Reflection Partners

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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Picking up brass with a Green Beret

The first time I met someone from special forces was on a MOUT site at Fort Bragg back when I was a Private. We were the OPFOR for some green berets.

They had simunitions, we had paintballs.

There are three things I remember about that training:

  1. They were good – all of their movements were crisp and professional (I kept getting shot before I event saw anyone)
  2. They were older – like, way older. I was probably 19 at the time. They all looked to be in their mid-30s or early 40s.
  3. They were humble – story below.

At the end of one of the training days, we were under the stars with white lights picking up brass from the exercise. We had a platoon of infantrymen from the 82nd there, but every member of the SF team was out there picking up brass with us.

I remember plucking brass off of the concrete and dropping it into my helmet while a Segreant First Class next to me told me about Special Forces, the training, and the mission. He told me about the different schools he hasd gone to. He told me how he speaks a foreign language as a job requirement. He told me about trips to South America and working with partners.

All of that was cool, but it’s not what struck me.

The thing that struck me was the fact that he was out there picking up brass. He wasn’t above it. It displayed a professional maturity I wasn’t accustomed to yet – my experiences to date had been infantry training and being a new soldier in the 82nd.

Picking up brass was something privates did while the platoon leadership waited.

This was something different.

Something to admire.

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“Doing” email is the illusion of work

This post isn’t actually about email. It’s about learning.

But one of the things I learned a long time ago is that email isn’t work.

It’s the illusion of work.

You read email. You sort email. You delete email. You write email. You send email.

It feels like work. But it’s actually close to the equivalent of shuffling papers around on a desk. It’s moving information.

It feels good to clear out the inbox. It is relatively easy and it is something we can see.

But it is rarely someone’s job to manage an inbox. More likely than not, your job has nothing to do with email. Yet it is where we spend a whole lot of time, convincing ourselves this is what it is all about.

I’ve been feeling this way lately when it comes to learning. As life gets busier, it is easy to just keep tweaking productivity systems to expand your personal bandwidth and squeeze out just a tiny bit more productivity.

Task lists, calendars, timers. It’s all good. It helps.

But, there are only so many hours in a day and we have only so much attention. Where is the learning coming from? Are we still learning?

This reflection comes partly from listening to a recent podcast where the guest spoke about the need to further retool his schedule to ensure there is built-in time for learning.

And by learning, I don’t mean reading and sharing articles or listening to podcasts.

I’m talking about dedicated study. Intense reading. Practicing skills. The things that you cannot do in “moments in-between.”

If you read this morning’s newsletter, you know this is on my mind. I haven’t figured it out yet. My hunch is that if we think just because we’re doing okay and can continue to grind that this means we are still growing, we’re wrong.

In the same way that losing weight and keeping weight off becomes more challenging as we age, I think there is a related challenge when it comes to learning and growth.

If we really want to learn and grow, we have to challenge our own assumptions about what is still important. What can we move to open up a dedicated hour a day to just reading? Or language study? Or coding? Or an instrument?

Reading and listening to “stuff” – even good stuff – is the illusion of learning. It’s good, but it is no replacement for the deep work required to actually improve.

I’ll let you know if I figure it out.

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GWOT Hangover: “I’ll take it from here”

I'll take it from here
I'll take it from here
Not sure of the origin of this cartoon – but it was everywhere in the military in the weeks following 9/11. Our company armorer had it posted right there at the weapons cage.

We’re in the deluge of 9/11 reflections. Articles, documentaries, ceremonies, and tweet storms. It’s everywhere.

And it should be.

I find myself wanting to do nothing but engross myself in all of them while also avoiding every last one.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve thought a lot about if I have anything useful to add.

I’m not sure that I do.

I’ve written about my experiences in and around 9/11 – a lot. I’m from New York City. My father worked for the FDNY. I joined the Army just before 9/11 and it happened while I was at jump school. My entire military and academic career has been wrapped up in what happened, why, and our response to it.

That’s all personally interesting, but it’s not that different from most folks I serve with. There are variations of intensity and experience, but it’s all very similar.

Instead of thinking about what it all means for me, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what it means for us.

9/11 was a psychological weapon of mass destruction.

It shocked us into action and overreaction. It was a power-punch directly to the forehead. We were shook.

Do you remember this video (2003) of Tom Friedman discussing our reaction to 9/11?

