1. Patton’s career-defining choice in 1917
  2. Starting a new job at the exact moment of technological change
  3. Modern example: 2008 financial crash
  4. Patton at St-Mihiel
  5. Boot camp 2.0
  6. Education and life outcomes
  7. You’re going to face a career-defining choice, trust me

Patton’s career-defining choice in 1917

Brief biography of GSP in case you’re not familiar:

  • 1909: graduated west point
  • 1912: placed in the olympic pentathlon (stockholm)
  • 1912: studied saber in france under charles clery
  • 1913-1915: attended the mounted service school. while teaching fencing to senior officers, designed the perfect light cavalry sword and had 20k (!) made
  • 1916: pancho villa expedition
  • 1917: america enters world war I in april
  • 1917: Got ‘jaundice’ from excessive fish eating. Roomed with fox conner in base hospital 15 at AEF HQ in Chaumont. Conner convinced him to command infantry instead of tanks
  • 1917: didn’t train on french tanks at champlieu
  • 1918: didn’t establish the AEF tank corps
  • 1918: vaporized by german MG08s outside cheppy, possibly on horseback, waving the sword he designed


Everything up to 1917 is accurate but as you know he wasn’t killed in this war, or in any war; he died many years later from a low speed car crash pre-seatbelt. He did take a bullet through the leg at Cheppy but he recovered. The bold phrases in the timeline present an alternate universe where he chose not to start the tank school.

In fact, Patton’s sword was never used.

In 1917, Patton was stationed at AEF headquarters in Chaumont and hated it. Even after a promotion to major he wrote that he “would trade jobs with almost any one for any thing”1.

So when AEF command approached him to run a nascent tank division, he bit. He wrote to Black Jack Pershing, the top American general in Europe, and speaking of his experience in Mexico said:

I believe that I am the only American who has ever made an attack in a motor vehicle2

Effective cover letter? Probably. Also worth mentioning Pershing was engaged to Patton’s sister for part of the year.

Pershing liked him for the job but around this time GSP got sick and was hospitalized, delaying his attachment to the tank project. In the hospital, he roomed with Colonel Fox Conner, an old friend – they met on a train in 1913 because of a cavalry sword:

as they sat in the gently rocking passenger car, Conner and his wife noticed a young Army officer seated at the other end of the car. The man’s appearance fascinated Mrs. Conner. Eyes front, the young officer sat erect, swaying with the motion of the clattering car, holding the largest cavalry saber she had ever seen. In all the time she watched his stern face, it never changed expression. Fox also had been intently eyeing the man, and halfway to Fort Riley he walked down the train car aisle and introduced himself to George Patton.3

Conner was a tank expert4 and a world-class mentor (he coached Eisenhower and Marshall). According to one Patton biographer, Conner tried to talk Patton out of taking the tank job5. Read GSP’s Nov 3 diary entry; he was totally on the fence:

I went to the hospital (No. 15 Roosfelt Unit) On Oct 17 and was put in the room with Col Fox Conner who had been operated on for a stoppage of the bowls on Sept 14? I talked Tank with him and decided to try to become a Maj of Inft. Next night Oct 18 Col Eltinge came and said Gen McAndrew wanted to start a Tank school at Langres and Nov 15 and would I take it. Inspite of my resolution to the contrary I said yes. But I kept discussing it pro and con with Col F. Conner and again decided on Inft.6

But the next day, like anyone on the fence about a big decision, he let events decide for him:

Saw Col Malone who said my name had gone to general for detail to T School. … I did not sleep a bit that night and decided to try the Tanks as it speres the way to high command if I make a go of it.

He soon regained his confidence and was writing letters like this one:

1st. I will run the school. 2. Then they will organize a batallion. I will command it. 3. Then if I make good and the T do and the war lasts I will get the first regiment. 4. With the same “IF” as before they will make a brigade and I will get the star.7

My point is: that sword. He spent years learning to fence, it was named after him, it was the best of its kind. It started his friendship with Conner, who almost talked him into an infantry command. He probably put his hopes for career advancement into it and identified himself with it.

