Very many factors go to the building of sound morale…but one of the greatest is that men be fully employed at useful and interesting work. Idleness is a dangerous breeding ground.” –Winston Churchill
Yesterday we explored the fact that idleness kills manliness. Masculinity is an energy — one which seeks to fight, struggle, compete, take risks, and explore — that needs an outlet to be kept strong, vital, and fully tuned up.
In the absence of such an outlet, masculine energy collapses. Men lose their sense of drive, purpose, and self-respect, and their standards, hardihood, and discipline atrophy. A slide into restlessness, vice, malaise, and outright depression is often the result.
In times past, idleness was kept at bay by external forces — danger and threats inherent in a wild environment, universal military conscription, jobs that required physical labor, etc.
Today, there is little outside yourself that will compel you to embrace what Theodore Roosevelt called “the strenuous life.” In the absence of an honor culture, in a time of peace and plenty, there is little social shame in putting forth minimal effort, floating through life, and generally being content with the status quo.
The motivation to be your best, utilize your full potential, and exercise the four tactical virtues of masculinity, must come instead from within.
Below we discuss the 7 key mindset changes that will enable you to move from the path of least resistance to the road less taken — from passive idleness to active readiness.
In Semper Virilis: A Roadmap to Manhood in the 21st Century, I introduced the concept of the “Manhood Reserve.”
The way I imagine the ideal of modern manhood is akin to the function of the National Guard. Guardsmen are citizen-soldiers — they typically have a full-time job, but train to the standard of active duty military members in preparation for being called up to service. Guardsmen represent the country’s first-line of defense and are ready to help and assist in a broad variety of crises — they can be deployed to combat overseas by the federal government or to provide natural disaster relief by the state government. The motto of the Guard is thus “Always Ready, Always There.”
In a similar way, while our current historical moment doesn’t require the vast majority of men to serve full-time in their traditional role as protectors and warriors, that doesn’t mean we should be content to resign ourselves to a life of idleness. We can stay active, by staying ready to handle any exigency. By training ourselves in fitness, discipline, mental toughness, and a wide variety of both hard and soft skills, we can be prepared to be “deployed” to any crisis — whether of the geo-political variety, a natural disaster closer to home, or simply the challenges that regularly crop up in our normal day-to-day lives.
Of course, members of the National Guard are paid and receive benefits in return for their commitment to readiness and service. So why should a rank-and-file citizen be motivated to train himself of his own will and volition?
7 Key Mindset Changes for Shifting from Passive Idleness to Active Readiness
1. Realize that potential threats are never as obvious you think they’ll be.
When Kate was home from college the summer after her freshman year, she was shocked one day when she heard the doorbell ring and saw a police officer standing there. Her sister had been in a serious car accident and her family needed to get to the hospital right away. Kate told me that what she remembered distinctly about the aftermath of that moment was how the crisis arrived in her life like a lightning bolt out of the literally blue sky. The day had been like any other — she had just gotten back from a run, the weather was beautiful, the sun was shining. Kate said she had subconsciously expected there would be some kind of lead-up to such a terrible moment, like feelings of foreboding and gloomy weather.
You know, like in the movies.
Unfortunately, in real life, ominous music rarely plays right before the SHTF. Things turn on a dime — one day your life is chugging merrily along, and the next day you lose your job, your dad dies, or a gunman walks into your business and starts shooting up the place.
Sure, when it comes to a large-scale geo-political crisis, there’s usually years of build-up and warning signs. Yet history shows that even when a huge threat is literally right at the door, people tend to be complacent; humans inherently have a hard time believing that life won’t go on exactly as it has in the recent past.
For example, one of the most fascinating things about William Manchester’s trilogy of biographies about Winston Churchill is the way in which he juxtaposes the Nazis’ machinations and military build-up throughout the 30s, with the lackadaisical way the rest of Europe responded.
