Reading: Accelerate Your Life Now

Gunnery Sergeant Brandon Smart

“If you don’t read, you can’t lead.”

-General Mattis

I’ve spent a great deal of time in my life with my nose in books. A feat difficult in itself because of how much people believe that I am an extrovert.  At an early age, I recognized the value of reading and it’s a personal return on investment. Sharing that message is a different story though as it is hard to prove that reading is a major factor to my success. I am not a scholarly or professional writer, nor do I have any example that directly ties reading to the reason I have been successful in my career. What I do know is that it is the fundamental reason I have been successful and have been able to overcome obstacles that may have seemed impossible in the past or from another perspective. I am a Gunnery Sergeant in the Marine Corps who was Courts Martialed as a Corporal in 2006. This year, 2020, I was accepted as the first enlisted Marine to attend Naval Postgraduate School in pursuit of an MBA.  This is the first public announcement I have made on the acceptance as I was saving it for a significant platform; what better place to announce acceptance to this prestigious school and overcome early enlisted obstacles than in an article where I attribute reading to playing a major role in success and recovery. Here I will share the key reasons why I believe reading is that important. It shaped my life. It will shape yours too. Simply, we must-read.

I cannot even begin to try and count the times I have told my Marines, peers, friends, and family that the most valuable thing they can do with their time is to read.  All too often we are consumed with the day-to-day of life while being inundated with information from every digital medium numbing our desire to read ink on paper.  This is everyone’s challenge and one that must be overcome with tenacity and grit that forces positive habits in our lives after relentless practice.  I even recognize that we tend to “swipe past” posts on our devices that don’t have an image associated with them; even if the text is short. What’s more is that it is not deliberate, because we are not being informed on the added value of reading text at long intervals.  We are falling short as a community; we must do better. Reading should be a foundation in everyone’s lives.  If you are questioning right now whether this pertains to your life, career, or past time, it does.  Reading should be part of everyone’s daily routine. We must-read.

If I had to choose one piece of advice I was committed to giving others for the rest of my life, it would be to read as much and as often as possible. It is much more than the book you choose and the lesson you are trying to learn.  Aside from the value of learning about a particular subject when you pick up a book in that department, there are benefits to the action of reading that cannot be gained elsewhere.  Some of these, like increased ability to read, vocabulary, spelling, and writing, are simple and well known.  Some of the more abstract benefits include predictive thinking development, creative brainstorming, divergent thinking, critical problem-solving skills, and even as far as mind mapping a textual terrain the same way you would a map.  What happens when you are reading is your mind tends to try and figure out what you are going to read next without you knowing it.  This process, though largely unconscious, is fundamental in brain development and cannot be practiced in any other way.  It is also enhanced exponentially when reading on paper rather than electronically. Ferris Jabr[1] writes in his article about physical versus digital text, “As far as our brains are concerned, however, text is a tangible part of the physical world we inhabit.” Our brains recognize and remember where words, sentences, thoughts, and feelings appear in a book and can turn to that page by memory. Even in a case where you do not remember the page number, you will hold the book and use your thumb to flip through hundreds of pages to find an estimated area you remember the text to be. It isn’t just visually captivating, but physically stimulating as well. Along with these benefits of reading, there are also benefits to defying the attempts to oversaturate and cloud our minds with misinformation by a poisonous and unvetted world.  A Marine Colonel, Jim Shelton, once told me “Be critical consumers of what you read and beware of information that can change in an instant; if you want to read something, pick up a book.”  I appreciated that he did not tell me what to pick up and read, but instead led me to water by recommending information that enough thought was put into for it to remain strong-rooted.  Though this isn’t always the case, it is important to remember that books undergo much more scrutiny than a simple social media post or online claimed-news article without any true investigative journalism. While all these things are benefits to the information you read, physically reading is still a standalone action without an alternative equivalent. We must-read.

