Discover more from Get Real, Man
The Boyd Triangle
Plus: The Inner Ring, Winning the battle but losing the war
I hope you had a happy Thanksgiving if you celebrate this American holiday. At our home, we spared the turkey in favor of lentil stew and a holiday family 5k. This drawing was my homage to the wild turkeys that live outside my house and didn’t adorn our plate this year.
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I have a few updates this week.
I got to talk to Eliza B. on the Understanding Us podcast. It was a great conversation about work and life. If you want to learn more about Uniquely or my work, I hope you’ll listen and support Eliza.
I completed my latest essay, The Boyd Triangle, about the challenges of being something, doing something, and chasing scale. I’ve shared it below.
A few of you commented on my artisanal education ideas and my son and I reading What If? We did the first question this week, discussing what would happen if the earth stopped spinning but the atmosphere didn’t. We averaged one to two pages a day, getting distracted by rabbit holes about the equator, bunkers, wind, and the moon. Our learnings included walks, a home globe, lessons on how to search for definitions on the internet, and him writing an essay about the question. I loved reading this way, as it reminded me of Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
What I’m thinking about
Is climate tech winning the battle while we all lose the war?
I’ve seen a few opinion pieces discussing a future with unlimited clean energy production through nuclear energy and unlimited water through desalination (with that unlimited energy). The climate crisis felt like an opportunity to reevaluate society’s relationship with our planet. Instead, I worry that we’ll skip the real work and go on to the next fight.
I’m more and more convinced that science or logic isn’t going to help us create that new relationship, but only stories will. I want to find a way to elevate other who are telling those stories while I cultivate my own voice in that same work.
How do you escape being an inner ring person?
- introduced me to C.S. Lewis' inner ring. It has me thinking a lot about how to cultivate my own independence from the inner rings of society. I’m trying to focus more on doing work that brings me joy with people I enjoy. But I know these states are never static for me. What has worked for you?
On a related note, I wonder if we could harness the idea of an inner ring for good. Maybe this is social engineering, but could we cultivate exclusive inner rings based on the ideals of service and society rather than money or intelligence? What would that world look like when people enter the inner rings by working on social problems and supporting their fellow humans? Would we get more equality, or would we simply distort societal work into the same hunger games that tech has been for the last decade?
The Boyd Triangle
To be or to do? Which way will you go?
“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments. Or you can go that way and you can do something- something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?
– John Boyd
I used to think I knew my answer.
Boyd was wrong. There is a third path from that fork, if you’re willing to think small. In your life, you can be something, do something, or have scale. You get to choose which two you want. You can’t have all three.
Be something at scale
The archetype of being something at scale is the CEO or the movement leader. Being in charge, with a large staff and a large budget, stokes the ego.
When you’re someone working on scale problems, the thrill of power pulses through your veins. The anticipation of building great companies or changing systems drives you for more. These are the hustlers, dreamers, or achievers that our society loves to hate. But what do you care when you’re too busy being great?
Being something at scale is a prison of your own making. There’s always someone in an even more select group. The envy has no end. And yet, even if you are at the pinnacle, freedom still escapes you. You’re silenced for the greater good, for fear that your opinions or statement will harm your company or your movement. So you share timid statements, if you say anything at all. Maybe you’re not really sure what to think. After years of chasing being someone, your thoughts are really everyone else’s thoughts. Success is lonely.
Even the rare someone who resists the shackles of being something ends up compromising themselves. At a certain scale, compromises and self-protection are impossible to avoid. When you have hundreds of employees or thousands of customers or followers, you can’t possibly satisfy them or yourself. There’s too much variation. Maybe it’s what groups get your attention, or who you satisfy between your shareholders, customers, and employees.
Even at the extremes of that answer, you’ve lost your idealism for the greater good of your cause.
For years, the siren’s call of being someone filled my sails. I was sure that success was just one promotion away. I refused the wax in my ears, instead convinced I was smart enough to be someone and do something. My ego convinced me that being someone meant that I could do more important work. Yet when I look back, once past the rocks of Scylla, I can only wonder what I was thinking.
The empty cavern in my chest begged to be filled, while I was convinced the next promotion would make it overflow with the warm glow of success. I wasn’t alone, I was just better at hiding it.
Do Something at scale
The archetype of doing something at scale is the hacker. The pride of slaying the most vexing problems satisfies the intellect.
When you’re doing something at scale, the frenetic energy of creation dulls all other senses but your mind. Today’s workers have access to resources the greatest minds of our parent's generation could only dream of. They have opportunities to work on products that impact billions of lives or explore the deepest secrets of the universe. These experts have built careers by following the divining rod of their interests while fighting for quality above compromise.
Doing something at scale feels like a rebellion in today’s attention economy. When you choose to do something, you don’t care what the board of directors thinks about how you dress or what you say. Other doers recognize quality, and that’s your inner ring.
There’s freedom and pride in getting to focus on your chosen skill, with a portfolio of work that speaks for itself.
In their act of rebellion, the modern doer exposes themselves to the fragility of modern life. They are always one management decision, one activist investor, and one economic downturn away from being replaced. It’s never the public persona that gets laid off in an economic downturn, it’s the unrecognized artisans.
It’s only a matter of time until your skill or your work is no longer the highest priority, and suddenly you’re left wondering what they were thinking.
Choosing to do something at scale means accepting that you won’t be the lead of a movement. Someone else will always be there to take credit for what you’ve done. There will always be a need for a CEO or public leader, if only because that’s what society demands. And if you do accept that role, it’s impossible to turn back. Fame and fortune are the bank robbers of quality work, and there’s no escaping that when you choose to do something at scale.
Doing something at scale can be wonderful. Yet most people do something at scale not as a choice, but in the hopes that it will give them a path to being someone at scale. If they really wanted to do great work, scale is an illusion which distracts them from their own power.
Be something and do something
For years, I searched for the golden ticket that would allow me to be something and do something. I bristled against the seemingly immutable law of society that wouldn’t let me be someone and do something. When I stepped out to prove it was possible, I was forced to self-reflect on what I’d done. I realized the strength of the siren’s call to be someone had driven me more than great work ever had. I sat in the dark shame of that realization, refusing to emerge from my shadows to the outside world. At the depths of darkness, a third path was illuminated.
I could have my cake and eat it too, if I abandoned the need to work at scale.
Being and doing can take on many forms. It can be the coach, freelancer, or independent consultant working one on one with clients. It could also be the local entrepreneur working with a select roster of customers. People who choose this path are happy working with smaller groups and likely never expand those groups beyond Dunbar’s number. They are niche famous.
By choosing to avoid scale, I can switch between being the public face of my work and doing work that I’m proud of. I can take the time to show my pride in my work, knowing that my 1,000 true fans will appreciate the unseen quality.
I know that I won’t ring the ball on the NYSE. My name won’t be written in history books, nor will it be recognized by people outside of my true fans. That recognition will grow linearly rather than exponentially.
Staying on this path requires more dedication than I expected. My ego constantly asks to be let go, to seek power and fame. The lure of money, easy success, and exponential impact still tempt me regularly. I’ve had to build reminders to myself of the joy of intentionality and the emptiness of past mistakes. These little quotes, conversations, and memorabilia are all that stand between me and a return to the sirens.
Finding the third path in Boyd’s Triangle takes a lot of work. The path is overgrown from inattention. But for the right seeker, that path can lead to happiness, fulfillment, and the pride of great work. So I ask you, which path will you choose? I think I’ve found my answer.
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What do you think? What resonated in this week’s edition? I’d love to hear from you.
Until next week, have an intentionally wonderful week.