What Are Words Worth?

Originally published in the Upstate Business Journal // November 4, 2016

We are collectively complacent about the words that we choose, which is part of why it is vitally important for us to pause and take stock of how we employ words in the service of what we hope to achieve. This could be a very broad topic, but since I serve as a contributor to the Innovate section of the Upstate Business Journal, I’m going to limit these observations to the realm of innovation – and one word in particular that needs replacing.

For anyone in business, nonprofits or education; anyone who reads; anyone starting their career; anyone in midlife – really, anyone who is alive today – the word “passion” has become cliché. To say that it is overused is an understatement. In one sense, that is a shame. Any time a word loses its value to convey meaning, we collectively lose a little bit of the rich color of our language. In another sense, it offers us an opportunity to reflect and potentially find new ways of expressing our thoughts. 

The Big Picture

If you take a step back and look at the big picture of innovation, there’s an important perspective to be considered. Words are the primary functional conduits of innovation. Of course, numbers, images and sounds are all forms of communication necessary for certain types of innovation. By and large, words are the everyday method through which our ideas are communicated to one another. We may marvel at the latest technological device, the latest medical miracle, the latest socially conscious enterprise, but in all cases those innovations were wholly dependent on the received communication (words, most often) of what preceded its development.

When we fall back on overused words and phrases, we betray the very intent of innovation. Original ideas benefit from original wording. Of course, there are limitations to the catalog of words we can choose from. Our language is not infinite, but it is also not exhausted. There are still ways that we can repurpose words, rearrange words, revive old words and in some cases intentionally restore the meaning of words.

Generally, it doesn’t seem like we give much consideration to this very simple idea that words affect innovation. But take a moment to think about it. Words affect our communication, which affects our relationships, which affect culture. And culture affects the climate of innovation more than most anything else. So our words must be chosen with intention if they are to serve the purpose of cultivating innovation

The Paradox of Clichés

Bringing the view down a little closer, we need to consider the effect of clichés among the words that we choose. There’s an interesting paradox involving clichés. Most people will tell you that they don’t like clichés, those tired words and phrases that betray a lack of original thought. And yet we employ clichés so frequently in everyday speech, especially business jargon, that you might naturally draw the conclusion that a schizophrenia exists between what folks say about clichés and what they do in using them.

At root, clichés are lazy. We use them as communication shortcuts. We use them because they are often the quickest communication option. We use them because everyone else uses them. The unintentional side effect is their loss of meaning as the volume of their usage saturates our culture. It’s in this way that clichés negatively impact a culture of innovation.

Passion Is Cliché, but Delight Has Meaning

So, what’s the practical outworking of this observation? Take the now clichéd word “passion.” We hyperbolically use it in so many ways. When folks are vocationally uncertain, we suggest, “Find what you are passionate about.” When people express the slightest feeling of toil in their work, we say, “They’ve lost their passion.” Those who seek to motivate others will tell them, “The passionate are the ones who can change the world.”

And here’s where the importance of words and their meanings comes into detailed focus. “Passion,” by strict definition, means “strong and barely controllable emotion.” Is that really the concept that propels those who innovate? Perhaps in some moments, that may describe how they feel. But more likely than not, that sort of heightened feeling is not sustainable. None of us are passionate about what we do all of the time, and that’s what makes disillusionment set in when we feel that we don’t measure up to what we believe everyone else is living up to.

Perhaps if we lowered the hyperbole from “passion” to “delight,” we could recover some of the intended meaning behind the idea of taking great pleasure in something, which is a key ingredient to innovation.

When we delight in curiosity, we are free to pursue new ideas. When we delight in work, we are free to put in the time necessary to achieve something of value. And when we delight in a culture that chooses words in an intentional manner, we are free to express original thoughts … that aren’t full of clichés