Maybe you should quit

We love to multitask. At work we manage a matrix of projects, partners, and priorities. At home we Skype with a friend while chatting with another, cooking dinner, and answering questions from the kids. We are expert jugglers and the world is our circus.

No wonder we end up running around like clowns. Maybe we should quit.

Rocky Lubbers (Creative Commons)

Rocky Lubbers (Creative Commons)

The word “priority” made it’s way into the English language from French and Latin in the 15th century. As my Oxford American dictionary defines it, a priority is “a thing that is regarded as more important than another.” A priority is so important it takes first place. But the word speaks to more than importance, it also speaks to timing.

At the root of the word is the latin prefix “prior”, meaning before. A priority is something that should be done before other things. It comes first.

Okay, enough etymology. Here’s why this is important to you whether you are an entrepreneur or a stay-at-home Mom or a student. Until recently, the word priority was always singular. You had one priority—one thing that must come before all other things. I mean, how could more than one thing be first?

And yet, how do we use the word today? We talk about priorities. We make lists of them. We are not satisfied with only one first thing. At some point in the 20th century, the word priority became plural.

The result: we are multi-tasking clowns in the circus of life.

The Heath brothers give a good example of this phenomena and it’s result in their book Switch: How to change things when change is hard. There was a hospital director in San Francisco who was determined to decrease medication errors. The error rate was already low—only 1 error in every 1000—but each error was harmful if not fatal.

The nurses administering the medication were hard-working and conscientious. They read the doctors’ chicken-scratch prescriptions, collected the correct medicine from the distribution center, and administered it correctly almost every time. So simply telling the nurses to be more careful would not result in any significant change.

After observing the process, the director noticed mistakes were most often made when nurses were distracted. And a hospital is a distracting place. A  nurse must juggle patient care, doctor requests, and the general operation of her unit, while administering life-saving (or life-taking) drugs.

The director, determined to help these nurses focus and avoid distractions, developed an idea. She purchased bright orange safety vests and asked each nurse to wear this “medication vest” while administering drugs. She then informed the rest of the staff they could not talk to a nurse if he was wearing the vest.

At first, the staff were reluctant to accept the change. However, in the first 6 months, the error rate dropped by 47%. All because the nurses were able to focus.

Our world has never been more distracting. Mankind has never been pulled in so many different directions. Not a minute passes without a ding or vibration or billboard or advertisement demanding our attention. It is harder than ever to focus on what takes priority.

For the past two months I’ve not written on the blog. I’ve stayed away from social media and cut back on my non-essential communication. While I missed writing and interacting in this space, the break was refreshing. With focused intention I was able to give myself to a priority issue for the summer.

I am glad I wasn’t afraid to put on the orange vest.

For two months I said “No” to writing in order to say “Yes” to my priority. I quit one battle in order to win a more important one.

Maybe you should quit too. Maybe you should put on the orange vest and focus in for a period of time. Or maybe you should quit something permanently. Don’t let secondary goals distract you from your priority objective. Even the most talented clown has a limit of balls he can juggle. Which balls will you let drop?

What is your priority? What are you willing to do to keep it in first place? 

Five Characteristics of High-Grit People

During the presidential campaign of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was shot in the chest by a would-be assassin while leaving his hotel in Milwaukee. Before lodging in his chest, the bullet passed through Roosevelt’s metal eyeglass case and a 50-page speech folded in his breast pocket. When he did not start coughing up blood, Roosevelt concluded the bullet had not penetrated his lung. He continued on to the auditorium and delivered his speech.

His address began with these words:

“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. … The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”

His speech lasted 90 minutes.

JBrazito (Creative Commons)

JBrazito (Creative Commons)

Theodore Roosevelt was a bull moose of a man. He had Grit—an indomitable spirit. A bullet in the chest was a minor setback. What separates high-Grit people like Roosevelt from others?

Here are five characteristics I’ve noticed in high-Grit people that allow them to face life’s challenges with courage:

1) They have a long-term perspective

Gritty people are not near-sighted. They are not enamored with immediate return on investment. They are willing to wait before they cash in. They know today’s effort is an investment in the future. They accomplish great things because they are willing to work on them for a long time.

