Geography and success

Ever since Jared Diamond wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel,” multiple historians have come out with books explaining why attributing historical dominance to such factors isn’t right. A better theory, they explain, is to study the link between geography and success. Peter Zheihan, in his book, “The Accidental Superpower,” crystallizes this view beautifully. The success of a society is inextricably linked to its geography. More specifically, there are 3 factors that typically lead to dominance –

1. Ease of internal navigability – In past centuries, this meant being connected internally by waterways that helped with administration, trade and a sense of unity. This was a big reason for the dominance of the Egyptian civilization.

2. A location that isn’t easily attacked – Great Britain enjoyed this geographical advantage during the rise of their empire. And, the Egyptians enjoyed the security of the desert that surrounded them.

3. A land conducive to agriculture and industrialization – This would ideally involve arable land, a large enough population and convenient location of land to internal navigation systems.

geography and success, superpower, self, competition, luck

Even one of these factors can give rise to a superpower if it is accompanied by mastery of technological power. For instance, one of the crucial technologies that tilted the balance of superpowers was deep water navigation. The Spanish and Portuguese mastered travel by sea. But, once England learnt this, they became a superpower. Germany’s dominance was due to land that was conducive to industrialization. All these powers did multiple things right (and wrong) once they became dominant – for instance, Germany invested heavily in universities and research. But, the cause of their dominance was geography.

America’s uniqueness lies in the fact that it actually has all of these 3 factors in spades – most navigable rivers, an East coast that is practically a river due to sheltered “barrier islands,” a place that is practically impossible to attack, largest amounts of arable land on the planet, a large population and arable land that is, at most, 150 miles away from water for transport. All of these combined to give the US an incredible advantage in the past 200 years.

As you can tell, it is a fascinating book. I could go on explaining what I’m learning and reading but I thought I’d bring this back to ourselves. As I understand the incredible impact of geography on success, I also realize that it is likely to be very similar when considering individual success. There are 3 takeaways here –

1. When studying success, we rarely talk about geography. But, being born in Hollywood and the bay area respective likely played a big role in John Lasseter becoming John Lasseter and Steve Jobs becoming Steve Jobs.

2. Never compare paths. No one was was born with the exact same circumstances as you. In a sense, every person’s geography is different. And, if you’ve moved away from your home land, it is likely to be very different. Comparisons are not productive because you don’t understand the benefits of their geography or they, yours. The only thing that matters about your path is that you did the best you could to achieve the best possible process and outcomes. The rest is gravy.

3. Our own geography is completely arbitrary. Instead of being born into our families, we could have been born into a slum in India or Africa with very few means to make our way up. It is remarkable that you and I were born into circumstances that allow us to read, write and take food, shelter, and the like for granted. It is so important that we maintain perspective, stay humble and be happy.

And, lest we forget, it is also so important that we make our geographical advantage count by being the best we can be.

4 thoughts on “Geography and success”

  1. Thanks, Rohan. I also found this book to be fascinating and extremely relevant to today’s political conversation.

    Great to see that you took away lessons that relate back to each of us on an individual level… something I hadn’t taken from the book myself.

    Finally, here are two articles by Mark Suster that I found accompanied the book quite well:

    I know you follow his blog so you may have come across these posts already, but thought I’d share just in case.

  2. I just love the way you think and what you think about. We voted in South Africa yesterday, our Country is rich in resources, surrounded by sea on 3 sides and has many eager and willing humans. I was born white and spent 16 years away from my Country. Yet, what I have noticed in my 4 years back is that not much has really changed, the time it takes to make these super powers, I think this is always underestimated. Really appreciate reading your blog Rohan

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