To be or to do

Reading Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday (author of the also great The Obstacle is the Way), I stumbled upon an idea that I thought worth sharing. At some point in time in your life you will have to make a decision on whether you want to be or you want to do.

The case is illustrated with the example of military strategist John Boyd, someone you've never heard of (because he chose to do, not to be), but someone who has transformed maneuver warfare in every single branch of the armed forces, becoming an essential person to understand modern military strategy. As a lead instructor at Nellis Air Force Base, the message he gave his most promising students was clear: You can take a path that leads you to be someone, get promotions and get good assignments. Or you can take another direction that leads to do something meaningful for your country.

I consider myself to be, for one reason or another, on the path of being (as my current business card may prove). I felt offended by the idea of mutual exclusivity of Ryan's approach. Hey, you can be AND you can also do at the same time! Why not?! But the more I think about it, the more truth I find in those words.

Being someone prominent in an organization introduces a good number of compromises that really hamper your ability to do. Handling perception seems to be at the top of the list of tasks that are strictly related to being and perfectly useless for doing. Handling perception is one key factor in the game of deciding who does what in an organization, which is one key goal of someone devoted to being. Handling perception also is determinant in securing your position or creating doubts about it. As paranoia is one of the side effects of being, handling perception becomes one obsessive exercise for many. So yes, it's hard to balance being and doing when being implies devoting time to things that do not contribute to doing.

But the path of being is naturally attracting, according to values that are not necessarily associated with vicious behaviors like greed or pride. By definition, being is restrictive. Not many people are. You can argue that not many people excel at doing, but there is a fundamental difference. On the path of being, you are chosen among the others. That natural selection (ruling out any other criteria but merit) leads you to realize that yes, the path of being is THE path because only the best are (I insist, I'm idealizing that path as being rooted in performance, not any other factor). How can you choose any other way but the one that proves your worth, your contribution (well... there is a little bit of pride here)? Also, how can you not choose a path that will take you to higher responsibilities that will allow your contribution to be more impactful?

This leads to the interesting debate, implicit in the be/do dichotomy, on whether the higher in the organization, the more marginal your contribution. On one hand, managers may be there just to effectively administer resources and create an environment for others to make a difference when they design a product or talk to a customer. On the other, it may be their strategic decisions of what markets to enter or what resources to allocate to an initiative the ones that make the difference.

It's hard to say and definitely an idea worth thinking about. As of my personal experience, I'm tempted to think that my contribution was more differential when I participated in the building of Almenara (an internal system for my company) about 12 years ago. I don't feel my contribution as a manager is really that much different from what any other may do in my own position, but I need to discount a little bit of that imposter syndrome that haunts me from time to time. Anyway, that was a slightly different perspective, because the actual question was: did you contribute more to the company when you made Almenara or when you were responsible for a big team? Honestly, I'm not really sure (and I'm starting to think why the hell did I started writing this post in the first place!)

Anyway, I was not planning to make a point here other than the idea of being as opposed to doing is something worth thinking about. I clearly need some more thinking myself (I'll try on the flight back).