Headlamps and Orange Highlighters

Posted on March 23, 2015



This is a cross-post from the Military Writers Guild Medium

Headlamps and Orange Highlighters

An Interview with Associate Member Phil Walter

Next up in this series of interviews to discover the reading, writing, creativity, and daily rituals of Guild members, is Phil Walter. Phil is a former infantryman, intelligence officer, and counterterrorism planner. He currently serves in a policy role in the executive branch of the United States Government and blogs at philwalter1058.com. I caught up with Phil over coffee in the Five-Sided Puzzle Palace.

In our interview, Phil reveals a morning ritual that juxtaposes coffee-fuel, heavy metal-inspired dead lifts, and silent solitude. He wedges his writing routine in the middle of the night to devote his days to his wife and child. Phil, a self-described ambulance-chasing blogger, finds writing inspiration in what he encounters in his professional life. I also discovered that Phil may be suppressing his natural kinesthetic learning capacities and may need a journaling habit.


[John DeRosa] It is becoming increasingly important for me to refine my morning routine. Particularly so that I don’t become a mindless drone that wakes up in the dark, slithers to the slug line, and finds myself at my desk at the Pentagon. I am refining my personal routine so that I am in the best state of mind to start my day. What are some of your daily routines? What time do you typically wake up?

[Phil Walter] Three days a week I wake up at 4:30am…

[JD] Amen (laughing)

[PW] …I grab a cup of coffee and from about 5:00am until about 6:00am I lift weights. I am back at my house at 6:15am in the shower. I am usually at my desk at the Pentagon by 7:30–8:00am. I grab a coffee to help me get through my workout. During my workout, I will burn through all the cream, sugar, and calories.

I find that coffee is my CTL+ALT+DELETE. Ok, I woke up at 4:30am. I am in denial that I have to go do deadlifts and military presses. So I will go get some coffee in me to get me going. My second cup of coffee is like I am resetting myself again.

When I come into the Pentagon, I usually get coffee with the group I work with. We all complain about yesterday, talk about today, and figure out what we are going to do.

Coffee is a big player. Funny though, I never drank coffee until I met my wife. So I blame her for this whole coffee thing.

[JD] Is there anything else about your morning that is a ritual? Something that if not done, the rest of your day is blown?

[PW] I need a little bit of silence. Maybe about a half an hour. Where I get that is immaterial. Sometimes it is at the gym because I have my headphones in. Although there are other people around, I feel like I am by myself.

When I come to work, I have my door shut and all the lights off except for one — which drives my office mate up the wall. I get in before she does. So like a half an hour of coffee, quiet, not a lot of light.

I am a very strong introvert on the Myers-Briggs — while that is my preference, that is not my capability. It does wear me out having to talk, talk, and talk — that is most of what I do all day. I talk. I write. I brief. I need to get myself mentally prepared for the day.

[JD] You said you had headphones on in the gym. I am guessing you are raging in your headphones. What’s going on in those headphones?

[PW] Different types of music. All kinds of music. It depends on where I am in my workout. If the speed of the bar is starting to grind, then it is time to switch to Tool or something heavier. When I am done with my workout, in order to transition from gym adrenaline to having to sneak around the house because I don’t want to wake my family, then I listen to something more mellow. So when I am putting the weights away, I am listening to something more chilled out.

[JD] How does your routine change on the weekend to decompress?

[PW] I do not exercise on the weekends. I am normally up by 5–5:30am. I have a small home. My wife and child sleep later than I so I when I wake up I don’t want to wake everybody. So I have a Petzl headlamp I was issued when I went to Afghanistan. I will make coffee and sit in the kitchen for an hour or two and read by headlamp. I am always afraid someone is going to walk by and think there is a burglar in my house. Somebody is rooting around in the kitchen, but it’s just me making coffee by headlamp.

I am always reading by headlamp. With my trademark orange highlighter — I only use orange highlighters because they are the only color that will copy on a copier. So it’s me, a cup of coffee, an orange highlighter, and a good book.

