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U.S. Naval Institute Honors Night

U.S. Naval Institute Honors Night: Commemorating the Naval Institute's 137th Anniversary

Keynote Address by Admiral James Stavridis, U.S. Navy

 

Whispers on a Wall 

Thank you very much, Tom, for that extremely generous and mercifully short introduction!  And let me say right up front: What a terrific group we have here tonight!  Active duty, retired, soon-to-be-Commissioned; military and civilian; public and private sectors…this is simply wonderful to see!

Great to see so many mentors from across the years here, from Fox Fallon to Tom Marfiak to Jim Barber to Fred Rainbow.  Fred gave me my start in the pages of Proceedings and I will never forget it.  And the Commandant of the Coast Guard, my good friend Bob Papp—WOW.

Distinguished guests, friends and colleagues, members of and supporters of the Sea Services…SHIPMATES, all of you—good evening! WELCOME and thank you so much for joining us.  It truly is an honor for me to be here tonight. 

Thank you, Tom, for inviting me to speak at this wonderful event.  I thought I’d limit my remarks to about 2 hours?  Is that good for everyone?  Get a drink now if you need one …

I am reminded at these “honors nights” at how old I am becoming.  These are sort of the “five stages of a career,” which go like this:

ADM James Stavridis, USN  To view a slideshow of the 2010 Honors Night, click here.

“Who is Stavridis?”

“I hear good things about Stavridis”

“Get me Stavridis to work on this”

“You know, we need someone like Stavridis used to be”

And finally:

“Who is Stavridis?”

I am approaching if not passing through Stage five.

In all seriousness, before I go any further, I would like to underscore how I feel about the U.S. Naval Institute—a truly historic organization—and I would say, a “national treasure”—because of its…YOUR…OUR…tireless efforts to preserve, support and strengthen our maritime heritage and contributions to national security. 

History is change.  Generally chaotic change.  And to recognize the waves that wash over us, to know the sea in which we swim, we need organizations like the Institute, with the Press and the Proceedings—highlighted by perhaps its most recognizable product Proceedings first published in 1874.  I think I submitted an article for that first volume, actually…

You continue to allow members and supporters of the Sea Services to express their thoughts, share their ideas and at times challenge the “conventional wisdom”, sailing against the current, with or without the prevailing winds, as it were.   And for that, we are stronger as a nation and I personally thank you!

Along these lines, tonight, I’d like to share just a couple thoughts I have regarding a subject that is very near and dear to my heart—and has been since I served as SALTY SAM for the class of 1976—and that is the topic of WRITING

Over the years, I’ve often been asked three questions: 

  1. Why on earth do you write all those articles and books?
  2. Where do you find the time to write given your responsibilities?
  3. Were you ever concerned that writing/publishing would put your career at risk?

During the course of these short remarks, I hope to answer all three of those questions.

The question of why I, or any potential author, would write in the first place. 

First I would say, we all begin as readers.  I lived in Greece as a child and there was no television in those days, in the early 1960s.  So I became an endless reader of books, a habit that continues to this day with nearly 5,000 books in my house—what my wife Laura calls my “gentle madness.”

Voltaire, Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, Cormac McCarthy, Elmore Leonard, Ha Jin, John Updike, Ian McEwan, Peter Carey, Chris Buckley, Patrick O’Brian … I could go on and on.

ADM James Stavridis, USN  To view a slideshow of the 2010 Honors Night, click here.

But the key is that we all begin as readers.

Then something happens and you start to think … you want to be part of the conversation.  You step from reading to thinking to talking about books and ideas.

And you realize that all that reading and thinking and talking is—in the end—like trying “to nail whispers to a wall” as a writer said once.   “Writing freezes thought and offers it up for inspection.”

When you are lucky enough to be a sailor, there is an endless source of experience that connects somehow with what you have read and thought about and talked with others about.

And in my case at least, that leads to the desire to “freeze your thoughts” … to take responsibility for them, I suppose. 

So I’ve written at every level—my High School paper the McClintock HS Guidon—the Log Magazine, where I was editor and then Salty Sam—Proceedings and other journals—and now blogs and posts and tweets—it is all for me the logical outgrowth of reading and thinking and learning—and hopefully freezing thought and being accountable for it.

You become part of the “great conversation” and hopefully contribute to it.

So the second question is where do I find the time to do all this writing?  First I would say going to sea, for all its busy time, has provided a space for reading, looking at the rolling ocean, and doing a little writing.  There were many times after a mid-watch when I wanted to sleep but thought—ah, just a minute or two to jot a line that came to me on a long, quiet steam across the Pacific.

