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“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
This would appear to be a powerful statement of personal empowerment and forward-thinking vision. In fact, it is precisely the opposite.
The truth is this: if we don’t master our language, we can’t be masters of ourselves. Because we think in words, sloppy speaking will inevitably produce sloppy thinking. And if we aren’t thinking clearly, then we don’t know who we are, what we believe in, or what we stand for.
What are some of the worst offenders?
- Political correctness
These are all our enemies. The reflexive recitation of words bereft of authentic meaning constitutes much of talk radio, and it may offer a convenient refuge from having to defend our opinions with hard facts and sound reasoning. But we don’t open up lines of communication and cooperation by hiding from clarity and logic.
Verbal interchanges have become so glib, so vapid, and so superficial, that anything short of a complete overhaul of our language will not do. But some popular expressions are worse than others, and here is my short list of the worst offenders, phrases that should be punishable by law.
“I’m just saying.” No you’re not. You’re just blathering. What is this even supposed to mean? I know you don’t want to hear this but I’m saying it anyway? I know you don’t care about my opinion but I have the right to express myself? If something is not worth saying, don’t say it. If your advice or opinion won’t be heeded, don’t bother. But if something needs to be said, don’t deflate your message by giving the listener permission to disregard it.
“That makes no sense.” Well, how would you know, since you obviously haven’t invested enough time thinking about it to evaluate its potential for veracity? The universe is full of weird and wonderful phenomena that, superficially, appear to make no sense. The computer screen you’re looking at right now is composed of molecules, which are composed of atoms, which are composed of tiny particles orbiting other tiny particles at near-light speed, but which are composed mostly of empty space. Does that make sense? The ideas we dismiss because they challenge our preconceptions may turn out to make plenty of sense once we make the effort to understand them.
“It’s a thing.” I don’t know when this insipid verbal blob crept into common usage. It has become so pervasive that I can’t even remember what we used to say. Probably “it’s a guy thing” or “it’s a work thing.” Now even that modicum of clarity is too much trouble. But almost any linguistic alternative would be preferable to this meaningless arrangement of syllables. In his prophetic novel 1984, George Orwell described how a totalitarian government controlled the minds of the populace by eliminating all insurgent vocabulary. The goal was to reduce the language of Newspeak to a mere 200 words, rendering people incapable of formulating complex thoughts that could lead to organized rebellion. What Orwell never imagined is that people would willingly lobotomize themselves the same way.
“I’m entitled to my opinion.” Of course, you are. But remember what the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said: You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts. In this brave new world of virtual reality, opinions and feelings carry more weight than data and logic; similarly, pseudo-information is indistinguishable from real information because we don’t invest the time to determine what’s true and what is not. After all, it’s somebody’s opinion, so it must be valid… right?
“I had no choice.” Of course, you did. Unless you had a gun to your head or were under hypnotic control, a choice is precisely what you made. That you managed to convince yourself that the options were so out of proportion as to be equivalent to a choice between life and death is likely a function of your own unwillingness to face up to responsibility. In a world that increasingly indulges the notion that free will is an illusion, that each of us is nothing more than a conglomeration of our genetics and our environment, it keeps getting easier for us to deny all guilt and claim that we are not accountable for anything we do.
“I can do what I want.” Of course, you can. So can lemmings. But your ability to do what you want has no relevance to whether it’s a good idea, or to the effect it may have on others or on yourself. Just as there are physical laws that make it impossible for us to flap our arms and fly, just as there are societal laws that prohibit us from causing physical harm to others, so too are there moral axioms that allow society to function in a way that makes all our lives better. Valuing only what I can do reduces all human society to an irrelevant footnote and widens the gap between ourselves and others.
“Future consequences.” In contrast to what? Past consequences? This is only one example of how people tack on adjectives in an effort to sound smart and only succeed in making themselves sound stupid. Some of the more egregious offenders are: end results, advance warning, very unique, past history, and unintended mistake. Adjectives are the junk food of writing; they are also the hobgoblins of speech, clouding our thinking and obfuscating communication.
Now please don’t misunderstand. These misdirected phrases are not the source of our problems; they are symptoms of a culture that has grown more careless in its conduct, more slovenly in its thinking, and more indifferent to the standards that once defined and informed the behavior of responsible citizens. In short, we have grown lazy, no matter how hard we seem to be working.
Discipline is the key to success. Whether in school, in our careers, in the gym, or in our relationships, if we want to succeed in our communication we can’t afford not to be disciplined in our speech as well. Success in almost every other area is sure to follow.
