William T.Sherman and the Civil War


Battles are fought and won not by the brute strength of men but by the minds and genius of their commanders. The American Civil War was decided not by the strength of the North over the South, but due to brilliance of William T.Sherman, a commander of the Union Army.

Like all good leaders, he also led from the front. Whatever burdens and struggles his men experienced, he too would share in them. For it was his belief that:

“Soldiers have a right to see and know that the man who guides them is near enough to see with his own eyes”

During his time as a training school commander, he encouraged his cadets to come speak to him and if a cadet fell sick, he would be at his bedside several times a day encouraging him.

Another aspect of his leadership was his ability to show moral courage even in difficult times. After loss at the Battle of the Bull Run where the morale of the troops was low and many soldiers wanted to be discharged, a Captain came up to him one day and casually said he was going back to his business in New York. In front of the observing men,Sherman rebuked him saying, “You are a soldier and must submit to orders till you are properly discharged. If you attempt to leave without orders it will be mutiny and I will shoot you like a dog!”. Sherman understood the laws of human nature and knew that if he had not stood his ground and asserted his authority, the rest of the soldiers would have revolted.

He also knew that the resisting power of the South was through the strength of the popular will rather than the strength of the armies. By marching through Georgia and pillaging the South, he broke the will of the Southerners.

Man has two supreme loyalties – to country and to family. And with most men, the second being the more personal is the stronger

Through the Vicksburg campaign, he realised that the way to decide wars and win battles was more by movement of troops than by fighting. His army was a “mobile machine willing and able to start at a minute’s notice and to subsist on the scanties of food”. In Liddel Hart’s words, he understood that “the way to success is strategically along the line of least expectation, and tactically along the line of least resistance.”

As long as his men could shoot, march and obey orders, and best of all use what was inside their heads, he cared nothing as to what was outside their bodies. He was a pragmatist and even the carelessness of his dressing reflected his pragmatic approach toward war. Once when he reprimanded a soldier for not changing into his uniform, he rebutted that a general with “such a hat as he had had no right to talk to him about a uniform”. In Washington, after the war, the Eastern armies marched in well-clad and well-drilled with their ranks trim and spotless. Sherman’s Western armies in sharp contrast bore travel-stained and patched uniforms, marching freely in front of the crowds.

Throughout the war, his knew what the end point was and never wavered. Inscribed on his statue in Washington, in his words:

“The legitimate object of war is a more perfect peace”

He could have pursued the war to the end and demonstrated retribution on the South. But he accepted the peace terms against the popular will and demonstrated patriotism and faith in the renewal of the country.

” Therefore, my friends now that the war is over, let us all go back to work and do what seems honest and just to restore our country to its former prosperity.”

Dick Dale and Miserlou


On Monday, while driving to work, the BBC announced the passing of Dick Dale. I first heard the name Dick Dale many years back in a guitar book and it made reference to his hypersonic stacatto picking style. “Miserlou“, its electric tempo and machine like riffing with a middle eastern melody – sounds wildly different from the usual radio riff-raff from the 60s.

While he’s most famously remembered for “Miserlou”, his very first album has a surprisingly different tone. From the bluesy pop shuffle of “Let’s Go Tripping” to the bass heavy chug intermixed with indulgent tom tom rolls of “Surfing Drums”, the surf-loving Dick channeled his joy of surfing into his music. But history wasn’t exactly kind to Dale: his music was overshadowed by the more lyrically talented fellow Californians “The Beach Boys”. Tracks like “Surfin Safari”, “Surfin USA” and “Surfer Girl” stayed on the airwaves (and minds of the USA) while none Dale’s really took off.

His evolution and experimentation into the racing scene of the Hot Rod Movement was also a failure. Dialling down his usual speed and adding more vocals just wasn’t his strong suit. (The cheesy lyrics of “Big Black Cad” and “The Scavenger”.
come to mind). Disappointing though because there are some gems which maintained his trademark mad tempo like “Night Rider” and “The Wedge”.

