Strategic Lessons from Jane Austen and Marvel's The Avengers

Jane Austen has a lot to teach about the value of strategic thinking

How to Practice Strategic Thinking

  1. Pay attention to what people want. Listen to what they talk about and what things tend to grab their interest. Most importantly, think about what they have chosen in the past.
    • Many of my students used to SAY they wanted good test scores, but they didn't do the homework. Their actions suggested that either they didn't really want good scores, or that they didn't get the connection between their homework and their scores. If they got upset about low scores, or tried hard in the wrong ways, that would confirm that they really did want to do well.
  2. Think of ways to connect people to what they want. Can you make a valuable introduction? Do you have access to a resource that might help? Can you reframe a situation to make it seem people are getting what they want (attention, importance, validation)?
    • To help my students, I highlighted the relationship between doing their homework and their test scores. I tried to make the connection as direct and obvious as possible. Since I tracked whether they actually did their homework regularly, this wasn't hard to show them. When they did well, I specifically mentioned their homework consistency as a reason.
  3. Connect what you want with what they want. It's important to be aware of your own needs and preferences so you are being fed by helping others. Otherwise, you'll burn out or even work against yourself (like Emma accidentally setting up her friend with the men she liked).
    • I was genuinely invested in my students' test success, emotionally and financially, but not other aspects of their lives. However, they do better when I AM interested in their sports and activities. I can become genuinely interested in those things when I remind myself how it will help our mutually shared goal of improving their test scores. This isn't faked. It just required me to reframe my own perspective. The interest then arose naturally.

I want to expand more on these ideas in future blog posts, but I'd love to hear what you think about what I've explored so far. If you want to see more of the thought process behind these ideas, keep reading.

Why Jane Austen? Why love-lorn heroines in Regency-era England?

Chwe, the author of Game Theorist, points out that strategic thinking is primarily the domain of the underprivileged, because those with power have the luxury of simply getting what they want, without needing to account for others' states of minds. For the most part, a king does what he wants without considering other people's preferences or responses.

Women in Regency-era England lacked social power and thus had to get what they wanted by playing on the wants and desires of others. Offending someone to the point of social isolation was death to a woman who relied upon marriage for her livelihood. A man could get by without, and even ungentlemanly men could get married simply by being male and having property.

The Clued-in Male: Loki vs. Thor and The Avengers

There are men in Austen who are accomplished strategists despite the handicaps imposed by their privilege. Combined with their social clout, their strategic ability made them formidable people of consequence. Mr. Darcy, the character most will be familiar with, is shown to be strategically capable for the most part and quick to correct his strategic mistakes after his failed proposal to Elizabeth. Combined with his vast wealth, he is able to manage a complex crisis involving Elizabeth's sister and ultimately win Lizzy over.

Currently, men's culture doesn't seem to promote strategic thinking, at least not in social realms. To an extent, you see it in male pastimes such as competitive games, but even there, we are taught to believe in ourselves, push through obstacles and opponents, and rely on our own resources, rather than to consider what others are thinking or desire.

And in the image of the ideal male, the superhero, we see strategic thinking associated with evil.

Consider the contrast between Loki and Thor. Men like Loki who are clever and cunning, playing on the desires of others, are depicted as dangerous, selfish, or evil. Thor, on the other hand, is praised (and ridiculed at times) for his blatantly direct approach to problems: smash them with his hammer.

To be fair, in the most recent Marvel depictions, Thor's journey is towards greater strategic awareness, and Loki's towards moral integrity (sort of), which suggests that being strategic is a different thing than simply being immoral. In the movie, Thor: The Dark World, the two even team up, and it is Loki's unique skill in anticipating the enemy's arrogance that saves Thor's life.

Loki's enemies play into his hands, saving him a lot of trouble, and he is able to account for his own strengths as well as his enemies'. This was the basis of the first Avengers movie: knowing he was physically weaker, Loki actually relied on his own capture as part of his attack. Eventually Black Widow demonstrated herself a superior strategist when she played on HIS ego, getting him to reveal his plot, but notice that Black Widow is the least super-heroic of the Avengers, and the only woman.

The primary heroes are all depicted as endearingly clueless (aka, non-strategic) for the most part: Thor I've mentioned, Capt. America is classically inept with women, Tony Stark is self-absorbed and clueless as a result, and Bruce Banner doesn't understand that Black Widow likes him until she simply tells him. None of them demonstrate any ability to read other people.

