Kodak missed out on digital film. Blockbuster missed out on digital video. IBM missed out on personal computing. Microsoft missed out on the smartphone. Yahoo missed out on Facebook. The music industry missed out on Napster.
The list goes on.
If you read business books, you know that these stories seem to form a whole subgenre of their own. You might call it the “Wrong Side of History” story. There’s no more powerful way to convince a young, inexperienced business owner to comply with your advice than to tell them about a company that didn’t and then ended up on “The Wrong Side of History.”
This threat holds tremendous power over not just business owners, but parents and scientists and politicians and writers and artists. It’s natural. We want to be remembered well by future generations. We want to be remembered as the people who were ahead of our time, not the people who were left behind by time.
There are several deep problems with this way of thinking, despite its seductive hold on our minds.
1) It’s Entirely the Wrong Motivation
Really, if you’re deciding what calls to make at home or in business on the basis of what a bunch of unborn people will think about you a hundred years from now, you need to get your priorities straight. It’s one thing to spend your life trying to earn the praise of the people around you. It’s one step worse to spend your life trying to earn praise which you’ll never enjoy from people you’ll never know.
This is no way to be happy. It’s a moving goalpost set only by the rule “I can only be happy when I do the things which other people say are worthwhile.”
Has anyone ever done or built anything interesting, let alone lived happily, by following the crowd this avidly? If you’re constantly worried about being on the right side of history, you probably won’t be. I’ve seen plenty of people become bitter and act destructively just to hold on to their claim to potential future fame and just to avoid potential future shame. They would do far better to learn and move on.
The people who do end up on the right side of history are usually trying to do what’s right or what works, not what will be praiseworthy to future generations. They care about the absolute good – the values closely tied to working with reality (at least as they see it) – instead of the relative good of outside opinion or feeling.
2) You Can’t Plan for It
Hindsight is 20/20. It’s the kind of vision that makes all of the Wrong Side of History stories possible. However, anyone actually living in the present, let alone doing something challenging, has to deal with a serious case of nearsightedness.
It’s not clear at all what the “winning” future of an industry will be when you’re trying to make ends meet in the moment. It was probably not at all clear – either to incumbent or innovator – that digital film would wreck Kodak’s business model. It can’t have been obvious to anyone at the time that the smartphone would take off. Every new innovation or action we take comes with uncertainty in both directions – our new attempt may fail, or it may cause what came before to fail.
You have to make a hypothesis and choose one risky way or another in life, but you can’t know the winning side until the game is played and all is said and done. Trying to plan to be on the winning side is a great way of avoiding the necessity of playing the game in the first place.
Ironically, if you are focused on avoiding the fates of past companies or people or groups, you have already adopted a past-centric focus. That past-centrism will hobble you. It will prevent you from doing the work that prepares you for the disruptions that come with time.
3) The Right Side of History Doesn’t Exist
The temporary prejudices of the past that eventually end up on the trash heap of history also include prejudices of what belongs on the trash heap of history. Humans’ ideas of the Right Side of History change with every generation, and they are prejudiced by the same things that prejudice your generation’s decisions. Who is to say that a future generation’s judgment of your story is right, or that it’s worth a second of your time?
Today we joke about Blockbuster’s demise as a clear case of myopic decision-making. We remember them as being on the Wrong Side of History. 50 years from now the narrative may completely flip: they were a pioneer of personal video consumption – the Right Side of History.
Our idea of the Right Side of History is not an absolute but a guess that comes and goes with us. The judgmental hindsight of a future generation will also be another prejudice. Don’t let this cleverly disguised case of FOMO control your actions or ruin your happiness in the here and now.
So by all means prepare yourself for the future. But do that by embracing the new and uncertain and doing the work to turn them to your benefit. Don’t treat them as enemies to be bested, and don’t treat the future’s opinion as your trophy to be won.