The Big Lessons From History

There are two kinds of history to learn from.

One is the specific events. What did this person do right? What did that country do wrong? What ideas worked? What strategies failed?

It’s most of what we pay attention to, because specific stories are easy to find.

But their usefulness is limited.

Covid-19 is the biggest event of the last decade, maybe the last generation. But what’s the takeaway for me? I’m not a policymaker or an epidemiologist, so specific lessons about public response and vaccine development aren’t relevant to me. They might be only a little relevant to policymakers and epidemiologists, because future pandemics could have little in common with this one.

History is full of specific lessons that aren’t relevant to most people, and not fully applicable to future events because things rarely repeat exactly as they did in the past. An imperfect rule of thumb is that the more granular the lesson, the less useful it is to the future.

The second kind of history to learn from are the broad behaviors that show up again and again, in multiple fields and different eras. They are the 30,000-foot takeaways from events that hide layers below the main story, often going ignored.

How do people think about risk? How do they react to surprise? What motivates them, and causes them to be overconfident, or too pessimistic? Those broad lessons are important because we know they’ll be relevant in the future. They’ll apply to nearly everyone, and in many fields. The same rule of thumb works in the other direction: the broader the lesson, the more useful it is for the future.

Let me offer one of those lessons from Covid-19. I think it’s one of the most important lessons of history:

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