Lord of the Flies

by William Golding

The Hired Girl

Laura Amy Schlitz

OODA Loop: Col. John Boyd's odd insight can change your life

OODA Loop: Col. John Boyd's odd insight can change your life
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Orientation. You know, first day at a new school: Here’s the library, here’s the gym. Now you know where to go when you need to. 

Most people can get oriented in buildings. But they have a harder time getting oriented in life. They may not know where they want to go. Or, they may think they know where they want to go, but they don’t know how to get there.

In a moment, we’ll show you how you can set yourself on a life path that’s just about certain to lead someplace really good. All you need to do is ask, and answer, one simple question. But before we get to that, we’d like you to meet someone.

Don’t skip ahead, because this could be the most important thing you’ll read today. Maybe ever.

Col. “40-second Boyd”

Col. John Boyd climbing from the cockpit of his North American F-86 Sabre. Col. Boyd promulgated the OODA Loop decision process

Col. John Boyd. Madman. Not.

Early 1950s. The Korean War. U.S. Colonel John Boyd is a fighter pilot instructor. And he’s a little nuts, even for a fighter pilot, which might explain his nickname, “Genghis John.” Anyway, Colonel Boyd offers a standing bet to any fighter pilot willing to take him on.

Here it is:

Once they’re airborne, Boyd will let the other pilot fly in behind him—in other words, Boyd will put himself in the other pilot’s gunsight, the worst place to be in aerial combat. Within 40 seconds, Boyd says he’ll flip their positions and have the other pilot in his gunsight. Or else he’ll pay the other pilot $40.

“40-second Boyd” never loses the bet.

Crazy like a fox.

Colonel Boyd explained how he did it—through a decision process he called the “OODA Loop.” His thought process went something like this.

North American F-86 Sabre FU-178 in flight. Col. John Boyd, investor of the OODA Loop decision process, flew an F-86 similar to this.  MAC1-Shutterstock

Boyd's weapon-of-choice: North American Aviation's F-86 Sabre.

Boyd observed the other pilot’s actions, observed the terrain, observed the time. He oriented himself with his observation of the other pilot’s actions, his observation of the terrain, his observation of the time, and his mindfulness of his goal: to get himself on the other pilot’s tail. He decided on the most efficient course of action based on his observations, and his orientation. He acted on his decision.

Boyd called it “OODA,” because OODA is the acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (and because the military likes abbreviations and loves acronyms). He called it the “OODA Loop” because the moment he got through step four, he’d start all over again with step one, looping through the cycle over and over again until he reached his goal.

ODA vs. OODA: The power of an extra “O”

North American F-86F Sabre and Soviet MiG-15 fighter jet aircraft  Eugene Berman-Shutterstock

Dogfight: A Soviet-era MiG fighter tries to maneuver behind an F-86 Sabre.

What’s special about the OODA Loop? In combat, fighter pilots try to win by confusing the opposing pilot. They make sudden moves to trick their opponents into making bad choices. In other words, they try to disorient the other pilot

Boyd's OODA Loop enabled him to keep his head clear in the heat of the moment. He accomplished this by continuously orienting himself in light of his goal, which was to get on the other pilot’s tail. And he did it in a careening F-86 Sabre jet fighter. Boyd stayed oriented not just by evaluating all the sights, sounds, and sensations that assaulted him, but by knowing to filter out information that wasn't going to help him get where he wanted to go. 

Those other pilots had good, perhaps great, instincts. But Col. Boyd's OODA Loop methodology outran their instinctsWhich meant that Boyd was able to confuse those other pilots, get them to make bad moves, and win.

“Genghis John” goes to McDonald’s

Boyd's second step—that second "O" for  "orienting"—is the one we tend to skip. We see, decide, and act, without stopping after we see, and before we decide, to think about what we really want...and why. Which means we often decide to take actions we later regret. 

Sure, we know we’re supposed to “think before we act." But as the time frame between actions and the consequences of those actions gets larger, our ability to link cause and effect weakens.

Think about it. We all know hamburgers and french fries aren’t healthy, and we all know we should eat more fresh vegetables. But few people order salads at McDonald’s. Maybe because their minds are working a bit like those of the pilots who lost the bet with Colonel “40-second Boyd.”


Needless to say, this photo's been doctored.

OBSERVE: They walk into McDonald’s. They look at the menu. See the salads. Smell the French fries.

