A Reflection on World Domination

Napoleon was only 26 years old. The French Revolution had just occurred but France was still attempting to overcome a state of relative disarray. After having served its fledgling government by successfully leading the siege of Toulon and quashing a counterrevolution, he was, for the first time, given command of an army and charged with removing the Austrian armed forces from Italy. Imagine how terrifying it might be to your average 26-year-old, having scarcely surpassed adolescence, to be thrust into the command of an army with rank superiority over seasoned, sinewy veterans with decades more experience than you. And yet according to one eyewitness to the moment, here is how young Napoleon handled it:

Flinging his hat on a large table in the middle of the room, he went up to an old general named Krieg, a man with a wonderful knowledge of detail and the author of a very good soldiers’ manual. He made him take a seat beside him at the table, and began questioning him, pen in hand, about a host of facts connected with the service and discipline. Some of his questions showed such a complete ignorance of the most ordinary things that several of my comrades smiled. I was myself struck by the number of his questions, their order and their rapidity. But what struck me still more was the sight of a commander-in-chief perfectly indifferent about showing his subordinates how completely ignorant he was of various points of a business which the youngest of them was supposed to know perfectly, and this raised him a thousand cubits in my opinion.

(Wilson, “Napoleon Bonaparte”)

What can we learn about success in the world by studying its greatest leaders, past and present? This is the question that premises one of my favorite podcasts, How to Take Over the World. In each episode (or series of episodes), host Ben Wilson recounts the story of a world leader—some geniuses of military conquest and government like Napoleon, Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great, and others of ideas and innovation, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, the Wright Brothers, and Steve Jobs—and analyzes the qualities that made them great. I cannot recommend this podcast highly enough to my students, not only because Ben is a consummate storyteller who brings history (never, I must admit, one of my favorite subjects in school) to life, but also because the lens of world domination, as it turns out, provides one fascinating case study after another about how to be spectacularly successful at what you do.

Take Napoleon, for example. Confidence, even at the risk of revealing his ignorance, was one of Napoleon’s defining qualities. And while this observer was struck by Napoleon’s ignorance, he was thunderstruck by his confidence. As a teaching fellow and later a lecturer at Harvard, I saw again and again how important this was. Harvard (and top institutions like it) suffer from epidemic levels of impostor syndrome. Many of its students (and yes, professors, administrators, and so on) are terrified of being perceived as fraudulent interlopers or the result of a late-night, bleary-eyed admissions error. Time and again, I was struck by the lengths my students would go to to demonstrate how much they knew: nevermind that it was the first day of class and presumably they had come to acquire knowledge, not demonstrate that they already had it. Such environments give rise to one of the greatest enemies of learning: fear of asking questions. Asking questions is how we learn (just ask Socrates!). What is more, it is how we set the stage to foster an environment of inquiry and trust. Napoleon’s complete disregard for others’ perceptions of his inexperience positioned him perfectly to learn everything he needed to successfully execute his first command—and he went on in short order to rout the Austrian army and eject them from Italy.

From Napoleon, How to Take Over the World soon turns to Steve Jobs, a conqueror of another sort who nonetheless shared many of Napoleon’s leadership qualities. In the episodes on Jobs, which draw heavily from the Walter Isaacson biography, we learn that Steve was famous for his “reality distortion field,” through which he managed to convince employees and collaborators that the impossible was, in fact, possible. While the examples abound, the following is one of my personal favorites:

One day Jobs came into the cubicle of Larry Kenyon, an engineer who was working on the Macintosh operating system, and complained that it was taking too long to boot up. Kenyon started to explain, but Jobs cut him off. “If it could save a person’s life, would you find a way to shave ten seconds off the boot time?” he asked. Kenyon allowed that he probably could. Jobs went to a whiteboard and showed that if there were five million people using the Mac, and it took ten seconds extra to turn it on every day, that added up to three hundred million or so hours per year that people would save, which was the equivalent of at least one hundred lifetimes saved per year. “Larry was suitably impressed, and a few weeks later he came back and it booted up twenty-eight seconds faster,” Atkinson recalled. “Steve had a way of motivating by looking at the bigger picture.”


