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by Rod D. Martin
September 21, 2015

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One of the most essential keys to success? Study those who’ve gone before.

History gets a bad rap. Children are conditioned to hate it: they are told it’s boring, they are told it’s all memorization of facts and dates. And sadly, all too often, that’s exactly how their teachers teach it.

But history isn’t facts and dates. History is a story, the narrative of those who’ve gone before. And very few people make it into the history books unless they were pretty successful, or at least if their story wasn’t pretty interesting.

To the degree that success is about solving problems (and that making money is about solving other people’s problems), history teaches us both the nature of those problems and how other people solved other problems before us.

The first of those is essential. You can’t solve a problem you don’t understand. This is the great handicap of many a diplomat hoping to bring peace in the Middle East. They don’t speak the language, they don’t grasp the history (both macro and micro, national and personal), and so they try to apply “solutions” that only make sense from half the world away.

Programmers are no different. Were it left to software engineers, you would be using MS-DOS version 27.3, not Windows or a Macintosh or a smart phone. The command line interface makes a great deal of sense to a programmer. Their customers, and particularly the many people who were not their customers yet, thought otherwise. Better appreciation of the customer’s perspective resulted in market growth from a few million units to billions.

History frequently teaches that perspective, or at least the need for it. History certainly teaches the nature of problems that need solving.

But perhaps most importantly, history teaches us the example and accumulated wisdom of successful men and women.

For many of us, Steve Jobs has been a major figure for much of our lives. To those being born right now, he’s just another dead guy. “Bor-ing.”

Are there any other boring guys we could learn as much from as Steve Jobs?

Without a doubt. Take Bill Clinton, one of the most successful politicians of our time. Aren’t there many things to be learned from him, not least his willingness in 1991 to take on a President with a 90% approval rating when the Democratic Party’s anointed ones would not? And likewise, might Clinton have avoided nearly derailing everything if he’d learned a bit more from David and Bathsheba?

Could Hitler have learned anything from Napoleon’s invasion of Russia? Did Stalin?

James J. Hill built the only transcontinental railroad that took no government money and no government land grants; it was also the only one not to go bankrupt. One could study Hill’s life and accomplishments profitably for many years.

Everyone can name men like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, and even perhaps a couple of their accomplishments. But what was really involved in creating the modern assembly line? What did the financing look like? How did both of these men turn novelties into mass consumer products? Where did they fail, and what can we learn from that? What did they learn from that?

Perhaps the single biggest lesson to be learned from such men is this: they absolutely uncompromisingly steadfastly refused to quit. Understanding the magnitude of the difficulties they faced and the tenacity and ingenuity with which they surmounted them will put iron in your spine and courage in your soul.

Someday, when Martin Laboratories invents warp drive, it will be in part because of all the naysayers who confidently believed that Chuck Yeager could never break the sound barrier.

From Scipio Africanus to Richard Morris, from Hudson Taylor to Henry Flagler, from Fred Harvey to Ray Kroc, history is filled with extraordinary tales of success and failure from which we can learn far more than we would any other way.

Study those who’ve gone before. You’ll learn how little you really know, and how few of your ideas are really original. You’ll also learn how to become truly great.

This article appeared in Inc. Magazine, and originally appeared as an answer on Quora.