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The importance of learning about journeys
You might not think too much about the ‘&’ symbol but if you are like me, you use it all the time, and it does have an interesting etymology or origin story. If you studied Latin you might be familiar with the phase ‘et’ which translates as ‘and’. This is where the ampersand symbol comes from and morphed over time as seen below, according to Wikipedia.
Through a series of steps the ‘t’ leaned into the ‘E’ and we get the ‘&’ that we know today. The other interesting side to this story is the name. For this we need to introduce another Latin phrase ‘per se’ or ‘by itself’. When reciting the English alphabet, school children would say aloud for any letter that could also be used as a word in itself such as ‘A’ or ‘I’ "per se" after the letter. So the recitation of the alphabet might go something like this: "A per se A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I per se I, etc…" They also used to include ‘et’ at the end of the alphabet, such as “...x, y, z, et” but because it could be used by itself the recitation ended with “et per se et” or in English “and per se and.” When said quickly this becomes “ampersand.”
Another interesting etymology story is the term ‘soccer’, which is currently thought of as an American word for what the rest of the world calls ‘football’. However, according to Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sports economics at the University of Michigan, in a 2014 paper, ‘soccer’ originated in late 19th century England, as a way of differentiating between variants of the game which at that time did not have a commonly agreed-upon set of rules. In the early 1800s, football and rugby existed as different variations of the same game until 1863, when the Football Association was formed to codify the rules of football so that different schools could play against one another. Similarly, in 1871, the Rugby Football Union followed suit. The two sports officially became known as Rugby Football and Association Football. Apparently a trend at the time was to shorten words and add “er” to the end, thus ‘Association’ became ‘socc’ and then ‘soccer’. And, it all started in England over a hundred years ago. We in America just borrowed it from them.
While, if you’re like me, these stories about the history and origin of words are interesting in their own right but they also serve to provide us with a lesson. You can make an observation about a person, a team, or an organization at a particular point in time but if you don’t know the full history, you can often come to some uninformed or even inaccurate conclusions. A 2012 HBR article titled, Your Company’s History as a Leadership Tool, relates the story of a CEO of a 70-year old manufacturing company using that company’s history to help integrate a new cohort of young professionals into the ranks of “experts in bending and welding steel who had lots of experience but lacked academic degrees.” Highlighting the autonomous, craft-mentality that was part of the company’s history allowed the new hires and the shop-floor engineers to see similarities and rally around shared ideals. The authors state, “History can be used to put adversity in context and to help heal rifts.”
A country can be viewed as a much larger organization than a typical business but with shared challenges of bringing people together. Here again an understanding of the history of a country and its people is more than necessary, it is critical. The American Historical Association in Why Should Americans Know Their Own History?, make four key points on the value of history: it makes loyal citizens because memories of common experiences are essential in patriotism, it makes intelligent voters because sound decisions must be based on knowledge of the past, it makes good neighbors because it teaches tolerance of individual differences, and it makes well-rounded individuals.
The Public History Initiative from UCLA has published a number of articles and guides to teaching and imparting history lessons. In one article on the standards of teaching history they state:
Without history, a society shares no common memory of where it has been, what its core values are, or what decisions of the past account for present circumstances. Without history, we cannot undertake any sensible inquiry into the political, social, or moral issues in society.
In that same article, they also quote Etienne Gilson, “History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought.” If you’ve ever brainstormed initiatives or strategies in a business setting, you probably have used this French philosopher’s approach of using history as a laboratory. You play scenarios against what was tried in the past.
So, how can you put this in practice in your organization? If you are new to the organization or taking on a new role, you should have set out for yourself a 30-60-90 day plan. Essentially, high level goals for the first 30, 60, and 90 days in the new role. If you have new people coming on to your team, help them establish a 30-60-90 day plan. Generally, I like the high level goals of these three to be 30-days listen and learn, 60-days begin forming opinions, 90-days formulate a plan and priorities. Unless your organization is in a crisis and you have to act immediately, you are much better off to spend the first 90 days listening, learning, and appreciating the history of the organization and its people. People are more willing to follow you if you’ve listened to them and have heard their story.
I’ve written before about the power of processes and systems to drive people’s behavior. History is the other side of that same coin. The experiences influence how people think. Whether you are a new team member, a senior leader, or a government official, knowing the history of the organization and the people is critical to integrating and leading. Take the time to learn where the organization has come from if you’re the new person and if you’re the person that’s been around a while, teach the new folks that are joining. Sometimes it might seem like a waste to be talking about things in a company’s past like some of the bigger personalities that have left or stressful situations when things were going wrong but somehow they made it through. Most of us want to get straight to work producing results, making widgets, etc. Take the time to gain an understanding and appreciation for the past and you’ll end up being more productive in the long run.