The way in which we use language on an everyday basis, though not the sexiest topic, is worth some serious attention, particularly today, when it seems as though our collective vocabulary is shrinking at a particularly alarming rate.
Why should anybody care about this?
Being imprecise with language is insidious. It’s something people don’t normally spend time thinking about, and yet it has a negative cognitive effect which, on a large scale, causes very real problems that we, as a people, tend to overlook.
What do I mean by being imprecise?
Well, for an easy example, watch Donald Trump speak in any interview.
We transmute thought into language and deliver our thoughts to the world with language. It’s one thing to have an elegantly simple, yet profound thought, which you express in simple terms. In fact, there’s real beauty in this. It is entirely another thing, however, to have a thought you perfunctorily or sloppily articulate in a way that does not accurately convey the thought or, perhaps worse, conveys a different thought, or an array of different thoughts you had no intention of conveying.
This seems like splitting hairs, I know. But this kind of imprecision, collectively, does some real damage.
There are four problems I see with this, three of which are societal and extremely relevant in our current cultural milieu.
1. Flattening of Meaning
Being imprecise with language flattens meaning.
What does this mean?
This means that an imprecision can take an immensely complex situation, or a nuanced, valuable thought, and flatten it into something reductive (potentially dangerously reductive), something oversimplified, or something that is simply no longer an accurate representation.
This also leads to ignorance. When exceptionally convoluted situations are described and couched in imprecise, oversimplified terms, we remain ignorant of very real complexity, complexity which is, in fact, the reality.
For example, describing a foreign policy situation in a particular region of the world as simply “very good” or “very bad” essentially means nothing. There are a variety of different ways to articulate a complicated foreign policy situation which would, with varying degrees of success, convey the challenges, the successes, the failures, the outlook, the strategy, etc. But simply saying it’s very good or very bad robs the listener, the person to whom the words are directed, of meaningful information. Done intentionally, this is downright scary.
2. Shrinking of the Cultural Lexicon
When we’re frequently imprecise and lazy with the words we use, it becomes habit. When it becomes habit we are effectively shrinking the vocabulary with which we can convey what we think. When we limit the way we can convey thoughts in this way we limit our thoughts themselves. And this, carried out collectively, is cultural regression.
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein
A shrinking of the cultural lexicon, of the words we use to convey meaning, results in bigger and bigger hurdles to accessing the real, accurate, precise articulation of complex thoughts and complex situations, which, in turn, create bigger and bigger hurdles to any understanding of these same complex thoughts and situations.
This, in the aggregate, makes us dumber as a country. Which is not good.
3. Less Clarity of Thought
Words are the vehicles we use to convey our thoughts. While speaking imprecisely could, admittedly (on occasion), simply be the result of a lack of time or interest, it can also (more frequently) be the result of an incomplete thought.
Notice when you tend to use imprecise, practically meaningless language. It’s usually when you haven’t thought about something enough to have formulated something more precise, something more meaningful. You speak without precision when your thoughts haven’t been worked on enough to require precision.
Striving to speak precisely forces us to slow our brains down to actually complete thoughts, to chisel and sharpen them, so that an accurate verbalization requires precision.
4. Boring Writing
This is more of an annoyance than a major societal harm, though, again, on a large enough scale this will also have negative cultural effects.
Imprecise writing is boring to read. Simple as that.
Take the time to formulate your thoughts. Use precise language to accurately convey those thoughts. And try to avoid using “very good” as a descriptor if you can help it.
The self-improvement and productivity-enhancement markets are wildly saturated today. Thoroughly, totally saturated. The ubiquity of blogging, social media, and YouTube has democratized this field to such a profound extent that anyone, quite literally, can begin blogging about self-improvement and stake a claim on expertise.
A large part of this is simply the nature of the internet. But another significant part of this phenomenon is that self-improvement is kind of a mushy concept, by which I mean it’s not really a field in the same way that, say, economics is a field, nor is it a discipline like, say, behavioral economics is a discipline, nor is it a hard skill like, for example, coding is a hard skill. And perhaps because of its nebulous contours and fluctuating rigor, the self-improvement world lacks rudimentary credibility requirements. Which is why there are no credibility barriers to access the market.