We need to see American boys and girls, going house to house, from Basra and Baghdad, asking ‘what part of this sentence don’t you understand?‘”

Watch the video. It’s angry. It’s absurd. It’s counterproductive. I don’t agree with the argument.

But I also remember this sentiment being the feeling in the air in the days, weeks, and years directly after 9/11. It didn’t matter what was logical. It mattered how we felt. We made decisions and we carried them out.

Then twenty years goes by.

When I think about 9/11 now, I don’t really thinking about 9/11 at all. What I think about is the GWOT effect.

What I think about is the burning desire to help, to marshal that patriotism into action and churn, and churn, and churn. And have it come up empty.

“To be sent overseas to divide by zero.”

I’ve seen men and women of all ranks and in all different jobs throw themselves into the fire only to get burned.

What began as a mission of justice became something much grander.

So here we are.

Twenty years is a long time.

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The GWOT Effect

I’ve seen it, and I can explain it, but I never heard it put that way before.

“I saw the best minds of my generation sent off to divide by zero.”

It instantly makes sense.

What he’s talking about is the “GWOT effect.” Incredibly smart and passionate Amerians sent overseas to “win.”

You see it at all levels – from the soldiers on the ground to the Generals in the Pentagon.

If we could just find the right strategy, the right force mix, put the right nouns and verbs in the right order.

If we could have just – one – more – year – we can turn this thing around.

A few years ago, I saw the “GWOT Effect” perfectly captured in the back-and-forth between Brad Pitt and TIlda Swinton’s characters in the 2017 film War Machine. In it, General “McMahon” is briefing a pool of politicians on the strategy to win the war. It’s a brief he is used to giving because he’s done it over and over and over again – to soldiers, to staffs, to politicians, and to the media. He’s good at it. And people believe him. But here, in this one, he is challenged (Note: I couldn’t find the clip, so the dialogue will have to do – source).

German politician:  General, the US invaded Afghanistan because of the al-Qaeda attacks on September 11th. This is correct sir?

General: Yeah.

German politician: You have been speaking to us now for 45 minutes and yet in all of that time you have only mentioned al-Qaeda once. Your own vice president has advocated a much smaller and simpler counterterrorism approach to incapacitate what is estimated to be a little more than 100 al-Qaeda fighters that still remain in Afghanistan to refocus on what it was that started this war in the first place.

General: Ah.

German politician: Your analysis of the insurgency there suggests to me there is no monolithic Taliban.  You are spread over the entire country. You are fighting 1,000 separate battles with locals whose principal ideological position would seem to be simply that they don’t want foreign soldiers in their village. And that, General, you must know, is a war you will never win.

General: Ah. Uh, with all due respect, ma’am. Uh I must beg to differ. I firmly believe, having traveled to all corners of the country, having spoken with many people from many walks of life . . . that what these people want is the very same thing that you and I want. Hmmm?  Freedom, security, stability, jobs.  Progress is being made. Real Progress. But challenges do remain.

German politician: Yes, I understand all of that, General. And . . .and , please let me say quite sincerely that I do not question the goodness of your intent. I have been listening to you here this morning, and, uh. . . I believe you are a good man. I do. What I question is. . . your belief in your power to deliver these things that you describe. I question your belief in the power of your ideals.

General: Ah, well. . .

German politician: I think what I am trying to say, and I apologize, General, if this is sounding impolite, but I question your sense of self.

General: I appreciate your commentary. I do. But I have a job to do.

German politician: Yes, I understand, And I also have a job to do. And I’m trying to do mine. As an elected representative of the people of Germany, it is my job to ensure that the personal ambitions of those who serve those people are kept in check. You have devoted your entire life, General, to the fighting of war.  And this situation in Afghanistan, for you, it is the culmination of all your years of training, all your years of ambition. This is the great moment of your life.

General:  Well. . . .

German politician: It’s understandable to me that you should have, therefore, a fetish for completion to make your moment glorious. It is my job, however, to ensure that your personal ambitions are not entirely delusional and do not carry with them an unacceptable cost for everybody else.


Of course we are going to try to win. That is the task. But there does come a point where it all seems to get a bit out of hand.

There’s another scene from War Machine that captures this idea. It’s a scene lifted almost directly out of the Michael Hasting’s article which the movie is based on. General McMahon is traveling Afghanistan, explaining to troops how to win the war.

