Civilized work

Why expressing your gratitude can take you further than you think

Sometimes a picture hits you and makes you stop and think. That’s what happened to me when I came across this on the web (You can find it at You give me faith).

Our grab-and-go, macho, Hamburger Management organizations aren’t big on gratitude: they’re much more focused on what they can get—preferably for nothing. They also carry around this fixed mental assumption that people only do things for some material reward. That’s why their idea of “incentives” always comes back to money.

Not only is this picture of the world wrong, it’s insulting to all the decent people out there who still believe in civilized values and know just how much we depend on one another. Ignoring gratitude makes you selfish, and being selfish makes you vulnerable.

It’s becoming a gratitude-free world in some places

If everyone is out for themselves, you can expect neither help nor consideration when you get into trouble. You are truly alone, with only your own strength and cunning to depend on. Worse, you can firmly expect others to try to trip you up, if they can, since you represent nothing to them but competition.

That, of course, is exactly the behavior you find from assholes and those whose only aim in life is to climb to the top, probably over the bodies of those they encounter along the way. They’ll take your help, if you are willing to offer it. Hell, they usually demand it. Just don’t expect any gratitude or help in return.

These jerks aren’t dumb, of course. They know perfectly well that their style of operation—their game plan—is a case of “eat or be eaten.” They know how vulnerable it makes them, which is precisely why they are so ruthless. In a world without gratitude, only those at the very top have any security—and theirs only lasts just so long as they can hang on to that alpha position.

It’s time to call a halt

Gratitude isn’t just a pleasant trait, it’s also a very powerful one.

Thanking others and recognizing how much we all depend on support and co-operation makes it far more likely that help will be there when you need it. Those who help others most freely are most likely to be helped in their turn—provided that gratitude as recognized for what it is: a major constituent in the glue that holds together groups of all sizes, from a few friends to society as a whole.

A grateful customer is more likely to overlook future mistakes and stay loyal despite the temptations offered by competitors. A grateful employee is less likely to leave when times get tough. Grateful colleagues pull together. Grateful bosses trust their people more and are trusted more in return.

You cannot buy goodwill of that kind, no matter what incentives you offer. Today’s bonus may become tomorrow’s expectation, but genuine gratitude can last for a lifetime.

It’s good to see that some people still value it as it deserves.

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One sure-fire sign of macho management is lack of courtesy. A pressure cooker environment doesn’t make space for pleasantries. Microwave management doesn’t leave time for politeness. A slow management environment sees the value in civility and fosters it graciously.

Courtesy is a skill that must be practiced and likely relearned from time-to-time. It is a fundamental no business can afford to lose. It is a basic that serves as gold-plating to any business or business professional.

“Good morning, ma’am.”

“Courteous” is defined in part by Webster as “marked by respect for and consideration of others.” The simple dignity of a polite greeting sends a message: “I value you.” A small gesture may change the entire tone of the conversation to come.

Courtesy adds precious seconds to the transaction, but gives hours of goodwill to the relationship. A gracious formality or two lubricates the discussion. Courtesy resists the microwaving of the relationship.

Courtesy is a polish that reaches across class and wealth. The refinement of civility is accessible to anyone, regardless of rank or education. Like most basic skills, its cost of use is relatively low. Like most fundamentals, its value is relatively high.

“Good morning, sir.”

Time is one of the three key ingredients of courtesy. Civility adds time and effort to the interaction. Politeness means waiting while someone organizes their thoughts. Civility prevents you from pouncing on someone the moment they are not occupied.

Being polite adds time to your transactions. One viewpoint is that you will have lost multiple minutes in etiquette and ritual. Another viewpoint is that you have invested those clock ticks in the joy and well-being of your fellow human beings. Of course, you may be saving time after all. A few moments pause may allow them to organize a more complete response to your question. A less harried co-worker might be prepared to give you what you want.

“How have you been?”

Sincerity is is the second ingredient in courtesy. Nothing has the power to lift a spirit like a true expression of caring. In a cold, microwave world, a moment of real touch and interaction warms the heart.

The mechanics of courtesy are easy. A parrot can be taught to say “thank you.” A sincere moment of gratitude catches and holds the attention of others.

