Standing on Others’ Shoulders

“Don’t grab all the recognition for yourself—give credit where due!” The first expression of this sentiment was by Bernard of Chartres, who admonished his 12th century peers to show some humility when building on (or borrowing) the ideas of early thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle.

Sometimes we strut our stuff as though the entire idea sprouted from our 21st century brain with no lead-in from the past. I

Cedalion on the shoulders of Orion
Cedalion on the shoulders of Orion

have advised many graduate students come thesis time to tone down their claims for the latest school of thought being new and different. Jared Diamond in his Guns, Germs, and Steel called this “inventions by leap versus invention by creep,” with arguably 99.9% of all inventions the result of a slow creep of small, incremental modifications beginning centuries ago from unknown origins. The progression from boiling water in turtle shells to the modern steam engine is such a series of steps that creep inexorably towards, not the next best idea, but the next best tweak, accident, experiment, or blind piece of luck that yields an improvement—steps that couldn’t have happened without the efforts of those who tried before.

To claim that we have leapt to center stage with our invention is to arrogantly fail to point to those who have gone before us, unlike the basketball shooter who points to the assisting teammate who passed the ball to create the shot.

Here is a series of ideas that some have claimed to be giant leaps forward that in truth are simple builds, and in some cases just simple rewordings, of pre-existing ideas:

  • Mindfulness, a creep from Flow, which is a creep from Ram Das’s Be Here Now, which is a creep from Buddhist Sati
  • Children at Risk, from Underachievers
  • Accelerated Learning, a repackaging of known effective practices
  • Adaptive Leadership, from Transformational Leadership, from Theory Y Leadership, from Machiavelli’s Prince who eschewed rigidity
  • Adam 1 & 2, from Agency and Communion
  • The Learning Organization, from Theory Y Leadership
  • Emotional Intelligence, from Competency Measurement
  • Gallup Strengths, from Competency Measurement
  • Phillips’ Levels of Evaluation, from Kirkpatrick’s
  • Happiness/Well-Being, from Aristotle’s Eudaimonia
  • Sense of Self, from Self-Efficacy, from Self-Esteem
  • Innovation Management, from Change Management
  • Executive Coaching, from Organization Development

In the spirit of full disclosure, many have looked to my company as the creator of the Big Five. That is far from the truth. We crept from the work of Costa & McCrae, who built on Lew Goldberg, who built on Tupes & Christal, who built on Gordon Allport, who built on Carl Jung, who built on the Elizabethan theory of humours, who built on the 4th century theory of Hippocrates, who built on….

Always point to the minds that have led you—always acknowledge the shoulders that support you. Know that you are Cedalion on the shoulder of Orion.







4 thoughts on “Standing on Others’ Shoulders

Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on Spike's Afternoon Tea and commented:
    Really great post that presents an extremely valuable perspective. No idea exists in a vacuum. Even paradigm changing ideas have a preceding paradigm that they then change by initially attempting to conform to. Anything and everything we learn is shaped by our prior knowledge, and I know I owe a lot to Pierce Howard. I share his highly practical approach to psychology and emphasis on using all the knowledge you can from as many places as you can.

  2. Reblogged this on Coach Judy Nelson and commented:
    Pierce Howard’s gigantic brain and matching wit are in great form in this well-written post. As usual, he offers unique ways of looking things that make the reader stop, smile, maybe chuckle but always think. I feel enormously fortunate to know him and to have learned so much from him. (And, now, I need to go back and figure out what I owe to Mr. Aristotle!)

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