While Steve’s approach did not always work, there are certainly lessons to be drawn from it. Few things are as valuable in life as believing in yourself, which, when done well can persuade others to believe in your ideas too. Many students who come to us at Hyll, for instance, dream of studying at an Ivy League university. They have perfect grades and near-perfect test scores but are discouraged to learn that that simply isn’t enough. Indeed, entrance to the world’s most selective universities also requires them to show a staggeringly steadfast commitment to a passion—the kind of commitment that, while it can be difficult to measure, typically leads to national (or even international) recognition. And while this may seem difficult, it is possible: we see it all the time. And it begins with an unwavering, unapologetic, reality-bending belief in oneself. If Steve Jobs, why not you?

How to Take Over the World host Ben Wilson is fond of saying that knowing what you want is a superpower. We couldn’t agree more, and Walt Disney (featured in a two-episode series) provides another excellent example. Similarly to Jobs and many other important leaders, Disney had a nearly maniacal focus on pursuing his own ideas (I am also reminded of James Dyson, subject of an episode of another favorite podcast, Founders). As a young man, in spite of numerous catastrophic setbacks, Disney was obsessed with producing the first animated feature film, and he accomplished it with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which would go on to become the highest-grossing animated film for 55 years (Wikipedia contributors). Once successful, Disney began to lose interest in animation and developed a new obsession—trains—to which he devoted so much time that his friends and associates began wondering whether he had lost his mind. He began building enormous train sets in his house and soon developed the idea of opening a theme park. Renowned theme park experts whom he hired to help him realize the idea all told him not to, instead assuring him that he had a spectacular failure on his hands. But Disney was adamant, and it’s hard to exist in the modern world without being able to guess what happened next: Disneyland. From Disney (and others like him) we learn that it isn’t enough to have a great idea. One must also be willing to pursue them even in the face of dogged opposition. Indeed, it is this very characteristic of a great idea—others’ inability to recognize its genius—that lends it its greatest potential. In admissions circles, in fact, we often talk about how an applicant must not be well-rounded, but rather “pointy” or, like Disney, excellent in a few unique areas. Whether your passion is trains, crocheting, or writing electronic music soundtracks to classic films, pursue it with the indefatigable obstinacy of a world conqueror.

So what can we learn from studying how to take over the world? From Napoleon, we learn to be confident enough to always ask questions and never stop learning. From Steve Jobs, we learn the power of believing in ourselves even when others don’t. From Walt Disney, we learn the importance of focus. From Ben Wilson’s podcast How to Take Over the World, we have the opportunity to learn all of this and to be entertained and inspired while doing it.

Works Cited

Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. Abacus, 2015.
Wikipedia contributors. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937 film).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 10 Feb. 2024. Web. 29 Feb. 2024.
Wilson, Ben, host. “Napoleon Bonaparte.” How to Take Over the World, 28 December 2017, https://www.takeoverpod.com/episodes/napoleon-bonaparte.
Wilson, Ben, host. “Steve Jobs (Part 1).” How to Take Over the World, 28 December 2017, https://www.takeoverpod.com/episodes/steve-jobs.
Wilson, Ben, host. “Steve Jobs (Part 2).” How to Take Over the World, 28 December 2017, https://www.takeoverpod.com/episodes/steve-jobs-part-2.
Wilson, Ben, host. “Walt Disney (Part 1).” How to Take Over the World, 20 January 2022, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/walt-disney-part-1/id1333158713?i=1000548521918.
Wilson, Ben, host. “Walt Disney (Part 2).” How to Take Over the World, 31 March 2022, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/walt-disney-part-2/id1333158713?i=1000555860087.