[Book Review] The Art of Gathering

My ratings of the book
Likelihood to recommend: 3.5/5
Educational value: 4/5
Engaging plot: 3/5
Clear & concise writing: 3/5
Suitable for: anyone interested in how to host better gatherings, be it a birthday party, a family dinner, or a business meeting

Me: “I am reading a book called The Art of Gathering – it’s about tips on how to be a better host of gatherings.”

Response: “I like how you are reading about gatherings when we can’t have gatherings during social distancing. :)” Fair point – this may not be a good time to host a gathering, nevertheless it doesn’t hurt to think about how to become a better host. The learnings from the book will become especially handy when we resume normal social activities (and fingers crossed the situation would improve soon).

Before digging into the key takeaways, general comments on the book – I gave this book 3.5 stars out of 5:

  • What I like is the insights on gatherings – the book is less about what to do at gatherings (though there is a fair share of that) and more about how to think about gatherings (a mindset shift). This is not the typical logistical advice you would expect (e.g., how to arrange seats or dinner recipes). Instead, Priya Parker tells us how to re-imagine our roles as a host and the meanings of a gathering. This book reads like a combo of instructional manual + philosophy – that’s worth a 4 stars on educational value.
  • What I don’t enjoy as much is the narration style – some examples shared in the book feels a bit too wordy and could be slimmed down. For this reason, I find myself flipping through some chapters where I feel I have captured the main points, yet the examples shared are too detailed for my taste. Hence only a 3-star rating on plot & style.

And now to key takeaways from the book:

1/ Figuring out the real reason that matters is halfway towards a successful gathering. Importantly, a category is NOT a purpose, e.g., the purpose of a birthday party is NOT “to celebrate my birthday. A better but bland purpose would be “to mark the year,” and even better purposes could be along the lines of “to surround myself with the people who bring out the best in me,” “to set some goals for the year ahead with people who will help me stay accountable,” “to take a personal risk/do something that scares me.”

2/ Gathering that please everyone are rarely exciting – great gatherings are not afraid of alienating, which is not the same as being alienating. It is about taking a stand with a purpose of the gathering that stands out; it is about saying “no” to someone who want to join the gang; it is about enforcing rules to honor the purpose of the gathering and not succumbing to so-called etiquette.

(Some purposes) fail at the test for a meaningful reason for coming together: Does it stick its neck out a little bit? Does it take a stand? Is it willing to unsettle some of the guests (or maybe the host)? Does it refuse to be everything to everyone?

A good gathering purpose should also be disputable. If you say the purpose of your wedding is to celebrate love, you may bring a smile to people’s faces, but you aren’t really committing to anything, because who would dispute that purpose? … A disputable purpose, on the other hand, begins to be a decision filter. If you commit to a purpose of your wedding as a ceremonial repayment of your parents … that is disputable, and it will immediately help you make choices. That one remaining seat will go to your parents’ long-lost friend, not your estranged college buddy.

3/ A good host is never a chill host who sits back and lets guests organize themselves. I love how Priya Parker puts it: “Gathering well isn’t a chill activity. If you want chill, visit the Arctic.” Or in the words of Isaiah Berlin: “Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep.

“The chill approach to hosting is all too often about hosts attempting to wriggle out of the burden of hosting. In gatherings, once your guests have chosen to come into your kingdom, they want to be governed – gently, respectfully, and well. When you fail to govern, you may be elevating how you want them to perceive you over how you want the gathering to go for them. Often, chill is you caring about you masquerading (instead of) you caring about them.”

“Behind the ethic of chill hosting lies a simple fallacy: Hosts assume that leaving guests alone means that the guests will be left alone, when in fact they will be left to one another. Many hosts I work with seem to imagine that by refusing to exert any power in their gathering, they create a power-free gathering. What they fail to realize is that this pulling-back, far from purging a gathering of power, creates a vacuum that others can fill. These others are likely to exercise power in a manner inconsistent with your gathering’s prupose, and exercise it over people who signed up to be at your – the hosts’s – mercy, but definitely didn’t sign up to be at the mercy of your drunk uncle.”

4/ Hosting a gathering is not a democratic activity, so don’t be afraid of being the boss if you are the host. Be assertive in introducing your guests to each other a lot. Be assertive in seating guests next to people who are from different walks of life yet still complementary. Be assertive in setting your own rules, e.g., break up two friends who are talking with themselves in the corner and encourage them to mingle with everyone else.

5/ A gathering starts when your guests first hear about it, and don’t waste the time from then until the date of the gathering to prime your guests for the event. Priya Parker calls this “pregame window” a chance to shape the guests’ journey into the gathering – it is about priming the guests to get them in the right mood & mindset before the event, so that they could exhibit the behavior you would like.

The pregame should sow in guests any special behaviors you want to blossom right at the outset. If you are planning a corporate brainstorming session and you’re going to be counting on your employees’ creativity, think about how you might prime them to be bold and imaginative from the beginning. Perhaps by sending them an article on unleashing your wildest ideas a few days beforehand. If, for example, you are planning a session on mentorship in your firm, and you need people to show up with their guards down, send an email out ahead of time that includes real, heartfelt testimonials from three senior leaders sharing personal, specific examples of the transformative power that a mentor had on them.

