The Breakfast Table

Boring People Doing Interesting Things

Dear Kara,

I know what that feeling is like–that feeling that you’re in on the ground floor of something really new and different and exciting. I know how jazzed you can get as a reporter. For me, that moment took place in 1982, shortly after I moved to Texas, when I was invited by T. Boone Pickens (does anyone remember him?) to watch him try to take over an oil company 10 times the size of his own. I had never written a business story in my life. I barely knew a stock from a bond. But for three weeks that summer I moved into the Waldorf Astoria and–much to the chagrin of his lawyers and advisors–watched Boone has he made his play for Cities Service.

It was the dawn of the age of takeovers; nobody had ever even heard of, say, Michael Milken back then. The size of deals were puny compared with what would later come. And, of course, takeovers were much more problematic as a social phenomenon than the Internet. But there was something about it that was sooooo compelling–there was so much drama, the stakes were so high, there were so many incredible ups-and-downs–that I was hooked. Hooked on this story, yes, but more than that, hooked on business as a subject to write about. Those were the days when you got the business beat after you’d been demoted from the obit page (I’m exaggerating, but not by much), and I felt as though I’d been let in on this wonderful secret: Business was exciting! Business was dramatic! Business stories were less about balance sheets than about egos and and pride and failures and triumphs and all the other things that are the grist of good non-fiction writing. Right around this same time, Norm Pearlstine took over at the Wall Street Journal and began emphasizing the drama of business, and everything began to change.

So I’ve been doing this now for (gulp!) 17 years, and while I’ve never had another story that gave me quite that same jolt, I’ve never stopped feeling that way about business. The secret’s long out now–not only because of the Journal, but even more because of the rise of the great technology companies, and the people who built them (Gates, Jobs et. al.) They fueled the popular imagination. Now everyone understands how exciting this is. And the Internet industry has only ratcheted up the excitement all the more.

The weird part about it all is that the people who build these companies are almost never exciting as personalities. (Boone, God bless him, was the great exception.) In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the same qualities that drive them to build empires make them lousy to write about. They usually lack introspection. They don’t want to recount the past, because they’re looking forward. They keep their cards hidden as much as possible. I’m not surprised that you say Steve Case is a cipher. From where I’m sitting, they’re all pretty much ciphers. That’s what makes this kind of journalism challenging–you’re too often writing about boring people doing really interesting things.

Michael Dell, anyone?