At times of change, it can be dangerous to identify yourself with obsolete skills. You have to give them up and learn something new.

Starting a new job at the exact moment of technological change

Technological change is hard to pinpoint in real life (read about ‘diffusion lag’8 for more on this) but easier to track in war. The British & French were fielding tanks a few months earlier and GSP was the first American assigned to tank combat duty.

If you work for a living in 2017 (or 1990, or any other year really) you’re probably experiencing the ‘changing nature of work’. This means that technological shifts lead to changes in what people can get paid for and the value of different skills.

One large-scale trend is the decline of the middle9:

  • high-paying, highly social, non-repetitive cognitive work seeing growth
  • low-paying repetitive manual work seeing growth
  • middle-paying, ‘okay’, ‘clerical’ jobs are going away.

This means (a) job growth is concentrated in knowledge worker jobs and (b) better automation is constantly raising the education / skills bar for knowledge jobs.

100 years ago to the year, GSP was a knowledge worker. If you don’t believe me, consider:

  • In the decade or so of his military career leading up to WW1, about half of his time was spent teaching & learning in formal military schools.
  • During his time at AEF HQ and running the tank school, he generated hundreds of pages of math-heavy reports with his engineer partner (appropriately named ‘Braine’).
  • A battle plan is itself a knowledge product. Leaders and managers have always been knowledge workers. Patton even used the word ‘data’10.

Like all knowledge workers, he wasn’t always engaged in productive work; the ‘productive work’ of the organization is happening elsewhere (making things, moving things). Instead, he focused on problems his organization didn’t yet know how to solve.

More on this in section 5 but my point is: Patton wanted to be on the front lines during the whole war. He would have been happy to be a cavalry commander. Technological change made the nature of his work deviate from what he prepared for.

Modern example: 2008 financial crash

Let us see another christmas …

I started a new job (my first) at a different moment of technological change and crisis. It was 2007 and in finance, the trading floor was in the final throes of transitioning to electronic order books; automated and high speed trading were beginning to dominate trading volume. Plus there was an asset bubble starting to pop.

I joined a tiny futures trading desk in Chicago and lucked out because the CEO was one of the 2 best technical managers I’ve worked with.

He was an ex-floor trader. When electronic trading started showing real volume, he took the plunge and moved his business upstairs. Many floor traders didn’t do this; they knew they could get better price information by watching the other floor traders.

The remnant floor traders, focused on the important & difficult skills they’d spent their careers learning and improving, didn’t think about the other tactical advantages that electronic trading would provide: the immense reaction speed, the ability to watch many markets at once and arbitrage them against each other, the ability to replace heuristics with math.

On Sep 29 during the crash in 08, we had an algorithm that traded futures pairs and we were watching it carefully as the the congress voted down a bailout. We switched from CNBC to c-span because CNBC had a 5-second broadcast delay in case somebody swore. People were swearing in the office – with every new vote a new bottom dropped out of the market.

Our algo was holding its own. We almost didn’t run it but the CEO made the call to let it work. Unlike less capable managers I’ve met, he understood the tools at play and could make a quick, informed decision on a high-stakes trading day.

Another time someone on my desk asked what falafel was and the CEO gave a 5 minute how-to lecture on falafel, with the sourcing and preparation of ingredients and the cooking time. It turns out he owned a middle eastern restaurant in college.

If leaders can’t operate the organization’s tools in a pinch how likely is it they can create effective tactics? If they don’t (sometimes) join you in the trenches, how likely is it they can pick the right moment to drive forward to the next trench? My first boss was with us on the trading desk on the worst days and had his own worst days in the past, and the things he asked us to do often worked.

Patton at St-Mihiel

For all his preparation and work Patton was only involved in two actions in the war: the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Before his first tank engagement he joined a French night patrol and crawled right up to the German barbed wire to test if the ground was firm enough for his tanks. It was, but the morning of the battle was muddy and the tanks bogged down in the trenches.

He went down from his observation post to un-bog and stayed at the front. Between 6 and 9 am he walked around and ahead of his tanks, leading them over and through obstacles.

