Healthy Habits

There is, to be sure, nothing profound here. Nonetheless, I hope that some of these ideas might reinforce thoughts readers may have had and, perhaps, stimulate some new ones.

Up front, I should note that while I can be fairly obsessive about fitness, diet, work ethic, and willingness to travel to the ends of the earth for a good cause, I am not quite as zealous as some have described me. In fact, I try to subscribe to the overarching big idea of, “All things in moderation, including moderation.”

That said, I offer the following admonitions:

Fence time for sleep. Few of us can truly get by with less than 6-7 hours of sleep per night over a sustained period. Certainly, we can all stand on our heads during important endeavors, such as when I went days with minimal sleep during the early stages of the fight to Baghdad in March 2003. But the ultimate effects of inadequate sleep are well known to all of us (and I certainly experienced them on the road to Baghdad). In fact, establishing a sustainable “battle rhythm” is as important in business endeavors as it in combat. And it is particularly important during travel. When on the road, I try to ensure reasonable sleep at the period that would be normal to the rhythm of the location from which I departed and then ease into the arrival time zone if spending a couple of days there. If needed, to help induce sleep, I use melatonin. Whether at home or on travel, reading a few pages of a book that offers a bit of nice, not overly intense, diversion before sleep can be very helpful, too. (During the early months of the Surge in Iraq, I read a few pages each night of Bruce Catton’s wonderful book, Grant Takes Command, before falling asleep.) Finally, exercise while traveling is critical in inducing healthy fatigue that helps you to sleep, as well.

Ensure time for physical fitness. Time for physical fitness should be scheduled 5-6 days a week, including when on the road. My team members and I try to avoid scheduling any event before 9 am to allow time to caffeinate, catch up on email, get in at least an hour-long workout, and have a quick bite to eat before beginning the formal workday. (If necessary, due to work demands, you can read emails on an iPad while peddling a stationary bike or while walking very briskly on an elevated (>10 degrees) treadmill, or you can listen to podcasts while running.) Ensure that workouts include flexibility and strength elements, as well as cardio and endurance.

Eat right. Avoid junk food, limit refined carbs, and be careful about liquid carbs (while remembering the “all things in moderation, including moderation” big idea)! Needless to say, eating right becomes more important as the years go by and we inevitably adopt more sedentary lifestyles.

Practice “Essentialism.” [from Greg McKeown’s superb book published in 2014, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less] The more successful and “famous” someone becomes, the more he or she is sought for meetings, mentoring, and other activities that are not directly related to one’s primary pursuits. This has, frankly, been an increasing challenge for me over the years, as I suspect it is for many others here, as well. That has, regrettably, meant that I have finally had to learn how to decline requests for meetings that are not vital, politely depart social gatherings even when folks may still want to converse (having a solid exit strategy is always important), and decline invitations to additional non-KKR boards, among other examples of striving to focus on the essential elements of my professional and personal lives.

Strive for balance in life. Balancing the demands of our personal and professional lives is a major challenge for all of us. To be sure, the appropriate/acceptable balance in one’s life is different for each of us and each of our families. But we can never go wrong by remembering to “put the big rocks in first”[] – to focus on the relationships that matter most and the most important of tasks — and not frittering away time on less important endeavors.

Stay curious, informed, and intellectually active… …and seek “out-of-your-intellectual-comfort-zone experiences.” The most important of those experiences for me as a young Army officer was going to the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton for grad school – which I was told at the time was going to be an act of professional suicide. Do “off the wall” stuff, engage in new and intellectually challenging and broadening endeavors, pursue new hobbies, travel to new places, and so on.

Strive for excellence. Do all that you can to truly “be all that you can be,” and establish action-forcing mechanisms to spur your pursuit of personal and professional excellence (e.g., commit to your friends and family that you will complete a marathon or a 10k, or tell your future boss you will get a Ph.D. before showing up for your subsequent job). Give energy, encouragement, and example to others. And strive to be kind; invariably, you will feel better and the subject of your attention – even if you are “allowing” him or her to move on to another job – will regard you more positively than would have been the case had you seemed to enjoy a nasty exchange or a “you’re fired” moment.

Deal forthrightly with setbacks and mistakes and strive to learn from them. Life is not full of unending “high five” moments. Our organizations and colleagues make mistakes from time to time and so do we. The appropriate way forward is to follow a long-time Army approach to addressing mistakes – conducting an organizational or personal “after-action review” by determining what happened, acknowledging it, accepting responsibility, and identifying corrective actions and mitigating measures for the future – and then pick up your rucksack and soldier on.

Compete to be the best you can be. Recognize that life is a competitive endeavor. As folks at KKR know, there are no trophies just for showing up in the real world. As the most inspirational company commander I ever knew profoundly observed to me when I was a battalion commander, “Winners win stuff!” But, while recognition of that reality and ambition are positive attributes, one should also know how to harness ambition and, when necessary, to recognize that sometimes we need to compete to be the best team player, not just the best overall. Knowing when to do that is key!

Stay humble. It’s not a bad idea to remember the Roman tradition of a successful general having a man in his chariot during a triumphal procession around the Pantheon whispering in his ear the reminder that “All glory is fleeting.”

Be positive and control your attitude. Remember the wonderful reflections by Charles Swindoll: “The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think, say, or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill… The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play the one string we have, and that is our attitude… I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.”

General (Ret.) David Petraeus
About the author: 

General (Ret) David H. Petraeus is Chairman of the KKR Global Institute. Gen. Petraeus is involved in the KKR investment process and oversees the Institute’s thought leadership platform focused on geopolitical and macro-economic trends, as well as environmental, social, and governance issues. Prior to joining KKR, Gen. Petraeus served over 37 years in the U.S. military, including command of coalition forces in Iraq, command of U.S. Central Command, and command of coalition forces in Afghanistan. Following his service in the military, Gen. Petraeus served as the Director of the CIA. Gen. Petraeus graduated with distinction from the U.S. Military Academy and subsequently earned M.P.A. and Ph.D. degrees in international relations from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Gen. Petraeus has received numerous U.S. military, State Department, NATO and United Nations medals and awards, and he has been decorated by 13 foreign countries. He is also a Visiting Professor of Public Policy at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College, Judge Widney Professor at the University of Southern California, a non-resident Senior Fellow at Harvard University, and Senior Vice-President of the Royal United Services Institute, as well as a member of the advisory boards of the Institute for the Study of War and a number of veterans organizations.