How to change by obeying the forces you want to command

The Philosopher Francis Bacon once wrote, “We must obey the forces we want to command.

I’ve used the quote on multiple occasions and today I want to introduce it to you. The quote is so profound that it can help you shine a light on a complex problem and teach you how to change. It is a singular truth and I use this quote when I need to fit, strengthen, explain and simplify the abstract, and complex reality.

Below you will find two examples where I use an interpretation of the quote. The second example helped me change and become more effective.

Obeying the forces of nature


We never truly command the forces of nature but we do understand the elements needed that induces catastrophes. Japan for instance has done remarkably well understanding the dangers of an earthquake that is the result of the grinding of tectonic plates. Even though they have experienced tragedies and deaths for many centuries it hasn’t shuddered them from building high rise solutions that work with the forces of the shaking ground surface. They have introduced a pendulum within a building that counteracts the sway of the building reacting to an earthquake or hurricane. Some of these buildings have overcome quakes that scaled 8.9 on the scale of richter and has saved millions over the past few years.

A quote from Woodrow Wilson describes how we must obey the force of wind:

sails“What is liberty? We say of a boat skimming the water with light foot, ‘How free she runs,’ when we mean, how perfectly she is adjusted to the force of the wind, how perfectly she obeys the great breath out of the heavens that fills her sails.

Throw her head into the wind and see how she will halt and stagger, how every sheet will shiver and her whole frame be shaken, how instantly she is “in irons, ” in the expressive phrase of the sea. She is free, only you have let her fall off again and have recovered once more her nice adjustment to the forces she must obey and cannot defy.”

How to change by obeying the forces within ourselves


In his book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ Jonathan Haidt has created the metaphor of a rider, on the back of an elephant, holding the reins in his hands. The rider is able to guide the elephant to the left, to the right, to halt or go forward. He can lead the elephant but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of its own. The rider has the ability to see further into the future than the elephant and can talk to other riders and thus be more knowledgeable. An expert rider is an elephant whisperer.

The Elephant

According to Haidt, The rider is the conscious, the controlled thought and the elephant is everything else. Its the gut feeling, the visceral reaction, the emotion and intuition.

Similarly David Hume, the philosopher, said:

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

Using the wind analogy I want to propose the following as an added clarification to Haidt’s rider and elephant metaphor and Hume’s quote. The elephant can indeed be seen as a force of nature within ourself. Understand the elements of the driving force (the wind) and marvel at how perfectly our reasoning (or sails) can change and align with the force of our passions, desires, fears and instinct.

Once you have aligned your sails to these forces you, as a rider, will lead your life and shape your destiny.


This post is originally written as an essay for the Coursera course: “What managers can learn from Philosophy” given by Luc De Brabandere

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