Personal Narrative Is Bad

The following speech was delivered by Ernest Leghorn at the quarterly meeting of the Society for Improvement of Culture on August 14, 2012.

Good evening. It is a pleasure for me, as CEO of Future Innovations Today, Inc., to be speaking to such a distinguished audience about the future of education. As you know, FIT has been working closely with school districts to promote best practices for a changing economy. Our top priority is literacy. We need to persuade schools to stop focusing on personal narratives (you know, those compositions about what I did over the weekend or my scariest memory). We don’t need personal narratives in today’s workplace. What we do need is evidence-based argumentative writing and informational text. This is what employers and colleges want to see; this is what’s missing from the typical curriculum. This is part of the reason why our schools are failing.

Now, most of you already agree with me, or you wouldn’t be here tonight—but a few may be wondering whether such a sea change is necessary. Well, it is necessary, and I will explain why.

I stand before you as a fairly well-known executive, to put it mildly, but I was not always so. I grew up in a small town in Virginia—Buchanan, that’s right, BUCK-an-an, and while we weren’t poor, we didn’t have many luxuries. I had my bike, my toy cars, my Nintendo, and that was about it. Then one day we came home, and the bike, Nintendo, and my mom’s jewelry were gone. Windows broken. Chairs tipped over. Someone had broken into the house, taken a bunch of items, and made a mess of things.

Well, I started having nightmares about robbers every night. My dreams would always start with the sound of footsteps outside. They’d grow louder and louder. Then I’d hear someone turning the doorknob. I’d remember, just then, that my dad forgot to lock the door. I’d hear the door open with a creak. Then footsteps again, coming down the hallway, toward my room. I’d jump up and press against the door as hard as I could—but the door would push open, and just when a face started to peek through—an mean face with crinkled brow—I would wake up in a sweat.

When I was old enough to have children, I made a promise. Never, I said, would I let my kids go through such a scare. I’d make sure the home was safe. I’d lock all doors. We’d install burglar alarms. I kept my promise to the letter: got married, had two sons, started working in the dot-com industry, made enough money to purchase an alarm system, and kept the house so safe and quiet that Bobby and Jimmy didn’t even know what danger was. They were innocent, happy boys. We lived out on the outskirts of San Mateo, California, on a long road with orchards and fields on either side. My wife worked in entertainment, so between the two of  us, we could afford this lovely property. The boys romped around without fear until late in the evening. We hardly ever saw a car from our window—except for our own two cars, that is.

One night, when everyone else was sleeping, I sat up and gazed out the window. The moon was full, and its light spilled silver on the peaches. But there was another light out there, or two. Craning my neck to the limit, I saw that it was a car. No mistake about it: a car that had paused right outside our gate and didn’t seem to be budging.

Suddenly I was in a flashback. The old terror returned to my head in a rush. But now, as a father, I had to brave it. I jumped out of bed, ran down to the second floor, and stepped out on the balcony, to make my presence known. That would be enough, I thought, to send him away. He didn’t budge.

I didn’t want the boys to wake up and see him. Whatever he was doing there, I had to get rid of him quickly. All the same, the thought of going out there to confront him (or her) made me tremble a little, even at my age. Maybe this was the very burglar who took my bike and tipped over my chair so many years ago. A crazy thought, I know—but such was my state of mind.

At last my concern for my sons overrode all else. I opened the door and walked out onto the path—in my bathrobe and pajamas. The car was still there, in a pool of moonlight, like a bug taking a bath. As I approached, I saw that it was a yellow Saab. Like a bee, I thought, about to collect its honey. Well, it won’t get my honey. I walked right up to it and knocked on the front passenger’s window, which then rolled down. I saw one man alone in the car, staring at a map that he had spread out over the steering wheel.

“Can I help you find something?” I asked, peering in.

“Oh, no, thank you.” He showed me his round, pleasant face, his curly hair and spectacles. “I’m just trying to decide where to go next.”

I left him to his decision-making and headed back to the house. I turned back once and saw him still in the same spot. But when I entered the house and looked out the window, I saw him pull slowly away. I never saw him again, nor did any car come to bother us.

You can imagine what impression this story made on my colleagues. (I wasn’t at FIT yet; I was just a manager of an engineering team.) They made a joke of it. Whenever I seemed in doubt, one of them would ask, “Do you need help finding something?” and I’d reply, “No, I’m just trying to decide where to go next.” Or I’d ask the question, and they’d give the answer. Pretty soon, it became part of our lore. People even forgot where it came from.

Sounds fun, eh? Yes, we had fun with that joke. Until the new director of employee relations came along. The CEO had brought him in to address some personnel issues, and one of the first things he did was to get to know people. He’d go on break and lunch with them and pick their brains about the atmosphere, tensions, inside gossip, all that. One day, he asked one of our team members whether she needed any help, and without thinking about it, she answered, “No, I’m just trying to decide where to go next.” He thought she meant she was leaving the company; when she explained herself, he was not amused. Language in the workplace, he said, must mean what it seems to mean, or else all kinds of misunderstandings can arise.

So he pulled us into a meeting and told us that the inside jokes and stories had to end—that those were suited to times of luxury, not times of austerity, like ours. “The successful worker of today’s society has to use words precisely, accurately, and strategically,” he told us. I, for one, wondered about the difference between “precisely” and “accurately,” but soon enough I learned that they mean quite different things. After all, you can be precise with a falsehood.

This man ended up teaching me everything I know about leadership. It’s thanks to him that I became CEO of FIT, an amazing company with phenomenally talented employees. I want to leave you with this thought. Life is short. Only so many words can go into it. We must make the most of these words and ensure that they are fact-based. If schools do this, then they will succeed.

But my story isn’t quite finished. As it happened, when I was giving this same speech to the Video Game Association last year, one of the audience members told me that the man in the yellow Saab was his brother, a famous writer. “Yeah,” he said, “Sam used to go out on drives, just like that, to explore towns and get some details for his stories.” At the reception, he showed me a picture. Not the same guy. Didn’t look at all like him. Still, I’d like to think that the Saab guy is a writer of some kind and that maybe I exist in one of his books. All of us, for that matter, may be in books without knowing it. Isn’t that even more reason to choose your words well? I would like to end with that thought. Thank you.

After a standing ovation, an audience member asked, “Mr. Leghorn, one aspect of your speech puzzles me. On the one hand, you say that schools should stop emphasizing personal narrative. On the other…” He paused. Others looked at him expectantly; he gulped and continued. “I hear that FIT employees get free movie tickets when they meet their weekly quotas. Aren’t movies personal narratives in a way?”

Elizabeth Annabee, the event moderator, stepped to the microphone. “That was a fascinating question. Thank you so much for asking it. But the banquet is waiting, and we must not let the food get cold. Thank you, Mr. Leghorn, for addressing us tonight, and thank you, members of the Society for Improvement of Culture, for taking part in this wonderfuland in more than one way deliciousevent.”

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