by Jack Hadley
Military professionals’ reading for self-development tends to fall into two general categories. First, well, military professional reading. This genre is flexible, but generally includes things like A Message to Garcia (and other classic military fiction), World War II histories, and modern geopolitics. Second, we read self-help literature, primarily written for business people. For example, Good to Great, Atomic Habits, or Thinking, Fast and Slow. Both these genres are full of excellent and informative books.
There are other books less read in military circles, yet with transformative potential. Here I offer four examples. They are oblique recommendations, from off the beaten path. They offer new insights for holistic self-development. First, a quirky science journalist’s chronicle of his (self-)experimentation with breathing. Next, a women’s business book written for more than just women. The third isn’t really a book at all. And finally one written by a well-known military author—but it’s mostly about creativity. These works may not fit easily into military standard self-development reading lists. But they are eye-opening in new and robust ways, benefiting leaders of all kinds, and helping you unlock your full potential.
Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor (2020)
Outside of physical training, military leaders largely ignore their breathing, and few consider that they can ‘improve’ it. After all, isn’t breath mostly automatic, studied only by the Ancient East and modern pseudoscientists? Wrong, says journalist James Nestor, drawing from a diverse cast of ‘pulmonauts’. He interviews record setting free-divers, colorful European lung researchers, elite Olympic trainers, and even quotes civil war doctors unironically. Breath is Nestor’s record of his personal journey to breathe and feel better, an enjoyable and even whimsical packaging of scientific and practical wisdom for slack-jawed mouthbreathers, enlightened yogi breathers, and everyone in between.
Nestor argues: we are living in an undiagnosed epidemic of mouthbreathing. This epidemic started in the last 200 years as our eating, dental, and societal norms began changing the shape of our faces. Mouthbreathing fails to warm air before descending into our lungs. In time it deforms our mouths, jaws, and throats. It diminishes our aerobic capacity and makes us less happy. By reshaping our faces, mouthbreathing makes breathing more difficult, which begets more mouthbreathing. This vicious cycle is literally suffocating us. To cite one example from Nestor: today 25% of Americans over the age of 30 suffer from sleep apnea. This is an opaque medical term for a simple to understand concept: our misshapen faces are causing our self-asphyxiation.
Few servicemembers suffer from sleep apnea, but nearly all want to perform well physically and be happy. Bad breathing habits formed now, while younger and healthier, compound into early onset of a range of health problems. Breath is also recommendable because its recommendations are actionable. Nestor offers practical (if surprising) breathing improvement strategies. Press your tongue against the roof of your mouth at rest to strengthen your jaw and maintain a healthy mouth shape. Make sure every meal you chew something (no smoothie-onlys). Place a piece of tape across your lips to train nosebreathing around the house. When deep breathing for mental reset, it’s the carbon dioxide—not oxygen—that physiologically brings mental reset. Try the book for more recommendations that will make you happier and healthier.
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Cheryl Sandberg (2013)
‘Standard’ business books like Good to Great or The Power of Habit focus on third party case studies. Cheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, by contrast, is a look inward, grounded in her own experiences. Both business book and memoir, Lean In is concise and vulnerable, statistical and introspective, written by one of the most powerful businesswomen in history.
It’s true, Lean In was written primarily for women. There are some workplace issues that disproportionately affect women, such as pregnancy, gender discrimination, and higher rates of sexual harassment. Sandberg receives these realities at face value and offers ways to navigate them, centered on what individuals can control.
Still other barriers are self-imposed and these—the barriers women self-impose at a statistically higher rate than men—are Sandberg’s main subject. For example women more commonly fall victim to low self-evaluation and imposter syndrome. Sandberg cites studies from multiple fields—law school, surgery, politics—finding that men evaluate their own skill sets up to 60% more highly than comparably skilled women. In practice this means men disproportionately apply for and receive jobs for which they lack qualifications. Men also disproportionately fight for air time in meetings when all participants have equal grounds to speak. Hence Sandberg’s encouragement to lean in.
