The Fog of War

A fog of war covers the undiscovered world. For every part of it you uncover in the world around you, you uncover in the world within you

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When I was young there was a computer game I loved playing called Age of Empires. It was a strategy game where you took control of one of the great civilisations of history – Romans, Aztecs, Mongols, etc. – and had to build their empire up from scratch. You started by foraging for materials, hunting animals for food and building simple shelters. You quickly progressed to mining resources, building towns and developing different technologies. Then you came across rival civilisations trying to do the same thing as you and – inevitably – you go to war.

When the game starts you’re only able to see a small window of the map. The rest of it is covered by a black mist, which evaporates as your growing band of villagers and soldiers sets out to explore the area. Once discovered, the ‘fog’ is uncovered and that section of the map is permanently revealed.

The concept of the ‘fog of war’ is attributed to Prussian military leader Carl von Clausewitz. He used the metaphor of fog to describe all of the stuff you don’t – or can’t – know while you’re on the battlefield in the heat of war.

I’m not a war general here, nor am I one of those people who studies the likes of Machiavelli or Sun Tzu to get an edge over my real or imagined ‘enemies’. But the phrase has always stuck in my head when I’m thinking about how achievements and experiences register in our heads (it applies to travel too, of course, but I think that warrants its own article in the future).

The phrase actually came to mind first when thinking about exercise and training. I find it a useful way to think about milestones and achievements, and to remind myself that once I’ve done something, no matter how badly, or how uncertain or terrifying it was the first time, mentally it becomes a whole lot easier to do it again once you’ve done it the first time.

I guess it’s more commonly known as getting out of your comfort zone. People often refer to this as a good thing, but why? It’s almost one of those things people say they like doing without really thinking about what it means. It is a good thing though. In a broader sense, comfort = stagnation = death. In a more immediate sense though, the more you leave your comfort zone, the easier life gets.

Your mental energy is expended from thinking about what lies under the fog of war.

Your brain is basically worried about one thing: the unknown. Everything else it can manage – or at least it thinks it can. And that’s enough for it not to overexert itself. When it thinks it knows everything, it is relaxed, even though we all know that’s when bad things happen.

We spend so much mental energy thinking about uncertainty. But uncertainty isn’t any one thing, it’s everything you don’t know. It’s infinite. And there’s an infinite number of ways it can hurt you. It is why holidays can be exhausting, despite the point being to relax (or at least it used to be anyway) – a trip to a foreign or a new place is full of novelty by definition, and just navigating it is difficult.

And so, just doing something for the sake of having done it once before, no matter how bad, inept or naïve your attempt was, the easier it gets. Like doing a ‘dry run’ before your first day at work so you’re not late, or more importantly, not stressed out thinking about the directions when you should be thinking about the job.

There’s a couple of different ways I see the fog of war idea working in practice for me:

(1) destruction of arbitrary barriers and limits

(2) learning things through experience versus theory (the map versus the territory)

(1) Destruction of arbitrary barriers and limits.

Take running, for example. (Running is always just an easy example, as it’s basically something challenging and healthy you do for the long-term benefit. Plus, everyone’s at it these days). When you start running, just running for a minute or two might be a challenge. Unless you’ve run before, doing 5km is probably a big milestone and a massive achievement. And it is – congratulations if you’ve done it before. But once you’ve done it, everything less than that seems completely manageable. And even if you lose your fitness over a period of time, knowing you’ve done it before makes it so much easier to do it again (separate to muscle memory and cardio memory which recover surprisingly quickly).

If you’ve done 10km, 5km becomes a short one. It took me years to build up to running 10km. But now running for up to an hour doesn’t seem so daunting at all. If you’ve done a full marathon, you look back on anything less than that as if it were nothing.

So often it’s just self-talk, or – worse – what ‘they’ say that imposes the limits on you of something being hard, or impossible. Impossible is nothing, as they say…

Slowly but surely you navigate the new things, and inch by inch the fog of war gets uncovered on your psychological map. It’s a natural part of growing through life. The more you’ve experienced, the easier it is to navigate life. Some things, once discovered, will of course require practice and habit formation to truly become second nature or easy. But for many things, especially arbitrary goals, milestones and numbers, just experiencing them is enough to make you realise you can do it.

