August 3, 2019

RAND president emeritus tells Purdue grads a secret to his success was in the writing

Purdue alumnus James Thomson, president emeritus of the RAND Corp., a nonprofit, nonpartisan institution that helps improve policy and decisions through research and analysis, provided the keynote address during Purdue University’s August 2019 commencement ceremony.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Good morning! Thanks for that kind introduction, President (Mitch) Daniels. It’s an honor to speak at a graduation ceremony at my alma mater.

I have a friend who was the provost of Harvard and after that the chancellor of UCLA. He’s heard a lot of commencement addresses. So, at lunch a couple of weeks ago, I asked him for advice. He said, “Well, I never had anybody complain that the speech was too short.”

This is not the first time that I’ve spoken to graduates. Probably 12 times during my time as CEO of the RAND Corporation, I spoke to the newly minted Ph.D.’s of the RAND Graduate School, which only gives one degree – a Ph.D. in public policy. Basically, I just handed out congratulations and introduced the speaker.

A few years ago, I spoke at the commencement of a business school. Honestly, it was terrible. The speech was too intellectual. I tried to analyze the many ways businesses could find themselves in trouble by operating in places where they could collide with U.S. national security interests, like China.

I’m not doing that again.

Advice is always a good idea. So, in addition to asking my friend from Harvard and UCLA, I did what any good millennial would: I went to Google. There, I found Christina Negrud of “” She warns against speeches that develop one overall theme, like I tried to do a few years ago, saying they are “hard to pull off and only good if you are looking for a book contract and a book tour.” That’s not on my agenda right now.

One of her suggestions is “a handful of themes illustrated with personal . . . stories.” So I’m going to go with that in the 10 minutes that I have left. Did I just see some of you look at your watches?

First about my background: I came to this university as a graduate student in physics. I wanted to get as far from my home state of New Hampshire as possible. Indiana is far in many dimensions besides distance. Also, Purdue had an outstanding football team. And, I had read that Purdue was going to install a new nuclear accelerator in the next year. I wanted to work in that laboratory, and I did. I helped install the accelerator and used it to do the research that led to my Ph.D.

In case some of you don’t know, that lab still operates, about 400 yards from us, buried under the mall. It’s been repurposed as the Purdue Rare Isotope Measurement Lab. I was there yesterday. My signature is painted on the accelerator.

After Purdue, I went to Madison, Wisconsin as a postdoctoral research fellow in the accelerator lab at UW. As my two-year appointment was approaching its end, I was preparing to look for another postdoc. My wife said: “Are you crazy? We’ve got two little kids and are starving here. Can’t you get a real job?” She had a point. I also realized that I wasn’t all that excited about the physics behind my experiments, even though I enjoyed the analysis of the data that I generated on the accelerator.

As a nuclear scientist, I had long been interested in nuclear arms control and in the analysis that supported U.S. policy in that field. To cut to the chase, I got a job as a systems analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense; in other words, the Pentagon. I took on analytical tasks related to the defense of Europe. Before three years were out, the president’s national security adviser, the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, recruited me to join his staff in the White House, where I handled European defense issues.

My four years on the National Security Council staff led me to the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, where I initially went back to research, but on public policy, not physics. My work at RAND took me from research to leadership. After eight years, I was named president and CEO, a post I held for more than 22 years. I’ve also been on several corporate boards, including startups and finishing as the chairman of a steel company here in the Midwest.

In short, I put down my soldering iron in an accelerator lab in Madison, and less than three years later, I was working at the White House for Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the most well-known political scientists of his generation. How in the world did that happen?

Now we get to the part of the graduation speech where the old guy extrapolates from his personal experiences to give advice to the graduates.

First, preparation matters. To be sure, I have been lucky – right place, right time a couple of times. But as the Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” I certainly benefited from my training in physics. It gave me analytical tools and, more importantly, a way of thinking, using logic and demanding evidence. Never underestimate the power of logic and evidence. I also benefited from my interests outside of physics: in history, in world affairs and in defense policy and arms control.

