When asked how to prepare children for the exponential progress of technology, iconoclastic economist Nassim Taleb answered, “Read the classics” (Antifragile, 320). He goes on to posit, “The future is in the past.” The best innovations, then, have an intimate understanding of the past, are doggedly present to the immediate moment, and have an imaginative openness to the future.
I continue to revisit the pregnant metaphor of improvisation as a guide for innovation, especially with the relationship to the past, present, and the future. A jazz musician must have a command of the past – scales, structure, and rhythms. A common story I hear repeats when musicians say they began in childhood by copying their favorite musician. First copy, then create. Stephen D’Souza and Diana Renner utilize this same metaphor in their collective work, Not Knowing. “[Improvisation] requires us to be fully present to deal with the unpredictability of the situation. It means being open to the possibility inherent in every moment and being prepared to let go of the plan” (Not Knowing, 243). Mastering the past and remaining open to the present is the only means for a valuable future.
Popular culture obsesses over the new, and often these innovations are untethered to a history. Apple’s product reveals feel more like worship services than their followers would care to admit. Obsession with innovation can be observed from the increasing use of “innovation” in literature over the past 25 years.
The mania around innovation must be tempered with at least two postures: a rootedness in the past and and openness to an old idea for a fresh time.
First, a rootedness in the past. Several cultures around the world offer proverbs about the connection between the past and the future. An Arabic proverbs reads, “He who does not have a past has no future.” Similarly, the Chinese attest, “If we don’t forget the things of the past, they will act as a guide for the future.” Traditioned innovations establish themselves in a meaningful past.
Second, openness to an old idea. The desire for something new and fresh should never trump the obvious solution from the past. While many leaders preoccupy themselves with a new idea, often real change is echoing to us from the past. Furthermore, real change often involves a painful and strenuous journey of the leader to bring about culture change far more than it is about finding a messiah in a new idea. Innovative leaders must be like the scribes who “brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52).
The postures I describe to the past and present enliven an imagination for the future. Perhaps War and Peace could inspire more creative shalom in its conflict and resolution than anything hitting the columns today.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (New York: Random House, 2012).
Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner, Not Knowing: The Art of Turning Uncertainty into Opportunity (New York: LID Publishing, 2016).