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Why History Matters

How our relationship with what happened can change the way we work and live right now

black and white stack of books

If we look for patterns in the past, interesting and unexpected things will appear. Sometimes, what we find makes us smile (I’ve been studying the history of “the frozen water trade” that was one of the country’s most important industries 120 years ago). Other times it can cause consternation (like the discomfiting realization that we have unconsciously contributed to current social problems). Paying attention to the past can help us connect concepts that have long been considered incongruous (this is how I came to see anarchism as a big part of what’s now called “progressive business”). Other times still, it may push us to face painful realities about our past (examining regional conflicts that have gone on, in some cases, for centuries; or on a personal level, for me it could be dealing with the issues of my parents’ divorce back when I was three). All of these, I would suggest, increase our understanding of ourselves, of the world we live in, of the work we’re currently engaged in, and of the future we want to create for ourselves and our communities. This search for, and then making sense of, these patterns as they have played out in the past is what most of us would call history. 

Sometimes what shows up might at first seem silly or disconnected. For instance, in the last two weeks, I’ve chosen subjects that both start with H. Last week it was hope. This week, it’s history. At first thought I would surely have said this was an irrelevant coincidence, but in the context of Natural Law #18, I realized upon further reflection that the two are totally intertwined. While neither hope nor history are generally taught in business schools, they might well be two of the most valuable topics we could put to use in our day-to-day organizational lives. Understanding history in a meaningful way boosts hope by giving us tools and knowledge to help us create more positive presents and inspiring futures. And, at the same time, I see now, it’s pretty certainly hopeful people who are willing to take the time to really give history the kind of thoughtful consideration it deserves.

In the spirit of being able to turn difficult pieces of our past into hopeful insights that we can use to move forward productively, I was prompted to write about history by the passing of someone who played a small, but ultimately significant, part in my life. Last week I learned that one of my favorite history professors, Tom Tentler, had passed away. We weren’t particularly close, but over the years I’d run into Tom now and again when he was dining at the Roadhouse or the Deli. We’d catch up quickly and I’d hear a little about his work and maybe share some small piece of obscure history I’d been studying. What Tom taught me so many years ago has turned out to be a pivotal piece of how I learn, lead, and live in the world. In that context, Tom Tentler’s role in my life is congruent with the kind of history that both he and I were so interested in. It’s not a history of heroes or villains, nor one of big military victories or political events. Rather, both of us were far more focused on seemingly small things, customs and cultures, work done by people most of whom never make it into headlines—or for that matter, history books—that ultimately turn out to have been far more important than more superficial mainstream society might imagine. 

Though I didn’t know it back when I was his student, Tom Tentler was born in Evanston, just a few miles to the east of where I went to high school in the suburbs of Chicago. He got his degrees in history at Harvard and then came here to teach at U of M where he mentored many thousands of semi-lost-in-their-lives history majors like me. From this piece of his obituary, Tom was most definitely someone I would have liked to hang around with. His study was filled—as my entire house is—with “precariously stacked towers of books”:

He found something to celebrate in everyone he knew and was incapable of favoritism … He had boundless patience for those in need, often staying on the phone with a troubled friend for hours on end, but none for the mispronunciation or grammatical misapplication of words. He was a deeply respected historian, an excellent cook, a great thinker, and a mentor and role model to students, colleagues, friends and his dozens of nephews and nieces. Injustice in any form made him apoplectic, even after almost nine decades on the planet.

While I’ve long been fascinated by the less well-known, but still important, parts of history, many people seem to believe those obscure pieces of the past are best filed on the shelf of life somewhere between “irrelevant” and “insignificant.” Telling people that you’re a history major rarely evokes much of an enthusiastic response. And yet, I’ve come to believe that history is hugely important. If we don’t understand it, we have a hard time making our way meaningfully through the present. As I wrote a few weeks ago about Natural Law #7, the little things make a big difference. Or as my friend John U. Bacon—who was also a history major at U of M—says, history teaches us, “Individuals matter and moments matter. Do not forget that.”

So many people believe that reading history is boring, but I can’t get enough. George Saunders says, “All art begins in a moment of intuitive preference.” Maybe then my attraction to the study of small bits of history is part of my art. Pretty much every historical thread that I’ve followed gets my brain going; if history is a tapestry, mine would have been long since pulled apart. Looking at century-old anarchist pamphlets and books in the Labadie Collection when I was 19 would get me really excited. And I still remember while I was a student at U of M, being in the old, below-ground shelves of books in the Graduate Library and being incredibly excited to stumble upon Foreign Policy of Outer Mongolia, 1905 to 1917. 

While being a history major worked out for me, Tom Tentler, and John Bacon, studying history is hardly a quick path to fame and fortune. John Bacon did an awesome TED talk at the Power Center back in 2013. I could have used one of John’s good quick comebacks back when I was in school:

Next time some B-school guy asks you, “Do you really like history?” You quickly respond with something like, “No! I hate it but the money is too good!” And when someone asks you some version of, “What are you gonna do with a history degree?” You look ’em straight in the eye and you say, “I’m gonna join one of those big history firms in New York.”

Poet Regie Gibson suggests that all too many Americans “actually hate history.” It’s not something I’d ever thought about, but Gibson has a good point. “What we love,” Gibson goes on to say, “is nostalgia.” Nostalgia is essentially the historical corollary to magical thinking about the future. In both cases, we cherry-pick stories that will make us feel better about our work and our lives, but are only minimally connected to what actually happened, or what will happen in the future. In the long run, neither is really helpful. By contrast, a deeper and more meaningful exploration of each can truly change the world. The effectiveness of our leadership and our lives, I believe, depends on it.

