John Boyd

I’ve been thinking about , Robert Coram’s biography of John Boyd, one of the creators of the F-15 and F-16, after finishing the book last week. The book is amazing, first and foremost because Coram is a phenomenal storyteller, but also because Boyd’s life makes for an exceptional and compelling story. Boyd was an admirable man in many ways and accomplished more than most people ever will (or would ever want to), pioneering a physical theory that revolutionized fighter jet design, then fighting tooth and nail against the shortsighted and self-serving members of the Pentagon who tried to corrupt his F-15 and F-16 designs for their personal gain. In his youth, Boyd was one of the most skilled fighter pilots in American history, and in his later years produced a second revolutionary military theory, which reintroduced maneuver warfare to the American military after the strategic disaster that was Vietnam.

Yet for all his accomplishments Boyd was in many ways a tragic hero. Despite being intimately aware of the shortcomings within the military, he seemed painfully naïve about his shortcomings as a husband, father, and friend. Boyd seemed to fancy himself as a romantic embodiment of the lone crusader, standing up to the impossible might of the American military with only a small team of close knit supporters at his back. Yet within his courage and self-sacrifice was a powerful selfishness. He all but ignored his wife and children so he could focus the entirety of his attention on his work. On Boyd’s deathbed, one of his grown children hears him murmuring the names of his close work associates and waits for Boyd to start saying the names of his children. He never does.

His “my way or the highway” attitude alienated his co-workers, many of whom could have become potential allies, and ultimately hurt his cause. He unnecessarily infuriated and insulted top military brass with his irreverence and impulsiveness, ultimately hurting his ability to influence the system from the inside.

Although he was loved by his close team of supporters (several of whom thought of him as a father), Boyd’s self-absorption jarred and alienation even them. At one point in the book, Boyd and a couple of his coworkers are watching a dog fighting movie to unwind from work. Boyd starts muttering to the on –screen jet to shoot its target down, which initially strikes his coworkers as quirky and charming, “Boyd being Boyd.” But as the movie progresses, his mutterings increase to a yell and he shouts “hose him!” so loudly the entire theater can hear. In moments like that, the charm of Boyd’s quirkiness evaporate, revealing a deep-seated selfishness underneath.

The chapter “they think I’m a kook” is one of the book’s saddest. An aging Boyd is thrown a birthday party by his friends and family, where they present him with their typical inside-joke gag gifts – a hose, to signify Boyd’s skill in “hosing down” rivals, and a B-1 bomber with a rock attached to it via string, to signify Boyd’s incessant criticism of the B-1. It’s clear that these gifts are intended with only warm intentions, and Boyd had met such gifts with glee in the past. But that night he becomes visibly upset. When his wife tries to comfort him in private he declares they “they think I’m a kook!”

Boyd, it seems, wanted to have things both ways. He wanted to be admired as a maverick and allowed to indulge in his impulsive eccentricity, yet at the same time wanted to be respected as a man of dignity. But he made a choice to be the former instead of the later, and suffered because of it. Perhaps he was aware of the decision he made, perhaps not, but his family, his friends, and his legacy still bear the consequences.

What lessons can be learned from Boyd’s life? Most important is the role of self-awareness and humility in one’s professional and personal life. Boyd seemed genuinely oblivious to the contradictions and hypocrisy within his own character and lost much because of it. There’s a certain pride that comes from doing and saying whatever we want, but we often lose much because of it. Boyd’s numerous accomplishments are in many ways overshadowed by his reputation for abrasiveness. Boyd made a choice. He chose to be brilliant, obsessive, and tenacious, but also to be obstinate, intractable, and disdainful. We make choices of similar consequence every day, differing in degree but not in kind. It’s up to us to decide which qualities we chose value, and what the our priorities in life truly are. Boyd was a hero, but he was a tragic one, destroyed by the same qualities that led him to greatness in the first place.

Post-Gym Brainstorming

After working out is undeniably one of the worst times to get any serious work done that involves long stretches of concentration. You’re aggressive (Provided you’re not a Zen-weightlifter), tired, and excitable, all the qualities you don’t want if you need to focus. Luckily, post-gym happens to be an excellent time for frenzied brainstorming and drawing out new intellectual connections between various topics that you’ve never connected before.

This is because high amounts of physical stress or mental agitation break down the process of systematic thinking. The majority of the time, you absolutely want your thoughts to follow a logical, deliberate path. It’s virtually the only way to arrive at meaningful conclusions. But although this kind of linear thinking is absolutely necessary to get anything done, it unintentionally limits the scope of the ideas your capable of entertaining at any one time. Breaking up this orderly, systematic process of thinking can be essential to generating new ideas and new ways at looking at whatever kind of problem you are trying to tackle. This is why I always get inspired ideas while pulling all nighters, provided I’ve done the necessary intellectual  legwork while in a rested state.

