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9/7/2006 6:18:12 PM

September 7, 2006

Defying Historic Patterns

By Robert Ringer

Life is filled with paradoxes.

Example: You spend decades learning the rules of the game. Then, just about the time you’ve managed to accumulate some meaningful wisdom, the game ends.

Example: Children are one of the greatest joys known to mankind. But raising children takes more time and effort, and brings more grief, than perhaps any other undertaking. Worst of all, as every parent knows, it’s the ultimate thankless job.

Example: Any mature, rational adult recognizes that the best things in life are free. But the reality (which many people resist facing up to) is that in order to be able to spend quality time with your family, to smell the flowers, and to engage in relaxing activities, you need to spend most of your time working and earning money.

And so it goes. The paradoxes of life are endless. But the paradox I want to zero in on in this article is one that has been extremely important to my success. It has to do with the past as an indicator of the future.

A rational approach to life is to always consider the past when it comes to planning for the future. But even though the past is an indicator of the future, it does not dictate the future.

We see this over and over again is sports. In its first 80+ years of existence, the Green Bay Packers never lost a playoff game at home. Based on this ominous historic note, the ho-hum Atlanta Falcons shouldn’t have bothered to show up for their playoff game at Lambeau Field on January 4, 2003.

But, unfortunately for Green Bay, they did. As a result, the Packers’ 80-year, 13-game winning streak in home playoff games ended when the Falcons beat them 27-7. If the Atlanta coaches and players had allowed decades of history to intimidate them, Green Bay’s home winning streak in the playoffs might still be intact.

In more than 130 years of major league baseball, no team had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series. Nevertheless, the Boston Red Sox had the impudence — in the face of the Curse of the Bambino, no less — to play out the string against the hated New York Yankees.


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As a result, they not only became the first team in history to win four straight games after being down 3-0, they also became the first team ever to win eight straight playoff games when they went on to beat the St. Louis Cardinals four games to none in the World Series. To paraphrase one of the great intellectual giants of our time, John Madden, it’s why they play the game.

This same disregard for the past is just as prevalent in politics as it is in sports. History makes it clear that a large voter turnout always favors Democrats. So what happened in the 2004 presidential election? More people voted than in any presidential election in history, but the Republicans forgot to lose.

You can even mix sports and politics together to shatter historic myths. For example, no incumbent party had ever won a presidential election when the Washington Redskins lost their last home game prior to the election. The Sunday before the 2004 presidential election, the Redskins lost to the Green Bay Packers 28-14. But those stubborn Republicans still forgot to lose.

How about war? The United States has never had to concern itself with protecting its mainland from foreign invasion. The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was an aberration in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and the Japanese attack was on a military target, at that.

Yet, more than 50 years after Pearl Harbor, one man from a Stone Age country halfway around the world somehow managed to direct a catastrophic attack on the two most important cities in America — New York and Washington, D.C. The result was a horrific death for nearly 3,000 people and the complete destruction of the two tallest buildings in New York.

Likewise, business examples of false predicators of the future are endless. My personal favorite is the voodoo science known as stock market “charting.” Notwithstanding mountains of evidence to the contrary, investors still delude themselves into believing that charting the past movement of stocks is a sound way to predict the future.

When you watch a panel of chartists on one of the financial news shows on television, it’s hard to believe they’re serious. It is to their good fortune that there are always millions of people who are looking for a magic bullet when it comes to making money.

If you think about it, you can probably come up with a quick list of at least 20-30 more examples of past history being ignored by future events. The lesson to take away from this, in both your business and personal life, is that it’s important to recognize that whatever happened in the past does not guarantee that the future will follow suit.

There is no question that it’s prudent to study the past and learn all you can from it. But never make the mistake of confusing the past with the future.

The biggest problem with relying too much on past history as an indicator of the future is that it can become an invisible barrier that prevents you from coming up with the new ideas and concepts you need to create your own history.

Be careful about placing too much weight on historical patterns, because you can always find patterns in any collection of data. And, more often than not, such patterns are nothing more than coincidences — coincidences upon which myths and superstitions are built.

Who knows, the Cubs may even win a World Series in the not-too-distant future. As George Will pointed out, they simply had a bad century. If they believe they’re jinxed, all they need to do is think about what the Red Sox did in 2004 and they can write their own history in the 21st century.

And so it is with you if you refuse to allow history to constrain your actions of today.

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