What Boomers Can Learn From Agent Gibbs
Okay, nobody likes to get a head-slap, even if the discomfort is primarily emotional rather than physical. But sometimes, maybe, we boomers all just need one. And Jethro Leroy Gibbs, the intrepid Navy cop portrayed by Mark Harmon on the hit TV series NCIS, is just the man to give it to us.
Our secret craving for Gibbs' moral and emotional tutelage, I suspect, is probably what keeps so many boomers watching NCIS, a ratings juggernaut that shows no sign of slowing down in its eighth season. A recent episode attracted nearly 23 million viewers, an all-time high for the series. That's pretty amazing these days for any TV show that doesn't involve singing, dancing or celebrity judges, let alone one whose stock police procedural format is different only in that the cases have a military backdrop. Gibb's team of Generation Y federal investigators are good-looking, quirky, energetic, and brimming with witty wisecracks and inner emotional turmoil. But so is every team of TV cops.
Ergo, as I see it, what keeps us coming back is their boss, whose blunt, taciturn stoicism and unflappable demeanor are as unique as his misshapen, apparently self-administered haircut (which Harmon dreamed up as a way of getting into the character, as producer Donald P. Bellisario reveals in this 2006 interview).
It's odd to think that Harmon, the actor who plays Gibbs, was regarded early in his career mostly for his handsome visage and lean, athletic physique -- People magazine picked him in the mid-1980s as the its "Sexiest Man Alive." At 59, Harmon still looks pretty good, but it's not Gibbs' animal magnetism that draws us in so much as his world-weary wisdom and endurance at grappling with the existential dilemma. He's a man who lost his family to violence, who's had his trust betrayed, who sometimes has his doubts about the missions hatched by his Machiavellian superiors in the national security apparatus. He leads a group that comes from another generation, whose cultural references and fluency with technology are almost baffling to him. But somehow he manages to endure and prevail.
I'm tempted to attribute this to Gibbs' famous "50 Rules," which are often cited on the show but which have never been completely enumerated. A fan site devoted to NCIS co-star Michael Weatherly has compiled this partial list, which includes such gems as No. 7 ("Always be specific when you lie"), No. 11 ("When the job is done, walk away") and No. 23 ("Never mess with a Marine's coffee if you want to live"). To make things confusing, though, there's also the 51st rule ("Sometimes you're wrong"), which seems to countermand all the rest.
My theory is that this spoken list is just a ploy, and that Gibbs doesn't articulate the real rules that guide him. We're supposed to figure those out for ourselves. Here are five unspoken Gibbs rules that I've deduced -- ones that also happen to be good real-life wisdom for midlife's challenges.
1. The best way to connect with Gen Y is to not try to be one of them.
Gibbs doesn't pretend to get DiNozzo's obsession with movie trivia, McGee's convoluted explanations of technology or Abby's goth wardrobe and musical tastes. They live in a radically different cultural and relationship milieu than the one in which he came of age back in the 1970s (or thereabouts). Instead, he focuses on the core values and purpose he shares with them and connects on that level. They may joke about him being a fossil, but they know that he's in touch about what counts.
2. You can be consistent and unpredictable at the same time.
Gibbs outsmarts criminals, terrorists and even his own superiors by being the embodiment of the ancient Chinese general Sun-Tzu's exhortation to attack when the enemy is unprepared and where you are least expected. He's always pushing his team to think outside the box as well. But as unpredictable as Gibbs' tactics are, his core values -- loyalty, responsibility, a sense of right and wrong, and merciful restraint -- are as constant as a high-end Swiss watch.
3. To quiet your mind, take on a physical task.
Gibbs has plenty of disturbing memories to haunt him and his share of current crises to keep him up at night. That's why whenever he's got some down time, you'll see him in his basement engaging in his hobby of boat building. (Here's an amusing video compilation of him working on the boat from seasons one to five, set to a catchy march by French singer Hugues Aufray.) We know that Gibbs has actually finished at least one boat, but it's the act of building that's the important thing, not the finished result, that empties his mind and gives him a Buddhist monk's ability to be present in the moment.
4. You can get right to the point and focus on what's important without ignoring the nuances.
When Gibbs asks his subordinates for information, he invariably chides them for burdening him with useless embellishment and demands the executive summary. But that doesn't mean he has a simplistic view of the world or of people. To the contrary, he often is the one who spots a crucial omission or contradiction in an interviewee's statement or notices the thing that doesn't fit at the crime scene. He's learned to focus on what he really wants and needs to know, and not let the rest distract him.
5. You can be tough and remain compassionate.
Remember that episode in season 5, in which Gibbs' relentless pursuit of the truth exposed a young Marine combat hero as a steroid abuser and resulted in denial of a medal the Marine was supposed to receive? In the last scene, Gibbs visits the disgraced serviceman in the hospital and honors his sacrifice by handing him his own combat medals. Sure, that ending might have seemed not totally plausible, but in terms of moral logic, it couldn't have fit better. Gibbs isn't a jaded hipster who revels in schadenfreude, and he isn't Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry, tormenting a vanquished assailant by asking, "Do ya feel lucky, punk?" He's seen the worst side of people, yet he refuses to give up his faith in humanity's essential goodness.
Oh, and there's one of Gibbs' rules that is worth mentioning: Jeans, an open-necked casual shirt and a suit jacket are the perfect male attire for virtually any occasion. Not only will you look like a TV star, but think of how much you'll save in terms of closet and drawer space after you donate all those ties and dress slacks to Goodwill.
Previous Post: Rugby: Not Just a Boys' Sport
Next Post: 10 Commandments of Frugal Chic