Self Study is not Enough

Thoughts on Preparing for War

The profession of arms exacts a penalty when we allow apathy or complacency to dull our knowledge and skills. Recently, Joe Byerly described it this way:

“Imagine if someone told you that a year from today, you would be required to take a test in which every wrong answer resulted in the loss of a human life. How would you approach studying for the test?”

Byerly’s ideas resonated deeply with a diverse audience. Initiative in professional development is critical, but self-study is not enough. Self-study adds knowledge, but we must add skill and wisdom, qualities that are much harder to develop. Skill moves knowledge from the head to the hands, and wisdom moves knowledge and skill from head and hands to the heart.


In the information age, there is no lack of knowledge. Fundamentally, we lack skill in application of knowledge we possess. Exercise, or training, is what transforms knowledge into skill. Certainly both of these activities are common in our profession, but the skills we need may not be the ones for which a curriculum exists. An example illustrates the difference between knowledge and skill.

Imagine you are teaching your son to drive. How much steering wheel input is needed for a given curve in the road? None of us could describe the amount needed, though we can easily accomplish the maneuver. Approaching a bend in the road, input a small turn in the steering wheel and ask, “Was that enough?” If not, the next steering input may be too large, and finally, by a series of educated guesses, a new driver determines the answer and stores it in his brain. The next curve in the road will certainly be different, and the judgment and muscle memory required for driving accumulates over time.

The simple act of steering a car is one form of skill that allows for development through self-guided exercise and self-critique, because a young driver can quickly perceive his performance. Unfortunately, not all skills are self-taught, nor do all skills develop through such elementary exercises. Conversely, not all training realistically exercises the skills we need. The art of war and leadership are both classic examples. The nation doesn’t want us to drive familiar roads, but instead, it asks us to find a way in places we have never been, without street signs. In this case, reading and research will teach us where others have gone, but something more is necessary to prepare ourselves for the road less travelled.


Wisdom moves knowledge and skill from hands and head to the heart. This is important, because art does not reside in the head as science does, and we must become masters at the art of war. So how do we gain wisdom? There are far greater warrior-writers than I who have addressed this question, so I will not attempt an answer. Instead, I propose that we need all three developmental elements — knowledge, skill, and wisdom — and to emphasize the importance of the last.

There are four steps in the cyclic process of acquiring skill and wisdom: Explanation, Example, Exercise, and Evaluation. You may not need all of these steps, and sometimes the lines between them become blurred.


Sometimes a student needs a teacher to define and explain. Explanation benefits the learner when time to discover a fact is cost prohibitive. In the profession of arms, for example, one could determine by lengthy observation the rules governing the decorum of saluting and other military courtesies, but it is far easier and efficient to have a teacher explain them. Additionally, there are some things that we must learn by explanation because they cannot be discovered. “Left turn on red is legal in these circumstances and in these states.” We do not discover this truth — someone (the state department of motor vehicles) must define it. In pursuit of professional development, we must have humility to accept instruction, as we will certainly encounter situations in which we need an explanation.

At other times we must be the expositor, clearly defining and outlining for peers, subordinates, and even leaders. In the role of teacher, explanation strengthens the muscle of knowledge and helps it begin its journey from the head to the hands and heart. A leader must explain what he thinks he knows about war,leadership, or some specific technical discipline to deepen his or her understanding beyond the superficial. In this role too, we must embrace a humble attitude as an example to those around us, clearly reflecting our continued willingness to learn and awareness of our limitations.


Often the best lesson is demonstration. A good example reveals the transformation of a teacher’s knowledge into skill, and it challenges the teacher, because doing things in the heat of the battle requires more mastery than recounting facts in the calm of the classroom. When I describe and explain a formation maneuver, it finds a place in the student’s head, but when I fly the maneuver demonstration, and they feel the discomfort of craning their necks to see the other aircraft while pulling Gs, I show and they experience something I cannot simply or fully explain. Similarly, a leader must show the followers an example of what the skills of the student of war look like in action.

A demonstration also allows the student to choose which part of the observed lesson to focus on more closely, but it is most efficient when used to teach something for which explanation is too time-consuming. For some skills, there is no formula or definition. The situation is so dynamic and requires so much judgment in real time, that we can only throw the student into the deep end of the pool of learning and hope they can swim. For the pilot training student, I can demonstrate a proper landing, but thereafter I ride along with them while they “teach themselves” to land. We often find ourselves in similar sink-or-swim situations in the profession of arms.


There are countless proverbs that suggest learning by doing is superior to hearing, and this is the purpose of training and exercise. As already mentioned, exercise transforms knowledge into skill, and as a complement to self-study, writing is perhaps the exercise we need most. Writing trains our thinking and allows us to communicate our fledgling ideas about war and leadership in a space where others can challenge them. Consider this observation from a practitioner of our profession:

“I write for the present. Writing provides a current form of self-development. A moment of reflection in the present creates the opportunity to think critically about how everything is in its current state.”

As leaders in the profession of arms our thoughts have the potential to reach the widest audience when we write them. This exposes us to a broad spectrum of criticism or comment, a risk and benefit, as it exposes weaknesses in our thinking that may be harmful to us on other fields in our future. Additionally, our writing may be the intellectual exercise that strengthens another person’s thoughts or the basis for another professional’s self-study.


Evaluation is the ultimate stage of development, as it is the process by which we measure our progress and examine whether or not we have hit the target. This is precisely the “test” that Byerly challenges us to imagine, and it is the stage that the student driver finds himself while steering through a curve. There are forms of evaluation we conduct on ourselves, and other skills or knowledge require us to submit to external examination. As we prepare for the ultimate test, we owe it to ourselves, our nation, and our followers to hone our expertise in the art of development, so we must constantly subject ourselves to evaluation to demonstrate our growth.

With his article on self-study, Byerly prepared our minds for a more thorough examination of professional development. The four stages of development will take us farther than reading alone. Self-study starts with self and multiplies through interaction with mentors, teachers, leaders, and peers along the journey. Ultimately, however, when we face the final test we bear the singular responsibility for our performance.

Mark Jones Jr. is a husband, father, statistician, experimental test pilot, USAF Reservist, and writer. As a member of the Military Writers Guild, he has the privilege of chairing the Membership Committee. Mark wishes to thank #MWG members @angrystaffofficer, @adindobkin, and @garymklein for their editorial insight and assistance. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force Reserve, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.