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What I Learned at DEF2013

October 15, 2013 — 2 Comments

As someone who sits on the DEF board, I have a little confession to make: I wasn’t sure this would work.

Ben Kohlmann and his colleagues were already hard at work planning DEF2013 when they invited me onto the board, and I don’t think they knew what they were getting. If they’re the passionate idealists, I’m the detail-minded critic who questions assumptions, pokes holes in plans, and makes himself an all-around pain in the ass. I loved what the DEF board was doing, but I also had real concerns about strategy and execution. We had many discussions about these subjects over the past few months, all the way up through the final morning of the conference itself. All that to say, this has been a journey for me.

Now that DEF2013 is over, I’m delighted to call it a success. I’m convinced some of my concerns were valid, but I also need to admit that I was wrong about a lot of things too. DEF2013 stretched me past my limits; it defied almost all military best practices for strategic planning, but it worked amazingly well for precisely that reason.

DEF2013 introduced me to an entirely new way of operating. I’m still sifting through the wreckage of some of my prior beliefs, and trying to figure out what to build in their place. In the meantime, I’d like to share some tentative thoughts about what I learned at DEF2013.

Sometimes the best strategy is anarchy. This principle feels so dangerous to me that I’m having trouble even typing it, but I’m now convinced it’s true. If you want to stimulate creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, a clearly articulated strategy with well-defined goals can be fatal. An ambiguous strategy means flexibility, intensive experimentation, and rapid learning. You don’t want to run an organization that way forever, but during the “discovery” phase or for an organization that requires a creative culture, anarchy can be vital. When Gordon MacKenzie was brought onto Hallmark management to foster innovation, he insisted on the job title “Creative Paradox” and had no formalized list of job responsibilities. He drove senior management crazy, but the very ambiguity about his role is what made him so successful. We need creative paradoxes.

Success can be intangible. Traditional business says, “Show me the return on investment” and traditional military thinking says, “Show me the mission impact.” I can’t do that for DEF2013. I have no idea what the impact will be. What I can tell you is that every single DEF attendee is fired up to do great things in his or her organization, and each of them is now better equipped with tools, experience, and relationships to do that. DEF2013 also ignited a spirit among its attendees. Anyone who has experienced that elusive phenomenon called “morale” should understand what I mean.

Effective leadership takes a diverse team. Most of us know this in the abstract, but it can be challenging when you’re up against hard decisions, the stakes are high, and you have fundamentally different viewpoints and approaches. Still, that negotiation among diverse viewpoints is essential. The bottom line is that teams typically produce better work if they include diverse types of individuals. You need visionaries and critics. You need analysts and artists. You need hammers and you need goofballs. Major kudos to Ben Kohlmann for assembling a diverse team in the DEF board.

Innovation needs the right conditions. Innovation does not happen on its own; studies are clear that creative thinking occurs best in a semi-structured environment. The challenge is knowing what that environment should be. I’m still struggling with that. In one sense, DEF2013 itself created the right conditions for creative thinking on a large scale. Within our small groups, each group differed. We saw failures where the topic was too open-ended or too narrowly tailored. There seems to be a sweet spot in the middle, where the team is focused on a specific topic with specific constraints, but has unlimited freedom within those constraints.

Trust is scary but worth it. DEF2013 was an experiment, and we had to put a lot of trust in our attendees and speakers. A few of us were concerned about the possibility that somebody show up with an axe to grind, who would poison the atmosphere with bitterness or ranting. We didn’t have a single case of that. Without fail, our attendees and speakers were professional, courteous, and interested in positive, collaborative solutions. I also was worried about the Ideation groups, because we didn’t have a clear model for how the groups would work, and I questioned the viability of certain topics. We had to let go of control, and at each stage I was amazed at the teams’ creative problem solving. Some teams spontaneously dissolved and recombined; others took their topics in totally unplanned directions. The results were not at all what I expected, but everybody came through with results that were quite impressive for the compressed timescale.

Diversity is powerful. The military will always be a hierarchical organization for good reason, and subordinates should always respect superiors. But there is a time and a place for setting rank aside (we do it in crew aircraft all the time). DEF attendees wore civilian clothes and their name tags did not indicate rank. Our attendees included Cadet through Brigadier General, a few enlisted, business professors, veterans who became entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs who later commissioned, government civilians, defense contractors, and more. We let those people sit down together in a variety of settings to exchange knowledge and hammer out ideas. That was pretty remarkable to watch.