Does this matter? Is this really a problem?
Well, maybe. It depends. I know some people who frequent these types of spaces feel and voice frustration with work that occasionally feels like thinly-veiled repetition, or the paraphrased opinions of others, or artfully arranged platitudes, or seemingly copied-and-pasted (and artfully arranged) blurbs about life hacks.
But the frustrated reader/consumer/follower also plays a role in creating the very thing that frustrates him or her. This is because most self-improvement work is simply responding to supply and demand, and, while most self-improvement writing aspires to the clout of something beyond mere commodity, much of it, unfortunately, is simply that.
Let me be clear that this analysis doesn’t hold true for the truly original self-improvement writers and thinkers, who are profoundly original, pioneering, and inspiring. My critique is of the crank turners (a term I will return to shortly) who follow them in the hopes of profiting from the demand that these originators have created. More on this later.
Anyway, in my eyes (and I’m saying this as someone who is, admittedly, not an innocent party here), the self-improvement world has (at least) three major problems, which may or may not affect its legitimacy, depending on how much these things bother or don’t bother you. I’m going to refer to these three problems as The Credibility Problem, The Originality Problem, and The Competence Problem. There tends to be some overlap, but I’m going to address them each in turn.
I want to say at the outset, however, that I do think there’s a lot of really valuable self-improvement and productivity-enhancement work out there, some of which has certainly had positive effects on me, personally, and how I pursue my own goals, and I have no intention of disparaging anyone or minimizing value that people have gotten from their self-improvement fare of choice.
But, since this is Medium, where we share ideas to challenge each other and try, generally, to push the human enterprise forward on all fronts, I offer this critique as a call for us to ask for more from our self-improvement and productivity-enhancement writers, as a call for us to sharpen our focus, to resist empty affirmations, and to push each other (in constructive, well-argued ways, of course) to go deeper, to think originally, to read and write not for numbers, but for the transformative power of one truly good idea expressed well.
I. The Credibility Problem
As mentioned above, the self-improvement world has no credibility barriers to access the market. This is because there are no actual credibility requirements, self-imposed, audience-imposed, or otherwise, for writing about self-improvement. Now, one can argue that this is a good thing, taken altogether, and that there should not, in fact, be any credibility requirements of any kind. Which is fine. There’s also the fact that when people start talking about credibility, some listeners inevitably start smelling what they perceive to be elitism. The two are not one and the same, but they are, with disturbing frequency, misunderstood as such.
One could argue alternatively that we should just let the audience decide. If a bunch of people like it, it must be good. This is after all how we treat popular music, network television, etc. Like a commodity. Supply and demand. Which, again, is fine.
Except that, without any barriers to access or credibility requirements, everyone with a computer can publish their self-improvement work. With the consequently flooded market and no real way of distinguishing experts from amateurs, consumers rely on barometers with little or no relation to quality, like numbers or views, claps, hits, etc. This, in turn, incentivizes the self-improvement writer to accumulate as many of these numbers as possible (I just recently got an email from a self-improvement writer defining his success exclusively in terms of how many followers he has amassed). These distorted incentives lead the aspiring self-improvement writer to figure out what people are consuming in this space (supply and demand) and to provide more of the same (there is no incentive for originality). Increased numbers mean increased expertise, at least in the eyes of consumers, which keeps the cycle going. Which is why you see articles written explicitly about how to get more people to read your Medium posts. Because these people understand supply and demand. They know that they don’t need actual expertise. Because actual expertise isn’t predictably or consistently rewarded with numbers. Expertise is your numbers.
So how are numbers accumulated in this space? The strategies I’ve seen employed frequently fall into two categories, and both are savvy ways of meeting supply and demand. The aspiring self-improvement writer looking to amass followers quickly and on an exponential scale tends either to feign expertise or to borrow expertise.
