I Don’t Have the Language for That

The Main Barrier to Understanding

Nearly every day I find myself in conversations where the main barrier to understanding is language. Every area of knowledge has specialized language that must be mastered to truly understand.

Let me offer some examples:

  • Medicine – “adrenocorticotropic”
  • Engineering (Mechanical) – “draft”
  • Engineering (Electronic) – “impedance”
  • Math – “quadratic equation”
  • Philosophy – “ontology”
  • Athletics/Cricket – “wicket”
  • Theology – “soteriology”
  • Software – “LAMP Stack”
  • Financial Markets – “derivatives”
  • Law – “habeas corpus”

If you will begin to observe the times that you struggle to understand something, you will notice that the problem is usually not that you are not smart enough. It is usually that the speaker is using a specialized vocabulary that you do not yet possess.

I say usually because there are some concepts and fields of study where the ideas themselves are abstract enough or complicated enough that rare intelligence is required. For everything else, though, I am arguing that language is the key to unlock the doors.

It may be that learning is really about words. It may be that education is simply starting with a very basic vocabulary based on the ABCs and then continually building that vocabulary. Of course, I am not saying that we must just learn words. The words that we learn must be understood, else they will produce no meaning and we will forget them. These words must be connected to concepts. The words are abstract symbols that stand-in for the concepts.

I recently sat in on a two hour meeting with electronics engineers doing a schematic review. I am not an electronics engineer (EE). Let’s analyze the situation. Three of the people in the room shared a common background and a common language. They all studied engineering in college and have now been working in electronics circuit design for decades. That common background includes immersion in math and science. It also includes expertise in electricity and micro-electronics. They all understand the computer-based tools they use to design their circuits, and they also understand the way the electronics will be manufactured. About the only thing I share with them is that I understand the manufacturing side. So I sat in that meeting for two hours in wonderment at how much I do not know. I had fun just trying to make a note of all the terms I did not truly understand. I was inundated with terms and acronyms that I could not define.

This leads me to appreciate that in any field of study that I want to understand, I must be committed to learning the language. However, it is not just leaning the lingo, it is actually understanding the words, terms, and acronyms. There is a recursion that has to take place to really understand a new term. Recursion means “the act or process of returning or running back.” If a new term is a specialized twig way out at the end of a limb, I need to use recursion (go back) to first understand the limb it is attached to. If I don’t understand the limb, I keep going back to the branch, then the trunk, then the roots. At some point I find the concept that I already understand. If that point is at the roots, then I start building back up to the trunk, branches, limbs, and finally to my specific twig. This is the way language and understanding builds.

This is the reason that I respect all disciplines. To function at a high level of understanding we all had to build our knowledge. Whatever your field of knowledge, you have invested time to master the language. If you decide to learn something new, it starts with language.

In recent years I have become unashamed to say to someone “I don’t currently have the language for that.” I then recursively explore the language with them to arrive at knowledge.

Do you have some examples where your field of expertise has specialized language that is a barrier to understanding? Have you run up against a language barrier that you had to overcome to achieve a goal? Please share these in the comments section.

Emily Brontë Died at Thirty

How Old Are You?

Charlotte Bronte coloured drawing
My wife and I recently watched the movie To Walk Invisible about the Brontë sisters. These amazing sisters created some of the most enduring works of English literature.

The eldest sister Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre (Penguin Classics). The youngest sister Anne wrote Agnes Grey (Penguin Classics). The middle sister Emily wrote Wuthering Heights (Penguin Classics).

Their decision to write and publish under male pseudonyms is an amazing story of strategy and perseverance. Charlotte was “Currer Bell,” Anne was “Acton Bell,” and Emily was “Ellis Bell.”

As with all writers in their day, their work was conducted often by candlelight and always by hand with ink and quill on paper. I am writing this post in an online editor with cut and paste, auto-spell check, and the ability to publish to the world with one click of the “publish” button. It is hard to even envision the painstaking effort they expended to bring these works to readers.

