Sunday, July 22, 2012

Colin Powell - why are you such a beast!?

Thoughts on “My American Journey”
The auto-biography of Colin Powell
 (Joseph E. Persico and Colin L. Powell)

Why I read this book:

A friend recommended this book to me.

My rating for this book:

1. Not worth the paper on which it is written
2. Better than any sleeping pill
3. I guess it is better than watching Jersey Shore
4. I am a richer person because of this book
5. This book changed my life

Thoughts, Reflections, and Take-aways:

Colin’s Powell auto-biography is a quintessential “American dream” story: a child of Jamaican immigrant parents raised in a (relatively) poor Bronx neighborhood rises to the top of the American military and government power structure, at a time when blacks were largely treated as second-class citizens (insert your own thoughts about race relations in today’s age here).

I am not going to spend much time here analyzing Powell’s success in the face of racial discrimination – I am sure there is an army of writers, historians, and reporters who have that covered. Nor am I interested in discussing the odds of someone from Powell’s socio-economic background rising out of the type of neighborhood that seems to trap so many of its inhabitants. Serious people working for serious institutions spend their careers writing serious publications about the “macro” factors such as social and economic opportunities and race relations that shape our society.

No, what fascinates me about General Powell’s life and career is the “micro” story of the individual. What stands out in “My American Journey” is a man’s success despite the lack of scholarly accomplishments and the triumph of a noble character.
Clearly, Colin Powell is a gifted, intelligent man; he would not have gone as far as he has otherwise. At the same time, Powell is not ashamed to admit that he was a very mediocre student. He very plainly describes his lack of motivation for his studies and his lack of aptitude for math. Powell’s life story should be motivational for the vast majority of us who did not get straight A’s through school and will most likely not become Nobel laureates (I am still holding out hope). Success is clearly an outcome of multiple factors of which intelligence is but one.

I think, on some crude, basic level, most successful people can be divided into “thinkers” and “doers”. A stereotypical “thinker” can typically be spotted by her plethora of PhDs, lack of social acumen, and clothes from whatever era they attended high school. A “doer” gets things done. She loves checklists, organization, and results. Powell is very much a “doer”. For example, his ability to lead and execute a mission is what first landed him his NSC position; his boss, Frank Carlucci, was “…looking for someone who knows how to make things work…. someone who can impose order and procedure on the NSC.”

When I say Powell is a “doer” and not a “thinker”, my intention is not to diminish the man’s intelligence.  He is considered one of the most influential Sec. of Defense because he was able to push through forward-thinking ideas. Rather, the “doer” label is a tribute to his ability to carry out the execution of his ideas, a task more challenging in the vast bureaucracy of competing powerful interests than the formulation of those ideas. Some people have “theoretical” intelligence, backed by years of formal study, brilliance of mind, and thick books. Others have the intelligence that comes from experience. Best leaders combine both. Powell’s success stems from the intelligence of character, a trait that seems to be in short supply these days. Just listen to this Meet the Press interview:

How refreshing – a public figure can lay out criteria that is based on the biggest problems facing the country (the economic crisis) as well as on reason and fairness (No, Barack Obama is not a Muslim; but, while we are on the topic, what if he were?) and then make a decision that is sure to cost him some friends by endorsing someone from the other party.
 So why is it so rare nowadays to hear voices of reason among today’s political leaders? Certainly, to be fair, Powell is not running for office so he can express his opinion more freely, but that does not change the fact that some of things you hear from today’s “leaders” make you think you are taking crazy pills.

What then allows Colin Powell to have this “intelligence of character”? Here are the qualities that stand out to me from reading the book:
-        A strong moral foundation – a deep sense of right and wrong. Is this an innate quality? Is this something that one gets from the family, friends, or institutions like church or ROTC?
-        Sense of humility – knowing where you came from, understanding that the mission is bigger than individual, patriotism without excessive chest thumping. Ability to stay grounded during his rise to prominence and power.
-         Commitment to Reason and Truth – Identifying what the right thing to do is and driving towards accomplishing towards that goal, be it unit discipline or drastic reduction in the size of the Armed Forces. Granted, as a career professional, Powell can focus on a given mission. He does not have to pander to the base and worry about his political growth or re-election. Perhaps we should look at more non-career politicians as candidates for high office.
-        Reliance on experience and intuition – Powell often looks back on his experiences in the jungles of Vietnam and the disconnect between objectives and strategy coming out of Washington and realities on the ground and uses this memory to inform his decisions when he reaches the top. Powell spent a lot of time in the National Security establishment, picked up the pulse of it, and absorbed lessons from his peers and superiors. This allowed him to make intuitive decisions in uncertain situations.
-        Pragmatism – A pre-eminent “doer” quality, a commitment to getting things done even if his personal feelings get bruised. An ability to compromise for the sake of the mission.

