“I still feel strange being called a writer”

When Colin Powell passed, one of the things I wondered about was where all of his writings might be.

He’s written books – memoir. But I’ve not seen a single article written by him during his time in the Army.

You would think that there would be something out there – some article in a military journal – but so far I’ve turned up nothing.

Not everyone in the military writes, after all. In fact, it is the exception to write, not the rule.

After all, what’s the incentive?

Certainly you’ve heard of the “Powell Doctrine” and the “Pottery Barn Rule?” Well those are not things that he wrote, or even something he necessarily put forth. These were ideas ascribed to him, and in fairness, they do come from him.

Colin Powell did have a talent for boiling big ideas down into things that are actually understandable.

When Army ROTC returned to New York City, he faced down critics with a simple phrase: “Military service is honorable.

Interestingly, I came across this interview where he says the following:

I still feel strange being called a writer. I’m mostly a speaker.

What an insightful notion. Too often we think that to be a thought leader in some field you have to write. And that can certainly be true.

But crafting speeches – even if someone is crafting them for your, and then you edit – that is a form of writing. More importantly, it’s a form of creating.

I would love to see the collected speeches of Colin Powell. There are ideas in there that we don’t see, because there isn’t an article trail. Speeches – even when recorded – can be ephemeral.

It makes me think – will future leaders, even military leaders – have alternative intellectual legacy trails? Blog posts? Tweets? YouTube videos?

Probably.

For Colin Powell, why write when he could speak?

For today’s leaders, where is the most relevant place to make an impact? Is it in a military journal that is rarely read? Or is it somewhere else?


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On that day…

As usual, not much to add.

But I do have this.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the stuff that attracts you. The stuff that gets you in the door.

All that stuff is real. It’s there. You have to work for it, but it’s there.

It’s why you showed up in the first place.

But then there’s this other thing. It’s not written anywhere, it’s just something that you have to discover. And not everyone does.

And it turns out, that’s the real thing.

But, you only discover it in flashes, slowly.

A quizzical moment on the tarmac before an invasion.

A midnight exfil from the outskirts of a town in southern Iraq.

On the top bunk, staring at the ceiling, for the second time, wondering.

In front of a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan, writing it out on a whiteborad, with blank expressions coming back at you.

In a classroom in front of future officers, hanging on your every word, without it registering.

In a tired seminar with peers, yawning.

In a video game.

In a book.

It comes slowly over time.

And then you have it.

And once it’s known, it can’t be un-known.

What do you do with that knoweldge?

I think the answer to that question says more about the person than the truth.


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An Ode to the Humble Blog

I recently read and shared this post titled 3 essential reasons why all writers should blog.

The reasons are sound, and I agree:

  1. Practice
  2. Testing ideas
  3. Build an audience

As the original post leads with, blogging has kind of gone of out style.

Plenty of people use Twitter or some other social media platform, sure. But blogging is not quite the same.

If you subscribe to the newsletter, then you learned last week that I torpedoed a project I was working on. It’s something I am passionate about, but it’s also incredibly time intensive and I just didn’t want to fully commit (yet).

Writing here is the thing that I enjoy. It’s simple and I get to write what I want.

But it also helps with those three reasons. Without question, the practice I get from writing here helps when I write elsewhere – especially for external audiences.

It also allows me to test ideas. Trust me, I know exactly what kind of articles I could write if I wanted to make waves. I’ve done it before, and a lot of that learning came from experimentation.

And yes, this is a way to build an audience. It’s slow, for sure. But what I’ve found is that whatever your “thing” is, there’s an audience out there for it. It doesn’t matter how niche it is, they’re out there. And they want to be a part of it.

Someone has to do the writing.


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Plan Your Own War

In the mid-2000s I became obsessed with productivity blogs and systems. I followed 43 folders (dead since 2011), Lifehacker (turned into listicles and clickbait), and read article after article on the “Getting Things Done” (GTD) system. Over the ensuing decade (+), I’ve built a monster of a system for organzing my life and things I’m trying to do – both personally and professionally.

