The Wisdom of John Steinbeck

I think the truly great writers are the ones to who have an ability to touch on ‘great (or universal) truths’ that maybe readers have always subconsciously known but never expressed, or never thought to try to express.  While working my ‘day job’ this week, I was reminded of a passage in Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley.  It’s about a third of the way through the book, when the author contemplates going into Canada, but is thwarted by some problem of his not having the proper certificate of rabies vaccination for his dog (the titular Charley).  He becomes exasperated with the customs people.  He says:

“I guess this is why I hate governments, all governments.  It is always the rule, the fine print, carried out by fine-print men.  There’s nothing to fight, no wall to hammer with frustrated fists.  I highly approve of vaccination, I feel it should be compulsory; rabies is a dreadful thing.  And yet I found myself hating the rule and all governments that made rules.  It was not the shots but the certificate that was important. And it is usually so with governments – not a fact but a small slip of paper.”

This is often true in the workplace – especially at unfortunate companies (like mine) which are now bound by the regulations of the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act. (By the way, thanks, Enron!).  The intent of the act is good and sound, the execution of it sometimes devolves into the equivalent of Steinbeck’s “certificate” and “small piece of paper.”  In the world of SOX, it often becomes not the control that’s been put in place or its effectiveness that‘s important, but the simple fact that “Yes, we have a control, and yes, we’ve checked it off.”



  1. Dale Barthauer said,

    July 10, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    Don’t get me started!


  2. stentorpub said,

    July 12, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    I just sat through a couple more meetings today where some of my colleagues were being insistent about “the piece of paper” without seeming to care about the value of the process. Exasperating…


  3. October 2, 2010 at 11:29 am

    While I am an anti-beaurocracy, papers in some cases are necessary. If you could trust people to always tell the truth, then you wouldn’t need papers for everything.

    It’s the same with SOX compliance, and while it always seems to go way too far, it is necessary due to the faults of some.

    If we can’t trust corporations not to package worthless securities and sell them for something of worth, then don’t you think rules need to be in place so we don’t have mass hysteria and people losing their homes, countries going bankrupt, etc?


  4. stentorpub said,

    October 3, 2010 at 7:14 am

    Agreed, as I am not an ‘anarchist’ by any means. 🙂

    However, I think Steinbeck’s point – and mine too I suppose – is that the process (the piece of paper) is what’s become ‘important’ and not always the meaning behind it. He even says “I am in favor of vaccinations, I think they should be mandatory” (I’m may be paraphrasing this a little, as I don’t have my copy handy).

    My book club read the book, “The Smartest Guys in the Room” (about the Enron collapse & scandal) in January of this year. I recommend that one if you have interest in SOX, Accounting, Auditing, finance (most of my book club are former/current banking industry people, so we ate that one up)



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