Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Kentucky Windage

I'm spending a lot of time thinking about the way I see the world lately. But of course, just as I reached a point of peace and comfort with my life choices, approach to work and so on, events made me wonder whether I should be quite so comfortable and content.

So there I was back to feeling unsure of myself. Goody.

Ah, it's so fun to be a woman sometimes.

Years ago, I took a 2-day leadership course through my then-employer. In the late '90s, these were all the rage. I don't remember learning much at the conference, which was heavy on bonding with people I'd never see again, and 'visualization' instead of actual tools and methodologies, but it was a nice 2 days in a Newport, RI hotel, so as these things go, it wasn't too bad.

The one thing I do remember is a 1-page leaflet in the back of the binder of handouts. The title, interestingly, was Kentucky Windage. I was bored. I was former military. The story was about sharpshooters. And so I started reading.

The gist of the story is this: back in the post-Civil War era, as our approach to military policy began to solidify under a single unified banner of the United States, how to integrate soldiers from the North and South took up a lot of time and mental energy. When you boil it down, the North didn't win because it had better soldiers, for the most part, the South had the really good ones. The North won because it had superior firepower, numbers and resources. Oh, and it was on the right side of the conflict, and there is something to be said for winning hearts and minds by being on the moral high ground.

How to leverage the sheer skill of southern soldiers into a northern-led army was the name of the game for a while. And one of the things the north wanted to leverage was the skill of the Kentucky Sharpshooters and those like them, who had made quite a name for themselves as having no peer in the expertise of their shooting.

Let me clarify, we're talking about Kentucky hill boys here, some who joined up with a gun and no shoes. Little education - and probably fewer teeth - amongst the lot of them. Picture this: barefoot, poorly spoken, illiterate, wearing the proverbial coon-skin caps. And outshooting the highly-trained, deeply formal, beautifully uniformed officers out of West Point wasn't exactly something that made them popular. And yet, they did, every time.

In Kentucky, a methodology of sorts had been developed to the point of becoming instinctual for hitting a target. Here's one description:

"Hitting a target in the real world (not on the blackboard) means compensating for variables, such as natural, varying winds and elevation, speed of the target and speed of the shooter.If a target is moving one direction, the shooter (and the firearm) are moving a different direction, the wind is blowing (at 500 meters, the wind can be blowing three or four different directions and different speeds) and you're shooting up a hill, it takes some savvy to launch a successful shot. "

This is about the most counterintuitive approach you can take to a rifle shot, or at least it can look that way at first. Moving away from the shot in order to better make the shot? And yet, when you think about it, it makes sense. It's complex geometry combined with a bit of chaos theory with some understanding of weather and acceleration combined. This is stuff that mathematicians study and figure out. Except that these guys didn't know mathematical theory.

Or at least, they didn't know they did.

These guys figured out how to shoot so well because the success of their one shot up a hill with the wind blowing in 3 directions was the difference between feeding their families or not. It's amazing how good you get at something when it's a necessary and fundamental part of your needs.

We often underestimate, especially in this day and age, what we know, and our capacity to have learned outside of the classroom. If it wasn't the result of a test or a credential, we doubt it.

And yet, throughout history, refined knowledge about important things pops up in the most unlikely places. Like the Dogon's detailed knowledge of Sirius B long before a telescope was capable of finding it. Or a neurology intern named Michael Burry knowing exactly when and how the subprime mortgage was going to collapse, when even the folks that were packaging up the securities that led to it's downfall didn't.

Why do I tell you all this? Because when I start to doubt myself, I start to think about Kentucky Windage. And the Dogons. And Mike Burry. I'm not saying I know what they know. But ultimately, each of those examples became successful because they trusted their instincts.

So while I'm wrong a lot, and I'm okay with that, sometimes I just have to trust that my gut is going to lead me in the right direction. And it allows me to push back both at myself when I doubt, and at others.

So here's my point: Trust yourself. When you know you are on the right path, even if everyone around you is scratching their heads, keep going. Because if the Dogons could be certain of the existence of a star they had never seen, and some Kentucky hill boy could hit a target in an elevated position at a distance while compensating for wind and moving in the opposite direction, and Mike Burry could know what all the brain trust on Wall Street missed, you probably know something too.

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