Herald of the Change
“It is impossible to live in the past, difficult to live in the present and a waste to live in the future.” ― Frank Herbert
In the 2021 movie adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, the call to adventure arrives in the form of an imperial dignitary, the so-called Herald of the Change (an amazing scene and score, I get goosebumps every time).
The imperial delegation descends from its spaceship and the Herald delivers the Emperor’s proclamation to House Atreides.
By the grace of Shaddam IV of House Corrino, ascendant to the Golden Lion Throne of Padishah Emperor of the Known Universe, I stand before you as Herald of the Change. We are witnessed by members of the Imperial Court, representatives of the Spacing Guild and a sister of the Bene Gesserit.
The Emperor has spoken. ‘House Atreides shall immediately take control of Arrakis and serve as its steward.’ Do you accept?
“We are House Atreides,” Duke Leto Atreides replies.
There is no call we do not answer. There is no faith we do betray. The Emperor asks us to bring peace to Arrakis. House Atreides accepts.
And so the adventure begins.
Every story starts with a call. Sometimes it’s subtle. Other times it walks right up to you and announces that the course of your life is about to change forever.
The World of Security
In his memoir The World of Yesterday Austrian writer Stefan Zweig recalled the summer of 1914 which he spent on vacation in Belgium. He was sitting in a café when news of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke reached the town.
“I suddenly stopped reading,” he wrote, “when the music broke off abruptly.” The band had stopped playing. It was a moment when, literally, the music stopped.
On June 29, 1914, in Sarajevo, the shot was fired which in a single second shattered the world of security and creative reason in which we had been educated, grown up and been at home – shattered it like a hollow vessel of clay.
After a moment of shock, life returned to normal. The band resumed playing. Laughter and chatter returned. Zweig continued his vacation. For “what did the dead Archduke in his catafalque have to do with my life?”
The summer was beautiful as never before and promised to become even more beautiful – and we all looked out upon the world without a care.
Even as the drumbeat of mobilization and saber rattling rose, Zweig and many others remained relaxed.
One has to be prepared. They say that in case of war the Germans intend to invade us. “Out of the question!” I said with honest conviction, for in that old world one still believed in the sanctity of treaties.
Zweig’s mind was anchored in an era of order and security. Born in 1881, he later called the time before the first World War the first of his three lifetimes. Pre-war Europe had been a “Golden Age of Security.” Vienna, his hometown and capital of Austro-Hungary, was cosmopolitan and optimistic, but also self-indulgent. Zweig was born into a wealthy industrialist family and embraced the city’s obsession with music, literature, and theater.
In this world “everything stood firmly and immovably in its appointed place.” It was simply unimaginable to him that the existing order could collapse within a few years.
At last, “one sensed the serious situation” and “an icy wind of fear blew over the beach and swept it bare. People by the thousands left the hotels and stormed the trains, and even the most optimistic began to pack their bags with speed.”
Zweig left Belgium the night before the German invasion. As his train passed the German border, it was held up and stopped in the middle of an open field. Zweig rushed to the window.
In the darkness I saw one freight train after another coming towards us, open cars covered with tarpaulins, under which I thought I could indistinctly see the threatening outlines of cannon. My heart missed a beat. It could be nothing but the advance of the German army.
The unthinkable had become reality. Zweig returned to Vienna. It was the beginning of the second of his lifetimes. By the end of the war, the “great and mighty empire” into which he had been born, along with its ruling Habsburg monarchy, had been “swept away without trace.”
The Danger of Denial
After the war, Zweig moved to Salzburg where he continued his work as a writer and biographer. Having seen his life disrupted once, he now paid close attention to politics, society, and the economy. His visits of fellow writers and artists across Europe sharpened his perception of its wounded societies.
In Austria and Germany he witnessed how hyperinflation undermined the state.
I have known days when I had to pay fifty thousand marks for a newspaper in the morning and a hundred thousand in the evening; whoever had foreign currency to exchange did so from hour to hour, because at four o’clock he would get a better rate than at three, and at five o’clock he would get much more than he had got an hour earlier.
