John Boyd's bloody-mindedness

My friend just texted to tell me enthusiastically he's just finished reading the Robert Coram biography of John Boyd. This reminded me that when I read the book, my biggest takeaway wasn't learning about the events that lead to Boyd's genius theories, it was instead his sheer bloody-mindedness.

Boyd was extremely confrontational, and despite his self-professed "low IQ", he followed his fascinations into independent study to produce a number of revolutionary new combat theories. He never gave an inch, and so spent his entire career ostracised by most colleagues. He died forlorn, unsatisfied that he'd achieved his life's work.

His theories—Energy-Maneuverability theory, Destruction and Creation, and the OODA loop—are all now highly reputed across many domains, not just the military. But none would exist without Boyd’s extreme dedication to his own thoughts. He spent half a century standing his ground against the United States Military, perhaps the most rigid and demanding organisation in history. Sheer bloody-mindedness was the prerequisite to all his theories. As Coram phrased it: "Without a skunk fight, life was boring."

Bloody-mindedness as creative fuel

Reflecting back on my thoughts about the prerequisites for creation—Creativity starts with love and theft—where I postulate that being interested starts the whole thing off (that is, love) and theft lights the creative act (blank canvases are hard, just steal something)—I ended by surmising that when the creative process becomes thick and difficult, your initial interest is what will keep you going (gotta love what you do, so to speak).

I realised that within Boyd's story there was also another type of fuel I've missed: he believed other people had it wrong. When reading current theories of the time, he listened to his feelings, determined what he read didn't feel right (even though he did not know how it wasn't right), and then he plainly did not agree to agree with the common understanding of the time. He didn't let it slide. Extreme disagreement was The Mad Major's creative spark.

The genesis of any idea is not being satisfied with what already exists Rei Kawakubo

At this point, I'll mention the idea of contrarianism that startup culture celebrates. Contrarianism is a very fine idea, but as with any term that becomes incorporated into a cultural lingo that by definition is a shorthand reduction of terms (that is, by memeification), its meaning becomes diluted, aggregated across the network. So, sure, peg this post as about contrariansim, but then you may not take the time to read about Body's magnificent example of bloody-mindedness and you'll only know contrarianism as a theory rather than a practice. So I implore you to read his story to truly understand what bloody-minded creativity is.

Creativity is tough

In my last post, I used this step flow to illustrate what precedes and ignites the creativity:

Fan > Collector > Scene > Imitation > Creation

Which I argued can be shortened to just:

Love > Theft > Art

In light of The Mad Major's life and works, we know that bloody-mindedness is an important part for fueling the process when things don't feel right but you don't yet know why or how. When the creative process becomes thick and difficult, then love has to transmute into a finer-grain rendering known as bloody-mindedness:

Love > Bloody-mindedness > Art

There are many other words that could be used to describe this fascination-fueling state, such as "stick-to-it-ive-ness". Find and use your favourite. After all, the creative process is strictly personal.

Love > Stick-to-it-ive-ness > Art

In the end, however, it doesn't matter what the flow steps are that lead to creation. As Boyd said so preciscely, the defining soliloquy for action is to "do something or be somebody".