Reading, Reading Books, is not Enough; You’ve Got to Study – A lesson prompted by Jim Mattis, from Call Sign Chaos

Call Sign ChaosPowerPoint is the scourge of critical thinking. It encourages fragmented logic by the briefer and passivity in the listener.
Jim Mattis:  Call Sign Chaos:  Learning to Lead


Reading a lot of books is not quite equal to learning what is in those books, is it?

I have been giving a whole lot of thought to this.  I have been thinking about my own life trajectory.  I have been thinking about speeches and presentations I have heard – and given.  And I have been thinking about watching audiences.  And I have reached a conclusion.

I am not the only one to reach this conclusion.  But so many people have not paid attention to this.

Here is my conclusion: “passive” learning is not really learning.

Learning requires active learning.  It requires serious work.  It requires active participation.  It requires listening, and reading, and writing, and pondering, and reviewing, and studying.  Especially studying!

Last Friday, I presented my synopsis of Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead by Jim Mattis.  It is a book about a lot; but it is also a book about learning; learning from studying.  The book is filled with insights about this. Start with this one, directly from the book:

PowerPoint is the scourge of critical thinking. It encourages fragmented logic by the briefer and passivity in the listener. 

Note what he says.  Using PowerPoint is not a good practice because it “encourages passivity in the listener.”  That is a genuinely important and significant observation.

In my synopsis handout, I included this:  There is a difference between reading – and – studying.

  • Mattis learned from; quoted from…Alexander the Great; Marcus Aurelius; General Grant, Rommel, and a host of others… —
  • I read broadly and selected a few battles and areas where I was weak to study deeply.
  • Read history, but study a few battles in depth.
  • Learning from others’ mistakes is far smarter than putting your own lads in body bags.
  • On a Saturday morning, the sergeant major requested that I drop by for a quiet discussion. Technically, I outranked him, but no lieutenant with his wits about him is slow to respond when his top noncommissioned officer wants to talk with him alone. “You are a very persuasive young man,” he said, handing me a book about a Roman centurion, “but it would be best if you did your homework first.”
  • But I well recall an Israeli exchange officer, on a sweltering run in the Virginia woods, bellowing at me that the physically vigorous life is not inconsistent with being intellectually on top of your game. “Read the ancient Greeks and how they turned out their warriors,” he said.

Jim Mattis read (still reads) a lot of books – a lot of books!  But more than just reading the books, he studied the books.

And he did so as a Marine.  The Marines assign reading, with a specific book list, for each rank.  From early in his book:  It now became even more clear to me why the Marines assign an expanded reading list to everyone promoted to a new rank: that reading gives historical depth that lights the path ahead. … the Marine Corps’s insistence that we study (vice just read) history, paid off.

One advantage was that an officer could assume that the Marines listening knew some common stories and principles from the books they had read; learned from the books they had all read!

Here’s what I think:  we are way too passive in our learning.  We look at slides; we listen to audio books.  But we don’t recap; we don’t outline; we don’t underline, and highlight, and re-fresh our memory.

In other words, we don’t STUDY!

And, if we don’t study, we don’t really learn.

And there is so much we need to learn; so much important stuff to learn.

I think it’s time for a revival of study habits.

Are you in?


See also this blog post: The Warrior Monk General and his Traveling Library of 6000 books.

• By the way, Jeff Bezos has also gotten rid of PowerPoint at Amazon; for these very reasons.

• And, also, my synopses are great tools for those wishing to study books more seriously.  Check out our new additions by clicking here.  (My synopsis of Call Sign Chaos will be available soon).


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