And secondly, for me personally, I’ve always tried hard to manage my time carefully…to use small bits of time to chip away at important things.  If you wait until you have six hours to sit down and write an article, the odds are that you’ll never find the time.  But if you write a page or a paragraph here and there—while on an airplane or in a car ride—eventually you’ll have a good piece.  Do that in an organized way over a year, and you’ll have a book.  What seems like a big commitment in time is so often just a series of small steps. 

This really isn’t that complicated.  Without oversimplifying, it has never been easier to get started. One Greek philosopher said, “If you wish to be a writer, write.” All you need are some ideas you care about and pen and paper . . . or more likely, these days, just a keyboard and a hook up to the Internet.   Today everyone has a microphone and everyone has a publisher.  We are all simultaneously experiencing our 15 minutes of fame.  So get in the mix …

My favorite pure writer, Ernest Hemingway, takes it one step further in typically descriptive language: “There is no rule on how to write.  Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”

Now…what about the third question, the one regarding career risk?  Quite the dilemma…at first blush.  I’ve had two “career ending” moments in my 34 years in the Navy, both of which included the essential thought from a 3-star Admiral to a far junior me, “Stavridis, your career is over” based on an idea I had articulated in print. 

On the other hand, maybe somewhere along the way someone noticed something I wrote and thought, “hmmm, maybe that junior officer is worth taking the time to meet with and talk to.”  Some of the best career moments I’ve had came in that way—and there were many more of them than the other type.  So it is a balance, like life generally is—a rheostat, not an on-and-off switch.

But the bottom line is that your ideas will not go anywhere unless you have the courage to “hang them out there” for others to see…

The enormous irony of the military profession is that we are huge risk takers in what we do operationally—flying airplanes on-and-off a carrier, driving a ship through a sea state five typhoon, walking point with your platoon in southern Afghanistan—but publishing can scare us badly.  We are happy to take personal risk or operational risk, but too many of us won’t take career risk.  And to compound this, sometimes mentors even advise people against publishing, because it is perceived as a “career risk.”

I don’t agree, if you are sensible, professional, and honest.

A few rules apply:

Be careful of classification.  Show a draft to your immediate boss, who shouldn’t be surprised when an article comes out.  Write about what you actually know something about.  Find the appropriate venue and write as best you can with complete honesty for that audience.  Don’t attack people personally.  All basic common sense, frankly. 

You don’t have to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the CNO or a Combatant Commander to get them published, although one day you might find yourself in those shoes. After all, just look at three young officers who published in Proceedings over the years, names you might recognize: Lieutenant William F. Halsey, Lieutenant Commander Chester Nimitz, and Lieutenant Ernest J. King, Lieutenant Commander John Morgan, Lieutenant Commander Joe Sestak, Commander Frank Pandolfe. What ever happened to those guys?

In fact, Proceedings, or any professional journal, would become irrelevant without the youth of the force publishing ideas and taking interest in the greater professional conversation.    If you look at the more exciting, thought-provoking, or innovative articles “penned” today, you more than likely will find young minds behind them—Lieutenants, Lieutenant Commanders, and Commanders.  We, as senior leaders and mentors, have a solemn duty to foster and encourage this conversation, particularly the dissenting opinions, for that is where we truly learn.

Naval Institute Press Authors of the Year: ADM James Stavridis, USN and Laura Hall Stavridis  To view a slideshow of the 2010 Honors Night, click here.

You know, the vision statement of Wikipedia is very instructive in all of this.  You all know Wikipedia and use it probably most days.  It is free, full of facts inputted by thousands of writers, and a source from which millions of people draw ideas, inspiration, facts, and knowledge.  The vision statement is very simple, like all good vision statements—“A World In Which Every Human Being Freely Shares in the Sum of all Knowledge.”

I would argue that for the Sea Services this is a challenging and important time—and we need all of us—especially our young officers, to read, think, write, and PUBLISH.

In doing so, in being part of this “great conversation,” by “nailing your whispers to a wall” and “freezing thought for inspection” we all contribute to “the sum of all security.”

In the end, no one of us—no one person, no one nation, no one alliance, no one blogger—is as smart as all of us thinking together.

Thank you for your time tonight, thank you for your unending support to our maritime heritage and future strength, and God bless you all.

 

Admiral James Stavridis is the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Previously, he commanded U.S. Southern Command in Miami. He began his Navy publishing life as Salty Sam at the Naval Academy in 1976, and has since published more than one hundred articles and numerous books on leadership, shiphandling, and watch-standing, including Destroyer Captain and Command at Sea.


 
 

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