Men and women really do live in different worlds,” says Eliza G. C. Collins, a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review , in a recently published book entitled “Dearest Amanda … ”: An Executive’s Advice to Her Daughter . To my dismay and despite my considerable skepticism, Ms. Collins’s book led me to suspect that those worlds differ more painfully than I had ever imagined.
Her publisher originally advertised Collins’s book under the title Letters from a Self-Made Businesswoman —a title that seemed deliberately to echo the title that George Horace Lorimer, the editor of The Saturday Evening Post , chose more than eighty years ago when he published one of the most popular business-advice books that any American has ever written — Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son . Moreover, though her publisher claimed that Collins’s book would be written in the “unique form of a motherdaughter exchange of letters,” in fact the book is a one-way correspondence—exactly the form that Lorimer used.
But sex makes all the difference. Once we get past the similarities of title and form, we find that the letters of Lorimer’s self-made businessman differ immensely from the letters of Collins’s self-made businesswoman, and the differences have little to do with the distance between 1902 and 1985.
In letter after letter, the message of Collins’s businesswoman to her daughter is that she must fight to conquer feelings of inferiority and worthlessness:
I simply don’t accept that certain “screwups” … happen because there’s “something wrong” with you and whatever you touch will molder or tarnish.
What is this nonsense about you having been partly to blame?
The only way out of this muddle is to fight the root problem: feeling unspecial.
What will matter is … whether you can feel worthy of success and can accept it as your own.
The key … is a clear sense of your own self-worth.
Whereas Collins’s businesswoman never stops trying to encourage her daughter to feel better about herself, Lorimer’s businessman never stops trying to discourage his son from puffing with unearned pride: “I would feel a good deal happier over your showing if you would make a downright failure or a clean-cut success once in a while, instead of always just skimming through this way. It looks to me as if you were trying only half as hard as you could, and in trying it’s the second half that brings results…. Of course, you are bright enough to be a half-way man, and to hold a half-way place at a half-way salary by doing half the work you are capable of, but you’ve got to add dynamite and ginger and jounce to your equipment if you want to get the other half that’s coming to you.”
Collins’s businesswoman never lashes at her daughter in this way. She criticizes, but nearly all of her criticism is aimed at her daughter’s low self-esteem. On one of the rare occasions when she makes a criticism that relates to performance, she begins with an apology (“Bear with me”) and after a tentative sentence or two, interrupts herself with a flurry of self-accusation: “Oh, God, this is a ticklish business and I feel way out on a limb here. …” Another time, a moment of mild criticism leads to a paragraph of contrite self-analysis: “When I chided you for being soft on your coworker, was I beating you up a bit? It feels that way.”
Lorimer’s businessman is rarely content merely to chide, and when he explodes, he never frets that his outburst might bruise or break his son’s frail ego. It is impossible to imagine him advising his son to “be gentle with yourself…” as Collins’s businesswoman advises her daughter, and impossible to imagine him worrying that his son has been working so hard that “you’ve given yourself zero time to enjoy yourself.” No time for enjoyment is exactly what Lorimer’s merchant (a pork baron modeled on Lorimer’s early employer Philip D. Armour) recommends: “You’ve got to get up every morning with determination if you’re going to go to bed with satisfaction. You’ve got to eat hog, think hog, dream hog—in short, go the whole hog if you’re going to win out in the pork-packing business.”
Lorimer’s businessman has to be tough on his son because the boy is soft on himself, whereas Collins’s businesswoman has to be soft on her daughter because the daughter is tough on herself. Out of opposite premises—a son inclined to indulge himself, a daughter inclined to belittle herself—we get very different books.
The literary critic Leslie Fiedler once wrote about the thrill that we feel when a writer “seems a traitor to those whom he loves”—a thrill that comes “when Dante turns on Florence, Molière on the moderate man, de Sade on reason, Shaw on the socialists, Tolstoy on the reformers, Joyce on Ireland, Faulkner on the South, Graham Greene on the Catholics, Pasternak on the Russians and Abraham Cahan or Nathanael West on the Jews.” For me, the best moments in “ Dearest Amanda ” are the moments when Collins’s executive gets tough on women:
Something stinks in the Garden of Eden when we pretend to like people simply because they are women. Some women are not likable …
Don’t we stray awfully close to underwriting the female stereotype when we forgive each other for behavior that in a man we would revile?
