Intellectual Curiosity and the Military Officer

“To this day I still have the instinct that the treasure, what one needs to know for a profession, is necessarily what lies outside the corpus, as far away from the center as possible.  But there is something central in following one’s own direction in the selection of readings: what I was given to study in school I have forgotten; what I decided to read on my own, I still remember.”
-Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A degree doesn’t make you smart.  A formal education doesn’t make you wise.  But without that piece of paper from somewhere, you won’t get promoted.  Just turn that box green, and to the promotion board, your intellectual merit is validated.

But should it?  Recently, the age old military debate of whether a technical or humanities degree makes a better warfighter has again reared its head.  Both sides are right – and wrong.  They each also miss the point about what continuing education in a strategic framework really means.

Anecdotal examples from some historic and present warfighters give a confusing picture when trying to validate either position.

John Boyd got a degree in industrial engineering, with a detour into thermodynamic physics along the way, and revolutionized military strategic thought.  VADM James Stockdale went to Stanford and took a Masters in International Relations, but spent most of his time absorbing Stoic philosophy, laying the groundwork for his remarkable leadership in the hell of the Hanoi Hilton.  ADM James Stavridis earned a PhD in International Relations from Tufts, and is one of the most innovative flags to ever have served.  General James Mattis attended the National War College, and will forever be recognized as both a remarkable warrior and cunning diplomat.

Aside from the first name James, what set these remarkable military leaders and intellects apart?  What about their respective educations assisted their rise?  Was it the degree they took or something more?

To be sure, a degree is a signaling device of higher intellectual abilities.  Only 8 percent of the American population holds a Master’s Degree or higher.   Furthermore, the military at large is better educated than the general population, as Tim Kane, most recently of Bleeding Talent fame, pointed out in 2005. Yet, these general trends hardly matter when it comes to strategic brilliance.

The very term “brilliance” implies an outlier; someone well removed from the intellectual norm of society. It is in this rarified region that our best battlefield commanders and strategic minds reside.  It is also the place where the degrees they have are secondary to the minds that earned them.

And this is where we find the defining characteristic of the strategic thought leaders throughout the ages.  It is an intellectual curiosity punctuated by a desire to learn as much as possible from as many people as possible in as many areas as possible as often as possible. 

You have to want to learn to learn.  If you are intellectually curious, you will go in search of answers – often finding them where you least expect them, growing wiser along the way.  Your curiosity will lead you to discover the world is more than either Mechanical Engineering or International Relations.  It is the complex interaction of both, and more. 

The formal degree, if any, is just a basic foundation.  Real learning occurs over years of voracious reading and concerted, sometimes heated, interaction with other minds.  Show me an inspiring leader, and I will show you a continuous learner who experiments with the ideas they have absorbed. 

General Mattis, the Warrior Monk, is famous for this.  At one point, he had a collection of over 7,000 volumes in his personal library.  Vice Admiral Stockdale’s intellectual foundation, which allowed him to survive Vietnam, was rooted in extensive studies, and debates, over the Greek and Roman classics.  John Boyd read everything under the sun, combining philosophy, physics, economics and sociology, among others, to create his defining works.  Admiral Stavridis is a self-professed “big reader of fiction” in addition to his daily, extensive intellectual diet.

Reading, however, is just the beginning.  It, to paraphrase Peggy Noonan of Reagan speechwriting fame, is the sowing of intellectual capital.  It is the synthesis of all these ideas, and the vigorous interaction with others about these ideas, that create a mind able to tackle the biggest problems. 

Far too often military people live in their own bubble, seeing little need to interact with the civilian society they protect.  Much of this has to do with too many of our duty stations being located far from intellectually vibrant and innovative metropolises.  Even if we wanted to be engaged in local non-military friendships, it’s difficult to do so in places like Twenty Nine Palms.

Although anecdotal, one of the most intellectually liberating experiences of my life was PCSing from sleepy and rural Lemoore, California to San Diego – a hub of biotech and entrepreneurial culture.  I knew nothing of either industry, but merely having the opportunity to interact with those different than me sparked numerous unanticipated collaborations, and a greater understanding of the world at large. 