Zweig believed that this changed “all values, not only material ones” and created a disregard for laws, traditions, and moral codes. Excess and escapism took hold and “Berlin was transformed into the Babylon of the world.” Underneath it all, after years of economic malaise, “the whole nation longed for order, quiet, and a little security.” The Germans, he believed, “did not know what to do with their freedom” and secretly hated the republic.
The war, murderous as it was, had yet yielded hours of jubilation, with ringing of bells and fanfares of victory. And, being an incurably militaristic nation, Germany felt lifted in her pride by her temporary victories; while the inflation served only to make it feel soiled, cheated, and humiliated; a whole generation never forgot or forgave the German Republic for those years and preferred to reinstate its butchers.
From his house in Salzburg, Zweig was able to observe across the border “the Berchtesgaden mountain on which Adolf Hitler’s house stood.”
This proximity to the German border, however, gave me an opportunity to judge the threat to the Austrian situation better than my friends in Vienna.
Zweig observed the actions of fascist paramilitaries in Italy and Germany. His diagnosis of German society in hand, he realized that the peaceful days of his second lifetime were coming to an end. Zweig moved to England.
Then came the Reichstag fire, parliament disappeared, Goering let loose his hordes, and at one blow all of justice in Germany was smashed.
In 1938, Austria became part of Germany and Zweig’s hometown Vienna, “the two-thousand-year-old super-national metropolis,” was “degraded to a German provincial city.”
Watching the rise of Nazi Germany from England, Zweig struggled to make his voice heard. English leaders were “committed by the democratic tradition of centuries to government by law.” In contrast, “the new Germany scrapped all the rules of the game of intercourse between nations under international law, whenever it suited her purpose.”
English leaders, Zweig assessed, were unprepared to deal with Hitler’s “new technique of conscious cynical amorality.” They misunderstood their opponent and did not realize that the rules of the game had changed. Like a frog in slowly heating water, they did not realize the grave danger they faced.
Hitler has achieved nothing more ingenious than this technique of slowly feeling his way and increasing pressure with accelerating force against a Europe that was waning morally and soon also militarily.
While Zweig observed the impending change clearly, many of his contemporaries remained ignorant. They refused to discard the old models of the world that had served them so well. Zweig was frustrated but could understand why, noting that “one cannot easily dispose of thirty or forty years of deep faith in the world inside of a few brief weeks.”
Radical change is deeply uncomfortable and can create enormous cognitive dissonance. We intuitively meet it with resistance and denial. We don’t want to leave the world of security.
Do You Accept?
Let’s revisit Dune once more. To the chants of his soldiers, Leto Atreides imprints his seal on the emperor's proclamation. The story is set in motion.
Leto turns to the Herald: “So … it's done?”
“It’s done,” the Herald answers.
Notice what happened. The Herald asked only one question: do you accept?
He didn’t ask: do you feel ready? Have you prepared? How do you feel about this?
As viewers we know the scene’s tragic implications. We know that Leto seals the fate of his House and family. We know how much strength it takes to face destiny with dignity. We can relate to the courage of accepting one’s role as the wheels of history are set in motion.
There was no escape for our generation, no standing aside as in times past. — Stefan Zweig
George Soros was born in 1930, in another corner of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, Budapest. The defining moment of his young life came in 1944, when German troops occupied the country.
Soros’s father Tivadar had fought in World War I and escaped from a Siberian prisoner-of-war camp. After navigating his way home through revolutionary Russia, Tivadar returned to Hungary a changed man. He practiced as a lawyer and sought to enjoy life as much as he could. He had no interest in accumulating riches. Asked by a friend about his father, George Soros said, “my father does not work. He just makes money.’” (an attitude that resurfaced in Soros’s personal philosophy).
Most importantly, Tivadar’s experience had sharpened in him an intuition to navigate hostile and chaotic environments.
After the German occupation, George and other school children were given slips of paper with names of people. These were to report to the Jewish council. Tivadar instantly noticed George had been given a list of local Jewish lawyers and recognized what was happening. Tivadar told his son to deliver the papers and a message: “tell the people that if they report they will be deported.”
Soros recalled that his father “understood something that many others didn’t: he knew that he needed to be afraid.” Tivadar recognized that the Herald of the Change had entered his world.
