It is easy to recognize masculine architypes in great men throughout history: you have the king, the general, the priest, the father, and so many more. These are positive models that, nevertheless, not all men will become (nor should they aspire to all). However, while we can go on honoring and imitating our heroes, we must not forget that there are certain negative archetypes that all men must strive to avoid. These negative forms are distortions of true virtue, the excess or absence of the right “stuff” that makes a man virtuous to begin with. They are what happens when you drift from the Aristotelian mean.
The chief cardinal virtue, prudence, is simply defined as right wisdom guiding right action. There are two excesses to this golden mean, however; we will examine one of the two here now.
Every man knows someone of this type. He may be meticulous, thorough, risk averse, planning, or all of the above. He likes to chew on problems before acting, preferring to use his brain to find solutions instead of gut instinct.
Yet overthinkers also have a fatal flaw: they do not act. They get bogged down in machinations of the mind that nothing comes of it. Eternally stuck in their heads, they create the best laid plans and fail to follow through. There are two reasons for this weakness:
- Perfectionism: These men seek to be the best and they stop at nothing in order achieve it. However, they try to come up with the ‘perfect’ plan, that is not susceptible to any faults. They may punt on acting, instead convincing themselves that they just need to read one other book or listen to one more podcast so that they’ll be able to execute their plans accurately. They always keep one eye off their goals, instead looking for better opportunities or better outcomes they can work towards. They are held captive, unable to move or act because they cannot bring themselves to pass up potentially better opportunities.
- Cowardice: These men are typically not thinkers of any great repute, rather choosing to become meticulous planners in order to delay or pass up on acting at all. They do this out of the fear of acting which is a fear of consequences, positive or negative. They hide under a false pretense of being thorough and then mockingly lament their failure to act, citing their perceived thoughtfulness as the reason for their indecisiveness and the missed opportunities.
No statues have been erected for those who have had the grandest thoughts. No one fondly remembers the men with the best laid plans, but rather those who masterfully executed on them.
There are other problems with the Overthinker. He is a man that, even if he does act, has tied himself down with plans too complex to act. The early battles of the Great War signified the importance of operational flexibility. The French relied on a robust, centralized military planning apparatus that was designed to plan for any contingency. Like with any human endeavor, there were errors and cracks in the planning, causing such rigid overthinking to manifest tactical inflexibility once these complex battle plans were deployed. The Germans, unlike their counterparts, relied on what is dubbed the “Doctrine of Autonomy.” In this case, the German high command trained and then authorized the leaders of smaller units to use prudential judgement to adjust tactics on the fly and exploit enemy weaknesses. Whether you are on the battlefield or in the board room, too many “intelligent” people miss on understanding this, instead focusing all their energy and brainpower ahead of time rather than evenly throughout a planned-out process.
The virtue of prudence needs to be fostered to counter this. As mentioned above, prudence is, quite simply defined, the fusion of wisdom and action. It’s the realization that excellence and a good life can not be achieved without both of these fundamental human actions put together and working in unison on a consistent basis.
One of the best ways to bridge the gap between thinking and doing is to utilize the OODA Loop, pioneered by former US Air Force Colonel John Boyd. OODA stands for:
Just like fighter pilots, who operate in high-stakes, high-speed situations, we must learn to loop our mental feedback processes so that we are continuously observing our surrounding environment; orienting ourselves with our past experiences, learning and analyses, and new information; deciding on a plan of action; and following through on that plan. After we act, we must immediately return to the beginning to gauge success of that action and begin gathering information of our surroundings anew.
The biggest takeaways from this archetype are that in order to be prudent, we must:
- Not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
- Overcome the fear of change and consequences.
- Give ourselves operational flexibility and autonomy so that we are not creating and attempting to act on rigid and complex plans.
Next, we will examine the Impulsive. Check out our podcast episodes on prudence for more information on fostering this virtue in the meantime.