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“The fact that the wife of Charles Johnston, author of this article, is the sister of Mme. Brusiloff, wife of General Alexei Alexeivitch Brusiloff, enables the author of the following analytical study of the great Russian commander to present a portrait not merely authentic but intimately tracing his progress from youthful ambitions to to his remarkable accomplishments of the last few days. Mr. Johnston has contributed numerous articles to THE NEW YORK TIMES, and is therefore well known to readers of this newspaper.”
-- the preface ofBrusiloff, Hero of the Hour in Russia, Described Intimately One Who Knows Him Well”; The New York Times, 19 June 1916
Russian hero… June… what year? … 1916, you say? Hmm. Those remotely familiar with the dates are already skeptical, perhaps frowning.
Well, let’s see where this goes –
“On Monday last a charming and ingenious writer in THE NEW YORK TIMES declared that General Brusiloff was fast becoming a solar myth; that men are telling of him the time-old tales they told of Hannibal, of Caesar, of Alexander; that he seems to be, like the King of Salem, devoid of authentic biography – without beginning of days or end of years.”
Well, this seems on the verge of insanity. Let us read through it to the end, open-mindedly… okay, the conclusion goes –
“Now he [Brusilov] begins again, with higher command, with far greater and more vigorous forces, with vastly greater supplies of guns and ammunition, with riper experience, with indomitable faith and hope, with the enthusiasm of a great, united nation behind him…”
What is this article? Is it a farce? Is it a prank? Is it Photoshopped?
… no, it’s in the New York Times’s own digital archives.
It seems to be genuine.
A great, united nation behind him – well, there seems distinct lack of charm and ingenuity in this analysis – but then, hindsight, as they say, is always 20/20.
In the final tally and accounting, World War I was one of the worst events in human history. The lion’s share of the world’s misfortunates over the last 100 years descend directly from it.
The Middle East has been at constant war and chaos since the destruction of the Ottoman Empire.
The militaristic and chauvinistic German Empire, at the time seemingly ranking among the baddest of bad things, came to look like a veritable mix of choir boys as the aftermath of the carnage gave birth to Nazi Germany.
The Russian Empire, long-seeming backwards and oppressive to its more enlightened Western European neighbors, gave way to the Soviet Union.
The whole situation forces one to recall that macabre medical joke – “The operation was a success, but the patient died.”
The worst collapses of World War I, overwhelmingly, were the German Empire turning into a failed republic which led to Nazi Germany, and the Russian Empire turning into a failed republic which led to the USSR.
But lost in this grand arc of history is that local victories hastened the complete collapse of Russia and Germany.
In this issue, we’ll touch on the German offensives on the Western Front and the Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern front. Both were stunning victories which led to the destruction of their countries.
At the end of it, we should be a little smarter about history – and hopefully, we can derive lessons about maximum sustainable pace compared with maximum possible pace.
It takes about 20 minutes for the average person, walking at a natural non-strenuous pace, to walk one mile.
For a person not out of shape but not particularly well-trained either, a mile can be run in 7 to 12 minutes.
The current world record one-mile run is under 4 minutes.
How long does it take to go one mile on foot, then…?
You can run at least twice as fast as you can walk – over a short distance. If you have a long enough distance to travel, walking briskly might well get you there faster than running.
When we talk about maximum pace, then, we should make a distinction –
There’s the maximum possible pace, which is going as all-out fast as possible, and which is typically sustainable only for a brief time.
Then there’s the maximum sustainable pace, which is going at a rate that doesn’t deplete your capabilities faster than you can replenish them.
The maximum possible pace, obviously, goes as fast as possible and is almost always faster in the short term than the maximum sustainable pace. But in contests of endurance and long-term endeavors, the maximum sustainable pace often leads to success – and the maximum possible pace often leads to disaster.
There are two salient and undisputed facts about the Russian 1916 Brusilov Offensive.