Feigning expertise is essentially the fake-it-till-you-make-it strategy. This is when someone boldly promulgates the things you must do to be highly successful, the proven ways to become a rich entrepreneur, the things holding you back from achieving massive success, etc. with the confidence and self-assuredness of someone who has, himself or herself, achieved some of this high-flying massive success they write so authoritatively about. These are the people who aim to boost their numbers by just very assertively stating lots of pretty intuitive, pretty basic truths that we all innately more or less understand, with lots of quotes and one-liners thrown in for style and urgency.
Borrowed expertise is when everybody runs around seeing who can most effectively pass off someone else’s thoughts as their own. Borrowed expertise is the really pure supply-and-demand way to get your numbers up. Basically you just see what self-improvement writers people are into and just quote them, plagiarize them, summarize them, or paraphrase them so that you can essentially partake in their market and their readers.
Is this bad? Well, maybe. It leads to a problematic circularity, when it comes to credibility, which I think is harmful for both the self-improvement genre and its readers. People want numbers because numbers, in the current state of things in the self-improvement world, equal credibility. To get numbers, you fake or borrow expertise you don’t have. Then once you get numbers, those numbers become your real expertise. I don’t think this is sustainable, if people are going to take self-improvement writing seriously. It also reveals the essential irony in the whole thing, as it currently stands, which is this:
A very real problem with a lot of self-improvement writing is that a troubling percentage of people writing about self-improvement haven’t actually done much besides write about self-improvement.
This credibility problem also directly leads to the next problem.
II. The Originality Problem (AKA the Echo Chamber)
Here’s another thorny problem with lots of self-improvement writing. Much of it is so overwhelmingly, almost vertiginously unoriginal. In other words, it’s an echo chamber. I’ve written a little bit about this before in the context of lists of habits and routines of highly successful people here. But the point is a lot of people are saying the exact same thing. What’s worse is that a lot of the overlap isn’t even itself original. It’s borrowed from elsewhere, too. So basically we’re getting watered down, second- and third-hand self-improvement advice.
A typical trajectory of a particularly thoughtful nugget of self-improvement wisdom is something like as follows. Somebody wildly successful in their field (like Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, or Seth Godin) or one of the giants in self-improvement (like Tony Robbins or Tim Ferriss) will say something pithy and smart and probably actionable. Self-improvement writer A will take this pithy, smart nugget of wisdom and do some negligible work on it. Massage the language a bit, perhaps. Or maybe simplify it somewhat. Or, better yet, turn it into a command or an imperative. And then self-improvement writer A will send his piece of essentially paraphrased third-party advice out to the masses. If the masses seem to be viewing the article in sufficient numbers, the trajectory will continue. Self-improvement writer B will then read this article, see that other people like it, and try to get in on the market by essentially paraphrasing self-improvement writer A, who is paraphrasing some highly successful person.
In other words, the people with the real credibility, with the actual expertise, become the source material for the droves of self-improvement writers behind them trying to borrow some of their expertise. Everybody is riding everybody else’s credibility coattails, and it makes the space highly unoriginal. One self-improvement insight is like shouting “hello!” in a canyon. The message reverberates back to you in decreasing volume and clarity until it disappears.
And in most contemporary self-improvement pieces I read on the internet the echoes are multi-voiced. These pieces can be disentangled and unpacked into their essential borrowed elements. E.g. this idea is lifted straight from Seth Godin, this one from Ryan Holiday, this sentence is almost verbatim Tony Robbins, while this one is you quoting self-improvement writer A, who was paraphrasing Elon Musk to support something he or she borrowed from Bill Gates. And around and around we go.
I’m guilty of it, too. It doesn’t make me feel amazing, but I also want to be honest. Who among us hasn’t read an article that’s clearly a series of quotes, paraphrases, plagiarisms, or ever-so-slightly reworded ideas, seen the number of claps and thought, this can’t be that hard, right? Maybe I should just be quoting Ryan Holiday more frequently? And then, before we know it, we’re perpetuating the same incestuous supply and demand game from which we probably set out to differentiate ourselves. I have dabbled in this weird self-improvement sampling game before, myself. And doing so doesn’t mean you don’t believe what you’re saying or writing. It’s not even necessarily a bad thing. If you’re borrowing something that someone like Charlie Munger said, people are going to find value in it because people find value in what Charlie Munger says. It’s not a bad thing, inherently. It’s just unoriginal.