People thrive when empowered. I’m convinced one main reason people attended DEF2013 is that they feel disempowered. They are frustrated because their voices aren’t being heard. DEF2013 extended the promise that every attendee would have a voice, and it’s amazing how people responded to that promise. Maybe your idea will be a good one, maybe not. Maybe it will see the light of day, maybe it won’t. But the simple knowledge that somebody is respectfully listening to you, and treating you as a valuable source of ideas for the organization, can be life-changing. One of DEF2013’s greatest successes was creating an environment where that held true, and I hope our attendees will spread that culture back to their home units.

Rapid failure, adaptation, and iteration is extremely hard. I wish I could tell you that it was fun leading a small Ideation group, but it mostly wasn’t. My team members themselves were great, but nothing went as I expected. I spent weeks beforehand developing what I thought was a perfect topic for Ideation, and it was a spectacular failure. After an hour, we were gridlocked. We took a break, tried again, and hit another dead end. The next morning, I talked offline with another member about when we should admit failure. We kept at it that afternoon, trying new directions, and finally we found a little gold and started digging. Within the final hour, we developed two actionable ideas that will likely become part of DEF’s future. These ideas had almost nothing to do with our starting place. I’ve never before experienced this degree of failure, iteration, and learning on such a fast timescale. This stuff sounds great in the innovation literature, but actually doing it is hard work. It is emotionally and mentally taxing for somebody accustomed to careful planning processes aimed at clearly defined ends.

Nothing motivates self-starters like relationships. Because of the high barrier to entry, our attendees were all self-starters. It takes a lot of intrinsic motivation to give up a three-day weekend and pay for a trip to Chicago. These are people who will innovate because it’s in their blood, not because someone is dangling an OPR bullet or a quarterly award in front of them. So how do you reward those people? Can you show that you value them, in ways that satisfy their intrinsic motivations? Our Ideation group realized that self-starters are largely motivated by relationships. They want to make a difference in the lives of others, they like to meet other people who appreciate their work, and they like to meet people who can lead them to new opportunities. That is why attendees loved DEF2013; it offered no tangible “reward”, but it connected them with like-minded people and created new opportunities for collaboration. This is not just about “networking” in some pejorative sense of the word; it is about the joy that comes with being part of a living community.

Informality is fun and liberating. One of my favorite moments of the weekend came at the start of our small group presentations. We had a very impressive judging panel, and I was worried about setting poor-quality products in front of them. At the very least, I was expecting some real awkwardness. But then, before the presentations started, a fellow DEF board member showed the audience the prizes: cases of cheap beer with Doctrine Man cartoons taped to them. My fears dissolved in the uproar of laughter. Genius! I thought. It was the perfect way to set the right tone for our presentations. The pressure was off, and we could have fun showing off our half-baked creations and sharing what we’d learned. That is just one small example of the fun we were able to have at a tiny conference on a shoestring budget. And if you’ve never been to a Twitter-enabled conference, the freewheeling audience interaction and sidebar conversations totally transforms the conference experience.

It’s often hard to predict what will succeed and what will fail. It’s kind of amazing; I’ve been studying strategy both informally and formally for years, and I’ve never grasped this fundamental principle until this weekend. We all know von Moltke’s quote that “No plan survives first contact with the enemy”, but that took on a new meaning for me at DEF2013. If you’re doing something that’s never been done before, you simply don’t know if it will work. Carefully planned and executed ideas may crash and burn, and some absurd sketch on a bar napkin may evolve into a major success. So you need to think on your feet, watch for feedback, adapt quickly, and continually try new things. Practicing this in the safe laboratory of DEF2013 probably did as much to prepare me for high-level strategy jobs as any formal strategy course I’ve taken.

For other reflections on DEF2013 see Peter Munson, Joe Byerly and Kristen Rouse.

This afternoon I arrived at Chicago O’Hare for DEF2013, and enjoyed a lengthy cab ride into downtown Chicago in stop-and-go traffic with fellow strategist and blogger Nate Finney, aka the Barefoot Strategist. Among the many things we talked about were the challenges of blogging as we get older and move along in careers. We are busier than we were as junior officers. We have families. We have greater work responsibilities. We have to be increasingly careful about what we write. And then, of course, there is the intellectual humility that comes with age and experience; we are more careful in our research and thinking, are more concerned with quality over quantity in our writing.

