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Entries in career advice (2)


Question from Oxford student (and Wikistrat grand strategy competitor) on starting out in the field

I'm a first year graduate student at Oxford studying Economic and Social History--a program that applies different social scientific frameworks to the study of history. I'm very interested in geopolitical analysis, and, as the first of my degree's two years draws to a close, I'm beginning to start looking at what might come next.

Zach Miller, head of the Oxford team competing in the Wikistrat grand strategy competition.

As Wikistrat starts collecting college/think thank teams for its grand strategy competition in June, certain requests come my way in terms of career advice.  So here's my take on the general query above.

I can only advise on the basis of my experience, because I've made no study of the question.  So naturally I'm going to be biased toward certain means and ends.  I will also try to genericize this answer so it's not specifically just about US tracks.

In general, I advocate getting a PhD before leaving, and I don't advocate taking time off along the way.  Why? Every bit of time off the academic track raises the possibility of never finishing, which happens to all sorts of people for all sorts of good reasons, the primary ones being marriage followed by kids and a decent enough living in a good job that you figure, "I really don't need to bother with the PhD."  Later on, though, most people still regret this decision and wish they could have found (or still find) the time, but it's just too hard. Personally, I know I never would have gone back to finish, even though I suspect I might have been able to finish the dissertation on the side while working early in my career. It just would have been a killer on my marriage and made me a wholly absent husband (rehabbing that house was truly fun) and father (who wants to miss their first-born's life-and-death struggle with advanced cancer?) at a time when I would have regretted just as much as missing the PhD opportunity, so I'm glad I sequenced it.

If you can stay and get it done, it's so much faster and you get the experience in full, plus you get the side experience of teaching, which is great for teaching you basic skills of explanation and grading conceptual presentations.  You also learn confidence in getting up in front of audiences.  Overall, very much worth the effort.

But, if you're like me, you'll also need to work several other jobs while you finish the PhD (I was also a super for a large apartment building), and the juggling there is also worth mastering, because if you end up like I have, working out of my home office for a wide variety of organizations, you'll come close to having the same life dynamics.

I was able to get this process done during the first few years of my marriage (1-4), while my wife did her early career work (although she could have gone on in a vein similar to me and we could have pulled that off as well).  Between us, living cheaply with no kids, we had plenty of disposable income, so we did a lot of fun things together that not only solidified the marriage, but smoothed the intense time of my writing a dissertation.  It meant we put off kids until year 6, but we found that worthwhile to do too, so that our marriage was well-established by the time we started a family and I was completely done with school.  Side issues, it may seem, but being unhappy in your life isn't worth a career track.

The two primary reasons to get the PhD are:

  1. You've got the union card, meaning you have the adjunct teaching option that much more easily obtained - if desired, and there may be some point where you actually want to go academic, like I did at the Naval War College - point being there are no glass ceilings to be confronted once you have the union card; and,
  2. It's just a great experience to write a book-length defensible piece of analytic worth.  You will never get this duo of deeds in any other setting professionally.  You can seek near-equivalents, but nothing quite like it, and I just think it's incredibly worthwhile to have that all under your belt before starting out.

After that, I think it's important to go to a good "finishing school," or a place of high analytic rigor that teaches you professional research and writing and presentational skills - before you do anything else.  These skills in the real world are far different from those taught in academia, which really only prepares you to be an academic in terms of practical skills.  

Private consulting firms can do this, but you really want to go a top one where there's tons of established talent, otherwise, you can easily end up being the "talent" yourself in a small shop, and there you will scramble to lead work without any real apprenticeship, so learning will be lost or achieved only under the most painful circumstances (shoulda, coulda, woulda).

My first job was with a very small shop and they were using my name and degree to try and win contracts, which was a sign of their small and desperate status.  I was immediately thrust into work of a highly detailed and technical nature and I had no idea what I was doing.  Two weeks in, a better offer came from a major analytic firm that worked for the navy and Marine Corps, and I jumped ship instantly, realizing the "finishing school" opportunity that was lacking in my small "beltway bandit" shop.

You can find such apprenticeships in think tanks, government research arms, etc.  You just want to avoid the busy-work places that use up all your time in process (I wouldn't recommend the legislature right out for that reason) - if you want to build that intellectual infrastructure in your head.  Fine to jump into process-heavy things later, but I suggest 4-6 years in a place like I described, learning the basics of professional research.

