Book Review: “Lost Connections”

Author: Johann Hari

People not pills

Smith was a good kid. A hard worker. Kinda goofy but always good natured. So when my work phone buzzed in the early afternoon on a Saturday and it was Smith, I was surprised. He told me he was going to kill himself and thanked me for being kind to him.

As a commander in the GWOT Army, I had a checklist for this phone call. When a Soldier acts a certain way or says just the right words, and the checklist told me exactly which doctor to call, which hospital I could send him to, and how long we needed to wait before we could start a chapter to process the soldier out.

Nowhere in the checklist was – “ask Soldier what’s going on.”

And that is how, so many young men and women came through my hanger with bottles of pills, appointments with psychologists, and finally – chapters out. As the commander, I was part of the process that pushed them along, hoping that if we moved just a little faster, we might get a replacement before we deployed.

Johann Hari’s “Lost Connections” was incredibly eye-opening for me. The first part of the book speaks to the history of mental health medication and treatment over the last few decades. Hari describes how being diagnosed with depression at a young age greatly shaped his identity. Later, as he began to question his treatment effectiveness, detachment from his diagnosis left him unbalanced and looking for the true cause of his pain.

Hari’s quest to learn the true cause of depression and anxiety led him to nine breaks in critical connections. These disconnects range from exposure to childhood trauma, an absence of nature, and a loss of meaningful values. Hari then goes on to offer a number of ways to reconnect with what matters most to us.

Connect with others

“Reconnecting with others,” hit home with me thinking about Smith and how we, as a military organization had handled mental health. Most of my Soldiers had made some real bone-head choices. Sure, some Soldiers were struggling with multiple deployments, difficult family situations, and substance abuse. But the vast majority of the kids on pills had just been young and stupid, because that is what young soldiers do. And have done for decades.

So why now, did we punt them to pills and docs rather than our NCOS and leaders. These young men and women needed guidance from older men and women. Mentors. Friends. A sense of belonging and need to live up to a hero. Young Soldiers needed to know the feeling of letting someone down, having regret, finding forgiveness, and striving to not fail again.

Maybe Hari was on to something known by many an old 1SG – these kids need leaders not pills.

Smith didn’t die that day. There is no checklist for that kind of phone call. It is person to person – listening and talking – and praying. Every part of me was praying that he would keep talking a little longer so that the police could get there. Later at the hospital, when I saw Smith, it wasn’t the same goofy kid. Maybe they had him on meds, which is what I like to think, but he was hollow and gone.

I wept that day for so many reasons. Despite saving a life, I knew I had a checklist to follow. It was waiting for me at my desk. The next day, I would be starting his paperwork to leave the Army, his friends, and his support. I would start the process to remove him from the one thing I knew, deep down, he needed most: us.


Smith is a real story and a combination of stories. He is one of many casualties of GWOT that will never be thanked, memorialized, or have books written about. So I am writing it now.

Book Review: “The Boys in the Boat”

Author: Daniel James Brown

Finding courage on the water

No sport more exemplifies team than rowing. A balanced boat is faster than one with a few strong rowers. Power seats trying to drive alone will be passed by a crew – rowers with hearts that beat on the catch and breath that escapes on the release. Harmony comes not by seats, or pairs, or oars – only boats.

I was a strong rower in college. A power seat. A port. I could pull some pretty incredible erg times and enjoyed holding a 500/m split consistently that was always better than my last times. I raced against myself. And thus, I was a terrible in the boat.

There are no superstars in a boat. Pulling together, in perfect harmony, makes a boat fly across the water. Superstars just create drag. I was drag.

Daniel James Brown’s book “The Boys in the Boat” is the incredible story of 9 young men who come together and beat the odds. These men were never expected to amount to anything – many hailing from the poverty that was quite common in the Depression Era. The book is set against the back drop of the 1936 Olympics pitting the US against a powerful Nazi Germany. American under-dogs who rise up to beat one challenge after another….

This book is about much more than under-dogs. It is about team. And sacrifice.

Forged in the icy waters of the Pacific Northwest, the men of the University of Washington crew team learned what it means to matter to something greater than yourself. Daily, the crew rowed not for the win, or the school, or the glory – but for each other. In rain and snow and heat – these men left the safety of land in a boat about 15 inches wide and traveled miles into the unforgiving waters of the ocean. Distance and water have a way of cementing the truth that every oar is needed to bring you home. Failure then becomes the ragged breath or sagging shoulders in the back you follow.

So you sit straighter. You do not let your shoulders sag or your catch drop. And you swing together.

I learned that to go faster in my boat, I had to slow down. Attacking the catch created drag. Rushing the slide could almost stop the boat. Power misaligned was simply lost. Slowing down, finding pace with the other members of the boat, and swinging in harmony resulted in the near levitation of the boat across the water as it raced to the finish.

Today, I don’t get the chance to fill a mighty 8 and take it racing down the river. But I am still on many crews. And my boats are filled with people who are willing to slow down, and swing together.