Of course, our care and concern, especially in a professional business environment, will be limited. Still, you can have a moment of human contact. You and the client will not be the same afterwards.

“Fine, thank you”

Last, but not least, generosity is the final ingredient of courtesy. Courtesy is the giving of a gift. Time or concern are precious commodities in the world. Only the truly rich give them away with such abandon.

Assuming the best from an ambiguous phrase is a given kindness. Allowing someone to regain their intellectual footing or dignity is an act of rich kindness. Courtesy heaps value and worth on both sides of the transaction.

Customers and co-workers like to be valued. They will flock to a place where worth is being given away. Are you the place where others can receive such free gifts?

“I’m glad to hear it.”

Courtesy is a business value. A civilized transaction is more easily perceived as honest. Politeness adds to the quality of the transaction for the customer.

Think of your favorite coffee spot. What makes it your favorite? Most likely, the courtesy of the barista adds dramatically to your coffee drinking experience. A charming greeting and warm gestures can easily change the taste of the coffee from “marginal” to “delicious.”

Think about the interactions you have during the day. How many could be improved—significantly if not dramatically—by courtesy and decorum? Are there some marginal relationships you would like to change for the better in this way?

Desertcat has more than twenty years of experience in Supply Chain Management, with an emphasis on strategic partnering between management and subcontractors, with an extensive knowledge and participation in negotiations, pre-planning and execution. You can find his writing on other topics at

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The worst kind of management obsolescence occurs in the mind

People tend to stick with the beliefs they were brought up with—at least until they’re forced to change. That’s why much of workplace culture has hardly been affected by the changed notions coming from the academic world and elsewhere; and why we’re paying the price for leaders still peddling out-of-touch attitudes to work. Is the only answer to wait until the last Baby Boomer quits?

The people in charge in most organizations today are part of the Baby Boomer generation, brought up by parents born before World War II, and trained in schools and universities during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

These people saw the attempted social changes of the 1960s wither and die, replaced by a return to an extreme form of social conservatism, whose espoused values can mostly be translated into property value, shareholder value, and investment value. Their few remaining ideals suffered a fatal blow from the Vietnam War and they settled down to believe in the natural order of free-market capitalism: that a few must lead and make decisions, while the majority are led and have their decisions made for them.

Recognizing that leading was going to be the better option, most have pursued a steady path of personal advancement—eventually reaching levels where they have indeed became the leaders.

Command-and-control as a natural law

Brought up on ideas of natural dominance and hierarchy, many of today’s senior leaders still see no reason to change this viewpoint. While they may engage in a little cosmetic softening on the outside—they are not immune to the benefits of good PR—nothing has changed within their heads. Their mental attitudes are still those formed 30 or 40 years ago.

While the world has been transformed, what we are seeing today is the steady application of old-fashioned command-and-control management to problems inconceivable 30 or more years ago.

Take the rumbling concern about executive salaries. New methods have been found to enrich a favored few. If those in charge seize on them without scruples, this is not simply greed. In the minds of the immediate post-war generation ruling today’s boardrooms, it’s entirely fair that those who have risen to the top should take most of the rewards. Who better deserves them? Their parents lived in a world where individual merit was of small importance in promotions. Pre-War, family ties, social standing, and seniority (based on years of service) were the basis for rising up the hierarchy. The Baby Boomers saw that swept away and adjusted their mental viewpoints accordingly. Their generation invented merit-based pay and has benefited from it handsomely. Why should they give it up?

The current turmoil in the stockmarket is another example. Baby Boomers lived through the post-War experiments in social democracy and government intervention in people’s lives. Most of these forms of social engineering were judged to have failed, to be replaced by doctrinaire free-market viewpoints. Of course, now that the free market is wetting its collective knickers because the resulting greed and lack of regulation have caused horrendous problems, government is expected to return to social engineering and step in to rescue them. The Baby Boomers have learned well the belief that government should keep out of their hair when things are going well and provide a safety-net when they aren’t. Success (and its rewards) is down to individuals, coping with failure (and its costs) is up to society as a whole.

Paying the price of macho attitudes

Nothing in this world lasts for ever; nothing comes without a price. The price of decades of rampant individualism , extreme free-market economics, financial deregulation, and social conservatism is proving to be a heavy one.

