The Advantage of Second Place

Photo: The Advantage of Second Place

My great-grandfather crossed the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the 19th century, in search of a better life. He travelled alone, spoke no English and had no papers of origin.

There must have been stories, but through the blurring of time, I only have speculation about where he came from.

With no language, nor identification, he was given the name of the farmer who hired him. That name, Martin, is my surname today.

It is difficult to imagine how my life would have to be, for me to have made that journey. He could have stayed where he was from, surrounded by people he knew, but instead, he chose a treacherous open water journey, to arrive penniless and friendless in a foreign land whose language he did not speak.

My parents were raised by the survivors of two World Wars and one Great Depression. My Grandpa was a 30-year-old farmer when the dust bowl hit.

Everyone in my traceable lineage has had to fight harder than I’ve fought.

I remind myself of this regularly. I think of G. Michael Hopf’s quote:

Hard times create strong men

Strong men create good times

Good times create weak men

Weak men create hard times.

I grew up in Canada in the 1990s - life was predictable, safe, clean and abundant - the “good times” of stage three, above.

I am grateful for that - for the sacrifices that my ancestors made for me to start further ahead than they did. I did not have to flee persecution, fight in a war or rise out of class oppression - I was born with the privilege of being rewarded for hard work.

I think about this often because I don’t want to be the family of “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.”

Thankfully, history leaves us endless clues as to what creates the rise and fall of power.

I think, that if I can live my life within the framework of an up-and-comer, and avoid, as best I can, the behaviours that come with fortune, then I can keep my lineage in a state of prolonged growth.

I look to the rise and fall of Empires and find parallels I can pull into my life.

As weak nations become strong ones, they tend to share the same leading indicators.

Typically, the journey to power begins with the emergence of a strong leader - someone who can provide a vision about where and what life can become.

This leadership needs to be paired with an emphasis on education - a focus on growth, skill and knowledge acquisition.

The emphasis on education enhances the innovations and competitive nature of the country.

In the case of the Dutch Empire of the 17th century, their rise was fuelled by two major innovations - one being superior ship-building talent that allowed them to out-explore and outlast the competing Spanish ships.

The more consequential, however, was the invention of the world’s first publicly traded company, the Dutch East India Company, listed on the world's first stock exchange. This invention allowed, for the first time, both the spreading of the financial risk of seafaring - and the sharing of the spoils to thousands of citizens.

The Dutch East India Company became the largest corporation the world had ever seen, and at its height, over 1 in 50 Dutch residents owned shares.

Via the world's first public company, wealth from all over the globe began funnelling directly to the citizens within a tiny corner of Europe.

But with wealth comes comfort, decadence, complacency… and… access to credit.

Within the Dutch Empire - as in every empire before, (and after) the appetite for decadence began to exceed the rate of growth, and the gap in cost was filled by debt, increased taxes, and money creation through adding cheap base metals to newly minted coins.

The Dutch determined that it would be cheaper to build their innovative ships using English labour, but this came at the cost of Dutch jobs. The Dutch middle class became poorer - but they still identified with a rich lifestyle, and they, too, filled the gap with debt.

This story is timeless and has played out hundreds of times before - and in fact, is playing out right before our eyes today.

The rise and fall of power follows this path:

1. Education and productivity fuel wealth.

2. Wealth fuels decadence.

3. Decadence fuels debt.

4. Debt fuels decline.

The blueprint is clear. The day you cease your education and start sleeping in, is the day your Empire is in decline.

I can’t predict the future, but I can read, study, and get to work early.

See you at 5 am.


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