John Boyd

Imagine that Steve Jobs, with his wisdom, determination, RDF, grit, hunger, and vision didn’t want to change computing, but something bigger. What if Jobs focused on cancer research? Automobile safety? Inner city education? What if a dent maker chooses not something that you can hold in your hand that displays filtered photos of lunch, but that keeps people alive?

Let me introduce to you John Boyd.

Boyd was the Steve Jobs of the military. He was the guy who saw around the corner, who walked the walk and talked the talk, the idealist who let nothin’ get in his way. Navy SEALS like Rorke Denver and Jocko Willink have great lessons to teach, but John Boyd is a hero.

Which is why I haven’t done notes on him.

Boyd seemed like too much. It’s like summarizing Springsteen or Dylan. They meant so much. Can a summary be enough? Summarizing is almost disrespectful. But, I can’t neglect Boyd. His contributions are too grand.

Before we get into the notes, know that these are incomplete. In the same way Robert Coram’s book, Boyd, is only a small glimpse of a life, these notes are only a blink.

Okay, ready?

1/ The pace of life. Everyone runs life at their own pace. Some people have a faster cadence. Teddy Roosevelt for example, would burst into his home and be halfway up the stairs before the door closed behind him. He also completed his coursework fast, wanting to get outside again. Teddy kept a high cadence.

Boyd too had a faster pace of life. For example, he was always learning.

“He always carried books, not just class books, but book on history and war and philosophy,” Coram writes about Boyd at the University of Iowa. Not that he was a bookworm, “He was tall and handsome and dark-haired…he was an athlete and very popular.” Later in life he would come home with piles of things to read. He would go back to school to get a degree from Georgia Tech. Even when his daughter Mary Ellen was born, “Boyd was at the hospital, but he was in the hall, bent over his books.”

Had Boyd been only a constant learner, his contributions would have been large. But Boyd, was a doer too. During the Korean War (1953) Coram writes:

“Even Boyd’s fellow F-86 pilots, all of whom were avid and passionate about flying jets, were struck by his enthusiasm and energy. More than one said they had never seen a man before or since who was so single-minded about aviation. He did not see the F-86 as an engine and fuselage and an inanimate collection of esoteric parts; he saw it as a sleek and beautiful and lethal weapon of war, almost a living thing, each aircraft having its own personality, each to be ridden into the heavens in the name of the United States of America.”

In college Boyd read. In Korea he flew.  At the Pentagon he kept “a grueling pace that his cohorts find difficult if not impossible to keep up with,” noted a supervisor.

While this pace would yield some great ideas, it was also has costs. In any system there’s a reaction for each action. Boyd worked in a military system and things were done a certain way.

That way was to support generals rather than the truth. Boyd emphasized the latter and saw the reactions. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a few allies that buffered Boyd like fenders on a car, his career would have ended much earlier.

Boyd paid personal costs too. Coram writes, “It is almost as if Boyd believed his family obligations were over once he had finished his job of fathering five children. Mary’s job was to raise the children while he went about his life’s work,” and:

“John Richard Boyd – as is often the case with men of great accomplishment – gave his work far greater priority than he did his family. The part of his legacy that concerns his family is embarrassing and shameful.”

The people who are on podcasts and have books written about them are ‘achievers.’ We look at them because they did something. Charlie Munger is often cited for his brilliance in finance, mental models, and investing. Munger is a father too, and here his accomplishments are fewer. As I read Damn Right I got the sense that Munger was an often-gone father. Charles Munger Jr. says they saw the elder Munger at the lake house but, “the rest of the year we didn’t see him much.”

Steve Jobs wasn’t the best father. NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz wrote, “Behind every great man is a woman – and behind her is the plumber, the electrician, the Maytag repairman, and one or more sick kids. And the car needs to go into the shop.”

On the other hand, Milton Hershey and the Wright brothers never had children. The pace without children is different from the pace with them.

It’s hard to create the iPod, land people on the moon, create a national chocolate brand, or change the military culture. HUGE change requires HUGE commitment. Boyd achieved so much because of his pace for life, but only in the domain of ‘warfare’. Had he put the same effort into the domain of ‘promotion’ or ‘family’ he would have had more success there.

2/ Figure out the most important thing (MIT). The MIT for fighter pilots is this:

“Have student assume in trail position on the instructor and learn how to stay in that position throughout any maneuver.” – John Boyd

The trail position is the MIT for fighter pilots, and it’s how Boyd got his nickname, 40 second Boyd. The story goes that Boyd would meet any fighter at 30,000 feet over the “Green Spot” in the Nevada desert. The challenger would take up the trail position and Boyd would reverse the situation within 40 seconds or pay 40 dollars. Boyd never lost.

Once Boyd figured this out – ideas that became the energy maneuverability theory – he started to teach it to anyone who would listen. Coram writes:

“In his article in Fighter Weapons Newsletter, Boyd preached that one of the first teaching tools is to have a student get on the six-o’clock position of the instructor and stay there as the instructor goes through every evasive maneuver known to aviators. And this is how he began his air-to-air training with new students.”

Boyd wrote about the MIT. He taught in the air, “Boyd gave them their chance and one by one he hosed them, and then he nursed them along, teaching, demonstrating how to control the Hun (F-100).” One the ground he taught them more, “They headed back to ops for the debrief, the most important part of the mission. How well a fighter pilot conducted the debrief was one of the most important criteria in evaluating that student as a possible instructor.”

