This is a homework assignment that I often use with my doctoral students who are starting a qualitative dissertation. I want them to think about where they hope they will arrive, a year or so from now, when their dissertation is completed. So I ask them to imagine that they are being interviewed on National Public Radio. They must explain what they learned, in a way that the average listener can understand and find interesting. Of course, my students do not know yet what they might hear from the people they interview, but most of them have some ideas about this. As an example, I give them my version what I might say if, by some miracle, NPR wanted to interview me about one of my studies. You might find it useful to write something like this for yourself. It will help you focus your ideas. Six months from now, when you are feeling totally lost, you can reread whatever you wrote to help you refocus. Okay, here is my version. Have fun with this.
INTERVIEWER: Ok, Rick, I understand you have written a book called, “Middle-aged Sons and the Meaning of Work.” What can you tell us about it?
RO: As the title is supposed to suggest, it is about how men think about their jobs. But it’s an unusual take on the subject. It’s not about earning a living, or being promoted, which is what men really talk about most of the time. Instead, it’s about something that most of them don’t talk about much at all but that I think is always lurking somewhere in the background and that is the idea that whatever we do as adults, including our careers, always has in it some echo of who we were when we were much younger. I think that some men use their careers as a way of coming to terms with their fathers. That’s not all that work is, of course and maybe it is not true of all men, but I think it is true for many of them and that is what interests me.
INTERVIEWER: How do you make the case?
RO: You might think of this book as being like one of those novels where the action keeps shifting back and forth between two time periods. There is one story that takes place in the present, and then there is another story about what happened some time ago say, thirty years ago — and we keep shifting back and forth between those two times. And eventually, at the end, those stories come together, and we see how they are connected.
The story that takes place in the present (that is, at the time when I interviewed these guys) is all about their careers; the older story is about what it was like for them to grow up in their families. What connects the stories, although you don’t figure this out for a while, is something to do with the quality of relationships that should be more personal than they are.
When men talk about their work, they talk (at least in part) about the people around them: their boss, their employees, their customers, their competitors, and so on. Sometimes they have pretty intense relationships with these other people. But they have a funny way of talking about these relationships. They all say something like the guy in the Godfather: “It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.” (That’s what he says before he kills the other guy. I guess that’s supposed to make him feel better.) Of course, what we understand in the movie is that it is all very personal what could be more personal than killing someone? And what you start to see in these guys’ stories is that their business relationships are also very personal but they are careful to say that this is not so.
Go back thirty years. When these guys talk about growing up, and especially when they talk about their fathers, they also tell you about a relationship that was very personal and emotional in some ways. They’re talking about their fathers and, at the same time, somewhat distant. Just about all of them, one way or another, talk about how they were not as close to their fathers as they might have wished. Either their father was kind of cold, or disapproving, or judgmental, or, in one case, abusive. And, of course, they still love their fathers, but you get the sense that they grew up hungry for more of a connection with them.
So what you see at the end is how these two stories come together. The relationships these guys have with other people at work are a mixture of being intensely personal yet distant and the way that this is true and it is true in a different way for each guy is similar to the close-but-distant relationship he had with his father. And the sort of trouble these guys get into at work, the way they make bad decisions, or the way they are dissatisfied, starts to make sense when you see how, for them, what goes on at work is sort of like a re-enactment of what went on thirty years ago when they were trying to make that connection with their fathers.
INTERVIEWER: That sounds pretty complicated. So when you explain all this to the men you interviewed, do they say, “Oh yeah, you’re right.” Or do they look at you like you’re crazy?
RO: I never really said all this to any of them. I mean one of them I think saw some of this it was pretty unmistakable, and he was a pretty insightful guy. But the others, no. And I didn’t really see the connections until I was through with the interviews and reading through the transcripts. A lot of the time, I didn’t realize what I was hearing until the interviews were long over, and I had a chance to really think about everything carefully.
INTERVIEWER: Why didn’t you show them what you wrote after you were done?
RO: Partly it was just inconvenient. I didn’t finish writing until long after I did the interviews. But that is really an excuse. I could have gotten back in touch with them. The real reason was that a lot of what I said about them was pretty rough. They did not end up sounding like heroes. I saw some of them as pretty immature and unpleasant guys. I don’t think they would have liked reading what I wrote. I did show a chapter to that one guy I mentioned. He said his girlfriend read it to him while they were driving somewhere, and he liked it. But then, I liked him. He was pretty confused about his life too, but at least he was honest about that. I guess that came across in what I wrote. But the others would not have been happy with me. That’s the upside of writing a book that hardly anyone has read. I don’t need to worry about them coming after me.
INTERVIEWER: So how do you know if you are right? I mean, it’s just you making these connections, so if the guys are not agreeing with you, how do you know? And if someone who reads your book doesn’t see it, why should they be convinced as a reader?
RO: That’s a great question, and there is no good answer. All I can do is present the evidence. And the evidence is, you line up the quotes. You show a reader, “Here’s what the guy said about whoever it was — his boss or his co-worker or whoever — and here is what he said about his father. Do they sound similar to you?” And of course the quotes never line up perfectly. It’s not like these guys are talking in some kind of code where the number one always stands for the letter “a,” 2 stands for “b,” and so on. You have to recognize the similarities. And sometimes those similarities are obvious, or at least they seem obvious to me, and sometimes not so much. It is speculative, I admit, but I can’t think of any other kind of proof. But I don’t think there is anything unusual about this we do this all the time. You listen to a friend talk about the new girlfriend and you say to yourself, “Oh, that’s just like what he said about the last girlfriend.” We recognize these patterns in the way our friends talk. We say, “He always says that.” So it’s not like I am doing anything unusual here. I’m just pointing out different sorts of connections than most of us usually think about.
INTERVIEWER: So, okay, supposing you’re right and you convince me. Why does it matter? I mean, is this going to help these guys live better? Will they be better at doing their job if they figure out these connections? I mean, why should anyone care?
RO: That’s another great question, and I’m not sure I have a great answer. No, I don’t think this book is going to help anyone do better in their career. This isn’t “how to get along better with your boss by realizing that he is not your father.” For me, this is part of a larger way of thinking about how we all live our lives. I have this sense that all of us, all the time, are living in multiple chapters of our lives, at the same time. We are living in the present moment, of course, but at the same time we are living with the echoes of the past and maybe an idea for the future. All going on simultaneously. And all of those memories of the past and hopes for the future are bouncing around in our experience of what we call “Now.” And sometimes we are aware of that, and most of the time we’re not. I think life is richer and feels more intense if we are able to catch a glimpse of those echoes.
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