One of the most useful business strategies, and life strategies, I know has to do with stealth projects, stealth accomplishments, and stealth resources. The strategy can be useful for games, in your own company, or in your own family. Showing you how it works might be the easiest way to explain it.
Last night, Aaron and I had a work session going over the details of a re-platforming project one of the e-commerce businesses is undertaking prior to a summer rollout. By the time we were done at 2:45 a.m., we figured, “Why not just stay up all night?” and began a two-player competitive game of Civilization V over the network. I played as Darius I of Persia, he as Empress Wu Zetian of China.
Neither of us is aggressive or violent by nature. We would much rather be building stock exchanges, opera houses, and universities than military units. I created a thriving national economy that was churning out 673 gold per turn during my much-extended Golden Ages, balancing the need for funding and expanding my network of 19 cities. Up until the final two turns, my visible army consisted of a band of Immortals and a few other groups left over from my scouting activities at the beginning of the game.
The thing is, even though I would have never attacked my neighbor, preferring instead to build prosperous, free-trade enterprises between us, I needed options. I quickly monopolized most of the game’s natural wonders and resources such as aluminum, coal, oil, and uranium, then developed social policies that allowed me to extract twice as many natural resources from each tile worked.
[mainbodyad]Instead of starting an arms race, I kept my mouth shut. I began rapidly developing an enormous cache of weapons that were not visible on the map, and could go unnoticed. Stealth bombers, fighter jets, and the like were the main source of military might. Then, for the final security of my people, I developed nuclear missiles, basing them in cities with clear, close, and lethal lines of sight to Aaron’s capital and other major cities.
Once my position was virtually unassailable, and I knew we were going to end the game, I quickly developed an army of Death Robots that could march on his capital following the aftermath of the nuclear holocaust. The entire time his citizens were planting their gardens, harvesting their silver, thrashing their wheat, and building roads, they had no idea that there were nuclear missiles trained on them. Had he attacked even one of my cities, his civilization would have been annihilated.
You May Not Want to Let People Know You Are Playing the Game
No matter how strong his economy, nor how productive his cities, the biggest advantage I had was the existence of an extraordinary military, while appearing to have none at all. It made him feel safe, secure, and complacent.
The lesson: Sometimes, the best thing you can do is keep your mouth shut. Maybe you own an business in a tiny niche that will never be particularly large but it gives you 80% margins. My advice: Keep your mouth shut. Don’t invite competition. Perhaps you have a strategy for buying distressed real estate in your local town. Again: Keep your mouth shut. Maybe you are working on a new product idea that will revolutionize a particular industry. You know what I’m going to say. Keep your mouth shut.
Have a dream but find yourself surrounded by friends and family who aren’t supportive? Keep your mouth shut. Work on it silently; secretly. Then, when everything has been successful, unleash it.
Not Everyone Will React Well to Stealth Strategies
From time to time, you will run into a friend or family member who is emotionally devastated by this approach. Perhaps they feel betrayed. Maybe they feel left out of your life. From their perspective, yesterday you both lived in the poor part of town and today they found out you just bought a huge, beautiful house in the best neighborhood the city. Yesterday, you appeared to be struggling in the cubicle next to them, today they find out that you own most of the apartment buildings within a twenty mile radius. Yesterday, you were like them. Today, you are not.
[mainbodyad]This situation happens millions of times every year among women when one of the formerly fat girls becomes a thin-girl. The same psychological forces are at play. Don’t be angry when they feel this way. A good percentage of the population has low self-esteem. They have a fundamental fear of being left out, being unloved, or being left behind. You cannot sacrifice your own happiness at the alter of their personal shortcomings. That doesn’t mean you be cruel, it just means that your life, and the choices you make, are none of their business. You must do what is best for you.
It isn’t hard to understand the popularity of stealth wealth. It makes perfect sense why 80 out of 100 millionaires in the the United States hide financial success so that not even parents, children, siblings, or friends realize the extent of the prosperity. How can people ask you for money if they don’t know you have $8,000,000 in blue chip stocks and real estate? How can people say you work too much when they don’t realize you spend your nights doing a double shift to put yourself through college? How can people demand you give them reduced rent when they don’t realize you own the apartment building? Not everyone needs to know everything about your life. You need to have some things reserved for only you and your spouse.
How Would You React? Examining How You Really Feel About People
There is another lesson here. Be honest. If you found out that your best friend had secretly developed a website that now made him or her millions of dollars a year, and the cash had been building in municipal bonds to the point they were extremely rich, how would you feel? If you found out your sister secretly won the lottery ten years ago, how would you feel? If you have even a tiny amount of envy or unhappiness about it – if you feel anything other than unadulterated joy at their accomplishment – that is a significant personality flaw. You need to fix it immediately.
Footnote: There is an interesting counter-strategy that also works in some situations, which involves making grand displays. Imagine you are the richest guy in town and you own all of the hotels, the banks, the newspaper, and the car washes. Someone comes along and buys a plot of land on which they are going to develop a hotel. This will compete with your existing hotels. Your solution is to buy the property across the street and put up an enormous, “Coming Soon!” sign with architectural sketches of a competing hotel. You get the business permits. You hire people to start developing the groundwork. If the other party is rational, they realize you have the resources and will to refuse to cede any competitive ground to them. They can open their hotel, but the glut of rooms relative to demand you are about to create will make their returns on capital so low it will be miserable and they might even have trouble serving their debt. The trick is to protect against Pyrrhic victories.
This same approach was the core of the Cold War policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, or M.A.D. Both the United States and Soviet Union wouldn’t fire upon each other because they knew the other had the resources to obliterate both civilizations.