The Mind as a River

Understand: the greatest generals, the most creative strategists, stand out not because they have more knowledge but because they are able, when necessary, to drop their preconceived notions and focus intensely on the present moment. That is how creativity is sparked and opportunities are seized. Knowledge, experience, and theory have limitations: no amount of thinking in advance can prepare you for the chaos of life, for the infinite possibilities of the moment. The great philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz called this “friction”: the difference between our plans and what actually happens. Since friction is inevitable, our minds have to be capable of keeping up with change and adapting to the unexpected. The better we can adapt our thoughts to the current circumstances, the more realistic our responses to them will be….

Think of the mind as a river: the faster it flows, the better it keeps up with the present and responds to change. The faster it flows, also the more it refreshes itself and the greater its energy. Obsessional thoughts, past experiences (whether traumas or successes), and preconceived notions are like boulders or mud in this river, settling and hardening there and damming it up. The river stops moving; stagnation sets in. You must wage constant war on this tendency in the mind.

— Robert Greene, 33 Strategies of War, page 22.

Here’s Greene on John Boyd’s OODA loop and why speed is the critical element of winning strategies. Of those who win in ruthless times: “We can think fast, let go of the need to control everything, stay close to the environment in which we operate (the streets, our clients), and experiment.”

9 comments on “The Mind as a River
  • I agree; yet I think this emphasis can be misleading. The ability to drop preconceived notions is only useful in the context of a great deal of knowledge, experience, and theory. Otherwise a toddler would be better equipped than an experienced general. The river must flow through a channel.

  • Hasn’t Dave Winer or somebody created software that generates pseudo-Taoist bromides like Greene’s bit about the mind as river?

    I’m of the opinion that people who utter phrases like “zen-like calmness” should be zapped into “zen-like” oblivion immediately.

    Nothing is frightening to me but the thought that future armies of amoral thugs like 50 Cent or Tony Blair will be inspired by reading one more Robert Greene guide to becoming an evil narcissist.

    The excerpts read like latter-day Robert J. Ringer lectures at Screw U, and I hear that al-Qaeda as well as the Republican National Committee study Greene’s books closely.

    Unfortunately for our society, in wars fought in the business world the “enemy” is more often not the competition, but the customers.

    If I may be allowed to paraphrase Ringer writing on an unethical real estate developer:

    If he…spends an inordinate amount of time expounding on the virtues of reading books about ‘winning through intimidation’-like his, for example- it is an almost sure sign that the person with whom you are speaking is a rapist, murderer, or worst of all, the writer of books like The 48 Laws of Power.

  • Sorry, Ben, I can’t take Greene’s point seriously, since he expresses it with such utter schlock.

    It’s obvious to me that everything he writes is a ‘perfect exploitation’ of his own Law 27: “Play on people’s needs to believe to create a cultlike following”.

    He’s very good at it.

  • So Vince, his writing isn’t worth taking seriously…because of the the fact that he used one of the laws himself to great success?

    And btw, the mind as a river analogy was probably old when Heraclitus used it. The reason people return to it is because it expresses a very critical truth.

  • Thanks for your reply, Ryan.

    It was probably some Cro-Magnon shaman looking out his cave-door who came up with the metaphor of mind as a river, but I can hardly think of a more ludicrous spin on the Taoist spirit of The Art of War than Greene’s warmed-over bellicose rhetoric.

    My bullshit detector goes off like a geiger counter in a uranium mine when a failed screenwriter tries to “make military combat a fitting metaphor for getting ahead in life” and dispenses advice on “strategy, power and seduction” aimed at the self-help market.

    Greene wants us to apply strategies from “the bloody battles of history” to “the subtle social game of everyday life”.

    Of course, his butch-talk is more likely to be deployed by flabby 50 Cent-quoting drones in that dangerous war zone at the water cooler than in the mean streets of Southside, but I like the way Mark Steyn puts it:

    “Reading through Robert Greene’s recommendations– ‘The Death-Ground Strategy’, ‘The Blitzkrieg Strategy’, ‘The Annihilation Strategy’– you can’t help feeling they’d be rather exhausting applied to seeing off your rival at the hair salon, but might come in handy with, say, the Janjaweed militia in Sudan.”

  • The quote is nothing more than an old maxim of the infantry; “The plan is the first casualty on contact (with the enemy).” Here in the USMC we’ll sit down and discuss ways to speed up your OODA loop and direct training in a way to enhance the decision making process. However talking about “the river of the mind,” discriptive as it may be, is really just compenstation for of a lack of technical knowledge.

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