Take the ‘Cut it in Half’ Challenge and Improve Your Writing

…and your verbal communication, and time management, and thinking.

Good writing styles may be as unique as people but when it comes to bad writing there’s one nearly universal mistake.

Too many words.

Everyone begins their writing endeavors (whether emails or books) using too many words, too long sentences, and too bulky paragraphs.  It’s hard to economize on words.  The better your language skills and vocabulary, the harder it is.  You want to flex those wordiness muscles!

But good writing is clear and to the point.  Removing needless words makes what’s left more, not less important.  Words are too precious to be drowned in a sea of superfluity.

Here’s a challenge to quickly and dramatically improve your writing:

Cut everything you write in half.

I suggest doing this for at least two weeks.  It will hurt.  It will take a lot of time at first.  But compare results after the experiment.  You will be better.

Every Facebook post, email, essay, blog post, or memo (heck, you can try it with texts and tweets too, but that might be tough) should be halved.  After you write what you want to say, just before you click “send”,  “publish”, “post”, or “save”, go back and cut it in half.  Count words, divide by two and edit down.

I’ve done this and found almost no paragraph I write gets worse as a result.

Give it a shot and see for yourself.

The Beautiful Language of Prices

Prices are a language.

The beauty of this reality hit me while on a walk.  I had my phone so I recorded my thoughts in the moment of delight.  I’m often overcome by how beautiful markets are.  It’s almost a spiritual experience when you ponder long enough.


How the Internet is Like Language

The power went out, and with it the WiFi, for four hours the other day while a pole was being replaced and again for an hour today while the A/C was being fixed.  It was almost overwhelming how lonely and isolating it felt.

Before you think me too dramatic let me say that we’re currently in a rental house in Ecuador, in a neighborhood that still consists primarily of empty lots or newly constructed but not yet occupied houses and we’re 45 minutes from the nearest city and without a car at the moment.  None of these things feel isolating when the internet is working.  (As an aside, the WiFi here is better than the best I can get back in South Carolina.)

It’s not that I spend all day on the web.  The bulk of my work requires internet and I do use it heavily, but there are many hours every day where I’m reading, exercising, playing with my kids, eating, preparing food, sleeping, or just relaxing when I do not use the internet.  One would think a few hours without WiFi would simply let me switch to one of these activities with no mental stress.  But it didn’t work that way.

The minute it went down I felt trapped in a desolate place, separated from the world.  Not because I wanted to do something specifically requiring the internet at that moment, but because I didn’t have the option.

WiFi provides a kind of invisible psychological ether that connects me to all of humanity.  Just knowing it’s there, at the tip of my fingers through my smartphone, gives me a profound spiritual sense of connection to all mankind and to great ideas and facts and images and more.  It is the subtle substrate that makes me always a part of a network or community, even when I’m quietly reading or sleeping.

In Ecuador we’ve had experiences where we were nearly incapable of communication with the other humans around us due to my deficiency in Spanish and some Ecuadorians rapid speech.  In our current neighborhood there are many French Canadian expats who speak not a word of anything but French.  At times a feeling of fear and disconnection can sweep over you when you realize you cannot share ideas with any of the people around you.  What if you need something?  What if you just want to chat and aren’t up to the exhausting task of sign-language and hackneyed Spenchglish?  You’re stuck on a (metaphorical) island, surrounded by people but without any connective tissue.

The parallels between these experiences are striking.  Geographic proximity and physical presence do not connect us with our world.  Information and a means of exchanging it do.  That is the task language performs.  The internet performs it even better.  It can instantly translate between languages, among its other wonders.  The web is like a performance enhancing drug for language.  It exponentially increases the idea sharing power of words.

This silly idea that the internet and social media have somehow severed human connections or weakened community is an absurdity espoused by those blind to the world around them.  It’s no less ridiculous than claiming, “People used to really connect before language was invented.  Now all they do is constantly stream ideas back and forth with sound waves.”

It’s not even the speaking or web browsing.  It’s knowing you can.  What a powerful connective web for the human race.

15 Minutes a Day is Better than Two Hours a Week

I took several Spanish classes in my teens.  I hated them all and didn’t do that well with anything besides the pronunciation.

I also took half a dozen trips to Spanish speaking countries in my teens.  I did incredibly well making basic conversation in Spanish.

I got to thinking about this while listening to an episode of Praxis participant Ryan Ferguson’s The World Wanderers Podcast.  Language is one of those things that is really dumb to try to learn in a classroom.  The incentives are all wrong.  When you really want something – to get to know a person, or to find a bathroom – you’ll engage your cognitive capacity at a high level.  Learning to navigate another country is a great way to grapple with the language and gain some proficiency.  When your only incentive is a test, how will you rewire your brain to say “The apple is green” in another language?  More important than how is why?  Why would you want to say that anyway?