All that to say, I have a lot of excuses for keeping Building Peace on the back burner. Still, I like keeping the blog open and knowing I have a home online.

So what’s been going on?

I’m several months into the School of Advanced Air & Space Studies (SAASS), the Air Force’s year-long school for educating strategists. I love it. I was nervous about attending, because I’ve had such negative experiences with Air Force PME, so it was a delight to discover that SAASS is nothing like any PME course I’ve ever attended. This is a school about how to think, not what to think. I spend my days immersed in good books and in high-level discussion with peers and faculty who love to read and think. For most of my Air Force career, I’ve had to find nooks and crannies of time throughout my day to sneak in a little reading. Now, for this year at least, I’m getting paid to do what I love most: read, think, and write about global affairs. Of course, the program is also a ton of work and takes up most of my time.

Other than time with my family, my outlet from SAASS has been writing fiction. I recently completed a short story set fifteen years in the future in Syria, which I hope will see publication in the next few months. I’m tinkering with some more short stories and my next novel.

Finally, I’ve spent the past seven months on the board of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, helping plan the DEF2013 conference in Chicago. Now it’s finally showtime, and we will soon find out what happens when you lock a bunch of passionate and highly motivated emerging leaders together in a conference hall and let them to go to work grinding out ideas. You can tune into our large group sessions via a live stream on our website. In the afternoons, we will break into small Ideation workshops to tackle some specific challenges facing the DoD. It’s been a quite a ride helping plan this event, because nothing like this has ever been done before. Part of me is thrilled to see it come to life; part of me is nervous as hell. This whole thing is one giant experiment, and where there are experiments, there is risk; that is a fundamental truth about disruptive innovation. However, if there’s one thing our military needs today, it is the willingness to assume more risk as we find new and better ways of doing business.

I’m sure we’ll have some learning to do, but I’m equally confident that we’ll see some real value come out of this weekend. In the few short hours I’ve been on the ground in Chicago, it’s already been amazing getting to know people I’ve known online for months or years… people who are passionate about making their military more effective, and who have had the commitment and courage to enter the intellectual arena and defend their ideas in public. As much as I’ve enjoyed our online interactions, there is no substitute for sitting around a dinner table together and putting back a few drinks.

I hope you’ll follow along this weekend via the live stream and our Twitter feed on the #DEF2013 hashtag. You can also follow me personally at @jacobsenmd. Others to follow include: @jbyerly81 @BareftStratgist @benkohlmann @jjgilz @mbgrinberg @kimballray @peterjmunson and @DEFconference.

Defense Entrepreneurs Forum

Writing and publishing Finding Common Ground: Harnessing Disruption for the Good of the Service was a rewarding experience for me.  I was honored to join the conversation about “Disruptive Thinking” and innovation, and my message was well-received (mostly) by all ranks. But the best was yet to come.  Not long after publication, Ben Kohlmann reached out to me.  He and a team of devoted young officers from across all four services were putting together a conference that would move beyond disruptive thinking into the realm of constructive action.  When he invited me to join the board, I leapt at the chance.

I’m thrilled to announce today’s launch of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum.  Our weekend conference will be unlike anything the military has ever seen, because it is BY and FOR emerging military leaders who care about innovation.

Intrigued?  Here are four easy things you can do right now, which will help spread the word.

- Read the launch essay on Small Wars Journal

- Visit the DEF2013 website and sign up for our email list

- Follow @DefConference on Twitter and engage in discussion

- Like DefConference on Facebook

Doing disruption right

March 29, 2013 — 5 Comments

IR326 SampleIn my previous post, I told a story about doing disruption the wrong way.  I violated the principles that make disruptive thinking effective, with disastrous consequences.  In this post I’d like to share one time when I really got it right.

When I was a C-17 copilot, Google Earth was still relatively new and pilots in my squadron were trying to put it to work.  It was a great tool for visualizing 3D terrain, especially for airdrop run-ins in Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t easy to use; there was no way to link it to the DOD’s mission planning software (PFPS/FalconView), so pilots had to manually enter coordinates for each point.  I thought there had to be a better way.