Once you've done that, then it's all a question of what you want to do and whom you want to do it with.  You can go ideological with a think thank or go functional with foreign policy, foreign aid or defense.  Personally, I think the latter two are more complex and unique and thus require the more direct experience.  I think the foreign policy/State stuff can be picked up by moderate exposure, but the aid/defense stuff is more technically inaccessible from the outside, so some inside time is useful.  

So that's what I did:  working mostly directly with the military, and spending several years working with USAID.  I always had interactions with State but I never put in the time there as either a direct hire or contractor.  But if you want the 3D perspective, which I think is key, then you want to hit as many of those as possible, prioritizing the complex defense, then aid, then diplomacy.  I think another reason why I felt most comfortable going light on diplomacy was that I was a political science major, so I had the most academic standing in that general field.  So I guess I would say mix and match as per your academic trajectory.

Another reason why I focused on defense (which, frankly, surprised me afterwards because I had no intention of doing so while in school): most development is done by the private sector, so the aid stuff teaches you about failed/failing states but doesn't teach you all that much about what works outside that troubled realm. But defense, especially that practiced by the US, is truly unique, so understanding that reality helps a lot on the geostrategic thinking. A lot of experts think they can learn that from a distance, but I say no. Some direct exposure is required because it's a very closed - and close - tribe (which is why I don't necessarily advocate direct service in uniform, because a lot of minds never escape that thinking even as a few do so spectacularly - so again, know yourself).

Once I had those experiences in hand, I felt like I knew the government scene, but I felt rather slow on globalization-the-economic process.  Yes, I had taken plenty of economics in college and grad school; I just didn't know business.

I have described my career journey as figuring out the world through the New York Times (my international relations PhD/academic experience) first, then figuring out Washington (via the Post) next (my time at Center for Naval Analyses), and then figuring out Wall Street/business through picking up the WS Journal/Financial Times/Economist and my time working with Cantor Fitzgerald (bond broker-dealer) while at the Naval War College and then my stint in Enterra Solutions since 2005.  I had read all these papers all along; I just didn't "get" them in full until I has the associated experience to go with them, so it was my MSM equivalent of diplomacy (NYT), defense (WAPO) and development (WSJ/FT/Economist).

By the time I had gone through my stint in the Pentagon following 9/11, I was finally - at just over age 40 - operating at my full powers.  I fully expected it would take that long, and never worried about keeping pace with others who did things earlier.  I really wanted to do the apprenticeship route sufficiently so that when I really broke out my big ideas, they were truly big and representative of my journey versus stuff I just dreamed up and hoped would establish me.  In John Boyd terms, I wanted to "do" before I took on the "be," and in truth, I am still focused on the "do" versus "be" and may very well end up sticking with the former my entire life, because I just so like the evolution mentally versus the "job," which I tend to fear for its numbing requirements. I also now realize I will only sacrifice so much for the "guru" track, in part because I find the media work such a creativity killer and I know that limits my reach. But you have to go with what makes you feel most creative, in my opinion, because, at the end of the day, that's all you've got. Jobs and profile come and go with tastes and forces beyond your control, but your creativity is THE asset worth protecting within your career. The global financial crisis actually helped me in this regard, by cutting back the speaking opportunities and forcing me back to more consulting/analysis, which I am finding tremendously renewing and easier on my family life - just when I needed it - because the travel is less hectic and I avoid being too much in broadcast mode. Not that I don't still love the speaking, because that is a favorite career addiction of mine and I'm gearing up right now for a slew of speeches in late April though early June. I just like this new balance better and - again - it came just in time family-wise.

But that's just me.  Like my post to the OH student, I came to realize that I live for the ideas and the analysis more than the decision-making power.  That may be because I'm the 8th of 9 kids and I wasn't raised to be the #1 son/daughter with "responsibility."  But it's also why I'm so creative, something that's always created a certain amount of friction for me. 

[Having said that, realize that everybody has their definitions of what constitutes "do" versus "be."  It just depends on what you consider the "doing."]

