for the temple always stands open in times of war, but are closed when peace has come. The latter was a difficult matter, and it rarely happened, since the realm was always engaged in some kind of war, as the Republic’s increasing size brought it into collision with the barbarous nations which surrounded it. But in the time of Augustus it was closed, after he had overthrown Mark Anthony…”
— Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, ~100 A.D.
BELLUM OMNIUM CONTRA OMNES
In 29 BC, Caius Octavian closed the “gates of war” — the doors to the Roman Temple of Janus.
This signaled the end to over 100 years of civil strife — the reform-minded Tiberius Gracchus had been murdered 104 years before in 133 BC; his brother was murdered 12 years after that, in 121 BC.
In 91 BC, the “Social War” broke out in Italy between non-Roman Italians and the Romans. Immediately following that war, the Roman Civil War between Sulla and Marius broke out and resulted in widespread bloodshed, reprisals, and massacres on both sides.
This climate of violence is the one that the most famous generation of Romans grew up in — this is the era that Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, Cicero, and Cato observed as children.
Spartacus’s slave revolt began in 73 BC — more brutality.
And, of course, after his victories in the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC — throwing the Roman Republic back into chaos and civil war.
Caesar won at a high cost, and was named dictator for life — only to be assassinated on 15 March of 44 BC, the Ides of March.
Another few rounds of Civil War followed, with the young Caius Octavian — Augustus Caesar — eventually winning.
To signal the end to the bloodshed, Octavian closed the doors of the Temple of Janus and set about to building long-term peace.
YOU MUST KILL HIM OR MAKE HIM YOUR SON-IN-LAW
In January of 27 BC — two years after closing the gates of war — Octavian was named “Augustus,” “The Illustrious One,” and voted the rank of Princeps, “First Citizen of the Roman Republic.”
And yet, after over 100 years of violence and treachery, no one slept easily.
Augustus was one of the great statesmen in history, with a keen understanding of people, culture, and operations. He understood which people could thrive and perform well in various roles, and he developed good working relationships with some of the most talented generals and administrators of the era.
Augustus had two right-hand men — the first was Marcus Agrippa, one of Rome’s greatest generals; the partnership between Agrippa and Augustus was one of the most fruitful and productive in all of history. They worked exceptionally well together. Agrippa was overwhelmingly the greatest general and commander to serve under Augustus.
On the civil side, Augustus’s right-hand man was Maecanas, a diplomat and administrator that often oversaw the city of Rome when Augustus was out on campaign. A patron of the arts and very knowledgeable about culture and personality, Maecanas grew worried that the peace would not last.
Maecanas went to Augustus and said,
“You have made Agrippa so great that he must either become your son-in-law or be slain.”
OUR SERIES ON UNITY
We begin our new series on Unity — a topic with profound implications for how to live one’s life, but so complicated and fraught with peril that it’s often neglected in study and discussion.
Do stop for a minute and think — when is the last time you’ve explicitly studied and reflected on what makes for excellent cooperation, excellent partnerships, excellent relationships?
The rare lone genius aside, the vast majority of everything good that happens in the world is a result of cooperation between many different people.
Humans are funny creatures — each of us has many different and conflicting goals, ways of seeing the world, all sorts of ranges of mood and experiences. Even just individually, the average person faces many internal conflicts.
It might not be too much of a stretch to say we’re actually different people on different days — some days we might be magnanimous, cheerful, optimistic, and industrious. Other days, we might be petty, sulking, pessimistic, and lazy.
And that’s just speaking of each of us, individually, by ourselves.
You add a second person to the mix — with different experiences and slightly different values, different ranges of moods, different habits and customs, different ways of doing things… and you can see how friction is the typical result.
There’s an old saying, “Judge talent at its best and character at its worst” — there is some merit in this. But most of us, on our worst days, are not so great… when you think about it, it’s almost miraculous to some extent that people ever manage long-term and large-scale cooperation.
But actually — we don’t, typically. Manage long-term and large-scale cooperation. As far as I can tell, the vast majority of people — well over 90% of people — never establish the type of genuinely thriving cooperation that leads to the very best results in the world.
