|Welcome back. After a longish break for the season of goodwill, it's back to slightly evil school. More than fifty people appear to have joined the list over the break, so a welcome to the new folks. You can get to the last 10 issues by clicking on the link titled 'List Archive' in the sidebar.
On this list, to maintain plausible deniability, I try to focus on the how of the 'be slightly evil' theme, rather than the why. Besides filtering out means that are not justifiable by any ends, I leave means-ends justifications to you. I assume each of you has good reasons to be interested in our subject, but I'd rather not know. I adopted this principle as a basic precaution when I started the list, but I had no idea it would actually be tested. About a month ago, it was. An anonymous reader emailed me asking for help with a whistle-blowing decision, and included details of his situation. Fortunately, he kept identifiable details, such as names, to himself. I hastily pulled back from the brink of becoming an accessory. I only like messes if I am being paid to handle them.
Anyway, the incident got me thinking about why people turn to slightly-evil manipulative behavior in the first place. Why can't you just stay on the straight-and-narrow, pay your dues, and live an honorable life? I found a great answer in Robert Coram's fascinating book, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, which has now bumped Robert Greene's 48 Laws of Power to the #2 spot in my "Be Slightly Evil" reading list. Reader Daniel Pritchett recommended the book, and you should also check out his review of Chet Richards' Certain to Win, an application of Boyd's ideas to business.
The answer is a decision that Boyd challenged each of his acolytes to make: in life you eventually have to decide whether to be somebody, or do something. Whistle-blowing is one of those situational decisions that can precipitate this bigger existential decision. But everybody eventually comes to their own personal be somebody/do something fork in the road. I hit mine about 10 years ago, in the summer of 2000.
Ask yourself what you want your life to have been like, when you are on your deathbed. If you instinctively come up with a vision of yourself in the future, at the peak of your life, you are a be somebody person. If you instinctively think of a vision of the impact you might have had, and are a little fuzzy on what you personally will be like, you are a do something type.
Some background on Boyd before we dive into the idea and interpret your answer.
Who was John Boyd?
Like most aerospace engineers, I had a passing familiarity with Boyd's work before reading the book. I knew of his development of something called Energy-Maneuverability theory, which is the modern approach to fighter combat analysis and warplane design. I knew of his famous OODA loop. But I had no idea that these were just the tip of the Boyd iceberg.
Since Boyd never wrote down his ideas in book form, but spread them almost entirely through classified briefings, he is not very well known outside the military. But in terms of both depth and impact, his ideas were arguably more profound than those of better-known military thinkers such as Clausewitz, Schelling and Mahan.
Coram claims that Boyd should probably be considered the greatest military thinker since Sun Tzu, and once you understand the Boyd story and the magnitude of what he achieved, you realize this is not an overstatement. Boyd was a virtuoso practitioner (the best fighter pilot of his generation), an incredibly creative idea guy, and an incisive philosopher to boot. Few people manage to be even two of those things, let alone all three. Boyd was a modern military Da Vinci. But perhaps the most fascinating thing about him is that he did not just change the way wars are fought. He actually used his ideas to win battles inside the military, running rings around the Pentagon bureaucracy, and building a cadre of acolytes who went on to transform every corner of the American military. Though his ideas helped win several actual wars, the greatest victories they helped script were won inside the military establishment itself.
In fact, Boyd's story reads like a real-life version of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, which we've talked about before. Except that Boyd, unlike Jim Hacker, took on the bureaucracy and won. The story has its humorous moments, but it is ultimately a sobering story. The victory came at a huge personal cost to him and his fellow reformers.
I'll probably mine Boyd's work for more ideas in the future, but let's start with the be somebody or do something life decision.
The Right Answer
If you converged on a "be somebody" answer like CEO, tenured professor, or simply rich and famous, you are in for some hard introspection, because Boyd had a definite "right answer" in mind: do something.
Here's a curious paradox: the more you insist on sticking to a straight-and-narrow path defined by your own evolving principles, rather than the expedient one defined by current situation, the more you'll have to twist and turn in the real world. The straight path in your head turns into spaghetti in the real world.
On the other hand, the more your path through the real world seems like a straight road, defined by something like a "standard" career path/script, the more you'll have to twist and turn philosophically to justify your life to yourself. Every step that a true Golden Boy careerist takes, is marred by deep philosophical compromises. You sell your soul one career move at a time.
If you are driven by your own principles, you'll generally search desperately for a calling, and when you find one, it will consume your life. You'll be driven to actually produce, create or destroy. You'll want to do something that brings the world more into conformity with your own principles. As Shaw said, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man."
Uncompromising private principles that you do not seek to justify to others are necessary but not sufficient. To actually keep moving forward, you'll find that you need to twist and turn. Your terrain is the tortuous maze of truth-avoidance paths worn out by the "be somebody" types, and paved by the medal-awarding priests. Your mission is to tackle head-on, the truths that they work hard to avoid. Your own twists and turns are about avoiding or outmaneuvering those who want to deny truths and defend obvious falsehoods.
At some level, the be-somebody types dimly realize that their apparently straight career paths are actually the philosophically convoluted truth-avoiding ones. That's why the moves made by slightly-evil types seem like "shortcuts" to them. They don't get how somebody can get someplace meaningful faster, without being on what seems to them to be the straight-line path, and without awards to measure progress.
Because ultimately the straight and narrow path defined by your own principles, grounded in truth-seeking, despite its apparent twists and turns in the real world, is the faster road to meaningful destinations.
Legacies of Being versus Legacies of Doing
If you are reasonable, and decide to simply be somebody, you can achieve your "be somebody" objective and wrap up your very successful life, having offended nobody, and with nobody caring that you actually lived. Display your certificates, medals and trophies proudly, and retire happy. Try not to think too much about the fact that you'll be forgotten the week after you die, your certificates, medals and trophies mothballed in boxes in attics, to be eventually gotten rid of by an indifferent great-grandchild.
If you are unreasonable, even if you actually manage to find a calling and do something that you will be remembered for, chances are high you'll die destitute and unrecognized, after a liftime of maneuvering, fighting and making implacable enemies and loyal-to-the-death friends at every turn. Instead of medals that nobody cares about, you'll collect the detritus of failed and successful battles.
And interestingly, people will scramble anxiously to preserve and pore over your unfinished junk.
Boyd died in near-poverty, depressed and anxious about his legacy. He spent his last years battling cancer and worrying about all his papers.
He died a nobody by some reckonings. But he died having done something.
When he died in 1997, his acolytes scrambled to make sure his work was preserved. Boyd's papers are now preserved at the Marine Corps Research Center at Quantico. He never rose above Colonel, but he will be remembered, and his briefings pored over, long after the medals of the Generals of his time are auctioned off by their descendants on the Antiques Roadshow.