Studying history, and using what you have learned, is a tricky challenge. Often we study history, and the past, so that we can “not make the same mistakes.” Well. The attempt is one of valor <and good intentions> but most actions using historical learning are misused <as they are misguided>.
“If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You’re a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree.” – Michael Crichton
“History is not, of course, a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims.” - Henry Kissinger
Henry <or Hank to his friends> also said …
“The study of history offers no manual of instructions that can be applied automatically: history teaches by analogy, shedding light on likely consequences of comparable situations. But each generation must determine for itself which circumstances are in fact comparable.”
Studying history is always good <that is a Bruce postulate>.
How you use what you learned studying history is always a challenge <that is a Life truth and an ongoing Life debate>.
Too often people want to use historical “learning” as a literal guide for what to do now <or in the future>.
But you can’t.
I do not care if we are talking about business, life or economics.
You cannot <I apologize for repeating myself>.
Hank, discussing Foreign Policy, actually walks us through a nice way to think about this.
Intellectuals analyze systems & situations while statesmen build them.
And therein lays a vast difference between the analyst and the statesman. The analyst can choose what problem he wishes to study whereas the statesman’s problems are imposed upon him. The analyst can allot whatever time is necessary to come to a clear conclusion while the overwhelming challenge of a statesman is time. The analysts runs no, or little, risk. If the conclusions prove wrong he can rewrite and reanalyze. The statesman is permitted only one guess and his mistakes are irretrievable.
Sure. Typically the future is simply a version of the past. But what makes it challenging is that what appear to be superficial changes, that sometimes make it easily recognizable, are the things that transform situations into unrecognizable changed situations. In addition … we tend to ignore the ‘collection of people’ variable <I will explain later>.
In the end? We wonder what happened <and why we didn’t learn from history>.
As Kissinger states … history teaches by analogy, not identity.
Unfortunately this means that the lessons of history are never automatic.
That they can be apprehended only by a standard which admits the significance of a range of experience, that the answers we obtain will never be better than the questions we pose.
I do believe no significant decisions are possible without at least an awareness of the historical context.
For everything exists in time more than they do in a moment in time. What I mean by that is an explanation of ‘context.’ You may not be able to completely replicate the exact time, place, situation and experiences of any & all affecting what you are studying <or even replicate a majority of those variables> however you can gain a sense of choices that were available and choices made. This is contextual learning.
Because people forget that what they are studying is a given moment which is simply a situation where it is not only a reflection of a collection of individuals <and their experiences> but that situation also achieves a unique identity through the consciousness of a common history <those individuals are studying that particular moment colored by,or driven, by perceptions of beliefs of that time>.
The only possibility of learning is studying history within the collective memory.
It is not often that we actually learn something from the past. And it is even rarer that we draw the correct conclusions from it.
The lessons of history <and Life experiences also> are contingent.
That means they teach the consequences of certain actions … but they cannot force a recognition of comparable situations.
That is a BIG thought right there.
One that many of us should think about more often.
History is contingent upon a series of factors … and to make it exponentially more difficult … contingent upon a continuum <horizontally> as well as simultaneously <vertically>.
That means exactly replicating the situation in which you are ‘learning from’ is … well … pretty much impossible.
The variations and variables almost seem limitless <try pointing that out in your next business meeting when someone says “what did we learn from past experience”>.
And … well … gosh … doesn’t that kind of make you rethink every business book you have ever read?
History is just that … history. A series of factors & variables all aligned for one moment in time <vertically & horizontally>.
Therefore … change is not only the constant but it also possibly represents the only legitimate path to progress.
I say that to suggest that change may actually freedom from the past.
And to suggest that history, when one decides to live it and not learn from it, can cage you.
Learning to break free from the history that holds no value <or decreases value> is difficult. It is easier to simply use it as a handbook of ‘what to do.’
If we truly seek to learn <and teach> we cannot be subjugated to history.
If we truly seek to be better than what we already are … we cannot do simply as history ‘dictates.’
But all we really feel most comfortable with is remaking things in the image of historical learning.
I guess that means to remake things better we have to be … oops … uncomfortable.
I believe what I just wrote will make a boatload of people very uncomfortable <assuming anyone understands what I wrote>. Why? Well. This kind of thinking can drive you crazy … particularly if you want to simply study and create conclusions <rather than hypotheses>.
So. The how do most people, and businesses, get around this type of thinking?
Well. They are nuts <if not crackpots or liars>. I do not doubt 99% of the intent of these people but they are still wrong. History provides context not analogy. Now people <in general> do not like that. It makes them feel uncomfortable. They want to know unequivocally that they will not be ‘making the mistakes of the past.’ Sorry. Can’t happen. You may be able to reduce the odds but cannot unequivocally guarantee it. Oops. Big trouble in the working world if you say shit like that.
But it is Truth. Truth in a business world. Truth in Life.
Another truth? <and something that most people will also feel uncomfortable with>
Studying history will make the in-the-moment decision better. I did not say “using history to make the decision” but rather “people who have studied history will better be able to CREATE a unique decision in the moment.” Yup. I used the dreaded ‘unique’ word. Most decisions are discreet <unique to the moment>. That makes people feel very very <very> uncomfortable.
Regardless. It is a Life truth.
In the end?
“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought.” – Basho
That is a nice uncomfortable thought to end on.