1. It was the Russian Empire’s most successful campaign on the Eastern Front. It used innovative fast-moving maneuver and proto-blitzkreig tactics, it dealt over one million casualties to the Central Powers, devastated the Austro-Hungarian Army, forced the German Empire to reinforce Austria and the Eastern Front heavily, and caused Romania to declare for the Allies.
2. Six months later, the Imperial government of Russia collapses entirely. You know the rest of the story – the naive idealist Alexander Kerensky mis-manages the stillborn republic, the Bolsheviks seize power, the Russian Civil War begins, the Tsar and his family are murdered, and the Soviet Union is born.
“The Brusilov Offensive … was the Russian Empire's greatest feat of arms during World War I, and among the most lethal offensives in world history. Historian Graydon Tunstall called the Brusilov Offensive the worst crisis of World War I for Austria-Hungary and the Triple Entente's greatest victory, but it came at a tremendous loss of life. […] Many historians contend that the casualties that the Russian army suffered in this campaign contributed significantly to its collapse the following year.”
Count this amateur historian among those ranks.
But before we analyze what happened, let’s look at what happened on the Western Front.
In 1918, the Germans were the chief beneficiaries of the Russian collapse –
“On 3 March 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed and Russia withdrew from the war. This would now have a dramatic effect on the conflict as 33 divisions were released from the Eastern Front for deployment to the west. […] The Germans achieved an advantage of 192 divisions in the west to the 178 Allied divisions, which allowed Germany to pull veteran units from the line and retrain them as sturmtruppen…”
In April of 1917, America had declared war in Germany. At the time, the United States didn’t keep a significant standing army – whenever a major war broke out, they would then recruit and conscript soldiers for the war.
With American entrance into the war, the German leadership recognized that any chance of winning a war of attrition was gone – once the American forces fully mobilized and arrived in Europe, the Germans would be heavily outnumbered.

Thus, in Spring of 1918, the Germans made a series of major pushes to try to win on the Western Front before the Americans arrived in full. They did this by forming as many elite units as possible, getting their best soldiers into the elite units, and putting the elite units into combat to lead the offensive
The German army had concentrated many of its best troops into stormtrooper units [in early 1918], trained in infiltration tactics to infiltrate and bypass enemy front line units, leaving these strong points to be "mopped-up" by follow-up troops. The stormtrooper tactic was to attack and disrupt enemy headquarters, artillery units and supply depots in the rear areas, as well as to occupy territory rapidly. Each major formation "creamed off" its best and fittest soldiers into storm units; several complete divisions were formed from these elite units. This process gave the German army an initial advantage in the attack, but meant that the best formations would suffer disproportionately heavy casualties, while the quality of the remaining formations declined as they were stripped of their best personnel to provide the storm troops.
The Germans quickly broke through Allied lines in the Spring Offensive and, for a short time, there seemed like a chance of an Allied collapse. The Germans inflicted more damage and captured important supplies, and at least some valuable terrain and defensive points; similar to Brusilov’s Offensive in the East, there was initial jubilation followed by a grim realization –
“The Allies lost nearly 255,000 men (British, British Empire and French). They also lost 1,300 artillery pieces and 200 tanks. All of this could be replaced, either from French and British factories or from American manpower. German troop losses were 239,000 men, many of them specialist shocktroops (Stoßtruppen) who were irreplaceable. In terms of morale, the initial German jubilation at the successful opening of the offensive soon turned to disappointment, as it became clear that the attack had not achieved decisive results.”
Following the Russian Empire’s path to an eerie extent, the German Empire went from its largest victories in years to exhaustion and defeat six months later.
In all of human affairs, accomplishing things produces some gains and comes at some cost. A factory produces finished goods, but it consumes raw materials and the machines wear out and require maintenance and replacement. A victory on a battlefield captures ground and supplies and inflicts casualties on the enemy, but in turn one suffers casualties, expends ammunition and supplies, and even winning soldiers suffer the effects of fatigue and exhaustion.