This reality is often hidden behind our 24-hour media cycle. When we see a director on Letterman talking about his new hit film, we envy his fame and influence. We long to switch places. However, we don’t see the decade he labored to bring the story to the big screen—

writing the script,
shopping for investors,
giving up hope,
rewriting the script,
seeking investors a second time,
risking his own reputation and financial solvency,
filming 18 hour days,
editing from sunset to sunrise.

We don’t see what he gave to get on Letterman’s couch. We only see the end result. It took James Cameron 15 years to create Avatar. But high-Grit people know that’s what it takes to succeed.

2) They don’t quit

Behind every success is a moment of doubt—a point when quitting appears the best option. The difference between the Bull Moose and average Joe is the Moose keeps charging.

Even though it costs to keep going in the face of failure, high-grit people recognize cost of quitting too. They will push through thorns, suffer insults, and ignore exhaustion for the value of tomorrow. They won’t sell the future for an easier present.

Gritty people face the same temptation to quit we all do. They just don’t listen it. [tweet this] They keep going. They would rather die trying than stop trying. And that’s why they usually reach the finish line.

3) They delay gratification

High-grit people are immune to the power of “now.” As two-year olds, we are not able to wait more than 5 seconds without crying out, “Give me now!” Some of us grow up. Some of us never change.

Our dominant culture is propelled by instant-gratification—at the bank, in the kitchen, at work, in the bedroom. “Drive now, pay later!” The ethos of this generation is “Why wait?”

Well, gritty people know why. Because an investment today becomes a fortune tomorrow. Pain today becomes power tomorrow. Those who limit themselves “now” have endless possibilities “then.” [tweet this]

4) They view failure as progress

Because gritty people take on the most difficult challenges, they have an intimate knowledge of failure. The Wright Brothers crashed plane after plane into the sands of Kitty Hawk. Thomas Edison filled Menlo Park with the smell of burnt, broken, and useless filaments. Abraham Lincoln perfected the art of the concession speech. They knew failure.

But they did not view failure as an obstacle or a finish line. Failure was progress. Each failure became a step in the staircase to success. They fell forward.

And so, today, you can fly to Washington D.C. and visit the Lincoln Memorial, lit with incandescent light. Gritty people don’t run from failure, they use it. [tweet this]

5) They face their fear

Courage is not the absence of fear, but the strength to face it. Even the grittiest warrior feels fear. We all do. But every time we face a fear, it loses some of its power.

This is what high-grit people understand—fear exerts as much control as you allow it. If you nurture fear, it will grow. If you face fear, it dissipates. Even the Bull Moose Teddy Roosevelt agrees:

“I have often been afraid, but I wouldn’t give in to it. I made myself act as though I was not afraid, and gradually my fear disappeared.”

How did he become the kind of man who gives a 90 minute speech after taking a bullet to the chest? He faced his fears.

What about you? What will you do?

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

—Teddy Roosevelt

A life of action (step out and start changing)

[This is the eight post in the series Plan2Change, about the possibility and process of personal growth. Check out parts  1 2345, 6, and 7]

“A journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.” Laozi

Every journey, every project, every mission starts the same—the first step. A lift of the foot, the extension of the leg, the propulsion of the body forward. One step in the right direction.

No journey begins without it. No goal is reached apart from it. Many dreams die in its absence.

Now is the time to step out.


I am an idea guy. I can postulate and theorize from sunrise to sunset. However, ideas don’t produce change. Ideas don’t feed my family. Ideas don’t make me the kind of person I want to be.

Ideas are cheap. Action is priceless. [tweet this]

If you’ve followed this series, you have, by now, identified and clarified the problem, set goals, and developed a plan. Now is the time for action.

As you step out towards your goal there are two forces you will have to fight—fear and fog.

Fight the Fear

Imagine this scenario. A man works his whole life, fastidiously saving to ensure an enjoyable retirement. The day after his retirement party he moves to Miami and purchases a 60 foot sailboat. Every day he goes to the harbor, swabs the deck, checks the gauges and inspects his craft from bow to stern.

A year later, two work colleagues fly to Miami for a visit. After settling into the hotel, they head to the marina where the man awaits, smiling from the deck of his boat. The man gives his friends a tour, describing each element of his yacht with meticulous detail. Eventually, one of his former colleagues asks, “So when can we take her out for ride?”

