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How often do you learn lessons from history?


Today is July 18 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you learn lessons from history?” Navigating the chaos requires one to recognize forward progress is dependent upon a bias towards action, an indefatigable spirit, and a willingness to travel outside of their comfort zone. These three characteristics allow individuals the ability to view their past actions and extract valuable lessons. Since reflection is involved, however, it is important to note two distinct yet related dynamics. First, do not get stuck in the past during your reflection as doing so will cause you to miss the present. Second, the lessons you learn from reflection are yours and yours alone. It is up to you to reflect and engage with the past in order to actively learn from it. But then it is time to move on. Failing to recognize these two dynamics jeopardizes your ability to navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well.


Author Aldous Huxley noted “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” Huxley’s point is well take in that it reminds us of three imperatives: a)history has tremendous potential in what it can teach, b)people fail to learn from history, and c)the greatest lesson of history is that people fail to learn from history. A similar quote is attributed to writer and philosopher George Santayana "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." An extension of these observations on the failure of remembering history is the oft quoted definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.”


What is interesting about the insanity quote is that it is misattributed to Albert Einstein. There appears to be no evidence to suggest Einstein ever articulated a definition of insanity. According to the web site Quote Investigator, there were three variations on this theme published in 1981. The first iteration came from Jessie Potter, the featured speaker at the 1981 Woman to Woman conference focused on education and family relationships, who said “If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.” The second iteration came from an anonymous attended of an Al-Anon meeting who said during the group session “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” And the third iteration came from a November 1981 pamphlet from Narcotics Anonymous “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”


Best-selling author Veronica Chambers learned from her history and in so doing reclaimed her self-esteem and unlocked a world of possibility. In a January 20, 2020, New York Times article, Chambers details how she quit working at a magazine and for a woman who would never respect her. “Once upon a time, I worked at a magazine, reporting to a white woman who, early in our working relationship, told me that she didn’t consider me a threat because ‘a black woman will never have this job.’ She then proceeded to use every one of my ideas to completely redesign the magazine we worked for. It was the end of a moment in publishing when such a thing as a “big magazine job” still existed. I hung on because I really wanted to be an editor in chief one day and knew that quitting would take me out of the game.”


But after spending one amazing day at the beach with her family, Chambers knew it was time to quit. As she wrote in her piece: “What came next was that I wrote four New York Times best sellers. I won two James Beard awards. I had a novel optioned by a producer I had long admired. I taught at Stanford University and Smith College. I was able to carve out an extraordinary amount of time to spend with my poor daughter who had started kindergarten sleep deprived and with a slight bellyache from me shoving fries down her throat in a moving car and calling it dinner. I did not want to just quit my job, I wanted to make a better life for myself. That came with a lot of hard work, and even overworking myself, but I did it for myself and on my own terms.”


Chambers came to realize that she was failing to learn from the lessons of history, doing the same thing and getting what she always did, and doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. She could have stayed at the magazine and tried to wait until she was anointed editor-in-chief. But like so many people that navigate the chaos, she came to realize that her editor-in-chief goal eventually took a back seat to a new and more prominent one of making a better life for herself. Today’s question challenges you to examine your current life situation and honestly assess if you are doing the same thing today that you did last month or last year and expecting different results. Those who navigate the chaos can answer that question honestly and without hesitation. For others, however, doing so is too painful so they convince themselves things are indeed different and better when the opposite is true. How you answer determines your ability to translate your dreams into reality so be careful and look at your current life situation and ask if you are learning lessons from history.

  • How often do you learn from the lessons of history?

  • How often do you find yourself doing the same thing over and over expecting different results?

  • Who or what is preventing you from learning from the lessons of history?

  • Have you ever helped anyone learn lessons from their past?

  • Who has helped you learn lessons from your past?