I’m editing an organizational history of an educational institution (for an upcoming major anniversary/fund-raising opportunity). It’s organized chronologically and contains a great many quotations from people active in the respective decades, gleaned either from their published writings or from author interviews.
The chapters have been coming to me in order, and I’ve noticed something.
The early chapters are fascinating. The people being quoted are long retired and have polished their anecdotes through frequent retelling. (In fact, some are deceased and the anecdotes are secondhand, retold by their adult children.) The stories are tight, pointed, and interesting.
But the most recent chapter I’ve received concerns the early careers of people nearing retirement age who are still working, still attending conferences, still schmoozing their colleagues, still getting grants, still asking favors. Their interview quotes are boring as hell. They pepper their answers with lists of names of people they want to be sure to flatter; they summarize their career accomplishments (or at least the stuff they’ve done that they’re proudest of, even if it’s not interesting to anyone else or relevant to the subject of the book); they pull their punches on any anecdote that might be amusing if you knew who it was about. The whole chapter is leaden.
This is not an editing problem. The author and I will tighten it up as much as organizational politics permit, and life will go on. I just think it’s fascinating how people in a given stage of their careers exhibit such a consistent response, in the way they write, to the external pressures that come to bear at that stage.
This is similar to the phenomenon that middle managers in hierarchical organizations have enough similarities in their behavior that Dilbert—along with countless sitcoms—resonates with nearly everyone who has ever worked in a cubicle farm. They’re not evil people, even if the way they behave, driven by the organizational structure, makes them seem that way.
We think we’re in control of our own actions, but quite often we’re deluding ourselves.