Learning From Saddam

“There is a foolish corner in the brain of the wisest man.” – Aristotle

I’ve always thought I’d be a much smarter tyrant than Saddam Hussein. Now I’m sure of it. When I watched his executioners place a rope around his neck back on December 30, I have to admit I was thinking, “I told you so.” Ever since the U.S. invaded Iraq to save the Kuwaitis, pundits have labeled Saddam “the master of miscalculation.” After watching him in that memorable execution video, however, I think it would be more appropriate to refer to him as the master of The Big Mistake.

To quote myself from a previous ETR article: “Some Big Mistakes are made impulsively, on the spur of the moment, while others are made after considerable reflection. In the latter case, the problem usually is that the person allows his intellect to get trampled by his emotions.” In reflecting on Saddam’s error in judgment, I realize now that I should have said “… the problem usually is that the person allows his intellect to get trampled by his emotions and/or ego.”

In thinking about Saddam’s freefall from a large collection of sumptuous palaces to a small prison cell and a death sentence, I’m still dumbfounded by the magnitude of his mistake. Just as he had done in 1990, Saddam gambled that the U.S. wouldn’t cross the Atlantic and kick butt. He probably assumed that Cowboy George would follow his dad’s lead and let Saddam off the hook. Unfortunately for Saddam, it was not to be. George was prepared to do whatever it took, including looking into every spider hole in Iraq, to find the fearsome Saddam.

Saddam’s is the ultimate Big Mistake. All he needed to do was let the U.N. inspectors flit around Iraq and pretend they were looking for WMDs, and the civilized world would have allowed him to continue to plunder and torture his people at will. Even if he had WMDs at the time, he could have simply let the U.N. destroy them – or ship them to Syria, which is quite possibly what he ended up doing anyway.

By contrast, Muammar Qaddafi apparently remembered the lessons of history (a Reagan missile zooming over his dining room table in 1986) and factored those lessons into his decision-making process. Qaddafi is purported to have asked a high-ranking State Department official if he would meet the same fate as Saddam if Libya terminated its nuclear program. The official assured him that if Libya went the no-nuke route, the U.S. wouldn’t bother him. Apparently pleased to hear this, he decided to become a role model for Libyan Boy Scouts. In other words, at the moment of truth, Qaddafi’s intellect overrode his emotions and ego. Which, in turn, led to his not making The Big Mistake.

As a reminder to yourself of the importance of avoiding The Big Mistake, you need only pay close attention to the daily news. It’s amazing how many stories are a direct result of The Big Mistake – like gaming-industry magnate Steve Wynn accidentally punching a hole through a $139 million Picasso with his elbow… Barry Bonds (tears, tears, and more tears)… and crocodile pal Steve Irwin (maybe?).

Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way to avoid making The Big Mistake, but a method that I find works very well is what I refer to as “looking backward from the future.” Here’s how it works:

  1. Project yourself into the future before you act.
  2. Picture the worst possible consequences of your actions.
  3. Pretend to look over your shoulder from the future – at where you are today.
  4. If Step 2 is much worse than what you see in Step 3, you would be wise to rethink your plans. Put another way, if you’re not prepared to live with the worst-possible consequences of your contemplated action, take a pass.

I don’t mean to imply that you shouldn’t take risks. Risk is an integral part of success. But so is moderation, which is why you should always add it to the risk equation. Reasonable risk is a necessity for getting ahead in life; unreasonable risk is foolish.

By employing the looking-backward-from-the-future method, I’ve been able to avoid the “excitement” of engaging in dubious activities such as jumping out of airplanes – with or without a parachute. Given that I don’t have wings, I don’t like the downside of that particular activity. When the worst possible consequence of your contemplated action is death, you’re in danger of making The Big Mistake. And that, of course, includes financial death.

Just something to think about it.

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