[WE Talk] Jason Pogacnik – Big Picture Thinking at NATO and Beyond

Jason Pogacnik

Big Picture Thinking at NATO and Beyond

On this episode:

  • Navigating diverse communities in Baghdad
  • Consensus work on an international level at NATO
  • Big picture thinking
  • The creative, photographic process
  • Love of nature
  • Life in balance: work, travel and creativity

Episode Transcript:

Nita Davanzo: Hello, and welcome to WE Talk, a podcast that explores the role of Waldorf education in helping children, parents, and families thrive in an ever-changing world. WE Talk is brought to you by Shining Mountain Waldorf School and this is your host, Nita June Davanzo.

Today on WE Talk, we welcome Jason Pogacnik, from Shining Mountain Waldorf School’s class of 1999. Jason has always been interested in the way things work on a micro and a macro level. From his early interest in auto mechanics in high school to now working on the strategic implementation of NATO policies on the national and international level while living in Brussels, Jason possesses the keen ability to see the whole and the parts and make sense, system, and order from it all.

As a true Waldorf student, though, Jason is not about all work and no play. Rather, in his free time, Jason travels the world capturing its beauty and elegance through the lens of his camera.

Jason, welcome to We Talk.

Jason Pogacnik: Thank you. Good to be on.

Nita Davanzo: Thank you for joining us from Brussels today, a few hours ahead of me over here in California. Jason, first I just wanted to go back a little bit in time and hear about your journey from your time many, many years ago as a senior at Shining Mountain Waldorf High School to now.

Jason Pogacnik: I graduated in the class of 1999, and then I started at Georgetown University in Washington, DC where I pursued a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service, which is basically a degree in international politics and international relations. There I was really fortunate to have classes with some really great practitioners, such as Madeline Albright, of course, the Secretary of State, Tony Lake, who was Clinton’s first National Security Advisor, and that basically piqued my interest to really pursue a career in practice rather than go the academic route like a PhD.

Nita Davanzo: When you first graduated from high school, did you know that you wanted to study foreign service and move into the international relations career field?

Jason Pogacnik: Yeah. I think I had known what I would want to do since the mid-nineties, actually, which is when I started traveling in the western Balkans with my father. When I was there, I knew that I wanted to study and work in some area that had to do with politics and peace. Of course in ’94, in Croatia, the hostilities had just recently completed. For the most part, of course, the war was still raging in Bosnia, and I was in Dubrovnik just a few short kilometers over the border where the fighting was going on. Being in Dubrovnik, one of the first actual foreigners to be there after the war… Now of course it’s full of Game of Thrones tourists and everything, but back then we were only essentially tourists there, and of course everyone wanted to talk about their experiences and what they’d been through, and that made a huge impression on me at 14-years-old, and that was even before I came to high school at Shining Mountain. But that set my direction really for the rest of my life.

Nita Davanzo: It sounds like really there’s something about the people and their plight, their experiences, and you’re hearing their stories that really moved you to set your sights on this career path.

Jason Pogacnik: Absolutely. I should add, too, what was great about Shining Mountain was its flexibility. I took advantage of a couple opportunities. The first was to study abroad in South Africa. Amazing time to be there, 1997, so that would have been my junior year. People were still full of hope. Of course, Apartheid had ended in 1994, and the ANC had just come into power, and there was just so much hope and happiness, and a sense that a real milestone had been passed, that there was a real future for the country, where before there had not been. Like you said, it was the people, it was the stories, it was being there, the timing, and that solidified really in my mind what I wanted to do.

