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To Be Or To Do

I found a book in The Smithsonian magazine called “The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.” It was about John Boyd, a poor boy in Erie, Pennsylvania who somehow got a college degree and joined the Air Force to become a pilot. He was a fearless pilot who flew F86 Saber Jets over North Korea.

I found a book in The Smithsonian magazine called “The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.” It was about John Boyd, a poor boy in Erie, Pennsylvania who somehow got a college degree and joined the Air Force to become a pilot. He was a fearless pilot who flew F86 Saber Jets over North Korea. Boyd was not happy just being a pilot; he constantly studied aerodynamics and developed new maneuvers. He became an instructor at Nellis AFB and was the best of the best fighter pilots. 

There was no end to Boyd’s new ideas except that now he pursued them with advanced math and computers. He developed a revolutionary way to look at aircraft designs called “EM” or the Energy Maneuverability Theory.  The theory led to a lightweight fighter design called the F-16 that is still used by the Armed Services all over the world.

Boyd's Philosophy
Boyd was the ultimate individualist. He was a natural leader but he had little patience with people who disagreed with him. He was blunt, direct, and a super-nonconformist. He was always in trouble because he was a “doer,” and was saved from the bureaucracy because he was always right. He was fanatical in his work habits and often worked all night.

Here is a paragraph in the book that sums up his philosophy of life and work. It was known as his “To Be or To Do Speech.” He was talking to his friend Leopold who was a promising officer in the Pentagon who was struggling with whether or not he should blow the whistle on the corrupt B-1 Bomber Project that the Air Force brass wanted. Boyd said, “Tiger, one day you will come to the fork in the road. And you are going to have to make a decision on which direction you want to go.” He then 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 in 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 good assignments and you certainly will not be the 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 may make a difference.” He paused and stared at Leopold’s eyes and heart. “To be somebody or to do something.”

John’s sermon is about choosing a path, choosing who you are – a philosophy of life and work. I think many people who are working in corporations may come to the Y in the road in their careers and need to make a decision on whether they should continue to pursue being somebody or refocus themselves on doing something.

If you are motivated to be somebody, then you must do everything possible to rise through the ranks. The rewards are lots of money and perks, power, and being included in a very elite club — but getting there extracts a price. You will have to commit to becoming a good politician, and making compromises along the way. In short, you must yield your individualism to the corporate identity.

On the other hand, as Colonel Boyd says, you can choose to be a doer. You can focus on finding a job in the organization that is really interesting and allows you to accomplish things that bring you satisfaction. You may have to take a demotion or get stuck in your pay grade, but you will be doing interesting work and maybe even making a big contribution. Or you may not find a job that allows you to be a doer in the corporation and may be forced to look outside or create your own job. The whole secret is knowing what interests you, or what kind of work brings satisfaction.

How Not To Be "Offshorable"
Another good reason to consider being a doer is supported by the work by Alan Blinder, an economist at Princeton who makes a big distinction between work that can be delivered over the wire (internet) and jobs that must be done face-to-face. Blinder says he finds 30 to 40 million U.S. jobs to be potentially offshorable, ranging from scientists, mathematicians, and editors on the high end, to telephone operators, clerks, and typists on the low end. Blinder predicts a massive economic disruption that is only beginning to affect people who went to college and assumed this prepared them for high paying careers.

On the other hand, jobs that offer personal services to local customers — and particularly jobs that are manual — are much more secure. Jobs like surgeons, artists, carpenters, and motor cycle mechanics vary too much to have foreign competition, and they require special skills, circumspection, and adaptability. These are truly “doer” jobs and have the potential to be interesting and more satisfying. Matthew Crawford, the author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, says that working with your hands “is a natural home for anyone who would live by his own powers, free not only of deadening abstraction but also of insidious hopes and rising insecurities that seem to be endemic in our current economic life.”

I spent 35 yeas in manufacturing and my primary goals were always about doing interesting things. Because there was so much change in manufacturing, there was always something new. I liked doing new things, even if they were dangerous, so it was easy to find interesting things that would satisfy my “doer” needs.

And if you decide you want to be someone, then you will have to spend all of your waking moments working at it, but you will be rewarded. The odds of reaching the top are slim, but I admire those who try.

So when you come to the Y in the road in your career, remember Colonel Boyd’s question: Do you want to be somebody or to do something?

Mike Collins is the author of Saving American Manufacturing.  You can find him on the web at