From the Battlefield to Everyday Life
I remember it was a cold evening just before the Christmas break and one month after Trump had won the election. Students were still locked in their rooms over the trauma it had caused them.
I was invited to give this lecture due to the attention and success of my then upstart business ‘Trois Frères Biltong’. I have since handed over my half of the business to my former founding partner. However, the business served as a great learning experience for me in many ways, and though life pulled me in other directions, I am happy to have had the experience I did.
Looking back on this lecture now, it amazes me the insight I had into my own self, and smile at how, behind the scenes, I am still using what I was once teaching.
The Original Lecture
When we were asked to give this lecture, the first thing I did was laugh at the idea. Who am I to come here and give advice on starting up a business?
Having said that, we have made a lot of mistakes. And so yeah, we may actually know quite a bit.
For most of this talk though, I will be speaking from my perspective. So to rephrase my former statement, ‘I’ve made a lot of mistakes.’ And all these mistakes are just as predictable in regularity as they are unpredictable when they arrive.
Business involves dealing with people. For some of you that may be easy, for some not so fun. Either way, you will learn that trust is one thing to bear in mind when doing business. I have been let down by people and organizations on this path we’ve taken. I put faith in them due to what I think I know about their past and not what is true about their present. This sort of misplaced trust can really hurt a business, costing it money and time.
Be careful who you trust and how much faith you put in people. Whether it is as big of a deal as forming a partnership or as small as ordering supplies, be as sure as you can about who you are doing business with from an individual level to a company level. One delayed or malfunctioning piece of equipment can completely change your game plan. Imagine what two can do.
Having said that, you will find yourself disappointed and most likely frustrated, and that’s okay. Just don’t let it take you all the way down.
‘Failing to plan is a plan to fail.’
Abraham Lincoln said he if he was given 9 hours to chop down a tree, he would use 6 of those hours to sharpen the ax. This was once again a huge failure on my part that I am paying for today. I did not prepare as much as I should have. Already going into a business without a business education may throw some off, but seeing as I just ‘jumped out of the plane’ (pun intended) hoping the parachute would open… was well... about as stupid as jumping out of a plane hoping the parachute will open. A parachute has failed me once in my life, and in the end, it has landed me here. Here in Marseille, not into a business.
But like everything, one thing led to another, and now we are here talking to you about the obstacles of starting up a company. All of this to say, I did not plan, I did not even know what to plan for really. I figured it would be easy enough to figure it out as I went. And that is exactly what I have been doing since. Trying to run a business, while at the same time, playing catch up to try to do everything that I should have done before creation. It can make an already difficult task, more complicated. But that is just my nature, given my past. Stupid enough to jump into anything, and just clever enough to make it work during the fall. I think I’ll trademark that.
Time is the last thing I’ll mention before I give you my solution to all of these problems. Time is the one thing that doesn’t come and go in life. Unlike money, love, motivation, or happiness; time is linear (as far as we know it today) and once it is behind you, it is gone forever. It is the most valuable investment you will make when it comes to your business and your life in general.
Using your time wisely will be key, but seeing as there are a million and one books and articles about time management, I won’t go into all of that. The one thing I will say is that having just NOT enough time to do something is an effective way to get things done. If you have too much time to complete a goal or project, you will procrastinate. Having the pressure that you might just barely make it will give you the drive you need to get things done without the crushing weight of knowing it is impossible. I doubt life will give you these so nicely, so create them yourself.
Time, planning, and people can all be tied to what is the meat of my talk today. A lot of people seem interested in knowing what the military has given me to help with a business. There is a long list of values I could give out, but I believe one of the most important tools I was given, I was not even aware existed in theory until I started writing this.
The OODA Loop
The OODA Loop or Boyd cycle was created by an Air Force guy for the Air Force. John Boyd is considered to be one of the greatest military strategists nobody has ever heard of.
He revolutionized the art of war. This technique or way of doing things grew to be used throughout the whole US military, to most militaries in the world, and to many businesses.
