When we are searching for insight, particularly in the realms of contemporary subjects such as business, we are often tempted to search latest thinking.

There is much to to be said for that, but not at the exclusion of older wisdoms. The challenges we face are rarely new, just presented in different forms, and a singular focus on the new can lead us astray.

There is a lovely passage in one of my favourite books, “The Master and his Emissary” which I think captures it well. I’ve copied here in full, as I think it’s worth it.

“There is a story in Nietzsche that goes something like this. There was once a wise spiritual master, who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain, and who was known for his selfless devotion to his people. As his people flourished and grew in number, the bounds of this small domain spread; and with it the need to trust implicitly the emissaries he sent to ensure the safety of its ever more distant parts. It was not just that it was impossible for him personally to order all that needed to be dealt with: as he wisely saw, he needed to keep his distance from, and remain ignorant of, such concerns. And so he nurtured and trained carefully his emissaries, in order that they could be trusted. Eventually, however, his cleverest and most ambitious vizier, the one he most trusted to do his work, began to see himself as the master, and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. He saw his master’s temperance and forbearance as weakness, not wisdom, and on his missions on the master’s behalf, adopted his mantle as his own–the emissary became contemptuous of his master. And so it came about that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins”

I think it captures nicely when we think we can forget the heritage of what we have learned.

The impact of the internet is in many ways less powerful in relative terms than the impact of the printing press, and that of quantum physics compared to the assertions of Copernicus when he challenged traditional religious thinking, and of Martin Luther when he published his 95 theses.

As we enter the disruption that will doubtless be caused by machine learning and articulate intelligence, we might do well to remember this.

We’ve been here before, and we can learn from those who were there. We are not smarter than them, just more recent.

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