January 31, 2018

How Shawn Brimley Did It

Source: War on the Rocks

Journalist: Richard Fontaine

The loss of Shawn Brimley devastated Washington’s national security community. All who knew him saw in Shawn a brilliant defense analyst, a visionary organizational leader, and a pragmatist who got things done. Most understood how much he loved his family, and how devoted he was to his children. And some were aware – perhaps, on occasion, too aware, given his penchant for oversharing – of his fondness for Star Wars, 90s music, sci-fi novels and CrossFit. His life, cut short at 40 years old, was fuller than many who will live twice as long.

Eloquent tributes to Shawn have come in from many quarters, and from places as disparate as WashingtonToronto and Sydney. His life has been called extraordinary, Washington termed Shawn Brimley’s town, his career referred to as an intellectual ballet. He has been praised at length in the U.S. Senate. Nearly a thousand people have made individual contributions to the educational fund established for Shawn’s children, including many who never met him. He was loved by friends and neighbors, supervisors and employees, interns, and the senior-most policymakers. Shawn was my colleague and my friend.

Shawn was successful in the way that most ambitious young people arriving in Washington hope one day to become. He worked at the Pentagon, where he shaped the Quadrennial Defense Review, and then at the White House, where he served ably on the National Security Council staff. He was executive vice president at the Center for a New American Security, where he directed our studies program and managed a stable of top-flight, headstrong policy experts. Shawn advised presidential campaigns, published articles on national security policy, appeared on television, and made speeches. Senior government officials sought out his counsel. All this, and he had spent just 15 years in this field.

In this bitterest of times, in a town riven by anger and strife, in a field animated by ambition and drive, Shawn seemed to stand apart. His goodness and happiness seemed to come not at the expense of his success but as an inextricable part of it. As we mourn his passing and celebrate his life, it’s worth pausing to ask: How did he do it?

First, he charted his own path in Washington. The prototypical route to the corridors of power is through an elite university, multiple internships, a handful of good connections, and a plan for success. Shawn had none of those. Consider, for instance, that he served five years in the army before even graduating from college – the Canadian army! From Toronto to teaching English in Japan and eventually to Washington, Shawn’s trajectory contradicted every rising star’s hopes of establishing a ten-year career plan and then assiduously climbing the rungs necessary to achieve its ends. He simply identified discrete, fulfilling career experiences and moved from one to another to another. In this alone, Shawn pointed the way to a meaningful working life.

Second, he was humble. Once in Washington, he looked with amusement at the feverishly striving, aggressively networking career aspirants, those ready at a moment’s notice to ditch a happy hour with friends or meal at home for a dinner that would continue the work day. Traditional notions of status and exposure meant little to Shawn. He was unpossessed by a drive to get his name “out there” or trade on titles and offices, and instead threw himself into making ideas and people better. He published good ideas, his own and others, and saw himself succeeding when others did. The director of studies position at CNAS requires brilliance and hard work, accompanied by a willingness to sublimate one’s own energies into guiding and improving the work of colleagues. Shawn was a natural at it. He made every piece of writing I showed him better, something experienced by so many people who worked with him. And in a town where self-promotion is so prevalent that the “Washington read” is a real phenomenon, Shawn spent most of his efforts promoting others. Word got around: Brimley will make your stuff great.

Third, he was enthusiastic. Perhaps the most common impression Shawn left on his colleagues and friends was his infectious enthusiasm. It didn’t matter whether it was a Star Wars movie, a new book on the diffusion of military technology, an upcoming national security strategy document, or a novel project planning tool: Shawn’s passion for everything rubbed off on everyone. Sitting with him the day before he died, I listened while Shawn lambasted me for not watching all four Dave Chappelle comedy specials on Netflix. “It’s exactly your kind of humor,” he said, “and it’s unfathomable that you haven’t seen them all.” (I said I had watched just two.) I left thinking I’d better get on this pronto – maybe even cancel a meeting or two, given the importance of the matter.

This suggests another way Shawn did it: with humor. Shawn was hilarious. His annual appearance as beer-drinking Santa Claus at our staff holiday party has become legendary, but his sense of humor infused the workplace year-round. He knew how to lighten a mood, make people laugh, and diffuse tension. Shawn took his work seriously, but never himself. He did the small things with the same humor and spirit with which he tackled the biggest tasks.

And finally, Shawn did it with passion – or, perhaps more accurately, with love. It was obvious that Shawn loved his family, loved his work and its mission, loved his friends and coworkers, and loved his adopted country. He had a tremendous professional network built not for its own sake, but as a byproduct of the close relationships he made wherever he went. By throwing himself into everything he did – “leaving it all on the field,” in his words – Shawn built institutions, influenced national security policy, charted a successful career, and attracted talented people wishing to work with him. He loved life and work and the people around him. And we loved him.

Let’s not exaggerate: Shawn Brimley was not perfect. None of us are. He had trouble saying no, including to those who worked for him. His social media habits were apt to get out of hand from time to time. His oversharing could bleed into a downright lack of appropriateness. And about twice each year, Shawn and I would get into big, sharp arguments, usually over some management decision. When that happened, his chin would tighten and he’d dig in, and we’d drive each other crazy. Then it would blow over.

To pretend that Shawn was a saint would not only be wrong, it would miss the point. In truth, everything he accomplished was very human, even as it often embodied the best of human traits. He wasn’t perfect, but he was remarkable, and he set standards for which we all can – and we all should – strive. That’s why his funeral brought a who’s who of the national security community together with family, neighbors and friends who couldn’t distinguish the National Security Council from Kylo Ren. His Washington career trajectory was atypical, from beginning to end. I wish it could have been far longer, and that he were with us today. But those seeking the path to success, meaning and fulfillment could do far worse than look to Shawn Brimley as a model. His 40 years on Earth taught us all something important about how to work, and how to live.


  • Shawn Brimley

    Former Executive Vice President and Director of Studies

    Shawn Brimley was the Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), where he managed the center’s research agenda and staf...

  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of CNAS. He served as President of CNAS from 2012–19 and as Senior Fellow from 2009–12. Prior to CNAS, he was foreign policy ad...