Saturday, 26 February 2011

Thoughts of a quote collector

Prompted by a reader who made some kind comments to this blog about my book 1000 Great Quotations for Business, Management & Training, I have decided to embark on a project. Every day from tomorrow I am going to publish here a set of quotes from the book until I have reproduced them all. I will continue with other postings too, but the quotes will be the mainstay of this blog for the next ninety days or so. By way of introduction I'll say something  about why I wrote the book and what it has in it.

I compiled this collection originally because I needed it myself. That is to say, my mountain of notes, cuttings and print-outs was threatening a landslide in my store cupboard. I could lay a hand on an appropriate quotation just when I required it, provided I had two days’ notice of the occasion and nothing else to do but sift through the pile built up over several years.

The project to create a book of quotations from the best of this random collection put a semblance of order back into my life and on the way provided me with a great deal of pleasure as I rediscovered some of the wise and witty observations that stirred me enough to write them down at the time, only to bury them under my own disorder.

One of the most difficult tasks in selecting material for the book was deciding what to leave out. It is a highly subjective choice, one which is bound to reveal my own slants and prejudices. I have tried, however, to keep the reader constantly in mind. I hope you will find among the thousand odd quotations that appear over the next few weeks many that apply to your own experience in the world of business, management and training (or any other walk of life), even though many stem from seemingly unrelated disciplines such as sport or mass entertainment, and may have been originally spoken or written in an age quite different from the one we know today.

Although I have tried to ensure as much variety as possible and offer a wide range of authors, some names do crop up again and again. The American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, is a notable quotable. Ironically, he is the man who once famously said ‘I hate quotations’.
Albert Einstein
The astonishing Albert Einstein is another I keep returning to, especially for his comments on creativity and learning. Motor manufacturer Henry Ford was a master of the memorable aphorism, as was author Mark Twain.

I have tried to reflect modern management thinking with an assortment of observations from contemporary ‘gurus’, especially those I most admire and in some cases have worked with – Tom Peters, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Warren Bennis, Peter Drucker. I do hope that the tiny nuggets of business philosophy I have chosen will inspire you to discover or renew acquaintance with their stimulating books or, in the case of those who still tread the conference platforms, go along to one of their electrifying presentations.

Not everyone represented in the selection is well known. Biographical details on the less than famous has been difficult to come by, which is why some dates are missing. In a few cases I have not been able to say with certainty what they do or did for a living, but I have been reluctant to lose some of my favourite quotations for want of a little information. Not that I would go as far as author Anatole France who wrote:

‘When a thing has been said and well said, have no scruple; take it and copy it. Give references? Why should you? Either your readers know where you have taken the passage and the precaution is needless, or they do not know and you humiliate them.’

One of the difficulties that attitude causes the scrupulous researcher is pinning down a quotation definitively to an original source. Some of the greatest orators (President John F Kennedy for one) thought nothing of slightly altering another’s observation or simply importing it wholesale into their own ‘original’ speeches and writings. Others may have done it unconsciously.

As a British writer one thing that struck me forcibly while I was researching attributions was how many of these quotations come from American mouths and pens. This is not entirely explained by the sheer size of the country or its position as the world’s most powerful nation. There is something cultural at work here too.

My contention is that Americans learned the value of the ‘soundbite’ long before the advent of mass media. The relentless presence of TV images across US society today may have developed their habit of packaging speech in exploding parcels, but the tendency seems indigenous. Even a casual comparison of US and English language patterns up to 200 years ago shows the Americans to be far less inclined to the elaborate verbal courtesies and locutions that characterised English opinion-formers of a past age. Vestiges of that linguistic difference (steeped, as it is, in class, education and tradition) persist today, though they are steadily being  eroded by the forces of globalisation.

I have wreaked my revenge on this horde of quotable Americans by ruthlessly anglicising their spelling. The Empire strikes back. As the critic James Agate wrote:
‘Your Englishman, confronted by something abnormal, will always pretend that it isn’t there. If, however, you force him to look into it, he’ll at once pretend that he sees the object not for what it is but for something he would like it to be.’

I have sorted my selection of quotations alphabetically into themes and subjects that I trust readers will find appropriate. Some of the distinctions are quite subtle; there are obvious links between Achievement, Success and Winning, for example, and between Failure and Mistakes. I recommend ‘surfing’ around associated themes for the best results.

I hope I have succeeded in avoiding the predictable and over-familiar. I want you to be surprised by unexpected gems, to experience the same pleasure I felt when I first came across them, to nod your head at succinct sagacity, smile at truths eloquently revealed, have your mind expanded by insightful observation and your heart lifted by inspirational thoughts.

I have tried to sow a little wit among the wisdom – a seedling from Groucho Marx here, from Woody Allen there.

Anyway, it all starts tomorrow. Let me know if you enjoy the offerings.

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