General Mattis on Reading

In an earlier post (Smart Reading Topics) I mentioned one of the values I hold dear — the importance of reading widely both in one’s field as well as out of it. I particularly enjoy reading history and the expanded field of vision it provides of other people’s experiences. Reading provides insight into others’ achievements and failures which means I can glean tips on how to enhance my personal achievements and hopefully limit my failures.

A military career is one in which wisdom, competence and discernment assume life-and-death importance. An email composed by retired four-star General James Mattis in which he referenced the importance of learning from others went viral back in 2003.

“… The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

Throughout his military career, Mattis marched into conflict situations armed with the experience of others he studied while reading books such as The Siege and From Beirut to Jerusalem. He drew upon lessons learned while reading about the life of Gertrude Bell in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He can cite specific lessons from his readings which he has applied in unique situations to make life and death decisions.

Although conference rooms, corporate offices and work stations do not have the immediate and mortal significance of battlefields, it is still important for business leaders to recognize the impact their knowledge, experience and decisions can have on the lives of others. In some small sense, we are responsible for the livelihoods and work satisfaction of many human beings. We have a duty to take that responsibility seriously, learning from others as best we can so we can limit costly mistakes.

What lessons have you learned from others? Are you using what you read to help you succeed?

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