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Looking Backward Illuminates How to Make Improvements in the Present and Future

May 29, 2008
The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

--Albert Einstein

I have always been fascinated with the past. As a youngster, the older a story, myth, or legend was, the better I liked it. By quite a young age, David, Icarus, and Ulysses seemed quite real to me.

That interest soon led me into reading histories as well. The battle of Thermopylae (where in 480 BC the Spartan-led Greeks heroically held a narrow mountain pass to block the passage of the Persian army under Xerxes until betrayed by a traitor) seemed as immediate to me as D-Day (the Allied invasion of Normandy in France to establish a Western front against Germany during World War II) did to people who were alive in 1944.

By the time I had finished the sixth grade, I had read all of the standard history texts used through the end of high school. Branching out, I also began to read biographies and autobiographies to meet other prominent figures from the past and bring them into my present for consideration.

By the time I finished high school, I knew that I wanted to study history in college. That was a happy choice because Harvard University, where I would be an undergraduate, was unusually well stocked with great historians.

Quickly, my tutors there taught me to disregard secondary texts and to focus on original documents written by contemporaries who had participated in or observed the events. Old newspapers, diaries, pamphlets, and written versions of oral histories became my stalking grounds.

From this experience with the raw material of history, I began to form a different impression of how improvements occur than what had been described to me by books and teachers. I had been told that with rare exceptions, making progress was continual and ever upward. In this view, new knowledge was highly sought after by most and quickly appreciated.

By studying day-to-day records of those who first imagined improvements, I found instead that many of the great advances in knowledge were widely ignored or long delayed in implementation. For example, Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks contained many practical ideas that lay fallow for centuries before the ideas became everyday realities.

The Romans knew how to make mortar for their roads that lasted for centuries by mixing in fine pumice emitted from Mount Etna while modern roads made with coarser materials crumble after a few seasons. During the Middle Ages in Europe, much classical learning was all but eradicated. Centuries passed before the Renaissance revived interest in and awareness of this earlier knowledge.

The Chinese became insular and lost their command of the seas after having once had the world's most advanced navy. The highly energetic Japanese similarly rested in suspended animation when it came to most improvements until forcibly exposed to the Industrial Revolution by Admiral Perry's gunboats. Until recently, modern Egyptians had no more idea of how their ancestors constructed the pyramids than they did how to clone camels.

Questioning thinkers have always tested the opportunity to improve on what was previously known, but those quests were hobbled because access to what had been known earlier was usually quite limited. Expand awareness of the best of earlier knowledge, and you could greatly expand potential to improve -- that much seemed obvious. The lack of access is worsened by so much knowledge existing in secret or near-secret conditions.

Paradoxically, some advances were once so well established that no one bothered to document them, such as the use of some rare herbs to treat medical problems. In addition, knowledge (or what seemed to pass for knowledge) was expanding much faster than any individual could absorb in more than a limited area.

To me, it seemed like there was one hope: Gather up the undeveloped ideas of people like Leonardo da Vinci and get busy working on them. But don't wait several hundred years to get started. Work on the most promising undeveloped ideas right after they are conceived. That's the first lesson of how to accelerate improvements.
About the Author
Donald Mitchell is an author of seven books including Adventures of an Optimist, The 2,000 Percent Squared Solution, The 2,000 Percent Solution, The 2,000 Percent Solution Workbook, The Irresistible Growth Enterprise, and The Ultimate Competitive Advantage. Read about creating breakthroughs through 2,000 percent solutions and receive tips by e-mail by registering for free at

http://www.2000percentsolution.com .
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