Think on that for a moment. Our friendships, relationships, and collaborations might be okay… they might even be pretty good… but when you look at the best of collaborations, you see that they produce vastly more fruitful lives and accomplishments than the majority of people will ever experience.
This topic became of intense interest to me some years ago, and I started looking to collect anecdotes and stories of truly great partnerships. And of course, most partnerships fall out — no one really likes to talk about it, but it’s true.
Bill Gates and Paul Allen became billionaires together, but went on to dislike each other to a considerable extent. Caesar and Pompey were close friends and allies just a few years before they were at war with each other.
Rare are the business partnerships like Larry Ellison and Bob Miner at Oracle, which was thriving and fruitful across their lives. Rare are the military collaborations like Augustus and Agrippa, Washington and Hamilton, or Tokugawa and Hanzo.
Great unity is possible within teams, and elite military units like the U.S. Navy SEAL Teams and U.S. Army Delta Force regularly do seemingly impossible things under the most intense and stressful conditions — but the majority of teams do not approach anything like that level of collaboration and cohesion.
Money doesn’t seem to solve the problem — in fact, it often exacerbates problems. In the major American sports leagues, disunity between ownership, coaches, and players is the norm. At any given time, there tends to be only a few franchises out of 30 that really establish any sort of unity — the San Antonio Spurs in professional basketball, the New England Patriots in professional football — and they tend to win disproportionally often and keep sustained runs of success going for decades. But despite having hundreds of millions of dollars to spend each year, the typical professional sports team is unable to get into any sustained unity and harmony.
Again — it seems like the vast majority of people never experience conditions of maximum cooperation, goodwill, and unity. I believe that, even under the most generous definition, more than 90% of people never achieve those conditions. If you don’t work deliberately at it, study the topic, and work relentlessly to achieve it, it simply won’t happen in your life.
It’s a tragedy, perhaps, because humans can achieve an immense amount when they enter into truly fruitful and beautiful collaborations. It certainly doesn’t happen automatically… and yet, when it’s achieved, an immense amount of thriving is possible.
How, then, do we reach such heights?
TSR’S SERIES ON UNITY, ISSUE #1: STRUCTURAL PRESSURES
For our series on Unity, we’ll explore three things —
1. The factors promoting unity and disunity,
2. Who it’s possible to get into unity with, and,
3. The mechanics of unity.
The first point of our exploration is what factors promote unity or disunity. In particular, I think the Roman Civil Wars were a tragedy — many of the conflicts arose not out of bad individual actions or because people had bad character, but because the unwritten Roman constitution and traditions pushed people towards conflict. We can all rise above our era and environment to some extent, but probably not entirely.
We’ll then look at who is possible to get into unity with, and who it is not — this may be controversial, to some extent, because I think certain types of people are literally impossible to establish long-term stable cooperation and collaboration with. This goes against the spirit of the day, and may be unpopular, but I believe it’s true. Obviously, it’s much harder to cooperate with people who are self-centered, short-sighted, and impulsive… and when you layer a long mix of those type of traits together, eventually it becomes near impossible to establish long-term cooperation. Those who would build excellent collaborations, partnerships, and organizations would do well to avoid people who are incapable of unity.
And finally, least controversially, there are mechanics to unity — communication being an obvious one, the selection procedures you use to choose potential partners or teammates less obvious but no less important, and so on.
First of all, let’s look at structural pressures — the larger environmental factors and customs of a country or organization that lead to either greater unity or discord.
The highest elected office in the Roman Republic was the Consul — each year, two Consuls were elected. During their one year term of office, they held substantial formal and informal power.
The Consuls elected in a given year would preside over the Roman Senate and the different types of voting assemblies. They spoke first and presided over the Senate. It wasn’t strictly impossible for a law to be passed without one of the Consuls proposing it, but it was very rare in normal times.
The Consuls also divided military and diplomatic duties between themselves — broadly, they’d set Rome’s foreign policy, negotiate with foreign ambassadors coming to Rome, and in times of war would lead Roman armies.