Unfortunately, extreme methods such as sleep deprivation aren’t the best strategy for long term intellectual performance. Luckily, the post-gym state can generate a similarly chaotic, restless state of mind perfect for generating new ideas. So try it. Next time you’re done with a workout, turn off your headphones and attack whatever mental problem you’ve been trying to solve. You might have the breakthrough you’ve been looking for all day.

Getting used to being tired

I’m beginning to get used to being tired. It’s not particularly a good thing from the outside looking in, but in many ways I think it’s indicative of a positive set of internal adaptations that are extremely valuable, integral even. The main lesson to learn: doing something is not dependent on feeling like doing it. Which is really just maturity and responsibility 101 . And in many ways being able to accept doing things you don’t want to is what separates children (and those in extended adolescence) from adults.

My responsibilities are not particular impressive, or even particularly demanding (of course, this depends on your reference point), but it’s my job to honor them and complete them in a regular and professional manner.

The short list:

1) Get my schoolwork done

2) Live healthily and cleanly

3) Be a decent person to others

If I do these things everyday I am breaking even. The problem is that all of these tasks take energy and effort, which must be expended on a day to day (and often second to second) basis. Since energy is finite, I often have to force myself to continue performing these basic tasks even once the motivation to do so has faded. Oftentimes I perform less than admirably, and occasionally I fail spectacularly (failing a class, snapping at someone, going a week without shaving, ect). And of course, after these fuck ups I have to get back on the horse and soldier through.

This struggle is commonplace to any college student and likely any person. But there’s a wrong and a right philosophy to approach it with. There seems to be a problematic common sentiment among people I talk to about finals and relationship trouble or whatever. Namely, that I just need to “get through X,” with the assumption that things will get easier once whatever challenging event I’m currently struggling with is over. Of course, this isn’t how reality works. “Getting through” one challenging event after the other is a fool’s philosophy, because there is rarely a grand pay off on the other side of the rainbow. “Getting through” high school just leads to “getting through college,” which leads to “getting through” your shitty, entry level job, and so on. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself a little here, but it seems that such a philosophy ultimately reduces you to “just getting through” life. And that’s sad. And unfortunate, and rather tragic.

The winning strategy is to find away to normalize the feelings of tough times. This isn’t to say there won’t be times during which exceptional effort and focus is needed, of course that will still be the case. And it will be unpleasant. But slowly but surely you come to get used to working your X hours a day, X days a week. Doing what you need to do becomes normal, not an exceptional trial. This is what “getting your shit” together means.

Of course, I write this, as I write many things, from the perspective of a person who is only kinda-sorta there. It’d be disingenuous and delusional for me to believe that just because I’ve managed to get through a couple of finals weeks that I’ve achieved the level of professionalism which the good life requires. But I’m getting there. As are we all. It’s the mindset that’s important. It’s easy to trick yourself into believing that once this challenge is over there will be no more, comforting even. But after mountains there are always more mountains, and after trials are more trials. The important thing isn’t surviving another week in anticipation of an easier time (that will likely never come), but making progress towards the time when what was once only survivable is now thrivable.

Uncomfortably Quiet Classrooms

       Quiet classrooms have driven me crazy all my life. Not where kids don’t talk to each other during class–that’s a good thing–but where the teacher asks questions and no one seems to have any inclination to answer. Don’t get me wrong, the suck-ups and the self-important are rightly reviled, and I’ve come to realize that raising your hand to ask questions during class is a fundamentally self-absorbed exercise.
      But when good teachers do the favor of asking questions and trying to facilitate class interest and involvement, why do I see so many students leaving them hanging? What’s the point of showing up to class if we’re just going to be passive consumers of information? There’s nothing we can get from a lecture in which we sit quietly in the back that we can’t get from a MOOC or a YouTube video.
       I suppose it’s reasonable that some students are too self-conscious to say anything, but that shouldn’t stop them. We’re learning, stupid ideas happen. But it seems more and more that students don’t speak because they really don’t have anything to say. The internalization and manipulation of ideas is hugely important for real learning, and if that’s not valued it’s a huge blow against creating the leaders of tomorrow. And that’s a huge problem.
       On a personal note, sometimes I do end up being “that guy,” who needs to shut up for a full five minutes and the class move or let other people have a turn to speak. That’s me crossing the boundaries of etiquette, and it’s my responsibility to fix that. But as a rule, I’d rather be the loudmouth with the ideas than the rock.
                                                                      Come on Ariels, get back your voice.

Outrage

Outrage has been an often-present emotion in the wake of the recent national/international tragedies. Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and recently the Charlie Hebdo attack (there have been several other major incidents that we haven’t really heard about). Don’t get me wrong, all three of these events were outrageous. But just  like getting stressed doesn’t help us get our work done, getting outraged doesn’t help change the system. I’m not someone who can talk with authority about overcoming adversity, but I know about self-imposed stress very well. And just like stressing out over our work makes it harder to get work done, holding onto our outrage makes it harder to become better people.