Now, I also don’t mean to suggest that there are no truly original thinkers and writers in the self-improvement space. They do exist. There are the pioneers. The real experts. The real visionaries. But then there are what David Foster Wallace calls the “crank turners.” He talks about crank turners with respect to literary fiction, but I think the analysis can be just as accurately applied to what we see now in the self-improvement space:
“But after the pioneers always come the crank turners, the little gray people who take the machines others have built and just turn the crank, and little pellets…come out the other end…You get some bona fide artists who come along and really divide by zero and weather some serious shit-storms of shock and ridicule in order to promulgate some really important ideas. Once they triumph, though, and their ideas become legitimate and accepted, the crank-turners and wannabes come running to the machine, and out pour the gray pellets.”
III. The Competence Problem
This one is very simple, and consists of just two points.
First, if you write an article about being exceptional, or the pursuit of being exceptional, and it’s littered with grammatical errors, punctuated erratically, and just generally written carelessly, I’m not going to take you seriously, because I’m going to question how much time and thought you put into it. You can call me a snob if you want. I know you’re probably thinking it. But you should feel the same way. Because we should have high standards here on the wonderful Medium. If I’m going to take the time to read your article, I want it to be something that you spent time thinking about, something you wrestled with, something you’re proud of, and something with a personal touch to it.
The second point is just basically a smell test. There are lots of writers out there in the self-improvement space blogging with borrowed expertise about how highly successful people became highly successful, suggesting, obviously, that if I want to be highly successful I should keep reading their blog. The smell test goes as follows. The lives and career paths of lots of people blogging about how highly successful people became highly successful are radically different than those of the said successful people, which begs the question: why would I listen to people who are in no way like the people I aspire to emulate tell me how to emulate those people, when I can just read about those people myself?
Think about it this way. You don’t want self-improvement advice from just any random person. This is where the competence problem overlaps with the credibility problem, because often the way self-improvement writers separate themselves from “just any random person” is by the amount of views or hits they have. And the quickest way to rack up views and hits is to give the people what you know they already want. In other words, borrow someone else’s expertise and sell it. And around and around we go, again.
IV. Why the best “self-improvement” writers aren’t exclusively self-improvement writers
The best self-improvement writers, for the most part, are those who don’t only right about self-improvement, those who, through the pursuit and achievement of mastery in their respective fields, have acquired unique, first-hand knowledge and insight into how to go about improving yourself, persevering through plateaus, etc.
These people are particularly compelling and effective because their expertise isn’t the feigned or borrowed supply-and-demand expertise that is common currency in the self-improvement world. They bring their real, actual expertise in their respective fields to bear on ideas of self-improvement.
These are people like Dr. Rhonda Patrick, who researches and writes about aging, cancer, and nutrition. People like Seth Godin, who have decades of experience in marketing, business, and technology. And there are obviously many more.
1. The heart of self-improvement is in the first word: “self.” True, meaningful self-improvement is a highly personal experience. My self-improvement is going to look different than yours. We’re different people with different goals, different insecurities, different strengths and weaknesses. Given the deeply personal reality of self-improvement, it seems unwise to rely on writers and thinkers engaged merely in the highly impersonal enterprise of peddling the thoughts of others.
2. As I mentioned in the beginning, Medium is a place where we critically engage with important ideas. So let’s be rigorous with our standards. Let’s push each other to develop our ideas and explore new ones.
3. There is nothing inherently wrong with numbers and with racking them up. Or, for that matter, with claps. But clap with intention. Clap exuberantly if your brain was exercised. If your perspectives were expanded, challenged, or enriched. Clap for writing that makes you think damn, I never thought about it that way before. Because it’s on us to curate the content we want to see and to build in the right incentives for writers and thinkers.
4. Self-improvement, ideally, should be anchored to a mission. Your mission.
While it’s no secret that highly successful people tend to read extensively and voraciously, we often focus on the more obviously business-related or performance-related works on their bookshelves and treat literary fiction almost as an afterthought.
