The Lost Art Of History

Would you consider history art or science? What if I told you that history is both part art and part science?

With the proliferation of information on the internet, too often we see fiction that is reported as fact.  When telling the story of any history – the history of your work experience, the history of an investment, the history of a project or even the history of a certain period in time – you must consider the source. 

Think about professionals that tout 40, 50, 60 or 100 years of collective experience. Those durations seem small when compared to 3,000 years or more of human history. 

Over a 100 years ago, BH Liddell Hart recognized the folly of people that boasted of their “experience.” 

“How often do people claim superior wisdom on the score of their age and experience?”

When considering history, think about the selection of what stories are told. Liddell Hart also managed to highlight the important distinction between direct and indirect experience.

“There are two forms of practical experience, direct and indirect and that, of the two, indirect practical experience may be the most valuable because [it is] [sic] infinitely wider.

Beyond direct experience, how much are you learning about human nature, decision making, stress, mindset, conflict, adversity, courage, wisdom, patience? 

Because the world was at war during his lifetime, BH knew that a soldier could only learn so much while at war. Much of what is taught today in military schools is learned from studying historic and ancient battles. The same is true for medicine, engineering, science… you name it. 

“Even in the most active career, especially a soldier’s career, the scope and possibilities of direct experience are extremely limited. In contrast, to the military, the medical profession has incessant practice. Yet the great advances in medicine and surgery have been due more to the scientific thinker and research worker than to the practitioner.” 

Perhaps the most important reason to learn through indirect experience is to develop your mindset. If it works for soldiers who deal with an unimaginable level of stress, adversity, and discomfort, it can likely work for civilians in the business world.

“Why study military history? To provide practical value in the training and development of the mindset of a soldier.”

Breadth of experience is perhaps more important than depth. Breadth provides you more tools to solve more problems.

“The benefit of history depends, however, on a broad view. And that depends on a wide study of it.”

The development manager who has been a contractor. 

The design architect with extensive construction administration in the field.

The general contractor who used to be an engineer.

The real estate investor who used to be a property manager or banker.

The breadth of their experience provides a greater understanding. It provides the ability to see problems from different perspectives. It allows them to synthesize creative solutions to unforeseen problems.

At the end of the day, you need to remember that the study of any subject, especially history, is both art and science. “Trust the science” is a ridiculous term that was born out of the last few years of our modern global economy. The reality is that science changes. It is true that facts should be treated with scientific care. You must do your best to determine what is accurate and what is not.

But historical facts cannot be interpreted without the use of imagination and intuition. The sheer quantity of information is so overwhelming that writing any history whether today or from ancient times depends on selection. So bewared of what biases may exist within those selections.

And according to Liddell Hart: 

“selection is inevitable. Where there is selection there is art… Exploration should be objective, but selection is subjective. Its subjectiveness can, and should be controlled by scientific method and objectiveness. Too many people go to history merely in search of texts for their sermons instead of facts for analysis.”

When trying to discuss the history of a project, your experience, or a larger period of history, think about the selection of information. Think about the source. Think about the ability to accurately recreate what happened.

The Real Con is that architecture, engineering, construction, and even real estate are much more than the gantt charts, spreadsheets, specifications, and financial models. Yes your direct experience is important. But developing you mindset from thousands of years of indirect experience is perhaps even more important.

The Real Con is that your success and ability to write your own history is determined by the art and science of the many histories that came before you.

So study accordingly.

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