The maximum sustainable pace is the pace where you can perform maintenance and repair physical machines and systems, take enough time to rest and restore the people involved, and replace the raw materials consumed.
You can exceed the maximum sustainable pace by some amount for a while – you can exceed it slightly for a long time, perhaps even decades, and you can exceed it maximally and go as fast as possible for a short time – hours, days, weeks, or (very rarely) months.
Both the Russian Empire, during Brusilov’s Offensive, and the German Empire, in the Spring Offensives, greatly exceeded their maximum sustainable pace. They collapsed shortly afterwards.
“Maximum possible pace” doesn’t sound like a bad thing – despite being extremely dangerous. Here’s an easier phrase to communicate the concept –
That’s what Kai Zau and I call it.
A car can typically drive thousands of miles by just getting new tanks of gasoline, and performing the occasional maintenance of an oil change, new tires, etc.
But once you start operating a car as close as possible to the fastest it can go – red-lining the car – the amount of maintenance required to repair the car and keep it functional goes up rapidly. If you red-line a car repeatedly without extensive maintenance, it’ll break down.
As machines, similarly with humans. You can red-line and put in all-nighters with no sleep, consume heavy amounts of stimulants and simple carbohydrates for energy, neglect recharging and maintenance activities like leisure and fitness, and in doing this, you can do a much greater amount of work in a short period of time than you could if you were running at a sustainable pace.
This is, of course, dangerous. Red-lining gets the concept and danger across well.
Should you ever red-line yourself?

There’s a variety of smart opinions on this. Kai, for his part, leans towards no. His goal is to never red-line – doctrinally, he sees it as an error whenever he’s forced to red-line, and attributes it largely to poor upstream planning. Kai attempts to run at the maximum sustainable pace as often as possible, and to exceed it as rarely as possible.
I’m of a slightly different mind than Kai on the topic – I think that red-lining occasionally, going closer to the maximum possible pace, is insightful in that it demonstrates what’s possible in a crisis and gives you a better awareness of your capabilities. I think red-lining two or three times per year – say, once by choice, and responding to two crises or large emergent opportunities – is useful to learn what you’re capable of under immense pressure.
I don’t think you should intentionally red-line too often, because it puts you in a fragile and dangerous state following the red-lining. If a major opportunity or crisis happens shortly after you’ve red-lined, you’re ill-equipped to handle it. Even if you thought it valuable to red-line a few times per year to learn capabilities, I think it makes sense to do it defensively and opportunistically the majority of the time – instead of intentionally.
Regardless, Kai and I are both firmly agreed that you need to recharge and replenish and study and make improvements after red-lining – red-lining without recharging and replenishing afterwards reduces your capabilities going forwards, and often leads to much lower output than if you’d never red-lined at all.
We’ll explore threshold breaks in greater detail later in this series, but for now, suffice to say that it’s one of the times that red-lining truly makes sense.
Often, there’s a threshold that, if you pass it, it makes a huge difference. A startup trying to raise its Series A round passes a threshold when the round is fully funded. It can make sense to red-line and put in insane hours when you’re on the verge of finishing closing a finance round, because once it’s finished and the money lands, that threshold is broken through and you can downshift for a short time to recharge with all the gains consolidated.
Athletes have a logical and natural set of threshold breaks around major competitions – a marathon runner or ultramarathoner might push themselves past their maximum sustainable pace during a race, knowing that they can heal and back off from training immediately afterwards. Going significantly past the maximum sustainable pace during training and failing to heal before a major competition would be a major error, but going beyond the maximum sustainable pace in the final burst of a competition can make a lot of sense. The race ends, and you know when it ends.
If you’re going much faster than the maximum sustainable pace, you should know in advance when you can end it and recover from the damage you took. When there’s a logical and obvious threshold or checkpoint to hit, this can help immensely. You red-line to get past a threshold of wins or gains, and then recover afterwards.
Of course, this isn’t a perfect science – and is still a dangerous thing.
