August 6, 1806.
That was the date on which the Holy Roman Empire–first established by Charlemagne in AD 800–was dissolved by Austrian emperor Francis II, after getting his ass whooped by Napoleon at the battle of Austerlitz.
On this particular day Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was staying at an inn. He noted grimly that the people in the inn were MORE interested in a quarrel between the innkeeper and a coachman, than they were about the fall of a 1000-year old empire!
This was perhaps the most monumental event in the history of Europe–and definitely in their lives–and still they didn’t care.
Most people have no sense of history, but. . .
Every Student of Success is Also a Student of History
–At the very least, they know the history of their industry well.
Steve Jobs was very knowledgeable about history, and not just the technology, media and computer industry.
Mike Tyson is maybe not the brightest guy, but he’s very well read on history, especially about war and boxing. He knows all there is to know about warlords and former champions:
I was serious about my history because I learned so much from the old fighters. What did I have to do to be like this guy? What discipline did this other guy possess?
Even the not-so-photogenic Ronald “Slim” Williams, CEO and founder of Cash Money Records, has studied the history of the music business, its record labels, and rap.
Studying history has little to do with memorizing specific dates and much to do with understanding large-scale trends; like: which things stand the test of time, which do not, and why that is.
If neuroscience is about the brain, physiology about the body, biology about living organisms, psychology about motivation, then history is about all those things in combination. History is for big picture thinkers.
By studying history you are less prone to jump to the conclusion that “the reason things are like they are today is because it’s the best possible solution.”
. . . Which simply isn’t true, in many cases.
Know Your Historical Context
When you start seeing how and why things came to be the way they are, you realize that things aren’t set in stone.
You realize that things could easily have gone the other way and the world would be very different.
If Hannibal had conquered Rome. If Napoleon hadn’t been forced into war with Russia. If Hitler had won WW2. . . and so on.
You begin to understand things; like why your country is rich or poor, why your culture is the way it is, why certain traditions and customs exist. And you begin to question things.
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In this article I will reveal my 10+ best & most-used tips for how to study history
These tips are equally useful for reading biographies, because the best people make history. Hence the important of studying great men.
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1) History teaches by analogy and example; not by detail.
Or as Mark Twain put it, “history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
Just because something happened or some method worked in the past does not mean it will happen or should work in the same way today. And vice versa.
This is another form of the “perfect-knowledge-trap”. (Because you’d have to know every confluent force converging into that outcome in the first place, and you don’t and you can’t.)
1b) Remain humble to randomness and extreme coincidences.
When Caesar Augustus (Octavian) rose to power at age 19 and became the foremost figure in Rome–and the known world–he did so by virtue of having (1) enormous sums of money to fund the largest army; (2) inherited Julius Caesar’s name and legacy, and (3)–which must not be overlooked–(3) balls of steel.
He then did many great things and had an enormously positive impact on Rome 1, restoring its morality and economy from a state of dissolution, chaos and near-anarchy after 50 years of brutal civil war.
–Now, that’s admirable, but it’s a situation birthed by an extreme combination of coincidences without historic precedence, before and after.
1c) But also be open-minded enough to acknowledge that certain individuals, and the results they achieved, weren’t coincidental.
The aftermath of the French Revolution augmented his rise, but you could’ve have put him in ANY era or industry, and he would still have been the boss.
2) Beware of falling victim to historical biases.
The two main ones are: (1) A particular historian’s ideological viewpoints and (2) anachronisms2 by yourself and others.
3) Do not pay overmuch attention–or attribute much importance–to weird quirks of historic figures or complex phenomena.
Yes, it’s true, Warren Buffett really does eat like someone from a poor black community. And he really does drink a fair amount of Coke/Pepsi/sodas. What of it? It’s just unhealthy.
This sort of stuff is both interesting and funny, I think so too, but it’s not important and should deliberately be cognitively weighted as such.
3b) Try to study failure equal to success.
Especially when it comes to business.
Said Francis Bacon: “Neglect not also the examples of those that have carried themselves ill in the same place”
Said Machiavelli: “look at their wartime strategies and study the reasons for their victories and defeats so as to avoid the failures and imitate the successes. ”
There is a bias only to look at success in a certain industry or at the people who were successful at XYZ. Beware of this and try to force yourself a little harder to look at the failures also. This may be more boring (less glamorous) to study, but they often hold more practical value.
How? By giving you a clear anti-example of what not to do. I personally learn best in this way (by process of elimination).
4) Do not be dissuaded by dislike/hate bias.
I like Hannibal and Scipio.
I like Caesar and Pompey.
I like Churchill and Hitler.
It’s important to learn from every great and significant historic figure.
Choosing not to learn from successful people–just because you dislike them–is a perfectly good way to make yourself an intellectual retard.
As much as I like Napoleon, I also appreciate Talleyrand’s eloquence, diplomacy, and intellectual versatility. At the end of his life, Talleyrand was probably the most valuable French statesman (and without a doubt the most experienced one).
(“Do you even read, bro?”)
5) Time-frame and perspective.
Knowing how to study history is great for becoming better at long-term thinking and familiarizing yourself with the fact that most important things take a LONG time. So you need to be patient.
I think adopting a proper time-frame and perspective come about naturally when you study history a lot. But. . .
. . . when you’re reading a biography, or studying the history of a particular field, the writer often skips over time as if it were nothing. In particular if nothing monumental happens. Be mindful of this when you notice it. Especially if it’s a great person’s life–because it is indicative of personal transformation or disciplined build-up.
