“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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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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The Pomodoro Technique

I’m writing more lately, and that requires focus and attention. It’s easy to get distracted.

I had to dust off this old technique I learned in graduate school – the Pomodoro technique.

It’s very simple. Set a timer (I do 50 minutes) and then work until the timer goes off. Then, take a break and do whatever you want (I do 10 minutes).

I find that once I set the timer, I’m more inclined to sit and do the work, and often I can get into the flow.

There are lots of apps out there that have this feature built-in. Or you can do it manually.

I also like to have “do not disturb” on while I’m working to eliminate notifications.


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The Importance of a Daily Writing Practice

nier replicant grimoire weiss

When I first started listening to the FTGN Podcast, I kept getting tripped up on the quote that opens each episode.

How do I know what I think till I see what I say?

Wait, what?

But when you stop and think about it, it makes sense.

How do I know what I think… until I see what I say?

We often don’t know what the next word will be that comes out of our mouth, until it shows up.

The same goes for thoughts. They’re in there, swirling.

A recent episode with Susan Cain explored this, especially in the context of writing.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking  joins the show to discuss her latest book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. Joe and Susan talk about the power of harnessing our pain and struggles and turning them into creativity, connection, and transcendence. 

S2,Ep36: Susan Cain-Finding Strength in Pain, FTGN Podcast

Joe and Susan discuss the process of journaling and “expressive writing.” This is where you literally just sit and write, whatever is in there – let it come out.

I’ve been doing variations of this for years. Ten minutes in the morning. Just write.

Often, thoughts and ideas emerge that I wasn’t aware of. Often, these turn into tasks, projects, or activities.

Other times, it’s nothing.

And that’s okay. It’s a practice.


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…there’s a pulse

metal gear solid v big boss smoking cigar

There’s something about a long cross-country road trip that induces reflection. The passage of time, the dusty truck stops, miles and miles of road, lots of time with your own thoughts. It’s like you didn’t even have a choice, you’re going to do some reflecting.

I’ll have a lot more to say about that in the next newsletter which goes out next week. If you haven’t signed up, you should.

Teaser: “Oh, you thought this was going to be easy?”

For now, I’m settling into a routine, so posting should resume as normal.

Over the past month, a few things stuck out (ideas, articles, podcasts).

In no particular order:

  1. Writing Cabins. The importance of having a space away from what’s familiar (and familiar people) when you want to do any writing. I’d add time to this. I prefer early mornings.
  2. Educating Leaders for Future War. Interesting (and complete – one, two, three, four, five) series on educating leaders for future war over at MWI. This is a topic I find fascinating. Do we need future leaders to have different attributes for future war? I haven’t read through all of them yet, but from what I could garner these got some people worked up on social media. It seems PME is one of those subjects in which people hold very strong opinions.
  3. #OneThing – Lots of people changing jobs this summer(!). Most have at least “one thing” that they wish they had known before they started. A nice initiative from FTGN to scoop those up (I’ve submitted something simple, we’ll see if it hits).
  4. L2 Speak – I’ve always thought that a great way to learn a new language would be a simple role-playing game where you are forced to learn the language. That’s how you progress. Well someone is finally making it. Very excited to see where this goes.
  5. Gladiator School – II MEF Information Group started a podcast. I haven’t listened yet, but I listen to its cousin and enjoy it.
  6. What’s the point? – Maybe a bit of a darker thought while on the road, but in the moments inbetween when I’d pop on social media to see what was going on, most of it was nonsense. This thought extended to the whole ecosystem of military writing – there is so much out there right now, but very little of consequence. Nothing is landing. Or at least, nothing seems to be landing like it used to. I’m not sure if this is because there is so much out there, poor quality, or maybe so many have abandoned the hard work for performance. More on that in the newsletter.

And as always, sometimes things just ‘pop in there.’ Here are some future posts you can look forward to.

  1. Hyper Active Chaos. Is this a thing? Because people are saying it.
  2. The Father of Psychological Warfare. It’s Robert McClure. Who would the fictional ‘Mother‘ of Pyschological Warfare be?
  3. Context vs Character. What’s the difference here?
  4. Power Word Series. There are some words that just tend to get you excited. Like what? Like this newly-discovered trove.
  5. Information as a Warfighting Function. Are we there yet?