Being exposed to more people and more ideas inherently increases serendipity.  Serendipity, in turn, creates exponential opportunity directly proportional to the amount of intellectual preparation already undertaken.  That opportunity leads to action, and sometimes, revolutionary change.

The most potent collaborations match people of different temperaments and talents together, leveraging the best of each for a sum far greater than their constituent parts.  Strategists, by their very nature, are experts at connecting disparate dots into a cohesive whole, necessarily linking people together to accomplish this.  Again, the foundation for all of this is rigorous, diverse and continuous intellectual curiosity.

So, what’s the prescription for educating a future strategist?  Degrees are fine, but insufficient and end at some point.  Therefore, learn everything you can, formal or otherwise, and maximize serendipitous relationships.  Meet with people you wouldn’t normally interact with.  Start understanding the people outside the military silo – because in 21st century warfare, the greatest adversaries will likely not be professional warriors. 

Read, but fail fast – namely, if something bores you, move on to something that doesn’t.  Learn things as they become relevant to the problems or interests in your given stage of life.  Read on a variety of topics, to include non-military fiction.   The human condition is better revealed in Hugo’s Les Miserables and Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo than nearly all psychology textbooks combined. 

Engage in frequent discussions with those you disagree with.  Create twitter friendships and debate the merits of military ethics.  Push the envelope, and be willing to take heat for crazy ideas like melding MBA programs with the Naval War College.  You might be wrong – but your ideas will evolve, adapt, and become better in proportion to the frequency of their exposure to reality. 

The tricky part for bureaucracies evaluating talent is that this is not easily quantifiable.  There is no metric the board recorder can point to in the Tank when your name pops on the screen to say, “he gets it.”  You won’t get your “intellectual curiosity qualification” alongside your JPME II because it is an ever evolving, ongoing process. 

Rather, it will, and does permeate itself in more subtle ways.

The intellectually curious officer will find innovative ways to solve problems.   He will have built relationships beyond his service and community to create collaborations and get things done more effectively.  He will be better able to empathize with their people better.  He will be more attuned to the military and non-military goals of his subordinates.  Most importantly, when an adversary arrives in a form that was unanticipated, he will be able to draw upon years of education tested not in the classroom, but in the real world.

In short, a given degree is of minor consequence.  Strive for life-long learning, be curious, and turn off the damn TV so you can do something productive.  General Mattis, by the way, has never owned one either. 

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Advanced formal educational is needed in all forms of activity in post-modern, technical-technological societies.
This doesn’t exclude “experience”, “praxis”, “dirty hands”, “sacrifice” and so on. The field of honor is a burial ground of unknown humble soldiers, priests, scientists, managers, students, kids.
In fact, the profession of arms – as taught by the Classics and confirmed by practice – is probably the only one that requires both science and the possibility of death in the same job description. Thus the meaning of the expression “obedience perinde ac cadaver”.
But from another angle “experience”, “practice” and so on are part of the cognitive process of conflicts: don’t we have “lessons learned” as relative new matters in the defense syllabus, as that Archimedean point where theory meets practice, is confronted with practice and can be reviewed through practice?
At any rate, as we learned from “small wars” (like our protracted campaigns in now CPLP Africa, until 1974) and peace support operations (from BiH to East Timor, from Iraq to Afghanistan), it is always better to have a General-Philosopher in command than a Know Nothing (or Know Everything) Field Marshall.

N. Rogeiro
Lisbon, Portugal

While I agree with the author's premise that lifelong learning and intellectual curiosity are important for strategic thinkers, this article is full of logic flaws.

1. The author unnecessarily diminishes the value of formal education because he divorces the 'degree' from the process of obtaining a degree. Many of the things that the author places value on, such as building relationships outside the military, engaging in discussion, vigorous interaction with others, etc. can take place while obtaining an advanced degree.

2. The author states that the ideal thinker 'has to want to learn'. Wouldn't someone who takes the time to obtain a degree fit that category.