My father was exceptionally well-prepared to cope with the German occupation because he had lived through a somewhat similar experience earlier in his life. … He learned how to survive in a situation where the normal rules do not apply. The experience transformed him. — George Soros
Tivadar immediately organized forged documents and the family went into hiding under new identities. It was a dangerous game of hide and seek, a time that Soros paradoxically described as happy. To the young boy it must have felt like an adventure.
I was aware of the dangers because my father spent a lot of time explaining them to me but I did not believe in my heart of hearts that I could get hurt. We were pursued by evil forces and we were clearly on the side of the angels because we were unjustly persecuted; moreover, we were trying not only to save ourselves but also to save others.
The family survived the occupation and the Siege of Budapest, the final battle between German and Soviet forces. After the war, George Soros left for London where he studied philosophy. He didn’t return until after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Unlike Zweig, Tivadar had not anticipated the storm. But he’d recognized the Herald and acted immediately. He knew he was being asked just one question: do you accept? Refusal meant near certain death. Luckily, Tivadar had been prepared by his previous experience.
The generation of our time was loaded down with a burden of fate as was hardly any other in the course of history. — Stefan Zweig
George Soros later explained that his “experience with revolutionary moments” started before the German occupation, when he joined his father after school and listened to “tales of his adventures in Siberia during the Russian revolution of 1917.”
If I add my father’s reminiscences to my own experiences, I can claim to have a memory going back a hundred years.
Soros’s wartime experience, and his father’s memory, shaped his philosophy and approach to markets and he survived and thrived as a speculator for many decades.
His edge was built as a combination of analysis, experience, and networks as well as intuition, speed, and a tolerance for risk shaped by his experience of extreme danger. Sebastian Mallaby explained that Soros was able to tolerate risk that would have felt absolutely terrifying to most people because to him “it felt reasonable.”
And like Zweig, Soros had become highly sensitive to moments of radical change. Soros called these moments “special days.” He once commented that it was “characteristic of revolutionary periods that events outpace the ability of the participants to understand them.” Soros mastered these moments when speed and intuition were paramount to survival and success (I’ve written more about his story here).
I do not play according to a given set of rules; I look for changes in the rules of the game.
We can find evidence of this in brief moments when Soros recognized both the potential and the timeliness of a bet. The short of the British Pound became the stuff of legends because he pushed so hard at exactly the right moment.
For the rest of that Tuesday, Druckenmiller and Soros sold sterling to anyone prepared to buy from them. Normally they left it to their traders to execute orders, but this time they got on the phones themselves, searching for banks that would agree to take the other side of their orders.
… Late that day, Louis Bacon called Stan Druckenmiller. The two talked about how the drama might play out, and Bacon said he was still finding ways to dump sterling. “Really?” Druckenmiller blurted out. “Where did you get the market?” Soros demanded furiously.
… Around two the next morning, Druckenmiller returned to the office. … The only light in his office came from the telephone: Soros was on the line, and Druckenmiller had hit the speaker button. A disembodied eastern European accent filled the dark room. Soros was urging Druckenmiller to leverage himself up and redouble his selling. — More Money Than God
In those moments, speed matters. And nothing slows us down as much as inner resistance. Faced with the Herald we must not waste time in denial. We have to accept its message and, most importantly, act.
A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it. — First Law of Mentat, Dune
The World of Insecurity
My feeling is that the world in which I grew up, and the world of today, and the world between the two, are entirely separate worlds. — Stefan Zweig
In 1942, Zweig wrote his autobiography. The war was still raging and he found himself a stateless refugee in exile in Brazil. His books had been burned, his possessions were gone, and the fate of old friends and family was uncertain. Everything he’d cherished, including his intellectual legacy, seemed to have been lost. He’d survived two lifetimes already. But the third one killed him.
Shortly after sending the manuscript to his publisher, he drafted a note. Then he and his wife took their own lives.
Ich grüsse alle meine Freunde! Mögen sie die Morgenröte noch sehen nach der langen Nacht! Ich, allzu Ungeduldiger, gehe ihnen voraus.
I salute all my friends! May it be granted them yet to see the dawn after the long night! I, all too impatient, go on before. — Final line of Zweig’s suicide note
He recalled the words of Ernst Lothar: “Emigration is for a young man with no memories.” To make a new beginning, he wrote, would have required “unusual powers.” But the 60 year old Zweig was exhausted “by long years of homeless wandering”.