[JD] Do you write on the weekends?

[PW] I write after 8:00pm and before 6:00am. That’s my window. That’s all I got.

[JD] You must have a young child?

[PW] Yes, I do. The order of things on earth for me are child, wife, everything else. Although I enjoy writing, and my wife is cool if I need an hour to sit and work on something, if my kid wants to play, the computer is shut, and we’re playing. When I am writing, and I know my kid is about to wake up, I write as fast as I can to get as much down on paper. I will go back later to clean it up.

[JD] Do you write to decompress on the weekend?

[PW] Writing decompresses me. I usually write because of a stimulus that annoyed me. In my “Why I joined the Military Writer’s Guild” piece, the one word that got me going was the word “destroy.” I was like really? C’mon! So a lot of things I write are therapeutically getting my views out. Whether or not someone reads them.

[JD] Do you wait until the weekend to do that?

[PW] No, I will do it during the week too.

[JD] Is it a bit of journaling for you?

[PW] It is more to formalize an idea. It is like stimulus-response, stimulus-response. Sometimes I wonder if I am an ambulance chasing blogger. “There is an emergency, I better write something.”

The different things that I write require different levels of mental acuity. There are some things that I write where I wasn’t a master of the subject. Although writing is therapeutic, it is also stressful because I wanted to make sure my writing was defensible. Perhaps I wasn’t the subject matter expert on something.

There are other things I have written that are more personal — like the “Phil-Osophy” thing I gave to the Military Leader website. That was easy. I was writing about my day to day life. I don’t necessarily need to defend that. If you don’t like it, that’s fine.

[JD] Are you only writing by stimulus?

[PW] So far, it has been stimulus based. I don’t think it will always be the case. I have a view on something. It may be different than others. It can be valued or dismissed. That’s fine. Getting the views out there is like I just solved a problem. The problem may just be my view on something.

[JD] Since it is stimulus based, do you find yourself having to do research?

[PW] I do a ton of research. Before I started blogging, a friend of mine who has a much stronger academic background than I said, “I got one word for you: footnotes. Unless you have footnotes, nobody is going to believe you.”

I graduated college in 1998. I haven’t been in the academic world for a long time. So the process of blogging was fun — getting my ideas out there and on paper — but I was also retraining myself to think critically, write critically, re-reading my writing, and figuring out to write footnotes. I don’t have to use footnotes in my job. I haven’t written a footnote since college.

[JD] The college kids these days, me being one right now [not a kid though], there are systems in place that do that for you. It was bizarre for me.

[PW] I have a huge intellectual inferiority complex. I have this cartoon of Fredo from GodFather II where he is like “I’m smart!” Deep down, I feel like that every time I blog. I am waiting for some genius guy pop out of nowhere on the internet and destroy my argument. I need to make it defensible, coherent, and objective.

[JD] What are you reading lately?

[PW] I am reading David Rothkopf’s, National Insecurity.

[JD] How do you find what to read?

[PW] What I enjoy about my job is that I am involved in a lot of stuff — current operations, foreign policy, defense policy, and Congress. I am an inch deep and a mile wide. What I read about is stuff that will make me better at dealing with the gray world in between those areas.

The nexus of getting stuff done is how those things come together. So I try to read stuff that will make me better for that. Give me a better perspective on something I need to do. Or give me something that historically was well done and how can that prepare me for the future.

Before the David Rothkopf book I just read, The Hawk and the Dove [Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War by Nicholas Thompson]. I just wrote the NSC-68 redux thing [An Enduring Framework for United States National Security] I find it interesting that everybody today says, “it is complex, it is so complex.” I think the complexity thing is a cop out for indecision. Choose one thing and lets start doing that! We will see what else happens after that. Information technology advances have put us into an analysis paralysis mode. Because we can get drones over a target, and someone can look at it —someone is going to wait for the drones to make a decision. All this communications access has us addicted to information. Therefore, the idea of the 80% plan has been lost.