Now there’s one thing worth noting one thing about the Roman Consul that’s very important — their term of office was only for one year, and in normal times, they were not allowed to stand for election again until ten years had passed since their last Consulship.
This meant that Roman Consuls faced great urgency in their Consulship. They had exactly one year to make their mark on the Roman world and Roman politics.
This is the first factor we can point to that promotes Unity or Disunity — as far as I can tell, this type of structural urgency tends to be hostile to unity.
If you think through it for a moment, you’ll realize why it’s true.
Julius Caesar took the office of Consul for the first time in 59 BC, and he had a large amount of legislation he needed passed for himself and his allies.
A rival faction to Caesar attempted to oppose the majority of his laws — his fellow Consul for the year, Marcus Biblius, tried to block Caesar from convening voting assemblies.
This was of dubious legality, but Caesar’s party followed up with illegal maneuvers of their own — already, mob politics had become a large part of the Roman political scene, and members of the mob allied to Caesar harassed Bibulus. Famously, Caesar’s supporters took the ceremonial axes from Bibulus’s bodyguard and broke them in public before forcing him out of the Roman forum.
Even after Bibulus was largely banished from public political life, there remained opposition to Caesar’s laws. Famously, Cato the Younger would try to “filibuster” laws from getting passed. By custom, any member of the Roman Senate could talk as long as they wanted during the debate on a piece of legislation.
When Caesar proposed a bill to transfer public Roman lands to discharged veterans of Pompey, the majority of Senators were either in favor or lukewarmly disagreed with the legislation — in any event, it was going to pass.
But when Cato’s turn to speak came up, he started talking… and kept talking… and talked more… and kept talking… and kept talking… and…
Cato had filibustered previous Consuls’ proceedings before, but Caesar was not having it. He had his bodyguards drag Cato out of the Senate and arrest him.
Again, there is dubious legality on both sides of this equation — the filibuster was a relatively novel thing in Roman politics, and it wasn’t clear if it should be allowed to stand. Likewise, the Consul — Caesar — certainly could have people arrested for disrupting public affairs, but a Senator had never been arrested during a public debate.
At the end of these episodes, the Senate was unable to function normally and Caesar was forced to convene a People’s Assembly to pass the law, bypassing the Senate entirely.
Now, if you study Caesar’s life, you know that he always went out of his way to placate people, to win friends, to conciliate enemies. He normally was not very rough with people if he could help it.
If Caesar had a longer term of office, no doubt he would have worked slower to get the legislation passed, and not taken such harsh measures. But with the structural urgency due to his one year in office, he was forced to choose between failing to get his legislation passed or running roughshod over tradition and the dignity of his opponents.
He chose the latter.
STRUCTURAL COSTS AND BENEFITS
Roman elections were highly competitive — and highly expensive to campaign in.
There’s multiple reasons why this was true. First and foremost, it was seen as one of the highest honors and one of the most striven-for things among the upper classes. At any given time, there might be around 1,000 Roman Senators, and yet there were only two Consuls per year. It was an office many men aspired to, but which few were able to reach.
In the late Roman Republic, though, Consuls were also typically given governorship of a province after their term as Consul. This was incredibly lucrative — provincial governors had a variety of legal, quasi-legal, and illegal-but-widely-done ways to make immense amounts of money from the office.
To be elected Consul, Caesar — among others — needed to spend a vast amount of money. Some of this was spent legitimately, in ways we’d recognize in modern elections. There was campaigning, there was a variety of arts and crafts that promoted the candidate, there were highly paid skilled roles related to campaigning.
And there was a lot of bribery involved, too.
Typically, to be elected Consul, an immense amount of money was required. Then, if successfully elected and granted a lucrative province, there was an immense amount of money to be made.
This is the type of thing we don’t think about so much, but which greatly effects the character of people running for office and the type of facilitators of those running for office.
