On Grandfathering

Oddly enough, I was a History major in college. I picked History because I assumed it wouldn’t be that hard and because I was mildly enamored with the idea that history repeats itself. I believed then, as I believe now, that our ability to understand the present and the future is in large part predicated on how well we understand the past, and particularly our past behaviors as a species. And yet, perhaps ironically, I think our tendency to carry forward history is one of greatest inhibitors to our individual and collective progress. Allow me to explain.

As individuals, we are an amalgam of current thoughts, future perspectives, and past beliefs and ways of being. Too often we look at other people, we look at problems, we look at the world through a lens that is fogged up by those past beliefs and ways of being. We grandfather our often faulty notions and unhealthy biases into our present-day context, resulting in the wrong conclusions, perpetuations of flawed approaches, or worse, a furthering of the divide between how we see it versus how others, whoever that might be, see it.

Grandfathering is an insidious and unrelenting force in our lives. We bring old baggage into our relationships, into our work, into our professions. Even when we doubt the integrity of whatever is in the bag, we still push it to the fore of our actions and words because it is familiar, it is what we have known, and there is lovely comfort in that. Businesses fail because of grandfathering. Innovations don’t work because grandfathered thinking skews the solution. Peoples’ lives are held back from grandfathering. Even countries falter because they think going back is the best way forwards.

There are a multitude of grandfathering forms. Tradition, while mostly benign, is one; the idea that we always do something a certain way because we always have. It’s fine, but what if the way we did it when it all started is no longer valid? What if there might a better tradition to replace it? Another classic form of grandfathering: bad habits. I’ve always had a pint of ice cream at night, so I am going to keep having a pint of ice cream. We grandfather preferences, stances, beliefs, and fears. We grandfather the voices of our parents and predecessors, operating as if their opinions and criticisms are just as relevant today as they were when we first heard them. And the worse grandfathering is the grandfathering of bias. We carry forward incredibly slanted, often out of whack with the truth, views that serve no positive purpose. Where they come from exactly I do not know, but I do know we all have them.

I also know that the only way to get rid of grandfathering is to work harder at wiping the slate clean and approaching our lives and work with unfettered objectivity and unbridled open-mindedness. To look at the situation, approach the conversation, tackle the problem with a purity of thought and little if any baggage from the past. It’s brutally hard, but it can be done.

One month into 2019 the question is not what do we intend to do differently in the months ahead but rather what of the past will we no long grandfather, what ways of being and believing will we finally let go of in order to embrace the truth and the progress it holds.


chris colbert