Conflict, Adversity and Success

Two triggers for today’s post. At first poles apart, one about history from an article in a newspaper. The other about sport from an on-line article.


Royla Castle Warsaw Burning 1939.
Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Both reinforcing my contention that conflict and adversity are necessary for growth, advancement and success.

One offering clues for the current problems in the European Community and possibly the USA. Problems that may lead to major changes in both regions in the years ahead.

The other perhaps, reflecting a growing disenchantment with the politically correct, damaging attitude to rewarding attendance not achievement in children’s sport.

In a column in the National Post, Robert Fulford quotes from the book Why Did Europe Conquer The World by Philip Hoffman, a California Institute of Technology economic historian.

Hoffman agrees on the point made by Jared Diamond in Guns Germs and Steel that the European’s superior weapons were the major reason for European nations colonising much of America, Asia and Africa.

He does not seem to give the same weight to Diamond’s support of exotic diseases introduced by the colonisers to native populations with no resistance being a major factor.

Instead, he looks at the factors that drove the Europeans to develop those superior weapons.

Why it should have been people in that small part of the world and not the Chinese who had invented gunpowder, or the Arabian people who were superior in mathematics.

Why in the 900 years from the year 1000, the Europeans went from being uneducated and crude to ruling over 84% of the world’s surface.

The answer he believes is conflict and adversity.

With no unity in Europe like the EEC of today, there was a state of almost constant warfare. Constant warfare among many small nations drove the improvement of weapons. It forced the design of better ships, more powerful firearms and cannons, weapons that were lighter, more maneuverable and had longer ranges.

The result was that small, mobile, armies with huge firepower could overwhelm far larger numbers of defenders armed only with sticks, bows and arrows. Huge colonies were created with few casualties among the invading forces.

More effective weapons led to better strategies and tactics. Innovation in weapons design and manufacture, led to advances in other areas; steam engines, railways, canals for transportation. Access to materials from foreign sources led to an expansion of commerce and wealth which in turn drove more development.

Those conflicts between European nations continued up to WWII. That conflict advanced aircraft design, jet engine, radar and wireless communication development enormously. The later cold war period added urgency to the space race, computer and nuclear technology.

Since then, there have been no Western European military conflicts. Eastern European conflicts have been largely localised and small-scale, often sparked by Russia’s attempts to re-assert itself as a superpower. Terrible adversity for those caught up in them, but not enough to kick-start big advances in any technology.

The end of European conflict and adversity

Other conflicts around the world have been confined to small areas. Despite the huge cost in lives, infrastructure and materials, the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are not on the same scale. They are either between grossly mismatched opponents or between relatively unsophisticated armies using weapons invented in and provided by the West or captured from other unsophisticated groups.

There have been huge advances in many areas, communication, medicine, computers. However in others not so much. Cars have become faster, lighter, safer but still overwhelmingly have four wheels on the road and burn fuel derived from oil in internal combustion engines. Despite the claims by manufacturers, they are hardly more fuel-efficient than some of the carburetor equipped models of the 1960s.

Hoffman’s argument that conflict and the adversity it creates drive innovation and progress is compelling. As I wrote in this earlier post, those same conditions helped South Africa and Rhodesia become world leaders in mining, heart transplants and agriculture. Constant threat from numerically superior forces is a major reason that Israel has become the most advanced nation in the middle east. The same for Taiwan in the 20th century.

The same is true for all of us on a personal level. When things are easy, the human mind gets distracted. In times of conflict or when striving to overcome adversity we achieve much more.

The second trigger was this article about James Harrison, line backer for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who made his sons return trophies they had been awarded for just showing up to athletics practice.

He said that he is not sorry for believing that awards should be earned for succeeding not just be given to whining kids to shut them up.

Two points of view that conflict and adversity are part of life, they drive development in nations and people. Without them, life is bland. By surviving, overcoming and thriving on them, we succeed.

Does this idea threaten the future of the EEC? The problems in Greece and the disenchantment in the UK with Brussels shows that it is already threatened.

Could the same apply to the USA? Would rumoured moves by interests in Texas and other states to secede from the union succeed? Much might depend on who becomes the next President and what policies he or she follows.

Does James Harrison’s brave stand against rewarding mediocrity in sport signal a return to common sense and a move away from political correctness?

Many questions, interesting times, what are your thoughts on conflict, adversity and attendance trophies?

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  2 comments for “Conflict, Adversity and Success

  1. Roberta
    August 26, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    I am not sure that only adversity makes one creative or an entire society more creative. Nor do I think that adversity is necessary for “growth, advancement, and success.”

    Sometimes it happens that way. But I think most of the time it is some thing else.

    I think of the early to mid years of the United States of America and the incredible number and type of inventions made:

    Lightning rod, swivel chair, bi-focals, cotton gin, fire hydrant, coffee percolator, smoke detector, mouse trap, and ferris wheel to name a few.

    In recent years the transistor, bait cars, java script, Adobe Flash, the Torino scale, defibrillator, cat liter, air blown hand dryer, teleprompter, bread clip, and WD-40 are just a few of the world wide inventions.

    I did an internet search and, yes, there are inventions that come from adversity such as the car back-up alert, rubber soled shoes, airbags, and the 3-light traffic signal. However, there did not seem to be many. Or maybe those inventions do not get much PR.

    Nevertheless, I think I could write a pretty good essay claiming that spurts of creativity are due to freedom and time more than adversity.

    However, that does not necessarily mean that your theory is not true as well. Sometimes adversity is a conduit to inventions; such as the car back-up alert. I am just not sure adversity is the main one.

    What adversity did Bill Gates have to overcome to create Windows? Yes, he had some road blocks and a failure or two……….but real adversity???? What he had was a ‘stick-to-it” and ‘never give up’ attitude.

    Furthermore, adversity can make some people so unhappy and mean spirited they become self-centered and slide too easily into a life of crime.

    Innovation and invention creation takes a strong personality and a disciplined person to keep trying in the face of failure after failure to create something new.

    There is a difference between failure and adversity.

  2. Peter
    August 28, 2015 at 8:08 am

    Good points Roberta. Yes, I agree that freedom and time can and do, produce ideal conditions for creativity. Also that adversity can make some people mean and criminally inclined.

    However Philip Hoffman’s argument is certainly supported by developments and inventions during periods of conflict and adversity.

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