Here’s the thing.  It’s not always easy to get to another country and learn a language by necessity.  You can try other hacks, like pick a day of the week where everyone in your house is only allowed to speak Spanish, but this can be pretty tough too.  So if classroom learning is subpar and you can’t immerse yourself, what can you do?

I downloaded the free Duolingo app on my iPhone.  I love it!  Yes, it’s basically glorified flash cards, but it’s very fun, quick, has cute animations, easy progress tracking, and lets you practice pronunciation (my favorite part) using the phone’s mic.  I also love it because it works well with a breakthrough discovery I’ve made about other aspects of my personal growth in the last few years: tiny daily challenges work better than big goals.

I blog every day because there’s no excuse to not push out at least something.  I do one form of exercise every day because there’s no excuse to not do at least a few push ups.

Since my family is embarking on an Ecuadorian adventure early in 2016, I decided I wanted to brush up on my Spanish.  I added an activity to my daily tasks spreadsheet that just says, “Spanish”.  I do 10-15 minutes a day on Duolingo.  Some days I do a lot more, some days I barely hit it.  I’ve done it every day but two in the last 60 days.

For me, this pattern is vastly superior to taking a one hour class twice a week.  By getting Spanish bouncing around in my brain every day I find weird things happening.  I’m beginning to have a few random thoughts in Spanish.  Just a word or phrase, sometimes apropos of nothing, but it means my brain is being primed.  It’s like listening to a song every day.  Pretty soon it just comes out all the time.  My ears are being trained to hear things and my tongue to form new words associated with old concepts.

Of course, upon arrival in Ecuador I will realize how little Duolingo prepared me for fast-paced real world conversation, but I can’t realistically do anything about that.  The daily Spanish is fun, totally doable in my schedule, and it’s making some kind of progress.  The power of the compounding effect comes in to play.  If I improve my Spanish by only a fraction of a percent every day, it begins to get serious before long.

In case you’re wondering, Duolingo tells me I’m currently 10% fluent.  On the one hand, that’s probably a huge exaggeration.  I’d fail any Spanish test.  On the other hand, that’s probably a huge understatement.  I know from experience that once I get into a place where I need it, I’ll get where and what I want more like 2/3 of the time.

What other things might you learn better by doing a little every day instead of setting some big huge goal or taking some formal class?

Metaphors Can Limit Us

I’ve been thinking a lot about metaphors and how indispensable they are to human speech and thought.  Whether or not we realize it, we can’t do much thinking or communicating without extensive use of metaphors.  Many of the metaphors we use we are unconscious of.

Language reveals the prevalence of metaphor.  Discussions where two people hold different opinions are referred to with war metaphors.  People stand their ground, or defend their position, etc.  It’s hard to know how these metaphors affect our perception of the world and might open up or limit our thinking.

Speaking of limiting, there are two common metaphors I think limit us in subtle but powerful ways.  The first is the chain metaphor.  The old adage is that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  This metaphor is in the back of our minds in team settings, or organizations.  When you think about it, it’s a pretty bad metaphor, except for in unhealthy hierarchies.  It’s meant as a kind of reminder of our equality, so we don’t forget to help the weakest of our number lest we all get dragged down.  It has some value in this sense, but it also implies linear relationships and uniformity among individuals.  We are not links in a chain.  On our various social scenes we are more like nodes in a network.  If one node is weak or broken, the network can adjust and reroute information to the others.  It’s a distributed, indestructible series of interlacing webs.  If your organization truly is like a chain, that’s a pretty risky setup that puts way too much pressure on every participant.  Networks, on the other hand, are nimble, open-ended, adaptive, and allow for experimentation.

The second common metaphor I find limiting is based on the pie chart.  We love pie charts.  They seem scientific, plus they look like pie.  When visualizing where resources reside and contemplating ratios, the pie metaphor is in the back of our minds.  This is useful in a static world, but can be pretty detrimental in the dynamic world of the real.  The most obvious example is worldwide wealth.  Worry over who “controls” what percent of wealth is rooted in the pie metaphor.  If they have a lot, others must have little, and this must be bad.  But wealth moves quickly, and in a market, it can be created.  In fact, the only way to accumulate wealth is to create it for others.  So for one person to get more, someone else must also get more.  Transfers like theft and taxation are the only ways of getting wealth that do not create more for others.  This metaphor limits us in ways beyond just our macroeconomic thinking.  The pie tends to make us possessive and protective of ideas, or even happiness.  We’re afraid to openly share our thoughts and we worry that if others rise and gain popularity, wealth, success, etc. that must be bad for us.  It’s an unhappy metaphor that can turn us into envious, paranoid cranks.

I don’t think any metaphor is good or bad.  They are tools and can be more and less useful in various situations.  But I wonder how much we could improve our lives by occasionally examining the latent metaphors we use to make sense of the world?