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 Brontë 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.

Too Many Irons in the Fire?

warmth-fireIdeas are portable and easily shared. In a recent conversation with my friend, Coach Deborah Newkirk, I repeated the familiar refrain: “I’ve got too many irons in the fire.” This idiomatic expression comes from the days when blacksmiths had literal iron bars in literal fires. We now use it to mean “I am really busy.” Deborah shared something that her friend Dr. Jerry George said to her (see how portable ideas are?). Since I did not hear it directly from him, I will offer this as a paraphrase. I am not even sure of the context in which he said it to her, but here it is:

When you have a lot of irons in the fire, don’t be afraid to add more irons. Accept the blessing. – Dr. Jerry George

That resonates with me. Even though I do have a lot on my plate, I need to adjust my attitude a bit and remain open to new opportunities and blessings that come my way. The “too many irons” mindset can become an excuse for not doing something that matters. It may also prevent me from accepting a tremendous new opportunity.

The new approach I plan to adopt is to not be afraid of all of the irons I have heating, but rather to attend well to them while being open to even more irons. Now, not every iron is as important as the others at any given point in time. I may need to focus on some more than others at this moment, but they are all a blessing.

Having a lot of irons in the fire is a very good thing.

If you don’t believe me, just ask someone with nothing to do.

My Responsibility with Regard to My Potential

And Yours with Regard to Yours

We have all seen it before. A naturally gifted athlete with tons of potential refuses to work to develop that potential, and he or she ends up wasting it. We had a guy like that on our team.

It is sad.

I find it easy to get judgmental about that guy and about others who waste their potential.

Yet, it occurs to me that I also have specific and unique talents, abilities, and background that create my potential. The real question is whether I am putting in the work to realize my potential? Am I living up to my potential or am I instead wasting it?

That is a challenging question to answer with total honesty.

I have come to believe that it is my ethical responsibility to live up to my potential and to achieve my ambitions. To do anything less is to waste what I have been given. To me, that would be unethical.

My family, my community, and my world are counting on me to contribute what I can and to be the best version of me possible. They deserve nothing less.

So how do I achieve my potential?

Dan Fogelberg’s lyrics in “Run for the Roses” resonate with me:

It’s breeding
And it’s training
And it’s something unknown
That drives you and carries you home

While he is talking about race horses, I find application there for us. There is nothing we can do about our “breeding,” but the training and the “something unknown” is where we can reach our potential.

So, what is your potential? What is your responsibility with regard to it? What are you doing today to achieve it?

Are You Stuck in the Doldrums?

4 Steps to Get Unstuck

The word “doldrums” is an interesting one. I have heard the expression “stuck in the doldrums” from the time I was a child, but until now I never bothered to look up what it means.

What are doldrums?

It turns out that this is a nautical term. The doldrums is a region of ocean near the equator that receives very little wind, and thus is difficult to navigate. Both north and south of the doldrums the trade winds blow. These winds allow skilled sailors to coordinate sail and rudder to travel where they wish.

Put yourself back a few hundred years on a wooden sailing ship with no engine. All you have are sails. You are stuck in the doldrums. There is not enough wind to work with, and your ship is too large to row. All you can do is sit and wait.

Sit and wait.

Sit and wait.

You make no progress. You have no trajectory.

It is not hard to see why we have turned the name for this region of the ocean into a metaphor. Our modern usage of the term means that if you are stuck in the doldrums you are making no progress. For this reason you are sad or depressed.

How do you get out of the doldrums?

  1. Recognize where you are. Step back from the details of your life at the moment and acknowledge: “I am stuck in the doldrums! This environment is not conducive to my going anywhere positive. I am getting nowhere fast.”
  2. Get clear about where you want to go. You are going to get unstuck, so you ought to know where you want to go when the winds blow and you can set your jib. Prepare for what happens when you start moving. Create a vision. Write a Forward Story.
  3. Change your environment. Remember, the trade winds are just above and just below where you are stuck. The fact that you are not moving anywhere does not mean that there are not places you can be where the wind does blow. You likely need to change your current environment to get to those trade winds. Then you can travel toward your desired destination. Unlike the physical doldrums, most of us can greatly control the environment in which we live, learn, and work.
  4. Apply energy (or generate some wind). Once engines were invented and built into ships, the doldrums could be navigated. You may need the equivalent of an engine in your life to get unstuck. What could the engine be? It could be education, meeting people, becoming an apprentice, taking a second job, or any number of other practices that may help you move in a positive direction.

How do you get out of the doldrums when you are stuck there?

Update: Planting Seeds for the Future

About ten months ago I wrote a post about my first effort at growing a plant. I had never even tried it before, so there was a lot to learn — still is. The main point was that in order to reap anything in the future, you first need to plant seeds and tend them over time.

I have been watering, feeding, and tending those jalapeno plants over the winter months. The first day that my wife saw our first pepper was surprisingly exciting. The cycle from seed to first fruit is one of the most common processes in nature, but I hope I never lose the wonder of it all.

I have given away one of the jalapeno plants to a neighbor and still have five. Now that spring has arrived, I am almost to the reaping stage. Those five plants currently have 24 peppers growing and are nearing harvest time. Here is a photo I snapped this morning of two of the peppers on one of the plants:

Early Jalapneos

This experience has energized me to plant more. I now also have growing two varieties of tomatoes and the herbs cilantro, parsley, basil, mint, oregano, and thyme.

A few quick takeaways:

  • If you want something good to happen in the future, you must take the steps today to get it started.
  • You have to stick with it through periods of time when it appears little to nothing is happening.
  • Waiting can be boring.
  • You must continue tending, watering, feeding, and weeding your dream.
  • If you consistently do these things, you will likely have the good thing you desire.

Any experiences you want to share about dreams you have worked to achieve or your experiences along the way? Was your vision and hard work rewarded?