What ordinary people are paying for a macho, “me first” society like ours now includes:

  • The stark alternatives of selling your soul to the organization or being shut out of advancement.
  • Accepting that you can lose your job any day for reasons that are entirely beyond your control; and that you’ll be on your own when you do.
  • Fierce competitiveness that cares little for the weak, the sick, or those down on their luck.
  • Continued racial, gender, and sexual discrimination, justified by appeals to “family values” derived from sentimental myths based on idealized 1950s households.
  • Confusing self-reliance with disregard for the needs of others.
  • Such a blind disregard for environmental issues that politicians still can’t act when the effects of past greed and neglect are finally too obvious for even the most dinosaur-like moron to deny them.
  • A nagging fear of loss of savings and retirement benefits due to the actions of a handful of speculators. (Why don’t many people save? Maybe because they don’t trust the savings will still be there when they need them.)
  • Falling trust in the basics of life, like safe food and safe drugs, because maintaining safety and increasing profit rarely go together.
  • Stress, burnout, and cynical layoffs to drive up “shareholder value.” (Not of much interest if you neither own shares nor have enough of a retirement fund to worry about.)
  • An increasing gap between the rich (who get ever richer) and everyone else. (How is it that thousands of ordinary people losing their jobs is a natural and unavoidable part of global competition, and a handful of hedge funds patronized by the super-rich losing their money is a national and international crisis?)

What happens if people lose faith in the future?

Is this a civilized society? Is this how we want to live in the 21st century? Is this the only option available to us?

There comes a time when every generation is replaced and ideas that once seemed unquestionable truths are thrown into history’s dustbin. The imperialism of the 19th century was swept away by the First Wold War. Optimistic beliefs in the return of rationalism and social progress were fatally wounded by the Depression, then killed by Nazism and Stalinist communism. 1960s belief in the power of love and freedom to change society swiftly dissipated under the pressures of the Vietnam War.

We seem to be at another turning point, linked to another war. Far from embracing the ideas and economic structures developed in the last 50 years, radicalized dissidents are trying to replace them with terrorism and religious fundamentalism. Newly industrialized nations like China want to benefit from our financial structures, but reject our political and social ones.

In the Western world, a new generation of entrants to the workforce are demanding more equitable treatment and greater control over their working lives. In many cases, a career in a large, “blue chip” corporation—the centerpiece of their parent’s vision of a good life—is dismissed as second-rate compared with becoming an entrepreneur and working for yourself.

In Arizona we suffer many flash-floods at this time of year. Monsoon rains cannot be absorbed by parched, thin soils, so they run off into the washes and seasonal rivers, causing sudden floods that rise and disappear in an hour or less.

Sometimes this natural run-off gets blocked. When that happens, pressures build up until the dam of debris is swept away. A raging torrent of water pours down the mountainside, carrying rocks, tree limbs, and even vehicles along with it. In the resulting flood, roads are destroyed, buildings are flattened, and people are killed.

Let us hope that in our generation there can be a peaceful, non-violent change of ideas as Baby Boomers like me finally surrender control. Whether that is what happens really depends on all our choices today. Unless those in charge in our organizations give up their obsolete modes of thinking, they will continue to act as a dam to progress—with sadly predictable results. No organizational structure or mental outlook is proof for long against a violently changing environment.

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Acting on the belief that sometimes enough really is enough can tame self-induced stress and stop cycles of boom and bust

The real importance of work/life balance isn’t about taking vacations, having time off for family duties, or combining work with an active social life. It’s about setting a balance between people’s natural urge to do better and get more and their ability to support the drive to achieve. It’s about setting realistic targets and time-scales, not foolish ones.

Our consumer society runs on the premise enough is never enough. Whatever you have—wealth, status, possessions, power, fame—is only the basis for getting more. Every achievement is no sooner reached than discarded. You’ve done that; on to the next goal. Bigger, better, farther.

Every goal seems to be about getting to another one. You’re at point A, and your goal is now to get to point B. As soon as you reach that goal, you’re supposed to set yourself a new one. And not just a new goal, but one that is more demanding, more challenging, further out of reach. We fear monetary inflation, yet accept inflation of expectations as normal—even laudable.