To start the conversation, I would suggest that studying these subjects would help us all enormously:

The history of what we make or sell – I’ve been writing about food history for “Zingerman’s News,” books, and articles for over 30 years now. From the time we opened the Deli back in 1982, I’ve just always wanted to know why a particular cheese was what it was. I was fascinated with how tomatoes became such a big part of Italian cooking even though they were unknown in Europe until after 1500, why wild rice had been an incredibly integral element in the cooking of the Ojibwe people here in this part of the world, or how okra came here from Africa. For me, clearly, this study centers on food and cooking, but if I was a plumber I would want to understand how modern pipes and flush toilets were developed. If I was a painter, I’d want to learn the history of color and pigments. If I were a baseball player, I’d want to know all about Jackie Robinson (John Bacon’s TED talk powerfully shares a bit of that story; and this moving podcast from the “Hard History” series will tell you much more).

The history of your customers – Every good service person will tell you how important it is to “get to know your customers,” which is really just another way to say, “learn their history.” What about their personal pasts? How did they get into the line of work in which they make their living? What are their passions? On a broader scale, if you export to Ireland, study Irish history. If you sell to the students at the local college, find out as much as you can about the school’s origin story (U of M got its formal start 104 years ago this week, in Detroit, as the “University of Michigania.”) The more we know about them, the more effectively we can serve them.

Your own history – Meaningful self-awareness is a significant part of effective leadership work. Part 3 shares many of my own learnings on the subject. This can be learning about your family, the place you live, the way you react, knowing what builds joy (as the study of history does for me), what sends you spinning, etc. It helps us self-manage much more effectively, allows us to be vulnerable, stay humble, and more easily ask for help.

The history of the people you work with – The other morning I taught our Welcome to ZCoB class. One of the parts of the class I love best is hearing the life stories of the people who have come to work with us. I’m not exaggerating by saying that every one of their stories was fascinating. I could easily have spent an hour hearing more from each of them. 

Knowing “everyday” people’s stories has always interested me more than biographies of historical “heroes.” To wit, I’ve long loved reading oral histories—two of my favorite books ever are Howell Raines’ My Soul is Rested (about the Civil Rights movement), and Paul Avrich’s Anarchist Voices. Amy Padnani, who works on the New York Times team that writes obituaries, started a project called Overlooked to go back and write obits for important people—mainly women and people of color, like Ida Wells—who were mostly ignored in their own time by the mainstream press. I think Padnani’s work is wonderful, and often more interesting and more inspiring than a front page’s worth of current events.

If you want to know how much difference meaningful study of history can make, check out the work of Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, professor at Ohio State. I’ve learned a lot from his “Teaching Hard History” podcast, and his TED talk was terrific. If Dr. Jeffries’ great work doesn’t win you over, check out Jeffrey Robinson’s well-researched and powerful talks on “The History of Racism in America.” They offer a world- and life-altering reshaping of beliefs about our collective American past. The same sorts of more accurate and grounded storytelling is equally important in our organizations and in our personal lives; if we don’t agree on what happened, we’re going to have a really hard time moving forward together in constructive ways. As writer Rebecca Solnit, another history major, says:

We are building something immense together that, though invisible and immaterial, is a structure, one we reside within—or, rather, many overlapping structures. They’re assembled from ideas, visions and values emerging out of conversations, essays, editorials, arguments, slogans, social-media messages, books, protests, and demonstrations. About race, class, gender, sexuality; about nature, power, climate, the interconnectedness of all things; about compassion, generosity, collectivity, communion; about justice, equality, possibility. Though there are individual voices and people who got there first, these are collective projects that matter not when one person says something but when a million integrate it into how they see and act in the world.

Rutger Bregman’s book Humankind is all about changing our beliefs away from seeing history as the stories of a series of evil villains interwoven with a handful of heroes, to one where the dominant patterns are, as we believe here at Zingerman’s, his- and her-stories of collaboration, kindness, care, and generosity. As I wrote here a few weeks ago, “Stories, I’ve come to see, are beliefs made manifest. Change the belief, and we change the story. Change the story, and we change our beliefs.” Change the way we tell the history, we change the beliefs. Change the beliefs and we are pretty sure to change the way we tell the history. Our new Statement of Beliefs will alter the history we will be making here at Zingerman’s for years to come. Yes, there are painful parts of history, what Dr. Jeffries calls “hard history,” that we need to study, accept, and learn from. But even within those, I believe we can, while learning those hard lessons, still find hope. As psychologist Gordon Allport said, “To despair is to misread the long lesson of history.”

John U. Bacon closed out his TED talk with the forceful reminder that history very much matters. “You,” he says to all of us, “are going to be the ones who write it. … The moments that will matter are in front of you. The future truly is yours. Grab it.” With John’s charge in mind, I regularly remind folks who work here that half a century down the road of life, history majors like me might well be studying the way organizations like ours—or yours—responded to the challenges of the last few years. It would be easy to lose hope as we face what comes ahead, but understanding our history in meaningful ways can help us embrace the reality that we can, and will, get through this. As ​​Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes, “Do not lose heart, we were made for these times …”

One of the best ways to put this work to work in your organization is what we call “Vision Back.” Secret #8 has more on the subject as well as a great interactive exercise about how to put together your organizational history that we learned years ago from Stas’ Kazmierski. 

Looking ahead, visioning is the work of writing our history as we would like it to be told 20 or 30 years from now. An hour to draft your vision could make many lives meaningfully better. 

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

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