By Joe Byerly
When it comes down to it, the purpose of a military is to fight and win its nation’s wars. And war is complex. When lives or national interests are at stake the outcome is never certain and events can unfold in a manner that no one foresaw. This level of complexity requires military leaders to possess a certain level of aptitude when stepping onto the battlefield. So, let’s back up a bit and do a quick thought experiment.
Imagine if someone told you that a year from today, you would be required to take a test in which every wrong answer resulted in the loss of a human life. How would you approach studying for the test? Would you study for twenty to thirty minutes every night or would you wait until a week before the test and start cramming? You probably think that this is a no brainer, and that you would spend a year studying in small increments so that you get a perfect score and nobody would die. While the logic is clear-cut in this scenario, it is lost on many leaders in their professional military careers.
Many go their entire careers without dedicating time to the study of war and warfare. Let’s be honest, the military places little extrinsic value on self-study. We don’t get rewarded on our Officer and NCO evaluation reports for spending time on self-development. Some leaders even go twenty years without reading a single book outside of professional military education and boast that they were promoted to brigade-level command.
The problem is that as time marches forward in our military careers, we run the risk of the professor walking through the door and handing us the test when we least expect it. The test is a practical exercise called “war.” The questions are hard and the stakes are high. If we aren’t prepared, the results can be devastating. We don’t have to needlessly waste lives by approaching the test cold. That brigade commander might not take his unit to combat, but he could get promoted to general officer when the next war comes along, and by that point there’s not enough time to start reading books on war.
Author and habits expert James Clear points out in his book Atomic Habits that time can either be an enemy or an ally, magnifying the margin between success and failure. In other words, how we choose to spend or not spend our time has consequences.
So when it comes to professional reading, we can either make time an ally or an enemy. And when we look at it through this lens, three truths regarding time come into focus. First, there is a cumulative effect when we invest small amounts of time in reading. Second, there is also a cumulative effect when we neglect it. And finally, once time is gone, there is no getting it back.
There is a cumulative value to investing small amounts of time in self-study over a long period of time
There is a great quote, attributed to the Danish-American social reformer Jacob Riis, hanging in the locker room of the San Antonio Spurs:
When nothing seems to help, I go and look at the stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it –but all that had gone before.
Much like the stonecutters blows, reading a single book or two will most likely not yield immediate results, but leaders who make a habit of investing small amounts of time in their personal development will eventually see exponential improvements in their cognitive abilities.
Some of the smartest military leaders I know supplemented their experiences with books. So, I attempted to emulate them once I had a better grasp on what I should be reading. As I approached the rank of major I started dedicating small amounts of time each day to the practice. I spent 20-30 minutes reading in the morning and then again before bed. I’ve been doing this for almost a decade now and the insights I’ve gained have benefited me in training and in combat.
For example, one of the concepts that became relatively clear to me early on was the role that friction plays in war and life. It kept appearing in one form or another in book after book I read. I first learned about friction from Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. He wrote:
Countless minor incidents –the kind you can never really foresee –combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls short of the intended goal…Friction is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper.
Most of us have heard or experienced Murphy’s law. The law states that if anything can go wrong it will. I have seen Murphy in action on a micro level during deployments and in training exercises. But after I came across this passage on friction, I started seeing how friction influenced “real war” in subsequent books. I saw how it had the power to influence battles and key events throughout history. For example, when I read The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War I learned that friction came in the form of muddy roads that prevented Theban reinforcements from arriving in time to help their besieged forces in Platea during the first year of the Peloponnesian War. Their delay in reaching the city (which was only eight miles away) resulted in a loss and tactical upset for the Thebans.
I read another great example of friction in Roland Huntsford’s The Last Place on Earth. He recounts Roald Amundsen’s 1911 expedition to the South Pole in which he actually planned for sh*t to go bad. Amundsen built his food stocks around the idea that his men would be tired, weather conditions bad, and the chance his team might drift off course from their way points. So, he used multiple flags to mark his food depots, instead of a single flag to mark the spot. His forethought kept his men alive and he not only did he successfully reach the South Pole, but he brought everyone home.