The second thing I should say is the internship that I did with State Senator Dorothy Rupert in my senior year. Of course, 1999, that was the year of the Columbine attacks, and I was manning the phones with all the parents calling in, saying ‘this could have been my kid who did the shooting, what do I do?” And the hopelessness and the fear, I think it’s a really sad indicator of things in our country now that the events that have happened since then make … You know, it’s just one after the other with these mass shootings. I think that was one of the first ones that brought these problems into the mass consciousness. Being there at that moment, again, that also, and having the direct contact with the people from that perspective of being on interns …

Nita Davanzo: Jason, you noted that you had these opportunities and the freedom to pursue the opportunities when you were at high school at Shining Mountain, do you feel that your ability to reach out and connect with other people, and even this bravery–that I would certainly say too I recognize in you and your stepping forward to actually do this work and do this internship your senior year, and go to do a study abroad in South Africa–do you feel like this ability to communicate and also this sense of bravery were strengthened or were supported in any way, and possibly even supported and kindled from your time at Shining Mountain, or from your time at your Waldorf school that you attended prior to Shining Mountain?

Jason Pogacnik: Yeah. I think there’s a definite connection, just having the freedom to take advantage of those kinds of opportunities. The supportive environment that Waldorf provides, versus a directive environment, versus “you will do this, you will do that, you will follow this particular path, and here’s what you have to do to do that, to accomplish those specific goals.” To me, the essence of the Waldorf experience is really that you are encouraged to have the self-discipline and building that self-discipline, resilience, is … I’m not sure I would have gotten that from the typical college prep experience.

Nita Davanzo: I definitely agree with you on that too from my own personal experience. Jason, to go back a little bit, you spent your undergraduate years at Georgetown, and then after Georgetown did you immediately head off to Syracuse University for your master’s, or did you spend some time working in between?

Jason Pogacnik: No. I went right to Syracuse, to the Maxwell School. At that time my thinking was for a career in international relations a master’s degree is a basic requirement. It’s much easier to get a job if you have a master’s degree, and I also thought since Georgetown was such a rigorous program of study that I probably could recycle a bunch of old papers and getting that extra master’s degree wouldn’t be that much work.

Nita Davanzo: (laughing) Savvy minded.

Jason Pogacnik: It was fun being a student. I loved being a student, so I thought “oh, what’s another year.” So I originally signed up for just a one-year international relations program, but once I was there I was like hey, Syracuse, it has the number one rated public administration program as well, so why not do that. It’s just another year, it’s two master’s for the price of one, essentially. So I did those both, and I graduated in 2005.

I was quite involved with other students in setting up groups, for example, I set up a student group with an activist-vegan-straightedge-super-liberal-former-spokesperson for some radical groups, and someone, another person who was extremely conservative, very strong supporter of President George W. Bush, and then there was me. We thought if we could start something together and have a dialog on the issues of the day, mostly terrorism, that was the focus of this group, then yeah, if we can do this then anything is possible.

Nita Davanzo: That’s amazing. Did you act as kind of the mediator, or the balance point person in between those two?

Jason Pogacnik: Yeah. I’ve never really been on one political extreme or the other. I certainly have strong views, but I found that in life you can achieve your aims, you can express those views, but if, yeah, in that kind of situation it’s most effective and you can achieve the most by being in balance. You can always find something that’s rational and you can believe in on all sides, I think, if you listen, if you really listen to what people believe and what their passions are.

Nita Davanzo: I know that you currently work at NATO, and we’ll come to that in just a moment. After your time at Syracuse, I believe you worked as a senior analyst for the US Government Accountability Office. During this time, you spent a year in Baghdad. Tell us a little bit about your work and what you were doing there. It sounds a bit like you continued this thread of listening and working with different sides to come to a mediation and to build teams.

Jason Pogacnik: I wouldn’t really characterize it as a mediation.

Nita Davanzo: Okay.

Jason Pogacnik: The Government Accountability Office is a part of Congress, so in that respect, it’s part of the Legislative branch, obviously, and at that time, this was 2008, so right after the surge. There were about 180,000 or so US troops there in Iraq, and thousands of US government civilians all working for the President. Then there was two of us, the first permanent presence of the Legislative branch to be in the country, basically the eyes and the ears of Congress, which provides the money for war, on the ground. So it was challenging in that respect, mostly in our need to build trust.