Come row with us!

For more about the story of this incredible boat – check out the PBS film from American Experience, The Boys of ’36.

Want to row – check out USRowing.

Book Series: Expeditionary Force

Author: Craig Alanson

Voice Actor and Narrator: R.C. Bray

Skippy –

Sometimes I need the space and time to grow. So I pick up a science fiction – to be entertained and maybe grab a leadership lesson along the way.

Craig Alason’s book series Expeditionary Force both entertains and sometimes make makes me think. I started listening to these books as my PhD dissertation was getting into the tough stage – trying to end but not yet there. The books gave my mind a rest for a bit. In 30 – 60 minutes, I could mentally rest. Listening was key to this series because the narrator – R.C. Bray – truly makes the books come to life, especially one of the main characters, Skippy the Beer Can. I highly encourage you to listen to the audiobook version of this series.

I have only listened to the first 5 books in Expeditionary Force but there are at least 8 main storyline books, and some spin off stories, which is pretty common in science fiction. The premise of the series starts out in Book 1 with a simple science fiction plot: alien race comes to earth, aliens treat us badly, humankind fights back.

Enter: “Joe”

Joe is a grunt. An Army Grunt – E5. He is a normal guy from New England that happened to make some lucky, albeit telling decisions, during the invasion, and save earth. The young NCO finds himself rewarded with a trip to a far off world to fight for an alien species that turns out to be embroiled in universal war far greater than humans ever could have known.

Enter: “Skippy the Beer Can

Truly there is no better character in modern science fiction than Alanson’s “Skippy the Beer Can.” The first book takes about half the plot to get to Skippy – wait – wait for him. It is worth it.

Skippy is an all-knowing, all-powerful, artificial intelligence that despite his infinite knowledge and winning personality, is physically limited by the absence of hands and feet. Joe finds Skippy on a far off world and the two of them proceed to embark on a hero’s quest together – with humor and humanity all in one.

The book is light mostly, but sometimes deep. Joe must lead his crew, and with that comes choices that challenge his values and morals. Skippy learns that human connection and love are the one thing that cannot fully understood through writing code. It must be gained by personal interactions with the crew and Joe. Together, these characters lead a crew across the galaxy, finding themselves in a fight that is as old as the universes itself. The book is hilarious and I am grateful to the talent of R.C. Bray, who brings the characters to life.

Growth isn’t immediate. I find that I have to give myself the space and the time to grow. Reading books takes me some time – more time than blogs or social media. But I also need time to experiment with lessons, try out an idea, mull over concepts, fail, succeed, and try again.

Frequently, I just need an emotional rest. To give my mind a place to lay down, perhaps after a long week or challenging encounter. I need to give myself the forgiving minute – to breath.

Criag Alanson’s books give me just a few more minutes. Through humor and a damn good story, I can find the space to rest, recover, and grow.

I breath. I laugh. I grow.

Book Review: “Tribe”

Author: Sebastian Junger

Small yet Mighty!

Purpose and connection will build your Tribe, but you must decide to join.

In 2016, I felt unsettled. I had been out of the military for about 4 years. Everything was just fine. I was steadily grinding on a PhD, raising an amazing family, and I had wonderful friends. Yet for some reason, I could not shake the feeling that I was wandering in life.

It was around this time that I heard an interview with Sebastian Junger on the Tim Ferriss Show Podcast (#161) about Tribes, which led me to immediately purchase this book.  Junger’s book was the first time someone put a label to what I lost when leaving the military – my Tribe.

Junger describes the roles of Tribes across the history of humankind. He talks of purpose, belonging, and acceptance.  Tribes have rituals and process complex emotions together.  The strength of the Tribe is greater than the sum of its members.

The military is a culture connected by shared behaviors and values. The people with whom I served were my Tribe. We found purpose in serving both the mission and the team. The Tribe always provided a way to handle the emotions-together. We mourned publicly, as a group, when we lost friends. We celebrated milestones in our careers or achievements with ritual ceremony. Our culture gave us a collective framework to process this messy world together.

I walked away from my Tribe. I left.

Junger ‘s book helped me realize how hard it truly is to leave the military. Leaving my Tribe felt like choosing isolation. Junger was the first person to tell me, through his book, that this was all okay.  Yearning to return to combat, fly aircraft again, to swap war stories – these were all manifestations of my primal need for my Tribe. I was grieving the Tribe I had left.

Connecting with the loss of Tribe helped me to finally see – clearly – that my Tribe was still all around me. Yes, I had left the military. But my Tribe remained.

My Tribe were the people – not the uniform. We had first formed by bonds of culture and clothe and ritual.  The bonds remained, however, long after the uniform hung in closets. My Tribe wasn’t lost at all. We had simply changed clothes.

My Tribe thrives–living a life of purpose, defined by the values of sacrifice and service. Join us!

