Personal Development: Improve yourself like George Washington

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When I was a boy, I heard lots of stories about George Washington. There was the one about chopping down the cherry tree and then owning up to it. There was the one about throwing a dollar across the Potomac River. Those legends turn out to be far less interesting than the reality.

The good folks at Smartbrief on Leadership pointed me to a wonderful post on Farnam Street. The title is “George Washington’s Practical Self-Education” and here’s a key passage.

“this poorly educated man with seemingly little interest in literature, classics, or reading at all, became one of the seminal leaders in American history, and as Adrienne Harrison details in her book A Powerful Mind, he did it in large part by reading.”

There’s a lot of rich and helpful detail in this post. But if you want the basics of how George Washington improved himself into the man we admire, so that you can do it for yourself, here are some things to think about.

Make reading a priority

George Washington was a busy guy but he made reading an important part of his life. When he died, an inventory of his estate listed nine hundred volumes.

Even at his busiest, he carved out time to read. He didn’t “find time,” he set time aside to read. That’s what you have to do if you want your reading to make a difference.

Pick something to study

Reading for fun is a good thing, but if you want to read to improve yourself, pick something to improve. Washington started by learning how a gentleman should act.

Next he wanted to become an officer in the British Army, so his reading on that profession. When he was appointed commanding officer of the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War, he suddenly had to make sure that officers under his command knew what was expected of them. On January 8, 1756, he addressed his officers as follows.

“Remember, that it is the actions, and not the commission, that make the Officer–and that there is more expected from him than the Title. Do not forget, that there ought to be a time appropriated to attain this knowledge. And as we now have no opportunities to improve from Example, let us read therefore Bland’s and other treatises which will give the wished for information.”

“Bland” is Humphrey Bland and his treatise was “A Treatise of Military Discipline: In Which is laid down and Explained the Duties of Officer and Soldier.” British officers referred to it as “the Bible.” Fathers gave it to sons who were seeking commissions in the British Army.

But note that Washington encourages his officers to read “Bland and other treatises.” Not just the one book. Washington’s own library had fifty of those treatises.

Move on to new challenges as they arise

When winning wars wasn’t a priority any longer, Washington shifted his reading to statecraft and later to agriculture. Whatever challenges he faced, Washington put together and executed a reading plan to learn all he could that would help him do well.

Bottom Line

George Washington’s life was one long self-improvement project with reading as the main activity. If you want to follow Washington’s example, make time to read, pick specific things to improve, and change your reading to match your challenges.

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