Three lessons from history

Sep 6th, 2016 | By | Category: Finance/Investment
Jeff Hough

Jeff Hough

By Jeff Hough

Typically, I am not a nostalgic person. I love learning new things and the perpetual search for finding a better way. Because of this drive, I often find myself at odds with history and tradition.

I glanced at a news story recently about a local historical landmark being restored and re-lit. I didn’t pay much attention to the story at the time because I was too busy being caught up in the day-to-day and wasn’t really interested anyway — or so I thought.

While driving through a familiar section of town with my 15-year-old son Saturday night, I caught a glimpse of a familiar old light, shining anew on Main Street. The nostalgia bug bit me hard. I had to drive by the light and explain to my son the historic value of the local landmark.

He rolled his eyes and played along until we got close to the glowing neon. As we approached the sign, he quickly grabbed his phone to capture the moment for me. Not satisfied with the picture from the vehicle, we had to stop and get out for a proper photo to share with the world. Within seconds we had our photo and uploaded it to Facebook. Our mission complete, we headed for home counting the “Likes” as they rolled in.

This experience sparked my memory about an article by author A.J. Jacobs regarding six business lessons he learned from history after reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover. Everyone has heard the phrase, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” With that in mind I will share three things, based on Jacob’s list, that history teaches us about business.

The first lesson from history is to look outside of one’s specialty for ideas and inspiration. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were both known for studying many different subjects for thoughts and ideas that could translate into their products. Jobs spent 18 months studying calligraphy at Reed College, which gave him a sense of typography and design that other computer programmers lacked. This sense of style permeated the design and functionality of all future Apple products.

Second, history teaches that the best presentations are often the shortest. Consider the impact of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Infamy Speech” or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” or the granddaddy of them all, Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” Each of these speeches left an indelible mark on the fabric of the country and demonstrate the power of brevity.

Finally, history proves that you must adapt or perish. A great example of an adaptation that changed a company comes from Kimberly-Clark. Kleenex began as a product for women to remove cold cream from their faces.

The product didn’t really take off until one of their engineers started using it as a handkerchief and realized that it could be re-purposed as a disposable handkerchief. Sales of the product immediately doubled — it is now the world leader in tissues. Kodak is a good example of a company that refused to adapt. Kodak chose to ignore the digital age and became like the dinosaurs —extinct.

Often we hear stories of the brave pioneers that went before us, blazing new trails through uncharted territory. There are still new trails to blaze. Technology has brought us to frontiers never before seen or experienced; frontiers which require great fortitude to surpass. History teaches us that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel — we can learn from past successes and failures.

Technology makes it very easy to stop, collaborate and listen to the past, present and future from anywhere. If I want to understand the correlation between Mozart and Cancer, a quick Google search will help me understand and possibly inspire a new idea. Like the reincarnation of the historic landmark, history is there to shine a light towards a brighter future.

Jeff Hough is the executive director of the Southern Idaho Economic Development Organization.

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