In reality, it can be applied to any aspect of life. Like the Art of War, it is no surprise that a military mind has created the way successful businesses are run today. And like the Art of War on the shelf of a CEO or the religious text on the shelf of the said religious person, it is a text that can often be misunderstood or oversimplified.
In fact, some of you may have heard of this OODA loop already. The acronym stands for:
Generally speaking, the faster you can do this, the better off you will be.
Initially considered for a dogfight between aircraft, the pilot who is able to run through the loop the fastest will be able to outmaneuver his enemy and therefore defeat him. It is a little more complicated than that, but if you remember this acronym and try to apply it as quickly as possible (without flailing around), it is a good start.
If you start to dig into the theory though, you will find that there is a lot of science and philosophy put into this idea. It involves aspects and theorems from many studies that I will touch on later.
So brave past the Wikipedia version, and you will find some pretty heavy stuff to delve into and feed your brain. It started in a tactical sense for a fighter pilot, but grew into the primal psyche of man’s natural instincts of survival and war, and then further into the sciences and zen philosophy that is able to define the world today.
It is incredible in its simplicity and its nuances. Comfortable in its seeming implicitness to its true explicitness.
Before we go into the theory, I’d like to take a short minute to learn about the man behind it. Mostly because I identify with him on so many levels. Both being Air Force guys, both being guys who believe in agility and intelligence to defeat an opponent rather than brute strength, and both guys who love the military, but always get asked how we survived it do to our natural tendency to defy authority; I got as far as an Article 15 within my first two years of service.
I also find myself similar to the Colonel in personality too. Robert Coram, Boyd’s biographer, said Boyd was called many different names during his career. "The Mad Major" was for the intensity of his passions, "Genghis John" for his confrontational style of interpersonal discussion, and "Ghetto Colonel" for his spartan lifestyle.
I may not have the rank to have had these specific names, but I have no doubt been called mad by every girlfriend I’ve ever had. I usually laugh or roll into my confrontational style of interpersonal discussion at that point – something of which my current business partner now suffers.
After serving and retiring from the Air Force, Col. Boyd later did talks about his OODA loop and became a consultant at the Pentagon. You know that first Iraq war back in the early 90s? Remember how it was over in 2 days? How Iraq went from being in the top ten of military powers to well... not - before anybody knew what had happened. Thank you, Col. Boyd. Where are you now?
He also had many other theories that have been applied to the military, sports, business, and litigation. His first work ‘Aerial Attack Study’ is now considered a bible for air combat, and his Energy-Maneuverability Theory is responsible for the design of the impressive F-15, F-16, and my personal favorite, A-10.
Unfortunately, most of his knowledge about the OODA loop was never really written down. They were just given in 15-hour briefings. There were pieces left behind that people have since picked up and either took as their own or compiled and shared it as best they could, but Boyd himself never wrote a full literary piece on it. This is a shame for the name of the man as many people have taken his work as their own. The closest he came to writing it down is in a short work entitled ‘Destruction and Creation.’ This sounds ominous now, but it will make more sense soon.
Right. So, enough about the man. There is a lot more about him, essays and books have been written on him that paint a vivid picture of who he was. I won’t go into detail about him and his other theories, but he has a lot of thoughts on many subjects.
I’m going to try to focus on the loop tonight…
This world is full of doubt and scary windy roads, and randomness is a given. Yet, Boyd didn’t believe that was so much the problem as our inability to adapt.
Just like any Buddhist or wise old man will tell you, nothing lasts forever, and the only thing that stays the same is that everything changes. You will never have everything figured out unless you are Buddha. As soon as you think you do, the information has already changed. Just like a new computer becomes outdated every six months, so does anything in this life. Moving forward, just like in the Art of War or in Buddhist philosophy, it is our ability to make sense of the change that we should focus on rather than trying to fight the change.
And how do we do this?
Well, he believed it was necessary to shift and adjust our ‘mental concepts’ or paradigms that we have. These concepts can be rooted in genetics, culture, or traditions. They can be influenced by our studies and work, be it mathematics or psychology. Even what we consider to be courtesy or embarrassment shapes and affects our mental concepts.
