war on the rocks

Entry 78: Reflections on a Meeting With an Old Friend

April 3, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 78th 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?

Today was exhausting. Only slept for four hours last night. I wrote about 250 words for the book before I had to crash on preparing remarks for my presentations the next two days.

I made it out to see an old friend who runs the World Economic Forum’s Silicon Valley campus, located in San Francisco’s Presidio—totally gorgeous and invigorating.

My friend and I are total opposites in most respects. He’s highly extroverted and I’m a natural introvert. He’s an Ivy League grad and I’m, well, not. He stopped pursuing formal education after his undergrad, and I went all the way to a PhD. He’s a practitioner and I’m a scholar. The list goes on. We met in the Pentagon, working on defense strategy. What made us so close was our unconventional approach to the job, and to life. We both have a strange conviction that you can sort of create your own reality. Not so much in a Trumpian “fake news” sense, but in a Gatsby-ian sense. We’ve both gone about it in our own ways, but it’s what brought us to work on strategy in the first place. Both of us are prone to try big, hairy, audacious things, and both of us pay virtually no attention to the odds stacked against us when we do.

If it wasn’t for that propensity to try and create our own paths, he wouldn’t have come to defense strategy from speechwriting, and I wouldn’t have come to it from Korea policy. He wouldn’t be in a job that didn’t even exist two years ago, and I wouldn’t be a scholar working on a book for Cambridge despite not coming from a top-ranked program. I’m a statistical outlier in most of my experiences.

My friend and I talk about this a lot because we’ve done the create-your-own-reality thing many times. We recognized a common core to our natures despite our differences.

Even as I write this I’m conflicted because, on a gut level, I do believe there’s a kind of magic that’s possible through will power and focus. The primacy of human agency. At the same time, as an academic I’m a structuralist, acutely aware of the capricious way that circumstances can shape your outcomes and opportunities. Life incentivizes us to go down certain paths, and most of us do, yet we’re also capable of defying the odds—or at least we’re capable of trying.

I think I’m so tired that I’m not making a lot of sense. But it felt good getting a jolt from an old buddy who reminded me that fake-it-‘til-you-make-it can be something profoundly more—even a philosophy—if you’re willing to believe in yourself and try. Imagine something and go about making it real. An interesting contrast to my entry yesterday on pursuing a PhD.

 

Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.