The Fingerprints of History

There are a handful of times in my life where the first encounter with somebody stayed with me forever. One of those moments was in 2014 (15?) when I met Scott Krisiloff.

At the time, Scott was running an asset management company, but the thing that hit me had nothing to do with his day job. He told Josh and I that he was in the process of reading every issue that Time Magazine had ever published, starting in 1923. I couldn’t believe it.

Back then I was spending a lot of time filling in my historical knowledge gaps. The journey Scott was embarking on was next level.

I have described my learning experience as like when you get a new iPhone and it learns your fingerprints. You put your finger down, and some lines fill in. You pick it up and put it back down, and more lines fill in until the phone knows every angle of your thumb. You can’t possibly know everything there is to learn in the vast history of the world, but with every book you read, the fingerprints of history start to fill in the gaps. Scott has learned the fingerprints of history like nobody I have ever met.

I haven’t spoken to him since that first meeting, but we’ve mentioned his project numerous times over the years. So as we prepped for him being on The Compound and Friends this week, I was so excited to find out if he had ever finished. He did. Scott read ~4,000 issues covering 77 years, ultimately stopping in 2000 once his first child was born. The depth and breadth of his knowledge were on full display during our hour-and-a-half-long conversation.

Not only did Scott take years of his life to go through all of this, but he documented it for us to enjoy. From 1934-2000, Scott reduced each issue into the most salient points, which is overlaid on the price action of the stock market during that period of time.

I’m fired up to stand on Scott’s shoulders and read every single one of these monthly recaps.

I’ll leave you with 10 things he learned from this incredible experience.

The TIME Project

1) Compared to the scale of history, a human lifespan is relatively brief.  In the early days of TIME, the editors of the magazine began obituaries with the phrase “As it must to all men, Death came, last week to…” It was a reminder that eventually we all return to the same place no matter how rich, famous or powerful.  We all know that life is short, but watching the cycle of birth and death for entire generations drives home just how short life really is.  Over 77 years I watched multiple generations live life’s cycle.  I also got to watch the major events that shaped society during those life spans.  I noticed that major events happen relatively infrequently, are set in motion over very long periods of time and are driven by forces larger than any individual.  A human lifespan is incredibly brief when measured against that scale.

2) Focus on the things that matter.  We are all here for a short amount of time, so it’s critical to use that time wisely.  Wealth, fame and power won’t lead to immortality.  Societal memory is short and even those who make it to “the top” are eventually forgotten.  This happens even faster than you might think.  If you seek validation, personal achievement isn’t the place to find it.  Invest in family, friends and self understanding.  These are the things that will be most valuable on your journey through life.

3) Savor life’s best moments. There are a handful of times in life that everything falls into place and the collective energy of society reverberates with optimism.  These times don’t last forever, so it’s important to appreciate them when you have them.  In TIME these moments could often be traced back to single articles that captured the moment.  One of my favorites was the Spring of 1955, when “Spring was full-blown in the U.S., and the nation’s prevailing mood seemed to be as bright as its blossoms.  The people of the U.S. had never been so prosperous.”

4) The window you get into the world is relatively random. We all get a unique window of time on this planet and the events that we see are somewhat random.  The person who lived the core of their adult life from 1920-1960 saw a very different view of the world than the person who lived that life from 1940-1980 or 1980-2020.  Entirely different types of people would have thrived in those windows, and someone who may have been successful from 1980-2020 may have been stymied by forces greater than themselves from 1920-1960.  Winners and losers are determined in large part by chance and circumstance.

5) Just when you think you understand everything, everything will change.  When I was reading TIME I often imagined myself as someone who was born around 1900 and began a career in 1923.  By the 1970s I reached a point where it felt as if I had seen it all.  I had 50 years of career “experience” and cycles were repeating.  Then the 1980s happened.  Economic dynamics changed and turned everything I thought I knew on its head.  I learned from this experience that there are structural breaks in the way that the world works and more forces in play than anyone has the capacity to understand.

6) Human progress is the result of an ongoing relay race among generations.  At any given moment the planet is inhabited by a group of generations sharing a common experience.  As time marches forward, the baton of leadership passes from one generation to the next and eventually an entirely new group of generations inherits the Earth.  Each generation benefits from the wisdom of those who came before it and guides the course of society for those who will follow.  One of the more profound changes in generational leadership happened after World War II.  In 1945 TIME wrote “the way of man with man changes from generation to generation, and the way of man with a machine changes sometimes overnight. The war was bringing forward a new generation of men, and with them almost a new world of machines.”

7) America works best when we work together on big projects.  There is a school of thought that cutthroat competition leads to human progress.  I found that the opposite was true.  The defining event of the 20th century was World War II.  The War created a mission that was so important that it rallied an entire society out of Economic Depression and organized every hand toward a common goal.  The spirit of collective progress not only helped win the war, but endowed an entire generation of Americans with a sense of duty to community.  This spirit carried our country for decades after the war and led to unparalleled progress in both economic output and social cohesion.  We don’t need war to organize us to solve big problems.  We just need to set common goals that create a shared sense of purpose.

8) It’s critical that we protect our institutions.  Strong Institutions have much longer lifespans than any single generation or set of generations.  Because of this, they provide stability and guidance for subsequent generations.  It’s critical that we protect and grow our institutions as touch points between generations and epochs.  Beware of leaders who seek control of these institutions for personal enrichment and self aggrandizement.  Institutions that have been built over the course of centuries can decline over the course of years.  Seek leaders who are humble stewards and recognize that they are protecting something that is much greater than themselves.

9) Over the short term policy matters.  Over the long term science matters.  In 1999 TIME named Albert Einstein the Person of the Century.  It was the perfect choice.  The three finalists for the honor were Roosevelt, Gandhi and Einstein, but the magazine ultimately chose Einstein because in the end “politics is for the moment. An equation is for eternity.”  In the short term government has the greatest impact on economic cycles, but over the long term science and technology define the productivity and standard of living of humanity.  We should invest in science because this is an investment in the progress of humanity and provides a worthy mission to pursue while we spend our time on this Earth.

10) We all share a small world. In TIME’s Person of the Century issue it also noted that “Einstein taught the greatest humility of all: that we are but a speck in an unfathomably large universe. The more we gain insight into its mysterious forces, cosmic and atomic, the more reason we have to be humble. And the more we harness the huge power of these forces, the more such humility becomes an imperative.”  This was the most important takeaway from observing the passage of time over the course of three quarters of a century.  We don’t fully understand why or how we are here but we share our short time on this planet with billions of other souls who are each trying to make sense of the same world in their own way.  The need for compassion, empathy and humility is so much greater than the need for competition and conquest.

I first set out to read every issue of TIME with this spirit of conquest, but the experience changed me.  I learned that these goals can be personally and societally destructive and that victory won’t give you the wealth you seek.  As a result I will spend the rest of my life treasuring every moment that I have here with the people that I love.  And I will spend my working hours building and supporting strong institutions that promote human understanding.  

I imagine that anyone who lives a long life might draw similar conclusions about what is and isn’t important, and I feel that it is a gift to have been given this perspective at a relatively young age. Ultimately, by reading every issue of TIME I learned the value of time, which is, by far, our most precious commodity.