Spurred by MWI Adjunct Scholar Dr. Andrew Bacevich’s comments on self-development for the security professional toward the end of his July 2016 MWI podcast, I’ve been thinking about how I would “prescribe” self-development to young officers and other professionals just starting off in the security field. Even before that podcast, I’ve always enjoyed gaining insights into how others have approached their professional reading (such as with T.X. Hammes’ Armed Forces Journal article “Read Different” from 2008) or daily information intake (as with Adm. James Stavridis’ “What I Read” piece in The Atlantic in 2012). Beyond suggestions for reading, listening, thinking, and writing, I also include some personal productivity tips gleaned from independent command, intensive language training, and staff assignments spanning more than seventeen years in uniform. On that basis I offer the following recommendations.

1. Your profession demands that you gain significant exposure to foreign countries, language, and culture.

You can’t start too soon—take advantage of foreign exchange programs in high school, college, or even after. Get out of the bubble that you may not even realize you are in and see America in the world from a foreign perspective. Immerse in the culture for a week or a year, whatever you can manage, but the longer, the better. There may not be a better way to do this for those already in uniform than the Olmsted Scholar Program. Barring that opportunity, take foreign language courses at your overseas duty station and maximize opportunities to learn about the people wherever you find yourself serving. Almost nothing could be more important to understanding how to navigate the contemporary security environment than this.

2. Always look for ways to “sharpen the saw.”

This is one of Stephen Covey’s seven habits, and to me forms the bedrock of self-development. Any saw used repeatedly and not sharpened will before long lose its ability to efficiently cut wood. This serves as an apt metaphor for the mind and creativity. If you wait to be handed professional development opportunities on a platter, you will most likely starve the brain before it reaches half of its potential. Organize seminars and round-tables at your command about salient issues of the day. Commiserate with like-minded thinkers over pints at the end of a long week. Take courses from the local university. Learn how to be a better learner. As Andy Dufresne from Shawshank Redemption said, “Get busy living, or get busy dying.

3. Contribute to professional discourse.

If you ever wondered who fills all those pages in the myriad professional journals in the national security realm every month, it’s people like you, once they sit down and put some ideas on paper. When I was a company commander in 2012 and had the good fortune to have an essay I submitted for a contest with the Marine Corps Gazette picked up for publication, I challenged the Marines in my unit to do what I did. All I had done was taken an idea that was in my head that I had been thinking about for a while and wrote it up, revised it a few times, and then sent it in. There is no magic to the process, and nobody has the market cornered on good ideas worthy of publishing. Pick out a few publications you see as influential in the field, look at their submission guidelines, and get started! And don’t limit yourself to “dead tree” periodicals and journals. The proliferation of high-quality online outlets for security-related discourse has made it all the easier to break into this realm and to get your ideas out to a broad audience in short order. The bottom line is that the profession does not advance without active participation from thinkers from all around the arena. Toss your hat in and have your voice heard.

4. Cast your net widely.

When I was a student at the Marine Air–Ground Task Force Intelligence Officer Course at Dam Neck, VA during the summer of 2014, retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper came to speak to our class. Van Riper is a former Marine Corps director of intelligence and is probably most well-known outside the Marine Corps for his role as the red force commander in the 2002 Millennium Challenge wargame that took place in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. “Cast your net widely” is some of the advice that Van Riper gave to us then, and no doubt you have also heard this advice before. Let me see if I can put some specificity to it that you may not have heard before. If you keep your eyes open to professional development opportunities, you will see them popping up all around you. For me, one example I think of is an early 2013 lecture by Zhu Chenghu I attended at the University of Denver due to my affiliation with the university’s Center for China–US Cooperation. Maj. Gen. Zhu of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is quite outspoken amongst his colleagues and particularly notable for comments he made in 2005 which called into question China’s nuclear “no first use” doctrine. At the time of Zhu’s 2013 lecture in Colorado, I happened to be a graduate student at the National Intelligence University writing a thesis examining how China’s future development of nuclear weapons might affect the United States and its East Asian allies. In the community of scholars examining deterrence, assurance, and other nuclear force posture matters, Zhu was one of the preeminent Chinese voices, so the opportunity to hear directly from him in this setting was a coup of sorts which helped to bolster my master’s thesis research. The opportunity only came because I was already plugged in with the Korbel School of International Studies’ Jackson/Ho China Forum lecture series (i.e., I had cast the net and General Zhu swam into it). Here in the Far East, I have continued cast my net by following the activities of organizations such as the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies, Temple University Japan’s Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, and even holding a non-resident fellowship with the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum CSIS think tank. Groups such as these are great venues for bouncing your ideas off other folks who can help you refine and sharpen them, and who can then suggest venues for getting your ideas out to broader audiences by way of collaborative writing projects, presentations, or other means. Resources of this sort are probably not things your peers are actively getting involved with, but they can be critical foundries for your continued development as a security professional.

5. For new opportunities, it’s either “Hell yeah!or “No.”

As a counterpoint to casting a wide net, it is possible to overdo things. How can you keep things manageable? Derek Sivers has popularized the “Hell yeah! or no” mindset that can help. All this means is that when you are presented with an opportunity, say, to review a book for a professional journal you’ve long admired, you view the chance through the prism of “I am all in” (hell yeah!) or “I am not sure/I feel lukewarm to this” (no). It’s a binary construct, but one that can help make the decision process on “nice to have” opportunities easier than they might otherwise be.

