Intellect without will is worthless, will without intellect is dangerous


When I come across great quotes I normally put them on my Tumblog but I like this one from Art of War author Sun Tzu so much I decided to share it with all of you.  As you will notice I’ve used an excerpt from the full quote as the title for the post.

The essential thing is action.  Action has three stages: the decision born of thought, the order or preparation for execution, and the execution itself.  All three stages are governed by the will.  The will is rooted in character, and for the man of action character is of more critical importance than intellect.  Intellect without will is worthless, will without intellect is dangerous.

– Sun Tzu, as quoted in the Marine Corps Warfighting Dotrine

There is so much in here that is relevant to startups:

  • The importance of striking a balance between thinking everything through properly and not letting too much thought get in the way of action
  • The consequences of acting without thinking properly first
  • The importance of thorough preparation
  • The importance of character in an entrepreneur and leader, and how that is about so much more than raw intelligence
  • The centrality of ‘will’ and ‘determination’
  • The limits and the importance of intelligence

It is easy to write about the balance between thinking and acting in a blog post, but is much harder in the every day maelstrom of running a business – I see that in the running of our fund and in the companies in which we invest, which is maybe why I wanted to reflect on the quote at a bit of length.

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  • Walter Healy

    Hi Nic-

    I’m glad to find people younger than I thinking and blogging on important issues.

    My current odyssey to your blog began when I was amazed to find the book “Will to Power” by Nietzsche as a central prop in the 1933 movie Baby Face starring Barbara Stanwyck that I watched recently on TCM. This was a story about a beautiful woman who was given that book by a wise elder and used her beauty and charm on men to rise from poverty to wealth and power. Schopenhauer was a key influence on Nietzsche. Both of them spoke about the importance and interrelationship of intellect, will and action in most human activities.

    Sun Tzu does the same in teaching about war. I suggest that his precepts apply more broadly to life.

    War and life are chaotic. Sun Tzu probably treats another important concept in his treatise: once war begins, you must be ready to change your goal, strategy and tactics as necessary depending on the actions, reactions or inaction of not only your enemy but also your own forces and allies. You must constantly assess your personnel and resources.

    In your business of advising startups, listen carefully to potential customers, watch changes in technology and the marketplace and adjust your thinking as necessary. I have seen many startups founder and fail because ideas looked good in theory and on paper but fell in practice into the black hole of obscurity.

    Even well-established firms must constantly innovate and adapt to prevent obsolescence in their products and services and destruction and death at the hands of competitors. Look, as a good example, at the travails and triumphs of McDonald’s over the past 10-15 years. They are still fighting the good fight today, but may not survive because they are too big and not nimble enough in local markets.

    My senior undergraduate thesis when I was in R. C. seminary had the pretentious title “The Formal Essence of Beatitude” – in the vernacular “what it’s like in heaven.” My paper discussed and attempted to reconcile somewhat conflicting views of catholic theologians, principally Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus, about the primacy of intellect or will in heaven.

    My later life experiences and thinking persuade me that god, heaven and hell do not exist, so my paper is moot. I have developed my own code of morality that is guided primarily by the golden rule. That still relies heavily, however, on intellect, will and action in large and small matters, along with many other practical and heuristic concepts.

    My thinking has been informed by poems, songs and even comedy routines that I think are instructive on our goals and caveats in life. First and foremost is “Imagine” by John Lennon, a paean for a utopian society. Then, “Man of Peace” and “License to Kill” from Bob Dylan. Eddie Izzard did a telling piece on “Flags.” Robert Burns’ “To a Mouse” in 1785 reminds me to apply the golden rule to animals and the environment as well as to fellow humans. Finally, I read MacBeth’s soliloquy “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow …” from Shakespeare whenever I am feeling too cocky.
    These should be easily accessible on youtube and Google, but I will send links if that would be helpful. [As I write this, I realize most of these fellows are your countrymen.]

    In closing, and with apologies for the length of my comments, I want to send you this keen and trenchant attack on “War” in “The Mysterious Stranger” by Mark Twain, whose sentiments I share based on my own life experiences and study of history, especially here in the U.S.:

    “There has never been a just [war], never an honorable one–on
    the part of the instigator of the war. I can see a million years ahead, and
    this rule will never change in so many as half a dozen instances. The loud
    little handful–as usual–will shout for the war. The pulpit will–warily and
    cautiously–object–at first; the great, big, dull bulk of the nation will rub
    its sleepy eyes and try to make out why there should be a war, and will say,
    earnestly and indignantly, ‘It is unjust and dishonorable, and there is no
    necessity for it.’ Then the handful will shout louder. A few fair men on the
    other side will argue and reason against the war with speech and pen, and at
    first will have a hearing and be applauded; but it will not last long; those
    others will outshout them, and presently the anti-war audiences will thin out
    and lose popularity. Before long you will see this curious thing: the speakers
    stoned from the platform, and free speech strangled by hordes of furious men who in their secret hearts are still at one with those stoned speakers–as
    earlier–but do not dare say so. And now the whole nation–pulpit and all–will
    take up the war-cry, and shout itself hoarse, and mob any honest man who
    ventures to open his mouth; and presently such mouths will cease to open. Next the statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception.”

    All food for thought.
    Walter Healy, NYC. [email protected]

    © 2015 Walter Healy. All rights reserved.