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Storytelling In The News: #166

A review of The Present

A new book by Spencer Johnson

A new book by Spencer Johnson, the author of “Who Moved My Cheese?”, comes at us like a new version of Microsoft Windows. Its predecessor is so ubiquitous and financially dominant that we may feel compelled to consider the sequel regardless of its inherent quality or interest.

Not a new book

In fact, we discover on the last page of The Present (page 107) that it’s not a new book at all, but rather a rewrite of a 1984 book by Spencer Johnson entitled, “The Precious Present”. The publisher, Doubleday, says coyly that each book possesses timeless truths and so makes both versions available.

Resemblances to Cheese

The Present resembles Cheese in a number of ways:

The Present has the same physical look and feel as Cheese – shiny white cover, big print. The Present is a slender 107 pages in very large print, only slightly more than Cheese’s meager 97 pages. It amounts to some 14,000 words, and is scarcely longer than an article. It can be read in about an hour.

The Present also telegraphs the quality of its writing with an obvious grammatical error in the very first sentence, using “who” rather than “whom”:

“an urgent phone call from Liz Michaels, who he used to work with”

Like Cheese, The Present comprises two stories – a fable of around 11,000 words, which is nested in a frame story of some 3,000 words.

The price of The Present is the same as Cheese – an expensive US$19.95 – and once again reflects milking to the maximum a market that is apparently indifferent to cost.

The story of The Present

The fable itself concerns the story of a boy and a “wise old man”, who tells the boy about something called “The Present” which he says the boy will find to be the most valuable gift of all. The old man observes the boy fully engaged in cutting grass. When the boy asks about The Present and how could he get it, he is told that it is so wonderful and would make him happier and more successful than anything else he could receive. As the boy grows into his teens, he keeps wondering about how and where he can find The Present. The old man tells him he already knows and points out how engaged he was when he was cutting the grass. The boy doesn’t understand and the old man tells him that The Present is a gift we have to give to ourselves.

As the boy grows into a young man he abandons the search for The Present, and he begins running into problems at work and in his personal life. When he is passed over for a promotion at work, he goes to see the old man who advises him to spend some time in the mountains and to reflect on times when he was most happy. As he is sitting in front of a fireplace in the cabin in the mountains, he notices how well made it is, by a craftsman who must have been as engaged as he was when he was cutting the grass. Suddenly in a rush, it hits him: he realizes he was living in The Present. The Present means focusing on what is happening right now.

Flush with his discovery, he returns to work with new energy and enthusiasm, and for a time he prospers as he is more engaged than ever before. But after a while, a female colleague lets him down by not doing her share of a common task and his performance suffers as he tries vainly to fill the gap. His passion and commitment catches the attention of his boss, and he meets a wonderful woman with whom he is developing “a great relationship”. Under attack from his boss, he returns to see the old man who advises him that there was another element to living in The Present: learn from the past. He returns to work, confronts his colleague and resolves the problem, and once again moves forward happily in his work.

He is promoted in his job to a new position and does well for a while until he is overwhelmed as a result of attempting too many tasks and wasting time on things that are not important. He consults the old man again and is advised that there is a third element to living in The Present: plan for the future. The young man starts planning his day, his week, his month, and once again finds that he is able to resolve his problems. At a budget meeting, when the firm is considering cutting out R&D for at least a year, the young man is able to point out this was short-sighted, since the quality of the firm’s products is already in questions. Later in the week, he is able to paint a picture of what a brighter future for the firm would look like, and indeed, in due course, one of the products developed is hugely successful (page 70).

As the younger man grows into maturity, suddenly the older man dies. This causes the younger man to reflect on his life and conclude that the older man had an element that he lacks – a purpose. He realizes now that this is the final element: It is only when you Live with Purpose that life lived in The Present has meaning.

The younger man decides that his purpose would be helping others discover what he had learned about The Present.

Over the years, the man uses what he has learned over and over again. He advances to become the head of his company and is admired by all around him. Why? He listens better than others and is able to anticipate and solve problems. He has a loving family. And he enjoys sharing The Present with others. He hands out cards with “The Present” written on it to everyone he meets and tells them the story. Eventually, he becomes an old man and as the story ends, he is telling a young girl about … The Present.

The frame story

The fable is nested inside a frame story which begins with a conversation between Bill Green, a busy executive, and Liz Green, a troubled young manager. Although Liz has received promotions, she isn’t enjoying her work as much, but is under stress from trying to do more with less. Bill tells her that he solved similar problems through a story called The Present. She is amazed that a simple story could do so much and begs to hear it. Bill assures her that there is a great deal more to the story than he had anticipated.

After Bill tells the story of The Present, Liz says, “I needed that.” She has been taking “many notes” on what she heard and then she leaves without much discussion.

After an unspecified period, Bill and Liz have lunch again, and now Liz looks refreshed, rather than tired or anxious. She reports that she is now learning from the past, and is also open to the future, instead of resisting her boss’s idea developing a new marketing plan.

