Everything Is Cyclical

French geologists recently discovered that a Himalayan mountain suffered a massive landslide 800 years ago. Massive may be an understatement: the slide moved enough earth to bury Manhattan as high as the Empire State Building. Annapurna IV used to be one of the top-five tallest mountains in the world. Today, after the slide shaved a third of a mile off its top, it’s merely big.

The amazing thing is that the slide wasn’t caused by a glacier gnawing at the mountain, which is usually what keeps mountain height in check. Annapurna IV just got too big. As anyone who’s built a sandcastle knows, there comes a point when the whole thing comes crashing down on its own accord, crushed by the weight of its own vertical greed.

Everything is cyclical, and the thing that’s easy to miss about cyclicality is that it doesn’t require any outside force to push it in the other direction. The act of getting big is enough to make you smaller without being pushed by anyone or anything.

A lot of mistakes in life come when you think risk is something caused by external forces, when in fact the weight of your own success is enough to pull you down without any outside help.

That applies to so many things.

In his 1944 book Why Don’t We Learn From History?, BH Liddell Hart writes about why after every war people say, “That was so awful we will never do it again,” only to find themselves on the battlefield a few years later:

We learn from history that complete victory has never been completed by the result that the victors always anticipate—a good and lasting peace. For victory has always sown the seeds of a fresh war, because victory breeds among the vanquished a desire for vindication and vengeance and because victory raises fresh rivals.

Victory has always sown the seeds of a fresh war. That is such a strange concept, but it’s so obviously true. In his book Evil, Roy Baumeister writes:

The First World War had been so much more horrible than anything Europeans had remembered or even imagined that it produced a lasting and profound psychological impact. The winners concluded that there must be no more wars. The losers concluded that there had to be another war to set things right: So much sacrifice could not be allowed to be in vain.

It’s almost like the larger the victory, the higher the odds of a future war. World War I led to World War II, which led to the Cold War, which led to Russia invading Ukraine, and so on forever.

The stakes are lower, but I think a similar thing happens at companies. The bigger and more successful you become, the harder it is to maintain your success.

What were the big winners of the last century? General Motors, General Electric, IBM, Nokia, Citigroup, Kodak, U.S. Steel … it’s not hard to come up with a list of previous giants that crumpled under their own weight. And for each it’s fair to say that past success directly led to future failure through entitlement, jealousy among competitors, and bureaucratic bloat.

Now read this recent piece about today’s untouchable giant, Amazon:

At Amazon, it’s always supposed to be “Day 1,” the dawn of a new era where the customer comes first and bold bets are backed.

Not surprisingly, that’s gotten harder to maintain now it’s a tech and retail goliath.

Employees have complained about red tape, bloat, and bureaucracy. Facing a new financial reality, CEO Andy Jassy is exercising discipline when it comes to Amazon’s bets. The company’s facing intense external pressure, including a recent Federal Trade Commission suit … it’s tough to be a $1 trillion revolutionary.

The former CEO of Slack recently explained a fascinating reason bloat seeps into successful companies. Managers vying for attention often rank themselves off a simple metric: How many employees report to them. The incentive, then, is to hire tons of people – even if they have little work to do – so a manager can say, “400 people report to me,” which signals their alleged value and importance. And you can only pull that off at a company with so much money and so much success that obnoxious budgets are approved.

What’s the lesson there?

Be careful what you wish for?

Stay on your toes?

Watch behind your back?

Yes, but the biggest is simply that everything is cyclical. Calm plants the seeds of crazy, growth plants the seeds of decline, success plants the seeds of loss. Everything is cyclical.

It’s the same at the individual level.

Author Robert Greene writes:

Never be so foolish as to believe that you are stirring up admiration by flaunting the qualities that raise you above others. By making others aware of their inferior position, you are only stirring up unhappy admiration, or envy …

There is nothing more intoxicating than victory, and nothing more dangerous.

This is so true – you think you’re highlighting your accomplishments, but often what you’re doing is highlighting others’ relative lack of accomplishments, which breeds envy instead of admiration.

It’s a tricky thing. The more successful you become, the easier it is for people to resent your success. Even when someone says, “I’m so happy for you!,” and they’re genuine about it, your success – maybe it’s a work promotion or a raise – puts their own career into sharper context, inflating their expectations and potentially leaving them feeling worse about themselves.

That dwindling support can come back to bite when those who were eager to help you at one point are less enthusiastic in the future. The rapper Drake says, “People like you more when you are working towards something, not when you have it.”

Then there’s the connection between money and ambition. William Vanderbilt once said having a lot of money “is as a death to ambition as cocaine is to morality.”

Happiness can be another cyclical thing. I love this detail from tire king Harvey Firestone, wondering about the simple life he had before becoming rich and famous:

Sometimes it seems that it might be better to go back to those simpler days, that one might get more out of a less complex life. But it cannot be done. One changes with prosperity. We all think we should like to lead the simple life, and then we find that we have picked up a thousand little habits which we are quite unconscious of because they are a part of our very being-and these habits are not in the simple life. There is no going back-except as a broken man.

Maybe that’s the cycle: Start with a dream, accomplish that dream, then what was previously considered a dream becomes a new baseline, and the gaze of your ambition moves to the next dream. Inadequacy, hard work, elation. Inadequacy, hard work, elation. Everything is cyclical.

To some extent these cycles are inescapable. That’s especially true for the economy, the stock market, and other social trends. So much of long-term success relies on accepting and preparing for cyclicality versus assuming it can be prevented.

At the individual level, I think cyclicality can be managed around the edges.

Shane Parrish once described the difference between passive and active stability. A rock is passively stable – it’ll keep its form without any intervention. Marriage is not. It can be stable over time, but it requires constant work, compromise, and maintenance to keep it intact.

Most things in your life are, at best, actively stable. Left alone they’ll follow the natural path of cyclicality. But if there’s constant intervention and management – managing your expectations, managing your reputation, managing how you advertise yourself and who you surround yourself with – you have at least a shot at keeping something good going for the longest period of time.