Long confined to liberal arts campuses, criticized (sometimes vehemently) for its alleged uselessness in the real world of commerce and business, of gainful employment and upward mobility, the reading of literary fiction, we now know, has scientifically backed benefits that are just as valuable (if not more) to the business community, as they are to diligent English majors in libraries across America.
In a much talked about study in 2008, professors Raymond A. Mar and Keith Oatley asserted that “carefully crafted literary stories” are “simulations of selves in the social world” that “function to abstract social information so that it can be better understood, generalized to other circumstances, and acted upon.” They argue that “engaging in the simulative experiences of fiction literature can facilitate the understanding of others who are different from ourselves and can augment our capacity for empathy and social inference.”
Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, authors of the 2017 book, Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities, explain this phenomenon in simpler terms. To know people, Morson and Schapiro say, “read their stories.”
So reading literary fiction helps us understand people. But why should we care? How useful is this, really?
“Reading a great novel,” Morson and Schapiro continue, “you identify with its characters and spend countless hours feeling from within what it is like to be someone else. You experience the world as someone of a different social class, gender, religion, sexuality, moral understanding or countless other factors that differentiate human experience. And if you are going to bet on how markets will act, you sure better have an appreciation for what drives the actors. In other words, you better be able to put yourself in their place.”
This is not the usual argument we hear about literature’s usefulness, but new research is revealing benefits of reading literary fiction that were previously either dismissed or unknown. We’re used to hearing beleaguered humanities students extolling the cultural and societal value of literature, but literature is now being recognized by the business world and the start-up world as something that doesn’t merely enrich us intellectually, but as something that can also help us develop intangible skills for successfully running businesses, investing in the stock market, managing teams of employees, and creating better products.
Chief among these intangible skills is emotional intelligence. In another study, conducted in 2013 by social psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York City, researchers gave participants different types of writing to read. Some participants were given literary fiction, some were given fiction bestsellers, some were given well-written nonfiction, and others were given nothing. Participants were then given a series of tests that measured a person’s ability to understand emotions, predict expectations, or understand beliefs in specific scenarios. More succinctly, the tests were designed to measure empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence.
The researchers found that the readers of literary fiction, and not merely popular fiction, performed better on all of the administered tests, results which were attributed to literary fiction’s capacity to encourage “readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.” Literary fiction, the researchers argued, increased emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence, the ability to understand how others think and feel, has far-reaching effects on business. Understanding the thoughts and feelings of one’s employees makes for smarter, more effective leadership and a more cohesive, collaborative team environment. Understanding the thoughts and feelings of customers makes for more meaningful marketing, more responsive service, and a deeper understanding of what people like or dislike about your product and why. Understanding the thoughts and feelings of others makes for better preparation and performance in negotiations. And, perhaps most importantly, understanding the thoughts and feelings of others makes for richer, more fulfilling personal relationships, which lead to increased happiness and productivity.
With so many benefits, we might wonder why reading literary fiction isn’t frequently found on lists of daily habits and routines we should be following the way, say, exercise and meditation are. I posit two reasons for this discrepancy.
First, the positive effects of reading literary fiction aren’t tangible or immediately measurable. It does not instantly produce noticeable improvement the way exercise triggers all kinds of positive chemical reactions in our brains. Reading literary fiction increases our understanding of other people, which, though incredibly important, is a bit less noticeable than a runner’s high, or the way we feel after meditating for twenty minutes.
Second, we’ve been sort of culturally conditioned to view reading literary fiction as a waste of time. Shane Parrish acknowledges this in his Farnam Street Blog: “We all have a feeling that literature is important. And yet many of us avoid the category altogether, feeling it’s a waste of time to pick up literature when we can learn so much from non-fiction.” But, as Parrish points out, this is simply an inaccurate view of it. “Literature,” he continues, “isn’t a waste of time at all. In fact, literature saves us time.”
And this is because literature vastly expands our emotional understanding of a wide and endlessly varied array of human experience, which, in turn, enhances our ability to relate to and empathize with others.
Make reading literature a part of your daily routine. The benefits may not be of the immediately measurable sort, but they are profound, long-lasting, and valuable for us all.