So not so much in bringing groups together as in getting the kinds of information that would truly give Congress back home a picture of what’s going on, how well, how effectively, how efficiently the taxpayer dollars were being spent. I did everything from living and moving around with the marines, who were flying the V22 Osprey, this is the world’s first tilt-rotor aircraft, so it takes off like a helicopter vertically, and then it flies like a plane. Brand new technology, it had a very rocky development period, and in Iraq it had its first operational deployment. Congress wanted to know how well this thing was working, was it worth our investment, was it meeting the needs of the marines on the ground, does the logistic supply chain work like it should, is it ready, is it basically worth the investment. I could answer those kinds of questions by being on the ground with the marines flying it.

Everything from that to there was another project where there in Iraq it was really the first time you had almost every US federal agency on the ground in one form or the other, but everyone was under different pay systems, different incentives. You would either volunteer or you’d be assigned there, so Congress wanted to make sure everyone more or less had an equal playing field, they got the same benefits, they got the same compensation, or as close to the same as possible. Obviously, you could never get to the same. To have focus groups and talk to the US government civilians on the ground there about their experiences and what works well, what doesn’t for them, basically the full range of spending and what’s working well, that was my function.

Nita Davanzo: Wow. You clearly worked with a whole host of different individuals, of all sorts of different education levels, security levels, financial levels, all the different levels that one could probably think of you worked with–of diversity there. Jason, where do you feel you gained these tools, and the ability to so successfully, it sounds, connect with a diverse and wide range of people and come to a positive and healthy result and end with everything?

Jason Pogacnik: Yeah. I think a lot of it is you learn as you go, and you have to adapt quickly. You have to be flexible, and be in a constant learning mode. You have to be open to changing your approach completely depending on what the audience is. I think just as an aside when I started my new position in NATO a year ago, I had a completely different background than most people in NATO. The average age there is nearly 50. Most people are retired military, they think about things a certain way, there’s a very proficient technically in a certain area, but maybe not necessarily able to shift from whatever they’re hired to do very quickly.

Nita Davanzo: Interesting, kind of an inflexibility of thinking.

Jason Pogacnik: It’s a bit more rigid in the way they go about doing business, but I was fortunate enough the team that hired me was looking for a different kind of flexibility. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have years and years of defense planning experience, even though my function now is technically a defense planning function, which is quite a narrow, it can be quite a technical area, but I had a program evaluation background, and it turns out that what I’m working in is now completely different than what the job description had said I would do, but because I had that flexibility that I can shift focus and dig into something and I have that, with that I’m able to succeed. That’s what I think has served me well in these kinds of situations.

Nita Davanzo: I see that across the board in Waldorf students. If there are one or two throughlines of a Waldorf student, I would certainly say one of them is this ability to communicate and connect with people, also the desire to do so, and the ability and desire to listen, and I also feel that the other strength in Waldorf students is this flexibility, is this ability to adapt to situations, to call upon one’s skills and capacities and to be able to apply them in a new way. It sounds like that’s very much what you are doing.

Jason, what is your current title at NATO?

Jason Pogacnik: I’m a policy officer in the Defense Investment Division within the International Secretariat. That means that technically I work for the Secretary-General of NATO, and my loyalty is to the NATO organization, it’s not to any one nation, so it’s not to the US government for example. I don’t represent the US government in my current post.

At a really high level, what the entire international staff does is we support consensus decision making. NATO functions based on the committee format, so the 29 nations sit around the table in various committees, resourced focused, so money, defense planning focused, so there will be a policy focus to it. You have committees dealing strictly with military issues, political military. You have very technical committees that get down to the nitty-gritty, and you have a very high level. So it’s across all dimensions you have a range of committees that we the civilians on the international staff we support. NATO also has a military staff, and they support a parallel military staff structure.

