Two old shows that my wife and I enjoy are focused on the past, especially when it rears its ugly head. An American produced show is called “Cold Case” where a team based in Philadelphia work unsolved cases that resurface. The other is “Unforgotten” which is a British produced show that works previously unknown crimes.
“Cold Case” has a unique style where they reveal the initial set-up of the crime, but not who did it. They go back and forth with the younger version of the character for a few seconds, so you know which older person that is. “Unforgotten” is told over a series of six or so shows, one crime per season. A body is discovered and the team has to begin to find out who, what, when, where and how. Both teams are led by imperfect leaders with their own set of problems.
The two shows tell us the past is never fully behind us. I know I would not want my past mistakes being brought up today, although I can confess I never murdered anyone. But, we should learn lessons from our past mistakes. Our friend Amanda revealed a quote on her blog the other day about focusing on the lesson and not the pain of the mistake (see link below)..That is easier said than done, but is a better goal than saying “woe is me.”
When people, businesses, organizations and governments do not heed the mistakes of the past, they are truly destined to repeat them. The US did not learn the lessons of Vietnam and invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq. A senator named Jim Webb who served in the military said if we invade Iraq, be prepared to stay for thirty years. That was eighteen years ago.
In the book “Built to Last,” the authors’ data revealed the most admired and successful companies tended to promote from within to the CEO position. They knew what worked and did not and who to listen to and who not to. I have seen many a new CEO come in and make changes that repeated past mistakes. Even if they came from within, I have seen CEOs repeat an earlier mistake due to arrogance. I am thinking of one large bank that no longer exists who made two of the worst acquisitions that should have been avoided for the same reason – both hurt the bank’s reputation. And, that should not have been news.
People are prone to do this in their personal lives. They believe their new partner will change for the better. They ignore signals that they have seen in previous partners. The most basic of signals is this one – if a partner treats you poorly when he or she is courting you, what do you think he or she will do once you became married or more serious?
The author Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book “Blink” speaks of ignoring our subconscious signals when we make poor decisions. Our gut instinct is our collective history of experiences that tell us things before our conscious recognizes it, if it ever does. The examples of the book are many. A firefighter who tells his crew to back out of building as it is burning in an unusual manner. The art expert that knew immediately a painting was a forgery, but could not articulate why. The counselor who could tell with about ten seconds if a couple she was counseling was going to survive.
These people were not guided by whims. Their gut instinct told them something was amiss before they could articulate why. In the firefighter’s case, the fire was burning in the floor below, so his crew would have crashed through the floor, e.g. Their past experiences told them how to act. In organizations, the experience is collective, so sometimes a few people might know an action is poor (like Senator Webb did), but they do not have the power to influence leaders. Or the leaders were to blinded by their own arrogance to take advice.
The past tells us many things. While we should not be slaves to the past, as times do change, we need to understand what happened and why, so as not to avoid the same mistakes.