Words and Meaning

Words matter.

One of my favorite examples: on the semantic surface, one might think that butt dial and booty call certainly must mean something similar, if not the same thing entirely; their meanings, as I’m sure you are aware, are not even remotely the same.

While it may be true that certain butt dials may result in a booty call or two, for the most part these two terms are completely unrelated.

Another favorite pair: slim chance and fat chance. They mean the exact opposite, right? Nope, ‘fraid not. There’s a slim chance that you don’t understand the difference between a booty call and butt dialing, but fat chance me explaining it to you if you don’t already know.

Which reminds me of a story…

When I was in college, I had just completely bombed an important test, so to make myself feel better, I decided to take my pet giraffe Claude out for a night on the town, just the two of us. We got completely hammered, to the point where sometime around three in the morning Claude passed out and collapsed in the middle of the bar we were in. Getting the message through the inebriated haze, I settled up our tab and began to leave.

The bartender came out from around the bar and said, “Hey, mate – you ain’t not gonna leave that lyin’ there, are ya?”

I looked him dead in the eye and said, “My good man – that’s not a lion, that’s a giraffe.”

In the end, words matter because meaning matters. But why is that? Why are words, and their meanings, so damn important?

Well, first and foremost, the ability to communicate rich and complex meaning with our relatively vast vocabularies is part of what separates human beings from the rest of the animals living on this planet. Most animals have a way of communicating danger to each other, either through vocalizations or hand gestures (or some combination thereof), but only humans have the capacity to differentiate between “get out, the house is on fire!” and “I have to get out, my mother-in-law is coming over!” Two decidedly different types of danger, although each just as potentially devastating as the other in its destructive power.

Also, the myriad of layers of meaning in a well structured sentence or paragraph can give us the complete story – all of the context and meaning we could ever need is contained within all of the possible combinations of twenty-six simple letters (for English speakers, anyway). Words have awesome power – to make you laugh, to make you cry, to make you throw your iPad across the room in anger and frustration. It’s all there, contained in the simple arrangement of lines and spaces on the page or screen you are staring at.

And finally, words have the ability to convey abstract meaning in a way that pictures cannot. The best example I can thing of is this:

We die only when we run out of footprints then the biographers move in to retrace our paths, enclosing them in tall mazes of lumber to make our lives seem more complex, more arduous to make our leaving the room seem more heroic

Billy Collins,  Pensee (1999)

Find a way to express that with an image or gif, without words, and I’ll believe that words are not the most important means of communication, holding vast and unyielding power to move you in ways that are unimaginable. Words matter.

As a society, we seem to be moving towards more simplistic, self-centered modes of communication – letters become emails, emails become texts, etc. Most of the popular social media sites – Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat – are geared to the user telling their personal story, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But when that becomes an individuals only mode of interaction with the world around them, it reinforces the idea that self is not just the most important thing, it’s the only thing. And that’s a problem.

All of this talk about self-centered points of view reminds me of another story…

A woman with cancer visits her oncologist, who tells her, “I’m sorry, but we’ve done everything we can possibly do. You’ve only got about eight hours left to live, why don’t you just go home and make the best of it?”

Dejectedly, she drives home and gives the news to her husband. Then she says, “Honey, let’s just make love to each other all night long!”

The husband hesitates, then says, “Well, you know how sometimes you say ‘no’ because you’re just not in the mood? I’m sorry, but I’m just not really in the mood right now.”

“Please!” she pleads with him. “It’s my last wish, to spend the night making love to you!”

“I’m sorry, but I’m just not up for it,” he replies.

“I’m begging you, darling – please!” she cries, “I really need this!”

“That’s easy for you to say,” her husband says, “you don’t have to get up in the morning.”

How’s that for selfish behavior? Surely, the husband’s attitude and behavior is the most selfish reaction conceivable.

That’s what I believe, anyway. And don’t call me Shirley.

What I’ve Learned

People, by nature, are warm and giving – I fall firmly on the environmental side of the nature vs. nurture debate. I believe that anti-social, hateful habits are learned, and those behaviors are perpetuated by fear and the desire to belong.

