Read like the Warrior Monk

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Marine General James Mattis is getting a lot of coverage since he became President-Elect Donald Trump’s choice as Secretary of Defense. The media likes to call him “Mad Dog Mattis” and loves to share some of his colorful statements. I prefer another nickname for Mattis: “Warrior Monk.”

General Mattis is one of the best read and scholarly (in the best sense) military commanders we’ve ever had. Reviewing the kind of reading he does can help you plan your reading for next year and the rest of your life.

In 2013, Jill S. Russell wrote a marvelous post on the Strife blog titled “With Rifle and Bibliography: General Mattis On Professional Reading.” The post consists of Russell’s comments and the text of several emails to and from General Mattis about professional reading. There are many lessons here, starting with the importance of making time to read.

Making Time to Read

If you’re thinking, “I don’t have time to read,” think again. Sure, you have a busy life and a demanding career. There’s lots to do, but reading is important. Here’s what General Mattis has to say.

“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.”

You may not be sending young men and women into harm’s way anytime soon, but that’s no reason to be dumb. If you want to do better at your job and in your career, reading is essential. You won’t “find” time to read either, you must “make time” for reading. Consider scheduling “reading appointments” with yourself. Here are some more lessons from General Mattis’ reading to guide your own.

Go Deep

Read everything you can about your profession and your specialty. Why not be the expert, the one at the table everyone turns to when someone asks a difficult question? Reading deeply will make you an expert, and experts are in demand.

Read Widely

Don’t just read in your specialty, read about the other specialties you deal with every day. If you’re in marketing, read about the other specialties around your meeting table. Learn about production and product development and anything else that will help you understand the people you’re dealing with and the challenges they face. Then you’re better equipped to help others succeed and that’s a recipe for your own success.

Read for different opinions, too. If you don’t sharpen your thoughts against other people’s thoughts, you’ll find that they get dull and you get self-satisfied. That is not a recipe for success.

Read About the Specific Challenge You and Your Company Face

Before General Mattis went to Iraq, he was reading about the history and culture and traditions of that country. It was the same when he went to Afghanistan. That’s a model for you. What are the big challenges that your company is facing right now? Read up on them, be one of the knowledgeable people. Knowledgeable people get promoted.

Don’t Just Read New Stuff

General Mattis says that some of his favorite books and greatest sources of knowledge are the old books, the ones no one reads anymore. I certainly agree. Rereading old things that you’ve read will help you stay fresh on important lessons and learn new ones that aren’t in the new books.

Expect Your Team to Read

One of the most impressive things about General Mattis as a commander is that he expected his team to read. He assigned them specific readings based on their situation and their challenges, and he expected them to be readers who chose their own subjects, too. Make reading a requirement when it comes time for performance review.

Bottom Line

Reading is the way you learn from other people’s experience, deepen your knowledge, and sharpen your opinions. Follow General Mattis’ example to make your reading more effective.


Thanks to Jena McGregor whose Washington Post article on General Mattis’ reading started the train of thought that led to this post.

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