The Six Most Important Business Lessons From All of History

A few years ago, I decided to explore the outer limits of information overload. I decided to read the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover.

There were several reasons for this: First, my dad read the encyclopedia when I was a kid. Second, I love the notion of climbing mountains, but hate cold weather and lack of oxygen, so I figured this could serve as my intellectual Mount Everest. And third, it was my job. I had landed a contract to write a book about my quest. (The book is called The Know-It-All).

It was a strange and fascinating 18-month experience. Yes, painful at times, especially for those around me (my wife started to fine me one dollar for every irrelevant fact). Yes, I’ve forgotten most of what I read.

But still, I loved my 33,000-page experiment in extreme learning. Here I present some of my favorite business lessons from all of history:

1) Engage in Strategic Chutzpah

Barely any of the historical figures I read about got their big break while staying at home in their drawing rooms. They were bold. They got out. One of my favorite networking stories involves the poet Langston Hughes when he was a busboy at a hotel in Washington D.C. While in the dining room, he slipped three of his poems beside the dinner plate of established poet Vachel Lindsay. The next day, newspapers announced Lindsay had discovered a busboy poet. Hughes refused to let his dreams be deferred. In other words, he was ballsy. He engaged in strategic chutzpah (a phrase I will write about in more depth in a future column).

2) Take Ideas from Far Outside Your Field

For much of his life, Isaac Newton was a respected scientist with the then-traditional mechanistic view: the universe worked much like billiard balls colliding.

But in the 1670s, he became obsessed with occult books about alchemy and magic. He read about substances having mysterious sympathies and antipathies towards one another, forces that could affect something even without touching it.

His fellow scientists were likely concerned about his sanity. But these occult books allowed Newton to take an intellectual leap. This was his real apple. The idea of magical forces inspired him to envision forces of attraction that worked at a distance. It was a breakthrough that led to his theory of universal gravity.

Bill Gates famously takes a reading vacation where he devours books on wildly different topics to see what ideas percolate. Be bold. Be like Gates and Newton: Read far outside your field.

3) Keep Presentations Short

Consider the Gettysburg Address. Despite being president of the United States, Lincoln wasn’t the featured speaker that day. The big attraction was a two-hour speech by Edward Everett, a former Massachusetts congressman and president of Harvard, who was considered the greatest orator of his time.

Poor Everett. He probably spent weeks working on his speech, tweaking it, trying it out on his wife. On the big day, he went up to the podium, gesticulated and exhorted for two straight hours, mopping his brow, finishing with a big rhetorical flourish. Then Lincoln goes up to the podium. Two minutes later, Lincoln steps down and Everett is a historical footnote, some guy who yammered on before the Gettysburg Address.

Two hours versus two minutes.

I’m a huge fan of in-depth analysis, but I find it works better in books or conversations. For live presentations, I prefer the TED-approved 20 minutes or less.

4) Embrace Rejection

Well, if not embrace it, at least expect it. History is overflowing with lifelong rejectees who persevered until they got that single yes. To give just one example: Chester Carlson, the inventor of the Xerox machine, was turned down by more than 20 companies before he finally sold his idea.

5) Being First Is Overrated

This is a lesson I don’t like. I value originality, perhaps fetishize it. But the truth is, you don’t always have to be first. You just have to be better.

Perhaps you think, as I did, that Hydrox was a lame ripoff of Oreos. Actually, Hydrox debuted in 1908 (it’s named for Hydrogen and Oxygen). In 1912, the National Biscuit Company tried their own version. It was sweeter (never underestimate Americans love of sugar). As you know, Hydrox became the MySpace and Oreo turned into the Facebook.

6) Adapt or Die

The word “pivot” may be trendy, but companies have been pivoting for centuries. Thomas Welch was a 19th-century minister who avidly opposed alcohol. In the 1860s, he created a pasteurized grape juice and called it “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine.” He wanted churches to use it in communion. It flopped.

A few years later, Welch’s son took over and abandoned the fake wine idea. He instead marketed the juice as, well, juice. A tasty and refreshing treat. And that is why, today, my sons love their juice boxes, despite their father’s insistence that it’s basically tooth-rotting sugar water.

The Britannica itself has had to adapt. In 2012, they stopped printing those lovely leatherish volumes and went fully online. They’ve been eclipsed by Wikipedia in terms of page views. But I hope they’ll have the tenacity of Chester Carlson and hang in there.


A.J. Jacobs
Author, Lecturer and Editor at Large at Esquire magazine