This incongruity reached its apex during the so-called “Phoney War.” After the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, France and Britain declared war on Germany, yet not a whole lot happened (at least on land) in the ensuing 8 months. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain thought the war would be over by summer, and a former cabinet member declared that the Allies had “found a new way to make war, without sacrificing human lives.” French General André Beaufre felt that the conflict constituted “a giant charade acted out by mutual consent” and would ultimately amount to nothing.
As a result, British and French war preparations were lackluster and half-hearted. Churchill despaired at the slow pace in which munitions factories were being ramped up in both countries, and was dismayed at how the quality of the French army was being “allowed to deteriorate during the winter”:
“there were many tasks that needed doing: training demanded continuous attention; defenses were far from satisfactory or complete — even the Maginot Line lacked many supplementary field works; physical fitness demands exercise. Yet visitors to the French front were often struck by the prevailing atmosphere of calm aloofness, by the seemingly poor quality of the work in hand, by the lack of visible activity of any kind.”
The British military fared a little better in their preparations, yet the citizenry as a whole existed in what Churchill called a “twilight mood.” As Manchester details, though the Germans were using the lull in action to gear up for full-on war, the public continued to live in a state of unreality, their minds turned to the same distractions and trivialities that had diverted their attention in peace:
“The British, possessing on the whole a better record on European battlefields, ought to have been more realistic. They weren’t. Instead, they were complacent. The Isle looked fine; ergo, the Isle was fine. In the autumn, the Times had proclaimed Britain’s ‘grim determination’ to see it all through, but nine months after the outbreak, English life had returned to normal. Idle men dozed on Hyde Park ‘deck chairs’; the sheep lazed away the days in London’s park enclosures, and admiring crowds gathered by the nearby duck ponds…
Nightlife was as innocent and diverting as ever; John Gielgud was King Lear; Emlyn Williams’s Light of Heart played to busy houses; elsewhere in the West End the most popular dance tunes were the American ‘Deep Purple’ and ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow.’ Clearly Londoners were less interested in the war than in the rituals of peace. The Times, ever the vigilant recorder of multifarious ornithological sightings, reported the return of swallows, cuckoos, and even nightingales.
Churchill tried to wake the nation. Speaking that March on the BBC, HMG’s first lord of the Admiralty warned his countrymen that ‘more than a million German soldiers, including all their active and armored divisions, are drawn up ready to attack, on a few hours’ notice, all along the frontiers of Luxembourg, of Belgium and of Holland. At any moment these neutral countries may be subjected to an avalanche of steel and fire, and the decision rests in the hands of a haunted, morbid being who, to their eternal shame, the German people have worshipped as a god.’ He observed that in Britain ‘there are thoughtless dilettanti or purblind worldlings who sometimes ask us: ‘What is it that Britain and France are fighting for?’ To this I answer: ‘If we left off fighting you would soon find out.’”
I bring up the example of WWII, not because I think there’s another Hitler currently waiting in the wings, but to demonstrate the difficulty of knowing when there is! People generally believe that were there an existential threat right on their doorstep, they’d definitely recognize it, and they’d definitely get themselves ready to fight. But history shows that threats often come without warning, and that even when there’s ample prelude, most folks will simply shrug and take no real action until it’s literally busting down the door.
2. Preparation need not be paranoia.
These days, when you hear “preparation” you might think “prepper.” And when you think about preppers, you might think about extreme survivalists who’ve got a few years’ worth of food, an armory of weapons, and an underground bunker. This association is unfortunate, as the man who fancies himself as the intelligent, rational type automatically thinks, “Oh, that’s definitely not me.”
But preparation doesn’t have to equal paranoia. It’s simply a desire to be ready, come what may. As the authors of 1915’s Self-Helps for the Citizen Soldier write, preparation is the logical response to inherent risk:
“Preparedness is only another name for precaution, provision — the taking of measures beforehand, making arrangements in advance — to meet a possible need.