Running for office was a very risky affair if not from a very wealthy family, and as such, you got ambitious risk-taking types primarily running for office. It would be too strong to call them “gamblers,” but there was an element of gambling and chance involved. More conservative and less risk-inclined people would be unlikely to come into Rome’s highest office.
Likewise, risk-taking wealthy people could greatly effect elections they didn’t run in — Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome, backed Caesar’s campaign heavily with an immense amount of money. As such, Caesar was indebted to Crassus. He both needed to win and needed to be assigned a lucrative governorship to come out of his election with enough money to pay his debts and secure himself.
IMMUNITY AND LIABILITY
A factor that quietly dominates all of our lives is who is accountable if something goes wrong and what’s the procedure for punishment?
We don’t think about this too often in stable places, because the procedure generally changes so slowly that it becomes “an accepted fact of life” — we, thus, don’t even realize it’s happening.
In the Roman world, there was no concept of a state prosecutor — all trials, civil and criminal, were brought in the form of a lawsuit.
If a Roman governor broke the law in a foreign province, the local people could not ask the governor to be charged by any standing legal body — rather, people from that city or region would have to ask a member of the Roman Senate to bring a lawsuit against the governor once they got out of office.
And — only once they got out of office. During tenure as a consul or governor, Roman magistrates had “consular immunity” — they were immune from both civil and criminal lawsuits while they were in office.
Alongside the vast amount of money involved in holding the Consulship or a Governorship, the threat of prosecution immediately afterwards always loomed.
I believe both of these factors lead to alliances based on advantage — which are fragile and more susceptible to change than alliances based on genuine friendship and admiration — and additionally, paranoia at the threat of harm to oneself can prompt people towards acting in desperate or rash ways.
When Caesar eventually crossed the Rubicon, one of the largest reasons was that his opponents had tried to end his Governor’s immunity before he was able to stand for election as Consul for a second time after the successful Gallic Wars.
This would have opened him up to prosecution, and he might well have been found guilty — notably, no one was talking of suing him for his conduct as Governor in Gaul, but rather for the irregularities that had happened ten years earlier when he was Consul (his supporters’ assault on Bibulus, Cato’s arrest, etc).
Again, I think these structural pressures apply over and beyond any personality factors. From my personal reading of Caesar’s commentaries and the biographies of him by other Romans, he seems like he was a reasonable and conciliatory person the vast majority of the time.
But the looming threat of a large punishment — and indeed, the fact that similar politicians to himself had been murdered when they’d laid down their authority and arms — led him to make the desperate step of crossing the Rubicon and setting off a Civil War.
Technology can certainly evolve quickly, but human nature doesn’t change so much. Lessons from the Roman Civil Wars can certainly be learned and applied to the modern world.
Take, for instance, the American DARPA — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Founded in 1958, DARPA has undoubtedly been the most successful government agency in technological invention of all time. The Internet and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) both came out of DARPA.
Notably, DARPA only has 240 employees. It’s tiny, as far as government agencies go. Equally importantly, the tenure of staff at DARPA is strictly limited — as such, things move quickly in DARPA.
I have no insight as to whether it’s a place of great unity and cooperation, or not, but I’d imagine people working at DARPA are more willing to ruffle feathers than the majority of government agencies around the world. There’s structural urgency at DARPA.
You see, structural urgency isn’t good or bad — it comes with a set of tradeoffs. In general, monarchies move slower than democracies, and democracies with shorter terms of office move faster than democracies with longer terms of office.
The tradeoff with structural urgency is greater speed at the expense of higher disunity and more conflict. You can see a similar pattern when large corporations bring in consultants to bring bad news and make unpopular decisions — the consultant, not looking towards a long career, has greater structural urgency.
You can see this pattern everywhere — funded startups have a greater structural urgency than large corporations or wholly owned small businesses. Again — greater friction, less unity, more falling out… but things typically get done faster.
Likewise, I’ve heard a number of accounts in highly competitive fields like medicine and law of students actively sabotaging other students in the field. Things like stealing or destroying reference textbooks in the library are apparently quite common among law students.