The man stares back blankly. “What do you mean?”
“When can we sail this beautiful vessel? The sun is out and wind is just right.”
“Oh,” replied the man, “I don’t sail. There are too many dangers out there in the ocean. What if the boat is damaged or destroyed? I find it’s safer to keep her here in the harbor.”

The next morning the man returns to the marina to clean and inspect his ship and his friends return home confused and disappointed.

What do you think of this man? What do you think about his choices?

He is right about one thing: the yacht is safer in the harbor than it is out in the ocean. At sea there are rocks and barnacles, storms and waves. To leave the harbor is to face danger.

But what was a boat created to do? It was made to unfurl it’s sails, embrace the wind, and fly through the water. It was made for the sea.

So were you.

You weren’t made for safe harbor but for life’s adventure. Don’t let fear keep you anchored. [tweet this]

Forget the Fog

Another force warring against action is lack of clarity. Often when we start to move in the direction of change we become aware of all the questions we have yet to answer. Maybe we can see two or three steps in front of us, but beyond that is a wall of fog. So, instead of moving towards the fog, we stay put.

Here’s the truth: there will always be fog. You will never see the end of the path from the beginning. But that does not mean you shouldn’t start walking.

If you have followed the steps laid out in this series you have enough clarity to start. There are unanswered questions. There are unseen twists and turns to the path. There are unknown dangers ahead. But you know enough to take the first step.

Walk towards the fog. Do what you know and don’t worry about what you don’t yet know. In my experience, the fog clears as you approach it.

What will you do?

Now that we’ve exposed our enemies, it is time to clarify action steps. You’ve thought about people to ask for help. You’ve considered areas of growth in learning. But these alone won’t get you to your goal. You need to act.

Write out your action steps. Will you . . .:

Write 500 words a day, five days a week.
Exercise 4 days a week for at least one hour.
Take my spouse on a date every week.
Create a detailed personal budget and review it every Sunday night.

Your goal will determine your actions, but your actions will determine your success. What do you need to do to reach your goal? Make a list.

Look back over your list. Are your tasks clear? achievable? Now you know where to start. It’s okay if you don’t know how to reach the finish line, just get started. Things will become clearer as you get moving.

And once you take that first step, there is no limit to where it can lead you.

Three Facts about Gavrilo Princip (and Why it Matters Today)

On June 28, the world will remember a single event that affected nearly every person on earth. One hundred years ago, in Sarajevo, a nineteen year old University student pulled a trigger and propelled the world into war.

June 28, 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand during his visit to Bosnia, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He wanted to free Bosnia from the yoke of foreign occupation. In doing so he triggered a world war.

Princip Street Corner
Many historians have written about Gavrilo Princip over the last century. He is portrayed, alternately, as a hero, a terrorist, a patriot, a villain. His name has been used to unify and divide, to evoke Slavic pride and justify the horrors of war.

Who was this young man who changed Europe one summer morning with only two bullets?

There are many reasons I am intrigued by Gavrilo Princip. I live in Sarajevo. Everyday on my way to and from work I pass the infamous street corner where he pulled the trigger. For the past 15 years I’ve worked with university students and I can’t miss the choice of one teenager and its residual consequences. Add to this my interest in the history of the Balkans.

I recently read a fascinating book on Gavrilo Princip. In The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War, author Tim Butcher retraces Princip’s life to uncover what motivated this young assassin. Mr. Butcher weaves the past 100 years of Bosnian history with his own contemporary journey to create a compelling narrative.

[Read my interview with Tim Butcher about Gavrilo Princip and his book The Trigger]

The Trigger clarifies why Gavrilo Princip is a lightening rod of division here in the Balkans.  However, without making any moral or historical judgements, there are at least three truths about Princip everyone can agree on.


Gavrilo Princip was a teenager

When Princip was 15 he returned home from Sarajevo for the extended summer break. On a rock behind his house he carved his initials and the date—Г П 1909. When a friend asked why he was doing it, he answered, “One day people will know my name.”

Who knew his boast would be fulfilled four short years later.