I learned the imperative to expect friction and always plan for it; not after seeing it in a single book, but after months and years of meeting the theme time and time again across multiple works. This important insight has kept me out of trouble on more than one occasion in my day job. Friction in war and other important lessons did not reveal themselves overnight, but were gleaned through a consistent investment of small chunks of time into the habit of professional reading.
Let me give you another example of how reading in manageable chunks adds up. In the documentary Bookstores: How to Read More Books in the Golden Age of Content, blogger Tim Urban points out that if the average person spent only 30 minutes a day reading (that could be 15 minutes before work and 15 minutes before bed), they could read 1000 books in their lifetime. Imagine how many insights, and how much better prepared for war we would be after making those minor daily investments. And in doing so, we make time our ally.
Neglect also has a cumulative effect
But, like James Clear said, time can also be our enemy. The consequences of neglect over a period of time has its own cumulative effect. And there are numerous examples of this in everyday life. We can skip a workout and not fail a military fitness assessment, but we start consistently skipping workouts over a month or a couple of months, we now run the risk of failure and pants that no longer fit. This idea plays out in other areas of life as well. Most of the marriages I have watched dissolve were the result of one or both partners neglecting the relationship over a period of years, and by the time they realized it they were in dire straits, it was too late. Neglecting a habit of professional reading can have equally damaging results.
Unfortunately, many in the military do not invest time throughout their careers for self-study. Many leaders fail to perform at the required level because they neglected their own development. They may survive as platoon leaders, company commanders, and battalion commanders but none of these individuals thrive because they approached each assignment with a limited perspective.
In the same book in which I learned about Roald Amundsen and his expedition to the South Pole, I also learned about his competitor, Sir Robert Falcon Scott. Scott set out to beat Amundsen and reach the Pole first. However, unlike Admundsen he failed to properly prepare for friction on his trek. While Admundsen spent years learning about the harsh environment of the Arctic through books on polar exploration and training expeditions, Scott did not. At the time, there were plenty of books written by previous explorers that would have given Scott more insights into his future mission. However, it wasn’t until the eleventh hour he tried to quickly digest books on the topic. By that point it was too late. He had to set out with the knowledge he already possessed. He wrote in his journal that he was still “woefully ignorant.” Not only did Amundsen’s team beat Scott’s to the South Pole by two weeks, Scott’s team also failed to find their own food depots that were only marked with a single flag. The friction caused by exhaustion, bad weather, and navigational errors resulted in every member of the expedition perishing.
Sir Robert Falcon Scott’s story should serve as a warning to us. Neglect has a cumulative effect. When we fail to mentally prepare ourselves for combat we increase the risk of failure and even worse, losing members of our own teams. We can’t wait until the eleventh hour to start cracking open books.
Now that we understand that time can be either an ally or an enemy, there is one more truth we should also take into account.
You cannot make up for lost time
Out of all the commodities we are given in life, time is the only one we can’t get back. Time’s importance was also recognized by Napoleon Bonaparte who wrote in a letter, “Space I can recover, time never.”
Once time has passed, it’s gone forever. It doesn’t do a Colonel with twenty-four years of service in the Army any good to look back on his or her career and wish they’d read more when they were younger. Many start cramming, but by then, you cannot make up for lost time.
One of my favorite passages from Charles Edward White’s The Enlightened Soldier, is taken from a conversation in which a commander laments to his chief of staff (in the midst of battle) that he wishes he would have prepared his mind for war. The scene occurs during one of the Prussian campaigns against Napoleon in 1813. And it illustrates this point of time lost:
Gneisenau (The Chief of Staff), if only I had learned something, what might have been made of me! But I put off everything that I should have learned.
Instead of studying, I had given myself to gambling, drink, and women. I have hunted and perpetrated all sorts of foolish pranks. And that’s why I don’t know anything now. Yes, the other way I would have been a different kind of fellow. Believe me, something could have been made out of me.
There is one more insight I have picked up over the years. The outbreak of war typically catches a nation and its armies by surprise. None of us know if or when we will be called upon to lead formations in battle. That is why time is so critical and we need to make it our ally.
So, start today. Pick up a book and spend 10-20 minutes reading, highlighting, and taking notes. It’s a small investment, with a great return!
Each month I recommend 3-4 books for professional development. If you’re interested in looking for something to read, sign up for my monthly email reading list.