And more.


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Against ‘threads’

colored threads

I don’t like threads on Twitter.

Even the good ones.

Don’t get me wrong – they’re often entertaining, interesting, and educational.

And I do enjoy them.

But I don’t like them because they’re so ephemeral.

A lot of works goes into them, they’re fun to poke through, but then they’re gone. And there’s not really a good way to save them.

You can bookmark them, but then you’re stuck with a list of bookmarks. I tend to use bookmarks for things to check out later, and then I clear them out.

There is definitely a place for them, and I get their utility. And I understand how they are engaging.

But some of them are so engaging I want them to live somewhere that I can easily return to for reference.

You know, like a blog.

A few weeks ago I started building a thread on what ‘winning’ looks like in Great Power Competition. I had a good vision for it and I know it would be engaging. It was full of video clips, gifs, pictures, and smart copy.

I stopped building it because I knew that it would be a great thread that would quickly be pushed aside and forgotten.

Instead, I’ll turn it into an article where it can survive.


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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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A note on recent posts

Somewhere, I saw a recommendation for a book called Never Eat Alone. I haven’t read the book, and perhaps this is unfair, but I felt like I got the gist of it from the title. The book is about relationships, and I think I take the point that it is best to take advantage of opportunities to build and foster human relationships. Mealtime is one of those opportunities.

I’m sure it’s a good book. It’s doing well on Amazon.

I just don’t think I needed to read it. Just hearing the title and the book’s purpose imparted the advice. Reading the book and dedicating the time to that endeavor might solidify that advice, but I just wasn’t that interested.

I’ve been taking that approach to some of the posts on this blog. I’ve had things I’ve wanted to write about for years that have been sitting on a list. These ideas sit there until I’m able to will myself to do the work and bang out a 1,000-word missive on it that makes sense.

Instead of having these ideas waste away on a list, I’ve decided to get them out there as ideas, half-baked and raw. Often that’s all there is to it, anyway. It’s a technique I’ve seen done well at The Best Defense by Tom Ricks.

It’s a departure from what I normally do, so I thought it would be helpful for those who come here expecting longer pieces all the time. I’ll still write longer pieces, but only ones that I really want to.


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What is the incentive to write in the military?

Originally published in 2016.

I’m working on a longer piece about the important role veterans have in getting their voice out there in the age of social media, and this thought popped into my mind this morning on the way to work: what is the incentive to write in the military?

I’ve never been actively prodded to write inside of the military. There aren’t any obvious professional incentives – no awards or bonuses, it doesn’t go on your ERB/ORB. In fact, there seems to be greater professional risk in writing for an external audience than there is reward.

I know why I write. It’s how I get ideas out. I also enjoy communicating to a larger audience outside of my bubble.

When I came back in the Army in 2011, I was a little concerned about whether I would have to stop writing or severely curtail it. I reached out to some military writers, and one (very accomplished officer) offered this warning:

Even so, today’s Army does not value intellectually rigorous scholarship from serving officers. General Petraeus succeeded despite, rather than because of, his intellectual credentials; note how few officers are following his path to flag rank. Advancement to that level relies on patronage relationships within one or more of the Army’s “communities” – airborne, armored cav, SOF, etc. There is no patron and no community for intellectual rigorous soldier-scholars, and few of them make it past LTC or COL.

It was a fair – and spooky – warning. I do think things like the Military Writers Guild might be changing this dynamic, but only time will tell.

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Death Prose

I look at him. He looks at the grease gun. He calls out: “I NEVER LIKED YOU JOKER. I NEVER THOUGHT YOU WERE FUNNY–“

Bang. I sight down the short metal tube and I watch my bullet enter Cowboy’s left eye. My bullet passes through his eye socket, punches through fluid-filled sinus cavities, through membranes, nerves, arteries, muscle tissue, through the tiny blood vessels that feed three pounds of gray butter-soft high protein meat where brain cells arranged like jewels in a clock hold every thought and memory and dream of one adult male Homo sapiens.

My bullet exits through the occipital bone, knocks out hairy, brain-wet clods of jagged meat, then buries itself in the roots of a tree.

Gustav Hasford, The Short Timers

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