Thus, you see the same pattern as Roman elections applying to those fields — the average law or medical student might take on $250,000 in debt to get their degrees, followed by particularly brutal hours immediately after graduating, followed by being in the highest-earning bracket after that’s all completed.
Thus, you see a certain ferocity and a lack of cooperation among people in those fields. Getting the best medical residency or joining the most prestigious law firm right out of school dramatically effects one’s monetary and life outcomes.
And it’s not merely the difference between “good” and “better” — the mix of being required to take on heavy debts to go into the field, with a huge variance in later pay, leads to decreased unity and cooperation.
Similar measures apply to liability and fear of punishment. I remember hearing an anecdote about the son of Russian immigrants to the United States who founded a company, raised venture capital, and then the company failed. The young Russian man was having a conversation with his mother. It went something like this —
Founder: Mom, the company failed. I’m getting a job.
Mother: And what about all the money they gave you?
Founder: It’s gone. We failed. They lost the money.
Mother: You don’t have to pay the money back?
Founder: No, it doesn’t work like that.
Mother: You don’t need to give them the money?
Mother: … America is a great country.
We tend not to think about these things too often, but they pervade life all around us. If a single failure is career ruining, people will get increasingly desperate when facing failure — and be willing to do a variety of increasingly rash things in the face of failure.
When that’s mitigated to some extent, paradoxically, there’s a greater ability to be conciliatory and forthright. And this seems to apply just as much to reputation as it does material considerations.
A TIDE IN THE AFFAIRS OF MEN
“There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyages of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat…”
— from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
After the assassination of Julius Caesar, a chaotic period ensued. Eventually, the assassins were named public enemies and hunted down by Caesar’s adopted son Octavian — later Augustus — and one of Caesar’s top commanders, Mark Anthony.
Shakespeare’s “tides in the affairs of men” speech is set as a dialog between two of the assassins, Brutus and Cassius. They’re analyzing that Anthony and Octavian are gathering power, and they need to move quickly.
But that dialog could just as easily have been attributed to Caesar before crossing the Rubicon —
“The enemy increaseth every day.
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men…”
There was probably no hope for Brutus and Cassius once they’d bloodied their daggers on the Ides of March, but nevertheless, the situation they found themselves in is merely a more extreme version of one that happens commonly.
Structural pressures are all around us — how do we navigate them?
I believe three things are worth doing —
1. Recognize explicitly the structural pressures in a situation,
2. Try to disarm and mitigate structural pressures with long-term solutions when possible, and,
3. When possible, alleviate tension on a largely permanent basis.
GUIDANCE: RECOGNIZING AND ADJUSTING STRUCTURAL PRESSURES
Unity is certainly both beautiful and highly productive to achieve — to do so, we’ll need to understand and navigate the underlying structural pressures.
First and foremost, we must recognize what they are. One of the great tragedies of the Roman Republic is that, shortly before Caesar crossed the Rubicon, legislation was passed that might have alleviated some of the pressures that caused it— a law was passed that would have had a “cooling-off period” immediately after Consulship where no Consul could go to immediately becoming a Governor. Combined with anti-bribery laws that were instated, this would have lowered the urgency of similar situations and the indebtedness required to get into politics.
Alas, these laws were never fully tried, because the Civil War undid all regular business in the Roman Republic.
Well, so it goes. For you, personally, you should first recognize the structural pressures in a given situation. Actually carefully studying and thinking through incentives and customs is a good starting point. Many of the most successful organizations carefully think through these and don’t take them for granted.
In particular, I wrote about Book In A Box in a past issue — if you haven’t read their culture document yet, it’s worth reading. The BIAB founders, Max and Obront, studied what the effects venture capital would have had on the company, and chose not to take it. As such, they don’t have to meet any set of growth numbers, and likewise, they can have generous profit distributions to employees every single year.
Again, it’s worth reading their culture document — they carefully thought through what the normal structural pressures were in a fast-growing technology-and-services company, and they mitigated many of those.
GUIDANCE: ALLEVIATING TENSIONS ON A PERMANENT BASIS
Another of the other great tragedies of the end of the Roman Republic was how much sheer dumb luck led to it.
