On a cold November morning several years ago, I was putting the finishing touches on a blog post when I added four simple words: writing is our legacy. Those words were not mine, but those of someone who had a profound and lasting influence on both my writing and thinking. In the 30 years that had passed since first hearing those words, I had endeavoured to live by them, writing and publishing as often as I could manage. Not always a simple feat when balancing the demands of a military career and a young family.
Those simple words elicited a memory, long since filed away deep within the recesses of my mind:
“Chuck Stratton was your stereotypical English professor. Rumpled, middle-aged, with a trademark cardigan sweater and shoes that were probably older than most of his students. Wire-rimmed bifocals perched atop a mop of unkempt graying hair.”
My memories of “Skip” Stratton are important to me. A nostalgic reminder that, for most of us, our legacy is formed by the ideas and stories we leave behind, and how we leverage those to shape future generations. For Skip – whose lifelong passion was researching the Enfield rifle – capturing those stories in written form ensured that our thoughts, our ideas, and our words lived beyond our short time in this life.
Over the years, writing became as much a part of my identity as my offbeat sense of humor. At first, my writing was raw and unpolished; publishers often rejected my work as “too folksy” or “insufficiently academic.” But, as with any form of proper military training – from marksmanship to physical readiness – I continued to “put in the reps” and met with increasing success. Along the way, I held firm to my belief that my words were building my legacy, telling the stories that would continue to make a difference long into the future.
In the process, I challenged others to write, to tell their own stories. If “writing is our legacy” is Skip Stratton’s epitaph, mine will be “tell your story.” Whenever I heard someone share an especially compelling story, those words would follow in short order. Most ignored me, but those who followed my counsel found welcoming audiences and an opportunity to share their particular brand of wisdom. Within each of us is a wealth of knowledge waiting for wet ink and a sheet of paper (or a keyboard and a blank screen); we just need to string the words together.
Writing can be a daunting challenge. Regardless of how fluid your prose or how brilliant your thoughts, someone will take exception to your words. People whose only contribution to our written body of knowledge might be a graduate school thesis or a book review will feel compelled to criticize your work. To be a successful writer, a clear mind and focus are essential. For your writing to spur change and influence others, thick skin is an absolute necessity. You must rise above the fray; you have to persevere.
Writing can also be cathartic. We all have stories to tell, lessons to share, wisdom to offer. One of the most powerful tools for professional development is vicarious learning – drawing on the experiences of others to learn. Unleashing your inner Socrates is as beneficial to you as it is to those who will learn from you. The longer you refrain from writing, the more you deprive others the benefit of you experience. In a profession where leader development is sacrosanct, we should embrace the opportunity to lead the discourse. Writing gives us the opportunity to do so.
Finally, writing can influence change. Long before leading the Allies in Europe in the Second World War, 30-year old Captain Dwight D. Eisenhower was drawing the ire of the Chief of Infantry by advocating for mechanization in his 1920 Infantry Journal article, “A Tank Discussion.” In the same vein, George Patton’s interwar writings on the tactical potential of armor earned ridicule from those who failed to see a future beyond traditional horse cavalry. The next B. H. Liddell Hart may already be writing blog posts or sharing his or her thoughts over afternoon tea and sandwiches. The best way for your voice to be part of that discussion is to write.
Personally, I do not harbor any illusions of being the next Liddell Hart. I doubt that I will ever write the great American memoir, because, quite honestly, I am just not that interesting. But, what I do have – as do you – are experiences to share and lessons to pass on. I have stories to tell and the words to tell them. I need only to capture those words and draw them together. Together, we can write our stories, tell our tales, and preserve our legacies.
Skip Stratton wrote his final words in 2006, leaving behind volumes of research and countless pages on the Enfield rifle. Those four simple words – writing is our legacy – proved true, but not in the way he had imagined. Instead, his legacy lives today in the words of a caste of writers inspired through his vision. Our words – your words – should do the same for future generations. Because when the sun finally sets on your career, those words may very well represent your lasting contribution to the profession of arms.