Some of the best advice I ever got was from a legend in the technical means field by the name of Gary Federici. Gary was genius level on the subject of bureaucracies and struggles within them, and he was an eminent producer talent, meaning he knew how to assemble minds and exploit them.  He told me early in my career that I was an amazingly creative thinker and that most people in most organizations would hate me for that ability, primarily because of its disruptive potential.  So he advised me to chart a fairly self-reliant and independent course, because if I hoped organizations would elevate and reward me on that basis, I would end up a bitter old man.  Gary was absolutely right, which is why I've spent my years since associating myself with Gary-type people - the more the better.  My motto is the old Roman proverb:  the slave with many masters is a free man.

So that's my basic advice on career tracking, with the following amendments:

  • Never turn down a speaking opportunity.
  • Always volunteer to be the main writer, because the power of the first draft, as I like to call it, is about 80 percent of the final product.  Plus, just like with speaking, you only get better by doing.
  • Always associate yourself with editors, because they are your best route to becoming a good writer, other than reading other good writers and practicing a lot yourself.
  • Don't repeat your work if you can help it.  If you want to think horizontally, then it must be new frontiers all the time - or as much of the time as possible.
  • Associate with mentors who recognize your best skills, and avoid those who want to work on your weaknesses.  Spending a life working on weaknesses is a loser track.  Spending a life working on your strengths is a way to be magnificently happy - meaning successful in the way you like being successful versus somebody else's definition.
  • Get good agents (and I use that term loosely) for all the skills you suck at.  I have multiple and they all make me who I am. They are worth the money you pay them.
  • Get married and have kids and put your family first, because you will likely live a very long life and this career will end, and when it does, and you're old, you will learn this truth: nobody ever lies on their death bed saying, I wish I accomplished more. They all say, I wish I treated my loved ones better.  My wife puts it this way: Do not treat strangers better than your family. People who become addicted to their careers typically do that, and it leaves them standing alone in the end, and no career and no accomplishments are worth that tragedy, because you only have one life to live.

But again, my advice is for someone like me.  I hate creative repetition in my work, but I love and am almost Zen-like in my desire to experience repetition in my personal life.  So I accept a certain lone-wolf reality in my career as the price for my being an idea hamster, and I balance by having a very stable home life.  I will take my kids, in succession, to many Packer games where it's just me and that kid on the long trek to Green Bay. None of them care about football.  They want the same experience with me that I had going to baseball doubleheaders with my Dad at Milwaukee County Stadium (the Brewers).  I work primarily to get the money that allows my home life to proceed as I believe it should.  I live in a place like Indy for the same reasons (crappy for my career, great for my kids and family).  Everybody makes choices and lives with the consequences.  The only good career is one that reflects those choices and self-awareness.  Otherwise you're 49, living in a condo in Reston, driving that red Miata convertible, hitting on interns half your age, and seeing your kids every other weekend. To me, that's hell on earth. To others, it's the reality they bumped into unconsciously as a result of being un-self-aware in their careers and just doing what was expected of them instead of what they truly desired.  

But again, it all depends on what you fear/love more: I have zero fear of career disruption, and frankly enjoy the scary prospect of regular reinvention and lateral moves into entirely new circumstances. Other people think that's hell on earth, and will do whatever - personally - to keep the "career" on track. Me? I would -and routinely do - sacrifice career to keep the family as stable as possible (and to enable our continued growth in new kids , because that fulfills my spouse's life desire and I find it natural enough [coming as 8 of 9] and likewise useful in improving my thinking over time by exposing me to all sorts of unexpected things, like raising strong African-American women - not something I had put down on my bucket list per se!). [Note also my statement to the OH student: If you want to be a futurist in your thinking, you need to have kids - however achieved, because you need that forced life extension beyond your selfish self.] I would experience such a profound sense of failure if my family broke up, but I experience zero sense of failure over career troubles/challenges. Again, a lot of people in this world are the other way around nowadays, going through spouses and families. It's just about what you value. I simply know I could not be creative if my life was a mess. To be creative, I need to be in a very special place - what I define as "life safe." But "career safe"? I have no idea what that is because I've never achieved it or - as I now realize - sought it.

[And I will tell you that that last bit was very hard for me to achieve in self-awareness, because I am my mother's child and she grew up with a father like me and found it extremely upsetting because he was a highly creative, boisterous, addictive type who lived with very little career stability even as he provided good home stability despite his wife (my grandmother) dying while my mom was a teenager. So my mom, naturally, has spent her life with me preaching the exact opposite of the career I've chosen. All of my six siblings have lived careers primarily spent with big companies/government agencies, suffering the usual tumults there but never being the spread-out, highly independent actor I have been since '05, which she thinks is pretty nutty.]