DECIDE: They think: “Those fries smell amazing, and they’d taste even better with a Big Mac!”

ACT: They order the fries, a Big Mac, and a chocolate shake. Supersized.

Here's a contrast: Imagine Colonel Boyd, his OODA loop armed and activated, as he strides into the local McDonald's.

OBSERVE: Boyd walks into McDonald’s. He looks at the menu. Sees the salads. Smells the fries.

ORIENT: Boyd thinks: “Those fries smell amazing. McDonald’s spent millions to engineer that addictive aroma so people will pay up, over and over again, for something that’s really bad for them. I’m not here to fatten their profits by fattening my backside.”

DECIDE: Boyd decides that the grilled chicken caesar salad offers a good balance of taste and nutrition.

ACT: Boyd orders the salad. And a bottle of water.

The point? No, not that an active OODA Loop means we become boring self-disciplinarians. (No one ever called Boyd a bore.) It means we become aware of the hidden influences that might be guiding our actions.

Knowledge is power, and it gets you oriented

One of the tough things about knowing what you really want to do in life is, well, figuring out what YOU want to do in life—as opposed to what other people want you to do, or what you think other people want you to do, or what you think might look good to other people.

Observe, Orient, Decide, Act -- the four components of John Boyd's OODA lloopHow do you do that? You get oriented.

For example, conventional wisdom holds that you need to attend an extremely competitive college in order to be successful in life. That message is reinforced by well-meaning parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and the media. Recent studies have shown, however, that smart and hardworking people do equally well, regardless of where they went to college. This kind of information can be orienting if it helps you gain a better sense of the information you should consider, and the hype you should ignore. As Col. Boyd did at the controls of his F-86.

Here’s another example. It's easy to say that it’s tough to get more sleep at night. But read about the effect of sleep on your grades, then ask yourself if the inconvenience of incorporating sleep into your schedule is worth the boost you’ll see in your academic performance. Oh, and while you're at it, ask yourself what Col. Boyd would do with this information.

Ask and answer THIS.

Now for that amazing question. Answer it, and you’ll gain the kind of self-orienting knowledge that will help you choose the electives and extracurricular activities you may want to pursue now, opening up opportunities you’d never imagine later:

What do I want to learn in the next five years?

Yep, that’s it. And before you start thinking “whatever,” think about this: You’ve probably been asked what you want to do someday. But the answer is a little like something on a to-do list: If you don’t know how you’re going to do that “something,” you won’t get very far. Ask yourself what you want to learn, on the other hand, and you’ve done two things:

You’ve identified something you can do right now. You’ve identified something you really want to do right now.


Here's a scenario: Someone asks you what you want to do in five years and you say, “I want to be on Saturday Night Live.” But do you know how you’re going to get there? If the answer is “no,” then you haven’t said much.

What would Colonel Boyd do?

It’s hard to know exactly what the Colonel would have done; he died in 1997. But your activated OODA Loop might impel you to handle the situation a bit like this:

OBSERVE: You Google, “How do you get on the cast of Saturday Night Live?” You see a link that that takes you biographies of Saturday Night Live cast members. You see a pattern: They’re all masters of the art of improvisational comedy, or “improv”—making up hilarious comic routines on the fly.

ORIENT: You think: “Improv sounds tough. But it could be fun. If I do an improv class now, I’d have to give up soccer. But it might be worth it, because if I don’t give it a shot now, I’ll never know if it’s something I’m good at. Or maybe there’s a way I can keep soccer and still try improv.”

DECIDE: You decide to take a Saturday improv class, starting in a month.

ACT: You sign up.

When you orient yourself toward your goal, you set yourself on a course of action that you can initiate today. There’s no wishing and waiting for “someday.” The power over your future is in your hands right now.

superhero_legal-advocateYou may decide you love improv, and that you’re good at it. SNL here you come! Or you may go to college and decide that what you really love is the law. No loss! The speaking and presentation skills you developed studying improv will  enable you to be an incredible advocate for your clients. In other words, the outcome will be amazing, whatever the outcome.

You've observed what you want to learn, oriented yourself by understanding your unique strengths and abilities, decided on a course of action based on your orientation, and then acted. You’ve engaged your OODA Loop. You've started winning at life.

Guess the Colonel owes you 40 bucks.

Are you an OODA looper? Tell us your story. Or, is there another, better way to figure out where you're going in life? Let us know!

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