Most of the time these paradigms work out for us, but it is when the world throws us a curveball that the OODA loop comes in. Whether it is your first time in France and somebody tries to kiss you to say hello, or a newly discovered ancient text shows that we have been wrong about ‘well-known facts’ over the past 200 years, it is our ability to shift our mental concepts that allow us to overcome these embarrassing or possibly destructive changes in environment and information rather than be stunned… or just simply embarrassed.
Boyd found three theories particularly important for understanding the changing world - both inside of us and outside of us:
Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems – Boyd took this to show that any concept of reality is incomplete and inconsistent.
And even when you start to get close to completing a concept you have:
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle – This talks about particles and their nature, saying that it is impossible to know both the speed of an electron and the location of it at the same time. Applied to our big picture of life and mental concepts: the more you know about one thing, the less you will know about another.
So if you are a company that focuses on smartphones. You create the first one that is able to send an email and has a keyboard. No doubt the fanciest pager of its time. But just like their ability to master the art of sending emails led to their immediate and overwhelming success, their lack of knowledge and focus on the next level of technology lead to their meteoric fall.
For Blackberry, once known as ‘crackberry’, their rise and fall came within a 10-year cycle, and now they are a fringe company looking for a faster way to adjust their mental concepts about the smartphone and consumer world. They knew more than anybody about sending emails from a phone, but nothing about touchscreens.
2nd Law of Thermodynamics - Boyd applies this here by comparing the same effects of entropy and disorder between a closed system in nature to a person or organization closed off from the world.
(My children will be philosopher-kings.)
I’ll use an example from a movie I watched recently. A man and his children live out in nature, cut off from the rest of society. His kids are very well educated but have no real idea of what is really happening in the outside world. They have an idea based on books and what they have learned from inside their entropy, but once they actually are inserted into the world around them, there is confusion and frustration.
These are all concepts that could and should be learned not only to better understand the OODA loop, but also the world around you. Mixed together you can see that you should constantly be in a state of Observation, Orientation, then Deciding and Acting.
The problem Boyd saw with individuals and organizations was their dependency on using the same mental concepts to attack any given situation. And if that mental concept doesn’t work, they just try it with more force.
‘To the man with only a hammer, everything is a nail.’
Or to keep repeating the same thing hoping for different results is insanity.
The OODA Loop isn’t so much a tool as a technique to acquire multiple tools, and if you don’t have a tool that works for the job you need, you can create one. Bob the builder will be calling you.
So to face these never-ending changes and challenges in life, Boyd spent his entire life trying to figure it out. He came up with the OODA loop. Which in it’s simplest form is to Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. But give the man credit, it didn’t take him his whole life to put those four words in order. There is much more to it.
From a more spiritual angle, Boyd, was a big fan of Eastern philosophy (another way I relate to him). He believed in the connectivity of everything, of this flow or Tao that runs through and connects all. That this OODA loop is a process that can be insightful due to how it allows you to look at things from a different perspective and to look at the world in a different way.
To Boyd, it was an ‘evolving, open-ended, far from equilibrium process of self-organization, emergence, and natural selection.’
Here is what his simple 4 step process looked like by the end of his life:
The following will be a closer look at each step:
‘We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.’
- Anais Nin, French-Cuban writer
This is where the 2nd law of thermodynamics comes in.
Boyd said that ‘If we don’t communicate with the outside world–to gain information for knowledge and understanding–we die out to become a non-discerning and uninteresting part of that world.’
Whether or not we can die as interesting people or parts of this world is debatable.
However, it is true that in order to prevent the entropy caused by isolation, we must stay in contact and observe the outside world. Based on the chart above that involves; unfolding circumstances, outside information, unfolding interaction with the environment and any feedback from the previous stages of Decide and Act.
Being in the optimal observe state, you want to be in a relaxed but alert sense of mind. Paranoia itself will cause unwarranted attention, but paying no attention to your surroundings puts you in danger or just simply at a disadvantage. It is just enough to stay relaxed and keep your eyes and ears open. Observing and absorbing the world around you. If Jason Bourne can do it, so can you.
From the perspective of running a successful business, you should always be aware of your financial situation and market trends. Read articles, but also talk to other business owners in your industry and industries that can directly affect yours.