As a teenager, Gavrilo Princip moved nations. His one violent act propelled emperors onto a path of destruction. I wonder if we, today, recognized the power of young people to change the world? Have we forgotten that most movements—political, spiritual, and social—begin on the college campus?

We forget to our own detriment. The youth of the world are not the future, they are the present. [tweet this] Time spent shaping young minds is time well invested.

Gavrilo Princip made a choice

According to Princip’s school records (published for the first time in The Trigger), he was an A student his first years in Sarajevo. He was bright and motivated. However, as he became more involved with the political society Young Bosnia (Mlada Bosna) his grades worsened and his interest in education faded.

Tim Butcher does an excellent job showing the influences at work in Princip’s life. He was a product of his time—the annexation of Bosnia by Austro-Hungary changed him. He was a product of his upbringing—the impoverished son of a peasant farmer.

But at some point, he made a choice. He decided to pursue the path of violent rebellion. What if he had chosen differently?

Do we attribute to our choices the weight they deserve? Do we recognize the residual affects of even our smallest decisions? If we did, would that change the way we live?

Gavrilo Princip triggered world change

Whether Princip is a villain or a hero, he made a difference. Within a month, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia and Germany then entered conflict. And soon, the whole world was at war.

The 20th century—the bloodiest hundred years in history—started with one individual.

What will trigger a different, better, more hopeful next century? Do we give too much credit to the decisions of governments and bureaucrats? Do we underestimate an individual’s power to transform society?

It wasn’t the United States Congress that broke the bonds of segregation in the American south, it was the tireless effort of a young preacher, Martin Luther King Jr.
It wasn’t a well-funded non-profit organization that brought attention to the dismal conditions of lower-class Indians, it was the sacrificial life of an Albanian nun, Mother Theresa.
It wasn’t the work of the United Nations that sowed peace and reconciliation throughout divided South Africa, it was the character and forgiveness of a former prisoner, Nelson Mandela.

My hope for the next 100 years is not found in the decrees and alliances of nations, but in the work of God-fearing individuals dedicated to the good of others.

The story of Gavrilo Princip leaves us with one clear question: What will I trigger with my life?

81HsiL6LBUL._SL1500_Want to read more? Check out Gavrilo Princip, Weaponized History, and the Role of the Historian. An Interview with award-winning author Tim Butcher about his new book, The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War.

Gavrilo Princip, Weaponized History, and the Role of the Historian (Interview with award-winning author Tim Butcher on his new book “The Trigger”)

81HsiL6LBUL._SL1500_Tim Butcher is a former foreign correspondent with The Daily Telegraph who has reported from war zones around the globe—Kurdistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sarajevo. Five years ago he transitioned to writing books. His style blends history and travel into a compelling narrative.

His new book The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War traces the life journey of Gavrilo Princip from his childhood in northwestern Bosnia to the fateful day he assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo.


How did you choose to write a book about a figure like Gavrilo Princip who has a mixed reputation around the world?

As a British person I have a connection to the First World War. There is such a monumental impact on my people, on my bloodline, on my place and I don’t think all the ends have been morally tied off. There are questions: Was it worth it?  What was it all about? And those questions don’t trouble the Second World War or the Cold War or the Fauklands War or the Gulf War. But the First World War is on another level because there is this haunting sense because of these questions. They written in the great words of the poets of the First World War that we as Britains can still recite. You are exposed to them at memorials every November. There aren’t poets for the Korean War or the Gulf War, but there are for the First World War. So that’s part of the story. As a british person wanting to understand why and was it worth it.

But also there is something personal for me. As a young man I went to Bosnia, that small piece of Balkan mountains cape in southeast Europe, and I was really confused. This is a complicated story with neighbors killing neighbors. Where does this hatred come from? Are they doomed to do this forever? Or was it created by some external force? So these two issues collide together. Because the First World War—my understanding and everyone’s narrative of the story— is triggered by an assassin.

We know there are other events after the assassination—higher levels with emperors and chancellors—but it does start with an individual act. History has retrofitted onto that act colossal importance. A young man pulls a trigger. And that’s all we really know. I wanted to strip away the big stuff of the First World War, which has already been looked at, and go back to the original sin, if you were. Why does it allide with my experience in the Balkans in the 90s? Because when I am in Sarajevo, in the city you are in now, I come across a building which is being used as a bathroom and it turns out to be the tomb of Gavrilo Princip.