6. Think on paper.

How many times have you had a great idea for how to address some issue at work, or for your next award-winning essay, but didn’t take the time to write it down to return to later? If you are like me, the answer is far too many. Get in the habit of writing your ideas and thoughts down. You might ask if typing them into your phone, tablet, or laptop can also work. I think that is okay, but probably not as powerful as the act of physically writing them down. A number of studies have shown a powerful connection between the act of writing and memory, a connection that does not exist in nearly the same strength for electronically typed notes. So go out and get a nice notebook (here are a few suggestions) and a functional pen and carry it around with you to document all the excellent leads your powerful mind will come up with for contributions to the Third Offset Strategy and other salient issues of the day that need your input.

7. Find high-quality incoming information sources.

As a security professional, you will read a lot of books and hopefully some of them will spur you on to think and write about them. (If you want a few suggestions on books that have influenced me, check out my War Books entry, or reference this 2012 Warlord Loop suggested reading list.) I’ve already discussed professional journals, which you should be reading and contributing to. What about social media, podcasts, and professional message boards? Yes to all! Recently some have called into question whether there is value for professionals of any type (the security type included) to spend time on Twitter, stating that it is largely a time suck that keeps you from doing the work that will actually gain you the recognition you seek. I’ll not argue that social media can certainly be that if you let it, but more generally I side with the argument put forth by my Olmsted colleague, Lt. Cdr. Jared Wilhelm, in his winning entry in the US Naval Institute’s General Prize Essay Contest, entitled “@ADMNelson.” Wilhelm sees social media such as Twitter to be a great leveling tie between far-flung “stations” that makes it easy and useful for sharing articles and ideas of professional interest. I’ve used my Twitter account in largely that same way since 2009 and plan to continue doing so as long as it is a free service. In at least one anecdotal example of the value social media has provided to me, I attribute my participation in The Strategy Bridge’s professional book reviewing team directly to a tweet soliciting someone to take a look at 21st Century Knox. I’ve not personally met Bridge captain and MWI Non-Resident Fellow Nate Finney, but since our initial contact on Twitter, I’ve consulted with him electronically on topics ranging from creation of a Marine Corps Strategist military occupational specialty to what led him to pursue a Ph.D. in history from the University of Kansas. Would that interaction and exchange have been possible between professionals in different services living and working halfway across the globe from one another without Twitter? Not impossible, but the tweets certainly made it a lot easier. Used as a constructive means to reach out within the security profession and to find interesting, relevant reading material, I find it to be invaluable. I highly recommend using it in this same way. Embrace it, understand it, and use it. For those in uniform, I can almost guarantee your troops are using it.

Moving to podcasts, despite being a longtime fan and consumer of audiobooks, I was mildly skeptical about consumption of podcasts as a staple of self-development for the security professional until I spent a week with another Olmsted colleague, JD Kristenson, in San Diego in early 2016. I came to town to attend the AFCEA/USNI West 2016 expo (i.e., to sharpen the saw) and we passed the time commuting to and from the daily sessions listening to some of the 100-plus podcasts he regularly subscribes to in his car. Oh, did I mention that he listens to them at 1½ times playback speed to increase his level of uptake? (The Navy calls this “high-velocity learning.”) After that visit, I decided to drastically increase my own consumption of podcasts, and while my regular subscription list does not approach the triple-digit level of JD’s, I can say that in the nine months since I made this change, I think this is probably the biggest thing that has positively impacted my thinking by providing regular exposure to new ideas not necessarily in the traditional confines of the security realm but that might still have relevance to the field. On my short daily commute, I can still knock out dozens of podcast episodes a month. In addition to the MWI podcast, a few other podcasts that I particularly enjoy and recommend include The Tim Ferriss Show, which is all about learning to be the best learner you can be, Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History (esp. this episode about seeking objective measures of enemy morale during the Vietnam War), Pacific Pundit, Sinica, and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics Radio.

Finally, I also recommend participation in professional message boards and informal “thought leader” groups. In much the same way that I talked about Twitter being a good source for current events and other professional reading articles, professional message boards and Listservs such as the Warlord Loop (check out the last 10 minutes of this Georgetown University Center for Security Studies podcast with Col. (Ret) David Maxwell’s suggestions for professional development—Maxwell is a member of the Warlord Loop), INTELST, Red Star Rising, and others serve much the same purpose but with a bit freer, more candid dialogue (since they take place not in the wide-open public square of Twitter but instead via email or on a message board) and tend to have a more senior group of participants.

Taken together, I think these seven suggestions form a firm foundation for those getting started in the security field. I look forward to hearing feedback and receiving inputs from others in the field in the comments section and on social media.


MWI Contributor Major Gary J. Sampson, U.S. Marine Corps, is an intelligence officer and Northeast Asia Foreign Area Officer. He is a 2009 Scholar of the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation and former non-resident fellow with Pacific Forum CSIS.  This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government