I spent the next year developing a powerful software program that would convert PFPS data into a format readable by Google Earth.  By the time I was done, it could map routes, plot threats, and manage large collections of colorful 3D airspace.  I was extremely proud of the finished product, and released it through a slick website that included a PowerPoint briefing and capabilities demonstration.

The PFPS Google Earth Tool met a legitimate need, and spread quickly among the crew force.  Still, there were obstacles.  Google Earth wasn’t authorized on Air Force computers.  Most of us got around this by running GE from thumb drives, back when that was allowed (sort of), but it wasn’t an optimum solution.  It also wasn’t certified; I couldn’t guarantee the output was 100% accurate.  This was a rough tool to assist pilots, but nothing more.

As the tool caught on, I started getting phone calls.  A C-130 pilot had used GE to create orientation videos of the drop zone run-ins used by his unit.  He sent me a disk.  A Pentagon staff officer in charge of procuring geospatial tools wanted to use my work to build his case for procuring Google Earth.  A network administrator offered to migrate the tool to SIPRNET, so it could be used for classified missions.  The most important call came from a Major at a USAFA think tank known as the Institute for Information Technology Applications.  They were developing a suite of mission planning tools called Warfighter’s Edge (WEdge) and were intrigued by my work.  They paid for a TDY out ot USAFA, where I hung out with their coders and briefed the retired 4-star who ran the Institute.

Until this point, the software had been my baby.  I’d developed it singlehandedly, and was excited to see it take hold around the Air Force.  But I also knew that I was hitting the ceiling of my capabilities.  The WEdge team offered resources I didn’t have access to: a budget, an entire team of engineers and programmers, access to higher Air Force leadership, and the ability to get software products certified for Air Force use.  I made the painful decision to give them all my code, and transfer full responsibility for the product to their office.  In the year’s since, WEdge has integrated my work into a tool called WEdge Viewer.  It is now Air Force-sanctioned, certified for flight, and in use throughout the Air Force.

This was a success story, and it was a success because I obeyed the principles laid out in my essay.  I found allies (or rather, they found me).  We were able to persuade higher leaders in the Air Force, because we had an excellent product to “sell” and it was packaged well.  We offered something positive and constructive, that could meet legitimate needs.  My allies were able to work through difficult challenges, like flight certification and authorization for installation on government computers.

Most importantly (and most painfully) I was willing to share credit.  I let others run with my idea, and they made it into something great.  I’ll admit this hasn’t been easy.  The tool is in use across the Air Force now, but even my own peers now don’t know that I designed the initial application.  But hey, I changed something, and that’s pretty awesome.  Change in a large institution is always a team sport.

 

If you want to be a successful disruptive thinker, I’ll give you a little hint: if you humiliate your supervisors in front of their own bosses, make people cry, and get called behind closed doors for a dressing down, you’ve probably failed.

Yes, it really was that bad.

Let me give some background first.  First, I am a hard INTJ in the world of Meyers-Brigs personality types, meaning that I have a compulsive need to improve everything I come in contact with.  As you can probably imagine, that is a double-edged sword.  Second, before I began Arabic studies at the Defense Language Institute, I had been working as a Flying Safety Officer at my C-17 base.  That meant my entire job was dedicated to continual improvement.  My colleagues and I were constantly tweaking base processes to ensure maximum safety for aircraft operations.  If a mishap occurred, we ran investigations, identified causal findings, and made specific recommendations to reduce the chances of a similar mishap ever occurring again.  My entire job consisted of identifying areas for improvement, then making constructive recommendations.  Nothing about that, I thought, would be controversial in an organization that valued its own improvement.

When I began at DLI, the Arabic program was a work-in-progress.  The school had tripled in size since September 11th, and it had growing pains.  My classmates and I were appalled to discover that the pass rate at graduation was only 14%–so low that the DOD had to re-evaluate its Arabic DLPT.  Because teachers received merit pay linked to student DLPT scores, the entire school–from the lowest students to the highest administrators–was in a state of constant panic.  Methodology seemed to change every week or two.  Students were failing out left and right because they couldn’t handle the stress.  As for our curriculum, it was an experimental monstrosity of more than ten volumes that had just come out of production and had cost more than a million dollars.  It was terrible.

