What did Henry Ford mean by “History Is Bunk?”

Last week I listened to Milt Rosenberg‘s interview with Gary Saul Morson about the value of what they called “Encapsulated Wisdom”: the “aphorisms, maxims and wise saws [that] are the stuff of conversation and argument.” What grabbed my attention was the discussion of two contrasting views of history: Henry Ford vs. George Santayana. Rosenberg suggested that if:

Santayana ( “those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”) is true or false then Henry Ford (“history is bunk”) is correspondingly false or true.

As as history guy, I’m with Santayana. However, Morson’s take was unique, at least to my ears: he maintained that both had truth in them. He pointed out that Ford would look at history with the perspective of an engineer or a “hard” scientist. He would discount the so-called wisdom of the past given its uselessness during an age of scientific progress. A quick dive into Ford’s many other proclamations regarding history and science bear that out (though he wasn’t even too clear on the history of his own field).

One irony: Ford’s attitude that the world could be made new was shared by his bitterest enemies, the socialists and progressive reformers. Even today, the Industrial Workers of the World believe that:

[W]e are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.

Become Focused by Failure

Great WSJ article by Prof. Ken Bain that takes the Cub Scout motto of “Do Your Best” to the next level. 

It also hits home personally.  I was often praised for being “smart”, which is like being congratulated for being “lucky.”  The implication is that I didn’t have much to do with it.  That approach wasn’t too “smart” it turns out.  As Prof. Bain notes, for about 25 years social scientists have developed:

key insights into how successful people overcome their unsuccessful moments—and they have found that attitudes toward learning play a large role from a young age.

The most important attitude is a “growth mind-set”: the idea that knowledge comes from trying, learning, and yes, failing at, new things.  

Prof. Cain also references research that our brain makes more and stronger connections after exposure to novelty.  While he presents the research obliquely — as part of a psychology experiment about priming learning attitudes  — my understanding is that there is real neuroscience to support this insight.

I wouldn’t rely on the priming approach solely.  If you believe in priming, whatever you do don’t read this Nature article by Ed Yong on the problems with social science experimental design!

Good to see some humility in finance

Saw Joe Kernan’s interesting CNBC interview with a quant-oriented investment manager, David Harding of Winton Capital Management.

As suggested in my subject line, Harding and the crew at Winton apparently have some humility about their approach.  When Genius Failed — Roger Lowenstein’s tale of the rise and fall of Long Term Capital Management — is required reading at Winton.

Learning from one’s own mistakes is smart, but learning from other’s mistakes is wisdom.

Petraeus on Change and Lessons Learned

Still cleaning out the “blog ideas” attic and found this gem.  In this speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Gen. David Petraeus presented the Iraq surge as an organizational change problem.  He has clearly lived the change process, both in theory and practice:

[T]here are four steps to institutional change. First, you have to get the big ideas right–you have to determine the right overarching concepts and intellectual underpinnings. Second, you have to communicate the big ideas effectively throughout the breadth and depth of the organization. Third, you have to oversee implementation of the big ideas–in this case, first at our combat training centers and then in actual operations. And fourth, and finally, you have to capture lessons from implementation of the big ideas, so that you can refine the overarching concepts and repeat the overall process.

This last step — integration of lessons learned into the change process — is the wisdom here, IMO.    Strong performance feedback reinforces the successes of organizational change and remedies dysfunctional elements that threaten the change. Everyone gets the idea that “the side that learns and adapts the fastest often prevails”, which is an effective sound bite to help sell lessons learned.   Closing the loop creates, then reinforces, this virtuous circle of learning and adaptation.

PM Quote of the Day — Harold J. Smith

More people would learn from their mistakes if they weren’t so busy denying them.

PM Quote of the Day — Guy Bellamy

Hindsight is an exact science.

This quote puts a nice twist into the old “20/20” saw.  Mining the past for clues is all well and good, but this practice can be just as destructive and wasteful as many mining techniques.

Knowledge Management for Kids

I had forgotten about these slides from our project debriefing tool and process rollout.  Just in time for summer vacation, here is a beach-related lesson learned from my son…

%d bloggers like this: