Learning from the Past
A famous philosopher, George Santayana, once penned the following quote:
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
When I think of my life and the life of leaders I have read about and known I find this to be such an important phrase to remember and embrace. The context of this quote relates to so many areas and I will spend a few moments in this passage talking about what a good teacher the past can be, and should be, to each one of us.
Mistakes are the food that feed leaders at all levels. The key thing to remember in the mistake diet is that variety is the key. If you continue to feast on the same mistake over and over, you will tire of the taste and you will also not learn what you should because you have not advanced from the original mistake. This is not to say that no one can make the same mistake more than once, but it does mean that getting into a rut is not the road to success.
Edison made the following statement when it came to the incandescent light bulb:
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
One of the great challenges I see with many today is that they do not want to fail and they are not encouraged to take risks that may lead to failure, or to great success. One example that is rampant in our society today is the action being taken to remove statues of famous people who may to be less than politically correct. One of the most common victims in this movement is Nathan Bedford Forrest. I am not here to say that Forrest is the greatest human being who ever lived, but just like every other famous person we know of, he made mistakes. Based on my reading, his accomplishments far surpass his mistakes. By removing his statues we will soon forget that someone who started life in one direction can then make a change and do much for the sake of good later in his life. Alas, this will not happen because we will soon forget that past because there will be little left to remind us.
Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest failures in the history of politics. Lincoln lost 7 of the first 9 races he ran for political office before being elected as President of the United States. Along the way he lost his mother, had a business failure, lost his job, went into deep debt and also suffered through the untimely death of his sweetheart prior to marriage. Lincoln’s life is a great example to all of us to persevere regardless of the circumstances we have placed in front of us.
Sir Winston Churchill is also a great example of failure. While we mainly remember his successes to stay the course through the tough times in London during the bombing, Churchill supported a failed invasion of Turkey in WW1 that was a failure and he also supported the occupation of Norway that was also defeated by the Germans. Through all of these early failures, he also learned and moved ahead to be a great success.
None of us are a complete success, or a total failure. The key differentiator I see is that those who succeed learn from their mistakes and then move forward. Forgetting or ignoring the past is a recipe for disaster. We need not be proud of our past, but we need to embrace, analyze and learn from these prior actions.
It does little good to point fingers and assign blame when things go wrong. A better remedy is to determine where things got off track and learn how to keep this from being repeated.