Sunday's NYT opinion article of the above title and written by Geoffrey O'Brien brought a huge guffaw. A couple years ago I wrote an analogous post entitled, You are what you blog. But O'Brien's spin on the issue is exceptionally wise. Why? Because specific statements in aphorism form, especially in business and personal life, certainly about business relations, are nearly literal quotes from others.But research in anthropology and rhetoric finds that our use of these quotes is indicative of our internal life.
It's quite easy to figure out what's going on with most bloggers, for example, when we pick up on the fact that they seem to be quoting the same people or the same ideas regularly. Business, for example, used to quote Peter Drucker or Jack Welch. But now, along with Jeff Pfeffer and Bob Sutton, business bloggers regularly quote internet marketers, big data and iCloud gurus, Seth Godin and occasionally Malcolm Gladwell. Steve Jobs is worshipped. Tom Peters is passe. Krugman, Brooks, DeLong and Friedman still get plenty of attention, even though David Leonhardt is sometimes more substantial or immediately pragmatic and useful.
What's quoting all about?
Central quotes have a lot of practical applications. You can use them in after dinner speeches, writing blogs, and they may even serve as a model for a post or book that we're writing,
But as O'Brien writes, at a deeper level a person's embedded quotes are a response to a much deeper and even more profound human compulsion. As noted above, rhetoric and anthropology support that conclusion. In short, we do not select or use quotes willy-nilly. We choose them because they resonate with us.
A quoting parable
But, significantly, understanding how a quote works for a person can be a highly revealing aspect of that person's personality, motivations and values. As a consequence, quotes provide a way to understand, inform and even manage another person more successfully.
To get at what's actually under a single quote, here's a family of origin example that's brought laughter to our family for years, yet 14 years later is terrifically revealing. When my precocious grandson, Evan, was a little past three years of age and at our summer lake place, he sat one noon on the carpeted floor in the great room, looking at the stones they'd picked up that morning. His uncle, a geologist was naming them and explaining their background, and Evan was completely infatuated. His swim trunks were wet through and soaking the carpeting. His mother called down to him, "Evan, take off your wet shorts and toss them up to me." He turned momentarily, looked at her with that hilarious, somewhat disgusted look that only three or four year-olds can muster, and responded, "I've been thinking about that," and went right back to examining his rocks and getting a geology course. The quote had obviously been internalized.
His grandmother and I dissolved in a pool of laughter. I looked at my daughter and asked where that came from. "It's an exact quote from his father," she responded. It told us an awful lot about that little twerp.
There are a number of ways to look at this quote. Underneath every quote are any number of stories. Stories, of course, create our world, our perspective and ultimately our behaviors. They can be liberating or enslaving. And, they define us.
This is a classic comic quote. I don't merely refer to the fact that it's funny, ha ha, and we laughed long and hard. Technically, all comedy is a statement about a person's ability to succeed in life through his own wit, strength and wisdom. Harry Truman's, "The buck stops here," is identical in form to my grandson's quote. A more weakened version is the often-used, "I accept full responsibility."
In some families, the kid would have been paddled for such a statement. But he was--and is--the way he was because our family encourages independence of thinking and action, taking charge of one's life, finding the things that interest us, learning in every setting. What some view as meddling, irresponsible or presumptious behaviors, we tend to view as leadership. Thus, my grandson remains self-confident, open to newness and learning--behaviors that were obvious in that quote from the three-year-old.
When Harvey Golub was at American Express Financial Planners in Minneapolis, the ether was filled with quotes about and from Harvey. "The King (Harvey) said. . . ," or, "Harvey will figure it out." But they were not limiting quotes. Most of them gave wide parameters and lots of freedom to people, resulting in a highly successful organization, the most profitable in American Express' portfolio for a number of years.
The quotes were inevitably comic or fairy tale. Fairy tale is the sense that someone will come in and rescue the situation. The John Wayne stories of the cavalry coming in to rescue the settlers from the marauding indians is classic fairy tale. Thus, if a problem at Amex was especially difficult, it might be pushed up the ranks to Harvey and his team with a Harvey fairy tale quote.
There's a lot more in quotes than meets the eye. They can be very telling.
Flickr photo: christa.mary