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

We decided a few months ago to replace the wallpaper in our dining room. It was very outdated, and with the holidays approaching, we thought it would be a nice touch, sort of liven up the room when everyone was over for Christmas dinner. We’re very much the DIY type, so we spent a few after-work evenings peeling the old paper off. Once we were done and the walls were prepped, we went to Home Depot (for the third or fourth time) to make the final decision on which wallpaper we wanted to hang. It was at the point that I realized we really had no clue how much we needed. Then I remembered my friend Sylvia had recently done basically the same project. I called her from Home Depot.

“Hey, you recently re-papered your dining room, didn’t you?” I asked.

“Yes,” she answered, “as a matter of fact, I did.”

“Your dining room isn’t much bigger than ours – how much paper did you end up buying?” I wanted to know.

She thought for a moment. “Seven rolls is what I ended up getting.”

We bought seven rolls of wallpaper, and spent the next two weekends watching YouTube videos and hanging wallpaper. Oddly, we ended up with four unused rolls, and started to think we had done something very wrong. I immediately called Sylvia.

“Hey, I’m not sure if we did this right,” I said. “We ended up with four rolls left over…”

“Oh, how weird, “she replied, “that happened to you, too?”

Data is an important thing, but sometimes – all of the time, actually – it is more important how you utilize that data. I asked a specific question, Sylvia provided a specific answer to my specific question. I didn’t think to question the data she was providing, and having answered my question precisely, she didn’t think to qualify her response with something like, “…but we only used four of the rolls.”

The common logical fallacy post hoc, ergo propter hoc – literally “after this, therefore because of this” – comes to mind. She purchased seven rolls of wallpaper and completed her project successfully, therefore I jumped to the conclusion that seven rolls of wallpaper were needed for our project as well. Had I stopped to question that – or better, had I rephrased my question slightly – I wouldn’t have been stuck with four extra rolls of wallpaper. Had I asked her, for example, “How many rolls did you need to paper your dining room?”, I probably wound’t have had to make yet another trip to Home Depot to return the excess wallpaper.

Had I just refined my parameters slightly, I could have very easily turned my data (facts and figures) into information (structured, meaningful data). It really is just that simple. By merely thinking ahead slightly and understanding what I was trying to accomplish, the outcome would have been more advantageous.

Now, four rolls of wallpaper doesn’t seem like much, but what if I’d wanted to re-paper my entire house? Or, to extend this to the work environment, what if I wanted to replenish my stock of very expensive radio modems? I might ask, “How many modems did we order last time?” The answer may be 100, but what were the circumstances of that order. Was it a routine replenishment? Or were we filling a specific customer order? Do I really need to order $50,000 worth of hardware, or will that put me in the position of having to unload them at a reduced price because suddenly technology has changed and these modems are no longer viable in the marketplace?

Which reminds me of another story…

A close friend of ours recently received the sad news from her physician that she had contracted a debilitating illness and had only six months left to live. Being a very matter-of-fact person, she took the news with considerable aplomb, and asked her doctor, “Is there anything I can do?”

The doctor considered her question, then replied, “Well, actually, there is. You could marry a cost accountant.”

She looked at the physician skeptically and asked, “But how will that help my illness?”

“Oh, it won’t help your illness,” the doctor replied, “but it will make your last six months seem like an eternity.”

The difference between my close friend and me, of course, is that she thought to ask the follow up question that would provide further clarification, turning her data (six months to live, marry a cost accountant) into useful information (won’t extend your life, but it will sure feel like it!).

And that’s really the key – knowing what questions to ask to get the complete answer. Being able to distinguish between data and information is imperative when trying to establish a clear path going forward, and is the difference between going off on a wild goose chase and embarking on a successful course of action.

What I’ve Learned

Stealing jokes from somewhere else can make for a pretty good blogpost, when used correctly.

