Why Read History?

mount rushmore

A recent study conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that 41% of all respondents (and two-thirds of millennial respondents) could not correctly identify what happened at Auschwitz. Making matters worse, 22% of the Millennial respondents told the same survey that they have NEVER even heard of the Holocaust.

This is horrifying. And as George Santayana famously said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

While I passionately urge all people, especially Americans, to read and understand history, the readers of this blog are generally business people looking for leadership insights. So why should you read history? Here are three reasons:

Reading history gives one perspective.

I often hear people say that the world is worse today than it has ever been. While this sounds true, and admittedly sometimes feels true when I watch the news, a quick historical glance makes one doubt the statement’s accuracy. Are things worse today than they were for the African Americans in the nineteenth century, or Eastern Europeans in the mid-twentieth century? Of course not. But it is also trite to then automatically assume things for both groups are “better” today because in comparison they are much better off than in those periods. This is my point about perspective.

History forces one to examine reality, think critically about differing versions of that reality, and draw conclusions. I have discovered that real history is rarely what I expected. Thus, I have to be inquisitive and challenge any pre-existing assumptions, which in turn grows my perspective about various events and time-periods. Learning to think this way is directly applicable to everyday business because it teaches you to always question your pre-existing assumptions on any issue.

Reading history gives one real-life leadership examples.

The best business book I have read so far this year is Ron Chernow’s Grant, which documents the life of Ulysses S. Grant. I can’t begin to recount all the leadership lessons in the book, so you will have to read it yourself. One story that continues to stand out, however, is how Grant treated Confederate General Robert E. Lee as he, and his forces, surrendered at Appomattox. Realizing the task at hand – rebuilding the nation – and never being one to “show up” his adversaries, Grant treated the soon-to-be former General with so much respect and deference that it even surprised Lee. In a modern world that continues to tempt us (me included) to be brash, this is an example of humility for us to follow. Of course, reading biographies can also teach us lessons not to follow, and Grant’s life had plenty of those as well (don’t we all?). But herein lies the power of reading historical biographies: we can learn from other’s success and failure and implement the lessons into our own life.

Reading history is humbling.

Finally, I often hear many Americans talk about how advanced our modern civilization is. Some even look down upon how “stupid” Americans were from centuries past. Reading history reminds one that the advancement of civilization is never-ending. In fact, if you read enough history, there will be a whisper that develops in your head: We aren’t as smart as we think we are, and our time will, too, end. While the latter may be a little depressing to think about, it is reality. There is no guarantee our business will be here in ten years, let alone fifty, and we know that at some point down the line our human life will end. All historical biographies end the same after all. The point is that this reality produces humility: Our business does not have all the answers, and there are no guarantees that we as a company will be around forever. This should help us be more humble, willing to seek help in our business dealing, and willing to help others with our business.

This post is longer than usual, so I won’t list any recommended books here. But, please feel free to comment and share history books that have impacted you. And if you have never read a good history book, I would recommend anything written by David McCullough to get you started, as his narrative style is often welcoming to those who prefer reading fiction.