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Storytelling In The News: #167

Review of The Fred Factor

A book by Mark Sanborn

June 2, 2004

The Fred Factor is a book written by a motivational speaker, Mark Sanborn. It was pointed out to me as an example of “business fiction” but in fact it is supposed to be based on a true story.

The basic facts of The Fred Factor

The Fred Factor is 112 pages in small print. It has some 28,000 words, about double that of The Present by Spencer Johnson.

The Fred Factor is written in simple readable prose, and unlike The Present, it is at least grammatical.

The price of the book is US$14.95 compared to The Present’s $19.95.

In terms of value, The Fred Factor amounts to around 1,900 words per dollar, compared to The Present’s meager 750 words per dollar.

The story of The Fred Factor

The Fred Factor is based on what is said to be a true story – the story of Fred the postman, who really exists and continues to work in Denver as a postman. Fred’s story is told in a couple of pages at the start of the book and most of the rest of the book consists of lessons that Sanborn draws from the life of Fred.

Essentially Fred approaches his boring job as a postman with enthusiasm and keeps energetically searching for ways to add value for those he serves. He introduces himself to newcomers and finds out about their lives and needs. He starts responding and anticipating those needs in various ways. He makes special arrangements for the mail when residents go on trips. He notices when UPS has delivered a package to the wrong house and restores it to its rightful owner. He does the right thing by putting stamps on letters that he himself sends and delivers. He takes a personal interest in the neighborhood even when he is not on duty. Because he approaches his work with enthusiasm, Fred doesn’t find it boring. Instead he gets deep satisfaction from it. That’s pretty much it, in terms of Fred. Out of this slender material, Sanborn concocts a whole philosophy of working and living.

We are introduced to “the Fred principles”:

  • everyone makes a difference
  • success is built on relationships
  • continually create value for others
  • reinvent yourself regularly
  • These are hardly big new ideas, although they are presented here, one more time, smoothly and engagingly.

    We are presented with a couple of Fred look-alikes, including:

  • the flight attendant who entertains passengers with humorous announcements
  • the hotel employee who goes out to get a client a special breakfast.
  • the barman who lends Sanborn $30.
  • the young Colin Powell who demonstrated energy and perfectionism even as a young boy performing cleaning duties.

  • Part Two of the book discusses “becoming a Fred” in terms of the each of the Fred principles. We receive chatty examples and benign injunctions, such as “be interested” and “be empathetic”. Occasionally, a more serious thought strays across the pages, such as “Tell the truth” (page 52), which is acknowledged to be a basic value, but the book doesn’t pause to consider the implications or difficulties of always telling the truth and quickly passes on to other less challenging instructions such as “add good stuff” (page 54).

    In Part Three of the book, we turn to “developing other Freds” by finding them, by rewarding them, by educating them and by demonstrating Fred-like behavior.

    Who is Fred?

    It's interesting that after reading a whole book ostensibly written about Fred, we don't know much about him. Part Four introduces us to “Fred today”, and we learn that that he is interested in music and that he repaired drums when he was a boy, and that he has a wife called Kathie, we discover little else.

    We don’t know for instance where he grew up, what his father and mother were like, what his school and teenage years were like, what is his family status, whether he has children, where he lives or what his family and his own neighborhood thinks of him, or what he does in his spare time. Does he watch TV? Does he read books? Does he have any interests? What are his politics? Who does he vote for? Is he a religious man? We have no idea. Apart from some fairly routine endorsements of “the Fred philosophy” concocted by Sanborn on pages 102-103, we never find out what Fred really thinks about things.

    Fred remains a kind of “stick figure” in a parable, rather a fully depicted human being that we would discover in a biography.

    Why is this? Sanborn is telling a springboard story, in which the story of Fred is merely a scaffolding to get readers thinking about Fred-like actions. In this sense, the real Fred is not merely irrelevant. If we knew a lot more abouto him, that might well get in the way of convincing people to become more Fred-like.

    I don't know what Fred's politics or religion really are, but let's imagine we did know. If we knew that he voted Republican, this could turn off Democrats. If we knew that he was an atheist, this could turn off someone with a strong religious belief. Or vice versa. Keeping us in the dark about much of "the real Fred" is key to persuading to think about the implications for their own actions.

    The philosophy of The Fred Factor

    The messages in The Fred Factor are harmless enough although they are not exactly new. They will hardly be revelations to anyone who has read Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” or Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking”. The idea that we should be more generous and large-spirited in the daily conduct of our life has a long history and is hard to argue with, so far as it goes.

    As a philosophy of life, however, it has significant limitations. Sanborn’s book essentially argues that we should accept our lot in life, particularly our work, however boring and mundane it may happen to be, and approach it with energy and enthusiasm. The idea that one might ask a question as to why the work is so boring and mundane, or what can be done to change it, never seriously enters Sanborn’s world of unending optimism and positive attitudes.

    The Fred Factor should thus appeal to a corporate management looking around for a book that might energize or cheer up a demotivated workforce. It may be cheaper and easier to distribute the book than to actually make jobs more interesting or give workers a say in how the work is organized.

    Sanborn is thus a preacher of a well-known brand of secular religion, spreading syrupy optimism and good cheer wherever his gaze turns. Those who go to hear him speak apparently say that they come away energized and inspired.

    The Fred Factor may even encourage the odd individual to look on life more optimistically and to act from time to time in a more positive way. The world will be a better place if that happens. Those who read his book will find in it a kind chicken soup for the world-weary worker.

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