The Anna Karenina Principle

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
3 min read
brace yourself, another shit sandwich…

Life is very much about managing and navigating the unseen and unintended crap we encounter. The obstacles may be the way but they sure taste foul in the moment.

We tend to think of the path from our present state to a goal to be direct when in fact any goal worth achieving is fraught with obstacles and detours along the way.

There are more ways to fail than we anticipate in our plans and vision. Each failure is a unique combination of stock failures and some extra special ones just for the occasion.

The Anna Karenina Principle (AKP) speaks to these phenomena.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Leo Tolstoy

This is the first sentence in the classic 800+ page novel Anna Karenina.

The Anna Karenina principle is a generalized riff off of this literary statement of familiar dynamics and discord by Tolstoy. It states that a defect in any one of a myriad of factors dooms an endeavor to the charnel house of failure.

As the American painter Edward Simmons said, “ The difference between failure and success is doing a thing nearly right and doing a thing exactly right.”

The Butterfly Effect

The butterfly effect is a phenomenon which encapsulates aspects of Chaos Theory.

The insight was uncovered by a meteorologist named Edward Lorenz while he was studying the genesis of storms and other powerful climate events like hurricanes. The ‘butterfly effect’ states that something as small as a single flap of a butterfly can cause a big change in the weather of a place somewhere else.

This concept has become famous and is used as a metaphor in many fields that are based on complex systems. It is used to express the fact that there is no linear direct cause and effect relationship that can be used to build simple predictive models. Reality is too complicated to be reduced to a simple causality.

Metaphors are powerful ways to grasp complicated concepts. The butterfly metaphor means that a small change can give rise to a big tidal wave. And you can’t predict where or how.

Seemingly unimportant acts, or omissions, can have great and unforeseen consequences.

Here is a quote from Ben Franklin that details the cascading effects of a seemingly inconsequential oversight.

“For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.”

― Benjamin Franklin

Pay Attention to the Details

Consequently, a successful endeavor is one where every possible deficiency has been avoided or addressed and exorcised.

Pay attention to the ounces and the pounds will take care of themselves.

The Deity is in the Details.

The Anna Karenina Principle is a corollary to Murphy’s Law that:

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Anna Karanina and Startups

Here is a slide deck of mine that details how stock startup failures add up to epic ones.

Larkin and AKP

Here is a poem by Philip Larkin that captures the psychological impact of how AKP is transmitted from generation to generation.

This Be The Verse

by Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,

Who half the time were soppy-stern

And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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