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“Just In Time” Information Management

Army photo by Spc. Andrew McNeil (link)

You may be familiar with “Just In Time” inventory or manufacturing. This is the business strategy that aims at reducing the amount of time product is in storage or on a shelf. This is done by working towards hyper-efficiency across all aspects of a business. Parts, material, and labor are right where they are at precisely the time they need to be.

On at least one occasion, I’ve heard this concept used in the context of knowledge workers – and we’re all pretty much knowledge workers these days.

Instead of manufacturing, we apply the same idea to information. Our management systems allow us to delay accumulating more information until the precise moment it is needed, and we can be reasonably sure that it will be there when we need to retrieve it.

Calendars, task trackers, productivity apps, and management systems allows us to move through a day more efficiently. When we come to a point where we need to make a decision, we can retrieve the infromation we need, usually pretty quickly.

If we are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, we can focus our attention on the things that matter right now and delay work on future problems until we absolutely must.

Have you ever scheduled a meeting and then reviewed your notes a couple of minutes immediately prior? Then you have already put this idea into practice.

This system allows us to do more (and better), but it also depends heavily on flawless execution from a living person. The technology will rarely fail – but there still needs to be a person there to pull the lever or hit the button at just the right time.

When running effectively, ‘just in time’ systems can supercharge productivity. But without constant attention, they can fail spectacularly.

Time, attention, and energy are all finite resources.

My personal management system has slowly been creeping towards a ‘just in time’ one. I actually really like it – it does allow for more. It’s a way to squeeze just a little bit more out of a productivity system.

In fairness, it comes at the cost of a near-constant low hum of anxiety, as there is always something coming on the horizon that is unsettled.

If this stuff interests you, I’d recommend signing up for the monthly newsletter. I tend to pontificate about planning from time to time.

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Generous with their information

I recently heard a radio host talking about how he likes watching influencers on Instagram doing some of the basic things influencers do – talk about their day, open packages, discuss things they like. Simple, everyday things.

These are often the things that give influencers a bad rap.

They’re oversharing!

It’s trite!

Who cares!?

The reality is, we’re fortunate that there are so many people out there who are willing to give us a peek behind the curtain. Our lives (especially our digital lives) are shrouded in secrecy.

What do you keep in your folders?

How messy is your desktop?

How many unread emails do you have?

John has always been very generous with his information, recently sharing the below:

Avatars Over the Years I’m taking time to clean out my digital folders this weekend and one folder that I’ve had for over 10+ years is this one:

Avatars Over the Years | john saddington

That’s a lot to put out there -but isn’t it interesting?

Many of us spend time following people online because we find them fascinating. The more personal, the more interesting.

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Starting social media over feels like New Game+ mode

Had this thought the other day as I continue to slog through rebuilding. When I pulled the plug in 2016, I was in a pretty good place. My Twitter/Facebook accounts had thousands of followers and just about every blog post got attention. Daily traffic to CTG was high. It was something I had built over five years.

And then zap – it’s all gone.

Well the blog is still here and has plenty of followers. And each day I am moving forward towards a goal of rebuilding.

The whole thing feels very similar to what happens when you beat a video game, and then are offered the opportunity to replay the game in “New Game+” mode. New Game+ is where you get to play the whole thing over from the beginnning, but you retain whatever skills, equipement, and experience you earned in the first playthrough. The experience is also easier because you know the rules of the game and have gotten pretty good. I know how to write, I know the world map, and I know which oracles to visit. It’s definitely starting over with an advantage. The goal of New Game+ mode is to explore the things you missed while getting another opportunity to enjoy the game.

But boy, it’s still a slog.

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Reflecting on reflecting

I’ve been thinking of the below exchange between retired General Votel and Joe Byerly from the FtGN podcast over the past couple of days (emphasis mine):

Joe: “You alluded to this idea of reflection. Your career was extremely fast-paced… you took a lot of challenging assignments. And so, I was just curious, did you have time to reflect on your career? If so, did that play a role at all?

Gen. Votel: “I did, and I think you’re raising a really great question…. and that is taking time to think through things. I think it’s a really important opportunity just to be able to — I used to call it the opportunity to have a discussion without the burden of having to make a decision.”

From the Green Notebook Podcast, Season 2/Episode 1

We’re so busy these days, and it certainly feels like we need to build in time for reflection.