At 9ish he met Douglas MacArthur on a hill and had a conversation with him:

“I think each one wanted to leave but each hated to say so, so we let [the barrage] come over us.” As nonchalantly as possible, the two men conversed, though Patton guessed that neither of them “was much interested in what the other said as we could not get our minds off the shells.”11

Later in the day when some of the tanks ran out of gas he jogged back to the Allied supply lines to order some.

His tank group’s only job was to escort infantry, but GSP’s style of war was all about movement and fast advance; so whenever he could spare some tanks he led them ahead of the infantry line.

Even given the contradiction between his orders and his tactical style, the stars aligned for him that day. His career-scale fears about choosing tanks and never getting to see combat evaporated. Even the stress of planning the battle was gone – no plan of action survives first contact with the enemy12. Worries about never seeing combat were replaced by very real fears about his physical safety, but Patton had a strange hunger for danger.

Maybe he was self-medicating with the adrenaline rush of combat. Cartoonist Bill Mauldin thought Patton was crazy for this13, in the same way Mark Twain thought Teddy Roosevelt was crazy14.

The most interesting thing to me about this all-day march at the head of his tank batallion is that for the first time in the war so far, GSP’s personal goals and the army’s goals agreed. You can say that for large organizations to work people have to follow orders but I think that absent this agreement, creative leaders with hard challenges can’t perform.

Mihiel was followed by Meuse-Argonne, where Patton looked death in the eye. Approaching Cheppy as the tempo of enemy fire increased he convinced himself he was going to be shot dead. Like Lt Dan in Forrest Gump, he was from a long great military tradition, and as his fear increased:

“looming in a cloud over the German lines,” he saw his “progenitors,” the fallen Pattons of the Confederacy … Aloud he said: “It is time for another Patton to die.” Much louder, he called out: “Let’s go.”15

GSP didn’t die, but he was shot pretty seriously in the leg. His orderly dragged him into a hole to patch him up and then Patton sent him on a series of errands, first back to the advancing line of tanks to direct their fire against the guns that took Patton, then to tell his second-in-command to take over.

When he was safe, a few hours later, in an ambulance, he had it detour to HQ so he could make his report.

On his birthday, 11/11, at 11 am, the war ended in Ferdinand Foch’s private rail car at Compiegne. Patton was still recovering.

He was 33 years old to the day and had spent only about half of his career up to then ‘working’ (i.e. deployed). The other half was school (both teaching & learning) and practice.

Boot camp 2.0

Not everyone is in a position to originate the tactics of tank warfare for their national army. But the emphasis on lifelong learning & teaching in GSP’s career are common to most new jobs in the developed world. (Especially the most interesting, challenging and lucrative jobs). Even at a busy moment like running a headquarters division during WW1, GSP took time off for officer training.

Reputation and credentialing, widely used in every military, is something we’ll see more of in private sector employment and recruiting16. If we get certifications right, residential colleges will lose their appeal over ‘distance learning’17.

Remember how it took about 15 years for online dating to go from slimy to standard? The remote-gig ecosystem is currently fiver, upwork, 99designs, and friends, and doesn’t provide great ways of resume checking (it’s just ratings & portfolio). Match.com is to Bumble as 99designs is to future gig recruiting platforms.

It’s getting less and less valuable for managers to tell their team exactly what to do. Here’s an article about changes to boot camp:

LTC Glick understands that while blind obedience may have been what the US Army needed to win World War I, the changed battlefield, like the changed business landscape, of the 21st century requires a soldier who not only knows how to follow an order, but also knows how to think critically and adapt to changing circumstances.18

You will learn by the numbers, I will teach you is over. ‘Critical thinking’ isn’t corporate newspeak for the army. It’s a real goal. As the variety and diversity of tools of war increase, soldiers at every level are called on to:

  • create tactics for new tools, or old tools used in a new environment
  • learn new tools on the fly
  • use tools together in complex ways to achieve goals

