How to think like a historian and imagine new futures.
We often think of historians as people who tell stories about the past.
And, indeed. Yeah. Some might say that explaining the past is a pretty big part of the job.
A sequence of events sets the perfect stage for a revolution…
A hard-headed hero wants to change the world, then does…
One technological breakthrough unleashes the next…
And so on.
Historians often recount moments in the past in a way that makes them seem inevitable.
But as useful as their explanations of the past can be, people who study history have another advantage:
They understand that the past is filled with randomness, complexity, and un-intentionality.
Take the history of lawns as an example.
Basically, the idea of having a lawn at your house started as a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses thing in Middle Ages Europe and remains a totally normal and unquestioned part of our world today.
The circumstances that bring something new into existence are often surprising and very often disappear long before the thing they’ve created does.
So, far from being stuck in the past, historians are granted a rare freedom of imagination when they think about what the future might hold.
If so much of what’s “normal” about our reality today was the consequence of relatively haphazard, random events, just how different might tomorrow be?
Historian Yuval Noah Harari put it best:
“This is the best reason to learn history: not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies.”
Why thinking like a historian matters
Generalists must constantly imagine new futures.
Whereas specialists largely rely on narrow bands of knowledge that have already been defined, generalists are more often face an ambiguous future where imagination can be more valuable than expertise.
And one way to keep a rich imagination about the future is to constantly ask questions about why the present is the way it is.
Very often we’ll discover that things are the way they are for no particularly useful or relevant reason, which frees us up to imagine a different future.
This mindset is useful for big topics: “yes, humans historically have always died. But why do they die? Could we engineer our way out?”
And it’s helpful for small minutia: “why did we originally schedule this god-awful recurring meeting? Is that reason still valid?”
Our imagination is constantly under attack by the past and what we implicitly consider “normal.”
Fight back by thinking like a historian.
Question for us
Do we lack imagination about what’s possible in the future because we’re overly-anchored to the past or present?
Thank you to Dan Hunt and Anthony Landreth for feedback on an early draft of this.