If your performance rating says you’re “above average” (whatever that is), you aren’t allowed to enjoy that position, let alone accept it as enough. You now have to strive for “excellent.” Hit your budget and it will be raised. Hit it again, and it will be raised by an even larger percentage. There will never be a plateau or a point of rest before moving on. No time! Got to do better!

Much of the problem now facing the financial markets was due to exactly this mind-set. Whatever home you had, you were supposed to follow the urge for a bigger, better, more expensive one. I know elderly couples who bought new, 4000 square-foot homes within the last two or three years. Two people living in a home big enough for 6 or 7. And if you couldn’t afford it, never mind. Some company would “find” a way to make you a loan anyway. Now it’s all gone wrong, leaving many people in a worse state than they were before.

Isn’t it right to have high aspirations?

There’s a huge difference between having aspirations and driving yourself to the edge of disaster in pursuit of impossible goals.

Our society has erected achievement drive into a kind of god: a god that demands constant sacrifice and worship. There are realistic, helpful levels of drive to achieve—ones based on knowing your limits, exercising patience in reaching your goals, and knowing when you need to take a break and recover your strength before pressing on. And there’s achievement drive gone mad, forcing people forward with a continual sense of urgency and push. The kind that doesn’t even pause to enjoy what has been achieved. An obsession with more, faster, better, bigger.

When your natural achievement drive gets out of hand, the result is precisely what I’ve described. Once reached, every goal loses its value. You’ve been there, done that, won the tee-shirt. It no longer counts for anything. This is sad. Enjoying what you’ve achieved is one of the great pleasures of life. Does it make sense to spend hours and hours preparing a gourmet meal, only to throw it away as soon as it’s ready? Don’t you want to taste it? Isn’t it worth savoring?

Boom and bust: the natural result of over-extending

If you discount each achievement the moment the goal is reached, what effect does that have on others? Imagine a child coming home from school elated by some success, only to hear his or her parents dismiss the achievement instantly: “Okay, you did that. Big deal. What we expect now is . . .”

Far fetched? Not really. That’s exactly how many bosses behave. Achieve or surpass your current target and your instant reward will be a new target—bigger, tougher, less achievable. And that process will go on and on until you finally fail. It will force you to fail.

As long as people keep mindlessly pushing and pushing for more, we will face cycles of boom and bust: in business and in our personal lives. Every achievement will be dismissed and replaced by a demand for more. The only thing that ever stops the process is failure on a large scale. Then people are forced to fall back and lick their self-inflicted wounds for a while—before going right back to the same process.

In nature, whenever something extends too far for the circumstances, there’s a crash. Population growth in good years is followed by mass starvation or some terrible epidemic. There’s a sustainable level that nature enforces, often with savage means. Any species that gets ahead of itself is brought back into line.

You can see the same happening in the business world. Boom is followed by bust. Organizations reach a peak, only to be struck by a bewildering series of set-backs. At the peak of power and prestige, many people are seemingly overwhelmed by problems and upsets.

The real work/life balance

Do you give up? Drop out of the rat race and go back to oil lamps and horse-drawn wagons? I don’t think that’s going to work, do you?

There is an alternative. Slow down. Take a little time to celebrate and enjoy each achievement. Praise is worth far more than money. Say “well done” as if you mean it. Savor the pleasure of each achievement. Only when you’ve enjoyed what you worked hard to achieve, think about moving on. No pleasure lasts forever. There’s a natural point when people start to focus on recreating the pleasure by setting a new goal. Over-active achievement drive can be tamed. All it takes is thinking ahead, being realistic, giving yourself time, and offering genuine appreciation for success.

Unless your goals are realistic, they are going to produce self-inflicted problems and wounds. Realistic means:

  • Attainable within your current levels of experience ability.
  • Suited to your present circumstances, including your financial situation.
  • Possible with the amount of effort, energy, and and time you can—or are willing—to devote to them.
  • In balance with all the other demands on your life.
  • Not going to demand that you hurt others to attain them.

Patience has become almost a vice in the world of work, not a virtue. In our achievement-mad culture, to be patient is often dismissed as to be dull, boring, second-rate. Yet few important achievements are reached without it.