With biltong, I feel safe in knowing that snack foods have been on a steady rise in France, even during the recession. But I am also aware from talking with other business owners that the sales in wine have actually gone down this cycle. And if our professional clients can’t sell their wine from their cave à vins, then we should expect a decrease in sales of our product from their establishment as well.
Now you may come across two problems during the Observe stage according to Boyd:
You will never have the full information of a current situation or environment (Heinsburg’s law of Uncertainty)
And there may be so much information that you may not be able to make out the important stuff from the rest of the noise around.
So for this, we rely on our wisdom or judgment. Even with all the information in the world, if we do not have good judgment, the information may as well be useless. So you must develop your judgment, your ability to process the information, understand it, and find meaning in it. And for that, we need…
This is the most important step. This is where your brain will start firing and your Tao will start flowing. A bit rough and forced at first, but after a while it will become an orchestra.
This is the focal point of the Loop for Boyd. Why is it the focal point? Because it is in the orientation where the mental concepts are deductively destroyed and inductively created, and it is the mental concept that the rest of the loop is based on and relies on.
Boyd would play a game during his briefings called the Strategic Game of ‘?’ And ‘?’… Yes. Just question marks. One of his examples:
‘Imagine that you are on a ski slope with other skiers…that you are in Florida riding in an outboard motorboat, maybe even towing water-skiers. Imagine that you are riding a bicycle on a nice spring day. Imagine that you are a parent taking your son to a department store and that you notice he is fascinated by the toy tractors or tanks with rubber caterpillar treads.
‘Now imagine that you pull the skis off but you are still on the ski slope. Imagine also that you remove the outboard motor from the motorboat, and you are no longer in Florida. And from the bicycle, you remove the handle-bar and discard the rest of the bike. Finally, you take off the rubber treads from the toy tractor or tanks. This leaves only the following separate pieces: skis, outboard motor, handlebars and rubber treads.’
With only these pieces, what do you think of?
Congratulations. You just dissembled old mental concepts and created a new one. This ninja ability is what divides the winners from the losers in competition, be it sport, business, or war. Build snowmobiles in the midst of uncertainty and unpredictability, and you will start to find yourself in stronger positions throughout life.
But don’t congratulate yourself too long. Or else you are once again the man who only sees nails to be hammered. Orientation is a continuous process. As soon as you have completed your new mental concept, it has already become outdated, and it’s time to create a new one.
Don’t worry, unlike the iPhone, you don’t have to wait for the new version to come out, how up to date you are is all within your power, and Boyd leaves a few ideas for how to be as strong as possible in the game of Orientation.
Grab a toolbox and fill it up.
Toolboxes are great no matter what you are doing. Stephen King uses the toolbox metaphor to talk about writing. Don’t judge my writing though as somebody that has read his memoir.
A lot of organizations or even individuals will have a set dogma or ritual for how they handle and process life. Don’t get stuck. Follow the trends in business or be left making CDs, while everybody is moving on to iPods. Or as a doctor applying the same theory about hysteria to every person that is hysterical.
Don’t limit yourself to one science. One solution. One way of thinking and seeing the world. Don’t force the world into one observation glass. There is no one study that can explain it all. Have multiple disciplines and mix those disciplines.
There may not be enough time though to learn everything in the world. I get it. I’m a bit disappointed too. Boyd gives a suggestion though and what he considers to be a good base (at least for military strategy):
Conflict (Game Theory)
Charles Munger (Warren Buffet’s business partner) would add the following:
I strongly agree with these, and I am taking crash-courses in half of them now. I personally love philosophy as a great tool to teach you how to think, process, and entertain thoughts. Music and literature are more entertaining ways to exercise the brain muscle that Socrates would probably approve.
Whether you are a big-picture strategist or a lethal fighting tactician, having a nice pool of mental concepts will help you take on whatever you are up against. And you may be in school now, but don’t limit yourself to your budget or school. The internet has everything you need including free introductory courses to these subjects from a lot of major and prestigious Universities.
