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

 

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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.

My Sweet Setup

My article for the site The Sweet Setup.

Mac Setup

  • Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Daryl. In the day, I work in Corporate Finance for an investment holding company in Singapore. I use a Lenovo Thinkpad at work with the standard Microsoft suite of applications (Outlook, Excel, Powerpoint and Word). At night and on weekends, I enjoy spending time with my family, reading and writing on my blog.

  • What is your current setup?

At home, I have an all Apple setup. My computer is a 13-inch MacBook Pro(2015) on top of a Nexstand laptop stand, paired with a Magic Mouse and Keyboard.

  • Where can we find your macOS wallpaper?

I like having a clean, sparse desktop so my wallpaper is all-black. I keep the dock hidden so Spotlight is my best friend.

  • What software do you use and for what do you use it?

I use my Macbook for administrative things like paying my bills, checking my bank account and doing online shopping. That’s where 1password comes in. 1password is my password manager of choice. I keep all my passwords secured on it for bank accounts, online shopping, other miscellaneous accounts, credit cards etc. I can’t count the number of hours it has saved me in filling up my passwords and credit card information every time I go web browsing. It’s simple, easy to use and worth every penny.

My go-to app for writing is iaWriter. I love its clean interface and simple, distraction free UI. It also has an export to WordPress function which is great. (My article for the sweet setup and all my blog posts are written on it).

Besides these two apps, I also use Safari and Google Chrome for web browsing.

Most of the other applications are the standard ones that come shipped with all MacBooks. Calendar is simple to use and synchronises with my iPhones (will come to that later). Photos when paired together with my iCloud subscription helps organize and store all my family photos. It’s album and memories features are fantastic for browsing whenever I feel like the old grey matter fading.

I use Google Sheets for keeping track of my personal investment portfolio. I don’t really like it all that much compared to Microsoft excel though but I use it to keep my documents stored on the cloud and also because I don’t like having Excel lagging my Macbook’s performance.

  • How would your ideal setup look and function?

I would really like an upgrade on the chair I’m using. Aside from that, I’m pretty happy with my setup so far.

iPhone 7

  • What iPhone do you have (color, size, etc.)?

My personal phone is a 128GB iPhone 7 (Jet Black). I love the way it fits in my palm and I don’t use a phone cover (patina, patina, patina).

  • Where can we find your wallpaper online?

It’s a photo of my wife and 11 month old daughter.

  • What apps do you use the most, and why?

The Preinstalled iOS apps are really underrated. Apple got the basics right. I’m trying to keep my screen time to a minimal so the apps I used are focused around getting the important things done (i.e. phone calls, messaging, managing my time, note-taking and setting reminders).

Calendar: I haven’t tried out any other calendar app because I find that the one that comes shipped with the iPhone is good enough for me. Plus being on the apple ecosystem means that I don’t need to have multiple Calendars.

Camera: I have a Fujifilm X100f but more often than not, I find myself usually reaching for my iphone7 camera because its so portable. The triage of the camera, photos app and iCloud is just great.

Reminders: I’ve experimented with tons of to-do apps but find reminders the easiest to use. My memory tends to be very sketchy so I rely on it a lot to keep me from forgetting errands.

iaWriter: While I write mainly on my macbook, if I have any ideas or stray thoughts, I do a brain dump on the iaWriter app that I have on my phone.

Whatsapp: Everyone in my country uses WhatsApp so there really isn’t much of a choice for me.

iPhone 7 Plus

  • What iPhone do you have (color, size, etc.)?

My work issued phone is a 128GB iPhone 7 (Rose Gold). Again I don’t use a phone cover.

  • Where can we find your wallpaper online?

Like my desktop, this one is all black.

  • What apps do you use the most, and why?

I only use my work phone for replying work emails and keeping track of meetings I have to attend. I drive to work though so the Podcast app keeps me sane as I battle my way through the daily drudge of traffic. Right now I’m listening to the Tim Ferris Show – he always manages to great guests onto his show so I find it really entertaining and useful to be like a fly on the wall as I listen to experts and learn from their insights.

What I’m Reading 9 Feb

What I’m Reading 9 Feb

  • Seneca: Dialogues and Essays – Full of wisdom. My favourites are On the Shortness of Life, On the Tranquility of the Mind, On the Happy Life and On Anger
  • Sherman by B.H. Liddell Hart – An in-depth biography on William T.Sherman, the American general in the Civil War who fought for the Union Army. Not only does it recount his life, it also expounds upon his philosophy, his strategy, his force of personality and his failings. It goes a bit too deep into the military manoeuvres for my liking but still, many lessons on strategy to be learnt.
  • Montaigne by Stefan Zweig – A short biography written by Zweig before his suicide, it is ironic that reading Montaigne’s essays may have convinced him to do so. I read some of his essays and found Zweig’s interpretation of him to be surprisingly accurate, though I think he actually projects Montaigne as far more aloof than I read him to be.
  • Next up, more biographies – Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Plutarch: Lives, Abraham Lincoln and Marcus Aurelius: Meditations

The Future of Work

“A good question to ask yourself – Are computers enhancing your productivity, or are you competing against computers (in which case you’re likely to lose)” – The Knowledge Project – Thinking About Thinking with Tyler Cowen