Don't Read History for Lessons

Here’s a real world story that you might be familiar with. The question I’d like you to ask while reading it is: what lessons might you take away from it? Keep this question in mind; we’ll return to it in a bit.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

One way I’ve found to avoid ‘lessons’ is to read history that isn’t concerned with the recent past. To go back in time a bit. Primary source material is more readily available, which puts me closer to the people involved.

For example. I’m in the middle of Tom Crouch’s ‘The Bishop’s Boys,’ a biography of Orville and Wilbur Wright. In it, there is discussion of a letter from Wilbur Wright to his sister in law Lulu concerning her son Herbert. It’s both a caution to Lulu that setting quiet Herbert on a business course without a fair amount of guidance could be a disaster, and a reflection from Wilbur on the Wright boys’ struggles to succeed.

The discussion in the book was good enough to get me to dig for the letter, but the letter itself is the thing. From June 18th, 1901, it’s written at a moment when the Wright Cycle Company is foundering, and Orville and Wilbur are building gliders to keep their curiosity engaged. It is not a ‘great’ moment in the usual sense; there are several lines like this:

The boys of the Wright family are all lacking in determination and push. None of us has as yet made particular use of the talent in which he excels other men.

Trite are the lessons I might draw from the letter, along the lines of, ‘Even the great ones struggle.’ But as a snapshot of a moment, it’s rich.

The letter is on pages 8-13 of the file linked below.


That’s an absolutely lovely letter — and I wouldn’t have even thought to go hunting for it, had I been reading The Bishop’s Boys!

Thanks for linking it! (I had some trouble reading Wright’s handwriting, but I enjoyed the attempt thoroughly).

One way I’ve found to avoid ‘lessons’ is to read history that isn’t concerned with the recent past. To go back in time a bit. Primary source material is more readily available, which puts me closer to the people involved.

I can’t help but notice there are two separate ideas here:

  1. Read history that isn’t concerned with the recent past.
  2. Try and get to the primary source material.

I’m familiar with the first idea but not with the second — and I think it’s a good one.

Edited to add: the full quote and context is really quite striking. Partly for the beliefs and angst that comes through in Wilbur’s writing:

When I learned that you intended to put him (Herbert) into business early I could not help feeling that in teaching him to prefer others to himself you were giving him a very poor training for the life work you had chosen for him, for in business it is the aggressive man who continually has his eye on his own interest who succeeds. Business is merely a form of warfare in which each combatant strives to get the business away from his competitors and at the same time keep them from getting what he already has. No man has ever been successful in business who was not aggressive, self-assertive and even a little bit selfish perhaps. There is nothing reprehensible in an aggressive disposition, so long as it is not carried to excess, for such men make the world and its affairs move. If Herbert were less retiring and more assertive than he is I would entirely agree to putting him into business early. For that is the best training in the world for a business life and is the path which practically all the leaders in the business world have followed. I agree that a college training is wasted on a man who intends (?) to follow commercial pursuits. Neither will putting a boy, who has not the aggressive business instincts to work early, make a successful businessman of him.

I entirely agree that the boys of the Wright family are all lacking in determination and push. That is the very reason that none of us have been or will be more than ordinary businessmen. We have all done reasonably well, better in fact than the average man perhaps, but not one of us has as yet made particular use of the talents in which he excels other men. That is why our success has been only moderate. We ought not to have been businessmen.


A useful lens might be the links between history and story. Both might invite learning for the curious.

A story has story themes, character archetypes and plot dynamics that manifest and take shape in a certain way in that specific story. History has patterns (e.g. Thucydides Trap might be one) that manifest differently in different times and places, with different “players”.

I think identifying these underlying patterns leads to valuable lessons - and this might be similar to identifying the “concepts” behind the “instantiation” in Cedric’s “concept instantiation” framing.

I would also share a distinction between terms, notions and concepts. In the sense that a “term” names something (e.g. Bamboo Ceiling or Thucydides Trap). A term can name a notion, a concept or other things.

A “notion” is something linked to a field (e.g. Thucydides Trap is an international relations notion). A “concept” is a general abstraction that transcends fields (e.g. if Thucydides Trap would apply also in biology or etology, for example, it would be indeed a concept). Part of the beauty of learning across fields or domains of knowledge is in testing whether notions (field-specific) are instantiations of concepts (field-transcending).

Coming back to learning from history, maybe looking for underlying patterns - checking whether those patterns have a name, a term associated to them - then testing whether that term is a notion (specific to history or adjacent fields) or whether it’s linked to a concept. What would the concept be? So something like a chain of abstract movements from manifestation-(underneath?)-pattern-(name?)-term-(field specificity?)-notion-(underneath?)-concept-(test whole chain back to manifestation?)-lesson.

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I think hisotrical counter-examples are more important, or at least more intellectually rigorous, than examples. In other words, I would try to find historial cases to refute a point rather than to prove one. For example, I’ve heard a claim that a sports coach needs to be agressive in order for the team to be successful and that I won’t find a sports coach who is chill with the team. Finding one example of an even-temepred chill coach would refute this point. The opposite is not true, however. No matter how many examples you marshall of aggressive sports coaches, there’s still a chance that there’s an exception you didn’t find.

@mgoodrum Interesting letter. I was just having a conversation with my cousin on Thursday about the difference between a business mindset and an acaademic mindset and he was saying something similar to the effect of the letter that you’ll be hardpressed to find an academic who’s a successful businessman. Something I think a lot about as I often feel that my mind is more suited to the academic world even though I’m in the business one.

Finding practising academics, especially ones who pulled it off really well in both academia and business would also be a good use of the counterexamples approach,

The problem with historical counter-examples is that it still falls prey to the ‘except when it doesn’t’ game.

The problem with this is that … say you find one even-tempered, chill coach, but only in swimming. So it this true only for swimming? What about rugby, or Judo, or wrestling, or football, or X, where you can’t find counter-examples? What can you conclude here? Or say you look deeper at the chill swimming coach case, and find other properties that may compensate for the chillness (e.g. a really strict, aggressive assistant), or a team culture that is naturally aggressive. Then what can you conclude there? What do you do?

The point I’m trying to make is that reality is so ill-structured every case is a combination of unique elements, and you want to be very conservative with generalised lessons. The counter-example technique you’ve cited is still drawing generalised lessons, albeit from a via ‘negativa approach’. In other words, you may conclude things like “not all coaches have to be aggressive in order for the team to be successful” — but then so what? How is this useful? How does this help you win?

A more useful approach, as opposed to merely playing logic games with claims and counter-claims, is to say “aggressive coaches can succeed, and here are some cases where that’s worked”, and “chill coaches can succeed, and here are some cases where that’s worked”, and then you hold all of these cases in your head, and then you’re able to copy bits and pieces from all of these cases when it’s time for you to execute a coaching program.


I think I’m also arguing for a more conservative approach with that emphasizes intellectual restraint. My point is that it’s easier to shed doubt on an absolute strong statement as opposed to proving it. “You need to be aggressive in order to be a coach”. It’s easier to shed doubt on this statement by providing one counter example rather than advocate for it using examples “is a hundred examples enought. a thousand? ten thousand?” ,etc… I guess the approach suffers from a drawback though. The statements become so cautious that you end up almost saying nothing new to be useful (a critque level at academics as well when their language is replete with qualifiers like might/can/ not sure… which is something I do myself.

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