3. The author points out that only 8% of the country has obtained a Masters degree but then states that brilliance is a term that describes those 'well removed from the intellectual norm of our society'. Would that description not fit the 8% of the population who have achieved a Masters or higher?

4. The statement about the 'general trends hardly matter when it comes to strategic brilliance' is not backed up by facts or even anecdotal evidence.

5. The logic chain in the paragraph on serendipity is not clear. I can understand how being exposed to ideas and other people, increases one's experiences but that does not necessarily imply that it will lead a person to action if they are not inclined to act upon opportunities.

This article is the equivalent of saying that a medal received for finishing a marathon doesn't mean that you can run very far. This is true, but all of the training that led up to the marathon, and the fact that the person actually ran the race certainly means something. The degree is merely the tangible symbol of the intellectual process and learning that took place to obtain the degree.

I think this article is a near-hit on the point, but misses the point nevertheless, by framing the question in terms of the value or lack of value of a degree. The article identifies significant reading within an intellectual community as part of what characterizes brilliance in an officer. Well, degrees from good schools that require significant reading and provide that intellectual community are then inherently valuable -- that's what schools do. So does a degree matter? Always, yes. So as a general rule, educate your officers as much as you can and as well as you can and as broadly as you can. There are really two questions here that are left:

1. Does the degree matter for the genius; i.e., does the genius need to go to school? But this question is a waste of time. The overwhelming majority of the population aren't at the genius level, and if you identify a genius, then you put him or her to work in the area(s) of their genius. In this situation, sometimes genius is only revealed by context, and sometimes it is serendipitous: there may be no question that this person's reading contributed to their ability to perform highly in a difficult environment, but suppose their reading had been different? Even by just one book? Maybe different ideas would have occurred them and they would have behaved differently, perhaps not as well?

2. Does the degree matter if someone has done the reading anyhow? This question is more to the point, I think -- it's the question between formal education and self-education. Speaking as someone who significantly educated himself before starting a B.A. and then went on to earn a humanities-area Ph.D., I would say that yes, formal education is to be preferred to self-education. The difference is the organization of knowledge, the relationship of knowledge in one field to knowledge in another, the availability of peers to discuss the material, the availability of feedback on one's work -- the evaluation of our thinking and writing, and the ability to more readily respect and recognize the intellectual achievement of others. The self-educated tend to be more readily dismissive of the opinions and education of others.

there may be no question that this person's reading contributed to their ability to perform highly in a difficult environment, but suppose their reading had been different? Even by just one book? Maybe different ideas would have occurred them and they would have behaved differently, perhaps not as well?

Here is one example of an alternate path fortunately not taken. My daughter loves to sing and act in plays. She did both in high school and college, yet also was a high school Valedictorian excelling in math and chemistry. In college, she wrestled between majoring in music or biochemistry. One she loved, the other was practical and offered job opportunities. Luckily, she chose biochemistry, was magna cum laude, and now is finishing med school with far greater job and income prospects.

Considering that many military officers now may be forced to enter the civilian work force, or may choose to or end active duty...doesn't a degree with greater marketable skills make sense? On "This Week" on ABC, an Arizona Senator spoke of Intel requiring numerous electrical engineers that they cannot find. They can get prospects when they sponsor foreign nationals who gain those degrees in our universities. Do we want to be a nation whose long-time residents lack the skills to major in such degrees, thus leaving us ill-prepared to compete in STEM subjects worldwide?

Another consideration is the increasingly higher cost of even undergraduate education, let alone that of getting a Masters or PhD. My daughter will end her formal studies with $160,000+ in student debt but the obvious ability to repay those loans. What of other students who choose non-STEM degrees and then must find jobs and job security to repay those loans while also starting a family and buying homes?

the availability of peers to discuss the material, the availability of feedback on one's work -- the evaluation of our thinking and writing, and the ability to more readily respect and recognize the intellectual achievement of others. The self-educated tend to be more readily dismissive of the opinions and education of others.

