When David McCullough was in Richmond, VA (RVA) in 2005 promoting his new book on Abigail and John Adams he was quoted in the Richmond Times-Dispatch justifying his emphasis on Abigail by “Harry Truman once said the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know.”  He said his research, especially reading letters previously unknown to him, was the history he didn’t know that influenced his book.  Instinctively almost we know McCullough is right.  The family history you don’t know can make a difference in your own self-understanding once you learn it.  The power struggle no one talks about in any organization, regardless of how “holy” or mundane the purpose of the organization, is what haunts every decision made, whether that power struggle occurred 10 years ago or 10 minutes ago.  Not knowing the purpose behind the founding of an organization can mislead current leaders as can claiming the original purpose in a context that no longer supports that purpose.  There are a plethora of instances, micro and macro, where the “new thing” is the history that was unknown.

Apparently, though, what President Truman said was, “Men don’t change.  The only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know.”  His first sentence adds a different dimension.  On a macro level Truman’s first sentence also appears to be true.  In terms of human ambition, greed, power-hunger, idealism, naiveté, sorrow and many human emotions and motivations one can once again find a plethora of examples to support Truman’s statement.  American ignorance of Russia and Russian history exhibited at Yalta and Potsdam, even ignorance of European history, or thinking history mattered in the monumental decisions of the 1940s and the consequences of that ignorance for the remainder of the 20th century give credence to Truman’s statement.

However, Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock in 1970 argued that not only do human beings change, but also change is occurring so rapidly that human beings cannot process it before being assaulted with more change.  The transience created by such rapid change, according to Toffler, is destabilizing for individuals and society.  He wrote not to stop change but to encourage people to attend to the rate of change as they contribute to the future.  Toffler wrote, “Previously, men (sic) studied the pst to shed light on the present.  I have turned the time-mirror around convinced that a coherent image of the future can also shower us with valuable insights into today.”

Numerous books recently have demonstrated that the technological change about which Toffler wrote when in its infancy is not only changing human society but also changing the way human brains work:  Nicholas Carr, The Big Switch, 2005; David Brooks, The Social Animal, 2011; Cathy Davidson, Now You See It, 2011 are but a few examples.  Jared Diamond in his book Collapse (2011 new edition) illustrated this concept of technological change and human adaption influencing success or failure in earlier societies.

So who is right?  Truman or Toffler?  People never change?  People always change?  Yes.  Both are.  Depends on which facet of the prism one is examining.  Both of their insights are necessary.   In every one of the works cited there is much discussion of the history of human understanding and achievement.  A lot of ink is spilled tracing the historical development of scientific understanding, of how what we know now is so different from the knowledge that influenced decisions made by our predecessors, of stating the obvious that there is nothing about knowledge that is “exact”.  When we don’t know history and discover it for ourselves it is a “new thing.”   Truman is right that learning the history affects our understanding of people, events and the decisions we make in the present.  However, Toffler is also right that our vision for the future affects how we live in the present.  Toffler, Carr, and Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, 2011, to name a few, illustrate the eschatological vision of innovators, where their understanding of the past affects their vision of the future directly impacting what they do in the present.  The flowing of history through past, present and future is true for all of us as well as the lives of the organizations we inhabit.  History matters to decisions being made right now.

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