This post was originally shared in the FTGN Monthly Reading List Email.
By Joe Byerly
I like to read a lot. I have a strong love of learning and I’ve found the easiest way for me to expand my repertoire is to open a book when I first wake up or listen to an audiobook during a morning commute. Since 2013, I’ve published a year-end reading list as an effort to promote a practice that I’ve found so valuable over the last decade. A few years ago, I morphed this list into an annual reflection of reading. It’s honestly my favorite post to write every year.
So, as I reflect on 2020, I’ve identified five lessons from books that stood out to me this past year. I hope that in sharing these with you, you might decide to take a few moments to reflect on your own lessons or maybe even purchase one of these great books.
1-Habits are everything
We often have grandiose plans for the future yet we don’t take into account what we’re doing today to bring them to fruition. We waste time on social media, watching TV, or mindlessly going through life. In doing so, we forget to pay attention to our habits, but as Seneca points out in his Letters from a Stoic, “Any plans for the future are dependent on the past.”
This year, I read an extremely insightful book on habits aptly titled Atomic Habits by James Clear. He writes, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement…they seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous.” In the course of my reading I’ve seen this idea play out time and time again.
For instance, Michael McClellan spent 12 years writing his debut epic novel The Sand Sea (in addition to working a full time job and having a family). He was only able to achieve his goal of publishing a novel after developing a habit of writing 500 words per day. The progress didn’t seem like much after a few days, or a few weeks, but after months and years he had a novel! Steven King, Steven Pressfield, James Kerr, and Scott Young also comment on the power of good habits in their books.
In 2020, I began to pay attention to my habits. I realized the time I spent on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram added up. I had nothing to show for the hours monitoring my feeds and sharing my “pithy insights.” Steven Pressfield underscores this in Turning Pro when he wrote, “The amateur tweets, the professional works.” I shifted my focus to fitness, reading and writing, working on the blog, and just being present (thank you Adam Robinson).
Those habits quickly earned compound interest for me. I’m faster and stronger than I was at 21 years old, I wrote numerous articles this year, expanded the From the Green Notebook team to four more volunteers, launched a podcast, started sending out a weekly newsletter, and more importantly, I’m happier than I was before the turn of the last decade.
2-Read it again
I once believed that reading a book once was good enough. I read, extracted the lessons I wanted, and then put it back on the shelf. And that’s where the book would sit from that point forward. In the last two years, I realized if we want to grasp a concept, we need to spend time with it. And that involves reading some books more than once. Seneca put it more eloquently 2000 years ago when he wrote, “You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.”
I also learned that as we change, so do the books we read. This year I picked up several titles for the second time. I reread Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday, Turning Pro and the War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I even tackled The Odyssey(not sure if the first time counts because I was in high school or college). As I picked up these books, I realized they had changed, or at least I thought they had, and within them I found a newness that surprised me. The books had lessons I missed previously, and I even disagreed with some of the points I once agreed with. In some instances, I even challenged my own margin notes because my experiences and personal growth had changed my perspective.
This observation reinforces the idea that books meet us where we are at experientially and developmentally. A younger leader may extract one set of lessons from a book while a more senior leader will likely walk away with a completely different set of conclusions. The only way to know if a book is worth reading more than once is to pick it up and just start reading. In my experience, you will find more lessons and insights inside of your old books once you have the life experiences to unlock them.
Virginia Woolf has a great quote on the need to reread books. She once wrote, “To write down one’s impressions of Hamlet as one reads it year after year would be virtually to record one’s own autobiography, for as we know more of life, so Shakespeare comments upon what we know.”
In 2021, I’m going to spend more time with the books I’ve already read. I want to see what lessons I can pull from these titles through the lens of my renewed outlook on life.
3- Old wisdom is tested wisdom
Every year, consumers purchase a ridiculous amount of books offering the latest insights on self-improvement, leadership, and life hacks. However, much of that wisdom has not endured the ultimate test: time. As Nasim Talib argues in Antifragile, “Time acts as proof to whether or not advice is worth following.” So where should we go for lessons on becoming the best version of ourselves? We should pick up books whose lessons have withstood the test of time.
In reading texts written thousands of years ago, I found that although we think we are more advanced and more civil than those who came before us, human behavior hasn’t changed much in the last 2000+ years.
We are still troubled by the same things that troubled people in the first century. As Epictetus advised his students in The Discourses, “We agonize over our body, our money, or what the emperor is going to decree –never about anything inside of us.”
I even found an example of people trying to keep up with the Joneses 2000 years ago. In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca wrote about how everyone wanted to have their own troop of Numidian horse riders, so that the riders could clear the way for them as they traveled from one place to another. They also wanted to make sure they were seen with only the nicest luggage out of fear they would be judged by their neighbors as common. If people around them had these luxuries, it made the desire that much greater.
