There is no one you can name that has had a better story and a more eventful life than Napoleon Bonaparte. Born from nothing, and he conquered everything.
But what made him so special? What made a man from a regular middle-class upbringing on the small island of Corsica, become so ambitious and eventually so successful?
Well, Napoleon had something that most people don’t have. It’s not necessarily intellect, charisma, or any quality you would expect, although they do all play a part and he had them all. It actually was his ability to spot and seize opportunities as they came. Napoleon was one of the greatest opportunists in history, and it’s the main reason he became emperor and conquered most of Europe right after the most chaotic and unstable period in the history of France.
If you want to find opportunities, you have to look for them, you do not just stumble over them. As we will see, Napoleon sought out all of these opportunities, seized them, and squeezed every inch of juice out of them. But what opportunities did the French emperor seize, and how did they assist his rise to power and result in him crowning himself emperor?
Most importantly, what can you learn from Napoleon? How can you become as great an opportunist as he? What do you need to do, what situations do you need to put yourself in, and how do you prepare yourself to seize the great opportunities that will come to you in life?
All of these questions will be answered in this blog through examples from Napoleon's life, from when he was just starting out as a general, to becoming Emperor of the French. Napoleon's rise to power is the story of a great opportunist. Let’s see how he did it.
“Great men are meteors designed to burn so that earth may be lighted.” ~Napoleon
Becoming a general:
Napoleon grew up on the island of Corsica. An Italian-speaking island that used to be under British rule, but was later controlled by the French. Napoleon knew that within the island of Corsica, he couldn’t make any great impact. He saw his opportunities in France, where he could make his ambitions greatness a reality. So he went to military school in France and eventually became a general.
Napoleon’s rise to power began in one of the most tumultuous, chaotic, and violent periods in human history: The French Revolution. It was a period when people were upset with how things were going. People were extremely poor, and the elites were spoiling themselves rotten with the tax money that they had collected from the peasants. Eventually, the last straw broke the camel's back when a famine broke out and everyday commodities such as bread became extremely expensive. One day, the people had enough and started a revolution. The people were done with being abused by the monarchy, so they decided that the King and Queen had to go. First, they only lost their powers and were mocked by the ordinary people, but eventually, once the revolution became more extreme, they needed to die. So they were both sentenced to death and thrown under the guillotine. This started a period known as the ‘Terror’, which saw thousands of the ‘enemies’ of the revolution killed by guillotine, meaning everyone who was not on the side of the revolutionaries and dared to speak out against them. The generals and military leaders in France saw this too, and this resulted in them fleeing the country. This left a hole in the military of France, but one man was all too keen to fill that hole up: Napoleon Bonaparte.
Because of the lack of generals, and after he had written a pro-revolution piece, he quickly got promoted to general at a very young age for that time and received his first campaign.
Napoleon didn’t have any strong feelings about the revolution, but he saw the power they had, and he saw an opportunity. He knew how much it would assist his rise to power if he joined them, so he did.
It started at Toulon, which for the revolutionaries was a strategically important city. There he defeated the British and Spanish and retook the city for the revolutionaries through his brilliant use of strategy. Napoleon was praised highly for this victory, but when the Jacobins lost their power and became the enemies of the state, Napoleon's rise stagnated and he seemed finished.
However, he got another job, which was subduing a Parisian mob who were protesting for the return of the monarchy. They were against the revolution and the new government that was installed after the revolution. Napoleon received the assignment because of his previous victory in Toulon. He attacked the Parisian mob ruthlessly by shooting at the crowd with cannons and successfully ended the riots. This quickly gained him a reputation as a ruthless and cold general, but also someone who could get the job done and do as he was told. After this victory, the people in charge came to like him a lot. They believed him to be a competent general, so they sent him on campaigns to Italy, Austria, and even Egypt, where on every campaign he overperformed, making a name for himself as an outstanding general. He seized every single opportunity that came on his path, and if it didn’t come on his path, he dragged it on there by force, making reality comply with his will.
"Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools." ~ Napoleon
Staging a coup:
The people in France were discontented with how things were going after the revolution. The Jacobin leaders were already thrown under the guillotine as people were done with their madness after the period of terror, and a new government was established. But this new government turned out to be highly incompetent, and incapable of making France better than it was when it was still a monarchy. The economy was worse than ever, the government didn’t have any money to spend, and with all of the inflation the poor were still very much poor. The nation was discontent with the current government and wanted a new one. Napoleon sensed this and was not going to let this opportunity pass.
Napoleon was beloved as a general after his many victorious campaigns in Italy against the Austrians, and later on for his conquest of Egypt, which was a failure, but through persuasive propaganda, he managed to make the perception of the campaign fairly positive.
His reputation for victory combined with his genuinely charismatic personality, his likeability, and his excellent ability to persuade and inspire people led his popularity in France to skyrocket.