His battle with cancer forced him off almost into obscurity and it wasn’t till much later that Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction brought him back into the public consciousness again. His reappearance marked a succession of new albums. But gone were the bluesy pop rock melodies of the 60s; replacing it was the heavier, bass heavy songs like “Nitro”, “Nitrus” and “Scalped” but somehow, they don’t match up to the magic of his earlier songs.

What I play now isn’t surf music. It’s too powerful. I used to go through paper bags; now I go through brick walls. I play hard.

Surf music may be dead, but long live Dick Dale.

On the Shortness of Life


The biggest fallacy is that life is too short. Most of the time, it really isn’t. Perhaps if we look deeper maybe we might just be not spending it right. On the Shortness of Life, is one of my favourite essays written by the prolific Stoic philosopher Seneca who argues that:

“It is not that we have a brief time to live, but that we squander it. Life is long enough.

How then do we go about living? In one of my earlier posts I mentioned a technique that might help which is planning in advance…

“But that man who devotes every hour to his own needs, who plans every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears tomorrow”

Seneca advocates planning because he knows that if we plan our days as if it were our last, we would fill it with activities that are more meaningful to us – like time with family and friends rather than squandering it on mindless television or Facebook scrolling. And we won’t regret it when it is our time to leave this earth.

As financially conscious people, we budget and plan our expenses and investments, but how many of us really know how we spend our time? As Peter Drucker famously noted, Effective executives know where they spend their time. Likewise, people who live their lives well know where they are spending theirs.

“It is better to know the accounts of your own life than those of the corn-market.”

It isn’t just planning. It also means learning to say No.If you’re constantly being jerked around and asked to do things that may be someone else’s agenda but not your own, how are you going to do the things you really want to do?? Saying No may be difficult and sometimes even has negative repercussions, but at least you won’t be in the wretched condition of slaving away on the timelines of others.

“The condition of all men who are busy with other things is wretched, but most wretched is that of men who busy themselves in pursuits that are not their own.”

Finally, it means starting now. Procrastination is the thief of time. As Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives”. So too should we heed Seneca’s exhortation and stop procrastinating:

How late it is to begin living only when one must stop!

To Be Or To Do: Boyd – The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War



John Boyd was an ace pilot who developed the E-M theory of aircraft performance, designed the F-15, F-16 and helped develop a strategy that led to a successful campaign in the Gulf War. He was a force of nature. Yet, in spite of all his achievements, he remains a relatively low profile figure, unlike many careerist 4-star generals turned politicians in the United States. His abrasive and blunt personality rubbed many of his superiors the wrong way but no one could doubt his moral courage and integrity.

Once, a general requested Boyd write a paper to champion a B1 bomber. Most of us upon receiving instructions and orders from a superior would have obeyed. But Boyd refused. The furious general gave him his marching orders but in true ‘Boydian’ fashion, while Boyd complied with the paper, he then wrote a memorandum explaining why he disagreed with his own paper. And he told the general he considered the two papers a package; if the first was released, so would the second.

“If your boss demands loyalty, give him integrity. But if he demands integrity, then give him loyalty”

It wasn’t just for things that were against his principles. He was insistent even toward things that did not matter to most people. One time when the Air Force launched a Zero Defects campaign and the commander wanted everyone to sign to pledge to make zero mistakes in the coming year, Boyd refused to sign as he didn’t believe that it was possible to make zero mistakes. Following his lead, a group of soldiers under him also proclaimed that they were 100% against Zero Defects as well.

Boyd was a perfectionist and an extremely hard worker. Early on his career, when he was a flight instructor and while crafting his paper on the Aerial attack study, he wanted to be relieved of his teaching duties until he could complete the training manual. The commandant refused. Though furious, he worked on the paper on his own time instead. For a month, he slept two or three hours, taught in the morning, flew in the afternoon and worked on it till dawn. He was relentless.