In the end, being a strong thinker in the vein described here requires a tremendous amount of self-awareness, and you can't get that if you lose yourself in a career. You need a certain distance from life, however achieved, to obtain the clarity of view. To me, that's a better life but hardly the only life. It's "better" because it fits me, and it yields the career I find most exciting, coupled with the personal freedom I deem most crucial.

Also realize that I will answer this question differently in ten years.  Maybe I make the f@#k-you money by then because my wife and I can only adopt so many kids before our age cancels us out (then again, she is already talking foster kids for the follow-on), and say the right candidate comes along (admittedly, he or she will more likely be Republican than Democrat, despite my voting habits) and I decide I want to retake the DC plunge. If I did, it would be a predictable-enough one:  the 20-month stint before I must return home to prevent my family from imploding. Then again, there are so many fascinating business opportunities out there in emerging and frontier economies, that I might find the true "grand strategic" opportunities more there than in government (my current sense).  Point being, my life rationalizations are always subject to review.


Questions from OH college student

Questions from Ohio college student late last week.  Figured I'd post my answers:

How did you translate a career from being a Cold War analyst to an idea generator?  

I didn't really.  I wasn't really ever a "Cold War analyst," despite my training.  In truth, I would have been magnificently unhappy if I had stayed a classic academic or become an intell analyst - or if the Cold War hadn't ended. I just have no staying power on subjects, defined by me as working a particular field for years and years as many people do.  It just would have driven me insane. The longer I get trapped in one subject, the more depressed I become. I truly get off on drawing linkages between things versus cracking nuts on any one subject.

I realized that fairly early in my career:  I greatly preferred a wholly new topic to doing the same thing over again, and that doesn't exactly help with career advancement in any normal sense.  You tend to work your way out of every career track out there, and you typically risk the appellation "superficial."

The upside of being a natural horizontal thinker (across domains, versus drilling down in one) is, your work and subject matters are always fresh, because whatever the combination you're plumbing, there doesn't tend to be a whole lot of conventional wisdom on the subject. So the key thing is, you have to like operating on the frontier of thinking.

The reality of that desire, I have found, is that you'll have a hard time surviving on a single job (mentally you won't like it) and you'll limit your recognition to a certain extent, because you'll never be "the person" on a particular subject.  That means, you'll need multiple affiliations (see my nav bar at right) and you'll typically operate with very little secure income flow.  That's an eat-what-you-kill, no safety net lifestyle that some like but most abhor.  One thing to do as grad student, another to do as father-of-X, because in latter instance, you have to maintain a substantial network to line up all the work necessary to generate sufficient income (but that's good for generating new ideas too).

But here's the beauty, because you truly live and die in this mode based on your ability to generate new ideas and innovative analysis, you've created a life path that highly incentivizes you to be the kind of thinker you enjoy being.  Or as my Dad often put it, making your natural hobby you career and getting paid for it.  It's also allowed me to work out of my home since 2005, meaning, when I'm not on the road, I am fully accessible to my kids.  Again, for some, that's a nightmare (constant interruptions, irregular working hours, etc.), but to me, it's everything I loved about grad school (about a dozen balls in the air at any one time) and everything I hated about regular work in an office (show up 0800, leave 1700, commuting both ways).  I tend to work a big week (60-80 hours), but I work around my kids' lives, and since interacting with them is such a great source of idea generation as well (how can you be a futurist without having kids?), that's professional perk.

So here's the odd part:  to be a creative thinker, I find, you have to be highly disciplined in your work life, allowing you to have a dozen or so bosses who constantly prod you from different angles.  Right now I am working on a solid dozen subject matters - a very disparate collection.  But I love that, and it feeds the beast.

Horizontal thinkers tend to be (my experience) fairly rare relative to drill-down artists (normal expertise), so a loner's mentality is good, and you need a lot of self-confidence about working on your own but meshing your material with others (you are always part of a net, or have editors, etc.).  It's not for everybody, and it's a choice that keeps you on the fringes of most things (you're not a joiner, per se), but you have to know what you like and what your personality is.

This path just makes me very happy and I can't imagine doing it any other way.  I have nightmares of the single job in the single office with the single boss.


Is there any advice you have for students who are interested in making a serious difference in the world?  