I though the administration might value some feedback, so I did exactly what I’d done as a flying safety officer: typed up a lengthy list of detailed concerns.  For each of them I listed specific, actionable recommendations that would mitigate the concern.  Nothing about this seemed controversial to me, and I ran it by my classmates before sending it up.  We focused our comments specifically on the curriculum, not on particular teachers or administrators.  I provided my feedback to our Military Training Leader, an NCO embedded within the mostly Arab, civilian faculty.  We all felt pretty good about ourselves for trying to make the organization better.

A few days later, I was stunned when I was called into our head teacher’s office–a wonderful mother-bear of a woman who loved us like her own children, but was as vicious and demanding as a drill sergeant.  She was crying.  ”Yacoub,” she choked, using my Arabic name.  ”What’s this?”  Then she held up a copy of my paper.  ”I thought you liked us, Yacoub.”

Oops.

We suffered through a horrible day, as each of our hurt, confused teachers interrogated us about our “complaint.”  Later that afternoon, the administrator who supervised our teachers paid his first-ever visit to our class… to berate us for violating our chain of command, and complaining to the higher administration without coming to him first.

Here’s what had happened: the NCO had taken our feedback directly to the Dean, the head of the entire Arabic school.  The Dean had then called up his subordinate administrators, wanting to know what this was all about, and they were completely blindsided.  The NCO had also left a copy somewhere on the shared drive where, by complete coincidence, my teachers had stumbled across it. Even as the administration was exploding, the teachers were passing around copies of our “secret” complaint.  Everybody felt betrayed.  Even though our critique was focused on the curriculum, our teachers felt that we were complaining about them.  Both they and the junior administrators were humiliated in front of their bosses.  Even though we had intended our feedback as an impersonal means of organizational improvement, few of the civilians understood that.  This was also my first exposure to how complicated cross-cultural relationships can be.  These were teachers from cultural backgrounds in which personal honor was everything, and shame was an unbearable fate.

Damage control took weeks, and some relationships never recovered.  None of our recommendations were put into effect, although to her credit, our lead teacher tossed out the curriculum and began working late every night to create her own.

Epic, disruptive failure.

This was one of the most illuminating experiences of my life.  The INTJ profile says that we “do not readily grasp… social rituals”, which is extremely harsh but also–just maybe–a little bit true.  At the time I dwelled in a world of ideas, and naively thought that good ideas would stand on their own merit.  The inevitable response to our constructive critique, I thought, would be gratitude and implementation of our ideas.  Not so much.  We weren’t dealing with neutral ideas, I realized; we were dealing with people and feelings and careers and pride and shame.

In my SWJ article, the #1 principle for disruptive thinkers is this: “The goal is persuasion.”  That flows directly from this experience.  My classmates and I were in no position to implement our own recommendations.  We needed buy-in from teachers and administrators, so our goal should have been to persuade them.  That meant presenting them with good ideas, but it also meant constructing positive, trusting relationships in which we could sell our ideas as win-win opportunities.  Our failure to do that (which was largely my failure) led to one of the most awkward situations in my career.

I wish I could tell you I changed forever after that, but I’m not always the fastest learner.  In my next post in this series, I’ll share one more story.  Then, right around the time I’ve convinced you that I’m a hopeless idiot, I’ll share some of my positive experiences with creating change.

To complement my article Finding Common Ground: Harnessing Disruption for the Good of the Service, I will be writing a series of posts about my own personal efforts at “disruptive thinking” within the military.

I wish I could tell you that all my advice for disruptive junior officers is born of my own innate wisdom.  Alas, that’s not the case.  I learned most of these lessons the hard way.  In the coming posts, I’ll tell it all.

Only a few minutes after I commented sympathetically on Last Wishes of a Dying General, I read Crispin Burke’s devastating takedown.  The subsequent online discussion about both these pieces has given me a lot to think about.  Although Carr’s essay was received quite well among his readers and colleagues, Crispin’s critique resonated with many other officers, who see Carr’s piece as an arrogant, angry rant.

Because I know Carr and what he stands for, I didn’t read his piece that way.  I think a lot of his frustrations are legitimate, and believe he speaks for a lot of Air Force officers.

But as the discussion has continued, and I’ve had more time to reflect on it, it looks to me like Carr’s piece–and the reaction to it–exactly fits the unproductive cycle that I described in Finding Common Ground.