The call to lean in is mixed with practical advice that applies equally to anyone with “the will to lead.” Afterall, everyone experiences some degree of imposter syndrome. And even, for example, those quicker to seek mentorship will benefit from Sandberg’s how-to wisdom. Plus, not just women juggle family and professional goals. We would all benefit from reimagining our careers not as a ladder but as a jungle gym (chapter 4). This book offers fresh perspective for personal and professional holistic development, at the individual and organizational level. I therefore recommend Lean In to military professionals serious about empowering every leader in their organizations—including themselves.
The Authentic Lives Workshop by Andrew Chua, Israel Oyelumade, and Jeremy Matheson (2010)
This one isn’t really a ‘reading’ recommendation. The Authentic Lives Workshop was launched In 2010 as a non-profit by a team of McKinsey & Co. consultants based in the UK. The workshop’s goal is to help participants understand their past, make meaning of their present, and chart a course to fulfilling their future goals. To date, Authentic Lives has conducted over 300 workshops (including, nowadays, over Zoom). These workshops have served over 2,000 people from 29 countries. Drawing heavily from neuroscience and psychology, Authentic Lives emphasizes natural preference identification, the power of visualization, mutual encouragement in a small group setting, and setting clear goals. The sum of the content, however humble in its individual components, is a liberating curriculum for identifying the road to your best self.
I participated in the Authentic Lives Workshop over Zoom over four Saturday mornings last summer. It was life-altering. The Natural Preference Survey and VIA Character Strengths test helped me separate my natural preferences from my learned habits, usually very tough for servicemembers. I learned how to build an improved daily rhythm that I actually enjoy, despite the military’s constraints. I reached a two-word life mission statement (‘core process’), which is now a helpful guide during big decisions. A guided visualization of my future self helped me turn half-conscious dreams into recorded SMART goals.
I highly recommend this workshop to anyone trying to figure out what they really want in life. You can find upcoming workshop dates and schedules here.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (2004)
Amongst military readers, Steven Pressfield is most known for his military novels, like Gates of Fire. In The War of Art, Pressfield channels the same energy he uses to write his characteristically intense battle scenes into an honest exhortation for aspiring creatives.
Is there an article or book you want to write but have never written? An app to design but which you fear you never will? A leadership philosophy you’re intimidated to enact? A family to start—or save—for which you lack the gumption?
Steven Pressfield would say that you, like almost everyone else, are suffering from Resistance. This book is Pressfield’s codification of wisdom from his own personal fight to overcome Resistance and unlock his own creative potential.
Creative and personal success, we learn, are not flowery or mystical. They’re a product of old-school martial professionalism and discipline. A former Marine, Pressfield draws strong parallels between the art and war: “The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew everyday,” he says. Like war, creating art—creating anything—can be gory. Creating brings us into war against ourselves and the worst parts of human nature, including the all-pervasive Resistance. If it sounds like Pressfield is framing the battle against Resistance as a battle between good and evil, it’s because he is.
Pressfield also personally knows how to beat Resistance, as he calls it, how to “turn pro.” This is the focus of the book’s second section. In describing the path to success, he lists characteristics of professionals: we show up on the job every day, we master the technique of our jobs while not over identifying with them, and that we accept praise and blame in the real world, never deflecting, delaying, or equivocating. Pressfield then challenges us to apply these hallmarks of professionalism to our creative and personal endeavors.
Still, discipline alone is not where the path to personal and creative success stops. Discipline is the precondition for the muses of inspiration to alight on us. Hence the final section is subtitled “the higher realm.” And it may get uncomfortable for some military readers. We are unaccustomed to this psychology of inspiration. But the principles of preparation for both art and for war are largely the same, Pressfield argues. Mastering technique is no substitute for inspiration in art, or for luck in battle. But in both cases the professional “wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come.” Read The War of Art if you want to help prepare for when inspiration strikes.
Reading Widely for Self-Development
Many reading lists, especially those produced by military leaders, tend to include similar books year over year, list over list. But one of the best reasons to read—and one of the surest ways to grow personally—is to explore new ideas. The volume and impact of new ideas is curtailed by reading lists full of overlapping recommendations. I hope that this group of books offers you new paths to reading widely, and opens doors to fresh ideas enabling holistic self-development.
Jack Hadley is a captain and military intelligence officer in 5th Special Forces Group, based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He previously served as an infantry officer in the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team. He lives in Nashville with his creative wife Jenna.