The Only Thing we Learn from History

globe_booksI was a terrible student of history in high school.  It was my worst subject.  I barely graduated because back then you had to pass a four year comprehensive Regents exam in history.  I had high 90s in math and science but a low 70 in history.  It was so bad, and I was so afraid of not passing, that I took the class my senior year twice each day from the same teacher … twice!  I passed by one point.  Whew!

The only thing I remember from all that was the title of this blog.  Of course I remember more, but that quote was often repeated to me in my senior year as a reminder that we simply do not learn very much from history, and as a consequence, we are doomed to repeat it.  Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

The energy industry is stuck in a rut for the past few years.  We seem to simply regurgitate what we have all said and heard before, and we assume we have the complete truth when we do.  We don’t think critically.  We don’t look at the trends.  We assume we are on the right track and that all we need to do is stay in that rut and perhaps move a bit faster.

At the same time, I am witnessing the average American shutting down on energy agendas.  They are tired of trying and achieving so little.  They want to “escape” from today’s worries and woes and they simply don’t want to work very hard at anything any longer.  Don’t get me wrong, there are and always be that vibrant 1-2% that we always seem to attract and engage, but once you try to move off that to mainstream, you get lost in the whirlwind that distracts them.

What should we be learning and what should we be doing differently as a result?  I think you have to go back to the basics. We now make things way too complex.  People are tired and want easier things to do.  We assume people are rational decision makers.  They are not, they are emotional.  We assume people want to improve their lives.  Most are happy and just want to be left alone.


Sure, everyone would like more money, more respect, a nicer house, etc.  These are silly things so when you ask people silly questions about them you get silly responses that make you think you understand them.  One of my friends said it best.  People want something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.  Think about it.

People are happiest when they are productive.  People want to do things that make a difference.  We all know the story of the three brick layers who are asked what they were doing.  The first said laying bricks, the second that he was building a brick wall, and the third described his work as building a great cathedral.  Sure, the last person had the big vision, but they could all feel OK about themselves that they were doing something important.  It mattered.  Someone had to do it.  It needed to be done.  Idle hands are the Devil’s playground.  Be sure people have plenty to do that is meaningful and productive.

Meetings on the other hand I observe do precisely the opposite.  Ban any meeting that is not truly important.  No meeting should last a minute longer than it has to. In fact, I would suggest you establish a meeting policeperson in your company.  No meeting can be scheduled and no attendee can attend unless and until the agenda for that meeting, the time allocated, and the decisions or action items that are to come from it are identified, tied to a company agenda, and approved.  But Joel, if we have to go through all this, we wouldn’t have any meetings!  Then you shouldn’t!  And, be vigilant about latecomers (if you are not there early, you are late) and those who use digital devices during the meeting.  We banned them.  No phones, no iPads … nothing but a note pad.  And, if the person is not taking notes on either the papers being handed out or their own notebook, they are reprimanded.

It is time to get serious and time to get busy.  People need to believe they are earning their pay by contributing and participating.  If not, let them go and do the rest of your employees a favor by that.

Caring for others is also important.  You could flip the perspective around and describe that as being needed, or at least feeling they were needed.  Self-worth is important.  Having raised four daughters I know that all too well.  If you want to be sure your children stay away from the worst elements in society, be sure they have a healthy self-esteem.  Seems like we have some work to do here in our modern utility workplaces.  Lots of folks feeling unloved.

We used to call it mentoring.  I think we need that again.  Pair people up and have them invest in each other’s professional and personal development.  The scariest thing I ever hear in life is the phrase “I don’t care.”  People should care deeply about their own lives and the ones it touches.  If they truly don’t care, let them go and find a place they want to work where they do care.

Finally, the light at the end of the tunnel is hopefully not an oncoming train.  I remember visiting one client and he had this sign on his door:  In an attempt to be more efficient, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off.  Sad.   But, he was expressing his lack of anything to hope for.  This is possibly the biggest hurdle the energy industry has at the moment.  They are not looking forward to anything.  In fact, they look into the future and see nothing good.

As I have read the works of others who faced desperate times and hopelessness, I have been inspired by their simple faith statements like “all things work together for the good” and “every cloud has a silver lining” and others.  Some may criticize them as Pollyanna.  I think our minds are more capable of being creative and productive when we are not hunkered down in fear, but rather are searching for success.

The old story of the boy in the barn comes to mind.  Others see a pile of manure.  The boy digs feverishly into the pile saying “there has to be a pony in their somewhere!”   There probably is.

It is funny how often we refer to the “good ole days” as if they were really all that good.  They were simpler.  They were certainly less hectic.  But, what do we miss so much?  Could it be that we did things that mattered, were loved by people who were not distracted, and had so much to look forward to?

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