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Thinking in Time

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Thinking in Time

The Uses of History for Decision Makers

Free Press,

15 min read
7 take-aways
Text available

What's inside?

History teaches that the past can and should inform the present.

Editorial Rating



  • Comprehensive
  • Innovative
  • Concrete Examples


In this erudite text, Harvard historians and former presidential advisers Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May offer detailed examples of what went wrong to show that history teaches people and societies how to do what’s right. This compelling work covers debacles, disasters and decisions gone horrible awry, and the authors provide nuanced information on how to choose among options and implement decisions. Executives and anyone looking for decision-making guidance will find this a useful reference.


Leaders should study history before making major decisions.

The United States congratulates itself for improvising solutions to problems and innovating in untested realms. Having invented federalism, devised mass production and built the first atomic bomb, the US government has followed that inventive spirit in diplomatic and domestic spheres, but with sometimes unwanted results. Ignorance of history dooms society to repeat it and, too often, American policymakers have let faith – instead of informed common sense or sound judgement – guide their choices. As with sex education – wherein learning about the risks won’t stop you from trying it – you always make better choices when you gather information before you act.

History can help decision makers avoid situations like the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco which left President John F. Kennedy asking, “How could I have been so stupid?” Using investigative templates fueled by examples helps policymakers make better decisions. Those who “think in time” sharpen their forecasting skills, because they see that decisions taken lightly can exact a disastrous...

About the Authors

Richard Elliott Neustadt (1919–2003) taught at Cornell, Columbia and Harvard, where he was the first director of the Harvard Institute of Politics. Ernest Richard May (1928–2009) served on the 9/11 commission and taught full-time at Harvard for 55 years. He and Neustadt won the 1988 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order for Thinking in Time.

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