It’s often in those long stretches of seeming passivity that the preparation goes on; like Hitler spending his 20s building the conceptual framework of the Reich, or Churchill hustling his ass off on speech tours for years to become financially independent, or Bernie Ecclestone learning everything about Formula One for several years before taking it over, or Lee Kuan Yew establishing his support network of voter constituencies for entering politics.
6) Use history as material and mental building blocks for memorizing bigger ideas, mental models, and phenomena.
History sticks well to the brain. You should use it specifically to remember important mental models, make sense of complex ideas, and such.
(You can read more about how to build a strong framework for learning here.)
7) Implant historic figures into your Dunbar’s Number and instinctively ask the question, “What would ______ do here?”
Above all he [the Prince] must do what some great men have done in the past: take as model a leader who’s been much praised and admired and keep his example and achievements in mind at all times. Alexander the Great modeled himself on Achilles, Caesar on Alexander and Scipio on Cyrus.”
This holds true for every discipline. Steve Jobs’ #1 role model was George Eastman (Kodak founder). And it’s why Tyson studied warlords and fighters.
You also want to be able to invert the question: “What would __________ NOT do here?”
7b) And get to know the “real man” behind the standard portrait of the great man.
No one is without flaws; it’s just that every great man overcame them.
They suffered hardship and adversity, but conquered it. No one ever pays attention to the years spent in The Gauntlet. People only start paying attention once you’re triumphant in golden armor.
Caesar suffered from epileptic attacks (which were a total taboo, as it indicated being CURSED BY THE GODS) and had to take great care to keep it hidden or his troops would’ve left him; Napoleon suffered from heavy hemorrhoids multiple times and may have lost at Waterloo due to being incapacitated from it that day; and Augustus–like JFK–was plagued by illnesses for much of his life.
But they still managed.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
8) See past the propaganda, or if that is not possible, deliberately underweight it in order to get a better idea.
History is rewritten with every era and its corresponding dominant ideology. The Communists are known to have enforced extreme historic revision (to make it seem like everything great ever made was made by Communist people). Similar revisionism is CONSTANTLY going on, only today we have many more ideological powerhouses trying to interpret history in a way that benefits them. Therefore: Ask yourself whose side of the story you’re being told.
This is why Henry Ford thought that “history is bunk”, and why Napoleon said that “history is a set of lies agreed upon.”
8b) Distinguish between two kinds of history: before and after the 19th century.
You’ll notice it’s much easier to find historic info after the 19th century. Especially information about famous people. You will also notice that this information tends to be a lot more coherent, as if following a narrative.
The reason why you should distinguish between history before and after the 19th century is because propaganda got much more efficient after this time. For example, radio was first put to serious use by powerful people ~1930.
Herbert Hoover was the first President of the United States who was able to use radio to spread his message. Because of this there’s a lot more–and coherent–information (probably carefully engineered to create a positive impression) about Hoover, than there is about the quiet Calvin Coolidge, who preceded him.
This is also true about Swedish mainstream history.
It is commonly assumed that the establishment of the “Folkhem” is the main reason for Sweden’s prosperity. The main guy behind it was the Swedish Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson. He was in power during WW2, and is often hailed as the greatest Swedish politician ever. But no one associates him with the shady deals between Germany and Sweden. Isn’t that funny?
9) While studying, make notes of other great/interesting historic figures being mentioned in context.
You should aim to know at least ~3 great men per era.
For your information, I think Atticus may have had the most interesting and enjoyable life out of those six. He was like the Charlie Munger of that era.
The reason it’s important to know about several great historic figures per era is because. . .
10) The Great-Man Theory is correct for the most part.
Only a select few in each generation make up their mind to accomplish something worthwhile and remarkable, like Napoleon or Lee Kuan Yew.
Most people are self-serving Homeostasis Dwellers who are too lethargic to break out of it, given the high default level of comfort and security in modern society. Mastery is a foreign concept to them.
Greek, Roman, French, and U.S culture (up to 1950 or so) did a great job encouraging this fact. Why did we stop building monuments and statues in commemoration of the greatest individuals?
Where is Lee Kuan Yew’s statue? Not in Singapore.
Pay no heed to the Batrachians who sit croaking idly by the stream. Life is a straight, plain business, and the way is clear, blazed for you by generations of strong men, into whose labours you must enter and whose ideals must be your inspiration.
How to Study History According to My Best 10+ Tips
- Look at the big picture; not the minutiae.
- Be humble about randomness and weird circumstances. . .
- . . but understand that there are great men who shape history.
- Beware of historical biases, like anachronisms.
- Be mindful of “time-skips”, especially in biographies.
- Don’t be weak-minded enough to be bothered by who you (dis)like when it comes to studying successful people.
- Use history mainly as a building block for conceptualizing or contextualizing big, complicated ideas.
- Study the greats to implant them into your Dunbar’s number.
- See past the popular portrait of famous, historic persons.
- Distinguish between pre/after 19th century (due to propaganda).
- Strive to know at least 3 great men per historic era.
- Keep the Great Man Theory top of mind at all times.
Note: The best introductory book about history, which I always recommend when asked, is The Lessons of History by überhistorian Will Durant.
Over to you:
Do you have any helpful tips on a similar vein?
Maybe you’ve got some book recommendation?
What historic figure(s) or era(s) are you particularly interested in currently?