Most of my time now is spent on a major change initiative that we’re doing within the alliance. You’ll hear a lot about the speed of relevance, NATO has to remain relevant today in a changing security environment. That has many dimensions. There’s the external dimension, what is the environment and how do we respond. Then there’s the internal dimension, so how as an organization is NATO sufficiently flexible. Can we adapt, can we make decisions quick enough to be able to respond? That’s what that’s the side that I’m working on, in one particular area, but the overall goal that I’m involved in is to create a whole approach that will get what we call capabilities to the NATO commanders faster than we’re currently able to do.

We have an approach to doing this that we’re trying to make quicker overall, and it’s incredibly complex. It involves the only example of where you have a group of nations coming together to pool money to for a common defense goal.

Nita Davanzo: You are very much looking at the big picture and then the parts within it, and then trying to strategically organize, plan, and set into motion all these different bits and pieces for the goal of unifying and streamlining NATO’s capacities, organizational structures, functions, and everything. That’s–how did you note it? The change plan?

Jason Pogacnik: Yeah. This is big picture thinking is a part of my daily job. I mean I have to consider the perspectives of our military community, of our resource community. There’s a lot of equities involved in what we call these common-funded capabilities, which are–it’s interesting, it’s those capabilities that any one nation within the NATO alliance wouldn’t be expected to provide on their own. One example would be the systems that connect ballistic missile radar, the systems that shoot down ballistic missile defense, and the various command and control arrangements that you need to run the whole thing. If an adversary fires a ballistic missile at any of the NATO allies, there’s a glue that ties together all the pieces, and that would be a common-funded capability. The whole way of fielding these has to change because we’re just not able to do it fast enough.

But you have a lot of interest. You have to get the agreement of all 29 allies to change anything. It has to be supported by our strategic commands, so our military needs to buy into the whole approach, and then those that control the funds, the staff at the staff level as well as the committee level, everyone has to buy into this at some level. I consolidate and I coordinate, and I’m writing the policy, and now we’re trying hard to get this agreed by the nations, and that’s where we are right now.

Nita Davanzo: Jason, aside from all this intense work, you’re currently living in Brussels. Do you have time to travel? I know that you are also a pretty incredible photographer. Can you tell us a little bit about the other side of your life, from traveling to seeing the world through the lens of your camera?

Jason Pogacnik: Thank you for that, first of all. Yeah, photography’s been a passion of mine since I was a kid. Going back to my Shining Mountain days, I think it was the senior project I put on my first photo exhibition from pictures I’d taken and then developed in the darkroom.

Nita Davanzo: I remember that. I remember some of the ones that you had taken that I believe were there for your senior project were some photos from when a group of us had gone to Peace Jam in Denver and seen the Dalai Lama.

Jason Pogacnik: That’s right, yeah. These days, I combine two passions, obviously one of which is photography, the other which is travel. Given my work schedule and the fact that I’m working long hours, it’s unfortunate that most of my photography now happens just when I travel, but at least when I do hit the road I can do those things that I love doing pretty intensively. Yeah, I take different kinds of trips every year. The great thing about being in Europe is that it’s Europe, and I love road trips, so almost every summer I’ve explored a different corner of the continent to really get to know it in depth.

Nita Davanzo: How many languages do you currently speak?

Jason Pogacnik: The Spanish is pretty good. The French is not quite where it should be after six years here, (laughing) because I do all my work in English. I try to, if I’m out and about, the French is workable. It’s workable, but it should be better. It’s something that I’m going to be working on.

Nita Davanzo: Bringing it back to your photography, what for you do you feel are the qualities that make up a good image, a good photograph?

Jason Pogacnik: Photography for me is really personal. It’s always been something I’ve done more for myself than others. It’s also something that when I take a picture it’s more about the moment than freezing at that time, and the whole process of seeing the elements come together and taking the picture, and it’s the feeling that I get. It’s not really about the end result. It’s more about getting there to me. I think the biggest reason I’m realizing that is because I have so many pictures that are still backed up in my workflow that I have to get through with Lightroom to produce something, because you come back from a vacation, and I’m here, I get back into the work mode.

