Moonwalking Through History

An ancient Greek perspective on the passage of time provides valuable insights around the operations and expectations of our own modern business

With the turn of the new year, I can’t help but be a little bit reflective about where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re headed. And that seems an opportune moment to talk briefly about one of the most intellectually interesting models for understanding history to which I’ve ever been exposed.

Deep Survival, a fascinating study of the personality traits that separate those who live from those who die during disastrous circumstances of all kinds, is my favorite non-fiction book of all time. In it, author Laurence Gonzales ambles across history and geography in search of insights about his engrossing, if sometimes gruesome, field of study.

Among the many concepts examined within this text is a presentation of the conceptual model through which the ancient Greek culture understood the journey of its adherents through time. It may come as a surprise that cultures could understand such a basic concept as the passage of time in very different ways. The differences between our modern understanding of the passage of time [I’m talking experientially to a layperson here, not in any theoretical physics/relativistic sense] and that of the ancient Greeks are similar, with some subtly important differences.

Ancient Greek View of Time

The ancient Greek conceptual model of time consists of a person walking backwards through the unfolding of history.

Model Implications

Let’s put ourselves in the position of the walker in the ancient Greek model, and talk about some of its experiential implications…

Sensitive Footfalls

The most obvious implication is that you can’t see where you’re going! This is immediately disconcerting, demanding care in the speed with which we walk, as well as the sensitivity we invest in the feedback available from each footfall. In the diagram above, the walker won’t know about Experience E until he is upon it. Or it is upon him.

Forecasting the Future

If we can’t actually see where we are going, how can we possibly know what will happen in the future? WE CAN’T. The best we can do is to know what happened in the past, such as the diagram’s A and B Experiences, and forecast based on those. “When I moved in X direction, with Y gait, in the past, I received Z experience. The walker must make incremental adjustments to direction and speed based upon what can be learned from events that have already transpired.

Limits of Peripheral Vision

What are the physiological attributes of peripheral vision in human beings? Objects in the periphery are fuzzy, perceived without color or depth. The ancient Greek model leverages these physiological attributes to help represent the incomplete and confusing sense with which we often experience events in real-time. With Experiences C and D in the diagram, shapes loom large and we flinch as our involuntary defense mechanisms kick-in. Only with the passage of time — distance walked beyond an experience in this model — can circumstances be holistically understood. As demonstrated by Experiences A and B, perspicacity comes with context. And context comes with a breadth of vision.

“[Every time you step into a river, it is a different river]” — Heraclitus

Business Ramifications

Interesting, right? The ancient Greek model of understanding the passage of time brings with it behavioral implications based upon our own physiological interactions with the natural world. Let’s discuss some of these ramifications within a business context.

Primacy of Sensitivity

In a universe where our ability to sense the immediate future is limited to that which we can feel under the soles of our feet [think Wiley Coyote and that cliff], our investments in the machinery of sensitivity might be very different. While analytics, predictive modeling, and feedback mechanisms certainly play a role in many modern businesses, it’s fair to say that these pursuits would be wholly more central and universal if we were operating within the ancient Greek view of reality.

Limits of Forecasting

Expectations around forecasting in modern business are intense. There is an assumption that we should be able to divine future performance to a high degree of accuracy based on past experience. The ancient Greek model supports this assertion, albeit with a large caveat. Looking at past experiences can certainly provide indications of future events. However, our recognition that all of these forecasts are inextricably intertwined with the context of the past would be unmistakable. “YES, I can estimate future performance, BUT understand that those estimates are completely contingent upon the larger environment remaining static.” In this philosophical context, perhaps we would focus less on forecast accuracy and more on maintaining the agility necessary to roll with reality when our forecasts prove wrong.

Historical Perspective

There is an expectation in business today that we should understand events while they are underway. If you are good at what you do, you should just know. But the ancient Greek view accounts for the confusion that can accompany experiences in real-time, as with C and D in the diagram above. Further, it acknowledges that with time and refined context [better understanding the experiences, and the environment in which they unfold] the big picture and/or underlying motivations of experience become more clear. Our cultural understanding of experiences such as the Vietnam War, the 2008 Financial Crisis, and the Regan Revolution are more clear [if less visceral] today than they were when those events transpired. And it follows that the Social Media Revolution and the Trump presidency will be more understandable 5, 10, and 50 years after they have occurred.

From a business perspective, we might recognize that our ability to tangle with experiences in real-time will always be maladroit, due to the constraints of our own physiology. In response, resources might be allocated to teams specifically kept on the balls of their feet to bring force against unexpected events as soon as they are discerned. With the recognition that insight comes with time, organizations might invest more in cataloging their own experiential histories, searching for the truths exposed through those, and making them available as a resource across the enterprise as it contends with an unknowable future. When was the last time you met someone with the title, “Chief Archive Officer”? The ancient Greek model suggests that may be long overdue.

Conclusion

Business is a game of expectations. Users have expectations about their experiences, clients have expectations about the deliverables of their vendors, bosses have expectations about the behaviors of their employees. Expectations are the yardstick against which all performance is measured. With an inaccurate yardstick, even the best performance may be dismissed as failure. Within this context, we recognize the pivotal role of the conceptual models through which we define and quantify our expectations.

Understanding and examining the ancient Greek view of time provides a powerful exercise with which to shine a light on many of the attributes of our own cultural context. This juxtaposition elicits questions about our current assumptions that we might not otherwise have thought to ask, and provides perspective about alternative truths that might be lying just outside of our current visibility.

As you drive your own business into the New Year, try to ruminate a bit about the ancient Greek view of time, and harvest the truths it reveals about where you’ve been, where you’re headed, and the bond between the two.

Organizing people, process, and tools for scalable delivery — VP, Digital Operations, Univision Communications, Inc.

Originally published at on January 11, 2018.