For some years, now, I have taken advantage of the long trips to American Chemical Society meetings to try to plow through one of the jumbo-sized nonfiction books on my To Be Read shelf. Having developed a taste for biographies of political personalities, Colin Powell’s autobiography seemed like a good choice for my recent trip to Dallas.
Unlike many nonfiction books that I slogged through last year mostly because 1) I was a captive audience on my Metro commutes and 2) I know better than to take fiction to work since sometimes I can’t stop reading, My American Journey was a real pleasure to read. It was neither a tell-all nor an opportunity to name drop. Indeed Colin Powell’s unwritten rule seemed to be, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” which I respected. I did learn to watch out for the people who were not mentioned in depth since other books I’ve read that mentioned the same person were more candid about the person’s shortcomings.
In addition to a narrative of the formative experiences of his life, the book was organized by life lessons. For many years, Gen. Powell kept a list of rules on the surface of his desk so to remind him of the lessons he had learned over the course of his career. His autobiography told many of the stories that accompanied either his learning or his using these lessons.
For example, he was stationed in Korea long after the war there ended as part of a deterrent force to make sure the region did not heat up again. Since it was anticipated that eventually all of those troops would be coming home, there was not a lot of investment in infrastructure, and those troops had far from the best of everything. The Commanding Officer, “Gunfighter” Emerson was determined to keep morale up. Because conventional sports could only occupy a small fraction of the troops, Gunfighter devised new sports such as Combat Football, which involved 50 men on each side and two footballs. There were almost no rules, much to the unhappiness of the medics who patched up enough injuries for a small battle after each event.
Gunfighter also decided that since wars are not fought on a 9-5 schedule, he regularly overturned the troops’ days so that for a week at a time, the troops would sleep days and train nights. At the end of one of these flipped training weeks, Powell’s group was returning from an arduous training exercise and arrived at the point where they were supposed to pick up their buses only to find that there weren’t enough buses for everyone, leaving them with a 12+ mile hike home. As they reluctantly and tiredly started off, one of Powell’s officers came up to him and said that the trek home could be used at the final qualification many of the men needed to get their Expert Infantryman Badge since Powell had been pushing them to get qualified and they only needed a 12 mile hike in under three hours. Powell was skeptical, but he abided by the rule, “Never step on enthusiasm.” Word went around the group of the plan, and the pace picked up as everyone was determined to accomplish the goal. When they arrived back in came at about 4 AM, they broke into parade ground formation. They marched passed the CO’s house, where the CO was on hand to inspect the troops and salute in his bathrobe. Powell’s unit ended up with more Expert Infantryman Badges than the other two units combined.
Powell’s perspective on racism was remarkably free of bitterness. In spite of being stationed in Alabama early in his career, where once he was off base, he could not buy a drink to quench his thirst, something to eat, or use a rest room, he focused on the army’s inclusive culture where he was treated just like any other soldier. Powell obviously dealt with a fair number of challenges because of his race, but he always tried to find some positive aspect to share.
One practice that did annoy Powell throughout his career was what he called, “breaking starch.” This term was derived from the soldiers’ practice of heavily starching their trousers to look good for inspections. Unfortunately, the pants became so stiff that the men would beat them with a broom handle to get them flexible enough to put on. Thereafter, Powell was constantly on the lookout for examples of habits that had formed because they looked good rather than because they were useful or productive.
One last lesson that I wish I had learned two years ago was, “Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.” On one of my fellowship interviews, I was asked to make a recommendation and then was immediately asked what would be my response if I was specifically prohibited from going forward with that recommendation. Well, the topic was climate change, and I was advocating for adaptation. I knew how important adaptation was going to be, and I just couldn’t let go of the importance of that suggestion. That was the one fellowship for which I was not a finalist because indeed, my ego was far too invested in my position. In my interview for my second fellowship, I got effectively the same question, and because I was less invested in my recommendation, it was far easier for me to say, “Well, this might not be the right time, or it might not be possible to include my recommendation this time.” I was a finalist for that fellowship.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it. To close, I’ll share
Colin Powell’s Rules
- It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning
- Get mad, then get over it.
- Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when you position falls, your ego goes with it.
- It can be done!
- Be careful what you choose. You may get it.
- Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
- You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.
- Check small things
- Share credit
- Remain calm. Be kind.
- Have a vision. Be demanding
- Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
- Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier