ARE WE STUDENTS OR PRISONERS OF HISTORY ?

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. “ Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) an American Founding Father.

Photo by cliff1066; via Wikimedia Commons


I was once asked my opinion about why it was that Americans and Australians were generally so optimistic about life whereas Europeans were basically pessimistic.

After some thought I replied that maybe it was because Australians and Americans had a relatively short history and therefore tended to look to the future rather than the past, making them more optimistic by nature. Europeans, who had such a long and dramatic history, tended to look at the past more often, making them generally much more pessimistic.

It got me wondering about the pros and cons of a long history to look back on, and why some people can be so affected by it.

I have come to realise that there is a difference between people who learn from history and those that become prisoners of their history, and that this can be as true for individuals as it can be for nations.
I have found this particularly interesting in France where some of the attitudes of the people are still coloured by their view of the French revolution of 1789. There seems to be this belief that anything that is hard fought for should never be surrendered, even if it has become outdated, which is one of the reasons that it is so hard to get the French to give up the 35 hour work week, even when it is obvious to all that the country can simply not afford it any more.

It is also one of the reasons that most times it is difficult to do successful brainstorming sessions with French groups, as it is hard to stop people from telling each other why their idea won’t work because, for example, it was tried and failed in the time of Charlemagne (742-814 AD), and so why would it succeed a mere 1270 years later.
In the same way people can get bogged down in what they have done in their past, and just keep creating the same set of conditions over and over again, supporting George Santayana’s statement that “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

Author: Historical and Public Figures Collection; NY Public Library Archives; via WIkimedia Commons


I have one friend who has been married 4 times to women who are not dissimilar, in that they were all very strong, self-centred women with their own minds, being characteristics that he finds incredibly attractive … for a limited amount of time. It has not been possible in the 30+ years that I have known him to convince him that despite four failures with these specific types of women, that he may actually be better off with a gentler, less driven partner in life. I have even suggested to him that rather than re-marrying he should, every five years, just find a woman that he really dislikes and buy her a house, as in the long run this would be significantly less painful and disruptive to his life.

I see this need to repeat history in many management people as well, who would prefer to believe that strategies that worked well for them in the past will continue to do so in the future.

However, it is very rare that this is the case, as everything around us keeps changing with an ever increasing rapidity, and what we did yesterday to become successful is unlikely to work in the same way today with changing market conditions, competitors, social standards and customer expectations.
It is the same challenge with management practices. For example, “Command and control” may have worked well in the early days of the industrial revolution, with time and motion experts analysing every move armed with their clip-boards, but will certainly not work today.

Similarly I see many managers who were very successful managing a small team, who have not changed their management style or focus when they were promoted to a position where they now needed to manage managers, which generally takes a very different approach. I had a colleague who moved very quickly from sales manager to national sales director to country managing director who continued to spend most of his time schmoozing and socialising with his sales reps, as that had always been successful for him in the past. It certainly did not work in his MD role, as he disregarded other parts of the ecosystem including customers.

Everything that we have done in the past has been instrumental in making us the person that we are today, and it is important that we retain and build on all the history that we accumulate over our lifetime, and that we gather as much learning and understanding of it all as is humanly possible. However, it is critical that we accept that this is all just part of the building of our individuality, and that there are many elements that we have to let go as we replace them with new ideas and new ways of doing things that are more suitable to the current environment. The older we get, and the more successful we become, the harder it is to do this as our history grows, and as the length of this history becomes a greater percentage of our life expectancy. The older and more senior that we become the more important it is that we do not let the past become too great a controlling influence on the way that we live our lives today.

Ultimately “Men are not prisoners of fate or history, but only prisoners of their own minds” Franklin D Roosevelt (1882-1945) 32nd President of the US.

Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration; via Wikimedia Commons


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4 Responses to ARE WE STUDENTS OR PRISONERS OF HISTORY ?

  1. Frank says:

    Les, again an excellent thought provoking piece.
    Again I totally agree. Two comments:
    1. when I take on a new role I most enjoy the early challenges of turning around the staff with “history & baggage”, who always say, “we can’t do that because..it didn’t work in the past”..and proudly I win and happily change staff attitudes and belief structures.
    2. Age and history, if used correctly gives one the confidence to trust their intuition and freely explore and promote ideas that “feel correct”.
    rgds, Frank

    • leshayman says:

      Frank … learning and building our skills/experience from our past is critical … it’s what makes us who we are … but we should never let what we have done before bog us down when faced with new situations and challenges, but face each one with open (not empty) minds. Les

  2. PriyankaSAP says:

    Hello Les,
    I slightly disagree. Asians have a long history to fall back on and yet are very optimistic people in general. Wouldn’t you say it is more to do with the attitude, cultural background, outlook towards life?
    Regards,
    Priyanka

  3. leshayman says:

    Priyanka, I agree that Asians are optimistic, but mainly when there is economic prosperity visible. Having lived in Asia a large part of my life I found major optimism when the “Tigers” were growing like crazy and pessimism when they were not. What I found in india is that people are accepting of their fate and maybe this looks like optimism rather than pessimism, but I have no doubt that people are more optimistic about life today with growing economic prosperity than they were when I first started visiting India 20 years ago. Saying this, I do feel that Inidans have always had a positive view of the role that they would play in the world. Les

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