The Role of the Individual in History

As I hear more stories about what separates successful people, businesses, and ideas from those that fail a common theme emerges. There seems to be one crucial piece to all of those successes that despite everything else are consistent and necessary. It rings true for companies like Amazon and Coca-Cola to people like a Henry Ford and Gandhi. The common denominator came down to the conditions that existed at the time and the timing of their ventures. To simply think about this without the internet Amazon cannot exist. Without the internal combustion engine and oil, Henry Ford could not have created the Model T. Without harsh British rule Gandhi could not have started a non-violent revolution to win freedom for India.

As I listen to podcasts, read articles from leaders I admire, and read books, I take note of the other reading recommendations on what influenced their thought. I then go and each month order my list of books and one of those that was suggested was The Role of the Individual in History by Georgi Plekhanov. If I’m not mistaken it was a suggestion from Ray Dalio and was an interesting pick as Plekhanov is a Marxist and this shorter essay is discussing his arguments for the role of social movements in history downplaying the role of the individual in history. If you are unfamiliar with Marxist theory, which I am as well, (besides this essay and reading the Communist Manifesto for a college course) a central idea is the importance of social movements. This piece highlights how social conditions in the world set up individuals to become who they ended up becoming. An example would be the Sistine Chapel and Michaelangelo’s iconic work. The conditions of the need to extravagantly paint the Sistine Chapel led to this beautiful piece of artwork. If Michaelangelo hadn’t have done it some other painter would and we’d recognize their tremendous work. Plekhanov does not argue that it would have been exactly the same just merely that it would have been another painter whose extravagant art we would admire.

Sistine Chapel

So what does this piece on the role of the individual in history have to do with the opening of this post about the commonality in success being timing? The answer is that much of the conditions that lead to success are external and the stage must be set appropriately for certain outcomes to occur. With that, there is the ability for an individual or a company to step in to fill that need with their own ingenuity, determination, and a little bit of luck. Ultimately their timing and personality will shape the future in whatever endeavor they choose to take. The crucial key is that the conditions necessary to produce a success exist or come into existence. 

Again so what? To take this to be more practical it is important to recognize the change that is occurring in the world around us. You must be perceptive and see problems arise that must be solved and also recognize the conditions that exist to enable various approaches to solve that problem. In staying cognizant of the changing state of the world, business, politics – you can find a solution to problems that plague our world. You can create a successful business that helps poor people get access to basic necessities. You can start a movement that helps address issues of climate change if you so choose. But in order for you to do so, you must first dream and recognize the conditions to make that dream a reality. Elon Musk’s dream of having human beings the first multi-planet species (that we know of at least) is becoming a real possibility. Now there are many technological advances, political, and social hurdles that must be cleared before it can become a reality, but the conditions may exist soon which is one reason why he has taken prominence as an individual in our society. It’s easy to see that if he had lived 200 years earlier that he would not be seen as a potential visionary, but as a crazy person. Cars were not yet invented yet much less planes and even rocket ships. 

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Ultimately The Role of the Individual in History is up to you. You have the power to analyze, dream, and put into action your ideas. It is up to you to decide what your role in history will be.

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Think and Grow Rich – Book Review

Invest in Yourself

Overcoming Obstacles… Literally

The Undoing Project – Book Review

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