John Boyd is amongst the world's greatest military strategists. Boyd was an air force colonel who originally came to prominence as an ace fighter pilot. His contributions spanned the length of his career and varied from fighter tactics to plane design to military strategy. Boyd developed the first fighter-tactics manual of the Air Force, the Energy-Manoeuvrability theory of aircraft performance, and a general strategic framework of acting under uncertainty. His thinking about strategy spread across the US armed forces: his Patterns of Conflict briefing provided the basis for the US military’s strategy in the first Gulf War, leading to their 100-hour victory, and still underpins US Marine Corps fighting doctrine to this day.
Boyd had a reputation for giving young, promising, ambitious officers a certain speech. Like many high achievers, or wannabe high achievers, most officers on the receiving end of Boyd's speech were insecure and impressionable. They wanted to be successful and they wanted to be promoted. Like a piece of grass in the wind, they were willing to be blown in any direction that meant success.
“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” Boyd said to them. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” Boyd would mark off these two directions using his hands. “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.” After a long pause—to make the alternative clear—he'd continue: “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 favourite 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?”
One road entails committing yourself to title, status and money. If these are the things that matter to you, you're in a fortunate position, because your path is clear: Tell people what they want to hear. Seek attention over quiet but important work. Say yes to promotions and follow the track that talented people in your field take. It's been done before and it'll be done again. Pay your dues, check the boxes, put in your time, and leave things as they are. Chase your title, your status, your salary, and enjoy them as they come.
But if you wish to achieve something greater—if you wish to be a part of something bigger than yourself—you know the road you have to take. You'll probably fail. You'll be riddled with doubt. You'll question your decision and wonder why people who aren't smarter, better or more talented than you, have it easier than you.
For a long time, I wondered why anybody would choose the difficult route. I looked at people in pursuit of title, status and salary. Their names were known and their walk was smooth, yet they seemed to be dying on the inside. They'd lost the zest, zeal and enthusiasm for life, the very things which once made them so intriguing. They appeared to be plagued by the mundanity of their journey, putting one foot in front of the other as if they lacked the freedom to stop. With each step they seemed to ask with an ever-increasing sense of urgency: "Is this it? Is this all I'm ever going to do?" The stench of wasted potential lingered.
I suspect that as you read this, someone comes to mind. Perhaps it's you. It's the person who has grown stagnant. The person who seems dejected and dispirited, sour and cynical. It's not necessarily the person who never reached the top—we can't all reach the top, life doesn't work that way—but the person that no matter how busy they seem to be, they've stopped growing and striving for better. They've settled. They're going through the motions, growing stale, whether they realise it or not.
Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve once said, “There are people whose clocks stop at a certain point in their lives." Look around you—how many people that you know are already stuck in the same fixed mindset, doing the same mundane things, acting like their clocks have stopped? Acknowledging that people live this way—perhaps you live this way—isn't pleasant. It fills you with regret about time wasted. But it's an important acknowledgement to make because it's the start of the realisation that regardless of your age or position, your story isn't over. Life is a book of many chapters.
“A man is worked upon by what he works on.” - Frederick Douglas
Douglas was a slave. He saw what slavery did to everyone involved, including the slaveholders. Once becoming 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.
Be particularly deliberate about it. Consider the road you're taking and the reason you're taking it. Know what it means for you to be successful. Consider what you want to do with your limited time and whether the road you've chosen is moving you closer, or whether it's killing you a little more each day.
The world is moved by highly motivated people, by enthusiasts, by men and women who want something very much or believe very much. Those people are rarely found in the pursuit of title, status or salary. It's easy to settle, but don't. Life is better lived with zest and zeal and a little bit of heartbreak.
To be or to do? Which way will you go?