I’m an old soul at heart. When I was young, teachers used to tell my parents that I was very mature for my age. Now that I’m not so young, I find myself gravitating towards the comfort of the recognizable, and the known versus the new and the cutting edge.

My music collection doesn’t have a whole lot in it from any year after I graduated from college. I have a bizarre addiction to pen and paper. I have nostalgia for the printed word. I gravitate towards classic design styles versus modern designs in almost all things, whether it be home decor, or tattoo styles.

This is all a little bit odd for a guy who works in technology, and even more odd when you consider that my particular role relies on using technology to create new and useful innovations. Hell, I spent the last seven years of my life helping to transform a print media company into a digital one.

There is often a competition between the old and the new. The old feels threatened by the new, while the new disdains the old. I’ve seen this in almost every facet of life.

This phenomenon exists in food. People who enjoy traditional cuisine feel offended by the way young new chefs have transformed it. I recently watched a TV show where David Chang unapologetically proclaimed that chefs need to get comfortable using newer methods such as *gasp* the microwave.

It exists in business. Old business models feel threatened by new technologies: The music industry and digital music. The publishing business and ebooks. The newspaper business and the internet.

It exists in sports. Young new players are accused of violating the sanctity of the game when they do outlandish things. Just recently, Jose Bautista – a baseball player with the Toronto Blue Jays – was criticized for violating the sanctity of the game when he “flipped his bat” after winning a come-behind game for his team with a home run.

All of this got me thinking about this competition between the old and the new, and how it shouldn’t be a competition at all.

New Is Not an Option, It’s a Necessity

Newness and innovation are not just nice-to-haves. They are necessities. As a species, we need innovation and we need to make progress if we want to increase the collective well-being of the planet. The alternative is to continue doing things the way we’ve always done them, while we continue to multiply, use up the limited resources our planet has to offer, and eventually kill ourselves off.

Like a shark that will die if it stops swimming, we need to constantly be moving forward.

The other night, I was discussing Mad Men with someone who said, “You know, I wish I had grown up in the ‘60s. It seemed like a simpler time.” Simpler, yes. Better, no.

Are incidents of cancer up from 1960? Yes. Are more people afflicted by anxiety and stress? Probably. And yet, the average life expectancy is up by nearly 10 years. The percentage of people living in poverty around the world is lower. The percentage of children that are educated, also up.

Everything that allows more of the population to live better lives comes from innovation. The only answer to the climate question is energy innovation. The only answer to overpopulation and famine is agricultural innovation. The only answer we have to many global issues is innovation.

Even things that aren’t necessarily bad can be made better through innovation. There was nothing wrong with the printed book, but being able to store an entire library in a device the size of a greeting card is better.

Old Has Been Around for a Reason

On the flip side, the old has been around for a long time. By definition. That’s not an accident. There’s a reason it’s still around. If there weren’t some merit to the old ways, they would have been swept away by the tides of history.

Publishers of printed books were certain that the book would disappear when the ebook came about. And yet, growth of ebook sales have slowed down, and printed books have picked up again, reaching an equilibrium of sorts.

If you compare a printed book to an ebook as a vessel for carrying information, the ebook will win out on most counts. What people who predicted the demise of the printed book didn’t think of was that a printed book is more than just a vessel to carry information. Printed books are decor. Think of a well curated bookshelf. Printed books are keepsakes. Think of books that you can’t bring yourself to get rid of because someone gifted it to you. Printed books bring back memories.

We need to respect the old. Not just because of some innate sense of irreverence, but because the old can teach us quite a bit. We can learn from the mistakes of the past, and from experience. Before dismissing the old it’s important to understand it. To study it. To research it.

We must find a balance between the old and the new. How can we take the old methods of building and improve upon them with modern technology?

Never dismiss what has come before. Dismissal leads to people being offended, specifically those that are still doing things the old way. We do not want to be offending those that do things the old way. Quite to the contrary, we want them to help us figure out the new ways to do things.

Dismissing the old is also how you repeat the mistakes of the past. I used to believe that studying history could only help you avoid past mistakes on some grand geopolitical scale (what would have happened if Hitler had learned from Napoleon?). But, in truth, the lessons of history apply in my daily life. Here’s an example that happened to me recently. Maybe it seems familiar.

A few months back, a new colleague joined our team. I’m going to call him Jim. Jim’s scope of responsibility was somewhat separate from mine, so I didn’t look too closely into his plans, but offered myself up as someone in case he needed any background on the team and role he was inheriting.

Jim and I spoke casually several times, but he never asked me anything about his team or his job prior to his joining. I can’t be sure why Jim never asked me, but I assume it was because I had been around for a long time, and he felt that we needed a fresh perspective.

Jim put together a plan for his team, and began executing it. A couple of months later, when I finally saw the plan, I was struck by deja vu. I scanned my archives, and pulled out a plan from Jim’s predecessor’s predecessor.

We had tried this before. With poor results. And we had the data and knowledge to prove it.

If only someone had just bothered to ask for it.

Old and New Working Together

The goal should be to take the old. Appreciate it. Study it. Love it. Then make it better. Progress is essential. The new ways have to be better than the old ways. But for that to happen, we have to understand and appreciate the old ways.

So, old soul, or no old soul, I will continue to appreciate the old, all the while keeping an open mind for how to turn it into the new.

Photo Credit: quinn.anya