While you console yourself with a lot of feminist hyperbole about bad bosses keeping women in their place, it may be that he’s telling you something about the way you do things …
Every man I called either answered his own phone or called me back in person when I couldn’t reach him. Every woman had a secretary answer the phone or place the return call…. All the women, every damn one of them, acted out the old male stereotype about power and availability.
Passages like these seem to me useful because they withhold sympathy. But on the whole, though usually I think of myself as a splendidly sensitive fellow, the letters in “ DearestAmanda ” are too tenderhearted for my taste.
Collins is also the author of “Managers and Lovers,” an article about the perils of office romances that made quite a splash when it appeared in the Harvard Business Review several years ago. It remains to be seen if “ Dearest Amanda ” will be equally successful. Certainly it seems unlikely to create anything like the stir that Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son created at the turn of the century.
After eight years working for Philip Armour, a disastrous venture as a wholesale grocer, and a couple of years working as a newspaper reporter, George H. Lorimer eventually became editor of The Saturday Evening Post —a decrepit magazine with a distinguished heritage—in 1899, at the age of thirty-two. Under Lorimer’s direction, his biographer John Tebbel writes, “the Post became a magazine edited for the whole United States, interpreting America to Americans, with a particular accent on business.” The magazine’s circulation rose from about eighteen hundred in 1898 to one million in 1908 and stood at more than three million at Lorimer’s retirement in 1937.
The rise in circulation resulted partly from the interest inspired by the publication of Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son as a series in 1901–02. It quickly became clear that Lorimer’s businessman spoke a language that Americans wanted to hear. The book is full of lines that will please any reader who likes plain talk: “Remember … that it’s easier to look wise than to talk wisdom.” “Money talks—but not unless its owner has a loose tongue… . Poverty talks, too, but nobody wants to hear what it has to say.” “Education will broaden a narrow mind, but there’s no known cure for a big head. The best you can hope is that it will swell up and bust.”
Lorimer’s book inspired a host of imitations and parodies, including Letters from a Son to His Self-Made Father, Letters from a Tailor-Made Daughter to a Home-Made Mother, Letters from a Custom-Made Son to His Ready-Made Father , and Will Rogers’s Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President . Though Collins’s publisher rejected the title that originally caught my attention, I think it fair to add her book to this list.
“ Dearest Amanda ” is a modest book full of sensible advice and written in a straightforward rather than a jazzy, savvy, or smart-alecky style. It runs against the current of many recent works in which women teach women how to make it in a man’s world, delivering their lessons with a calculating or cheerfully cynical tone. In Betty Lehan Harragan’s Games Mother Neuer Taught You , for instance, after noting what she describes as an “excessive devotion to duty” among women in the work force, the author comments tartly: “Redoing someone else’s work is not your job… . Someone else’s failure to perform is not your problem.”
On the same subject, Collins’s businesswoman writes, “My experience is that most people simply don’t look beyond their own purviews. They are content with doing what is on their desks, eating what is on their plates, and looking out the same windows day after day. … There is a measure of security to be gained from limited routines, but it means that in every organization many eyes are blind.” Collins wins the point on substance, but people who yearn to feel savvy will prefer Harragan.
Collins has something to say not only to women managers but also to their fathers and husbands and to anyone in business who supervises or is supervised by a woman. Several years ago I discouraged a woman manager who reported to me from attending a seminar on “Fundamentals of Management for Women.” Thinking myself very clever, I asked, “In what way are the fundamentals of management for women different from the fundamentals for men?” Today I might resist the temptation to be clever. The question still strikes me as a good one, but I’m no longer sure that the answer is obvious. In fact, I’m no longer sure that anything about men and women in business is obvious, except that, here as elsewhere, life would be simpler if we didn’t have to worry about human beings with their inconvenient passions, aspirations, and insecurities.