This system consists of:

  • A daily review (about 5 minutes total, split up between morning/evening)
  • A weekly review (normally done on Sunday mornings – takes 30-45 minutes of focused work)
  • A monthly review (normally done on the closest weekend to the 1st of the month, takes 30-45 minutes of focused work)
  • A yearly review (I start thinking about it on 1 December and capturing notes, and I usually complete the review during the week between Christmas and New Years – multiple sessions of reflection and work)

I’m not going to go into the details of what is in each review (if you’re actually interested, let me know). It is a system that I continually improve and massage (thanks John). However, when I look back at the reviews I did a decade ago versus today, it’s really incredible how much I’ve tacked on over the years. The process has grown and become much more focused and professional. Just about every year though, I have to prune it so it doesn’t get out of control.

At its core, the whole thing is a goal setting / reflection exercise that answers the following questions:

1) What is it that I’m trying to accomplish?
2) How am I doing?
3) What do I need to do to get better?

I know others go through a similar process, but my sense is that this is something most people don’t really do at all. It’s way beyond just making a to-do list and scheduling things on a calendar. And I’m aware that this process takes a lot of work and time – sometimes I’ll wonder if I’m spending more time planning when I should be executing.

But aren’t you worth it?

We spend so much time planning other people’s wars or projects – isn’t it worth putting some time into your own life?

As an aside, after more than a decade, I’ve stopped using Evernote. Until now, I’ve used Evernote exclusively to do this planning, capture articles, and even build my digital “I love me book.” Recently, and without warning, Evernote stopped providing the ability to maintain “local” notebooks, meaning everything would have to live “in the cloud.” It was an abrupt change and other note apps have come a long way, so I made the migration to Apple’s native Notes app – which works just fine.

Anyway, if you’re interested in going deeper on reviews, check these out:

The Art of Non (Yearly Review).  Another site I follow that talks about the annual review. I lifted the concept of assigning a “theme” to your year. An overarching organizing principle. Remember, good artists copy, great artists steal.

Who moved my brain? I revisit this video from Merlin Mann every couple of years to remind me that the two things that really matter are time and attention. The video is long and meandering, but if you stick with it you ingest a really important message. And this is one of those videos where I think you have to soak in the whole thing to really get it. You can’t just stick to the punchline.

The scary – but true quote – that sticks with me:

“If I just grabbed you on the street, and I said ‘what’s the most important thing in your life?’ you would say something like your family, or your church group, or you know, maybe your career, maybe your kid or your pet or whatever. And the thing is, in some part of your heart, that’s absolutely true. 

But do you have a sense of the extent to which your time and attention tracks to actually doing good stuff for that thing that you claim is really important? Do you have an internal barometer that tells you how well that’s going? In fact, is the thing that you claim is important really important? 

Because if a lot of people actually looked at where there time and attention went – the parts that they do have control over – it would look like the most important thing in their life was Facebook.” 

Oof.


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Innovation = Connecting

master miller the innovator

There’s a lot of talk about innovation these days.

We all want innovators.

Well, what does that mean? What does it mean to innovate?

I have a theory, and it has nothing to do with being a genius or coming up with wacky ideas.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, there was nothing really new about the device.

It was 2007. We had cell phones. We had mobile computers. We had micro-cameras. We had touch screens.

These things all existed, separately.

The “innovation” was bringing things together – connecting.

That was the genius aspect of it. What if we brought all of these things together? What if we connected these things?

The biggest hurdle wasn’t even the tech piece. It was getting a deal with a mobile carrier (AT&T).

This is the reason I think it’s so important to get outside of your bubble. It’s the reason I post about culture and gaming on what is mostly a military site.

Innovation is not someone sitting in a room who comes up with a great idea.

Innovation is someone seeing one thing and understanding that it might fit in another context.

Bringing things together.

Connecting.


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This isn’t about Twitter

likes get likes death stranding

I had some positive feedback this week on a nearly decade old post about social media and my desire to use it less.

Just about everyone has a relationship with social media these days. It’s an evergreen topic. You can always write about social media the way playwrights can always write plays about the theater.

For those who use social media daily – which seems to be most people – there is an undying curiousity to know “what it’s like” to pull the plug.

I did it for over four years. No Facebook, no Twitter, no blog.

What changed?

