Work Traits

Learn from the Past

Learn from the past means the level of your desire to use your past experience and learnings and those of others in your work.
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What does it mean to learn from the past?

Learn from the past means that when you start something new, it’s important for you to understand and reference previous experiences. 

Your present thinking is informed by past thinking. You’ll be conscious of past successes and failures in your own ventures, your company’s, and those of historical figures in society.

This trait tends to help you thrive in functions like business improvement, consulting, auditing and problem-solving. You’ll investigate past decisions to uncover why they were made, and seek explanation of behaviours that could inform your own. 

It’s a cautious, inquisitive outlook that often correlates with long-term success and profitability in business.

We call it: Past

The level of your desire to use your past experience and learnings and those of others in your work.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana

Leaders who learn from the past

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie is a bestselling writer and novelist, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, notable speaker, and winner of countless literary awards.

She gave one of the most popular TED talks of all time, ’The Danger of a Single Story’, telling of her experiences in the US after a childhood growing up in Enugu, Nigeria. She faced ignorance about African life from many, but recognises her own similar blind spots too. 

A powerful storyteller, Adichie understands the importance of the historical record. Her message is clear: if we fail to look at the past, we miss the whole story and become blind to the truth. 

Ryan Holiday

Holiday is a highly successful writer, author and marketer. He’s published books on media manipulation, business building, and popular philosophy - most notably that of Stoic thought applied to everyday life. 

He's well-known for his voracious reading habits and encyclopaedic knowledge of world history. Holiday recommends stories of modern and ancient historical figures: "Smart people read biographies. Generalizations are usually worthless, but you can pretty much take this one to the bank.”

Learning from the past and planning for the long-term are strategies Holiday espouses in his book Perennial Seller, about doing creative work that stands the test of time.

Ryan Holiday
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Margaret Mead

Mead was an American cultural anthropologist who made a huge impact in the way we study human behavior. She was responsible for bringing to light cultural evolution and different models of social relationships, thanks to her study of Pacific island nations throughout the early 20th century. 

By studying societies and behaviors of cultures past and present, her insights would go on to influence contemporary Western thinking on sex, diversity, feminism, psychology, politics and more. 

Learning from the past was Mead’s way of shaping the future for the better: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”

The benefits of learning from the past

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Thoughtful decisions

A backwards-looking viewpoint sees the long vistas of history, meaning you’ll be better equipped to make thoughtful decisions with a full understanding of complex factors involved.

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Those that study past performance benefit from a higher power of insight - able to identify patterns over time periods that others miss when they’re in the moment.

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From study of the past you’ll seek to avoid repeating mistakes, meaning you’ll help steer projects around potential hazards.

The blind spots of learning from the past

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Others can perceive you as being critical or pessimistic to an overbearing degree, especially if you frequently highlight past mistakes.

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The often cautious nature of a history-oriented learner can dampen the positive, go-getting vibes of team members who are more future-oriented.

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When looking at the past, you might be prone to getting stuck in it. Moving on is not always something you can do easily.

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How to learn more from the past

1) Use appropriate language.

Give your mindset a bit of a boost towards past-learning by adopting words like ‘experience’, ‘history’, ‘evidence’, ‘case study’, and ‘proven’ into your everyday lexicon. You’ll remember the past is a rich source of useful information that informs your daily decision-making.

2) Reduce future-oriented phrases.

If you’re tempted to speed ahead with phrases like ’now’, ‘future’, ‘ahead’, ‘immediately’ and the like, you’re probably paying little attention to the valuable lessons of the past. Take note of how you’re communicating these ideas to others, too.

3) Slow down.

Sure, you might occasionally look to the past to check you’re not missing anything obvious, but the temptation to skim over or dismiss past events can leave you bereft of the knowledge you need to make really good decisions. Remember to take it slow and comb over the details finer than you normally would to get the insight you need.

4) Complement your outlook.

If you’re prone to surging ahead with excitement (to the detriment of your projects), it might be a good idea to partner up with someone more cautious and past-oriented. They can check your behavior, reminding you what’s happened before, and encourage you to adopt different viewpoints for past events you might be ignoring.

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