Corners

In almost all board games–chess, go (wei chi), backgammon, etc. –the corners spell defeat and death. In each game, the corners are configured differently, but as someone who plays them all, I know the feeling that first hits me in the gut as I sense that I am finding myself trapped in a corner. My pulse increases, my emotions get tugged at (anger, frustration, impatience) and often I end up making mistakes that aggravate the situation. The key in the end is to minimize the damage and regain control of the center. But the real key lies in the mind and the feeling you have as you are cornered.

This mental aspect of the corner becomes much more physical in sports such as boxing, football (pushed to your own end of the field), basketball, martial arts. You physically cramp up, your throat constricts, your body tightens as you move into the confining space. Musashi had much to write about on this subject, and I cannot do better.

In WAR, I theorize where this comes from, in the Envelopment chapter. We humans for millions of years were nomadic. We associated freedom and well-being with the ability to move into open spaces, to find places more suited to hunting. The years we have spent settled in cities is miniscule compared to the years of nomadism. But even to this day, the thought of confining spaces, of limited options, of feeling cornered instills in us panic and confusion. Obviously, in warfare the corner meant instant death, although this could be turned around in the dynamic of the death-ground strategy.


Now, these corners exist on higher, more abstract planes. They occur on a career and business level. For instance, a person finds out that going to a certain extreme with their character garners them a lot of attention, fame and success. This trait could be an aggressive edge, a warrior mentality. But as it plays out, it turns into a corner. People can only expect you to be that same aggressive person, but soon they tire of you as the embodiment of it, and turn to someone younger. If you change and adapt your persona, you are seen as inauthentic; if you stay the angry young man, you fade from attention or seem tiresome.

What brought you fame, becomes your trap. And so often this happens with people in their careers, impelled by something that works in youth but that ends up bringing more and more limited options to move. And there is no worse feeling than seeing what worked for you in the past no longer working for you now. And you can make it worse by reacting: becoming more aggressive or doing a 360.

You start out in a relationship in which the other person has a problem with one aspect of your personality and they criticize you again and again. You learn to retreat because in general the relationship is good and fighting over something relatively minor does not seem worth it. This goes on for months or years and you end up retreating on other issues to avoid ugly conflicts, and you find yourself…in a corner. If you try to break out, it is equated with breaking up. You cannot leave yet you feel trapped in staying. This is a corner, and also a stalemate. The pieces no longer move.

In politics, you plot a course in a strong direction, to differentiate yourself from your predecessor in office, who seemed indecisive in comparison. At first, this is refreshing and it makes you look strong. But moving in strong directions is not necessarily strategic, if such moves are not well thought-out, and as this plays itself out, it becomes a trap, a corner. You cannot change directions without seeming weak. You certainly cannot back out or retreat. Your options become limited and because your first bold moves were ill-considered, you are set on a course that cannot turn out well. What worked in the first year or two becomes a dead end.

As you are right now, in your profession or relationships or battles that you face, you could be backing yourself into a corner. And the thing is, you are rarely aware of it as happens, because often it is when you are excited and emotional, feeling engaged and moving in some direction, or that you have solved a problem, that you inadvertently trap yourself.

There are always ways to get yourself out, in a tactical sense, but the wisest course is to become a strategist in the Sun-tzu sense of the term. What matters in the Sun-tzu universe are not positions of strength and power, but situations in which you have options, full of potential force. It is a different way of thinking than what we are used to, particularly in the west, in which so much revolves around moving towards a goal. That is linear thinking. What you want is to aim for something that increases your options for power and mobility. This is more like a soft and radiant position, than something hard and dug into the ground.

In politics, FDR was the master of this. (I suggest reading the best of all bios on him, The Lion and the Fox). In boxing, Ali is the epitome. In football, I find Bill Bellichek to be the best player at this, on a coaching level. In hip-hop, they say that Jay-Z is the king of this maneuver, but it is too early to tell. In swordfighting, this is where Musashi reigns supreme, and The Book of Five Rings is a manual for how to fight in this fluid way. In war, there are innumerable examples to study and follow.

The Iraq War can be analyzed in this way, as an inverted pyramid of decreasing options. And the solution could only really have come at the beginning, in which the main strategic question would have been how to place the United States in the best possible position five years down the line, with options to go in this and that direction. This very well could have been mapped out in several prongs or arrows: decreasing our dependence on oil, slowly building up our image in the Middle East with various politically driven policies, isolating the extremists, and at a certain point of ripeness, considering the war option (Iraq). Or other options as they presented themselves, but all from a position of strength and mobility as opposed to the corner we are now in.

On a career level, I always advise people to look ahead and be open to changes in direction. That job that seems so good now can easily turn into a nightmare if you do not see the possible corners it can land you in. I know, because in working in Hollywood, seduced by the pay, I backed myself into such a corner. I only got out by thinking far ahead and plotting a much different direction in my life. Instead of aiming at becoming a screenwriter, a trapped position if ever there is one, I aimed at writing books on subjects that excited me and presented endless possibilities for going in this or that direction, even returning to screenwriting, if I wanted to, but on my terms. I had some good luck along the way, but now I finally feel that I have come close to that position of potential force, although the battle is not over.

By the way, very Happy New Year, many thanks for supporting this site, and much power and success to all of you in 07!

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