It's not about you

  Robert Brooks Editor-in-Chief  

It happens every summer. I begin to sift through the notes and details of someone’s life, and I wrestle with the enormity of their accomplishments, their influence, and their legacy. First, there is the shadow of my own lesser achievement. That’s not hard to recognize, but it causes this writer to proceed with less assurance. “What will happen if I screw this up?”

Writing the essay that installs someone in the FM&T Hall of Honor presents some difficulties –because it’s predetermined that the subject is one that will meet with recognition and approval. There can be no expectation of surprising or persuading the readers, only meeting their expectations.

How shall I begin? What shall I emphasize, and what details shall I sacrifice to the demands of time and space? It’s daunting because I’m mindful that my subject is not just a worthy individual in his own right, but represents an important part of many other lives. My writing can do nothing to change what the audience knows, but it certainly can diminish me if I fail to meet the standard.

After I wrestle with this dilemma for a while I force myself to remember what every writer should remember as frequently as possible, and as often as is necessary: readers don’t care what I think. Why should they? They want to be informed, reminded, reassured, amused. They’re not reading anything I write as a favor or tribute to me. They will take what they want or need, or return to their own business. That is as it should be.

This is a lesson of market economics. If I choose to sentimentalize the writing process, or to invest it with some abstract meaning that is important mainly to me, then I invariably complicate my task and slow my progress. There is a good chance I will fail at the effort, too, because the readers know the subject as well (often better) than I do.

Self-restraint is an undervalued quality in people. It’s hard to see it in action, and any satisfaction or rewards that humility brings are delayed, at best. But, the absence of restraint is obvious, and it’s almost always a point of weakness, or a cause for reproach.

The individuals we recognize in this issue are examples of a type of restraint, the quality that allows them to shape their careers with a constant understanding that there are needs and purposes greater than their own satisfaction — and yet recognition that addressing those needs and fulfilling those purposes will reward them appropriately.

If this is all too abstract, if I’m violating my own rule, then take this example. General Motors will stop production of the Chevrolet Volt temporarily this month, because the plug-in hybrid upon which the automaker has focused so much of its recovery and re-imaging effort has not met sales targets. (Reportedly, GM has sold 10,666 Volts in the U.S. through July, but the goal was 45,000.) Despite mostly positive reviews of the vehicle, despite strong promotion, despite rising gas prices, despite tax incentives and rebates to buyers — all of which should be increasing consumer interest in the vehicle, the market is not receptive to the Chevy Volt. This says nothing about the design of the car or its performance; it says everything about the supplier’s inability to understand what its audience wants.

At some point in recent years the decision makers at General Motors devoted the organization’s efforts to developing a hybrid car, and over time they elevated that development to a corporate priority, and then solidified the project as an organizational fixture. The company has been promoting the Chevy Volt as a high-concept solution to global problem, but most car buyers stubbornly insist that their choice of a car should suit their own needs. The time may come when buyers see carbon emissions as their particular concern, but until then GM has the wrong message and the wrong product.

It can be difficult to know what the market wants, and it’s especially difficult in a world with so many messages and so many clashing priorities. Getting it wrong can be embarrassing, or worse; the market may decide it doesn’t need you at all. But if we can point our audience toward their own success, no one will be unrewarded.

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