The importance of having a large vocabulary

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If you want to change the world, work on your vocabulary. Seriously.

In Lead the Field, Earl Nightingale stated something to the effect of, “The highest income earners are the ones with the strongest vocabulary.” (Unfortunately I can’t find the exact quote.)

‘That’s interesting,’ I thought when I heard it. ‘If that were true, the richest people in the world would be the ones who have studied the dictionary.’ Until I discovered that many super-successful people actually do just that.

It’s not that knowing the definitions of more words necessarily mean one person is wiser than another. But I must admit, those that very much seem to command the confidence and respect of their peers and superiors seem to be the ones who present themselves in the best light. Have you ever met someone whose second language was English and you assumed initially that they weren’t intelligent? The truth is, they lacked an ability to communicate the depth of their insight in a language they didn’t know as much as their own.

But recently, I’ve started to see it in yet a different light.

As I’ve started to study web development, I’ve spent many hours feeling extremely stupid and unproductive as I learned to use different programming elements to accomplish different tasks. I’ve spent entire days in front of a computer only to feel like I’ve gotten zero accomplished. It’s like being dropped off in a different country with a map and a language dictionary and trying to accomplish a high-level task on a deadline.

Learning a new discipline is learning to speak a different language.

I remember when I was new at strength-training, I didn’t know how the machines at the gym worked. It was intimidating. I didn’t have any framework for a carbohydrate or a calorie. I didn’t know there was etiquette, what constituted proper form, how to distinguish between good advice and stupid advice.

The same could be said about a time when I was new to walking with God. I wasn’t aware that there was a church culture. There were many terms I didn’t recognize. I could not distinguish between “right” and “wrong” behavior because I didn’t have a framework for either.

I can’t say that I’m an expert in either of these areas yet, but I’m relatively competent to the point where I can consistently grow and help others get started.

The learning curve when we’re just getting started at something new often seems higher than it really is. Once we’ve been immersed in it for awhile, it almost suddenly goes from being completely confused to feeling like we’ve always known that we’ve always known.

It’s a paradox, but sometimes we learn the most when we feel like we’re learning nothing.

The hardest part of any endeavor is getting started.

Once we get started in tackling any big goal (often broken down into smaller, more manageable chunks), it becomes easier to get flowing.

That’s why the hardest part of going to the gym is getting inside the gym. It’s the principle of overcoming inertia vs. maintaining momentum. A plane expends most of it’s fuel on takeoff. Writer’s block occurs most often before anything is written. And his best ideas come in the midst of seemingly writing random gibberish.

Have you ever picked up a newspaper and tried to read the articles only to find you didn’t understand what the author’s point was? I’ve felt (and still feel) that way, especially with more technical publications. Lately I’ve been trying to tackle The Economist and on first read I really have no idea what they’re talking about.

The only reason I care to even read The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or The Economist is because I’ve read that many extremely high-level leaders (think presidents and company CEOS) start their day by reading this stuff. I tried doing the same thing, except I seem not to be able to read as fast and I can’t quite understand what I’m reading. They may start their day by reading all kinds of publications cover to cover, while if I was to do that I’d spend my entire day doing it.

But persistence. They probably didn’t start that way.

I’ve started to re-read the articles I don’t understand a second time, trying to find the main idea and literally writing down all the terms I don’t understand and defining them. I started to read every paragraph slowly until I can summarize in my own words what the author is trying to say in one sentence.

It’s slow going and at this pace, reading will all but be a full-time job if I intend to read the same volume as these world-changers are reported to be reading.

But at some point, I won’t need to write out new terms because I’ll have learned them before. At some point, I’ll be able to pick up the main idea and the key themes on the first go because I’ve been exposed to the discipline long enough.

Then I imagine it’ll be like sunshine and rainbows and unicorns… but umm, with written publications.

Developing mental models

And now a closing section that raises more questions than it answers.

Charlie Munger, the ultra-successful partner of Warren Buffett, has long advocated that to be successful in the big things in life, one must master multiple mental models. Well, he’s way smarter than me and has the success to prove it, so here’s how he describes it in his own words:

You must know the big ideas in the big disciplines and use them routinely–all of them, not just a few. Most people are trained in one model–economics, for example–and try to solve all problems in one way. You know the old saying: To the man with a hammer, the world looks like a nail. This is a dumb way of handling problems.

You need a different checklist and different mental models for different companies. I can never make it easy by saying, “Here are three things.” You have to derive it yourself to ingrain it in your head for the rest of your life.

You can’t learn those one hundred big ideas you really need the way many students do–where you learn ’em well enough to bang ’em back to the professor and get your grade, and then you empty them out as though you were emptying a bathtub so you can take in more water next time. If that’s the way you learn the one hundred big models you’re going to need, [you’ll be] an “also ran” in the game of life. You have to learn the models so that they become part of your ever-used repertoire.

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