Preparedness in general is one of the most natural, common and necessary acts of life. Even wild animals provide for the winter — prepare against want.
We provide for old age by saving in earlier life — we prepare against helplessness. By means of insurance and investment, we provide for our families — we prepare against death.
We provide against fire by maintaining a fire department, and against crime, by maintaining a police department — we prepare to meet both with proper measures. We provide for sickness by preparing hospitals, and so on, indefinitely, the thread of preparedness runs through every serious act of our lives…
No one questions the wisdom of preparing in advance to meet a possible need. If it is likely to occur, the only natural, common-sense thing to do is to prepare for it.
The only point about which there can be any question is the existence of the need — whether that for which preparedness should be made is probable.”
So is it probable that you might be called up to war, or have to administer first aid, or survive in the wilderness with only a knife, or any of the other dire exigencies you might prepare yourself for? Well, no. It could happen, but it’s not likely. So if the probability of your having to deal with some big crisis is so small, is it then a waste of time to spend your precious time preparing for such things?
To answer yes would be to assume that the only benefit for training for a large threat is being prepared for that particular threat in and of itself. Yet as we will see, preparing yourself for a big crisis makes you prepared for little ordinary challenges as well (and makes you a happier, more well-rounded man to boot). While you may never have to fight off an armed attacker or save someone from drowning in a river, there’s a 100% probability that every day you’re going to need the qualities of courage, hardihood, resilience, and so on to deal with life’s little annoyances, lead your family, and excel in your career. Thus, wanting such training, and desiring such qualities, is the most rational thing is the world.
Because if there’s one thing you should be paranoid about, it’s living a life in which you never develop your full capacities as a man.
3. Preparation in one area can be deployed in other areas.
Training in the “martial” virtues carries over into competence in peacetime pursuits.
A perfect example of this is what you see going on in veterans organizations like Team Rubicon and The Mission Continues. These groups take former members of the military who have been well trained by the government to kill enemies overseas and put them to work doing disaster relief or starting service projects in their communities. While they’re not toting guns and taking out bad guys, these vets are able to deploy many of the skills and traits they acquired during combat like discipline, improvisation, teamwork, and planning, and use them to help their fellow man. The rigorous training in fitness and discipline members of Team Rubicon received in the military helps them handle the often physically and mentally demanding work that happens during disaster recovery. And the mission planning skills they learned from patrols and firefights allows them to carry out their work in an efficient and effective way.
Readiness shouldn’t be thought of merely as a defensive stance, either, but as an offensive one as well. You don’t prepare yourself only for emergencies, but also for opportunities — which are just as hard to see coming as threats! If you’re not ready to seize an opportunity for growth the moment it materializes, it often never comes your way again.
When Theodore Roosevelt was president, the only thing besides a portrait he hung in his executive office in the White House was the poem “Opportunity” by John James Ingalls:
Master of human destinies am I
Fame, love and fortune on my footsteps wait.
Cities and fields I walk; I penetrate
Deserts and seas remote, and passing by
Hovel and mart and palace, soon or late
I knock unbidden once at every gate;
If sleeping, wake; if feasting, rise before
I turn away. It is the hour of fate.
And they who follow me reach every state
Mortals desire, and conquer every foe
Save death: But those who doubt or hesitate,
Condemned to failure, penury and woe,
Seek me in vain and uselessly implore—
I answer not, and I return no more.
4. Preparation is war.
Part of why it’s hard to get psyched up for preparing for things that may or may not happen, is that preparation doesn’t seem very sexy. We want to be in on the action, right in the fray of the frontlines.
While it’s true that preparation for action may never be as satisfying as action itself, by flipping your mindset on it, it can be more meaningful than you might think.
William James argued that “the intensely sharp preparation for war by the nations is the real war…and that the battles are only a sort of public verification of the mastery gained during the ‘peace’-interval.”
Or as I learned playing high school football, games aren’t won on the field on Friday nights, but during practice on Monday afternoons.
