#Monday Musings: Mark Jacobsen

"Monday Musings” are designed to get quick, insightful thoughts based around three questions from those interested in strategy, from the most experienced and lauded, to our newest thinkers/writers.

1. Who had the greatest impact on you intellectually (whether through writing, mentorship, etc.)?

Most mentorship in my life has come in the form of good books. When I was in high school, C.S. Lewis awakened my mind and gave me a deep thirst for reading and learning. A more recent influence is Steven Pressfield, who writes about overcoming internal resistance to tackle difficult but important work. This has been helpful for me, as someone who has big, ambitious ideas but wrestles with self-doubt and is reticent about stepping into the public arena.

2. What book (fiction, history, or academic) do you think best explains strategy?

Much scholarship on strategy assumes interactions between two players, from Clausewitz's duel metaphor to game-theoretic models like the prisoner's dilemma. I have spent years grappling with how to think about strategy when multiple actors are involved. So much changes. One of the most helpful books I've read is Brian Arthur's Complexity and the Economy. Arthur shows that in complex environments, the strategic decision-making process is fundamentally different than rational choice theories (which prevail in academia) assume. Best strategies depend on the expected best strategies of every other player, but these in turn depend on expected best strategies, and so on. Because of the infinite recursion problem, winning strategies are deductively incomputable. This means strategy-making is an evolutionary process in which strategists must propose decision rules (i.e., educated guesses), test those decision rules through practice, assess feedback, and then evolve their decision rules based on how well they perform. Because these decisions rules are contingent on the evolving strategies of other players, there is never a stable set of winning decision rules. They constantly change. Strategists must constantly struggle to find the most effective decision rules of the moment, which is like trying to stay at the highest point in a sloshing seascape. This might all sound abstract, but is supremely useful in thinking about and formalizing the challenges of strategy. This view of the world fits well with both Clausewitz and Boyd, and leads to a humble reverence for the possibilities and limits of strategy.

3. What do you want your legacy to be?

I want an end like Jean Val Jean in Les Miserables, with a host of people around me whose lives I have touched in small ways. I expect my accomplishments will fade away, but I want people—especially my children—to say, "He was a good man. He lived well."

Mark Jacobsen is a C-17 pilot, strategist, and Middle East specialist, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Political Science at Stanford University. His articles, short stories, and novel are available at www.buildingpeace.net. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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