Swearing Up A Storm

Every morning, I carve out thirty to forty-five minutes to wake up. I used to do this by drinking coffee and watching the news. Lately, I’ve been using this time to finish up what I was unable to complete the day before. This morning, when I should have been finishing the podcast I was listening to at the gym last night or reading a few pages of one of the four books I’m currently reading, I found myself reading about author Emma Byrne.

As an aside, that’s a bad habit I have – starting things when I haven’t finished the previous thing. Books, TV shows, chores at home, tasks at work, all fall victim to my propensity to move on to the next thing before completing the last thing. I don’t know what that says about my ability to focus, and I’m not sure I want to…

I have a good friend who has decided she is going to stop swearing – it’s one of her New Year’s resolutions, and I wish her luck. Changing such an ingrained behavior is not an easy task – part of the reason quitting smoking is so difficult is because habits that are repeated over the course of years and years become second nature, and it’s so easy to lose focus and revert to comfortable behaviors, especially if boredom or stress are involved.

I remembered reading an article recently about how swearing was actually good for you – how swearing is not necessary lazy or a sign of a lack of education, but rather is a sign of advanced intellect.

And that’s when I found Emma Byrne.

Byrne is the author of Swearing Is Good For You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language. In her book she makes the case that swearing is a natural part of who we are as humans, and it serves a number of social and biological functions. The two that really stand out to me:

1. Swearing is an effective way to mitigate physical and emotional pain. In her book, Byrne references the study by behavioral psychologist Dr. Richard Stephens, who ran multiple iterations of a simple experiment where subjects were asked to submerse their hands into a container of ice water. With the appropriate controls in place, some were given profanity to utter aloud while others were given profanity substitutes (such as ‘darn’ or ‘fudge’), while other still were asked to not say anything.

The results of these experiments showed that those subjects that were allowed to swear with actual socially (un)acceptable curse words were able to keep there hands submerged up to one-and-a-half times longer than the other two control groups. This indicates that the swear words had the opposite effect from what was expected; experts usually recommend against “catastrophizing” a situation by using swear words to mitigate stress or pain, but this research clearly indicates the opposite may be true. Swearing provides a sort of release that allows one to withstand greater physical or emotional pain for a longer period of time.

2. Byrne also discusses Project Washoe in her book. Washoe was a female chimpanzee, and she was inadvertently taught to swear by her original handlers, Allen and Beatrix Gardner, in the 1960’s. During the process of potty training Washoe (mostly to avoid the throwing of feces, as chimps are wont to do), they taught her the sign for “dirty,” which consists of placing the knuckles of one hand under the chin. Washoe immediately adapted this sign for other uses, using it to sign phrases like “dirty monkey” when referring to another primate.

Washoe had three offspring, and by the time the third young chimp arrived, the Gardners had stopped teaching the chimps language. Washoe took it upon herself to teach this sign (and others) to her youngest child, passing on this pseudo-profanity to her offspring. 

The takeaway here is that the use of profanity as a way to express oneself more colorfully or forcefully seems to be biologically motivated.

There is a third example that Byrne discusses in her book and that is profanity in the workplace. There are, of course, situations were profanity is never acceptable. But there are just as many instances, if not more, where it is acceptable, and even desirable. It is an effective tool, for instance, for instilling esprit de corps within certain groups, and it’s also an efficient means to convey jocularity amongst co-workers. 

I’m by no means encouraging you to go out there and swear up a blue storm; however, I’m not encouraging you not to, either. It really is a matter of judgement and application of good taste. Trust your judgement – if it feels wrong or awkward, then it probably is. But if you have a certain level of confidence that it will be well-received, then go for it. Every situation is different, and you know best what is acceptable in your work and social situations.

What I’ve Learned

What the #@$*?!?! I was supposed to learn something from this?

Intention

Philanthropist Melinda Gates said,

“I choose a word of the year – a word that encapsulates my aspirations for the twelve months ahead.”

I could unleash a sesquipedalian buildup to what word I would choose, but assuming the graphic I uploaded with this post is resolving properly on whatever device you are currently reading using, you already know what my word is:

Intention.

