Preparing to face America’s adversaries comes at a demanding price. It is a job that requires missing birthdays, family holidays, or—for the unluckiest of us—losing families altogether. Soldiers dedicate countless hours at work, preparing to deploy to austere environments and fight on behalf of our nation. It is not simply a job, but a commitment to a profession that requires sacrifice. It is a level of commitment coming in second, by a narrow margin, to the commitment my wife has to “Live, Laugh, Love”, a mantra strategically placed on signs and décor throughout our home. Just as my wife devotes herself to finding uniquely designed signs and living, laughing, and loving, military professionals should similarly devote themselves to reading, writing, and training. These guiding principles will ensure you are the well rounded warrior-scholar that your unit and, more importantly, your nation, need.
Former Secretary of Defense, General (Ret.) James Mattis sent an email to a colleague in 2003, guiding the fellow Marine Officer’s response to subordinates that claimed they did not have time to read. His response was simple, but not easily rebutted, “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.” If the old adage that “history always repeats itself” holds true, reading others’ experiences can provide us the answers to the test—the only question is whether or not we studied for the right version. General Mattis claims never to have been caught flat-footed in combat because of his passion for reading. There should be no doubt in his claim, given the fact his personal library consists of over 7,000 books. Reading provides historical context to regional disputes, politics, and current economics, all contributing to current events. Our capacity for reading also grows with practice—just as exercise induces muscular hypertrophy, reading stimulates the mind, enabling cognitive growth.
Understanding and gaining knowledge about a particular subject should always be your goal, with reading for entertainment being the exception. We should take caution in reading for the sake of vanity. Boasting about the number of books you have read to colleagues to promote your intellectual prowess in the eyes of others should not be your aim. Reading for superficial reasons can diminish our intellectual curiosity, and discourage our desire to reflect on what we read. Reflection is a critical bridge to enhancing our ability to understanding and grasping new concepts. Developing a daily reading ritual that supports your ability to reflect ensures it becomes a habitual practice. One recommendation is to read before your morning run: dissect the material while you run, breaking each part down, and then rebuild the concepts in your mind to create your own unique understanding of the material. This synthesis of information through exercise-induced meditation is a proven practice to enhance brain function.
Write to Grow and Persuade
The leaders that I have always held in the highest regard are those that could write effectively. Personally, writing is something I have been hesitant to do, primarily because I was (and you can argue I still am) terrible at it. I mistook revisions for criticisms, instead of what they really were – professional development. To be a credible leader of any organization, you must be able to express your intentions in writing through office memorandums, e-mail, or reports. Part of your professional credibility rests upon your ability to articulate your thoughts without grammatical errors. Personally, I am forever indebted to a former Company Commander that pushed me to be a better writer.
Writing not only lends credibility, but also is a useful tool for persuasion. Why do so many people write and publish articles? Is it because they love to write? Perhaps, but most professional writers seek to either inform or persuade. Persuasive writing is a proven tool to influence bosses, peers, or a wider audience – if done correctly. Given the hierarchical construct of most organizations, whether military or civilian, it can often be difficult to earn a “seat at the table” with decision-makers in your organization. A well written article can be a useful alternative, particularly if it attracts attention and recommends practical changes and solutions. This method certainly isn’t limited to persuading bosses; many write professionally to propose new research, influence professional communities, or inspire discussion.
Maintaining Your Body and Mind
President Thomas Jefferson understood the importance and relevance of physical fitness to mental health. An avid walker, Jefferson claimed, “... I give more time to exercise of the body than of the mind, believing it wholesome to both.” Jefferson knew the critical role that exercise plays in “clearing” your mind. Having a clear mind is necessary to maintain intellectual endeavors, which, when isolated from physical exercise, can cause extreme mental fatigue. Exercise is a great means to “wind down” after a stressful day or to begin your day in the right “mental space” via a morning run or workout session.
While exercising is a great way to dismiss stress, a more important and glaring reason to exercise is, it’s your job! If you are in the military, it is your job to train and lead soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines into combat. It is unlikely you will do this successfully if you do not exercise daily in preparation for this duty. The same applies to those in other civilian agencies of the United States Government or the private sector. The productivity and mental wellness of your teams will improve with daily exercise. With that said, the intensity and types of exercise do not necessarily need to mirror those preparing for combat. Something as simple as walking, jogging, or a short circuit workout can be of great benefit to your employees. Several companies, including tech giant Google, offer a variety of options for employees while at work, and have enjoyed the increase in productivity and lower stress levels of their employees.
Learn From My Wife
Next time you run into a “Live, Laugh, Love” sign, don’t mock it. Instead, let it remind you of the things that you must do to ensure you return home from your next deployment. The phrase that was once the bane of my existence, became a reminder of home and ultimately led to the creation of my own personal mantra - I assure you there will be no décor with my mantra placed throughout my home or office. If you aren’t a military professional, then let it be a reminder of the things you must do to be successful in your career field and provide the basic amenities your spouse and children require to not only survive, but thrive in today’s world. Equally as important is the relaxation these three practices afford you and, in turn, the quality time you can spend with your significant others, free of the stresses of work. Undertaking these practices will help you work towards a better life - both professionally and at home.
Sean Acosta is a Civil Affairs Noncommissioned Officer that has experience leading soldiers and small teams in Afghanistan, Africa, and the Caribbean. He can be found on Twitter @Sean_A_Acosta or on LinkedIn.
The opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government.