Napoleon noticed that this was the perfect moment to take over. They would easily accept him as their leader because of their genuine approval, and the bad leadership that was now in place. So he staged a coup, he walked into the palace with a couple of soldiers armed with guns and told the government that they should resign. So they did, and Napoleon became the first consul. The coup eventually ended up with Napoleon having all the power for himself and essentially becoming a military dictator.
But being first consul didn’t satisfy Napoleon's massive ambitions, he wanted more. And he found the perfect opportunity to expand his powers.
Because there were numerous plots attempted on his life, Napoleon needed an heir. So that if one of the assassination attempts proved to be successful, they knew who would come after him. If he had no heir, then a power vacuum would remain, and this would bring terrible uncertainty and probably chaos. They didn’t want to take that chance, so they wanted Napoleon to become emperor so that he could immediately appoint an heir.
They put it to a vote: Do you want Napoleon as your emperor, Yes or No? Of course, almost everyone was in favor, in a totally fair and not rigged election (his brother Louis counted the votes, and probably just picked a number that sounded nice). 99.93% were in favor and Napoleon became emperor, showing complete unanimity among the French people (which was the reason they rigged it).
As is commonly known, Napoleon crowned himself, most likely he didn’t want the pope to crown him because he disliked the Vatican, but people tend to see it as a metaphor that he didn’t receive his power from god, or that he thought of himself as a god.
So within a couple of years, Napoleon went from a nobody general to emperor of the French Republic. An epic and lighting-fast rise to power, which saw him go from becoming a general at 24 to being emperor of the French at 34 years old. Within ten years he went from a nobody to becoming the most powerful person in the country, and in that period probably in Europe.
"Everything passes rapidly on earth, with the exception of the mark we leave on history." ~ Napoleon
The 3 aspects that made Napoleon a great opportunist.
Napoleon wasn’t just an average general with average skill. He wasn’t appointed general and didn’t conceive so many victories just because he was an average guy. Nor did it all result from talent or some God-given gift. Napoleon worked extraordinarily hard, sometimes day and night, and only slept a couple of hours a night. Because of his purpose and huge ambitions, he managed to work harder than is humanly possible, stating: ’When I receive the monthly reports on the state of my armies and my navy, which fill twenty thick volumes ... I take greater pleasure reading them than a young lady does in reading a novel.'
His work ethic also brought him to a certain level of skill and in his case even mastery of military strategy.
If you want to seize an opportunity, you must be in the right position. You need the right timing and seek out the opportunity itself. But what is most important is that you have the capability to take advantage of the opportunity when it comes, and you do this by working hard to become competent. Do you think that Napoleon could have seized the opportunity of becoming a general when there was a shortage of them, without being a good general in the first place? Do you think that if he hadn’t successfully carried out his military campaigns, he could’ve become emperor at all? No, this was the result of hard work and becoming competent enough to take advantage of the opportunities that came his way.
You are no exception to this rule.
"Ability is nothing without opportunity" ~ Napoleon
If you want to seize opportunities, you really have to go and get them. They don’t just get delivered to your doorstep, waiting for you to come out and making it as easy as possible for you to seize them. No, opportunities have to be taken advantage of, they don’t get given to you. If you don’t seize them, they’ll just fly by and you’ll never see them again. What you need, as Napoleon did, is to cultivate boldness. You must become bolder in what you do, simply going out and taking what you want.
Most people are way too timid, they shy away from anything they may perceive as a risk. But risk is inextricably linked with reward, so if there is no risk, there will be no reward. That’s why you need to become more courageous, putting yourself out there, demanding more, and sometimes simply taking what ought to be yours.
This is what Napoleon did in his coup to become first consul. He could have just been timid and waited for a moment when there would be no risk of becoming first consul, which would never arrive. He had to take a risk if he wanted to seize the opportunity. He could have been rejected, the coup could have failed and his reputation would be severely tarnished, or he could have even been killed when he walked into the palace. But regardless of the risk that came with it, he needed to seize the opportunity to receive the reward he wanted: power.
You can’t just wait for opportunities to cross your path, they won’t just be out for the taking, you have to take them by force, regardless of the risks.
Hesitation puts obstacles in your path, boldness will eliminate them.
Hunt for Opportunities
Opportunities will never magically appear. You have to go out there and look for them, and you do this by being perspicacious, which means paying attention to everything going on around you, and genuinely observing what is happening. If you observe what is happening around you, and you understand how it works, you can start looking for opportunities that open up, or events that are happening that you can take advantage of.
Opportunities will not be handed to you while you lie on your couch watching a movie, you really have to get out there and start looking for them. This also means doing things, putting yourself out there, and becoming competent at something that you can use to grab these opportunities.
Opportunities are events that come at the perfect place and time, with you competent enough to take advantage of them to the full. You won’t just stumble on these events at the right time if you’re not actively looking for them, because then, you’ll always be too late.
So hunt for these opportunities, pay attention, and maybe someday luck strikes and you’ll get what you’ve always wanted. After the fact, they will always say you were lucky that this happened to you, but you know the truth.