The essay violates several of the principles I suggest for disruptive officers who want to make a difference.  Its biggest fault is that it’s too personal, severely undermining its legitimate points.  It focuses on problems without proposing specific, actionable solutions.  Finally, it is written in a tone and manner that is not likely to persuade senior leaders.

On the other hand, I haven’t been impressed by some of the reactions from older, more senior officers.  I have seen little engagement with Carr’s concerns, or acknowledgement that these concerns are widespread in the Air Force.  Instead, I’ve seen assaults on Carr’s character, statements of good riddance, and dismissals of his critique on the basis that the private sector is worse.

All of this is quite disappointing, so once again, I point to the suggestions for both junior and senior officers in my essay.  These debates need to move forward in positive, constructive ways and I see responsibilities on both sides.

My friend and former Air Force colleague Tony Carr has written a thought-provoking new piece about dysfunctional Air Force culture, titled Last Wishes of a Dying General.  Tony was a Major when I was a young captain and one of the fastest burners I’ve ever seen in the Air Force.  Air Force Intern program, weapons school, SAASS, you name it… he’d done it all, and anyone who knew him would tell you that he was going to be a general, probably with more than one star.  Then, after completing his squadron command, this would-be general stunned everybody who knew him by separating.  This article explains why, and it has everything to do with the ongoing “disruptive thinking” and “bleeding talent” discussion.

In my recent essay Finding Common Ground, I wrote that it’s not especially helpful to talk about the “best and the brightest” leaving in frustration.  However, this really is an example of the best and brightest leaving in frustration.

I won’t repeat Tony’s points here–you should read his essay for yourself–but I want to hit on a couple tangential issues.

First: most of these frustration/disillusionment discussions have focused on the U.S. Army.  I thought it was obvious that these issues are common to the services, so I was shocked to hear a recently retired Air Force general tell me that this was an Army-only issue.  When I pressed him and offered up numerous stories from my own experience, he told me that I was guilty of projecting my own narrow perspective, then finally suggested that perhaps Air Mobility Command was this way, but we’re oddballs because we have such good career prospects on the outside with the airlines.  I couldn’t believe he actually thought that.  The Air Force is boiling with frustration, and Tony’s essay–and the extensive commentary on it–gives us a glimpse of what personnel are talking about across the Air Force on their lunch breaks or at Flight Level 350.

Second, senior leader response.  Shortly after its publication, this article appeared on an e-mail discussion list that I participate in, one which has many senior military leaders.  Only one senior leader (retired) responded, with a disparaging comment about how if Tony really cared about the Air Force, he would have stayed in to make a difference.  On the one hand, I was once again dismayed by how many senior leaders are content to blow off the exodus of talent–one of the primary reasons I wrote my essay.  On the other hand, I recognize the importance of this point.

Somebody raised this same point in the comments section of Tony’s blog: why don’t you stay in so you can be part of the solution?  Tony’s response is one of the best I’ve seen.  I’ll post it in its entirety:

The reason I ran a 9-yard route is pretty simple. I took a look at what my boss was doing and realized I had zero desire to do it. Then I looked at what his boss was doing and realized I had even less than zero. The problems outlined in this post (and many more not in this post) were so intractable, and the authority to address them at my level and 1-2 echelons above so limited, that I could see very little prospect for “difference making” in the next 5-10 years. My career was always driven by making a difference, which most successful careers are. Thus, it was simple to me … if I can’t make a difference for the next decade in this system, it’s too broken to ask my family to endure what that decade would mean. Most people willing to stay under such conditions are the type who don’t think they can do anything else with their lives … hence the dynamic you describe.

The notion of unfinished business will always haunt me. But I concluded I could probably make a bigger difference from the outside than from within. Many others have felt the same and acted accordingly. I’ll tell you what might make me different … had I been free to write an article this vocal (or speak these words in a boardroom this clearly) without being either professionally ostracized or cast aside as a malcontent … I would have been much more likely to stay. Behind all of this dysfunction is a drive for mental conformity that prevents us from talking openly about, let alone solving, our problems.

