History instructs, but only if you seek the meaning.
Contrary to the old adage, history does not repeat itself. Mark Twain may have thought it through most effectively. “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” We will do well to look at history for meaning, apply the lesson to the circumstances in the present and listen for the rhyme. If we don’t hear it, possibly we have have not understood the lesson.
Operating life successfully requires anticipation and adaptation skills. We can learn from history. It just won’t be our own history. We need to learn from the experience of others. Learning from our own history is too expensive and time consuming. History teaches us that much. Otto von Bismarck, “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others”
But, what others?
Part will be education. Systematized knowledge. Most of education is either language, how to communicate, or history, what have learned so far. Chemistry or physics or Phys Ed are a form of history. Music and math are languages. Look for the meaning as you learn the data points. Notice the differences compared to the present. Seek symmetry.
Learn from others. Preferably living others, because you can interact and find nuance. Ask parents, the boss, grand-parents, neighbors and teachers. Try to learn about your future by becoming aware of their past. Learn from their mistakes. Ask about their mistakes and how they overcame them. What would they do differently if given the opportunity. And why differently. Everyone has hard won and expensive knowledge. No point ignoring it.
Looking back, most of my mistakes were ones that were easily visible prior to making them. Looking forward from some early age though, they were invisible. Being young and bulletproof hides some things that are omnipresent. Everyone learns, but not everyone learns in the most efficient and inexpensive way.
One of the great mistakes that most people make, some repeatedly, is to believe, “This time is different.” It seldom is.
Life planning is not all that hard if you pay attention. Old ways are still with us because they work. Spending less than you earn works. You cannot borrow your way out of debt. The future is unknown. Risk exists.
Seek history that can be rhymed with your own life both now and as it is likely to unfold. Failure to do so means repeating a lesson to no purpose. As my Grade 12 history impressed upon us, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Good double entendre.
Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.