TO BE OR TO DO?



Chapter 2 

TO BE OR TO DO?


In this formative period, the soul is unsoiled by warfare with the world. It lies, like a block of pure, uncut Parian marble, ready to be fashioned into—what?

—ORISON SWETT MARDEN

One of the most influential strategists and practitioners in modern warfare is someone most people have never heard of. His name was John Boyd.

   He was a truly great fighter pilot, but an even better teacher and thinker. After flying in Korea, he became the lead instructor at the elite Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base. He was known as “Forty-Second Boyd”—meaning that he could defeat any opponent, from any position, in less than forty seconds. A few years later he was quietly summoned to the Pentagon, where his real work began.

   In one sense, the fact that the average person might not have heard of John Boyd is not unexpected. He never published any books and he wrote only one academic paper. Only a few videos of him survive and he was rarely, if ever, quoted in the media. Despite nearly thirty years of impeccable service, Boyd wasn’t promoted above the rank of colonel.

   On the other hand, his theories transformed maneuver warfare in almost every branch of the armed forces, not just in his own lifetime but even more so after. The F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, which reinvented modern military aircraft, were his pet projects. His primary influence was as an adviser; through legendary briefings he taught and instructed nearly every major military thinker in a generation. His input on the war plans for Operation Desert Shield came in a series of direct meetings with the secretary of defense, not through public or official policy input. His primary means of effecting change was through the collection of pupils he mentored, protected, taught, and inspired.

   There are no military bases named after him. No battleships. He retired assuming that he’d be forgotten, and without much more than a small apartment and a pension to his name. He almost certainly had more enemies than friends.

   This unusual path—What if it were deliberate? What if it made him more influential? How crazy would that be?

   In fact, Boyd was simply living the exact lesson he tried to teach each promising young acolyte who came under his wing, who he sensed had the potential to be something—to be something different. The rising stars he taught probably have a lot in common with us.

   The speech Boyd gave to a protégé in 1973 makes this clear. Sensing what he knew to be a critical inflection point in the life of the young officer, Boyd called him in for a meeting. Like many high achievers, the soldier was insecure and impressionable. He wanted to be promoted, and he wanted to do well. He was a leaf that could be blown in any direction and Boyd knew it. So he heard a speech that day that Boyd would give again and again, until it became a tradition and a rite of passage for a generation of transformative military leaders.

   “Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” Boyd said to him. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” Using his hands to illustrate, Boyd marked off these two directions. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd paused, to make the alternative clear. “Or,” he said, “you can go that way and you can do something—something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision.”

   And then Boyd concluded with words that would guide that young man and many of his peers for the rest of their lives. “To be or to do? Which way will you go?”

   Whatever we seek to do in life, reality soon intrudes on our youthful idealism. This reality comes in many names and forms: incentives, commitments, recognition, and politics. In every case, they can quickly redirect us from doing to being. From earning to pretending. Ego aids in that deception every step of the way. It’s why Boyd wanted young people to see that if we are not careful, we can very easily find ourselves corrupted by the very occupation we wish to serve.

   How do you prevent derailment? Well, often we fall in love with an image of what success looks like. In Boyd’s world, the number of stars on your shoulder or the nature of your appointment or its location could easily be confused as a proxy for real accomplishment. For other people, it’s their job title, the business school they went to, the number of assistants they have, the location of their parking space, the grants they earn, their access to the CEO, the size of their paycheck, or the number of fans they have.

  Appearances are deceiving. Having authority is not the same as being an authority. Having the right and being right are not the same either. Being promoted doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing good work and it doesn’t mean you are worthy of promotion (they call it failing upward in such bureaucracies). Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.

   So who are you with? Which side will you choose? This is the roll call that life puts before us.

   Boyd had another exercise. Visiting with or speaking to groups of Air Force officers, he’d write on the chalkboard in big letters the words: DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY. Then he would cross those words out and replace them with three others: PRIDE, POWER, GREED. His point was that many of the systems and structures in the military—the ones that soldiers navigate in order to get ahead—can corrupt the very values they set out to serve. There’s a quip from the historian Will Durant, that a nation is born stoic and dies epicurean. That’s the sad truth Boyd was illustrating, how positive virtues turn sour.

   How many times have we seen this played out in our own short lives—in sports, in relationships, or projects or people that we care deeply about? This is what the ego does. It crosses out what matters and replaces it with what doesn’t.

   A lot of people want to change the world, and it’s good that they do. You want to be the best at what you do. Nobody wants to just be an empty suit. But in practical terms, which of the three words Boyd wrote on the chalkboard are going to get you there? Which are you practicing now? What’s fueling you?

   The choice that Boyd puts in front of us comes down to purpose. What is your purpose? What are you here to do? Because purpose helps you answer the question “To be or to do?“ quite easily. If what matters is you—your reputation, your inclusion, your personal ease of life—your path is clear: Tell people what they want to hear. Seek attention over the quiet but important work. Say yes to promotions and generally follow the track that talented people take in the industry or field you’ve chosen. Pay your dues, check the boxes, put in your time, and leave things essentially as they are. Chase your fame, your salary, your title, and enjoy them as they come.

   “A man is worked upon by what he works on,” Frederick Douglass once said. He would know. He’d been a slave, and he saw what it did to everyone involved, including the slaveholders themselvesOnce a free man, he saw that the choices people made, about their careers and their lives, had the same effect. What you choose to do with your time and what you choose to do for money works on you. The egocentric path requires, as Boyd knew, many compromises.

   If your purpose is something larger than you—to accomplish something, to prove something to yourself—then suddenly everything becomes both easier and more difficult. Easier in the sense that you know now what it is you need to do and what is important to you. The other “choices” wash away, as they aren’t really choices at all. They’re distractions. It’s about the doing, not the recognition. Easier in the sense that you don’t need to compromise. Harder because each opportunity—no matter how gratifying or rewarding—must be evaluated along strict guidelines: Does this help me do what I have set out to do? Does this allow me to do what I need to do?  Am I being selfish or self-less?

   In this course, it is not “Who do I want to be in life?” but “What is it that I want to accomplish in life?” Setting aside selfish interest, it asks: What calling does it serve? What principles govern my choices? Do I want to be like everyone else or do I want to do something different?

   In other words, it’s harder because everything can seem like a compromise. 

   Although it’s never too late, the earlier you ask yourself these questions the better.

   Boyd undeniably changed and improved his field in a way that almost no other theorist has since Sun Tzu or von Clausewitz. He was known as Genghis John for the way he never let obstacles or opponents stop him from what he needed to do. His choices were not without their costs. He was also known as the ghetto colonel because of his frugal lifestyle. He died with a drawerful of thousands of dollars in uncashed expense checks from private contractors, which he equated with bribes. That he never advanced above colonel was not his doing; he was repeatedly held back for promotions. He was forgotten by history as a punishment for the work he did.

   Think about this the next time you start to feel entitled, the next time you conflate fame and the American Dream. Think about how you might measure up to a great man like that.

   Think about this the next time you face that choice: Do Ineed this? Or is it really about ego? Are you ready to make the right decision? Or do the prizes still glitter off in the distance?

   To be or to do—life is a constant roll call.





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