With limited time to train everybody on every system, the most junior person in a unit may be the only person who knows how to use a certain technology critical to the unit’s goals or survival.19

Organizations are learning the lesson that it’s critical to surface knowledge from everybody. From an article about NASA and Challenger:

Where an organizational hierarchy manages knowledge by subordinating it to process, the potency of the knowledge the institution does possess is inevitably dissipated. With all operations reduced to routine, knowledge counts for less and less until its acuity—its capacity for affecting change—simply disappears.20

The military has a pretty good model for learning throughout your career, but in the private sector job training hasn’t taken off. In my opinion it’s a chicken-egg problem. Companies don’t want to invest in worker education because the returns take a while to manifest. Workers, in turn, don’t stick around that long because companies don’t invest in them.

I looked up census stats on tuition programs by private companies21, which may be a proxy for job training, and found some interesting takeaways:

  • overall, 5% of firms provide tuition assistance
  • In two categories the number is 15% of firms: companies in business over 15 years and public companies
  • These numbers vary widely across industries. Food service is the lowest, management consulting is the highest. I pasted in the full breakdown in appendix 3

Education and life outcomes

Education is a life & death resource like water but it’s far harder to deliver.

I’ll start with the worst case. A 2017 follow-up by Case & Deaton to their 2015 ‘deaths of despair’ work claims the mortality effect they observed is caused by reduced ability to grow in your career through on the job training:

The cohorts born between 1945 and 1980 show a decline in the return to experience (age) that has become more pronounced with each successive birth cohort. Traditional accounts of the return to experience, which has been lower for women than for men, focus on the skill content of the job and on-the-job training, so the decline is consistent with men moving to lower and lower skilled jobs. This decline in the return to experience closely matches the decline in attachment to the labor force. Our data are consistent with a model in which the decline in real wages led to a reduction in labor force participation, with cascading effects on marriage, health, and mortality from deaths of despair.22

‘return to experience’ is the key to this paragraph. People born in 1945 were able to advance in their careers, later generations not so much. The people they’re studying don’t have college degrees and presumably expected to not need them because that’s how things worked in the past.

Now for the best case:

Nothing that happened after 1940 … compared to the elimination of child labor and its replacement by universal high school education.23

The author, Robert Gordon, is a labor economist who studies productivity in the 20th century. In this line he’s talking about quality of life gains as well as economic productivity. My point in excerpting this: technological change plus increased education can be transformative in a good way.

We lucked out in the 20th century by pushing high school just at the rise of automation technology changed what we needed from our workforce. High school was an incredible investment we made in ourselves in the 40s onward. Remember, TFP was lower back then and finding the tax revenue for education was harder.

(To get a feel for how big a deal high school was, watch this 1955 teacher’s union PSA on why you should finish high school instead of becoming a ditch-digger. ‘It’s easy to grab the handle of a shovel, but not so easy to let go of it’.)

In my opinion we haven’t lucked out on education in the 21st century. MOOCs aren’t an effective innovation (opinion, but echoed in the Pew article I linked elsewhere). We need to offer more kinds of education to adults who have started their careers as well as to companies that need their staff to get better at something.

If we get this wrong it could be disastrous. From the abstract of an article about population collapse:

If the social learning system comes to lack sufficient individual learning … behavior ceases tracking environmental variation. Then, when the environment does change, fitness declines and the population may collapse or even be extirpated. The modeled scenario broadly fits some human population collapses24

But there’s hope:

the fixation of social learning is less likely when individual learning is less costly, when the environment is … more variable, with larger population sizes, and when learning is not conformist or is from parents rather than from the general population. Once social learning is fixed, extirpation is likely except when social learning is biased towards successful models. Thus, the risk of population collapse may be reduced by promoting individual learning and innovation24

You’re going to face a career-defining choice, trust me

Have you designed a cavalry sword (i.e. something obsolete)? Are you on the cusp of turning down a leadership role in something that ‘isn’t big yet’?

Remember, even if your cavalry sword has your name on it, to be ready to give it up when the world moves on.