Later on in his career, when he fought the bureaucrats in the Air Force, his fundamental work ethic was this:

“You can never be wrong. You have to do your homework. If you make a technical statement, you better be right. Because once you lose credibility, you are no longer a threat, no one will pay attention to what you say.”

He took this diligence so far that for all his briefings, each letter had to be precisely written. Each line and chart shaded correctly. And if at 1am he found the slightest imperfection, he would call the technicians to correct the mistake immediately.

Boyd also had a flair for creativity. During his posting as base commander in Vietnam, he saw problems that needed his attention but was bogged down with mountains of paperwork from the Air Force bureaucracy. His solution – to respond but to add material that caused them more paperwork than it caused him. In only a few weeks, the requests almost disappeared. “Pain goes both ways,” he said.

“You must have inductive thinking. There is not just one solution to the problem. Never commit to a single solution”

Upon retirement, Boyd could have followed the path of other military officers. But he saw the dangers of accepting a monthly wage.

“If a man can reduce his needs to zero, he is truly free: there is nothing that can be taken from him and nothing anyone can do to hurt him”

It all came as a big cost to his family though. He stopped buying clothes. The car he owned was a wreck and despite his family’s unhappiness, they continued to stay in a run-down apartment. If it wasn’t for his patient and long suffering wife, it is unlikely that he would have been able to achieve all that he did.

In spite of all his failings, nothing epitomises his moral courage and brilliance more than this:

“One day, you will come to a fork in the road. And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go one 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. Or you can go another way and you can do something – something for your country 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 the favourite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. To be or to do? Which way will you go?

On Systems

IMG_5169Seneca once said that it was not that life is too short; rather it is because most of us squander it away. And Annie Dillard puts it beautifully – “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives”. So how should we go about seizing the day? I often spend many hours at work and at the end of the day, it seems to go by in a flash without me achieving something meaningful. This year I’ve decided to be more proactive in managing my schedule, developing a routine and consciously looked for information on the web to do so.

Cal Newport is one of those guys who I looked toward for a solution. He’s a successful writer and professor who only works a 9 to 5 every day and seems to get so many things done. From his blog, I dug out a few practical ideas:

1. Timeblocking

The first thing Cal does each day is to plot out his schedule into blocks of time. This allows him to keep focused on the tasks at hand and also to proactively manage the commitments for the day. I’ve tried it out for about a week now and I find it really helpful in managing my schedule. Sometimes I get distracted and forget what should I be working on in terms of priority. Scheduling/Planning at the start of the day helps me overcome this problem.

2. Replacing my Email To Do List with A Working Memory File

Cal also argues that context switching is one of the biggest problems in today’s email-driven world. In my case (and I’m sure it is the same for 99% of cubicle workers), our mailboxes are open because we have FOMO syndrome – the Fear of Missing Out. We need to read every email, every piece of news that drops into our inbox right away. It’s a huge disruption to a focused work and increases the time spent on the task at hand. For me, I usually have it open because I use my mailbox to track outstanding to-dos so I decided to find an alternative method.

Cal has a hack in which he uses a Working Memory File text file at the start of the day – my modified version which I’m experimenting with right now is used as a dump of the various requests I get at work into the file. So once my mailbox is cleared and empty, I will not have to keep it open or refer to it until specific points in the day. This keeps me focused on the task at hand. So far, I’ve had a bit of mixed success with this but will give it a bit more time.

3. GTD Task Capture

Not something that I learned specifically from him but something that I agree with, Cal explains that while humans are good at processing or analysing information, we are bad at remembering simple things like taking out the laundry or remembering to buy groceries. Thats why we need a thing he calls a Task Capture system. For me, this comes in the form of the Reminders app and its a big success for me. It’s so easy to use, quick to just set and forget. It has saved me plenty of lost hours and allowed me to focus and use my memory for more important work.

There’s a lot of other insightful posts in his blog but will save that for a separate post in the future.