But of course, in the end, it wasn't strategy that won the day. It was sheer determination (and teamwork). That's how a socially acceptable man is supposed to solve his problems, apparently.

Which is a shame, because a strategically-minded man is a pleasure to be around; it's basically what is meant by the term "gentleman": a man who can make others feel comfortable without demeaning himself.

The Power of Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking is more important in modern times than it ever was, for all social classes. In most modern democratic societies, class distinctions are relatively minor. I know things aren't perfect, but the differences between a man and a woman now compared to Austen's time are minuscule, and the social rights of the rich and the poor are legally identical.

Additionally, the world is a much more complex place. One wealthy philanthropist will not be able to have as much reach as in the past. There are too many competing interests and distractions.

Because of all this, you can't expect to get very far on your own.

But by harnessing the power of those around you, you extend and amplify your reach. You recruit people to your cause and provide direction and focus for the energies of many, instead of just relying on your own resources.

And the best way to recruit others is not to recruit them, but to have them volunteer by showing them how their desires are served by helping out.

Good Strategy and Moral Strategy

The most dangerous superhero villains are master strategists--Loki, Ultron, all of Batman's worst nemeses--and strategy can seem manipulative, but in reality, it is simply a tool that can be used for good or ill. Remember, it is just the ability to account for others' preferences and potential actions based on those preferences.

Loki sees the world as zero-sum: he wins, everyone else loses. He plays on peoples' desires to accomplish that, but in the end, his pawns don't get what they want.

On the other hand, there are characters in The Avengers who are strategically cooperative, but just as crafty. Nick Fury manipulates the Avengers into working together, going so far as to capitalize on the death of a colleague. He is depicted as cunning, but he is also caring and insightful.

He understands the desires of the heroes and reframes the situation to show them how working together is really in their best interests by appealing to their sense of justice, which they care about. He goes for what is important to them (their image of themselves as heroes, their obsession with avoiding innocent casualties), not what is important to him (completing the mission, saving the world).

Practicing strategic thinking does make you more considerate, compassionate, and connecting because you are specifically working to understand others' motivations, which breeds empathy.*

Refusing to think strategically is blockheaded and can be demeaning or condescending. Chwe points out the many of Austen's non-strategic characters choose this mode of thinking to reinforce the fact that they don't need to be strategic since they are powerful, Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice being a great example.

For example, the issues I have with PUA culture are numerous, but one of the biggest is that women are often depicted as objects without the ability to make choices based on preferences. So often, dating advice is given as, "Do A and she will do B. If she doesn't, she's either broken or you're not doing A well enough." It's very mechanistic, and completely non-strategic.

Austen has men like this in her novels--Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton, Henry Crawford, even Mr. Darcy in his first attempt--who all fail to recognize women as having the power of choice and get burned as a result. Bro culture thrives on that sort of thing.

The Strategic Leader

The men (and women) who are loved and admired, who lead others, are all strategically capable. And if you think about the people in your life you enjoy spending time with, they are probably good at understanding your state of mind or at least accounting for your comfort. They help keep conversations from becoming awkward and possibly offensive, and they are easy to connect with.

That phrase, "S/he just gets me," speaks directly to a talent in strategic thinking used for good. They literally understand your meanings, your preferences, and your intended actions.

And since one of the most powerful human drives is the drive for connection, having someone who connects with us can be immensely empowering.

Jane Austen's heroines, all ultimately good at strategy by the end, want to be with strategically skilled men, not simply powerful or high-status men, because these men do good for their communities and will be best able to support the woman they marry on her own journey of growth.

Being good at strategy gives you the ability to foster connection with others, to understand them, so you help without conflict or condescension, build a better world that accounts for the interests and desires of more people, and involve others in their own journeys of growth.

Simply put, the insightful strategist, male or female, is skilled at helping everyone end up happy.

Which is, after all, how good stories should end, whether they are delicate aristocratic romances or blockbuster superhero flicks.

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*This actually might be what makes a character like Loki seem even more sinister. He knows intimately what people care about, uses it to manipulate them, and manages to remain emotionally distant himself. Thor's cluelessness actually makes him innocent: if he offends someone, he was just unaware. If Loki does, it's calculated.