That really confused me because, hold on, here was a man who from my basic understanding of history brought freedom to Sarajevo and to the Bosnia and the wider Balkans. He’d done something desperate and violent, but he had brought freedom and yet he was hated all these years later.

So it’s the coming together of those two strands.

Two words you mentioned: understanding the morality of the first world war and the confusion of Bosnia. Both of those words really apply to Gavrilo Princip’s story. It took courage to jump into a story that has issues of morality and historical confusion in them. Could you speak to that. What is there about this story that draws up so much confusion and so many questions of morality?

I would answer that on two levels. It is intriguing, so much has been written about Gavrilo Princip but even from my basic understanding in the preliminary research, a lot of what has been written is plain rubbish. That’s one part of the story.

The other is that Gavrilo Princip can only be seen as a Balkan man through the filter of events in the 1990s. The 1990s was a time of national ethnic extremism when in order to define yourself you had to define an enemy—someone who is against you. The recognition of Bosnia as an independent state angered some people who said, “Wait, we are attached to Serbia across the Drina river. This is a hostile act.” It grips. That gripping of ethnic importance gives a filter. For many people they could not look at Gavrilo Princip with looking through that filter.

Now as a foreigner and an outsider and as someone whose great uncle dies in the First World War, I want to take that filter away. I want to look at him as he was in 1910, 11, 12, 14. What was he doing? What were his motivations? In what way was he connected (or not connected) to the Balkan attitudes I saw in the 1990s. You say it was brave to take these things on. But I think it is not brave, it is important. Because so much misrepresentation of Gavrilo Princip has fed into the historical narrative.

Now when you take on a subject like Princip, you are not going to struggle for material. Everyone has written, made films, documentaries, journalism, even fiction around the narrative. But my challenge—it becomes clear very early on this is the crucial thing to do—is to sieve out all the rubbish. When I say rubbish I mean small things like: was he using a revolver? No he wasn’t. He was using a different gun. That might sound trivial but let’s get it right. Was his target pregnant? The Archduke’s wife was sitting next to the Archduke and it has entered lore that she was pregnant. Not true. That the car they were riding in had no reverse gear which explains how it paused there. Not true.

Those are small things. So I get the sieve and I am shaking it like a gold panner in the Klondike looking for the nuggets.  But the really important thing is: Why was Gavrilo Princip doing this? Why did he take those shots? And this is crucially important. It is not a small thing like what food was he eating. There is some spurious piece of rubbish written by a film maker  who wanted to fill the space. He has Gavrilo Princip going into a coffee place, Moritz Schiller’s Delicatessen on the corner where the assignation happened. And this film maker has him eating a sandwich and buying a drink. That’s great, but it’s not true. And it enters into the historical narrative. Relatively trivial. But much more important—what was he doing this for?

Because we remember that Vienna uses their interpretation of that event to justify war. They believed he was an agent of Serbia and they attack Serbia as an act of direct retaliation. It’s a really important point. You have to test it. You have to put it in the sieve and shake it around. Once I did the shaking, what’s really astonishing, is that there is no evidence to support it. None at all. And this means we have to look at this man not as a Serbian, because he doesn’t come from Serbia. Let’s remember this. You are someone who appreciates the difference. It’s a very sensitive word. He is a Serb. He is a Bosnian-Serb, but he is not a Serbian. He is a citizen of Austria-Hungary in exactly the same way Adolf Hitler was a citizen of Austria-Hungary. He had a reisepass (journey pass) to be able to travel and he did on trains, to zagreb, to the coast, towards Vienna. He was not from that country over the river. Was he an agent of that country over the river? Shake the pan and see what stays in the grid. It’s absolutely clear he was not. There is not connection to the Black Hand group which was, as you well know as a historian, the extreme Serbian nationalist group active in Serbia. There was no connection between Princip and that group except for purely opportunistic reality that went to their advantage. And in that connection, interestingly, was a Bosnia-Muslim within Belgrade. Again, the Bosnian-Muslim element just dropped out of the historical narrative. They just want to make it simple. Oh, he’s Serbian. It must have been a Serbian thing. Although it is clear from the research and clear from the historical record that he has no direct connection with the Serbian government. Yet Vienna uses this as their reason to go to war—as their casus beli. This, for me, is the original sin of the narrative of the first world war which explains this sense of why we still have uncertainty—moral uncertainty of what it was worth. We went to war because of Vienna’s hawks, pumped up in confidence by Berlin. But they did it deliberately. This is intriguing. And that’s the key.