I always say, learn as many languages as possible.  Don't have to be good at any of them, but just the process of studying them enough to gain accessibility to the mindset.  That's a skill I use every day, and it allows me quick access to domains for the purposes of cross-linking analyses.  

By "languages," I don't just mean actual languages, but also subject-matter languages.  I love to take on a new subject just to learn the language and the logic and all the terms.

That's an inherent skill set for thinking laterally/horizontally, and since you will be changing subject matters constantly, the key is to develop your preferred tool kit of analytic approaches.  There is no set way to do this, in my mind, you just want to consciously collect great analytic tricks, maneuvers, procedures as you go along. I probably have about three dozen that I use over and over again in all sorts of subject areas, because I've come to trust them in terms of the revealed output.  So you think of them as tracking tricks, like stuff I always do when I'm canoeing a new river.  Not the fastest route, but one that rewards you in the accumulation of impressions that lead to analysis.  Being observant is everything.  Analytically, my whole life feels like one big deja vu, meaning I am constantly saying to myself, "I think I've spotted this dynamic somewhere else before."

So again, variety over drill down, and academically, that probably requires a big mushy soft science field that allows you a ton of freedom.  That's why I did political science.  Exceedingly hard to foster horizontal thinking in a technical field until later in your career.  I just know personally I never would have survived that journey.


How did you develop your philosophies?

By constantly seeking out the most interesting and fear-filled work I could find, subjects where, by most accounts I had no business trying to forge new thinking (Isn't there somebody more established who can crank out an answer we all know and love - in advance?).  If I don't feel over my head on some level, I don't like the work as a rule, unless the balancing factor is some insane ambition or unusually deep-in-the-future scope that allows a whacked amount of freedom in approach.  One of those three factors needs to be in place.

Besides that, I think it's key to expose yourself to a wide array of thinking, steering clear of most of the work in your own field (I find reading political science to be a "little mind killer," because after a while, you're so read into the conventional wisdom you can't say or write anything else).  Collect great nuggets as you go along (I will read entire books for the right paragraph that I will - from that point on - carry at the tip of my tongue) and likewise collect clear images of what-must-happen-in-the-global-future so that you can explore the tectonic interfaces between these large forces to understand how things likely unfold for regions, states, individuals. It's like carrying this "Inception"-level complex narrative in your head at all times, and you're constantly engaging in script changes, but because you're always focused on the linkages (both present and downstream) you find the notion of "black swans" a bit silly - like a middle-age crisis.  You know where you are in time, and you are always working your set of expectations regarding future sequencing of change, so "bolts from the blue" are just little scenario inserts that spice up the narrative but don't knock you off your contemplation of the whole.

Also key is patience.  If you need to be right tonight, or in the next 5-minute TV segment, then you don't want to do this, because you will constantly be backtracking.  A good long-term thinker is a terrible pundit, because he or she doesn't have a new mania every other week.  The upside is that you're not always freaking out, the downside is that the mass media loves experts who freak out, because they provide rich content ("This is possibly the worst thing that has ever happened to the X!").  So you have to be comfortable with the ups-and-downs of real-world events, which shift from one mania (victory!) to the next (stalemate!  defeat!).  My favorite bit on this is Zhou Enlai being asked about the French Revolution and answering, "It's too early to tell."  If you need climaxes to move on, you can't do this.  Handling ambiguity well and enjoying anticipation more than completion are job requirements.


Will you be doing any presentations in Ohio?

No, but you can come see me in Johnstown PA on the morning of the 10th of May.  It's an open to the public event.  From organizer J. Stewart Ross:

The Greater Johnstown Chapter of the National Contract Management Association (NCMA) is excited to announce that we will host Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett on Tuesday, May 10th for his talk "Strategy of the 21st Century in Transition." The meeting will be at the Holiday Inn—Downtown Johnstown at 8a and is open to the public. Dr. Barnett is a leading national security expert and the New York Times bestselling author of The Pentagon’s New Map, Blueprint for Action and his newest book which debuted on 2/5/09, Great Powers: America and the World after Bush. Dr. Barnett is a nationally known public speaker who has been profiled on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. He is in high demand within government circles as a forecaster of global conflict and an expert of military transformation, as well as within corporate circles as a management consultant and conference presenter on issues relating to international security and economic globalization. Registration is required. Additional details will be provided in the near future. Contact me or see the link below for more details if you are interested.

PDF for registration