On the ground, in the air, back on the ground, Boyd taught the MIT.

Flying airplanes is a high skill (rather than luck) activity. It’s why checklists work. It’s why deliberate practice with feedback works. It’s why you can learn from experience.

So at Nellis the idea was to push the aircraft beyond the envelope, to make the training as much like combat as possible. The saying of the time was “The more you bleed in peacetime, the less you bleed in war.” This is another way of saying that normal rules of safety and common sense were often ignored. The thinking among pilots was “If you survived Nellis, Korea will be easy.”

Like Boyd’s understanding of the trail position, MITs don’t have to be complicated. Chris Sacca said about Facebook, “at the end of the day they accelerate the things that have the most likes on them.” Coca-Cola aimed to not lose countries or any part of their brand name. Bill Belichick saysthe MIT for wide receivers is to get open and catch the ball.

Coaches like Anson Dorrance and Pete Carroll say the MIT is to un-cap the human potential. Howard Marks writes about (a few) MITs, mostly avoiding big mistakes. Kara Swisher suggested that Yahoo failed, in part, because they didn’t have the right MITs.

If you can’t figure out a MIT invert the question. What mistake will destroy you? That’s your MIT.

3/  Friends, enemies, & stakeholders. For as smart and hardworking as Boyd was, he was socially an imbecile. This was surprising. How could someone who figured out so much not realize the social drag he fought?

He purposefully – or unknowingly – neglected people in pursuit of the mission. If you worked with him he could be like a father. Anything else and you were a nobody. There were three groups of people in Boyd’s life; friends, enemies, and stakeholders.

 Friends. Boyd did have some friends. Coram calls them the acolytes. They were the linchpins to Boyd’s theories. Without them running cover, making amends, greasing skids, backrooming ideas, sneaking computing time, or bouncing around ideas (with late night phone calls) Boyd the man wouldn’t be Boyd the hero. Each got a version of the be or do speech:

“Tiger,” he would say, “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.” He raised his hand and pointed. “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.”

Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction.

“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?”

Boyd found people who were smart, tough, and committed. He saved careers, turned “water walkers,” and aligned with people going his way. Boyd teamed up with just enough of the right people to help him get things done.

Enemies. There’s the truth and there’s how you get to it. People did not like Boyd’s means.  If the Pentagon was a technology startup, Boyd would have been great. He moved fast and broke things decades before it was a rallying cry or sticker on a laptop.

One time an edict came down that there were to be no more mistakes. Boyd said “zero defects was stupid.” This tactlessness was typical.

“Boyd had established a pattern: no matter what his contributions to the Air Force or to national defense might be — and there were significant contributions yet to come – – his outspoken nature, his lack of reluctance to criticize his superiors, and his love of conflict with others would hinder his promotion throughout his career.”

“He was a thirty-nine-year-old major who had demonstrated at Eglin that he did not care about military politics, human nature, and the ways of the world.”

Boyd pursued the truth as he saw fit. In Vietnam and Korea Boyd observed combat. In Fighter Weapons School he taught techniques. At Georgia Tech he learned physics. There was no better prepared person to institute change at no worse a place.

Much of Boyd’s clashes reminded me of Bill Belichick’s time as the Cleveland Browns coach. Belichick ruffled feathers of reporters, Boyd of Pentagon staffers. Belichick cut quarterback Bernie Kosar because he wasn’t physically fit. Boyd said the fighter planes  pieces of shit. Belichick’s boss, Art Model, was clueless about Belichick’s style of football. Boyd’s bosses were blue suitors who were clueless about Boyd’s philosophy of warfare.

Both were brilliant in their domains, but both made enemies.

When Modell announced the Browns move, manikins of Belichick and Modell were hung outside the stadium. Staffers didn’t go out for lunch anymore. Boyd would have fit in, saying,  “So you got your reward; you got kicked in the teeth. That means you were doing good work. Getting kicked in the teeth is the reward for good work.”


Stakeholders. We touched on Boyd’s pace above, and we won’t rehash it only to say that dent makers don’t have infinite time. As the saying goes, somethings gotta give.

Boyd recognized this on the professional side of his life. As he progressed through his career, saw promotions come and go,  made more enemies than friends, and realized the need to be independent.

“Boyd knew he had to be independent and he saw only two ways for a man to do this: he can either achieve great wealth or reduce his needs to zero. Boyd said if a man can reduce his needs to zero, he is truly free: there is nothing that can be taken from him and nothing anyone can do to hurt him.”

Boyd wanted FU money which allows stakeholder neglect. Your boss is a stakeholder in your life. So is the cable company, the cell phone company, and student loan company. Each one of those companies owns time in your day. You can follow Boyd and reduce your needs or become wealthy enough those stakeholders bother you as much as ants at a picnic.

It’s not just money though. It’s any demand that pulls away from THE THING YOU WANT. Coram writes that when Boyd fully gave up the idea of the promotion track, “he came to find that freedom from the concerns that governed the lives of most officers was remarkably liberating.”

John Boyd accomplished a lot in his life. Robert Coram writes about the successes and shortcomings wonderfully. It’s a great book.

  1. Boyd lived at a supersonic pace.
  2. Boyd focused on the most important thing.
  3. Boyd had enough friends, not too many enemies, and minimized the stakeholders in his life.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.

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