You mentioned in your book that the Serbian government tried to prevent Princip’s group from getting back into Bosnia but were too late in tightening up the borders.

It is a small country, Serbia, and let’s remember, it is not even 40 years old at this time. Israel is older today and Israel doesn’t even have borders—we don’t even know where Israel’s borders are; they are still being negotiated. So Serbia is a small undefined place. It is greedy and wants to get more land in the south. It wants to get the old Metohija land near Kosovo. The government has no interest in a war with Austria. None at all. They know what will happen. And yet there are some extremist who have a different motive. And yes they exist. And yes they are real and should be in the historical record. But let me tell you that some fine historians have written and have accepted the Vienna narrative that Gavrilo Princip was an agent of Serbia and that the assassination was organized by a group that was in the Serbian government called Ujedinjenje ili smrt (unity or death). There is no evidence for that whatsoever.  In 1917, the government of Serbia is going to execute the commander of this extremist group for treason. He gives testimony in the witness box as he is fighting for his life, “Now hold on, to prove my credentials, I was involved in the Atentat, the assassination of 1914. It was all my work. Gavrilo Princip was one of my boys.” Did he provide any other evidence? No. Is he a man saying whatever he can to save his life?  Yes. And amazingly, his story is accepted. And I think that is weak historical ground.

Talking about history and you as an historian and someone who has dealt with the complicated issues of history. Growing up I thought of history as that which has happened—simply a record of the past. Obviously, living in the Balkans now, perhaps being older with a more mature view of the world, you realize how malleable history is, how people bend it, and how it can be weaponized to accomplish whatever purposes people are pursuing.

I agree.

I just recently read an article about how Princip is taught in different school books throughout the region. The differences are fascinating. As a historian writing the story of someone who has been—as you’ve said— misinterpreted though out the years, how do you see the role of history in shaping the future? How do we use history to make a clearer path towards the future?

We have to keep history pure. Napoleon very glibly said, “History is nothing but the lies that are no longer disputed.” If you think about that sentence, it is amusing at one level but deeply depressing at another. It is saying that history is nothing but how the strong wish to shape it.

In Bosnia, you used a very good word there, history can be used as a weapon. You can weaponize it. You can use it to justify disgusting acts. You can dehumanize your enemies “because history tells us that last time we were the victims and now it’s our turn to impose victimhood on someone else.” As a historian, the really important thing is to use history to earth that hatred. As a lightning conductor takes power from the sky in a lightning strike and disperses it into the ground, the pure historian’s role is to earth that hatred. Now, let’s not be naive. We’re not going to get to the absolute truth. As much as I would love to say we can polish up a story with 100% accuracy, we are dealing with humans here. There are going to be wobbles. But our important thing to do, as a historian, is to set into context and set into balance those things which can be used for imbalance or prejudiced arguments.

Now there will be some historians who will discount my version. They say, “But hold on, he was a terrorist.” I would say, “Stop there.” Gavrilo Princip shot a man and a woman. He didn’t plant a bomb in a bus to kill civilians. He didn’t fly a plane into a tower. He didn’t detonate a bomb at a memorial service. He didn’t strap a bomb to himself and walk into a crowded space. He had a gun and he shot. That makes him something different from the word terrorist as applied to, say, Osama bin Laden. How can you make a moral equivalence? He had a gun, he had a target, he had an aim. It was clumsy. He shoots one time and then he’s going for another military target when his arm is jostled and he hits a woman. Throughout his court hearing and prison sentence he consistently expressed regret for the death of Sophie. He did not set out to kill her. it was clumsy but there was no intent.

For a historian, that is a grotesque misuse of the word “terrorist” to put him on the same plane as bin Laden or IRA terrorists. But yet some people with PhDs in history and academic titles and professorships and chairs will use that title. And I think as a historian, we have a duty to put things into context if only to earth that weaponizable hatred.