The Russians under Brusilov, as far as I can tell, didn’t have a clear threshold they could break through, after which they could heal and recover. By inflicting massive damage on the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Brusilov Offensive, they merely caused the German Empire to redeploy soldiers to reinforce the East – there was no obvious threshold of capturing an enemy capital city or capturing their commander-in-chief to knock one of the participants out of the war. Brusilov’s success, in my opinion, hastened the destruction of the Russian Empire.
As a lesson for your own life, you shouldn’t red-line without a clear objective that can be surmounted, after which you can recharge. Russian forces during the Brusilov Offensive red-lined hard, but there was no clear objective or threshold to surpass which would then allow time for recovery and consolidation.
The German Empire was perhaps slightly more wise than the Russians in this regard – the Spring Offensive had a chance of driving through to Paris and capturing it, which might have ended the war on the Western Front.
But this is a useful metaphor and lesson for us – the Germans were, at the end of the day, further away from their goal than they thought. They red-lined and took nearly irreplaceable damage, and failed to break through a threshold or reach an objective which would justify it
“Ultimately, the gamble failed. Ludendorff was compelled to attack where he had the best chance of success, rather than where success would have produced the greatest dividends, and while the Michael Offensive made an impressive show, the Germans were unable to capitalize on their successes. This failure was crucial, because the dynamics of Ludendorff’s selection mechanism made soldiers capable of using the new tactics a scarce resource that could not be renewed in the foreseeable future. It was the most capable troops that were thrown into all of the attacks, while those that remained behind were of the lowest quality, and when the German reserves were exhausted, it was the best troops that were spent. Had the Germans been able to secure substantial strategic objectives, the effort might have been worth the cost, but without those objectives, modest successes became a disaster.”
This happens too in business and athletics. If you think you’re close to closing a financing round and stay up all night repeatedly, go through whirlwind travel, but the round does not close – you can be exhausted without the gains secured. This is very bad for morale, and sometimes can cause the entire failure of an endeavor.
The marathoner knows this too – red-lining and running as fast as possible, too early in a race, can lead to the inability to finish the race at all. Red-lining is always a dangerous thing, and you should have immense confidence that you can get to the finish in the next burst of red-lining before the damage taken surpasses your ability to recover and keep moving.
Celerity is speed-as-a-character-trait… but as we see here, going as fast as possible isn’t always the right thing to do; in fact, it’s often the exact wrong thing to do.
Two of the fastest-moving offensives of World War I seemed like splendid victories for their side at the moments they were happening, but led respectively to the destruction of the Russian and German Empires.
The stakes in our regular lives are hopefully much lower than that of total war, but these examples become a useful metaphor for our own lives, a check and gauge of whether we’re acting in a way that leads to a thriving life.
The maximum sustainable pace is the one that goes as fast as possible while replenishing and recovering from damage and used resources. It’s worth working towards reaching.
As you go over the maximum sustainable pace, you begin to build a deficit that must be recovered from. On the extreme end of the spectrum, as you get close to the maximum possible pace, you’re then red-lining – where you’re rapidly taking damage and failing to recover almost entirely from the effort exerted.
There can be reasonable disagreement as to whether you should ever intentionally red-line. “I’ll never intentionally red-line” is an entirely sound and sane position.
I believe in occasionally red-lining, since it’s useful to learn one’s capabilities – you’ll have to form your own opinion on the matter based on your temperament, the domains you operate in, and your personal goals.
But if you are going to red-line, you should be very sure that it’s going to be worth it, and that you have a clear objective in sight that you’ll stop red-lining and recover once you reach it – a threshold to break through, or a checkpoint to reach, after which you can safely consolidate the gains and recover from the effort expended.
These are abstract points, perhaps, but I find most people have some intuitive sense of them – hopefully this issue has given you new language and concepts to analyze them further, think through explicitly, and evaluate where you’re in terms of energy expenditures and pace.
Go as fast as it sound and smart – and no faster!
Sebastian Marshall

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