But that said, I would say that if I can look at a picture either printed, preferably printed, or on the screen, and I can feel the same things that I remember, if I’m able to recreate the emotions and the feeling that I had at that moment that I took it, then I know that I’ve succeeded. I couldn’t really pinpoint why or what the structure, but it’s more of a like a thing of the heart, or you just know. You can feel it. That has to do with the personal side, though.

Nita Davanzo: That’s incredible. I think that that is truly a mark of high art, that experience of it, the experience creating it, the process of creating it, and also the experience of when you’re looking at an image or a play or experiencing a piece of music, how it makes you feel, and I think that’s truly that high mark of an art. That’s interesting you initially noted capturing this moment, but that it’s not about capturing it’s about the whole process in and of itself, when you do look at that image and you can take yourself, it takes you back to that time… that is a successful photograph, that is a good picture in your heart and your mind.

Jason Pogacnik: Yeah, if someone else can have a good feeling about it too that’s just a bonus.

Nita Davanzo: Absolutely. Wow, Jason. To wrap us up here just one more question. First, I’m truly amazed at looking back at how you and I both spent a few of our high school years together in this wonderful environment with the same teachers, and attended many of the same classes, and then now looking at where our lives have taken us, where the choices that we’ve made, where we both are now–it’s so different! But then at the same time as I listen to you, I really resonate with so much of what you’re saying in terms of these values of connecting with people, the values of traveling and seeing the world, and continuing to experience and enjoy the beauty of the world, really resonating with that and appreciative of your sharing it.

But one last question in closing, bringing it back to your Waldorf education, if you were to just share a few thoughts on what ways you see that your life has been positively affected by your time at Shining Mountain Waldorf High School, and I believe at Baltimore Waldorf School, is that correct, or is it the Waldorf school in DC?

Jason Pogacnik: No, so it was the Toronto Waldorf School for middle school, Washington Waldorf School for elementary school, and then Shining Mountain for high school.

Nita Davanzo: Okay. With those three, what gifts do you feel were given by being a student at a Waldorf school for all those years?

Jason Pogacnik: That’s a really good question. Now I’ve always loved nature, and I think that being in a Waldorf school really reinforced that and deepened that by doing all the art classes for example. You’re looking at things in different ways if you’re painting something, or if you’re sculpting something, if you’re creating something out of molten metal like we did in our blacksmithing class. There’s a kind of a way of seeing and a way of connecting to nature, to the elements that I think is unique given the focus on art and on creativity and all that. That I think for me forged a stronger connection with nature that I’d always had, but that has really stayed with me for a long time, and that’s one of my favorite happy places.

I can have the most stressful string of months with barely a break, and then I can go out in nature and see things, and take pictures. I don’t do painting, I don’t do much of the artsy things that we used to do in school, but I can still feel the effects I think of looking at things a different way, and having to create your own perception of it. Yeah, I would say that’s what stayed with me, that’s one of the biggest impacts.

Nita Davanzo: That’s a big one. Absolutely, that ability to experience in the world and shift one’s perspective on it and come back–through nature–to this balance and sense of self.

Well, Jason, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me this– your evening, my afternoon. I wish you ever so much of all the best in your coming months over there in Brussels, with lots of stuff going on on the international level, that’s for sure.

Jason Pogacnik: Thank you very much, Nita. It’s been fun.

Nita Davanzo: Thank you for listening to WE Talk, brought to you by Shining Mountain Waldorf High School. Nita Davanzo is editor, producer, and host. Introduction music was created by SoundDotCom.com.

If you’d like to be interviewed, have a suggestion for an episode ahead, or simply wish to share feedback ideas, please email us at WeTalk@SMWaldorf.org.