The Human Inclination to Rewrite History

“History is written by the victors” – maybe said by Winston Churchill
History is Written By the Winners” – George Orwell
“To the victor belong the spoils” – New York Senator William L. Marcy

Yesterday I wrote a post about my first experience as a venture capitalist. I didn’t try to dramatize anything – I just wrote what I remembered. I got a handful of emails from people involved in some way.

One line that jumped out at me was “Nice to see at least one guy who is not into rewriting history.”

Another that jumped out at me from a different person was “I didn’t know the history with you and Netgen.  Sorry that it was a hard experience.   The ironic thing is I have always considered you one of the three fairy godfathers of Netgen.”

Today Fred Wilson wrote a fantastic post titled “My First Investment“. He bluntly referred to it “a shitshow” in a comment on my post. Joanne Wilson also wrote about her first angel investment (Curbed) which recently had a nice exit.

I love these origin stories – both the successes and the failures. While I didn’t experience Fred and Joanne’s, they both write from the heart so I expect they are their truthful stories. But as I read so many other origin stories, especially those that are presented by third parties as histories or by respected thinkers, politicians, or journalists as justification for their current position, I’m reminded of the quotes at the beginning of this post.

I ran across a great juxtaposition of this today. On Twitter, I saw a link to a NY Times OpEd from David Brooks on marijuana titled Weed: Been There. Done That.I normally don’t pay any attention to what Brooks writes, but I clicked since it showed up in my Twitter stream and read it. It felt like bizarre, sanctimonious bullshit, especially the punchline “In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.”

So I tweeted something about whether Brooks still drinks alcohol in an effort to be amusing. I was then pointed on Twitter to an amazing post by Gary Greenberg, who was one of the people Brooks referred to in his OpEd about the kids he used to get high with. It was titled “I smoked pot with David Brooks.” Now, I don’t know Brooks or Greenberg, nor do I really have any stake in the discussion between them, but I thought it was an amazing example of how as humans we tend to rewrite history to fit our current circumstance.

Now, I don’t really care about the legalization of marijuana. I don’t smoke pot and haven’t since the one time I tried it in college and hated it. But I also don’t care if others smoke it – I have a lot of friends who enjoy it. And since I’m ignoring politics in 2014, I’m not going to pay attention to the legalization discussion.

But I do find the dissonance in origin stories to be fascinating. Maybe Brooks is remembering things differently. Maybe he’s limited by the number of words the NY Times allows him. Maybe he cares more about making a point about society linked to the legalization of marijuana. Or maybe he was drunk when he wrote this OpEd. I don’t know – that doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is that it’s important to always remember how origin stories get rewritten by the winners, by people in power, by people trying to justify their position, or just because it’s human nature. Being TAGFEE is really, really hard.

  • AppFusions


    • AppFusions

      (whoops – that was supposed to be my @ellenfeaheny twitter acct that I posted that with! Ah well!)

      • JLM

        You probably need a better CEO coach, no?



    Are you sure history is written by the winners? Our economy appears to disagree with you. I think maybe the winners are the ones who make themselves out to be the winners because they are the ones who write our history!
    Hey don’t put aside the pot issue. While I don’t smoke I have been reading that humans are hardwired with receptor sites for those types of plants. That would mean we were designed to use them to help us in some way. No not help us watch TV and eat chips.
    Where I live we have a very high instance, which just started ~5 years ago, of drug abuse and mental illness. Most poeple here just ignoe those problems and worry about their TV programs or getting drunk. But when I was a kid lots of people used pot and didn’t have anything to do with other hard drugs. But not that the war on drugs, which is focused on pot, had been raging for a few decades people are into much harder drugs!
    While I’m not a scientist and I don’t think people should light up and dorp out. It does appear that legalizing pot may be the best approach to fixing many of our major problems. If people can get pot which just grows in the dirt they might move away from the harder stuff that’s made in labs old using rusty tubs.
    I know this for sure. I’d rather have people around worrying about where they can get some snacks than have people around hyped up on stuff that makes them want to kill people!

    • As I said near the end, “origin stories get rewritten by the winners, by people in power, by people trying to justify their position, or just because it’s human nature.” So – not just the winners.

  • Christina Roberts

    So interesting, because I am getting my History degree and I have been feeling distressed about this very tendency (as I see it) to write a history based on an argument you want to support. Academically and as a scholar there is a certain process to follow, but can’t we usually support an argument (story, belief, idea) with documentation that we find which fits the argument? Don’t we automatically do that anyway? In other words, it’s hard to be objective when using documentation (whether it be written, verbal, digital, feelings, memories) to support an argument when writing history. So, in my academic career, however long it may go, I am going to find a way to make history and make the profession of writing history more scientific. How? Ya, that’s going to take a lifetime. But I will work something out!!

  • Suzy Hoover

    I have to agree with you Brad that origin stories get rewritten all the time, when I’m reading a story especially VC stories I am not sure if most of the times they are even half true. History gets rewritten all the time, I tend to be a investigator which drives my husband crazy… I love a great story but more importantly I love it when it comes from truth, the real details- the facts.