Not much, really.

As I summed it up in the post:

The truth is, when it comes to social media and whether you’re on it or not, nobody really cares. The thing people notice most about social media is their own presence in it – not the lack of someone else’s.

What I missed mostly was having this space – here on this site – to write and reflect. Social media, in all of its forms, but especially Twitter, is mostly a place to get the word out. Or at least, that’s how I prefer to use it these days.

I don’t like the performative nature of threads.

I don’t like the addictive quality of shortform video, designed to keep you hooked without imparting anything useful.

And I don’t like the general toxicity of the platform.

Attention is easy: Be outrageous. Be mean-spirited.

Burn bridges, name-names.

If you’re not careful, you can easily get caught up in it and start thinking that being there is the point. Chasing likes, follows, and retweets becomes a kind of score that no one really cares about.

For me, it’s not worth it. This isn’t about Twitter.


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Learning the right lessons

george bush jr. looking at vladmir putin

There is a lot I object to in this article. Much of it is too simplistic.

But the gist is on point.

Yes, American motives were nobler. Yes, American methods were less brutal (most of the time). Yes, there were many other differences between the conflicts. But on a strategic level, the broad similarities are striking. This means there are several important lessons to be learned from recent American military history—but only if that history is looked at from the enemy’s perspective, not Washington’s. Because it was the enemies who won.

Gideon Rose, The Irony of Ukraine: We Have Met the Enemy, and It Is Us

If we had invaded Iraq in 2022 instead of 2003, we would be facing a lot of the same problems the Russians are facing today.

Pay attention, sure.

But it’s important to learn the right lessons.


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Start with “why” and read Marcus Aurelius

star bellied sneetches at the beach fire

What happens when everyone reads the same thing, tells everyone else that they need to read it, and believes that they have discovered some grand and deeper knowledge?


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There’s always a choice

a very dark darth vader side view

I love tales of redemption.

Darth Vader is consistent throughout the original three films. He’s the villain. He is a machine. He does the bidding of the emperor and he gets things done.

But in the end, he makes the choice.

This scene has always stuck with me. Despite wearing a helmet, you can sense the emotion and the hand-wringing taking place in Vader’s head as he looks back and forth between Luke and the Emperor.

The universe is speaking to him, and he’s finally listening.

And then he makes the choice.

It is freeing.

It’s never too late. There’s always time to change, to decide.

We all have something we’re waiting to do. We’ve gone back and forth on it forever. It takes real courage to decide.

But it can be done.


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Reflection Partners

a mountain reflecting in a lake

Another good one from FTGN.

Joe and Cassie talk about the power of reflection and what got in the way of realizing its benefits earlier in their careers. They also share the story behind their recently released book, My Green Notebook: “Know Thyself” Before Changing Jobs. 

S3,Ep12: Cassie Crosby- Reflection for Busy Leaders

What I found most interesting about this one was the story and the history between Joe and Cassie.

This is such a small profession, and the pool of folks that dare to write (or podcast, or make videos) to ‘extend their influence beyond the chain of command’ is even smaller.

I’ve written about reflection before – and this whole blog (and newsletter) is an exercise in reflection.

But it feels like “small r” reflection. What they’re going after is “big R” Reflection.

They’re attempting to crystalize the process into something you can do as you change jobs to truly capture lessons learned and use them to grow – not just pontificate and move on.

As they discuss in the episode, there were so many opportunities missed because they lacked the process. And it is only when they were sitting there at their bunks at BCAP that they started to realize it.

What if you started earlier? What if you went through the process at the end of every assignment?

That’s what they’re going for.

And while I’m not sure this was part of their intent for the episode, it’s clear to me that both Joe and Cassie are reflection partners. I’m not even sure what that is yet, but it feels like it’s something that’s not quite mentorship and not quite just friendship. Through their work and effort, they enjoy a heightened reflective experience that I don’t think many of us experience.

It’s kind of like that peer at work who ‘gets it’ the same way you do. The one who goes out with you for a long lunch where you figure it all out.

Only this is a bit more professional. It’s good to have that peer.

Anyway, I’ve still got about six months before my next job change, but I plan on running their process when I get there.


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