The last thing I expected to hear in a discussion between a former Navy Seal and a controversial clinical psychologist was an in-depth discussion over how writing is an essential skill for life. Often the things that make the most impact upon us are those we least expect.
This revelation came within a podcast interview betwen Jocko Willink and Jordan B. Peterson. I came to the discussion expecting stimulating debate and maybe some words of motivation delivered with characteristic candour and conviction. Their conversation took an unexpected turn when Willink began discussing his time at the University of San Diego and his motivation for studying English Literature.
Both Peterson and Willink are prolific authors and accomplished broadcasters. I’d always appreciated that writing was a foundational element of each of their skillsets but never considered quite how significant each of them believed it was in contributing to a life well-lived.
Their discussion revealed much about their passionate belief that writing is a skill that everyone needs to develop regardless of who they are, what they do or what they hope to accomplish. I want to share my takeaways from their discussion.
Jocko Willink is a former Navy Seal commander, famed for the mantra ‘Discipline Equals Freedom’ and for posting pictures online of his wristwatch upon waking 4.30am each day. Through his podcasts, his public speaking and his management consulting firm — Echelon Front LLC — he persuades others to apply military strategies, tactics and discipline in their lives to maximise their personal effectiveness.
Peterson is an accomplished author, professor and clinical psychologist whose books advocate a straight-forward, no-nonsense approach to living. He promotes tactics for thriving within a chaotic and uncertain world and frequently riles those on both sides of the political divide. Some (like me) enjoy the practicality of his rules for life while others consider them divisive and occasionally insulting.
Here are a few of my favourite rules taken from his books together with my interpretation of them, to illustrate his style:
Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today
Abandon the ridiculous and unhelpful compulsion to feel demoralised with your progress by comparing yourself with leaders, luminaries and the highly curated (and often false) impressions presented by social media influencers.
Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
Tidy your room. Take care of your own business. Get your life in order. Stop fixating on the wider issues you think you see around you, and instead sort out your own stuff before lamenting the state of the world and blaming it for your woes.
Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens
Stop flip-flopping from one thing to the next or chasing every fad or dream. Work hard at one thing with singular focus and learn how meaningful achievements gradually emerge through consistent and persistent effort.
Jocko and Jordan have between them written and published numerous best-selling books, but their collective enthusiasm for writing as an essential skill seems to extend beyond valuing it as a mere tool of their trade.
The foundational importance of writing
Jocko was required to earn a degree in order to become an officer in the US Navy. He attended university as a married man with kids and was motivated to achieve A-grades across the board — it was apparent from his commentary that he didn’t enjoy the undergraduate experience.
The reason for choosing English rather than any other more practical subject that might have aligned with his chosen career was simple, but illuminating — he wanted to become an effective writer:
“In the officer position you have to write and read all the time. When one of your troops does something and they deserve some kind of recognition for that, you have to write them an award. If the award is written well there’s a much better chance that it’ll be given. You have to write evaluations for your troops (which) are how your troops are judged so they can be promoted.”
It’s not just about human resources management— as Jocko points out:
“If you want to go do a mission, you have to write a concept of operations that you send up the chain of command, which they’re going to scour and see if they’ll approve your mission or not.”
It seems that life in the Seal teams isn’t just about guts and glory. A successful commanding officer is skilled at writing accurate, detailed and compelling materials that go up and down the hierarchy. These play an integral role in the efficient and effective workings of the military where lives are always at stake.
In response to Willink’s comments, Peterson was equally enthusiastic about writing as an essential skill for all:
“Learning to write will make you more powerful than you could ever have imagined. What I observed in my own career — nothing can stop you if you can write. When you write, you make a case for something — whatever it happens to be. And if you make the best case, well then you win and you get whatever it is that you’re aiming at.”
“The utility of learning to write is so self-evident to me that it could pass by without question… I just can’t understand why it’s not presented to adventurous young people — You’re adventurous? You want to make a mark? You bloody-well better learn how to write.
If you learn how to write well then you can think and you can communicate your thoughts, so not only are you deadly strategically, but you become extremely convincing and then you can go and do anything you want and no-one will stop you — that’s never told (to young people) and I’ve never really understood why.”
Their collective message seems clear then (even when transcribed directly from their conversation). Whether your chosen vocation demands high quality writing or you just want to take agency and control over your life and be able to manage and refine your thoughts, writing is the skill will help you get what you want.
The benefits of writing
As writers we’re all striving constantly to hone our skills. Quality writing is self-evident and being a writer is an ongoing process of self-improvement and growth with no clear or apparent end-point — we’re always working to get better at it.
While striving for quality is considered ‘table stakes’ for the writer who wants to be taken seriously, Willink and Peterson see it as more foundational in an accomplished life. They position that writing is something we should all aim to be good at, not just for professional purposes or for fun, but as an essential attribute to ease our passage through life.
- We all communicate and interact with others whether through writing or verbally — writing hones our ability to communicate this with clarity
- We all need to ingest, interpret and respond to information that is thrust into our consciousness from multiple angles, daily — writing tunes our mind and helps us filter, analyse and react appropriately.
- We all need to exert control and agency in living our lives in the most effective way possible — writing helps us to reflect, to formulate goals and to make and enact plans to bring about our best lives.
The importance of wider literacy
Their conversation extended beyond writing and touched upon reading and the origins of words and language. Both clearly feel a similar passion for such topics.
Willink credited reading with helping him to learn from the experiences of other military leaders and from past wars. When learning about tactics for combat there’s much to be said for understanding what has been successful in the past, without having to incur the same loss of life in the process. Such lessons can only be passed on if combat leaders are able to write them down and present them in a format that allow readers to read, digest and interpret their lessons.
Those who’ve watched and enjoyed ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ on Netflix have learned that those who master chess spend a great deal of time studying the successes (and failures) of past-champions, through books.
The same holds for anyone in any field who wants to pass on the lessons behind their mastery — from military tactics, to chess or anything else — they need to be able to write, and write well.
Reading and writing are superpowers
The impact made by a modest blog post may be insignificant. A book can be self-published with ease, but sales may be inconsequential. Without taking the first step, without writing down the ideas and putting them in some sort of order, we cannot know if the blog will go viral or the book will become a bestseller.
It all begins with writing — the act of capturing words on the page and crafting them to present our ideas clearly.
Writing can help to undermine dictators and deconstruct ideologies — consider the regimes who’ve banned texts that were seen as disruptive or which didn’t align with the approved world view. Some encouraged that non-approved books were burned to prevent the spread of ‘