      The end.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The “Self” Trap: Thoughts on The “Busy” Trap

The “Self” Trap: Thoughts on The “Busy” Trap

Over the last week, Tim Kreider’s essay, “The ‘busy’ trap”, has been all the rage. It was the most emailed article on the New York Times digital outlets, and I have seen multiple links to the essay on that most accurate gauge of what is important in the world, Facebook. The essence of Tim’s message is the age-old adage that no one says they wish they had worked more on their death bed. In other words, slow down, put down the Blackberry (not that it matters, RIM is probably going to go bankrupt with or without you anyway), go visit grandma, hang out with your friends, save otters, etc. Reactions to the essay have been mostly of the heartfelt “Amen!” variety, with, I imagine, vigorous head nods and promises to reassess our sleep-deprived lifestyles and to go visit the National Parks (we really have to get out to Yellowstone, I hear it is simply majestic! Although I have heard terrifying stories of bears chopping people’s heads off, and someone told me there are no showers at campsites?!) By now, you are probably familiar with this pattern in the news world: a story comes out about the work/life balance, diet, or exercise, and we vigorously discuss it and pay lip service to living in greater harmony before reverting back to our old routine.

 Just so you know, I do not care to discuss the work/life balance here; it is totally up to you what you do with your life. If you want to make a gazillion dollars and buy your own island, knock yourself out. Don’t buy the Maldives though – it is disappearing into the ocean. Actually, at this rate, most islands are probably going to disappear into the ocean. I would probably wait until California splits off and buy low in the resulting panic. On the other hand, if you want to quit your job and go live on a commune in Idaho, more power to you. All I care about is that you reflect on your existence once in a while and affirm that you are happy with the choices you are making.

Figure 1 - Russell Westbrook is happy with his fashion choices now, but he is going to regret them in a couple of years.

With that said, I do have a bone to pick with this article. I say this because Tim’s essay indirectly touches on a problem with our popular culture: it is individualistic to the point of being selfish. The common perception goes something like this: You turn eighteen. You leave your parents’ house. You start working the soil. You go to college. You go West. You teach English in Korea. You fall into the heart of the “busy” trap that is Manhattan. You sell all your possessions and move to Portland. Throughout it all, you go it alone, making and losing friends, and falling in and out of love. It is the American story; it is what separates us from those weak-spirited Europeans who live with their parents until marriage, then move out to tiny Fiats and socialized medicine.

Figure 2 - FALSE.   

So what is missing from this American story? Well, how about family – you know, the people who brought you into this world? The role of family in our lives according to the common narrative is like sex on TV: completely unreflective of reality. In this common narrative, you visit your folks once a year, maybe Thanksgiving, maybe Christmas. You call your Mother once in a while. Notice that I refer to “popular culture” and “the common narrative”, and not “us” because in reality, most people’s lives are tightly interwoven with their families. They get a “loan” from their parents for a down payment on a house; they drop the kids off at Grandma’s for a weekend; they care for their elderly parents.
With that family relationship comes a set of obligations and responsibilities. You must make your own way, but you also have to realize that you carry the weight and traditions of your past with you….

Tim Kreider: “Excuse me, but what does this have to do with my essay? I was just trying to point out that our over-committed lifestyle is largely self-imposed. Most of the things that most of us do are just not that important at the end of day, you know? Also, I kind of dig Russell Westbrook’s style, so lay off.”

You are right, Tim. Let’s get to the point.

First, few people I know have the luxury of living for themselves. Whether a factor of money, time, or having loved ones close by, most of us choose (or cannot avoid) to have our parents, children, and siblings be a big part of our lives, and that tends to really eat away at the idle time.

Figure 3 - It must have really sucked to live in the Middle Ages.

My second point deals more directly with Tim’s underlying theme - ultimately, he, like everyone else, is looking for meaning and trying to find his place in the universe. And he is spot on when he says that “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness”. Too often, we put our heads down and take our turns at the hamster wheel without even considering that you may not have to be in the cage in the first place. But a reactionary move to live without responsibility and expectations may leave you floating in a nihilistic vacuum, with nothing to measure your life against. I would suggest that a healthy amount of family participation and tradition can serve as an anchor that will provide a safety line in your lifelong search for whatever it is that makes you tick.