Preparation is the battle. And once you grasp that, you’ll feel more driven to put in the time it takes to gain mastery in mental and physical skills.
Best of all, once you start training and practicing in anything, you come to find there’s great enjoyment in it — that sometimes planning for an experience is actually even better then the experience itself. As the outdoorsman Horace Kephart wrote in The Book of Camping and Woodcraft (1910):
“Field equipment is a most excellent hobby to amuse one during the shut-in season. I know nothing else that so restores the buoyant optimism of youth as overhauling one’s kit and planning trips for the next vacation. Solomon himself knew the heart of man no better than that fine old sportsman who said to me ‘It isn’t the fellow who’s catching lots of fish and shooting plenty of game that’s having the good time: it’s the chap who’s getting ready to do it.’”
5. Busyness is not the opposite of idleness.
“He has nothing to prevent him but too much idleness, which, I have observed fills up a man’s time much more completely and leaves him less his own master, than any sort of employment whatsoever.” –Edmund Burke
In 1916, after the forces of Pancho Villa had made incursions onto American soil, President Woodrow Wilson mobilized the National Guard to ward off further aggression from Mexico. One-hundred thousand men were called up and placed in mobilization camps along the border, but given no clear mission beyond keeping watch. Morale quickly sank, and many of the men began frequenting local saloons and brothels, complaining about the conditions, and even deserting. The Secretary of War asked a colleague, Raymond F. Fosdick, to inspect the situation in the camps. Fosdick found that the reason the men were deteriorating was due to idleness:
“There was nowhere for the men to go and forget the weariness, the homesickness, the loneliness, that prevailed…There was nowhere to go and get away even for a short time from the monotony of drill and the almost unbearable heat. There was no organized entertainment, no decent diversion.”
Fosdick saw that there were vices aplenty, but nothing to “substitute for the things we want to drive out.”
In studying how British and Canadian troops maintained morale, Fosdick discovered that instituting an athletics program into the military greatly improved morale, and recommended the US do likewise.
Thus, in readying American troops for their involvement in WWI, the Army installed an athletic director to every training camp, and got the troops playing games and sports every day.
A newspaper sports editor reported on the fruits of the program:
“Never before in the history of this country have so large a number of men engaged in athletics. Every kind of sport is involved — football, baseball, basketball, volleyball, push ball, medicine ball, soccer, track and field athletics, and particularly boxing. Everybody’s boxing, even the mountaineers and the boys from the farm who never saw a pair of boxing gloves in their lives. Men are learning to get bumped and not mind it. They eat it up.”
In additions to traditional sports, the men played more loosely organized games like “swat tag,” “prisoner’s base,” and “duck-on-the-rock.”
The athletics program was designed to offer the men a break from the tedium of their usual rounds of drills, calisthenics, and inspection, and build their confidence, competitive spirit, resilience, alertness, leadership, and teamwork. And the program went with the men overseas; “athletic kits” stocked with boxing equipment, footballs, soccer balls, baseballs, etc., shipped out with every unit sent to Europe.
A report done after the war on the program’s success found that “It was demonstrated during the war that nothing was so valuable as competitive games in keeping alive the interest of the men and in preventing discontent and homesickness during a long training period or after a protracted tour of duty in the front lines.”
Basically, what the military found is that simply keeping men busy is not enough to maintain their esprit de corps. The monotony of digging ditches and drilling, and the stress of combat, kept some parts of their minds/bodies active, but let others go fallow. The men needed not just activity, but a variety of activity.
All men can take a key lesson here. Plenty of guys aren’t idle in the obvious sense; they’re quite busy with jobs, kids, school, etc. They may even feel overextended and tired from all they have to do. Yet despite all this activity, they still feel restless, depressed, and strangely stagnant.
That’s because while certain sides of their character are overtaxed, other sides — often those related to the core of their masculinity — are entirely unexercised. They’re super busy in some areas, but entirely idle in others.
