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Sun Sep 20 2020

To BE or to DO


According to the legendary fighter pilot and strategist John Boyd, there are two types of people; those who want to BE and those who want to DO. In other words, there are those that above all, seek praise and there are those who seek purpose.

We typically start off as doers but the pressures of life eventually push most of us into be-ers. The desires to rise up the social order, prove someone wrong, compete with our peers and achieve success lead to compromise. We give up on saving the world, to save ourselves instead and protect the system that we've climbed our way up in.

Why does it matter?

To be fair, both types of people are needed. Be-ers are good at doing what they are told. Without be-ers, society might fall apart. However, without doers, the world would never have made any progress at all. Most organisations and cultures start off as doers but eventually, as fewer and fewer things need to be figured out, the doers get replaced by be-ers. Most organisations go from being managed by leaders to being led by managers. The bigger the organisation, the likelier it is that the people doing the work have been completely sidelined by project managers, consultants and ladder climbers. It's a common business saying that you should design a company to be run by idiots because eventually, it will be. For example, the governments of developed countries. By the 1960s most of what needed to be figured out had been done and all the doers left. Since then, we've just seen governments achieve less and less for higher relative costs. Developed countries today simply can not pull off the big infrastructure projects that they could in the 20s-50s. Be-ers will flock to whatever careers and roles have the most importance and prestige. Today, big-name tech firms are being flooded with people that have zero technical background. These Management Consultants and Product Managers are mostly attracted by prestige, money and power and they will eventually drive out all the doers. I guarantee that in 10 years working at Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft etc will be the same as working in Big Oil, Big Auto, Power Utilities or Big Banking today. In contrast, doers flock to whatever they consider to be the hardest and most important challenges facing humanity. They are the rebels, weirdos, and geeks, the true believers in human progress. Today's doers are clustered around sustainability, biotech, blockchain, nuclear power, space, robotics and any other areas where important problems need to be solved. Sometimes, doers strike it rich by riding the wave of an enabling technology with far-reaching consequences but that's not why they do it. They do it because they want to change the world.

How to tell if your a doer or a be-er

In meetings do you focus on actions, results and lessons or opinions and details that prove how smart you are?

Do you play your own game and live life your way, or do you try to compete and compare your status to others?

Do you work in an environment that rewards bold creative ideas or one that rewards being correct?

Do you stand up for your beliefs when they are unpopular or do you say what gets you promoted? Do you judge people by what they do or by what they say? Do you worry about looking good or about achieving meaningful goals?

The choice

John Boyd, one of my personal heroes, was a heavily overlooked American fighter pilot and military strategist. Nevertheless, his theories like the OODA Loop, Energy Manoeuvrability theory and Destruction and Creation, have revolutionized military, business, sport and legal fields. (Seriously look him up!) Boyd had a well known "to be or to do" speech. He said eventually, we reach a fork in the road. The easy path is to compromise, follow the rules, save ourselves and get comfortable. The hard path is to give up having a normal career and dedicate yourself to doing what is right. We can choose to be part of the system or shake up the system.

Be a doer

As Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz puts it, "There are two kinds of cultures in this world: cultures where what you do matters and cultures where all that matters is who you are. You can be the former or you can suck." When I look back at my career one day, I won't care how much money I made. I will care about how much I contributed to things that made a positive difference. The best way I've seen it put by someone who was a genuine doer: Don't worry about being recognised, worry about being worthy of recognition - Abraham Lincoln

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