Alternatively, if you choose not to remember how patton lived and take nothing else from this article, remember how he died – low speed car crash! Buckle up.

Appendix 1: WW1 technologies you don’t see enough of

These things came up in my research and are interesting and Rube Goldberg esque.

  • Balloons were as important as planes. They used them for surveillance and also to suspend metal mist netting for anti-access area denial (they didn’t call it that). War balloon photo gallery
  • Acoustic rangefinding. This used low frequency microphones to triangulate the source of a gunshot. The audio was recorded on photographic film and then analyzed manually.

Appendix 2: Pattonisms

  • speech to the 3rd army, only diary entry: ‘as in all my talks I stressed fighting and killing’25. All great communicators have a style. When G+ launched Mark Zuckerberg ended all his internal communications with carthage delenda est.
  • Do not take counsel of your fears
  • An ounce of sweat will save a gallon of blood
  • well-known fact that working with machines has a very disastrous effect upon discipline
  • (on how his unit might poison him for the hard schedule he set) I will have to eat only eggs like louis XI
  • (on managing up) the most contrary old cuss I ever worked with … in the long run I get my way but at a great waste of breath
  • You must develope the thoroughbred’s sense of duty, otherwise you had better never have been born to wear the uniform you will inevitably disgrace.
  • a parabola of the morale of the company, if such a thing could be depicted, would show somewhat of a declining curve during those summer months.
  • I said, couching my remarks in the euphemistic jargon appropriate to official correspondence, that the Frenchman was crazy and the Tank not worth a damn.

Appendix 3: Tuition assistance by industry

This is percent of firms in each industry providing any tuition assistance. I don’t think this dataset has information about the amount of tuition assistance. It also doesn’t measure other salary impacts (for example, educational services is 6th-best at 20-something %, but that’s probably a ‘house discount’ and may cause people in education to get paid less; for example, graduate students teaching in exchange for tuition). Data from US Census21.


Bibliography & notes

  1. Axelrod, Patton’s Drive (kindle loc 2289) 

  2. Axelrod (kindle loc 2365). Dale Wilson pg 18 writes the letter to Pershing was on or about Oct 3 17. 

  3. Edward Cox, Grey Eminence: Fox Conner and the Art of Mentorship (section ‘Conner and Patton – Unleashing the Tanker’) 

  4. Dale Wilson, AEF Tank Corps in WW1, pg13 

  5. Axelrod pg228 

  6. Patton, Diary dated Nov 3 

  7. Axelrod somewhere 

  8. Paul David, The Dynamo and the Computer: Historical Perspective on Modern Productivity Paradox 

  9. Autor et al, Skill Content of Recent Technological Change, 2001. A follow-up paper from 2013 claims some of the trends from the first paper plateaued in the intervening decade+. 

  10. Patton, Diary dated Dec 1 17 

  11. Axelrod (kindle loc 2513) 

  12. von Moltke via wikiquote 

  13. wikipedia/Bill Mauldin 

  14. twainquotes.com Roosevelt page 

  15. Axelrod (kindle loc 2578) 

  16. NAP, Information Tech & the US Workforce. “Peer-to-peer networks have emerged to connect resource holders with resource seekers, leading to companies such as eBay, Uber, and Airbnb, and new online reputation systems facilitate feedback reporting for both providers and customers.” 

  17. Pew Research, Future of Jobs & Training. “We are now in the transitional stage of employers gradually reducing their prejudice in the hiring of those who studied at a distance” (Fredric Litto) 

  18. Seidman, Army BT is no longer basic 

  19. One example of a junior person taking command by virtue of training is Zvi Greengold

  20. Roger Spiller, Small Change of Soldiering. As quoted in Fastabend & Simpson, Adapt Or Die. If you know where to get a copy of Spiller’s paper email me! I can’t find it. 

  21. US Census, Firms That Totally or Partly Paid Employee Benefits 2014  2

  22. Case & Deaton, Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century 

  23. Robert Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth. (I only read the review). 

  24. Whitehead & Richerson, The evolution of conformist social learning can cause population collapse  2

  25. wikipedia?