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The Low Bar of Authority

Updated: Aug 11, 2019

A few years ago, I had a very high-ranking elected official speak to one of my graduate-level courses on public policy. She gave a great presentation about state budgeting, education policy, and the need to work across aisles. When she was finished, she fielded a variety of questions, which ended with this one from a student: "What's the most important lesson you've learned during your time in office?" While I expected her answer to be something about collaboration, or the importance of public opinion, she instead said this: "Print your budget in color and on glossy paper. When budgets are on glossy paper, people can't make notes on them. And if notes can't be taken, people won't assume it's a draft."

She said this with humor, but she meant every word. And it stuck with me. Simply changing paper stock changes the authority of the document.

A few months ago our family went to our favorite taco place nestled inside one of our town's busiest shopping districts. Ecstatic to find an empty spot in the crammed parking lot, we all pumped fists in the air as my husband pulled into it. Just as we unbuckled and opened our car doors, we were approached by a police officer who said we weren't allowed to park there; only people shopping at the vintage t-shirt/macrame pot holder store could use that spot. He pointed to a sign that said essentially what he had just communicated, then crossed his arms and looked at us. Without more than a shrug, we got back into the car. After we found a spot four blocks away on a side street, my husband said, "Wait a minute. Wasn't that just a teenager in a SECURITY t-shirt?" Indeed he was.

Last week my husband and I traveled a few hours away to the town where I went to college for a book signing at the local Barnes & Noble. We weren't exactly sure what to expect from the event--every book event is different--so we were a bit excited when we showed up to see the parking lot was completely full and the store was overflowing with shoppers. We spoke with the store manager, Judy, who said, "Don't get too excited about the number of people in here--there's a children's choir singing in the kids' section in a half hour. They are all here for that."

Then she disappeared into the crowd, only to reappear a few minutes later with a handcart full of copies of my book and a card table. We helped her unfold the table and stack the books into neat piles on top, then she wished us luck and disappeared again among the crowd.

Jim and I both had nervous energy, wondering if we should call strangers over to our table, or if I should just start reading aloud in the middle of the store--which is where our card table was placed. Within minutes, my eyes widened as a woman made a straight line toward us.

I straightened my shoulders and my smile. "Hello!" I greeted her.

"Hi," she said flatly. "Where's the bathroom?"

"Oh..." I said, slightly deflated. "You'll want to head back behind me. Hang a left past the travel section."

That's okay. Common mistake. Our table was set up in the middle of the store, in a spot that was once customer service but had since been replaced by an obnoxiously large display of digital readers. I slapped my husband on the arm as I saw two women approaching our table.

"I'm looking for Fear, by Bob Woodward," one said without preamble.

I looked at my husband and back at her.

"Well," I finally spoke. "It's a New York Times Best Seller. So you'll want to check the shelf at the very front of the store. Can't miss it."

"But wait," my husband interjected as she turned to leave. "If for some reason it's not there, check the political science section, which is this way," he said, pointing to his right.

Eventually, a few college friends and former professors wandered in, making me jump out from behind my table to greet them with hugs.

"Wow!" one former classmate I hadn't seen in a decade said. "When I pulled into the parking lot and saw all the cars I realized what a big deal you are!"

No sense in correcting her. Besides, it was hard to talk over the 100-kid choir singing three rows behind us.

While signing copies for all those in the small semi-circle that gathered around us, a woman I didn't know approached.

"Sorry to bother you," she whispered. "But I'm looking for C.S. Lewis."

I looked up from my signature and said, "If you're looking for his theological work, you'll need to go to the religion section, which is in the back west corner of the store." She nodded.

"But," I continued, "if you're looking for his fictional work, like Narnia and such, you'll want to look at the fiction section in the front of the store. The 'L's' are over on the left-hand side," I gestured with my felt-tip pen.

And with that, we turned our attention back to the kind souls who came out on a Saturday to see me and buy my book. As the crowd around our card table started to deepen, the lady looking for Lewis came back by.

"I found exactly what I was looking for!" she beamed. "Thank you so much!"

I smiled and nodded, holding up my own book, "Any chance you're also looking for this?"

She shook her head and said, "No, but can you point me in the direction of the parenting books?"

I smiled, put my book down and pointed to my left. "It's over there near the kids' section."

"No it isn't," interrupted a deep voice off to the side. My husband, the crowd around my table, and I all looked over to see a man in a headset, polo shirt, and name badge. We stared on in silence as he continued.

"This woman is just an author doing a signing. She doesn't know what she's talking about. Do not ask her for help. She has no authority, she just looks like she does because she's sitting behind a table."

My jaw dropped open in shock, as did the jaws of those around me holding my books.

"Excuse me?" I sputtered, in shock. Hadn't I done this joker's job for the last four hours?

"Well," said the lady. "She's helped me find everything I needed today." She turned to my husband and me. "Thank you both," she said and went off in the direction I had pointed her, which was technically not the right direction.

I sold a lot of books that day. Caught up with a lot of friends and mentors. My best friend Kate showed up and spent the whole afternoon by my side. I was just so proud to be an author with books to sign and sell. But as soon as Judy reappeared from the stacks and dismantled my table, no one approached me. I disappeared among the crowd of shoppers. No one stopped me for copies of my books; no one asked me for directions to the bathroom.

I looked at my husband. He knew the look. I was feeling sad the event was over. "That was awesome, but I talked to more people about other people's books than my own."

"Here," he said, grabbing a copy of my book from the small stack we hadn't sold. "Watch this."

I followed him as he got in a line that snaked throughout the store. "I'm so excited about this book!" he exclaimed loudly in line. I burst into giggles as he went on. "I really need to buy a copy for every woman I know."

As we curved our way through the long line, several people looked over to see the commotion my husband was making. "I've never laughed so hard reading a book in all my life!" A woman a few spots in front of us craned her neck to read the cover. "What great insight!"

When it was finally our turn in line, the cashier took the book from my husband and said, "We've sold so many of these books today, and I've never even heard of it." My husband gasped dramatically. "Have you been living under a rock?! Meg Myers Morgan is THE hit new writer. You need to buy a copy of this book."

The cashier examined the spine, then flipped it over and carefully (and slowly) read the entire back cover, while dozens of people sighed behind us in line.

She shrugged. "Guess I'll have to check it out," she said as she put it in a bag.

"If you don't," my husband said with a smile, "you'll be the only one."

And with that we grabbed our copy of my book, and walked triumphantly out into the chaotic parking lot. I grabbed my husband's hand and squeezed it.

"Who made you the authority on what books people should read?" I laughed.

He smiled and said, "Authority is reserved for those who take it."


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