At the risk of being labeled a malcontent myself, these paragraphs literally make me ache because they ring so true.  I am driven by that same impulse to make a positive impact on the world, but when I look ahead, I feel despair at the prospects of making a difference within the existing system.  Tony is exactly right: the argument that “you should stay in to make a difference” breaks down, if the system is so rigid that it can’t be changed except from the very top.

As for me, I’m still young and plan to stay in for a while.  I owe the Air Force a lot, especially because it’s entrusted me with a spectacular education.  But the Air Force isn’t making it easy for me, and I earnestly hope that senior leaders somewhere are reading essays like Tony’s and paying attention.

My new article is now available on Small Wars Journal, Finding Common Ground: Harnessing Disruption for the Good of the Service.  It is about how disruptive junior officers and their senior leaders can work together for the continual improvement of their organizations.

If you are visiting Building Peace for the first time from SWJ, welcome!  I began this website to chronicle my time as an Olmsted scholar, and multiply the impact of my education.  Although Olmsted is now behind me, this site continues to follow my ongoing education as a student of war and peace… and whatever else catches my interest.

For most of us, life is a constant work in progress.  As I wrote in my post about New Year’s resolutions, we typically see a gap between who we are and who we want to be.  For many of us, that includes not just ourselves but our life situation.  We are constantly looking for ways to make our careers more fulfilling, to pursue our passions, to give more time to our families and friends.  As we get older, that can be increasingly challenging.  We get busier in our careers and our time dries up.  As our families grow and our expenses rises, we become more dependent on our jobs and less willing to make disruptive changes.  Life takes on an inertia of its own.

I am wrestling with that right now.  I love serving in the Air Force and am committed to my military career, but I have wide-ranging interests and passions that extend beyond my day job.  The irony is that many of these passions, like foreign languages and regional studies, are intimately linked to my vision of officership and service to the country–but have virtually nothing to do with my day job.  Even reading and writing novels, which on the surface might seem disconnected from military service, is essential; it is through fiction that much of my deepest thinking and personal engagement with world affairs has developed.  But because these things are all outside my daily job, the only time I can allocate to them is what I can scrape together outside of work, and those few hours largely belong to my family.

I have bookcases all over my house, but the one immediately beside my desk is given to current projects–the ones I’m most passionate about.  Here is an impromptu picture taken this morning:

The bookcase of unfulfilled ambitions.

The bookcase of unfulfilled ambitions.

On the top shelf are the religious and political classics I return to time and again–some of which I’ve read cover-to-cover, and some of which I need to spend more time with.  Beside them are several DVD series that I want to watch, to expand my knowledge of history.  The second shelf is devoted to Arabic and Turkish.  I spent much of the last year learning Turkish, but after a planned trip to Turkey was canceled because of work requirements, I was pretty crushed and stopped studying; I also felt like I was losing my Arabic, because I didn’t have sufficient time to do both.  Even now that I’m focusing on Arabic again, I’m struggling to find time to work through any of these resources.  The third shelf consists of books I want to read or am currently reading; I am halfway through many of them, but set them down when I got busy.  On the right are books about the Mongols and ancient Persian empires, which are research for my next novel.  Stacked in front of them are reference books for a nonfiction book I am trying to write about Islam.  The stacked DVDs are a Turkish TV series dubbed in Syrian Arabic, for language practice.  Finally, the fourth shelf is my writing library.  The two books that are pulled and turned sideways are about nonfiction writing and book proposal writing, also for my planned Islam book.

This all might look audacious to someone who thinks I should simply focus on my job.  But for someone who is dual-hatted as a Middle East Regional Affairs Specialist and seeks higher-level government service in the future, the bookshelf does make a kind of sense: slow, steady growth in relevant languages, the study of politics and culture and military science, and the ability to translate my knowledge into writing for the benefit of others.  Unfortunately, achieving any of this is maddeningly difficult.

I’m not sure why I’m sharing this.  Maybe nobody cares, but then again, maybe everybody else can relate and we can at least bond over the cruelty of time.

On the other hand, I have a lot to be thankful for.  I’m so grateful I was chosen for the Olmsted scholar program, when I did have abundant time to pursue these passions.  As we enter an age of budget cuts and downsizing, I hope the DOD realizes how important these programs are–and what a tremendous education investment is.  And as much as I love my current C-17 squadron, I’m looking forward to attending SAASS this summer.  I can’t believe they’re going to pay me to read books for a year.