I have been giving much thought to that word lately, both actively and passively. Much of what I have read over the last few months – Traction by Gino Wickman, The Trolley Problem by Thomas Cathcart, and even The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson – all deal with the idea of intentional action, either directly or indirectly.

Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus, in their brilliant and entertaining podcast “The Minimalists,” deal with this topic frequently. They propose a number of strategies – the 30/30 Rule, the 1-out-of-10 Rule, etc. – that are designed to help one clarify the utility of a given item or activity.

One of their central tenets, which I am in the process of adopting and applying to my own life (both personally and professionally), is this: if something is not useful and/or does not bring you joy, do not acquire it (or, get rid of it).

Part of the process of adopting and implementing the EOS system at my office has been to utilize the Delegate and Elevate Tool, which allows each individual to rate each of their job duties in a 2-by-2 grid. They do this based upon whether they like a task and are good at it, like a task but are not good at it, dislike a task but are good at it, and dislike a task and are not good at it. Ideally, those tasks that end up in the lower right quadrant – dislike/not good at – are delegated to someone else who’s rating is different for that task.

The process requires that one assigns certain self-developed values to each of their tasks, causing them to make the joy/value analysis I mentioned above.

All of these roads lead back to the same Rome: if you can take the time and invest the effort into valid, constructive introspection concerning those things that directly affect your life on a daily basis, you are already light years ahead of most everyone else. This internal reflection forces you to assign value, thereby assuring that your future actions will be made with…intention.

And really, the process could not be simpler: just by asking yourself two simple questions – “Is this useful to me?” and “Will this bring me joy?” – you are able to ascertain if something is truly right for you, whether it be a physical item, a situation, even a person or relationship. If the thing in question meets one (or both) of these criteria, then you are on the right track towards living with intention.

__________

As a side note, the good news for me is that I can now jettison my entire list of New Year’s resolutions, for this reason: each item on my list is geared towards finding and retaining some sort of increased joy or value in each of my activities, both at work and at home. By committing to live a more intentional life, and by taking the necessary (and sometimes painful) steps to get there, many of my goals will be met as a natural offshoot of this internal reflection (followed by external actions, of course).

Do I need that extra handful of cookies? Will they bring me joy, or will that only be transitory, followed almost immediately by physical and emotional sensations that warn me that I should not have done that in the first place? I do not really have any use for those feelings, so I will pass on the extra sweets, thanks.

Do I need to take on that extra task at work right now? Does the team need me to step up and fill that void, or are there things on my plate that I do not want to do, and this new task will be a good distraction? Nope, I already have too much on my plate, and someone else is more qualified to do that job than I am.

What I’ve Learned

Constructive internal introspection is the key to living a more intentional life, followed by the resolve to put into action those decisions that you know to be right for yourself and everyone involved.

The New Year

I’m always tempted during this time of the year to compile a list of New Year’s resolutions. I have, in fact, prepared such a list. A list of ten mini sure-fire self-improvement plans. Ten behavioral changes guaranteed to make me a better friend, a better husband, a better employee – a better person.


They range from the trite – quit eating so much junk food – to the downright solipsistic – work towards adopting a more minimalistic lifestyle. My eating habits, drinking habits, reading habits, writing habits – all represented in black and white. And each item on my list has two things in common: Each is guaranteed to have been forgotten by the time my birthday rolls around in the spring, and each assumes that I have some shortcoming that needs to be addressed and rectified.

And while that may be accurate (and is, most likely, completely true), that begs a couple of questions:


Why now?

What is so special about the first of the year that makes this such a popular practice? Is it the idea of “a clean slate” that most people find attractive? I mean, this practice dates back to thousands of years ago – the ancient Babylonians made it a practice to vow to their gods to return anything they’d borrowed, repay any debts they’d incurred the previous year, and make right any situation where they’d wronged a neighbor, friend or acquaintance. 

I can certainly see how this practice would come to be, but why wait until the start of the new year? Do I need to start keeping a ledger of those I’ve wronged so that I can make the appropriate restitution come the New Year? That would fill way too many notebooks, and ain’t nobody got time for that anyway. 

