How many situations will you face that have not already been experienced by someone else? Billions of people, thousands of years … probably not too many. It’s been done.
Luckily, sometimes those experiences are captured by history, and thus they become valuable tools for us to learn and prepare for similar situations. This is part of the central ethos of Farnam Street.
In an email that went viral in 2013, U.S. Marine General James Mattis (now the U.S. Secretary of Defense) candidly wrote about the value of this approach near the beginning of the Iraq War. Advising a colleague, he wrote:
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.
Speaking specifically about situations he faced in the context of his military role, he said “We have been fighting on this planet for 5,000 years and we should take advantage of their experience. ‘Winging it’ and filling body bags as we sort out what works reminds us of the moral dictates and the cost of incompetence in our profession.”
Whatever country you are fighting a war in, someone has already fought there before. Someone has also explored it, mapped it, studied it, and done humanitarian work there. The hard work has already been done. All you have to do is read.
Maybe Napoleon shouldn’t have dismissed the Swedish accounts on the perils of invading Russia. He might have learned that the Russians didn’t follow the traditional norms of warfare. They weren’t going to surrender, or even admit to losing a battle, not with thousands of miles of country to withdraw into, scorching the earth along the way. And also that the Russian winter is really, really, harsh. 130 years later, with Napoleon’s experience to draw from, it’s staggering that Hitler went down the same path. He got the same results.
Books have a limitless amount to teach us if we're willing to pay attention.
You don’t need to be a military general to benefit from the fore-arming and forewarning that books can provide. Ask yourself, what body of knowledge would I benefit from having deep in my bones? Unless you're trying to make discoveries in fundamental physics or advanced technology, someone else has probably already gained the knowledge that you seek, and they likely have put it in a book to share with you.
Learning how to read for wisdom is simple, but not easy. The payoffs though, can be incredible.
The more you read, the more you will build your repertoire. Incrementally at first, the knowledge you add to your stockpile will grow over time as it combines with everything new you put in there. This is called compounding, and it works with knowledge much the same as it does with interest. Eventually, when faced with the new, challenging, and perplexing, you will be able to draw on this dynamic inner repository.
You will react, not as a neophyte, but as someone whose instincts have been honed by the experiences of others, rather than just your own. You will start to see that nothing is truly new, that awesome challenges can and have been overcome, and there are fundamental truths to how the world works.
So learn from others. Figure out where you are going and find out who has been there before. Knowledge comes from experience, but it doesn’t have to be your experience. Deep reading helps you to understand the world allowing you to conquer panic and maximize your chances of success.
If you're interested in military matters, you might even start with Mattis' reading list itself.