Julius Caesar’s daughter Julia had married Pompey, and it was by all accounts a very happy marriage. When Julia died tragically young, that connection between Caesar and Pompey was broken, and within a few years they were at war.
This was Maecanas’s later guidance to Augustus — Agrippa was so powerful that naturally any rival faction could look to try to side with Agrippa against Augustus, similar to how Rome’s Optimate faction had gotten Pompey to side with them against Caesar.
Maecanas was very aware of this, and Agrippa was duly married to Augustus’s daughter. Eventually, it was Agrippa’s son-in-law Tiberius who became the second Emperor of Rome, and his grandchildren became the third and fourth Emperors.
If you’re building any organization that you’d like to endure over long periods of time, it’s worth considering that most founders of such organizations fall out.
Through a series of marriage alliances and other skillful adjustments to the Roman legal and political system, Augustus ensured that didn’t happen with the other most powerful men of the Augustan age.
In recent times, perhaps the most impressive success in technology where two founders didn’t fall out were Brin and Page of Google. Meeting as PhD students at Stanford and inventing some very impressive ways to identify and display the most relevant search results, Google became far more successful than either of them could ever have anticipated.
This situation has happened often enough in history, and the typical outcome is that the founders fall out with each other. After all, there’s only one CEO — a structural pressure — and that’s typically the paramount and most desired job in a corporation.
Of course, Brin and Page didn’t fall out — and I’d attribute much of that to their deciding to hire Eric Schmidt as CEO. After doing that, there was no rivalry between the two of them for the top job.
These things don’t need to be over-thought during the initial stages of starting an organization, but are easy to neglect once large-scale successes happen. The vast, vast majority of business partners fall out in such a scenario — it’s worth thinking the case through carefully if you ever find yourself in such a situation, and thinking through how to mitigate it.
Ah, there’s so much more to say here — it would be possible to write 100,000 words just on the topic of which structural factors promote unity, and which do not.
Well, we have a whole series ahead of us, though there are a whole host of other considerations beyond structural pressures.
The largest piece of guidance I’d like to leave you with —
Think through unity.
It doesn’t happen automatically. The vast majority of people never experience the achievement and sheer joy that comes from maximal-cooperation and maximal-thriving.
But if you’ve ever known someone that was part of an elite team — a sports team, a business organization, a civic organization, a military unit, a political campaign, anything — you know that it’s often the high point of a person’s life.
It doesn’t happen automatically.
It doesn’t happen at all to most people.
It rarely if ever happens accidentally.
For my part, the topic fascinates me endlessly — and I hope I’ve persuaded you to start becoming fascinated with it.
We’ll explore Unity more over the coming weeks, but on your own, I can’t recommend enough that you start studying the mechanics of unity.
Think through and analyze the current era and its institutions. Study history and find times and places where great cooperation and thriving happened. Study why the Greeks were able to finally band together under Xenophon to escape Persia after the Persian Civil War, and study too why the coalition fell apart immediately after reaching safety.
Dive into the Roman Republic and identify why it fell. Study what Augustus did to stabilize Rome after a century of strife.
Study great teams, great companies, great partnerships and collaborations.
Unity isn’t free, it isn’t easy, and most people never really experience the highest degrees of it — but it’s truly one of the most beautiful, fantastic, and life-affirming things if you can do the work to reach the heights of it.
I’m greatly looking forward to this series — until next week, yours,
The is the first Issue in our Series on Unity. If you’d like to follow the series, you can get one long-form issue delivered for free to your inbox every Thursday. Sign up here —
Additionally, a big thanks to everyone who dove deep into our last series, Background Ops. If you’d like to catch up on Background Ops, Issue #1: Strict Limit laid out the premises, and Issue #5: The Nature of Operations was the most popular. And a big thanks to the thousands (!) of people now using a Lights Spreadsheet, as described in Background Ops #2: Keystone. If you want to try one out yourself, you can get a free template of Lights and Best Practices guide here —