Remember Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare? How the arrogant, impulsive hare alternately rushed ahead, then idled and slept, while the patient tortoise plodded along at a sustainable pace to win the race? I don’t think there could be a better lesson for our current society, with its arrogant destruction of the environment, continual demands for more, and resulting cycles of boom and bust.

My bet is on the tortoise—unless the hares out there destroy us all before the race is over.

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Guidelines for making sure that the place where you work is a place you will go on wanting to be.

Spotting the signs of undue pressure and macho management is useful, but, if you’re considering a job change or just starting out on a career, seeing when a job will be civilized is just as important. You need to know what to seek out, not just what to avoid once you’ve found it.

What are the signs of civilized work? If you want to choose an employer, a job, and a career wisely, these are the things to look for:

  • Work with a manageable workload that allows enough time over for pursuing new ideas and making a personal contribution. Everyone needs the opportunity to put more of themselves into their work than just the labor of completing scheduled tasks. Overwork doesn’t just ruin work/life balance, in the sense of time available for non-work activities. It also stops work itself being satisfying. There’s never any time to step outside the strict confines of the daily grind to explore new ideas or approaches. The to-do list becomes a prison that blocks out everything else.
  • Clear evidence that others will value and respect what you do. It’s hard to take a pride in your work if no one cares how you do what you do, just so long as you meet some specific targets. It’s far more satisfying to feel that you can win respect for a job well done than simply reach some goal by any available means. Hitting that target comes only occasionally (and you know it will be followed by a new, higher one). Knowing that you’re doing a fine job, and that people recognize you for that, can be a daily source of pleasure in your work.
  • A chance to work with people whom you respect and whose opinions you value. No amount of money will ever make up for working for a boss whom you think is an idiot and an asshole; or with people whom you neither like nor respect. Work is a social environment. Unless that environment suits you and gives you pleasure from being there, each day is going to be eight or more hours of misery. That’s why corporate culture matters so much. Trying to live and work in a toxic culture is like trying to exist in a cloud of poisonous gases.
  • A reasonable degree of control over what you do and any decisions that affect your job. Anything else is slavery. You shouldn’t accept it for an hour, regardless of how much you’re being paid.
  • Work that means something to you and matches your values. Doing meaningless work is soul-destroying drudgery. Doing work that you don’t value will leave you feeling empty and dissatisfied at the end of every day. The only way to feel good about what you do is to do something that makes you feel good in itself. If, for example, you try to shut your mind to a toxic culture and management style that makes you feel bad every time you think about it, how are you going to feel after a month, six months, a year? You’ll have to abandon your own values and conscience to survive. But whatever you do, somewhere deep inside you’ll know you’re behaving like a coward and spitting on things that you hold dear. That knowledge will eat away at you until it destroys all your peace of mind.
  • A culture that values fairness, justice, and an ethical approach to business. Too many organizations today act as if the ends justify the means, and honesty and ethical values are indulgences that they can’t afford. You can sense it like a bad smell in the background. Ignore all the flashiness and forced good comradeship. If something in the air that you can’t quite pin down makes you feel sick, take good heed. Compromising with nastiness and dishonesty will rub off on you like a disfiguring skin disease. Besides, if the culture allows dishonesty, subterfuge, unethical practices, and unfair treatment in the cause of profit, that’s how it will treat you.
  • A willingness from those in senior positions to listen. Few things are so frustrating as a management culture based on closed minds and open mouths. Nothing leads more quickly to failure, despotism, and the punishment of the innocent. Be warned!
  • An organization that values honest feedback and takes notice when staff aren’t happy. Any organization that punishes people for rocking the boat, demonizes whistle-blowers, and rewards yes-men should be seen for what it is: a gang of mindless thugs. Get away as fast as you can run.
  • A sensible attitude from the organization and the bosses to the position of work in each person’s life. It’s quite reasonable for the organization to expect loyalty, commitment, solid effort, and an appropriate input related to level and salary. It is wholly unreasonable to expect anyone to sell their life and soul to their employer in return for cash. Anyone who does that is far more shameless than any prostitute. Prostitutes only sell their bodies. An organization who demands that you sell your heart and soul as well is many times worse than any pimp.
  • The willingness to continue to change as circumstances change. A rigid organization—especially one that works on the basis of “our way or the highway”—is both arrogant and stupid. Why would you even consider becoming part of that?

