The Significance of John Boyd

The Significance of John Boyd

One hundred miles north of Las Vegas, there is a clump of wild grass and cottonwood trees called “The Green Spot.” Not much to look at from the ground, but from thirty thousand feet above the brown Nevada desert, it stands out for a hundred miles.

In the mid to late fifties, a fighter pilot could earn himself a quick forty bucks and perhaps a nice steak dinner in Vegas by meeting over the Green Spot at thirty thousand feet and taking a position just 500 feet behind an arrogant and unpleasant man with precisely zero air-to-air victories to his credit.

From that perfect kill position, you would yell, “Fight’s on!” and if the sitting duck in front of you was not on your tail with you in his gunsight in forty seconds flat, then you would win the money, the dinner and best of all, the fame.

And yet that forty dollars went uncollected, uncollected for many years against scores of the best fighter pilots in the world. That is more than luck. That is more than skill. That is more than tactics. That level of supremacy is the result of the ability to see things in an entirely new way. It is the difference between escaping from a maze you are embedded in, versus finding the way out from one that you look down upon from above.

Having your ass handed to you in such a spectacular and repeated fashion causes some men to curse and mutter about "one trick ponies" and so on. But for others, for those who are more invested in victory than in ego, it reveals a level of skill that instantly removes all swagger and competition and puts one in the place of a willing supplicant, eager for knowledge.

This story illustrates the kind of man that John Boyd was and is the origin of this "40 Second Boyd" nickname. He bet he could beat anybody within 40 seconds, or he’d pay them $40. He never paid.

He had other nicknames — “Mad Major,” and even “Genghis John” for his focus and drive to dominate competitors.

His "Ghetto Colonel" nickname speaks to another part of his character. It represents—his personal philosophy on life itself—that truly what set John Boyd apart.

If there’s one thing that everybody who knows about John Boyd knows about, it’s the OODA Loop.

Boyd’s biographer, Robert Coram in Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, tells why he was known as the "Ghetto Colonel", and how by changing the personal game, he was able to change the organisation:

“When Boyd retired as a full colonel with twenty-four years of service, his retirement pay was $1,342.44 [about $6,500 today] per month, plus COLA–the cost-of-living allowance. Even in 1975 that was a pitifully small sum to support a wife and five children. Boyd easily could have followed the route of many senior officers and gone to a well-paying job with a defense contractor.”

“Boyd knew he had to be independent and he saw only two ways for a man to do this: he can either achieve great wealth or reduce his needs to zero. Boyd said that if he can reduce his needs to zero, he is truly free — there is nothing that can be taken from him and nothing anyone can do to hurt him.”

“Boyd stopped buying clothes. The cars that he and his wife Mary drove would, over the next decade, become rambling wrecks. He even refused to buy a case for his reading glasses; instead, he carried them around in an old sock. And despite the rising anger of his children, he said the family would continue to live in the basement apartment on Beauregard.”

Offered a job as a Pentagon civilian, Boyd said he wouldn’t take the salary. “Boyd was horrified that he might be called a ‘double dipper’–a man who had both a government pension and a government job.”

“He worked about five years with no pay, before word came down that the Pentagon could not have unpaid consultants. Boyd griped and complained and said he wanted the smallest salary possible, $1 per pay period, but the minimum time a consultant could be paid for and remain on the Pentagon rolls was one day every two weeks. So henceforth Boyd was paid for one day’s work every two weeks.”

This personal philosophy allowed him to go against the organisational grain and provide value in telling people what they don't want to hear, making choices they don't want to make, and having conversations that they don't want to have.

Boyd’s approach enabled him to finish projects he believed in, projects that mattered, that he never published but delivered as presentations that were highly influential at the Pentagon. When he gave them he demanded several hours of uninterrupted, undivided attention from his audience.

Since he had reduced his needs to zero, when 4-star officers like the admiral serving as chief of the navy and the general serving as chief of the army asked for shorter versions of the 6-hour briefing, Boyd turned them down. He didn’t need their favour or approval.




Robert Coram Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War