Sure you’re logging big hours as a corporate warrior and as a dad and husband, but when’s the last time you felt the spirit of competition drive you to push harder? When’s the last time you moved together physically with a group of other men? When’s the last time you experienced flow, or felt your limits, or threw a punch, or took a punch?
Just because you’re busy, doesn’t mean you aren’t idle.
6. Keep moving; whatever you don’t use, you lose.
We often feel like we can leave parts of ourselves dormant, and they’ll just stay as they are — waiting for us to start developing them again. But the truth is that all the components of our physical and mental make-up operate by the “use it or lose it” principle. All of life involves swimming against the current of deterioration — if you’re not constantly putting in the effort to advance, you’re getting swept back.
Or as my high school football coach always told us: “If you’re not getting better today, you’re getting worse.”
There are some species of shark that have to continually swim forward in order to get oxygen to breathe; they take it from the water that flows into their mouths and over their gills. Even when scientists held them stationary, and allowed a current to push the water into their mouths, the sharks breathed more efficiently when moving. In other words, it required less effort for them to breathe while moving, than while at rest. And when there’s less oxygen in the water available, rather than conserving energy to compensate, these sharks counterintuitively open their mouths wider and move faster to keep from drowning.
That’s a pretty perfect metaphor for manhood.
7. Duty over self.
In the last several years, the Secret Service has been plagued by embarrassing missteps and dangerous lapses, including, but not limited to: two drunk senior agents crashing their government car into a security gate by the White House, a dozen agents bringing prostitutes back to their hotel room during a summit of world leaders in Colombia, agents getting drunk and passing out in a hotel room hallway in advance of the president’s trip to the Netherlands, and allowing a man with a knife to jump the White House fence and make it all the way to the doors of the East Room.
The job of a Secret Service agent is many ways the pinnacle test of maintaining readiness in the face of boredom and seeming safety. 99.9% of the time, nothing is going to happen on your watch, and yet you have to face every moment fully vigilant and prepared for the .1%.
There’s no way to hack your way to the motivation for maintaining this kind of readiness and vigilance. It can’t be legislated by Congress or enforced by your superiors. It simply comes down to sheer discipline — knowing you have a job to do, and doing your duty. Indeed, some insiders say that what ails the formerly straight arrow Secret Service is a diminished esprit de corps — a sense of being dedicated to a code of conduct that should be followed no matter what, regardless of feelings or circumstances. The Secret Service can’t wholly create this kind of honor culture from the top down; it has to be born organically from the men in the ranks.
So too, no one can force you to live or even believe in the ancient code of manhood — that men should be ready to serve as warriors and the protectors of country, kith, and kin whenever needed. The choice to live a life of honor will have to come from within, and be re-committed to each and every day.
Training for Readiness
The obvious cure for idleness is to start doing stuff. But what kind of stuff should you do?
Any mental/physical/hard/soft skill that develops qualities like discipline, focus, courage, hardihood, improvisation, leadership, teamwork, and resilience; strengthens your mind, body, and soul; and better prepares you to handle a wide variety of challenges and seize unforeseen opportunities, is a worthwhile pursuit. Those which most directly align with the four tactical virtues of masculinity — strength, courage, honor, mastery — should be particularly sought. Being able to mark off all the skills on this list would be go a long way to achieving active readiness, and becoming a more confident, competent, and satisfied man.
You can pursue such a path as an individual, but the development of manhood is ideally accomplished in groups of like-minded men who push each other and keep each other accountable. I know of some churches and high school/college clubs who have started such programs for themselves. I also know of groups of friends who simply decided to start intentionally getting together for the purpose of fraternal bonding and personal improvement.
Of course, in all such situations, having a structured “curriculum” for such a program — with set goals, incentives for maintaining motivation, accountability trackers, etc. — makes things a lot easier than trying to create and carry out a men’s society of mental/physical/tactical development all on your own.
And stay ready, and manly.