But it’s worth considering that many times we (as people) get outraged because it feels good, just like getting stressed feels good, and because it allows us an immediate, reactive response. Unfortunately, outrage often robs us of our motivation to understand the deeper forces at work. I know for a fact that I really, truly, do not understand the forces behind anti-black racism in America. Not in the sense that “I don’t understand how people could be so cruel,” I understand that quite well, but in sense of having a real perspective on how we got to where we are as a culture, country, and people. As a white male, I will probably always have limitations on my ability to understand race related issues. But I’m getting closer, because I’m slowly putting in the work, time, and drained emotions to understand. Understanding requires the grind, just like everything else. Outrage incites us to respond to whatever tragedy/injustice occurred just nowand agitates us into wanting to take some big, drastic action to show ourselves and the world we mean business. This is the kind of thinking that convinced the country to support the invasion of Iraq after 9/11. It’s no good.

Just like stress, outrage is a natural human emotion. But it’s only once we’ve learned to manage our outrage that we can work towards understanding, and eventually towards solving the deeply entrenched problems the world (and America) has.

7 Tips for Minimizing Distraction While Working Online (College Student)

The Internet. Beautiful, enlightening, engaging, distracting as hell. This is known. Here are some easy ways to make staying focused less awful.

1) Always use a minimized web browser with the margins adjusted so you don’t see ads, news, or clickbait. This is especially important on Facebook or online newspapers/magazines, but useful for essentially every site you’ll ever visit.

2) Open Evernote (if you don’t have Evernote, get Evernote) and keep it in the left or right 20-30% of your screen while you read, watch videos, or do whatever you do (This will perfectly fill the 20-30% of empty screen remaining after you’ve minimized your web browser)

3) Whenever you’re about to click on a hyperlink, always right click and use the “Open New Tab” option. This eliminates the need to use the “Back” key on your browser, which is ridiculously distracting (not to mention slow).

4) Somewhat ironic after #3, but always keep the number of tabs you have open as low as possible. Lower number of open tabs = more focus. Of course, if you’re researching something you’ll need multiple tabs open, but close those which aren’t applicable to your immediate train of thought.

5) If you don’t want to delete the 20 tabs you have open because you feel like you’ll use them but don’t want to bookmark them, move all the tabs you’re not using that instant to a new window, and then minimize that window. You’ll still have all your resources 5 seconds away, but it’s a lot less distracting than looking at 20 tabs.

6) If possible, post to Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter via your phone if you have a great thought/picture you just have to share (it happens). You scratch the itch to post but are protected from getting sucked into social media world. That being said, in general your phone should be on silent and in a different room.

7) Only check notifications on Facebook every few days. 95% percent of them are useless. The only ones remotely worth check is if someone has commented/started a discussion on something you have posted. Of course, the better solution is “only go on Facebook every few days,” but I’m quasi-addicted like the rest of us.

Stalling and Restarting

As college students, despite our best intentions, we all fall off the study bus for a couple of days sometime or another. Maybe you go out drinking to blow off some steam Friday night and end up with a vicious hangover which can only be cured by going out again Saturday night (I’ve heard it happens). Maybe you fall into the Netflix pit Friday night and don’t emerge until late Sunday afternoon wondering where the weekend went. Or maybe you decide to take a well-deserved weekend to camping or do something else to get away from the intellectual space for awhile.

Whatever the reason, it can be hard to get back to focused, motivated, and distraction free (it’s also hard to get there). I’m just getting over a 72 hour cold, and since I reliably conform to the male stereotype of being utterly useless while sick, I haven’t done anything remotely intellectual for the past three days. Which poses a problem, since I have four (short) papers to write this weekend, but my mental spaces which would normally be buzzing with concepts and quotes from books are instead filled with endlessly dialogue/monologues from The Wolf of Wall Street, Amy Schumer, John Mulaney, and The Comedy Central Roast of James Franco. Add in the fact that I’ve been indulging in a lot of Facebook checking and YouTube video watching (things I normally strictly limit), and it’s no wonder that even though I’m 99% illness free, I’m still not myself.

The good thing is, getting back into the rhythm of working (AKA living, if we want to be honest with ourselves) is a learnable skill, and college is the easiest time to do it. Of course, you might be one of those remarkable kids who genuinely had their shit together in High School, but those types are rarer than we might imagine (bear in mind, “having your shit together” includes having a clear, long-term sense of direction in life and a strong sense of who you are, in addition to getting all your schoolwork done at a high level). It’s in college that we have (fairly) developed minds, stable psyches (hopefully), and still have low enough levels of responsibility-induced stress to make minor mistakes and not have them effect us that much. And the more ingrained our work ethic and productivity habits become now, the more confident we become in our ability to maintain a clear focus, a disciplined work ethic, and a sustained sense of creativity.