[JD] Is there another genre of reading you prefer?

[PW] I do. For a while, I worked for the intelligence community, and I would not let myself read anything else that didn’t have to do with work. I was operational a lot. I almost got hurt a few times. I decided I can have hobbies when the war is over. As long as I was in a deployment status I don’t want to be on my death bed bleeding out thinking, “…if only I had read, if only I had run more, if only I had trained more.” So when I left that job, the very first thing I did was go to Barnes and Noble and bought a fiction book. I read the William Gibson, Neuromancer sci-fi series.

[JD] Neuromancer? I thought you said New Romancer…

[PW] No, no, no, Neuromancer. Sorry. I found that enjoyable. After we had our child, it has been a lot of kids books.

[JD] Where do you find the time to read?

[PW] Same time window 8:00pm to 6:00am or maybe during my lunch break at work.

[JD] What is the book you’re most likely to give as a gift or one you’ve given as a gift the most?

[PW] Starship Troopers. 100%. Everyday. Twice on Sundays. That book gets a lot of criticism.

[JD] Most people just watch the movie.

[PW] Most people just watch the movie. When my wife and I just got together, and I was ‘Deployment Phil’ I told her, “if you want to read what is core Phil, right or wrong, Starship Troopers. Read this.” There is a lot of stuff I agree with, a lot of stuff I disagree with, but generally the themes in that book are a base. In the execution, some of the ideas are ludicrous — such as requiring federal service to have children. The way they talk about training enlisted, training officers and the dedication to duty…I have bought that for my wife, friends, for young people who are thinking about the military.

[JD] Sorry to be out of sequence but what does your note taking system look like? How do you gather information for your writing?

[PW] I have two things. When I am writing, I have Microsoft Word open and where I am writing above I will have three inches of white space then footnotes, links to other stuff, and cuts/pastes from elsewhere.

I also have a book that I call my ‘policy smart guy’ book. I have a Moleskine that I have been scribbling. I print out tweets and tape it in there. It is growing thicker and thicker. It is my base for the ideas I have about foreign policy and defense policy. It is my salad bar of historical stuff. I like this, I want some of this, some of this, and I will put it in my book.

My friends at work laugh, when I come into work and print something and at the paper cutter they are like, “Adding to your book?” Yes, I am. I have tweets, quotes, tables of organization, principle of war, principles of leadership.

[JD] When you are orange highlighting, how do those highlights get into your book?

[PW] When I physically highlight something or write something on paper it is etched on my brain. I am a visual guy. If we were ever in a class together, I would be the one in the back asking, “Can you go back to the other slide?” I would be writing verbatim because that’s how I learn.

[JD] So do you think you are a visual or physical learner? Is it the act of writing?

[PW] I think it is both. I see and then I write. Auditorially I am horrible. I’m kinesthetic but I am not in a job that I need to be kinesthetic. I am not learning how to use a rifle, putting the head-space and timing in on a M2. I’m not there. There is not a lot of kinesthetic. There is a lot of visual. Wait a minute (mimics scribbling on table). I guess this is kinesthetic.

If I find something good. I will highlight it. Email it to myself. Print it out and put it in the book.

[JD] Traditional book, Kindle, iPad?

[PW] Always traditional book. I can’t imagine doing an iPad. I physically can’t image that. I don’t trust technology at all. When someone was talking on the Guild’s Slack page…

[JD] For which I can’t keep up with…

[PW] …they do their edits on medium for version control. If you came to my computer and saw how the naming conventions were haphazard. You’ll find I have emailed myself the same thing a bunch of times. I do not trust technology. If it’s not on paper and orange highlighter…

[JD] What bold steps would you like to see the MWG take?

[PW] I think it would be helpful if we could build a database of as many publications within our genre. I would like everyone to catalog their experiences with that publication. To know how publishers and websites operate. We need to be better masters of what we can control. We need to look at the publishing world and have an understanding of capabilities and limitations that support our work.

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