A quote from Miss Irby about history. She said, “History is not holy because it is full of lies as are the people who write it.” An interesting perspective from a woman who experienced the complexities of history here in the Balkans. Speaking of her time period, you mentioned Arthur Evans as someone you really enjoy reading about the Balkans and his travels on foot in the 19th century. You, in some ways, have followed his lead during your trek on foot through Bosnia. As you were going through Bosnia, how did your experience affect you?

It takes what was a fairly bland journey and transforms it into something magical because it is all about history. It is about Gavrilo Princip and his connection to this land. Where does his anger come from? He takes a gun out and shoots an aristocrat. He’s an angry man. Where does it come from? You see it from the memory-scape and the landscape merging into one. But when you go on this journey you are going through the same physical space—literally the same valleys, mountains, villages, forests—where a 19th century writer, Arthur Evans, in 1875 with a beautiful turn of phrase describes another amazing historical figure at the decline of the Ottoman Empire—the final rolling back of Turkish imperialism in the heart of Europe which had once reached Vienna. This was done by men with muskets fighting in the same forests you can walk through. We hear about an aid worker in 1875 who is exactly the same as an aid worker in Syria today. Except the one in Syria today has an armored Land Rover and a satellite phone and Adeline Irby had an oxcart and a piece of paper to write notes on that could take weeks to go back to Dubrovnik then on to Ragusa then on to wider Europe. She was lobbying Florence Nightingale. I love that connection. She was using the most public health figure in Britain, Florence Nightingale, to raise money because she was doing aid work exactly the same as the aid work I saw.

So, history for me doesn’t weigh me down on this journey it makes me float. Because you are going through an area that is relatively small. It is really only 120 miles / 180 km but is so deep and rich in history that you can’t help but feel the fret work. Your fingers go across the frets of history like a guitarist’s fingers and that simply excites me.

Yes. There is this circular nature to history in the Balkans. As you describe walking to Srebrenica and you described the experience of the refugees hiding in the woods, their clothes nothing but rags, it reminded me of Arthur Evans words describing refugees 150 years earlier.

Exactly. In fact, it is funny you should mention it, I had to cut two pages of text out of the book. One scene that was cut was Arthur Evans describing Bosnian-Serbs just across the border in what we now call Croatia, near Knin, living in caves and sleeping under trees on the grass. And that is exactly the scene I saw after Srebrenica at the Tuzla airfield where the women and children were eventually allowed to come after the bus journey under the control of Ratko Mladić’s forces. They walked out tearful, traumatized because their men had been taken off the buses. It is exactly the same scenario.

There is a circularity but the characters play different roles each time.

The word I use is “transitive.” Victimhood is transitive and cruelty is transitive. By which I mean, A can become B and B can become A. So the victims in the period Adeline Irby was working were Bosnian-Serbs crushed by Bosnian-Muslims armed and mobilized and radicalized by a political agenda pumped by the viziers of the Ottoman Empire. Roll forward 120 years and it’s backwards. It’s not the Bosnian-Muslims who are the culprits, they are the victims. It’s not the Bosnian-Serbs who are the victims, they are the culprits. And there is this external force of radicalization that influences. It is fully transitive.

You chose as your strategy for writing this book to weave together your personal journey, your experience in the 90s, the history of Bosnia, Princip’s story, and the present day. You wove all of that together. Why did you chose to take that tactic in telling a historical narrative?

Woven threads can make a beautiful kilim (decorative rug). The threads by themselves just look like a string. If you do it well, you can make a collective story better than just a list of component parts. If it was just a military memoir—I was there in Balkans and this is what I did during the 90s—or an academic history of the South Slav people from the mid-nineteenth century to today or a biography of Gavrilo Princip, they won’t have the same narrative arc. It’s not going to have flow, connection, anything to draw you in. If I read an academic paper on, say, the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia from 1878-1913, then it would be exactly that—academic. And I read them. I read a lot of them and they are all valuable and important. But I see myself as a writer who takes complicated, rich stories and makes them accessible. If you weave it right, you can unravel the most amazing stories.

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