Book Review: “Braving the Wilderness”

Author: Brené Brown

Being Me is scary. To not be Me is torture.

Alone, in the silence of the woods, I have only myself. And I will be just fine.

Brené Brown’s “Braving the Wilderness” came to me when I was having what I call a “self-awareness hangover.” This usually happens when I have read too many self-help, leadership, or business books causing my trips into self-awareness to wander into traps of self-doubt. I start to worry about how I handled past conversations, led my former teams, and interacted with fellow parents. Geez – how did I managed to get out of bed and parent at all?

Self-awareness hangovers leave me certain I will never fit in and will always be upsetting someone. Feeling terrible and keenly aware of the many ways I can offend nearly everyone – I withdraw. I hide my True Self. 

“You are only free when you realize you belong to no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great. ~Maya Angelou

“Braving the Wilderness” told me, “Stop. Be yourself.” Brené Brown opens the book with the Maya Angelou quote as she reflects on a life-long desire to fit in. She describes sacrificing her True Self in order to belong.  Fit in or be left alone in what she calls The Wilderness. Terrifying.

Naturally, we resist abandonment at our most primal level. The Wilderness is where we go when cast out, never to return. But Brené argues deciding to bravely enter The Wilderness alone is how we find True Belonging. For in the quiet of woods, only self can be heard. True Self finally gets to stand alone.

And True Self belongs to no one.

From this powerful realization, immense courage and confidence is found. Brené then calls upon the reader to, without fear, open their True Self to others. It is only through this most honest effort to connect with other people that we will find the purest quality of humankind – unconditional acceptance of True Self and others. And we will truly belong. To everyone who seeks truth. And to no one but ourselves.

And with that – hangover was gone.

Book Review: “The Obstacle is the Way”

Author: Ryan Holiday

The hard path is the true path.

Life is hard. Excellent! My struggle is my advantage.

Challenge, setback, failure, loss, and rock bottom are not exactly comfortable. Once you’ve experienced any of these, you likely learned a strong lesson about avoiding them in the future.  That hurt! We have visible and invisible scars. We likely lost friends and status. We probably lost money. Most of all, we failed ourselves. — But did we?

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. -Marcus Aurelius

Ryan Holiday’s book “The Obstacle is the Way” opens with this powerful quote from one of history’s greatest thinkers telling us to stop running away.  Instead, we must turn boldly into our challenge and see it as an opportunity rather an obstacle.

Holiday lays out a path for turning what he calls “trials into triumph” by teaching us to control our perception of events. First, we must learn to master the only controllable part of any situation – our emotional response to it. Armed with this surprisingly powerful insight, Holiday then calls upon us to act. Deliberate, precise action that could fail, and fail again. This path is not one of reckless failure but rather it is a decision to act despite an unknown outcome. Finally, Holiday calls us to have the will continue forward. Our will fuels our courage to repeat the cycle – perceiving obstacles as advantages and motivating us to act–until we achieve our goals.

We are defined by what we do, not what we say we do. You know your obstacle. You now know your path.

Act.

Book Review: “Grit”

Author: Angela Duckworth

Find your Work. Find your Grit

We marvel at people who do hard things and get after challenging goals. People like you…if you choose it.

Do something hard! All around us, we see people seeking to find their own personal challenges. We are offered new quests daily, ripe for the taking! Read some “X number” of books this summer (library). Only eat cabbage soup and juice for a month (diet industry…and seriously?). Conquer physical trials such as marathons, Ironman events, Spartan races (Sports industry). And many, many, more.

It doesn’t really matter what the goal is – as long as it is your goal.

In a world with many challenges from which to pick, what do we actually seek? How do we achieve our goal AND is really our own? How do we see the goal all the way through to the end? What is the end???

Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit” provides insight into how we sort, prioritize, and achieve our most difficult goals. She has made a career of studying how groups of people – from West Point cadets to National Spelling Bee winners to professional sports teams – accomplish hard goals. Duckworth identifies the trait of Grit – the drive to maintain a long-term focus on one objective no matter the obstacle. She then digs deep into the foundation of Grit to reveal four cornerstones traits of some incredible people.

Duckworth identifies Gritty people as first having goals defined by a strong interest. You know this feeling – the topic or passion you simply cannot stop studying, daydreaming about, or clicking on. She then describes how to turn that interest into your life’s Work (sound familiar – see “The War of Art” post) through deliberate practice. Gritty people are internally driven to practice by a motivation, which Duckworth identifies as their purpose. Purpose is so central to the nature of the Gritter, that they often can’t quite articulate it beyond to say that they must matter. Finally – those with Grit have an eternal well of hope. It is hope that moves them past failure, setbacks, and obstacles, to see tomorrow as the next day forward in achieving their goal.

So go find your challenge.

Don’t wait for someone to make it up for you. Listen to your interest. Feel for your purpose. And then get after it with deliberate practice and the hope – knowing each day will bring you one step closer to your life’s work.