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“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.