A Surefire Shortcut to Success
If you want to succeed, having a healthy understanding of what happened before you will help you navigate what's in front of you.
We can find inspiration in many places, if we take the time to look around. Curiosity is one of the greatest assets that any leader can have — it causes us to question things, find connections, and constantly ask “why?”
Anyone who takes the time to study history or read the great works of literature and philosophy from our past shares that trait. Which brings me to what recently inspired me.
I was a classics major. And as a result, I’m always thinking about history, literature, and philosophy — from the ancient to the more recent (let’s say mid-20th century) — particularly with respect to business and the world we live in today.
Everyone has heard of the Muses of Greek mythology: the 9 daughters of Zeus who were inspirational goddesses of literature, science, and the arts.
They are considered the source of the knowledge embodied in poetry, lyric songs, and myths. You've undoubtedly heard some of their names before: Terpsichore, Euterpe, Clio, Calliope. Some of these names have been used to describe objects or even brands — the Clio Awards in advertising, for example.
In particular, I was inspired by Clio, the muse of history. Her name means “to make famous” and she is often depicted as holding a book or a scroll, and a horn. History is around us every day — either visibly or through the resulting course of events that have followed.
You've probably frequently walked by statues, bas reliefs over doorways, brass plaques on the sides of buildings without pausing to acknowledge them. And you’re using devices every day that owe their development to the early and diligent work of people like Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, or Henry Ford.
If you visit the United States Capitol, there in the National Statuary Hall—which used to be where the House of Representatives met—over the doorway you’ll find a sculpture of Clio riding a winged chariot called The Car of History, created by Carlo Franzioni. She’s recording history in her book, as a reminder to all in that room that they were part of history and their actions and words mattered.
But how often do you pause to look at works of art like this, or consider events of the past, or read of the lives and challenges of great men and women?
“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writings so that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for.” — Socrates
We seem to be too busy focusing on what’s right in front of us, being distracted by notifications and more content online than we can read in 100 lifetimes. And yet, there's this wealth of wisdom just sitting there on shelves, waiting for us to uncover it.
The problem, according to distinguished historian David McCullough, is that we live our lives like a digital watch. In his speech “Simon Willard's Clock” in The American Spirit, he explains:
“I have decided that the digital watch is the perfect symbol of an imbalance in outlook in our day. It tells us only the time it is now, at this instant, as if that were all anyone would wish or need to know.”
Hubris and History
Everyone’s got a story. We’ve gotten where we are because of a series of events that have happened to us and that we have caused to happen. In that sense, where you are right now — in your career, with your family and friends — everything has a context to it.
And yet we tackle problems with great hubris, as if we’re the first ones to discover fire. There’s rarely a thought given to what we can learn from the people who preceded us, as if they weren’t quite as savvy or advanced as we are. That's arrogant and ignorant. There’s so much we can learn from the past.
"The farther you look back, the farther you can look ahead." — Henry Ford (tweet this)
To give this some context, recall that I previously discussed the warnings of Dr. Conrad Gessner regarding humanity being overrun with too much information. If you haven’t heard that episode or read the essay, I won't spoil it — go back and take a listen.
But going back to David McCullough’s digital watch analogy, he said it only shows us what time it is now, as if that's all we would wish or need to know. Certainly the Apple Watch can tell us much more, but it's designed to keep us rooted to the present: our heart rate, text messages, news updates, and the like.
McCullough points out that Clio’s Car of History also includes a clock:
“Its inner workings, cut freehand by Simon Willard, ticked off the minutes and hours through debate over the Gag Rule, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, tariffs, postal service, the establishment of the Naval Academy, statehood for Arkansas, Michigan and Wisconsin…and the final hours of John Quincy Adams.
It is also a clock with two hands and an old-fashioned face, the kind that shows what time it is now . . . what time it used to be . . . and what time it will become.”
Whether it’s customer experience, launching or marketing a new product, digital transformation, team motivation, or other modern challenges, we owe it to ourselves to learn about the past to inform the present and shape the future.
After all, isn’t it better to learn from someone else’s mistakes?
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.