Just like most things we want to add to our lives, we must plan them out, decide where they fall on our backlog of priorities, and make room for them.  Reading seems to lose some traction as our responsibilities tend to overwhelm us and take up most of the day. So when do you fit reading into your day? Even if it is a priority, there must be a sacrifice somewhere else to make time for it.  If you are like me, you already go to bed late and are invested all day long in work projects and extracurricular activities.  Add a family to that equation and it seems like the only answer is to find the Beatles’ “8 Days a Week” as the solution.  I’ve found that, in order to keep reading on the pedestal it deserves, I must wake up earlier in the morning to dedicate time to it.  I also listen to audiobooks in the car, but that is not the same as the act of reading (even if it is another productive use of your time).  I bring up this point because we all have conflicts in our busy lives, and what I am saying is that reading MUST be a priority and that you will have to find a place for it to be scheduled every day.  I treat the things I do in a day, week, month similarly to how I treat money.  How much is this activity costing me? Should I still be paying this bill? If the answer is no, then you may have found yourself more time in the day than you thought you had. The return on investment for reading is without parallel. We must-read.

“But I don’t enjoy reading” is a statement I hear regularly when having this conversation with people while encouraging them to start the habit of reading daily in their lives. This is where I generally encourage them to find something that they could enjoy and start there. But the truth is, just reading is the key.  In my childhood, I found that reading fictional stories about far off lands and sword fighting between brave knights and mythical creatures was the most interesting. I read books like the Lord of the Rings, Xanth, Sword of Truth, and Harry Potter as if they were the air I breathed.  At a point, I felt as if I was spending too much time reading fiction and needed to convert my habits into productive reading material.  Enter Malcolm Gladwell, Simon Sinek, Daniel Pink, and the likes.  The scope of the world changed around me, and I began adding other beneficial reading content to my life, in the forms of books on emerging technologies, math and software engineering refresher, and journal articles of respected military leaders.  All of this was, and is, beneficial to my life and has given me invaluable lessons I will use in each one of those fields.  What I did not realize, until a few years went by of not reading any fiction, was the learning and development I had to sacrifice when I took those fiction books off the table.  When we open books on a subject – take math or science as an example – our mind puts itself in a box to study and learn about those subjects. We put limitations on what we expect and therefore are dialing back our creative and divergent thinking experience.  This is just simply not the case when we read fiction.  We rarely know what the full story is going to be about and take lessons from the book and apply them to every other area of our lives. Lord of the Rings is a great example of this as many leadership lessons, language studies, and scientific references have come from different aspects of Tokien’s books. Fiction allows you to explore known and unknown areas of our minds in search of meaning, understanding, and relationships often resulting in personal epiphanies throughout the imaginative journey. This is not to say that fiction is more valuable than reading nonfiction and subject matter studies, just do not count it out. Then, the question becomes, “What should you start reading?” Really, anything. Take a look at General Mattis’s quote again, “If you don’t read, you can’t lead.”  He did not say if you do not read the military history on the Cold War, you cannot lead. It is evident in his direction to us all that it is the act of reading that is most valuable. The subjects we read about come second. We must-read.

If there is anything taken from this writing, it is that reading should be to your mind what food and water are to your body.  As your body cannot survive without food and water, your mind will decompose without reading. There is value in all kinds of reading, so I will not discriminate against where you start.  The recipe for a successful start is simple and only two steps: 1. Read whatever you want; and try to enjoy it.  2. Read when you can, but start immediately and be consistent. 

Simply, we must read.

Since I have a hard time even choosing what I want to eat, I figured it may be beneficial to give you a few off Gunny Smart’s Recommended Reading List:

In no particular order-

Non-fiction:

Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

Start with Why – Simon Sinek

Learning War – Trent Hone

The Obstacle is the Way – Ryan Holiday

Drive – Daniel Pink

Scrum – Jeff Sutherland

Call Sign Chaos- General Jim Mattis

David and Goliath – Malcolm Gladwell

Millennial Samurai – George Chanos

Fiction:

Sword of Truth – Terry Goodkind

Timeline – Michael Crichton

Frontier Short Stories- Louis L’Amour


Brandon Smart has spent the majority of his 15 years in the Marine Corps as an advocate for change and a voice for those who might not otherwise be heard. Whether being innovative or enabling it in his organization, Brandon has been able to impact the community through unique and creative efforts of flattened communication and action.  He has recently been selected as the first Enlisted Marine for a resident MBA at the Naval Postgraduate School, with plans to pave the way for more enlisted service members to have the opportunity as well.  His last, duty station he served as the Adaptive Change Representative to Colonel Shelton at Marine Corps Combat Service Support Schools while splitting his time working for NavalX, under the Assistant SecNav RD&A, as the Deputy Director for the Centers for Adaptive Warfighting


[1] Jabr, The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens E-readers and tablets are becoming more popular as such technologies improve, but research suggests that reading on paper still boasts unique advantages

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