Entry 15: Always Be Hustling

January 3, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 15th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?


I spent much of today on peripheral tasks — recommendation letter requests, manuscript reviews, and media requests. This stuff is technically voluntary, but it’s part of being a good citizen. Plus, there’s such a thing as karma in the foreign policy ecosystem, and especially in academia.

If I’m being honest, I also got a little too sucked into Twitter again today. There’s more to say about that but will save it for tomorrow. President Trump’s “nuclear button” tweet that just came out (as I was writing this) is so gratuitous, so counter-productive, and so distracting. Yet it’s also emblematic of why this book is necessary. It’ll undoubtedly be a primary source reference in a later chapter.

Despite everything, I still managed a little over 500 words, though that included two lengthy quotes so I’m not sure if those words should count. I feel like such a lazy ass. I could’ve written so much more today, even with all the other tasks I had to attend to.

Some people have the impression from my keeping this #NukeYourDarlings journal that I work really hard. I don’t. Or at least I don’t work hard enough. I mean, I feel a near-panic every day at only having 24 hours to accomplish all that needs to be done, and I try make the most of my time.

But I’ve had the absolute worst jobs a person can have in a free society — the fry station at Wendy’s, for example, or the greyhound wrestler at a dog racing track (longer story there). I started off in the Air Force as an E-1, the bottom of the bottom. Those were jobs where I worked hard. Life felt like a struggle, and I couldn’t see more than a couple days into the future. My life now is nothing like that, thankfully. I owe it to my former self not to do less when I could do more.

Because of how I came up, I used to think hustling was a class thing — people at the bottom have no choice but to work harder — and it’s true that working hard at more modest levels of the income scale means you’re working from a position of less security and fewer opportunities.

But one of the things that surprised me most when I was staffing principals in the Pentagon was how hard many of the senior officials in the Obama administration worked. The bureaucracy had no shortage of hustlers, they were just doing it from positions of greater (ok, much greater) comfort than the world I knew before. I’d review their schedule trying to find 15 minutes to brief them on a policy paper and there would literally be no 15-minute windows in a day that runs from 0730 to 1900. Sometimes you’d have to schedule meetings three weeks in advance.

Seeing the work that undersecretaries and assistant secretaries put in made me realize there was no end of the rainbow when I could just kick my feet up and soak in the good life. There was no finish line. Unsurprisingly, it was much the same in the think tank world. Moving up was what everybody wanted, but success (in foreign policy anyway) meant needing to work harder still. It feels a bit like that even now.

I guess my point is I know there are lots of people out there hustling a lot harder than me, at all levels of life. So I get down on myself when I don’t deliver as much as, or as good as, I think I can.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks.