Be Someone, or Do Something?

“Do you want to be someone, or do you want to do something?”

So goes the famous question from John Boyd. Maybe it’s just one of those weeks, but this quote came up more than once and I realized a lot of people still aren’t familiar with Boyd.

Beyond his contribution with the OODA loop (google it, or better, find Robert Greene’s short essay, “OODA and You”), there’s a philosophical depth to his life that’s worth studying. I highly recommend reading Robert Coram’s book, Boyd, to learn some more about him. For entrepreneurial people in corporate structures, he’s your guy.

Let’s dissect the quote.

Think of the paths that reach each end point: to be someone, or to do something.

Being someone has a singular end-point. I want to be a doctor / a lawyer / rich / famous / etc. That means every potential disruption along the way will set you back from reaching your destination. In order to realize your goal, you’ll need sheer grit to bend the world until it sees you in your desired way. It’s a hard path, which can make it impressive for those that are up for it and succeed, and agonizingly frustrating for those that fail.

Doing something has multiple potential end-points, but retains a very specific flavor of focus. Doing something doesn’t care which path you’re on, or even where you’re headed – it merely invites us to make choices. Not just any choices, but good choices. Choices with clear intent.

When trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up, we’re encouraged to think of titles and not functions. Maybe you really want to be CEO, but upon deeper introspection, do you really just want to lead? Maybe you want to be a pro-athlete / rock star / etc., but do you really just want to entertain?

Every be is made of up do’s, and those do’s can be done in some variation right away. There’s a stoic freedom in letting go of the titles and focusing on the function. Boyd’s question forces us to face that issue.

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