Adventures of a Bystander

Adventures of a Bystander



The Pequod Review:

Peter Drucker's Adventures of a Bystander is a collection of fifteen autobiographical essays, covering subjects as diverse as Henry Luce, Marshall McLuhan, and Karl Polanyi, as well as various family members, teachers and colleagues from throughout his life. Drucker's pieces are detailed and intelligent, but also lucid and personal. Here he describes some of the flaws in Henry Luce's editorial style at Time and Fortune:

Every first-rate editor I have ever heard of reads, edits, and rewrites every word that goes into his publication. Harold Ross did so at the New Yorker, as did Horace Lorimer when he built the old Saturday Evening Post from 1910 to 1930, Scott at the Manchester Guardian, Theodore Wolff at the Berliner Tageblatt, or Walter Bagehot at The Economist in London in the 1870s. Good editors are not "permissive"; they do not let their colleagues do "their thing"; they make sure that everybody does "the paper's thing." A good, let alone a great editor is an obsessive autocrat with a whim of iron, who rewrites and rewrites, cuts and slashes, until every piece is exactly the way he thinks it should have been done...

But Luce's "group journalism" tried to make newscopy impersonal by subjecting each piece to mechanized homogenization. This, I thought, guaranteed both bias and inaccuracy. Luce's proud invention was the "researcher" -- in those days always a woman -- who does the digging and then checks every factual statement, but who does not do the writing. This in turn means that the writer -- always a man in the early days -- does not do his own digging and checking. As a result the writer does not really understand the facts, and the researcher does not really understand the story. Gross inaccuracy is bound to follow.

He also knew Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan before either man became famous, and has unique insights into their styles and successes:

No two more different people could be imagined than Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan: in appearance, in style, in manner, in speech and, it would seem, in what they stand for. Fuller is short and round and speaks in epic poetry. McLuhan is tall and angular and utters puns and epigrams. But both men became cult heroes at the same time, in the 1960s. And both for the same reason: they are the bards and hot-gospellers of technology.


Bucky Fuller and Marshall McLuhan exemplify to me the importance of being single-minded. The single-minded ones, the monomaniacs, are the only true achievers. The rest, the ones like me, may have more fun; but they fritter themselves away. The Fullers and the McLuhans carry out a "mission"; the rest of us have "interests." Whenever anything is being accomplished, it is being done, I have learned, by a monomaniac with a mission. Bucky spent forty years in the wilderness, without even the Children of Israel to follow him. Yet he never wavered in his dedication to his vision. McLuhan spent twenty-five years chasing his vision until it captured him. He too never wavered. And when their time came, both had impact.

The monomaniac is unlikely to succeed. Most leave only their bleached bones in the roadless desert. But the rest of us, with multiple interests instead of one single mission, are certain to fail and to have no impact at all. 

And his experiences during the Depression were more ambiguous than the standard narrative:

The Depression was a catastrophe for many of the middle-aged from which they never recovered. It was a severe trauma, leaving permanent scars for children growing up in depression-struck homes where fathers suffered for long years of fear or unemployment that stripped them alike of their economic security and their manhood. But for people my age -- young yet grown-up, independent and healthy -- it was a bracing and exhilarating time. One had to work hard, to be sure. And Depression America was no place for any psychologically in need of security unless he latched onto a government job. Like the Irish clerk at the Immigration Desk, Depression America was not tactful. It was not refined. It could be dreadfully smug. But it was free from envy; anyone's success was everyone's success and a blow against the common enemy. Depression America encouraged, cheered on, helped. Whoever heard of an opening looked right away for someone who needed a job. And whoever heard of someone who needed a job, right away looked for a vacancy.

Drucker appreciates the role of chance in life outcomes, as when he describes the trip to a clock repairer that led to his first job at Freedberg & Co. as an analyst/economist: "I owe my career, in large measure, to a cuckoo clock, and a particularly ugly one at that." However, his observations of what constitutes astute business judgment (as embodied by the banker Ernest Freedberg) actually demonstrate somewhat simplistic and high-level thought processes:

It was easy to make fun of Freedberg. He himself often did. But his boast of the 200 years of banking in his bones was not altogether idle. There was wisdom in the old man, and great shrewdness. Once I brought him a proposal to underwrite the shares of a company. He took one look at it and said, "I see you expect this company to raise its sales and its profits both, by 10 percent each year for the next five years. You got this from the company's management, didn't you?" I nodded. "Any management that promises to raise both sales and profits simultaneously for any length of time," he said, "is either crooked or stupid, and usually both."

An American friend of the firm came to London with a proposal to form a syndicate to buy up U.S. railroad bond, which were then, in those depression years of the thirties, selling at enormous discounts. "The United States government cannot afford to let the railroads go under," the man from New York said; "and then it must, according to U.S. law, honor the railroads' obligations." "Nonsense," snorted Freedberg; "never believe that any government must do the honorable and decent thing. Governments are instituted among men to defraud the citizenry. The only laws they must observe are those of nature they cannot break."

Maybe the Flynn Effect applies not just to the general public, but to businessmen and management consultants too.