Leaders serving in the military today can easily recognize and relate to scenes from The Odyssey. When Odysseus finally surprises Penelope at home after a two-decade deployment. In describing this scene, Homer writes,
This made him want to cry. He held his love, his faithful wife, and wept. As welcome as the land to swimmers, when Poseidon wrecks their ship at sea and breaks it with great waves and driving winds; a few escape the sea and reach the shore, their skin all caked with brine. Grateful to be alive, they crawl to land. So glad she was to see her own dear husband, and her white arms would not let go of his neck…Odysseus, mind whirling said, “Wife, we have not yet come to the end of our troubles, there are more to come, many hard labors which I must complete.”
The homecoming. The emotion. The troubles. All of these circumstances, which are still familiar to so many service members today, are captured in this single passage.
The advice and insights of Seneca, Epictetus, Musonius Rufus, Marcus Aurelius and the fiction of Homer, Euripides, and Sophocles are more valuable than many of today’s popular self help books because the concepts and ideas therein withstand the test of time.
4-Life is messy
By reading several biographies this year, I learned that real life is complicated and messy and looks nothing like the highlight reels of our friends, family, and celebrities we see on social media. We put our heroes on pedestals and forget they struggled (just like we do) to get to a point in their lives where their actions were memorable. Yet, in spite of their challenges, they overcame their failures, character flaws, fears, and societal prejudices to achieve greatness.
Queen Isabella of Spain took the crown at twenty-three years old and was such an effective leader, Europeans adapted the game of chess to make the queen the most powerful piece on the board. She became a ruler, and one of the most accomplished in Europe during that period, in spite of the fact that women were viewed as second-class citizens in the 1400s and many wrote her off (at the beginning).
Alexander Hamilton spent his entire life running from his upbringing, a bastard son from a backwater Caribbean island. Yet, he was one of the most prolific writers out of the Founding Fathers and created a financial system that still survives today.
U.S. Grant battled a drinking problem and spent his entire military career being written off by everyone around him, even as he won important Civil War battles. He also died broke and in debt, even after serving as two-term president.
Frederick Douglass is a celebrated 19th century orator and abolitionist, yet he spent a great amount of energy in his later years picking up the pieces of a family he neglected for the first half of his public speaking career.
In reading these stories, we can find the wisdom to better our lives and become better leaders. We can also give ourselves and others around us a little bit more grace as these stories remind us that life isn’t clean; it’s quite messy.
5- Write it down
Within minutes of setting down a book or a blog post, most of us start forgetting what we read. It’s called the Forgetting Curve. To battle this inevitable intellectual decline, it’s helpful to write down the insights, passages, and quotes that speak to us. Again, returning to Seneca’s words, he wrote,
We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings, which are capable of immediate practical application—not far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech—and learn them so well that words become works.
While this lesson isn’t necessarily new for me, 2020 (with all its craziness) has highlighted how those things I wrote down helped me reflect, grow, and develop deeper insights when I needed them the most.
For those of you who have followed my professional development journey over the years, or even just joined recently, thank you. Writing for you has inspired me to keep producing this email. Below is the entire 2020 list of books along with hyperlinks to my monthly reading list emails:
January’s Reading List Email
The Centurions by Jean Lartéguy
The Praetorians by Jean Lartéguy
Second Mountain by David Brooks
Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Professor Stephen Greenblatt
Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday
Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorist by Audrey Kurth Cronin.
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: A Novel by Neal Stephenson
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
The Odyssey by Homer (Emily Wilson Translation)
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Atomic Habits by James Clear.
The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry
Seneca: Letters from a Stoic (Penguin Classics)
The Greatest Empire the Life of Seneca By Emily Wilson
Love is Not Enough by Mark Manson
Burn-In by P.W. Singer and August Cole
No Time for Spectators by Martin Dempsey
Isabella: The Warrior Queen by Kirsten Downey
Discourses and Selected Writing of Epictetus (Penguin Classics)
Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior by James Bond Stockdale
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Stillness Is the Key by Ryan Holiday
The Sand Sea: The Rubric of Conquest by Michael McClellan
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
Grant by Ron Chernow.
The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek
How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Ike’s Biggest Decisions by Susanne Eisenhower
Leadership in War: Essential Lessons From Those Who Made History by Andrew Roberts
The Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
The Character Edge: Leading and Winning with Integrity by Robert L. Caslen Jr. and Michael D. Matthews
Range by David Epstein
TOPGUN Top 10: Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit by Guy Snodgrass
On the Shortness of Life by Seneca
The New Map: Energy, Climate, and The Clash of Nations by Daniel Yergin
Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World by H.R. McMaster
Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot by James Stockdale
First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans by Thomas E. Ricks
The Artist’s Journey by Steven Pressfield
Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield
War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Looking for something to read? Sign up for my monthly reading list emailwhere you can learn about titles you won’t find on military reading lists! Also, be sure to subscribe to The Sunday Email. Each week we send out a quote and a short insight to get you thinking. So don’t miss out!