She finds herself giving more attention to her son when he needs her and it makes both of them happy.

She also tells the story of The Present to her staff with astoundingly successful results. One salesman finds that by asking himself what his purpose is enables him to realize that meeting a sales quota is not as important as serving his customers’ needs. When he focuses fully on his customers and their needs, then amazing results just come on their own.

It also enables a friend to deal with an awful divorce by realizing that she has not been living in The Present.

It also facilitates a discussion between Liz and her husband about personal finances. By planning for the future, they are able to solve problems they had never been able to solve before.

When she tells the story of the The Present, Liz admits that not everyone “gets it”, but for most people The Present makes an incredible difference. And the more people in a group use it, the greater the benefit. Liz says she plans to have as many people in her firm use it as soon as possible. She tells Bill that for her The Present has changed everything.

The quality of the two stories

Given the slender content of The Present, a lot is riding on the quality of the storytelling. Unfortunately, this is not one The Present’s strengths.

As with Cheese, characterization in the two stories of The Present is non-existent. Setting is noticeable for its absence. The plot lacks any genuine conflict. Once we realize that the main point that “The Present” is “the present” and that living in the present is the Holy Grail we should have all been looking for, the story advances as predictably as we would expect. The characters appear naïve in the extreme e.g. the younger man discovering the value of planning when he is apparently in his twenties. Liz makes the same discovery even later in life.

The "timeless truths" of The Present

Living in the present

The central message of The Present – that one should engage intensely in whatever one is doing at the time, and give one’s full attention to whatever one is involved in, is one of the oldest messages in the philosophical handbook: carpe diem, as the ancient Romans would say. Yet given the rarity of its actual practice in modern society, a case can perhaps be made for yet another book urging people to pay attention to this ancient wisdom. Whether a book with such a message should be in the business book section of the bookstore is another question. Perhaps a more logical placement would be the Personal Advice section where it might rub shoulders with such profound tomes as THE SOUTH BEACH DIET or THE PROPER CARE AND FEEDING OF HUSBANDS.

According to Johnson, telling or hearing the story of The Present makes most people happier, more productive, more effective in meetings, more likely to get promotions, more likely to be attractive sexually and more likely to have satisfying personal and family relations. One is almost surprised to find that Johnson does not claim that The Present will also cure cancer or fix the hole in the ozone layer or guarantee eternal life in the next world. The Present does not present any credible evidence for believing all this. For those whose lives are not transformed in the way that Johnson described, perhaps his answer is that they have yet to grasp the hidden profundity of his message, and need to embody it more fully before they too can enjoy the seemingly magical powers of The Present.

Perhaps the biggest problem for The Present, viewed simply as a story, is the implausibility of the transitions which are mentioned, but not described in sufficient detail that the reader can imagine or live them as experienced, or get any sense of their likelihood. In particular, the workplace scenes are skimpy to the point of unreality.

In other books that have dealt with the theme of carpe diem, such as Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki (Weatherhill, 1997) the moments of insight are conveyed succinctly but vividly. But in The Present, with the possible exception of the young man’s discovery of the well-made fireplace, the epiphanies are described in vague, general terms that leave the reader wondering what exactly happened or whether the alleged causal connection is credible.

Learning from the past, planning for the future

The other core messages of The Present are so trite that one wonders whether Johnson may even be engaging in self-parody, although the total absence of any sense of humor anywhere in the book, makes that unlikely.

  • Learn from the past.
  • Plan for the future.

  • As to the final admonition to live life with a purpose, Johnson offers no advice on how to go about selecting: which purpose? The implication seems to be that any old purpose will do, so long as one commits to it.

    The one purpose that all the characters in both the fable and frame story adopt is: the further propagation of the story of The Present. Since this purpose happens to align quite nicely with large purchases of The Present and with enhancing Johnson’s financial interest in those sales, it is perhaps not surprising that this is the one purpose that meets with Johnson’s approval.

    Bottom line

    In The Present, Spencer Johnson has re-packaged in the same physical format as Cheese a poorly-told fable, originally issued in 1984, in order to cash in on the popularity of Cheese. The content is also as mediocre as Cheese, with the possible exception of its central carpe diem philosophy, which unfortunately is not reflected either in the fable or in the frame story with any vividness or concreteness.

    As in Cheese, the messages of The Present may be attractive to managements aiming to energize their employees without making any significant changes in the workplace: if employees can be happy doing whatever it is that they have been instructed by the management to be engaged in, then so much the better for the corporation. Presumably they will be more productive as well as more responsive to management instructions.

    To the extent that large sales and enthusiastic blurbs indicate that individual human beings have actually found satisfaction or learning from reading The Present, it seems likely that this will be the case only for those readers whose minds have been uncontaminated by education or prior intellectual activity.

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