As it pertains to my list specifically, what magical quality is there imbued in the first day of January that merits my turning over a new leaf, as it were? Does that make is somehow easier? Does it guarantee a greater degree of success? Past experience tells me that the answer to both questions is a resounding “no!”



Does it need to be corrected?

This may seem facetious on the face of it, but it’s not. If my friend picks up the lunch tab a few times more than I did, does that merit some sort of comeuppance? Do I need to pay him the difference? Ensure that I, somehow, pay for lunch more than he does in the coming year?

Again, as it pertains to my own personal list of shortcomings and their associated corrections, are they really shortcomings? What is the value in eating less junk, drinking less alcohol, reading more books, writing more words? For me personally, they will certainly fulfill short term goals, but are they necessarily behavioral changes that will benefit me in the long run? Will they bring more value and intention to me life?


I seem to have more questions than I do answers, which is par for the course. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. An examined life, as my old philosophy professor was fond of quoting at us, is not worth living. It just strikes me as odd that the only time this occurs in earnest is when the calendar changes to a new year.

I’ve Got Stoicism On My Mind

I’ve gotten into The Minimalists podcast lately, and recently they mentioned the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus. I’d never heard of him, so I did some reading up on him.


He was born in what is now Turkey in 55 A.D., and was sold into slavery and moved to Rome to serve in the household of one of Nero’s secretaries. His master allowed his to study philosophy, and then he was 13 he was made free shortly after Nero died. He began teaching philosophy in Rome but was exiled to Greece in 98 A.D. when Emperor Domitian outlawed the study and teaching of philosophy. He opened a philosophy school in Greece, and died in around 153 A.D.


He never wrote anything himself (as far as we know), but a lot of his teachings were recorded by one of his students and disseminated in the same way that Plato is credited with writing down and passing along the teachings of Socrates.


A lot of what he is credited with teaching strikes me as b.s. – there is a quasi-religious aspect to much of it, which is understandable given the time he was alive (50-150 years after Jesus). The central tenet of his teachings is that every thing and every experience can be classified as one of two things: things that we have control over and things that we do not. 


We have no power over external things, and the good that ought to be the object of our earnest pursuit, is to be found only within ourselves.


Opinions, impulses, desires and aversions are all things that the individual can control; our bodies, our possessions, glory and power occur independent of us and are therefore out of our control. The distinction between “good” and “evil”, according to Epictetus, is determined by the individual’s ability to reason, and is enabled by our ability to make choices. He taught that there was a “moral good” that was known to all men, inspired by God.


It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.


Building upon his teachings that you can only control those things that are internal to you, there is no point in letting external happenings and circumstances define who you are or what you do. Your only obligation is to be true to yourself; you’re responsible for your thoughts and opinions alone, and everything else is out of your control and not worth getting upset over.

People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.


The truth in this is what caused me to begin digging deeper into his teachings. It really made me think – when I am not treated the way I think I should be treated, either at home or at work, who’s to blame? To whom should I direct my anger and disappointment and feelings of rejection? Certainly not at the one who wronged me (in my limited perception); even if they intended to hurt me, why should I worry about that? I have no control over their behavior, so what purpose does it serve to allow their behavior to affect me in any way?


When you call your child, be prepared that she may not respond to you, or if she does, she might not do what you want her to do. Under these circumstances, it doesn’t help your child for you to become agitated. It should not be in her power to cause you any disturbance.


This was the quote from The Minimalist podcast that started my whole journey down this road. Although the quote is specifically about children, I think it can be applied to any relationship. If all I can control is my own thoughts and actions, then why should I be upset when something I can’t control occurs? Why do I allow things that are out of my control have so much power over me?


That last question is what I’ve been thinking about for most of the day. I’m no closer to an answer, and don’t know that I will be for some time.

What I’ve Learned

You do you, and I’ll do me. That’s so much easier than the alternative (though, in hindsight, not nearly as much fun).



(All italicized quotes above are attributed to Epictetus, b. A.D. ~55, d. A.D. ~153)