In the Information Age, it can be overwhelming to try and plan out your own professional development, much less the training plan for an entire office or organization. With the world and its technology changing so quickly, the focus is often on maintaining enough current skills to be useful. Then, if you have any brain cells left over, there’s a long list of “soft skills” you can try to pick up, with good arguments for each one, even if learning all of them together would be a lifelong task. But, with everyone looking to the horizon, it might actually be more important for a few of us to turn around and study the lessons of history.
This means the history of your own organization, but it also means “history” history – the history you studied in high school or college. But why focus development time and resources on something so seemingly indulgent?
First, you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. Yes, it’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché because it’s true. A lot of smart people have had smart ideas similar to yours. Knowing why change has failed in the past can help you make a bigger impact on your organization so your time there means something. It can help you find long-term solutions that combine new ideas and technologies with the wisdom of experience. This is especially important now, when we are living through a generational hand-off in the workplace, as baby boomers are retiring in increasing numbers while millennials grow into the largest generation in the workplace. For this new generation, now is the time to learn the lessons that their departing elders can teach them, so they don’t repeat their mistakes. It also allows young professionals to demonstrate the kind of humility and open-mindedness that combats stereotypes about “typical” millennials.
Second, it will help you understand the world and its impact on your job as a training professional and on your organization. I once heard a speaker say, “There is no work-life balance. There is only life, and work is a part of life.” There is a lot to unpack from that statement, but for our purposes, it means that the world outside of the office, and how it became that way, is tied to everything that happens at work. Want to understand generational conflicts? You need to understand the time period different generations grew up in and how it affected them. Want to address resistance to change? Good luck, if you ignore the incredible changes that everyone has seen in their lives over the last 20, 30, 40 and 50 years. Want to reach different groups of stakeholders and customers, both in the U.S. and abroad? You can’t persuade people you don’t understand, and you don’t really know someone until you know their past.
Finally, it will inspire you. Growing yourself and your career is hard work. You are not the first person who has sought to make themselves better, or to make a lasting change against opposition, or to leave a mark on the world. You can learn from the examples of those who came before, and sometimes it’s easier to learn from situations that are different from your own. But sometimes, when you are struggling, it helps to know that people smarter, braver and luckier than you have struggled with the same problems. For example, any leader who has to corral powerful personalities should read “Napoleon and His Marshals,” which details all the ways in which Napoleon, one of the greatest military leaders ever to walk the planet, was driven to distraction by the squabbles and personality conflicts of the brilliant generals serving him. Everyone you admire and every great figure you’ve ever read about has failed, repeatedly, and being reminded of that failure will help you give yourself credit and keep coming into work every day to give it your all.
So, take a little time to learn the lessons of history. You will be pleasantly surprised at all it can do for you in your own journey.