Humans’ tool to make the infinite comprehensible


Saints, armies, medicinal plants, treasures, book titles, nature collections, survival kits—the essential nature of lists.

Swiss businessman Jean Henri Dunant was traveling in northern Italy when he spotted the aftermath of what became the decisive battle between Franco-Sardinian and Austrian forces.

40,000 troops dead, wounded or missing near the small village of Solferino.

On June 24, 1859, Dunant became a stretcher-bearer. Alongside others who were equally ill-equipped to deal with the situation, he took on the unpleasant task of retrieving broken bodies from the battlefield. It was triage at its worst.

A terrible start for one of the most useful lists—the survival kit.

The experience stayed with Dunant and by 1862, his personal account of the slaughter, utter inadequacy of care, and nightmarish conditions became a book. Few books can claim the impact Dunant’s book had on human lives.

19th Century map of the Battle of Solferino.

In A Memory of Solferino the businessman advocated for a national relief organizations made up of trained volunteers who could offer assistance. Adopting the symbol of a red cross on a white background (inverse of the Swiss flag to identify medical workers on the battlefield), the group became known as the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Due to financial setbacks, Dunant had to declare bankruptcy in 1867 and resign from the Red Cross. However, he received the very first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.

“Without you, the Red Cross, the supreme humanitarian achievement of the nineteenth century would probably have never been undertaken.”

Minerva was the Roman goodness of wisdom, justice, law, victory, and the sponsor of arts, trade, and strategy. She’s the patron of strategic war. And she’s also a storm that has been above Emilia-Romagna in Italy since May 16, compounding the precipitation that had already soaked the region in the previous storms of early May.*

Minerva is the Roman goddess of wisdom, war, crafts, trade, music, etc. She is equated by the Greek goddess Athena. Her actual origins go back to the time of the Etruscans, before the Romans. Minerva differs from Athena by her portrayal in being in her full armor while also carrying an olive branch. She is usually accompanied by her all-knowing owl. She was a powerful goddess and held control over battle strategy, poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, crafts and weaving. As many divine feminine archetypes, goddess Minerva brings us a message of hope and perseverance. 

23 rivers across the region burst their banks, 100 provinces involved, 43 with 58 floods, 290 landslides, and more than 500 roads interrupted. See what I’ve done here? I’ve used a list to describe the magnitude of the devastation.

Updates to these kinds of lists come in as rescuers get a sense of damages and casualties.

For example, one week out we know that 40 million fruit plants will need rooting out and the region will incur a loss of 400 million kg (about 882 lbs) of wheat—the equivalent of one third of Italian production. More than 5,000 farms were compromised, 50,000 jobs are at risk.

“We like lists because we don’t want to die”

In 2009, Italian novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco curated a new exhibition at the Louvre in Paris. His subject was the essential nature of lists, poets who list things in their works and painters who accumulate things in their paintings.

“No writer of world renown is perhaps so little known to North Americans as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda,” observed New York Times Book Review critic Selden Rodman.

In an interview with Der Spiegel, Eco said lists create culture.

“The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible.

It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity?

How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.

There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte.

We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.”

Humans have been trying to define things since the 4th Century BC. It wasn’t any easier in Aristotle’s time, than it was in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, or the Baroque era. People dealt with the complexity of explaining the dimensions of things by making lists.

Homer’s description of the size of the Greek army in the Iliad. Try and imagine by reading “As when some great forest fire is raging upon a mountain top and its light is seen afar, even so, as they marched, the gleam of their armour flashed up into the firmament of heaven.” He eventually resorted to a list of names of generals and their ships. Not as exciting, but it does the trick.

“Cultural history is full of lists,” says Eco. Best movies, songs, books, products, services—from pop culture to business. Top lists of writers, artists, musicians spilled into 30 over 30, 40 over 40, 50 over 50, richest people, and so on.

Being on a list can be the lucky break (or not, it depends on the nature of the list).

Lists can save lives

Ask the people who survived the war thanks to Schindler’s List.