Yes, but what occurs when groups of peers in the humanities speak their own exclusive language, and experience a group-think view of the world. In the intellectual world of college PhDs where humanities and non-STEM degrees have the greatest job security/money opportunity, the liberal bias is unmistakable. When these PhDs end up in the State Department or administrations of Presidents and as staffers/advisors for liberal representatives/Senators, it can irreparably alter/damage our foreign policy. This often leaves the military in the unenviable position of attempting to be effective within constraints forced on them by those not actually taking fire.

It is common for we who are largely self-educated to readily dismiss State Department and liberal views that we can democratize the world and force-feed Western policies on other nation's citizens/governments. The examples of our two most recent wars are ready examples. The view that the Arab Spring would help concerned Islamic people is another example, whereas reality has shown reduced secularism and economic/tourist opportunity; and an expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood, radical guerillas, sharia law, and al Qaeda to other areas.

Hope has never been a plan and the hope of those espousing philosophical, humanities-based, historical, diplomatic, and aid-based solutions to keeping the world safe have failed to date and don't look promising for this year and beyond. On the other hand, technological solutions to destroying radicals and the advanced weapons and WMD of rogue states that could kill us have proven fairly effective. Perhaps we need a little more of the latter and a bit less of the former.

Listening to Fareed Zakaria this morning, I learned much calling into question the lack of value of TV. He spoke of al Qaeda groups in Algeria not having world-wide terror aspirations. Yet then another google news search on the "worthless" internet reveals headlines of Libyan kidnappings being threatened to gain ransom from Brits/Germans...while simultaneously disrupting local oil industries. Mr. Zakaria noted the same kidnapping trend in Algeria yet was unable to grasp how it could effect the oil industries there (other than claiming pipelines would not be attacked), or how even isolated radicals could kill thousands in the US and Europe through terror attacks even if most in Algeria's al Qaeda had other goals.

Zakaria closed with a segment about how Greeks are foregoing more costly heating oil in favor of burning lots of wood and trash to create less costly heat. The result has been far more smog...such as that we see in places like India and China. Again, why couldn't Mr Zakaria see the connection between cheaper natural gas exports from the US and elsewhere and its potential to reduce soot/smog and thus global warming? Environmental scientists don't grasp that if the U.S. is responsible for 15% of carbon emissions and the rest of the world bears 85% of that responsibility that we aren't the problem. Trillions extra the U.S. might spend fruitlessly trying to stop global warming through costly carbon taxes and foregoing homegrown energy solutions won't solve global warming and simply would make us less competitve with foreign economies that continue to pollute.

LT Kohlman

I wanted to add my praises to those already posted. I have spent more than four decades training and educating military leaders and your comments resonate deeply with me. I like your idea of "failing early" but would warn that sometimes you need to push through a bit of boredom to get to the fascinating part. Otherwise, I agree completely.

As a retired Canadian armour officer, I have always pushed my subordinates to study philosophy; certainly in our branch (as in yours) technical training is highly prized, but we must constantly remind ourselves that war is ever a human endeavour and so we must keep ourselves open to learning about human strengths and failings in order to best serve those who look to us for leadership.


Lieutenant Kohlman,

I salute your renaissance view of strategy, innovation and curiosity; you remind me of Fr Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit polymath. For a young officer, your growing wisdom is apparent in advising readers to fail fast (and, by my inference, often and with an open mind). As a card-carrying curmudgeon (i.e., a cranky civilian not a part of your culture), I would like to point out that education and degrees do count for something.

To attain degrees, one needs to cultivate perseverance, to develop a thick skin to defend theses or points of view and to refine reasoning skills. From my various studies, I rarely return to book content, yet I apply the discipline acquired to innate curiosity. Curiosity may kill this cat (i.e., me) but that is why I have nine lives, isn't it?

Recently, I came across an interesting article which puts an old idea in new packaging ( It discusses the importance of networks in innovation and one's place inside these networks. You lay out intelligently how this abstract thinking manifests in the here-and-now. Finally, I am not surprised to read that officers are better educated than the average bear; I have found that foot-soldiers in the field are also more high-minded than average.