And if we do make the effort, we will quickly notice that our professional relationships become more rewarding and that our personal relationships become more satisfying. What’s more, with the ripples we send out into our communities, we can all do our part to creating a culture of greater warmth, stronger cooperation, and deeper respect among all those who share our world.
Why do people gamble? Obviously, they do it for the rush of adrenaline they feel when they win. No?
At least not according to Professor Jessica Stagner of the University of Florida.
Professor Stagner and her colleagues hoped to find support for evidence indicating that gamblers feel the same thrill of excitement when they almost win as they do when they actually win. To do so, they created an experiment in which pigeons had to peck at colored markers in order to receive hidden rewards.
That’s right: Pigeons.
And what did they discover? Although pigeons are willing to take a risk for a bigger payday, they only like it when they win. People, on the other hand, are excited by a close loss almost as much as a big win.
In other words, pigeons are smarter than people.
The researchers speculate that a near-miss creates the illusion that we have control over situations that are largely random. This is similar to the hypothesis that people embrace conspiracy theories because they find a world manipulated by sinister puppet-masters less frightening than one in which events unfold for no reason at all.
But there may be a more profound lesson to these studies. Because in one sense, approaching success can truly be more satisfying than success itself.
Do you remember the last time you…
- read a really engrossing novel?
- watched a gripping action movie?
- worked on a challenging business project?
- went on a date when all the chemistry was working just right?
Do you remember the excitement, the elation of living in the moment, the expectation of what was to come?
And do you remember the bittersweet commingling of fulfillment and disappointment when it was over?
In truth, we love to win much more than we love to have won.
Because at the very moment of success, victory, conquest, or completion, we have to face the inevitable question:
Where do I go from here?
On the other hand, there’s nothing quite like the keen pleasure of watching success draw near, of feeling that victory is nearly within our grasp. And even when things don’t go our way in the end, we can still bask in the glow of that tantalizing instant when we felt triumph waiting right around the corner.
The mistake we so often make is to focus on our goals with such single-mindedness that we forget to enjoy the process of attaining them. The first day of an adventure is usually the most exciting, for it is filled with possibility and mystery, while every successive day brings us closer to the moment when it will all be over.
So what can we do to preserve the thrill of near-victory?
Here are a few suggestions:
Make the process the goal. Of course we have to get work done, fill quotas, and meet deadlines. But focusing on the quality of work, the feeling of genuine achievement, and the camaraderie of collaborative effort sweetens both the journey and the destination.
Think in rest-stops, not end-points. Almost any task can be seen as part of a larger mission, project, or game plan. Have in mind the next logical phase for connecting each point of completion with a new beginning.
Exchange star and supporting roles. Often, we can accomplish more as partners. Recruit a colleague to add his or her area of expertise to your project and contribute your expertise to hers or his. Both projects will be likely to be completed better and ahead of schedule, and you’ll end up with two victories instead of one.
King Solomon teaches, Fortunate is the one who listens for me, attentively waiting at my doors day by day, keeping watch by the doorposts of my entryways.
It is not so much what we find on the other side of each door, but the anticipation of always looking for the next opportunity and the next challenge, of looking forward to each victory not as an end unto itself but as a stepping stone to the many victories that will follow.
Each step up the stairway to success leads to the next one. So it’s worth remembering that the moment we reach to top of one step we are immediately at the bottom of the next one.
And keep in mind that if we do reach the rooftop, we might find ourselves only in the company of pigeons.
Adapted from an article originally published in Pick the Brian.
In an earlier post, I outlined six misconceptions that stifle success. They are:
- Pleasure equals happiness
- Opinion equals fact
- Winning equals success
- Autonomy equals freedom
- Convenience equals peace of mind
- Legal equals ethical
When we use words without concern for their meaning, we deprive ourselves of the ability to think clearly. We confuse goals with side-effects, assets with obstructions, and benefits with pitfalls. We sabotage our own success because we aren’t clear about where we’re going or how we’re going to get there.
When we mistake happiness for pleasure, we end up chasing after instant gratification, which is emotional junk food. When we don’t consider ourselves winners unless someone else is losing, we drive away potential allies and advocates. When we refuse to reexamine our opinions, we are often denying reality.
The belief that freedom means no restrictions destroys discipline and makes us slaves to our bad habits. The notion that convenience leads to tranquility leaves us unable to cope with life’s difficulties and disappointments. And exploiting legal loopholes makes us untrustworthy and untrusted.
So let’s get down to definitions.