To be somebody or to do something

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philosophy

Finishing a book that I’d describe as one of the best I’ve read, Boyd by Robert Coram gives the reader a glass of tantalizing ideas to sip on.

Boyd delves into the story of the indomitable John Boyd that changed the course of modern warfare in the mid 20th century. It does sound like a movie. In just one lifetime, he pioneered the E-M theory that incorporated physics into the ad-hoc nature of air warfare and crafted an entirely new way of fighting war, maneuver warfare, which led to some calling him “the most influential military thinker since Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War 2,400 years ago.” Boyd could have ended his career at the pinnacle of success, paraded around by America on a leash as its finest military theorist, but he never wavered in his principles. That’s why he died broke and except for a cult of military veterans, largely unknown.

Alarms start ringing. How could one man possibly have done anything to rescue the American military industrial complex post-Eisenhower’s administration? In normal circumstances, they would be right. It seems far-fetched, brazen, and ludicrous, but John Boyd embodied all of those characteristics to their fullest potential. To understand how Boyd was the quintessential patriot who stopped at nothing for his country’s best wishes, we must glance at his upbringing.

Coram’s biographical account of Boyd is tremendously detailed:

“His family was poor and bore the stigma of having a child with polio. John’s clothes were so tatty that a teacher once asked him in front of the class if he could not wear more presentable clothes. He held back his tears until he could get home and tell his mother what happened. She wrapped her arms around him and said, “Don’t let it bother you.

Say to yourself over and over, ‘It doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t bother me.’ Remember you have something no one else in the class has. You have principle and integrity. That means you will be criticized and attacked. But in the end you will win. Don’t let it bother you.”

A sense of loneliness and frustration, coupled with the idea that doing the right thing is always the right thing. It’s the seed which planted the oak tree of valor and honor that he fought for as a fighter pilot and colonel in the military.

 “Two incidents in high school left an indelible mark. The first was when a teacher said to him, “John Boyd, you’ll never be anything but a salesman.” Even though John’s father had been a salesman, he took the remark as a biting insult; it meant that he was glib and shallow and lacked substance.

After he married, he told his wife that he heard those terrible words every day of his life, that throughout his career he was driven to prove he was more than a mere salesman.

Contempt for a person and contempt for the populace that treated you with disdain are two sides of the same coin. People who often take the moral ground in life, doing something, see the harsh reality of life earlier than others. They’re prepared for what life can bring. We can definitely ascertain that an unwavering north star in general in the 20th century was no mean feat; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is one instance of how the madness of crowds fails. 

Boyd’s speech itself is worth dissecting:

“And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “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 raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or 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. To be or to do? Which way will you go?

I think about this idea when I decide which forces I want to allow in my psyche. The books I read, people with whom I chat, and the art I consume in any form has a profound impact on our development. Not just in the “I’m the average of the 5 people we talk to the most cliche” but also in a dynamic way: I only have so much time to do the things I want – some of that requires independent, rational thinking. Some get their moral boundaries from people, which makes this task of originality even harder.

Venkatesh Rao, Editor-in-Chief of Ribbonfarm, has a clear insight about this issue in his piece – Examining the Accidental Life

To be lost is to have a destination but not know how to get there. To be deeply lost in the way I like to be is to not have a destination. To make that deeply lost state your home is to be willing to linger wherever you are indefinitely. So long as it is not too smelly or otherwise viscerally unpleasant to all humans of course.


The distinction is the one between ambiguity and uncertainty. If you don’t know where you ought to go, that’s ambiguity. If you don’t know how to get there, that’s uncertainty.

[…]

I don’t like the line not all who wander are lost. The implication is that being lost is an undesirable state. Looking back at my life, the important turning points have been my successful attempts to lose myself and stay lost. The main point of wandering is to get lost. Feature, not bug.

Boyd is successful and created an amalgamation of virtues to hold onto throughout life because he managed to stay lost. As a kid, he never listened to his friends about where they should play. As a college student, he stayed away from heavily going out: he was always seen carrying thick philosophical volumes. And as an adult, he would obsess over ideas and refine them over and over again through late-night phone calls with friends. They would say that it’s the price of entry to be friends with Boyd.   

Although I’m a university student right now, I can see that the advent of social media and notifications creates a hassle to stay lost. Not that I was quite the “be somebody” type, but I can’t just whisk away into the sunset like one could in a world, “pre-internet of things, sensors everywhere.” 


I think I’ve learned tactics that do help someone aiming to do something. One unsurprisingly relates to reading more. At birth, we’re told the type of person we’re destined to become. There’s no way feasibly to know what’s a tautology and what is false without reading a bit. Charlie Munger, the legendary investor and witty aphorist, said: ““In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none, zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads — and at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”’ While I don’t have kids nor am I that wise, I think my dream would be basically this. 

The second thing pertains from actively staying away from the crowd. I don’t think I can do what Emerson would say: ” the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” This is harder than I thought. Like Boyd’s upbringing, fathoming how cruel people can be might be necessary. People give you self-serving advice as a pathological cure for themselves – they would rather choose to be the tea-drinkers instead of the workers.

And the third might just be debating rationally and using the steel man technique. In today’s political realm, straw mans and red herrings are used incessantly to everyone’s disdain. Nothing is learned in that environment. Anger meets anger at the front door and doesn’t come inside. But a warm greeting changes matters. In this way, when I debate I try to make it clear that I’m not attacking people nor do I open the unforgiving door of identity politics. People love to talk and if they’re worth listening to, the steel man approach is one approach that has worked personally.

John Boyd remains an idol of mine and others in military/tech/rationalist circles because of his sacrifice and the quality of his erudition. The greatest Faustian bargain would be to attain status at the loss of  your true desire. And doing something is by no means easier, but at least you make the rules of the infinite vs finite game

It’s like the scene in the matrix:

Neo: Why do my eyes hurt?

Morpheus: You’ve never used them before.

The Author

I write about tech, philosophy, and macroeconomics.

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