An enduring legacy of Shakespeare and great opera is that they serve as a reminder that the world may have changed, but it hasn’t changed that much. These works demonstrate that the sources of joy, conflict, and sadness in human relationships have remained the same for centuries.
I was reminded of this fact not long ago after talking with a masters student of mine in the Human Dimensions of Organizations program at the University of Texas. He wanted to focus a major project in this program on the way that technology disrupts work-life balance.
Before getting settled on this project, I asked him to read Utopia by Thomas More. Utopia was published in 1516. At its core, the book explores factors that might lead to a perfect society that would minimize stress, eliminate corruption, treat people with respect, and allow them to live meaningful lives.
Regardless of what you think of the suggestions that More provides, it is clear that there were many problems in European society in this era that needed to be addressed. Most workers were overworked, and underpaid. A small minority of individuals as well as those with political influence were greedy and often corrupt. Health care and aging caused a lot of societal stress.
Do any of these problems sound familiar?
The point is that we tend to think that the problems and stresses of the modern workplace are new. They are caused by new aspects of the world like the presence of four generations of workers in the workplace, the easy always-on availability of information, and the constant need to do more with less.
When we assume that most of our problems have new and modern causes, then we seek new (often technological) solutions to those problems.
There can be value in reaching back to the past in a search for solutions to age-old problems. Thinking about how the continuity of the human condition over time can inform our solutions to modern business problems. Here are three specific things to ponder to get started.
It is hard for people to get things done in the workplace, because they tend to favor short-term rewards over long-term goals.
While this may seem like a new problem, it is a deep aspect of the human condition. Indeed, the Ten Commandments from book of Exodus is largely focused on resolving the tradeoff between short-term and long-term in favor of the long-term. Don’t steal pretty things, don’t kill people who have annoyed you, leave the spouses of other people alone.
After recognizing these problems, religions create social structures to help fix them. For example, a central tenet of many religions is to remove temptation from the environment rather than facing it with the hope that willpower will help a person to overcome it.
But, the creation of stories that embellish events of popular interest is also an age-old issue. For example, in his book Science Secrets, historian Alberto Martinez explores the stories that grew up around a variety of scientific discoveries including Newton’s discovery of gravity, and Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution by natural selection.
Companies also develop stories that surround their best products and discoveries. Using historical methods, it is possible to cut through those stories and to get a clearer sense of the chaos that was likely part of the actual process of discovery rather than believing the hype.
Every new technological advance is accompanied by a chorus of doomsayers who say that some fundamental cognitive skill is going to atrophy. Recently, for example, there was a spate of articles in the popular press suggesting that reading on-line was going to kill long-form journalism and a lot of book reading. The presence of many brief articles (like this one) was somehow eroding our ability to think deeply about topics.
Over the years, almost every technological advance in the written word has been met with the fear that it will completely wipe out important parts of the way that humans communicate. Of course, these changes have not typically had the dire effects people worry about.
Instead, what we learn from the history of technology is that people have goals that they want to achieve. One technology will replace another (as digital cameras largely replaced film-based ones) when they allow people to achieve their goals in an easier, faster, or more efficient way. But, the goals remain. People still need to learn in order to succeed at their jobs, and so we are not going to create a generation of people who are unable to learn just because we have made it easier for people to read short articles.
Ultimately, in your search for solutions to modern problems, it is important to recognize that most of these issues are just old problems dressed up in new clothing. Taking a broader perspective on these issues can allow you to draw on the wisdom of the past.