You can learn a lot from the people around you: your parents, teachers, neighbors, colleagues, friends. They can give you first-hand advice, and share insights from their own experience. Not to mention how their example can provides lessons about what, and what not, to do.

But what do you do when the people around you don’t have the experience to guide you in the areas you need help in? How do you move forward when you have no one nearby who can serve as a role model or coach or mentor?

George Washington’s Advice

George Washington had a similar experience early in life. In his military service, he soon found himself leading a group of men in the Virginia Regiment. Together, they were learning what it meant to be both officers and gentlemen, trying to acquire the skills and character needed for these roles.

The challenge was neither he nor his men had the benefit of growing up in the “right” family or social circles. They didn’t come from the socially elite or grow up in British military families. They didn’t have the right role models to watch or mentors to learn from.

And so they were going to have to take a different approach if they were going to grow into the type of men they wanted to become. Knowing this, here were Washington’s words to his men:

And as we now have no opportunities to improve from example; let us read… —George Washington’s Address to his Officers, January 8, 1756

He recognized the shortage of good examples to learn from, at least those they knew in person. But he also recognized that they could learn from others regardless of whether they had physically seen them or not.

For Washington, reading was the solution. Through reading, he and his men could go beyond their limited training, and learn from the best. They could learn about being better officers in the military, and about being honorable gentlemen in society. And these lessons could be gleaned from people of any time or any place. They weren’t limited to just those they knew at that moment in their lives.

A Broader World

Through reading, we can learn lessons from the lives and the teachings of those we may never cross paths with. And this includes the opportunity to learn from some of the greatest men and women who have ever lived.

Having good roles models is important. Learning from others is vital. But our teachers need not be limited to those we personally know.

Reading is an incredible way to expand the number of people we can learn from, including those we’ll never meet. Washington knew the power of this, and exhorted his men to read. We would do well to do the same.