Thank you again for a masterful essay. Very truly yours, Ned McDonnell (Peace Corps-México).

"The most potent collaborations match people of different temperaments and talents together, leveraging the best of each for a sum far greater than their constituent parts. Strategists, by their very nature, are experts at connecting disparate dots into a cohesive whole, necessarily linking people together to accomplish this. Again, the foundation for all of this is rigorous, diverse and continuous intellectual curiosity."

This is wishful thinking, perhaps. I agree that synergy (putting the car parts together equals a diving vehicle that does something MORE than the pile of parts and fluids) is critical for holistic appreciation of complex ecologies...but this often runs contrary to the preferred decision-making structure of the military hierarchy; the centralized institution. Instead of synergizing, we are prone to stove-pipe, prevent discourse due to position/experience/status; we like "A and B type conversations...and this is a B conversation so you need to go execute." We say things like "Eagle beats Oak Leaf.” We promote based on accomplishments, but rarely do peer evaluations gain acceptance (take the 360 model, or any other that follows a social construction model where decentralized processes indeed solve complex issues in a very different fashion Although decentralized as a term is often mistaken with swarm theory by our military.

Why do we fear any deviation from the rigid, centralized decision process?
I find that although we OUGHT to collaborate teams of widely different perspectives, paradigms, skills, temperaments, etc.- we never do. At least, not in the military I have been in. Instead, we keep the wagons circled, we find lots of YES men, and we say things like “when my boss finds something interesting, I find it fascinating as f&*k.” –had a 2 star tell a room full of Colonels that in their initial counseling session. That translates to “don’t think outside my worldview- don’t get off track with where I want to go, do not buck the system. Do not think outside the box- don’t even look at the corner of the box where the edges open up.” We fill planning teams on a Joint Staff with the same collection of obligatory planning members- all military, composed of the same services in that joint organization; with a mini-hierarchy where the team lead trumps the others; and then we use clearances and OPSEC to prevent any State, NGO, or outside civilian or academic input…thus we never go to a multi-paradigm or meta-cognitive position to recognize and appreciate complexity.
Some strategists might do what you say, but I do not think it is by their nature. This implies that strategists (big picture or holistic thinkers) are naturally different than say, a tactical expert. The tactical expert is not more precise than the strategist, and from my perspective, it does not matter if you are working at what we call ‘strategic, operational, or tactical’ levels because if you are a holistic thinker- a meta-cognitive thinker, you can do it from any position. Further, these levels of war are artificial- they are conceptual boundaries that Clausewitzian logic emplaced and the western military eagerly accepted. These levels of war only exist because we insist that they do. I think that they cause more problems than solve in these uncertain times.

But I might just be huffing glue too much today.

Hubba Bubba

Buddy of mine told me that not too long ago a CG told a group of junior officers that if they f**k up he will crush them- then repeated that for 30 minutes in different forms. To me that is highly indicative of what you talk about here- the general didn't learn anything from that experience and the junior officers concluded that the unit is risk-averse. Not looking at the edge of the box is the least of our problems- we aren't even allowed to admit there is a box!!!

On your question about fearing deviation from the rigid, centralized decision process- I read recently that a logical positivist philosophy is inherently conservative- it protects the status quo. I've also read recently in Ian Morris' Why the West Rules-- For Now that humans are naturally lazy, greedy, and risk-averse and thus their institutions naturally become less effective (but good at hiding that- or at least not admitting it), focused on sustaining the life and growth of the institution as opposed to its mission, and increasingly intolerant of anything that will upset the apple cart. So, to me, we don't necessarily fear deviation from the rigid centralization as much as that has emerged within our institution as a natural evolution of any bureaucracy (assuming Morris and the logic behind positivism being attractive to the powers that be are right).

I think I'm going to have to think about the implications of that reality- and how to mitigate it at the individual/small unit level instead of calling for large-scale change because- if it is an emergent phenomenon, it is extra-resilient to change...