A second lesson from my career is write clearly and get to the point. While this may seem obvious, let me tell you a story about how writing shaped my career and a few rules I’ve taken from that.

When I made the transition from the lab to the Pentagon, my writing got me the new job. I was looking for a job in nuclear arms control. To get appointments with the right officials in the State and Defense departments, I wrote a letter that explained who I was and why my training and background could be useful to them. I got an appointment with almost every person I wrote to. None of them hired me, however. But one gave my letter to somebody else, and that person hired me. He told me that my letter convinced him that he didn’t need to worry about my writing. With that, my career changed, not to nuclear arms control (at least not right away), but to European security. The Pentagon job led me to the White House and then to RAND.

 I have written memos for secretaries of defense, memos for the president, research reports for the public, reports for clients, memos and then emails for my bosses and then emails for my employees.  Here’s a few rules I’ve learned to abide by.

My first rule of writing is to avoid TLDR  – too long, didn’t read. Documents like the ones I just mentioned must be clear and as short as possible. They must tell the reader why he or she should read the material and what you want them to do if you need a decision.

My second rule is to get rid of color words and use short words when you can. Color words are adjectives and adverbs that add no additional meaning. Words like very and excellent. Early in my time in the Defense Department, I asked a colleague to review a draft paper. He returned it with about half the words crossed out. He took out the color words. He also substituted short words for longer ones. I recall “rank” replacing “prioritize.” As Churchill said, “Short words are best and old words, when short, are best of all.” Words that end in “ize,” made by turning nouns into verbs, are frequent targets for replacement.

When I was writing RAND’s mission statement soon after becoming CEO, I asked many researchers what they thought our mission was. I got a worrying variety of answers, and most contained color words. Excellence and high quality made frequent appearances. Those made us sound like we were tooting our own horns. As someone once told me, “If you have to say that you’re good, we know what you really are.” The RAND mission statement that I adopted was “help improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.” No adjectives, no adverbs.

A third rule is to avoid the passive voice whenever possible. Sometimes it’s just not possible to avoid it. Most of the time it is. When I worked in the Pentagon, one assistant secretary of defense was a passive voice extremist. In other words, sentences in the passive voice drove him crazy. To keep his staff out of trouble with him, the people in his outer office would intercept papers that had any passive sentences. To address the problem, his executive officer, an Air Force colonel, finally circulated a message to all staff. It said, “The passive voice shall not be used.” I didn’t know if he was serious or joking. Maybe he was at the end of his tour in that office and going back to the Air Force.

I recently looked at some of my old physics articles. They are riddled with the passive voice. In many instances, the sentences could have been rewritten in the active voice and made shorter at the same time. Many of these papers also included this awful sentence: “The beam was incident on the target.” Ugh! How about, “The beam hit the target.”

If you don’t think you are a good writer now, you are probably thinking, “How do I become one?” I learned some things from my mother and my high school English teacher. She was a prolific reader and wrote a lot. He was a stickler for grammar, including parsing sentences. So read, write and check your grammar. Also, send your writing to someone else to review and edit the material of those that send written material to you. Editing another person’s writing makes you a better writer.

If you don’t think that will do it, take a course in writing for business. The community college where I live offers one. I’m sure that’s true in most places.

There are two more lessons from my career that I want to share briefly.

The third lesson is don’t get trapped only into the discipline you just studied in college. Learn new things all the time. That way you’ll be able to adjust smoothly to changes in the world of work, which – we are advised – are happening frequently. My interests outside of physics were crucial to my career.

The fourth lesson is don’t be a yeller. Washington is full of yellers, as are other workplaces. I’ve noted that most of the shouters do not turn out to be great leaders. A would-be leader is nothing without great people in their organization. Great people will not tolerate yelling and bullying. They have better things to do.

I hope these tidbits of advice about preparation, writing, continued learning, and non-yelling will stick with you. Even if they don’t, your degree will. You stuck with it to get here today. Congratulations on your accomplishment. And enjoy the rest of the day.

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