Read: For Personal Growth, Professional Development
By Lt. Col. John G. Heslin - ARMY August, 1981
Within the officer corps there is growing interest in professional development, original thought and making a contribution to our literature. The Army chief of staff, Gen. Edward C. Meyer, has encouraged us to put our creative thinking into writing and to submit this work for publication in one of our Army's professional journals.
There is, however, an implicit presumption, an antecedent to this process of producing a piece of publishable work. It is touched on in the current literature and implied in the various programs for professional development: before we become writers we must be readers.
Well, if you are reading this, you may say I am preaching to the choir. That may be true; unfortunately, however, I believe it is a rather small choir. What are we doing to expand it? Are we encouraging and rewarding those who are avid readers with the same enthusiasm we do men and women of action: the runners, joggers, tennis players, golfers and the like?
Command-sponsored programs to lose weight and look sharp abound and to a certain extent, within reason, are good and wholesome. Most of us can speak with authority about this pro football team or that pro golfer and spend countless hours of our leisure time glued to the television to watch our favorites, while we lament the fact that we are too busy to read, let alone write.
The fact is that most of us do not enjoy reading, and that which we do is often recreational and light, requiring little mental effort. Essentially, what we lack is discipline.
Do you remember when you started that early morning jogging? Can you recall the discomfort, the act of will that it took to get your poor, old, sometimes overweight body out of bed and on the street? But you did it, and you have kept on doing it; and now, although it is not sheer joy, it is more pleasant, and you can see some positive results. Now it has become a habit which you are not willing to break.
It is part of your professional development in that you are better able to carry out your duties with a healthy body. You have disciplined yourself through this daily act of the will, and it is the best kind of discipline since it is internalized as a personal commitment rather than imposed or prescribed.
It is this kind of discipline we must apply if we are to develop the habit of reading - especially the more thought-provoking literature of our profession. Here are some hard questions that need honest answers. When was the last time you read a book - a professional book? When was the last time you were in a library? Do you have a library card? How many of our professional journals are you familiar with?
If you feel uncomfortable with these questions and even resent being asked them, that's understandable. The key question remains; what are you going to do about it?
I invite you to develop a potential which I believe is there, so that you may profit in personal growth and we may all profit from the insights that growth will provide. It is frustrating to pick up a scholarly journal and have members of the Fourth Estate tell us how to do our job. Their arguments are persuasive and well grounded; their thoughts are insightful but often lack the precision chiseled out of abstraction by collision of hard empirical facts. They lack experience in the profession of arms.
Sir Francis Bacon said, "Reading maketh a full man." Another said, "Show me the books a man reads and I will tell you what he is." Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale, speaking at a college graduation, described the traits that seem to be common among those who are assured a place in history.
One of them was "...being predisposed to continual self-improvement. People who have this trait seldom make the same mistake twice. The pattern of self-improvement is clear in their records; shortcomings are followed by self-imposed remedial study. Men once criticized for poor speaking or writing are praised for excellence in these same skill five years later."
What this suggests is that it is not too late to begin and that the endeavor holds great promise for personal reward.
I am not suggesting that you start by picking up Clausewitz' "On War" or Kissinger's "White House Years," although, in time, you may prefer these to the latest installments of "Dallas." What I am suggesting is that you set modest, achievable goals just as you did when you first started running. Set aside a journal or a book which you think will hold your interest and then read whenever you can make the time.
Just as routine is the key to a successful running program, routine is the key to a successful reading program. Read with a pencil in your hand so that you can make marginal notes, underline or jot notes on cards. This will help you to be an active reader and retain more of what you read.
Most important, as B. H. Liddell Hart has stated, is the effect of "thought on thought." The author's thoughts mix with your thoughts, and it is that crucial process of growth that needs to be captured in some note form. Think about what you read and reinforce it by discussing it with peers. This last step is, in my opinion, where we will all profit and truly improve the professionalism of the corps.
While it is important to be well grounded in the technical specifics of our weapons and equipment, it is crucial that we are comfortable at a more conceptual level of knowledge for, as Adm. Stockdale has said, "We must be capable of effective response to new situations (which is a definition of intelligence)."
By talking about what you are reading and thinking, you will encourage others to do the same. Commanders might sponsor unit-level discussions from a suggested reading list. A small file could be circulated among the officers and interested NCOs of a unit with certain articles highlighted for group discussion. Voluntary participation should be the modus operandi. If it is stimulating and worthwhile, participation will not be lacking.
The potential for professional development seems clear; more important is the opportunity for personal growth. Today we are faced with the reality of reduced promotion opportunities, yet, professional success has been defined primarily in terms of promotion and career advancement. Professionalism connotes commitment to an idea. No matter what our rank we may be capable of making a significant contribution to the Army and country by sharing our thoughts and insuring progress for the good of all.
A thought from A. T. Mahan may be an appropriate aphorism for aspirant readers and writers: "Men... who are willing to accept the fact that excellence is a plant of gradual growth and gradual evolution are not impatient of waiting as well as striving."