History

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?

I love the unheard stories from history. Each character has his or her own small role with an individual story, as a part of the larger whole. That’s what makes it all come to life.

Of course, I appreciate the big figures of history as well — George Washington, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln. All of them deserve our regard and respect for their leadership. But still, it’s the little-known stories of adventure, courage, and sheer guts that weave the great dramas of life.

I was recently emailed this story of an artillery commander, Richard Andrews, in the Civil War. Here’s how Eddie Inman (a man I don’t know) tells Andrews’ story (you can find out more about Andrews life through his Wikipedia link, which also shares the story):

“Confederate artillerist R. Snowden Andrews suffered a horrible wound at Cedar Mountain. A piece of shell tore apart the wall of Andrews’ abdomen on the right side as the major straddled his horse. With enough presence of mind to press one arm over the gaping wound and clutch his horse’s neck with the other Andrews could fall to the ground without being entirely disemboweled. Everyone who saw the mangled artillerist knew that he was dying, and various surgeons pronounced the wound fatal. Two country doctors, Thomas B. and William H. Amiss, who happened to be brothers, agreed to take on the patient. Upon examining the wound, Thomas Amiss found Andrews “completely disemboweled, his intestines covered with dust, hen-grass, sand and grit.” . . . the doctors ordered stretcher-bearers to carry Andrews to the James Garnett house a couple of miles to the rear. In great agony Andrews was taken to the Garnett home and there he was placed on the dining room table. It was now nearly midnight, almost seven hours since Andrews had suffered the wound. The ghastly tear in Andrews’ abdominal wall proved to be only one of two wounds once the gore was cleared away. The savage piece of shell had continued its path across the top of the major’s thigh, cutting it open near the hip. Dr. William Amiss carefully cleaned both wounds, washing the mass of dust and debris from Andrews’ intestines and abdominal cavity. Dr. Thomas Amiss then replaced the organs and sewed the wound shut with “….cotton and a common calico needle, the only instrument available….” Andrews himself held the wound’s edges together during the sewing. . . . Amazingly, the inevitable peritonitis did not appear, and Snowden’s vicious wounds healed within five weeks. . . . By the spring of 1863 a miraculously healed Andrews returned to field duty wearing the second star of a lieutenant colonel. Within a short time another wound knocked Andrews out of service again as a bullet hit him on June 15, 1863. Recovering, he was sent to Europe on ordnance duty.”

I read stories like this and I recognize that my day at work won’t be so bad. I also recognize that you never know what miracles may occur if you simply move forward — and meet crises with plenty of courage. You just never know.