    • I’m probably extra jaded because so many of the VC / entrepreneur stories get rewritten over time. It’s really bizarre to read something about something you were involved in the beginning of, and see how different the story is being told. It’s not even the different perspectives, but just the different versions!

      • Last year I came across the Linkedin profile of an employee of a company I founded. I was surprised to learn that I had had little to do with the company’s success. Apparently, unknown to myself (the CEO) and my fellow directors and shareholders, this gentleman had been the driving force of the organization. It’s amazing how blind senior management can be. I wish I had realized at the time that this guy had been there, not at the very beginning, or for the first few years, but during those critical periods when we were fortunate to have him behind the scenes rescuing us from our own idiocies and building the company to its happy exit.

        • JLM

          Hahaha, I can certainly identify with that. A co-founder and I had a very successful exit after 12 years of travail. I read a guy’s LinkedIn page and wondered if my partner and I had ever even had a job there.


  • Here’s another quote for you: my favorite 🙂

    “Success has many parents. Failure is an orphan.”

  • oilburner

    FYI that Greenberg post was satire. He has since posted a header on the blog stating that he thought it was obvious-enough – why he thought that, I don’t know. Doesn’t take away from the Brooks piece’s sanctimonious attitude but who knows if he’s re-writing his history or not.

  • Brad, awesome writing. Love it.

  • Matt Richards

    The notion of forgetting all of the setbacks along the way to success reminds me of the book “Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins” by Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes. It’s a very quick, enjoyable read that explores this topic.

    • panterosa,

      Love that book! However, it’s important to note the other part of the title – The Innovation Paradox.

  • I deal with this in a different way. I am on the Board of Trustees of the We make every effort to use original sources in the museum at every step of the way. From written documents, uniforms, and oral histories, it’s important to get it right. In our last board meeting we were given text from a Primary grade textbook which contradicts the history of WW2. It reinterprets it for the current generation, using the current generation constructs and biases. I suspect we see this all the time in any number of things that are written with a historical bent.

    When history is good, and very valuable is when two people use the same original sources to draw differing conclusions and clearly state why, how and what reasoning they used to come to the result. Then you can walk down the path of their thought process and decide for yourself if you come to the same conclusion. Classic example is Max Hastings postulating that the Allies didn’t actually win WW2 as much as Russia won it. The war from Normandy to Germany was more of a second act. You might not agree with Hastings, but at least it’s very transparent as to how he came to the conclusion that he did.

    Venture is similar. Why did they invest? Why did the startup pursue this strategic option? Helps everyone learn-and I know if I keep it real about the time I invested in a company it helps me learn when I contemplate new investments.

    • JLM

      I happen to agree with Hastings but from a different angle.

      The Germans dissipated their combat power in Russia and were bled dry by the Russians and the Russian winters. It was a German strategic mistake of gargantuan proportions. The Germans lost the war in the East moreso than the Russians beat them.

      Even as bad as it was, if the Germans had been able to deploy all the combat power in Italy and France, they might have turned the trick in Russia.

      WWII might have been a lot different if Hitler had not decided to fight on two fronts simultaneously and had invaded Britain before taking on Russia.


      • Agree with you on Hitler not invading Russia. He was stupid in strategic planning. But, recall there were continuous (if not suicidal) bomber flights that began disabling the German war machine before the start of a two front war. The Russians also had no concern for human life, and simply hurled more men into battle.

        But, let’s put it this way. I am very happy for humanity that Hitler was stupid.

        • JLM

          German wartime industrial production peaked in 1944. Thank Albert Speer for that. They moved their industry beyond the bombers as a general proposition.

          If Hitler had withdrawn from N Africa, Italy and the Scandanavian countries — or had never gotten engaged — and made peace with or conquered the English and THEN attacked Russia, history would be dramatically different today.


  • I’ve seen this many times coaching startup founders. Several times I’ve had them tell me so-and-so, an older founder with a successful exit or company, told me I need a business plan. And I’m thinking to myself, that guy never had a business plan, I know because he told me. I guess they want to think they had a business plan because they want to convince themselves they had it figured out from the beginning. Why do they think that is a more interesting story than the real one?

  • JLM

    All war stories are at least 50% bullshit.

    It can’t be helped because things were happening so fast and a tiny bit of different angle of observation makes everything look different.

    Oral histories quickly become fables in which the teaching point may remain consistent but the foundation elements change radically. When the oral history is written down all the craziness is baked in.

    “It was a dark and stormy night…”


  • Especially in tech startups where there is no shortage of hubris, folks tend to bug-fix their stories to suit their own [almost arbitrary] gr-needs. So far I can count the number of people who I thought were TAGFEE-ish on one hand.

  • Bob Finegan

    Many of the history rewrites we see are conscious, self-aggrandizing deceptions. But some result more from the mosaic shifting of human memory, which isn’t nearly as accurate as many people think. Family history gets rehashed all the time in ways that breed conflict and reduce harmony.

    The title story and several other pieces in Alice Munro’s collection “The Progress of Love” contain fascinating examples of how faulty or selective memories put the “facts” of family history up for grabs.