There are many aspects to their story that I find amazing, but perhaps the thing that strikes me most is the fact that Emily Bronte lived only 30 years. In fact, her youngest sister Anne lived only 29 years. Charlotte lived only to the age of 38.

I do not measure myself against women who were among the most gifted writers in the English language, but I do draw two lessons from their lives:

  1. Youth should be no barrier. If anyone told them they were too young, the Brontës did not listen. Some of us seem to be waiting until some magic future date when we are of sufficient age to do something important. Go ahead and do it now. Will you get better at it as you get older? Probably. Maybe. Maybe not. In the case of the Brontës, there was no getting older. Life is uncertain and short. That leads to the second lesson…
  2. What are you waiting for? Go ahead and get started doing something you really want to do and need to do. Don’t wait for later and older. Do it now. Get it started. Do not let resistance paralyze you. If you plan to do creative work (writing, music, art, entrepreneurship), get a copy of The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles and let it motivate you. The main thing is to act. Now.

I have to confess that while we have had copies of both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in our library for years, I have read neither. I am going to correct that soon. I think that as I read them knowing just how young these authors were when they wrote them, it will really reinforce the two lessons above.

Hopefully it will motivate me to act.

How old are you at present? If older than 30, take encouragement from what these young women did at a younger age than you. If you are younger than 30, follow the Bronte’s lead. Make it happen.

The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now. – Chinese proverb

Are You a Cynic?

It is hard not to be a cynic. Put a less tortured way, it is easy to be a cynic.

The definition of the word “cynic” I have in mind is this from Dictionary.com:

a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view

I think the reason it is so easy for me to become a cynic is because I am often myself “motivated by selfishness.” I often myself doubt “selfless acts and disinterested points of view.” In other words, I am probably a cynic because I see those undesirable traits in myself and often ascribe those same motivations to others.

Cynicism can become so pervasive that you can come to disbelieve and doubt nearly everything. Most of us listen to political speeches this way. Everything Obama/Trump said/says is ascribed the worst possible motivations and intents. This is regardless of which side you are on. You may, in fact, become so cynical that you feel that way about all sides of an issue and about all representatives of those perspectives.

It is not confined to politics. It reaches into personal relationships where we simply do not trust that anyone is coming from a place of true sincerity or altruism.

Frankly, I am getting tired of cynicism. It is always easier to tear something down than it is to build it. The tools of the trade for the cynic include snide remarks, biting sarcasm, and derisive laughter. It is rather easy to be against.

Which is easier, constructing a high rise building or knocking it down with a wrecking ball?

At some point the onus must be on me not just to sit back, criticize, and tear down. Once I have knocked everything down there will be no more buildings. At some point I need to start building something. It is not enough to just be against everything. I need to actually be for something.

Of course, when I begin building, the cynics will be there to knock down. Perhaps that is the real barrier to positive action? Perhaps the cynic believes that he or she can avoid being a target by always being the wrecking ball. That is convenient. It is also lazy and timid.

This is not an argument in favor of naivete. I realize that human beings ARE often motivated by selfishness and insincerity. It is the human condition. I have already acknowledged it in my own life. This is simply me recognizing the limitations of my cynicism and stating a desire to stop being so cynical. I have a responsibility to actually do something.

Don’t just stand there – do something.

The real danger of cynicism is that it can devolve into pessimism. Pessimism unchecked can turn into depression and ultimately despair. What I need in my life is less pessimism and more optimism. I do not need unrealistic optimism, but I will take an extra helping of optimism nonetheless. Most of us are not anywhere near overdosing on optimism or hope.

Note: I thought of linking to Teddy Roosevelt’s speech delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910 where he derides the critic and the cynic. However, I can envision someone reading this that will be cynical about his motivations for delivering the speech. If you want to read it, it is only a web search away. Search the phrase:

teddy roosevelt the man in the arena

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. ~ Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC)

Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. ~ G.K. Chesterton