On Thanksgiving Day, one of my dinner guests handed me what she called “an early birthday present.” Inside the exquisitely wrapped package I found an original copy of the book Predictions by the historian John Durant. A.S. Barnes and Company published the book in 1956, fifty-eight years ago. My guest works for a local used bookstore and had talked about the volume some weeks earlier. I’d expressed keen interest at the time, but never got around to going down to check it out.
Predictions is a compilation of illustrations and cartoons selected from a variety of vintage publications dating as far back as the early 1850’s “whose artists dipped pen and brush into the crystal ball and sketched the events of tomorrow.” Durant organized these pictorial predictions into general topic areas such as “The Airship to Come,” “Glimpses of the City of the Future,” and “When Women Get their Rights.” In all cases the author provided the date, source, and caption of the picture. In many cases, he also provided his own commentary about the content and context of the image.
I read the book through in a couple of evenings. As I did, I was struck more by Durant’s commentary than I was by the relative accuracy of the source material. In many cases, he was opining on a cartoon or image more than century old at the time he was writing. In my case, I was experiencing his viewpoint from the vantage of nearly sixty years later. In other words, the book has become source material for 1956 as well as 1856 simply because of the passage of time. Consider that the first working silicon transistor had only been developed two years before Predictions was published. The concept of the Internet was still over a decade away, along with many of the other conveniences of contemporary life that we take for granted.
John Durant himself is something of a mystery. His principle claim to fame was as a sports historian, beginning with The Story of Baseball in Words and Pictures (1947). His career in this vein continued into the 1970’s with such works as The Dodgers: An Illustrated History of those Unpredictable Bums (1948), The Yankees: A Pictorial History of Baseball’s Greatest Club (1949), Highlights of the World Series (1963), The Heavyweight Champions (1967), and Highlights of the Olympics from Ancient Times to the Present (1973). But during the 1950’s, he authored a series of books with his wife, Alice K (Rand) Durant such as Pictorial History of American Ships (1953), Pictorial History of American Presidents (1955), and Pictorial History of the American Circus (1957). As you can see, the visual image was a primary element of his work.
But despite all of these publications, virtually nothing is known about John Durant the man. I have been completely unable to unearth a single biographical fact on him, save what I found in this undated post by baseball author and historian Marty Appel. “We learn in Highlights of the World Series… that Durant was a sportsman. The author bio on the jacket says he was on the Yale track team, and went to England to compete against the Oxford-Cambridge combined team on behalf of Harvard-Yale, and that he was a champion hurdler and a member of the New York Athletic Club track team. We believe he was Yale Class of ’25…He wrote prolifically for magazines, including Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated, Outdoor Life and others, and was a Florida west coast correspondent for the New York Times for many years, writing fishing pieces and other sportsman like articles from his home in Naples.” That is all I could uncover after spending more time than I should have looking.
Such anonymity hiding in plain sight adds further irony to this perspective on perspectives. To be a published historian who lived into the early years of the information age and to have disappeared so thoroughly is certainly ironic and borders on the eerie. It goes to the heart of just how ephemeral a perspective – any perspective – really is. Each of the original predictions has a strong point of view, but many now appear nonsensical, unrealistic, or politically incorrect. Durant’s perspective suffers less from the passage of time, largely because he limited his role to that of historian but also because he offered no overt predictions of is own. Nevertheless, many of his observations – absent the technological and social changes of the past sixty years – still appear dated from our perspective.
But perspective is important. It provides a sightline for our thoughts and actions in the moment. What Predictions demonstrates is how perspective changes over time. Viewing the difference over the span of a century or two is easy. One can identify changes in social and technological conditions that have taken place. Recognizing the difference over the course of months or days is more challenging. The changes may be imperceptible but they are there. My perspective on Predictions has changed in subtle ways just in the few days I have been writing this piece.
Similarly, no two people can share precisely the same perspective on any one thing. We could be standing side by side looking at the same picture but our perspectives will be different because we are seeing it from slightly different angles, have dissimilar senses of color, have diverse tastes in art, and do not share the same knowledge of the medium. This is one of the fundamental challenges in meeting facilitation. How do we harness the diverse perspectives of the participants in the service of group alignment?
This is most easily accomplished by focusing first on the articulation and organization of group values and purpose. These are the components of identity. By establishing group identity early in the process, the group also establishes group perspective. Group perspective does not replace individual perspective, but it does give participants a tool that helps them step away from their own perspectives in order to see a problem from other points of view.
Values and purpose are clearly in evidence throughout Predictions. They are behind the message in every single cartoon in the volume and help to throw the change of perspective between then and now into dramatic relief. One wonders how these artists and satirists would see their own work if they could view it from our perspective. By the same token, if we knew that we could see our efforts from a perspective so far in the future, I suspect most of us would become too self-conscious to write anything at all. And then what would be accomplished?
In the spirit of this essay, I will end by making a prediction or two of my own. First, I predict that someone sixty years from now will stumble upon my body of writing in some digital dustbin and wonder who in the world wrote such twaddle. I also predict that, unlike with John Durant, the information age will have made my life an open book to my future reader right down to the color of boxer shorts I ordered from Amazon. I wonder if she will be appalled at my lack of fashion sense?
How do you reconcile diverse perspectives in your organization? Do you regularly examine core values and purpose?