He noted that the half century of his life had seen “more radical changes and transformations have taken place than in ten generations of mankind.” He had seen enough change and passed the baton to the next generation.
The Challenge of Radical Change
All the livid steeds of the Apocalypse have stormed through my life – revolution and famine, inflation and terror, epidemics and emigration. — Stefan Zweig
Today, we face no shortage of doomsday predictions.
In markets, Paul Singer rang the bells of a market apocalypse and Russell Napier anticipates a lengthy period of financial repression. Stanley Druckenmiller believes the factors driving recent bull markets have reversed.
Nouriel Roubini warns us of slow-moving Megathreats including climate change, pandemics, inflation, artificial intelligence, war with China, the fall of the U.S. dollar. He believes we are moving from a “period of relative stability to an era of severe instability, conflict, and chaos.”
Peter Zeihan warns that “humanity’s next chapter will be even more grim” and explains that “the period of 1980–2015 in particular has simply been a unique, isolated, blessed moment in time. A moment that has ended. A moment that will certainly not come again in our lifetimes.”
Trends like climate change, de-globalization, and demographic collapse move at glacial speed yet could boil entire asset classes. What does capitalism look like if markets, meaning consumers, start shrinking — not in just a few countries but across most developed markets? What happens as the developed world collectively wrestles with high age and high leverage? This is terra incognita.
I’ve recently been enjoying the Netflix show Ancient Apocalypse which explores the hypothesis of a lost ice age civilization. You may disagree with it, but it’s still eye opening to see ancient ruins lost to the jungle or rising sea levels. The magnificent work of many generations lost and forgotten. It is a striking reminder that our societies are defined by impermanence.
There is no guarantee of a continued gradual upward climb of the kind that created so much wealth in the past few centuries. Even without knowing what the future holds, one gets an eerie sense that the difficulty of the game is starting to ratchet up dramatically.
Acceptance of the Unknown
In our lives there was no repetition; nothing of the past survived, nothing came back. It was reserved for us to participate to the full in that which history formerly distributed, sparingly and from time to time, to a single country, to a single century. — Stefan Zweig
History does not offer us guidance as to whether we, like Zweig, will have to “pay the price” and “live it to the fullest.” The prophets of doom are active in all seasons and it’s difficult to separate signal and story. It’s a trap to withdraw from the world and indulge in what Thiel coined the apocalyptic dimension. Most of the time, the optimists are being rewarded.
But history teaches us that radical, unimaginable, and occasionally extremely dangerous change happens. And it is the nature of such change that we will likely fail to anticipate it. What we can do is cultivate our perception, our sensitivity to its signs. We must not be sleepwalking when the music stops.
Once we are confronted by the Herald we can expect tremendous inner resistance and cognitive dissonance. In order to survive and thrive, we must be prepared to let go of old ideas and attachments, and quickly. We must find the courage to make speedy, intuitive, and independent decisions. We must be ready to act even if the crowd remains complacent.
Above all, we must remember that the Herald does not care if we are prepared or if we like what is happening. There is only one question that matters: do we accept? And a refusal of the call might well be the end of our story.
Each one of us, even the smallest of our generation, today knows a thousand times more about reality than the wisest of our ancestors. But nothing was given to us: we paid the price, fully and validly, for everything. — Stefan Zweig
We don’t get to choose our age, physical or mental, when the Herald appears. We don’t know if our role is that of Paul Atreides whose story begins on Arrakis. Or if the desert planet holds our demise.
Either way, we have to come to terms with what is. Instead of griping about what we may lose, we can look for meaning in the unfolding. Rather than resist the convulsions of history, we can learn to navigate its tides and even find beauty in chaos.
Perhaps we emerge with sharpened senses and a hunger for greatness. Or perhaps it is our calling to preserve memory and history. Our role may be to prepare, protect, and guide the next generation. With our knowledge of the Herald we can help others in their encounter with destiny.
Paul Atreides: Dad, what if I'm not the future of House Atreides?
Duke Leto Atreides: Your grandfather said, a great man doesn't seek to lead; he is called to it. And he answers.
But if your answer is no, you'd still be the only thing I ever needed you to be: my son. — Dune