Reflection, as an activity, is left undefined. I always thought of it as a kind of mindfulness activity. If I was to set aside some time to reflect (which I don’t), I’d imagine myself sitting at my desk, alone, hands folded neatly in my lap as I think about whatever it is that I need “reflect” on.

I don’t think anyone actually does that.

Conversely, I know my mind is at its best when I’m busy and engaged in a stimulating activity – ofen unrelated to the problem. Exercise – especially running – has my mind churning with ideas. Free-wheeling conversation on a focused topic often generates thoughts I didn’t know I had. Even reading a book, I can become lost in a parallel narrative in my mind while reading the words on the page (this, of course, is disrtaction – but sometimes it too generates ideas).

It does then, make sense to build in time for these types of activities and count them as reflection.

In a military context, scheduling time to discuss a problem or issue “without the burden of making a decision” seems like a good technique to foster reflection – as a group. Important here, is that everyone who is participating understands that. It’s no good to have a discussion on an issue to foster thought and reflection only to have it turn into another “information brief” to please the boss.

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Conquering as Virtue

Originally posted in 2013.

Recently, I sat talking with another officer about what a deployment to Afghanistan in 2014 might look like, especially in its historical context with the writing on the wall making it close to the end of the war, if not the end. What, I thought, is the driving force of a young soldier going to Afghanistan in 2014?

In 2001, it was revenge. In Iraq, 2003, it was pre-emptive defense (or so they said). In the years leading up to today, it was some form of chasing down the last remnants, battling out the long slog, “surging,” mopping up, “setting conditions” or some other conglomeration of words that hinted at elusive victory.

A deployment in 2014 will likely look very different than other deployments. The 2d Cavalry Regiment is currently rolling through a sleepy deployment where the most exciting thing in months can be *almost* getting to fire an illumination round. The – workout twice a day and evenings at Green Beans coffee – kind of deployment.

OBL is dead and whether we stay in Afghanistan past 2014 is up in the air.

What then, motivates a soldier to fight?

I started thinking that maybe it is the mechanical aspect of war, the fight itself. There is certainly a pull to it, especially for young men (and women) who want to prove themselves in battle. But sitting there in that conversation, mind buzzing with caffeine, I thought back to my own experience. Getting shot at was not fun – at all. I felt exposed and on the brink of destruction.

But afterwards! Afterwards was amazing. The feeling of escaping death. Looking it in the face and winning. Not wanting to do it again because it felt so close, but wondering if I could.

Back in my office, I said, “No, it’s not the mechanical fight, running a battle drill – and surviving – that provides the pull.”

We discussed what it must have been like for soldiers in ancient times, wielding sword and shield, fighting face to face. Slashing and hacking.

No, while romantic in hind sight, having an extremely short life expectancy couldn’t have been very “fun.” While there were certainly some who relished the actual fighting (as there are now), we agreed that most ancient soldiers probably loathed it and feared it.

But, what they had that we don’t was the Virtue of the Conqueror.

That is, winning the battle and winning the war was virtuous in its own right. It was generally understood. Conquering was a virtue. Invading, advancing, reaping reward for your people – that was valued in and of itself.

For the modern American soldier, conquering is not a virtue. Outside of military bases, there are no banners hailing the conquering hero, or even welcoming them home. War, now, is an afterthought. Something “over there” that really needs to end soon so we can get this country back on track, or so they say.

Without the Virtue of the Conqueror, the whole notion of “why we fight” is so much trickier today. If this were ancient times and we served in an army of conquerors, it is doubtful that Vietnam vet turned Hollywood screenwriter William Broyles would have felt the need to pen “Why Men Love War” or British Iraq vet turned journalist would write “Iraq is always with you.” It was much easier to explain the whole thing when everyone just understood that you went to war to win and bring victory. That’s it.

So, as always, I offer nothing that brings us closer to understanding why, but I do posit that without the Virtue of the Conqueror, it is easier to understand why we have such a hard time reconciling it now. I like the thought of two ancient grizzled veterans getting drunk in a dank tavern, discussing the meta-physical elements of war, wondering “what it all means.” But I’m not sure they had to do that because they were too busy celebrating victory, or dead.

Incidentally, Jill Sargent Russell posted ‘The Art of Victory‘ on Kings of War yesterday. It’s a good post that I think is talking about the same thing I am, but in a more academic way.

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