What seemed like the biggest drama and hurt in the world for a teenager, disappears into nothing as you grow older.

This isn’t just about running. It applies to anything, especially arbitrary milestones, numbers and targets, and especially if they’re things that ‘everyone’ agrees is ‘really hard’. The point is, once you’ve done something once, you know you can do it again. Once you’ve achieved a certain milestone, you can do it again. And once your psychological boundaries have been expanded beyond their current limits, things that once seemed like a big deal, no longer feel so.  

(2) Learning through experience versus theory

“The map is not the territory” – Alfred Korzybski

This is one of the most famous philosophical quotes of the 20th century. It means that no matter how good our model of reality is, it doesn’t compare to the actual experience of the world itself, including doing things.

I use the idea for writing as well. I’m still learning so much. There’s an awful lot of ‘writing about writing’ to learn from – you could find a quote from every writer in history about their craft. But the only way to learn is by doing.

Often you can only uncover the fog by clearing what’s in your way already. Sometimes you just have to work your way through without knowing what’s on the other side so you can get a good look at the whole terrain. I set myself a writing challenge this time last year. Write 2,000 words every day for 30 days – a full book’s worth, I thought. I managed the target, though I certainly didn’t write anything approaching what might be called ‘a book’. Also, it was a terribly defined goal to set myself, as any experienced (and non-hack) writer would tell you. I would have read the advice many times in some form.

Why? Because, apart from a rough overall idea, I was writing without purpose. Just aiming to hit the word counts. I fooled myself into believing that quantity = quality, or that if I just threw enough shit, some of it would stick. This would be the easy way out – not having to properly apply myself. Not having to push my brain into the unknown places it doesn’t want to go (procrastination is fear of the unknown holding you back). I kind of knew this wouldn’t work – I was avoiding setting more concrete goals and trying to just let ‘whatever happens, happens’.

So why was it a good experience? Because I had never done it before. And because I made a million mistakes in a relatively short period of time. Now I know a bunch of more things about writing – and not because someone else told me. Not from reading about it from an expert (a ‘map’) – but from practicing it myself (exploring the ‘territory’ itself). Often you need to make these mistakes, even if you ‘should have known better’. And if you could have avoided them: well, reality has a good way of teaching you lessons you need to learn.

The point is, once you’ve done things for yourself, they get internalised. There’s knowing and then there’s knowing.

How can I apply this?  

If there’s something you’re putting off doing because you’ve never done it before: stop thinking about it, and do it once. If you’re worried you’ll look stupid, do it anyway. Go and do it badly, and get it out of the way. Embrace being a tourist. See what it’s like a bunch of times.

Listen to music you’ve never listened to before, even if you don’t know anything about it. Watch a film without worrying what it’s about or if it’s any good. Read a book you’d normally decide “isn’t for you”. Do something without planning or thinking about it in advance.

And sometimes it can be a good idea to do something spontaneous, random, over the top and risky just to exercise that part of yourself that’s liable to fall into routines, or put limits on yourself. Often it's just because you don’t ‘know’ what it’s like. We are built for challenges and random exposure to stress. And it can be good to throw yourself head first into an intensive period of practice in order to learn as much as possible about something in one chunk – thereafter, each practice session becomes so much easier as you’ve touched on so many of the unknowns already, however briefly.

I suppose what you’re doing is uncovering or discovering a part of yourself, really. The part of you that’s capable of doing things. The more of the territory of the world we reveal, the more we reveal about ourselves. A lot of the fog of war is of our own creation at the end of the day, or created by the judgements of others. If we stop thinking about it, we’ll find we already know the terrain, we’ve just let the fog creep in by overthinking. Once the mists have pulled back, you’ll be able to see things a lot more clearly. And often you’ll find that it’s not as scary or as difficult as you had thought.


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