Do not learn “how to” from historians

On November 8, 1939, at 9:20 PM a bomb went off at the Bürgerbraükeller pub in Munich. Georg Elser, a carpenter from rural Bavaria, had carefully planted it and set it off with a timer. Its intended target was Adolf Hitler who had unfortunately left the building 13 minutes earlier, ahead of schedule.

Now Hitler might have stayed on for 13 minutes if he had had one more glass of beer. That glass-of-beer-not-consumed stands between history as we know it and a radically different world – without much of World-War II, the holocaust and the Cold-War era. But historians have the benefit of erasing all other alternatives that could have happened, since the past is privy to only one unique timeline of events. They have the luxury of forgetting the glass of beer that wasn’t consumed on that fateful night, and with it the role that fortune plays in how history unfolds.

On the other hand, there are several biographers, chroniclers and self-help authors out there, who dig up the past to offer lessons for the future. They tell us the story of Google or that of the lives of great people like Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Leonardo Da-Vinci. They operate like historians – (Larry Page and Sergei Brin did X to become succcesful), but stray into the future as well. (So if you did X, you would be successful too). Their argument is akin to saying – Hitler did not drink that extra glass of beer, and changed the course of world history. If you wish to have his impact on the world (god forbid), then you should say no to the last glass of beer in a Bavarian pub.

The reading of history ought to be beneficial for its own sake – not for the “lessons” we can derive from it. So is a person’s or a successful company’s biography. Both of them swayed by the heavy hand of fortune, and have limited learning that can be transferred to other people’s lives.

In 1998, Larry Page and Sergei Brin attempted to sell Google to Yahoo for a million dollars, before the days of Youtube, Hangouts, Android and several other shiny Google spin-offs. Perhaps it was a few extra glasses of beer that prevented the Yahoo executives from making that purchase and most certainly hijacking the rise of one of the most successful companies of all time.

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