The Praxis participants just finished up their first module with oral examinations in Philosophy, Logic & Ethics. Now they have the task of moving into our History & Culture module, which includes hours of lectures on the significance of history, how and why historical trends change, and several full-length books covering the history of business, political history, art history, and the history of war.
While it may be easier to see why an entrepreneur would need the critical thinking skills associated with philosophy, why should a successful entrepreneur study history?
On one hand, there’s simply a matter of work and time-management skills required to successfully compete the history module. Participants learn to read quickly while simultaneously absorbing the information that matters most. They also must pace themselves. Any attempt to cram several books and hours of lectures in the last week would result in not actually learning that much at all. But on the other hand, the question strikes at a deep core concept of what it means to be an entrepreneur.
To answer this question, we need to examine two themes in history. The first being that history, if not learned, repeats itself. The second being the Great Fact — why did humanity exist at near-subsistence for most of our history, with only the ultra-wealthy having things like indoor-plumbing, access to luxuries like wine, and longer life-spans, but we shift to a system of great and widespread wealth in the last few hundred years?
First, on George Santayana’s adage, “those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” The successful entrepreneur is a creative problem solver. In order to solve problems, she must first know what those problems are, and she must also know what is a creative solution. By understanding the economic, political, and cultural trends of history, she gains an insight into not only these trends themselves, but common themes that exist all throughout human history, like what problems persist in almost any society. Where are those problems rooted? If they exist in most societies, or across time in any one society, they must have a common cause.
This gives the entrepreneur insight into the human condition. What it means to be human and what it means to deal with the problems we face as a consequence of our humanity is at the core of life-experiences, and the entrepreneur, as somebody whose job it is to make life better, must grapple with the core of these questions, even in more restricted contexts. Similarly, if solutions have been tried, but have failed, why did they fail? If we can’t fix why they failed, should we try?
In this sense, the successful entrepreneur must be a historian, even if only in the limited sense of the word. But the entrepreneur is also a history-maker.
Entrepreneurs have existed throughout human history. Prior to the industrial revolution, your common entrepreneur may be a shoe cobbler in a small German village, or the serf who discovers a better way of toiling in the fields, or perhaps even Johannes Gutenberg, inventing the printing press. Still creatively solving problems, but largely a far-cry from what we imagine today as an entrepreneur. Then the industrial revolution hit and Europe (and later the United States) became incredibly wealthy.
The entrepreneur, with access to greater wealth to pull on, and new innovations, now became the JC Penny, the Andrew Carnegie, or the inventor of the latest household item. The entrepreneur could now make history, not only live at the hands of it. The innovations brought from commercial entrepreneurs freed up time for the average person to become an intellectual entrepreneur, with more time to become literate, read, and enjoy the fruits of science, literature, and philosophy.
This is the Great Fact. The wealth that defines our times is not a common thing, historically speaking. It provides so many opportunities for entrepreneurship that the world before could only dream of. A successful entrepreneur must know his place as history-maker, and how what he does substantively contributes to making the lives of others better.