And then, when you think you finally have it figured out. Question it. Build that toolbox. Then build the tools to go in. I built my dog a nice little niche last month, but it was a little more of a pain in the ass than it needed to be because I didn’t have a proper toolbox or enough tools to put into one. Get a toolbox and fill it up. Even if you don’t use every tool in it every day, the day you do need it, you will be thankful. Take every chance to keep it growing. Not to mention a heavy toolbox builds those muscles after carrying it around. And muscles are nice to have too.
So, start destroying and creating mental concepts…
Not only for your toolbox but to build proficiency. Do it for fun with doodles while sitting in class, see if you can come up with one before I finish this discourse. The best mental concept doodle gets a free bag of biltong.
Some of the best strategists seem to make the right decision at the right time and in the smoothest fashion. That is due to practice. The brain can be exercised and become stronger just like a muscle. Start destroying your concepts of the world and then putting them back together.
I once watched a sergeant hitting on his nurse one day, and he asked her ‘Why would you want to fix things when you can blow them up?’ He’s right. But so is she. Destroy and rebuild. Repeat. Like legos… or a phoenix.
Never stop orienting…
Just like the Tao or most other Eastern philosophies, the OODA loop isn’t a doctrine or text to define your life and set before you a limited number of tools to be applied at every situation. It is a process, a way of living, and a never-ending cycle of making sense of the world around you. Of orienting.
Test the concepts before use…
This is particularly important for life and death situations, but can easily be applied to anything. Market study in business or a football team running drills for weeks before using the play in a last-minute game-scoring touchdown.
And this doesn’t have to be time-sensitive. In business, study what the other guys in your industry are doing. Is it working? Who’s it working for? Once you have an assortment of mental concepts, you may even be able to skip the decide step and go straight from Orient to Act.
Yes, that is allowed in the more detailed version of the OODA Loop. Boyd calls this ‘Implicit Outcome and Control’. This is the smooth, immediate reaction of a person or organization that has strong OODA skills and a nice repertoire of mental concepts. You can’t catch him off guard, he’s a mental ninja.
This is the Orientation step and is the heart of the entire process. Without it, you can go as fast you as you want, but you won’t be going in the right direction.
Next in the OODA loop is…
Boyd didn’t focus too much on this one, mostly because he was a bit hung up about the fact that you can never really have all the information and have the correct information. You basically just have to make the best-educated guess you can at what you believe to be the right choice. He actually put ‘Hypothesis’ in parenthesis beside ‘Decide’.
So to prevent going on all night, and I mean typing, not speaking. Like a good student, I procrastinated in writing this.
Let’s just jump into the last stage…
After you decide, you must act. Boyd wrote ‘Test’ beside this one and it reflects the nature of this loop. It isn’t just a tool or procedure to win games or conquer worlds. It is a learning system.
We are all scientists and philosophers and poets, exploring and testing what we believe to be true about the world. And once we have our result, we cycle that information back to the beginning as new data and start again.
Just like you learn more from failures, if you don’t win with your current loop, you go back with this new information, with this new lesson learned and try again. It is important to not keep beating with the same hammer but to destroy and create a new loop to see if you can create a better result.
And more on a personal note; you must act. Not acting is a choice, and it could leave you behind or gone forever. If faced with danger or difficulty, don’t freeze. Run your OODA loop and be sure to follow through and act. I have watched people hesitate in my life, and I have been in doubt many times, but trust yourself and your orientation and act. If you fail, then you have new feedback and can run the loop again. Freezing will just prolong the inevitable, prolong your ability to learn and grow, and what’s more, by the time you finally do act, the situation will be different and your previous orientation invalid.
Now let’s talk about speed…
So far, everything we’ve learned can be applied at your own pace. On your own time with personal life challenges and opportunities. But in direct competition, the tempo becomes an important part of the OODA loop.
In a head to head challenge, if one person can run through a successful OODA loop faster than his opponent, he not only acts first, but his action changes the dynamics of the environment, resetting his opponent’s loop and therefore giving himself an even greater advantage.
This may get me in trouble, but what would you do if a man with a gun came in here?
… And most of you are dead.