Thinking in Time

The title of this week’s message is taken from my latest read, Thinking in Time, by Richard E. Neustadt and Earnest R. May. Published in 1986 by The Free Press, a division of Macmillan, Inc. the book’s subtitle is its principal draw for me: The uses of history for decision makers. I am not a decision maker any longer of any rank. But there is a lingering desire to be one so the attraction has to do with the use of history in drawing accurate analogies when the need to make a decision occurs. One never knows when the next opportunity may occur.

I am a historian of sorts; a hobbiest would be a good way to think of my interest. It started at an early age, when I had access to my older brother’s library of biographies about famous people – think Washington, Lincoln, Franklin and others – written for a juvenile audience. That put their personal histories in reach of my limited grasp, which subsequently helped to shape my own destiny.

During my poor performance in school, especially during those high school years when you are supposed to demonstrate some level of mature performance, my best work was in the history classes available to me. Without the favorable grades earned there, I would have likely failed high school and found myself sliding down the pipeline to the draft and military service in Viet Nam. Instead I salvaged my youthful ignorance for a stint in college, the state college system in California being my deliverer. They accepted my weak grade point average and my money and in exchange I attained a student deferment and a new appreciation for the one topic in which I could excel.

I had the good fortune to have access to some truly great history professors, who were generous with their time. They counseled me regarding my enthusiastic pursuit of history. My only regret is that it took me until my senior year to discover that I could do meaningful work in research and analysis, while expressing my insights with the written word. Since graduation I have continued to indulge my interest in history of various places, eras and personages. I have managed to make use of it even though my professional career has been in management with a strong emphasis on accounting. Drawing on my knowledge of others’ experiences helped to inform my decisions when called upon to lead in the shaping an organization’s policies and performance.

I am now two years into retirement and the need to prepare for the next great decision is still present in my thinking, even though the occasions to do so no longer seem relevant. Still, I hold out hope; hence the appeal of the Neustadt and May book. One never knows when the call to duty will occur and I wish to be as prepared as possible both in possessing a substantial storehouse of historic examples and the means of knowing how to process and apply them with any semblance of credibility.

The authors make use of their own in depth analysis of significant events in American history to make their case about how to use history in making informed decisions. I have subsequently learned more details about events, which have taken place since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt through the Reagan era. And that alone is of value to me. Where they take you in this series of revelations, however, is to challenge the thinking of the primary players in how they used history in making historic decisions.

Their verdicts are not always complimentary in terms of the performance today’s students read about in their history texts. Their approach is also dicey since it sets them up for a counterpunch by other historians, who disagree with their conclusions if not their methodology. I find it worth the read and would offer a quote from their book as a cautionary tale to anyone who would follow in their footsteps: The future can never look exactly like the past.” Making connections between today’s challenges and prior events is an uncertain proposition. It is extremely necessary though, especially among the corporate and government elite, or else we will be subject to the shallowest knee-jerk reactions at every turn.

I think we do need to dampen the ardor of today’s sensationalists, who know how to capture media attention but lead us astray with their fuzzy thinking and short-term applications. Thinking in the nick of time is perhaps the best we can hope for. Thinking by making the best use of time, those historic experiences which brought us to where we are today, should be the standard we expect of our leaders. It needn’t be the dull recitation one usually associates with history lectures and their subsequent exams determining our grade point averages.

And while life may seem to be graded on a pass-fail basis, we should all aspire to do better. 

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