If I had to sum all this advice up in a single rule it would be this: look around carefully and sniff out the ratio of assholes to others. The more assholes, the less you should even consider working there. And if the assholes are rewarded for their noxious behavior, so long as they hit the targets, run as fast as you can.

Happiness and satisfaction at work is always a choice. You can (and should) choose what you believe will work for you and give you the kind of life you want to have. Never choose just what will offer the most cash and power in the shortest time, regardless of anything else. You’ll regret it in very short order.

The choice won’t always be an easy one; it may cost you effort, determination, and forgoing some amount of money and what it can buy to choose happiness. Nor will it always be black versus white. But the more often you can choose wisely from among the available alternatives, the more often, I believe, you will find work that enhances your life, instead of diminishing it.

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Real change is usually built on a series of small steps made regularly

People’s wish for better personal development has produced a publishing bonanza. Go to your neighborhood bookstore. Look along the shelves of self-help and self-improvement books. What do most of them have in common? A tendency to focus on people who have made spectacular changes to their lives, often based on an instantaneous ‘conversion’ to some point of view. It’s the personal development equivalent of being ‘born again.’ Does it work? It certainly does for the writers. However, relying on a series of ‘big hits’ is a poor strategy for making change itself.

Writers and journalists have to sell their work. Both groups know that something surprising or shocking sells better than a story that’s more mundane. They know that instant answers sell better than instructions to persevere, and simple prescriptions do better than complex ones. Self-help writers also prefer emphasizing the positive, so their version of the blockbuster scoop links instant, radical transformation with a climactic event like walking across hot coals or attending a seminar by some motivational guru. ‘This book changes lives’ is standard back-cover copy—even if the only life changed was the author’s when the royalty check arrived.

I’m not denying that sudden, dramatic breakthroughs can happen. What I’m suggesting is they’re no more common than any other ‘once in a lifetime’ event—which means very uncommon indeed. Certainly not something you should take as the norm, or something you should set your sights on when you decide to make some significant change in your own life.

Games of baseball—or cricket, since I’m English—are typically won by the slow and steady accumulation of singles, not the spectacular hits to the boundary for four or six, or home runs in baseball. It’s exciting to watch the batter produce a huge hit right out of the park, but depending on big hits alone is not a reliable strategy for winning games.

Slow and steady wins

Successful personal growth too is best achieved by a consistent, long-term series of baby steps. This approach isn’t spectacular—certainly not the stuff of best-selling self-improvement books—but it works. All the small gains gradually amount to something big, sometimes faster than you imagine. It’s like the laws of compound interest in investing. If you invest $1000 each year for 25 years and earn only 5% interest, you’ll have $53,499.81 at the end. And that’s certain. You could ‘invest’ $1000 per year in a lottery, or some other speculative venture, and win a huge amount. More likely, at the end of the 25 years you’d have nothing&mdash not even the $25,000 it cost you. Waiting and hoping for the big one is a poor investment strategy with money or development. A consistent series of actions to enhance your career, develop your skills, and broaden your mind, even if each one is quite small, is a far better choice. Each builds on the last. Each one sticks because it’s a pace of change you can cope with.

Don’t focus your personal development on home runs. It may work for some, but that’s mostly luck. Sure, someone wins the big lottery prize, but you have a much greater chance of being struck by lightning or run down by someone distracted by yammering on their cell phone. Besides, just as many lottery winners are broke again in a few years. There’s no guarantee that a sudden, dramatic personal breakthrough will stick. ‘Easy come, easy go’ applies to more than money.

If you want to slow down and live life more deliberately—and you should, there’s little doubt of that, unless you’re chronically idle—start small, then keep it going. Stop one task you don’t need to do. Take one extra hour a week for thinking time. That should be possible for everyone. And when you’ve done it, do it again: another pointless task dropped, another useless meeting canceled, another hour added to thinking time.

Keep going like that and you truly will revolutionize your life. Today, July 4th, celebrates a climactic event in the United States, the Declaration of Independence. Was that it? Did the colonists simply announce their freedom and go back to living their lives? Of course not. The declaration was just the start of length battles and struggles to make it stick. What won the war was a series of victories, plus some defeats, mostly small and relatively insignificant in themselves. Only taken all together did they change the world.

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