Entrepreneurship, Woodworking, and Clausewitzian Fog and Friction

karl von Clausewitz fog friction woodworking
Karl von Clausewitz

What does a 19th century Prussian military genius have to say about entrepreneurship and woodworking?  A lot!

The great Carl Von Clausewitz was a famous Prussian military leader and strategist who wrote a seminal book in 1832 called “On War” that is studied endlessly in the U.S. military’s war colleges.  Clausewitz wrote about many concepts that are useful for entrepreneurs and woodworkers, but I’ll focus on two here that have come to mind lately:  fog and friction.

Clausewitz says friction is like running in water.  It’s something that can be done very easily on land, but is not very easy in water.  Clausewitz says “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.”  After 27 years in the military, I have encountered friction many times, so there is no surprise at seeing some in my entrepreneurial ventures and woodworking; however, it is still frustrating to experience.  How one responds to it is the most important thing.  One of the “joys” of woodworking is that it will force you to be patient.  For example, the other day I was working a piece in cherry which can change color depending on how much it’s been exposed to sunlight.  I was finishing up sanding the piece and was about to start wiping on finish, but was just not happy with the variation in color across the face.  I had inadvertently sanded away too much of the face that had absorbed the sun so the color wasn’t uniform any more.  Clausewitz’ friction had raised its ugly head because I was ready to press on with finishing, but had to stop and consider what to do.  One thing I’ve really strived for in Traughber Design is craftsmanship.  I don’t want a piece to ever leave the shop if I’m not happy with it.  Given that,  I closed the shop for the day and decided to sleep on it.  After a good night’s sleep, it was clear we needed to start over and resand with coarse 60 grit to get a consistent color, sand with 120, then 180, then continue the finishing process.  A calm, measured response is one way to respond to friction, and another is to just power through it which Clausewitz addresses in some detail.

Clausewitz says “Iron will-power can overcome this friction; it pulverizes every obstacle, but of course it wears down the machine as well.”  This is great counsel for an entrepreneur with a startup.  An entrepreneur can “pulverize every obstacle” for a while, but eventually only has a finite supply of will power.  It’s important to survey the battlefield (or business landscape) to assess where to focus that iron willpower, because one only has so much of it.  You can’t do everything and have to decide where to expend your finite time and energy.  This is especially important when you are building a business alongside a career as we discussed in blog post #1.

black walnut crown molding
Crown Molding in Black Walnut

Related to friction is a concept Clausewitz called fog.  This is essentially not knowing what is going on because you can’t see.  Fog, however, can be a good thing.  It forces us out of our comfort zone and also forces us to learn new things.  In some ways, at Traughber Design we seek fog because I like to always learn some new technique or tool on each project.  There have been some woodworking projects we took on where I had no idea (fog) how we were going to do a particular portion of the piece.  An example was the first gun cabinet project.  The plan called for a mitered crown molding (see picture above) made from three intricately routed pieces in black walnut which were then glued together.  We hadn’t made anything quite that elaborate before, but knew that by talking with more experienced woodworkers and researching online we could figure it out.  In that case we sought the fog.

Another example of fog is starting a new business.  When you are an entrepreneur, you are essentially jumping off a cliff into the unknown. The only thing you know for sure is the vision that’s in your head of what you would like the enterprise to be.  Every day you try to take steps to achieve that vision, but certain aspects don’t work out and you need to pivot to where the promising opportunities are.

Clausewitz said “Moreover, every war is rich in unique episodes.  Each is an uncharted sea, full of trees.  The commander may suspect the reefs’ existence without every having seen them; now he has to steer past them in the dark.”  Likewise, an entrepreneur has to attempt to sense the business reefs approaching and steer away from them in the dark.  One of the practical ways to do that is to identify risks and develop a mitigation strategy.  For example, one reef in small business is what happens if there is a fire and the shop burns down?  One mitigation strategy might be to beef up your insurance.  Another reef might be an area with which the entrepreneur is unfamiliar.  For example, operating a WordPress blog was a reef in my mind, but thanks to my sister’s suggestion, taking an online WordPress class mitigated the danger and actually created an opportunity since it showed possibilities with WordPress I hadn’t even anticipated.

If you’d like to read more from the great master, here is a link to the book on Amazon (the blog does not benefit if you buy the book).

Who knew all that study of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu during PME (Professional Military Education) would be so useful in starting a small business?

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