While Schindler was in jail, Plaszów camp orderly Marcel Goldberg started two lists—300 names of women on one; 700 names of men on the other. The lists were meant to be of people approved to go to the new production facility in Brünnlitz.

Spielberg’s directorial treatment of the story took cinematographic licenses; Schindler’s list saved 1,098 people.

Among the chaos in the aftermath of the battle of Solferino it was difficult to know what would be helpful. Likewise, we shouldn’t wait until there’s an emergency to have a sense of what we could do to minimize the crisis.

What if we do know what to do? Lists can make a measurable difference between failure and success. In almost any situation where people work together—health care, government, the law, the financial industry—we can do better.

In 1935, the U.S. Army was looking for the next generation long-range bomber. Boeing’s aluminum-alloy Model 299 was able to carry five times as many bombs as the army had requested, and could fly faster and farther than previous bombers.

The army planned to order at least 65 planes until it stalled on a test flight, turned on one wing, and exploded. The crash, attributed to ‘pilot error,’ killed 2 of the 5 crew members. This prompted Boeing to come up with an ingeniously simple approach: a pilot’s checklist.

Using a checklist for takeoff was about as odd as using a checklist to back out of your garage. (Though I would gladly distribute one to neighbors.) Flying the new plane was too complicated to be left to the memory of any person, no matter how expert.

A checklist for checklists from The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande.

Because “the volume and complexity of knowledge today has exceeded our ability as individuals to properly deliver it to people—consistently, correctly, safely,” we need checklists. Atul Gawande says checklists can save lives.

The test pilots made checklists for takeoff, flight, landing, and taxiing. Armed with the checklist, flew a total of 1.8 million miles without one accident. The Army ultimately ordered almost 13,000 planes.

Good checklists need to be precise. They have value when tailored to specific situations—five and nine items, simply worded, and exact. Because they cannot fly a plane. Pilots do.

There are two forms of checklists: ‘read-do’ and ‘do-confirm.’ With the first, you’re ticking off items after doing them like following a recipe. With the second, you work from memory and experience, then stop and check.

You can have greater impact with ‘do-confirm,’ and you make it easier/simpler to do the right thing. Changing the outcome depends on changing the culture.

‘To-do’ lists

Which brings us to the humblest list of all: the ‘to-do’ list.

Johnny Cash – to-do list.

New York Times science writer John Tierney and psychologist Roy F. Baumeister dedicated a chapter of Willpower to ‘A Brief History of the To-Do list.’ They note that unhappiness is the result of conflicting goals.

Clarity on what’s important is valuable. The Pentagon invited a psychologist to address the topic of time and resources management with elite generals. To warm up the room, the psychologist started with a simple exercise—summarize your strategic approach in 25 words.

“The exercise stumped most of them. None of the distinguished men in uniform could come up with anything.

The only general who managed a response was the lone woman in the room. She had already had a distinguished career, having worked her way up through the ranks and been wounded in combat in Iraq. Her summary of her approach was as follows: ‘First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three, and so on. Then I cross out everything from three down.’”

We’re constantly trying to reconcile the short-term with the long-term. Our information is often imperfect. But we’re also very ambitious and try to cram too much into our days.

Benjamin Franklin was by all accounts a very productive person. However, his attempts to embrace a virtuous life often conflicted with his desire to get more done.

“When, as a young journeyman printer, he tried to practice Order by drawing up a rigid daily work schedule, he kept getting interrupted by unexpected demands from his clients—and Industry required him to ignore the schedule and meet with them. If he practiced Frugality (‘Waste nothing’) by always mending his own clothes and preparing all his own meals, there’d be less time available for Industry at his job—or for side projects like flying a kite in a thunderstorm or editing the Declaration of Independence. If he promised to spend an evening with his friends but then fell behind his schedule for work, he’d have to make a choice that would violate his virtue of Resolution: ‘Perform without fail what you resolve.’”

Ben Franklin’s scorecard to note how he performed on thirteen virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.

Unless we aim to inspire, we should keep our lists short, specific, actionable, and free of conflicting goals. Remember Eco’s sage advice, “If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing.” So should lists.


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