In my own work with organizations, I almost always send out a digital ‘workbook’ to participants to fill out and return to me ahead of the gathering. I design each workbook afresh depending on the purpose of the gathering and what I hope to get guests to think about in advance. The workbooks consist of six to ten questions for participants to answer…The workbooks aren’t so different from a college application in that sense … they also help the person think through the things they value before they arrive. I then design the day based on what I see in their answers. I also weave quotes from their workbooks into my opening remarks at the convening.

6/ Quit starting or ending with logistics, such as where you should go next. It is extremely anti-climatic.

“I’m speaking, in short, of every gathering whose opening moments are governed by the thought: ‘Let’s first get some business out of the way.'”

“Just as you don’t open a gathering with logistics, you should never end a gathering with logistics, and that include sthank-yous. I am not suggesting that you cannot thank people. I simply mean that you shouldn’t thakn them as the last thing you do when gathering. Here’s a simple solution: do it as the second-to-last thing.”

“Goldman is a much-beloved teacher and singer-songwriter…To close (his classes) he strums the first note of the final song, his version of the last call, triggering the expectation of a closing in the kids, and then he pauses and makes announcements while still holding the note: Please turn in your check to me if you haven’t already. No classes next week. Someone left their jacket. He technically does these logistics between the first and second note of the final song. Once he’s finished with the logistics, he resumes the goodbye song. It’s subtle but quietly brilliant.”

7/ A soft close tactic, if done well, gives some guests the freedom to leave if they wish while lets other guests who want to stay feel welcome to linger around. Priya Parker shares a tip of inviting guests to the living room for a nightcap as a soft close for her house gatherings.

“The trouble for the host is that, for every person who is tired or checking out, there are presumably others who look as if they could keep going for hours. One of the most interesting – and divisive – dilemmas in hosting is what to do in this situation.”

“Once I can see the conversation petering out after dessert (at a home gathering), I pause, thank everyone for a beautiful evening, then suggest we move to the living room to have a nightcap. I give the guests who are tired the opportunity to leave, but both my husband and I emphasize that we’d rather everyone stay.”

“That invitation to the living room is a soft close; in a sense, it’s the equivalent of the last call. You can ask for the check, so to speak, or you can order another round. Those who are tired can leave without appearing rude, and those who want to stay can stay. The party, relocated and trimmed, resumes.”

And to heed my own advice, I should close this post with a thoughtful closing – at least somewhat thoughtful. I would like to share with you what Priya Parker wrote in the introduction of the book: there are no pre-requisites to being a good gatherer. No, you don’t have to be talkative, you don’t need to have a fancy venue, and you don’t need to hide a dozen jokes in your sleeves to entertain your guests. The magic recipe is some deliberate thought into why you are gathering, which identities of you the gathering is enforcing, and what spirit you are bringing into the gathering – it is likely to go well (or better than you imagined) if you have “the curiosity, willingness, and generosity of spirit to try.

[Book Review] The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company

My ratings of the book
Likelihood to recommend: 5/5
Educational value: 4/5
Engaging plot: 5/5
Clear & concise writing: 5/5
Suitable for: everyone, especially those interested in management & business

The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company is the memoir of Robert Iger, named as the 2019 businessperson of the year by Time magazine. Iger is well-known for revitalizing Disney with key initiatives such as the acquisition of Pixar & Marvel, and the launch of streaming services. This book is an absolute enjoyment to read – I finished it within one day.

For those who are short on time and want to get straight to the “talking points”, Roger has summarized the key takeaways in Appendix – Lessons to Lead By. I quote some of my favorites below:

“To tell great stories, you need great talent.”

“I talk a lot about ‘the relentless pursuit of perfection’…It’s not about perfectionism at all costs. It’s about creating an environment in which people refuse to accept mediocrity. It’s about pushing back against the urge to say that ‘good enough’ is good enough.”

“Don’t start negatively, and don’t start small. People will often focus on little details as a way of masking a lack of any clear, coherent, big thoughts. If you start petty, you seem petty.”

“Don’t let ambition get ahead of opportunity. By fixating on a future job or project, you become impatient with where you are. You don’t tend enough to the responsibilities you do have, and so ambition can become counterproductive.”

“If something doesn’t feel right to you, it won’t be right for you.”

When hiring, try to surround yourself with people who are good in addition to being good at what they do. Genuine decency – an instinct for fairness and openness and mutual respect – is a rarer commodity in business than it should be.

Some other takeaways from the book:

1/ Great leaders value ability over experience. This is not to say that experience is not important, but to highlight that if it comes down to placing your bet on one of the two, you should “bet on brains”.

“Tom and Dan were the perfect bosses in this regard. They would talk about valuing ability more than experience, and they believed in putting people in roles that required more of them than they knew they had in them. It wasn’t that experience wasn’t important, but they ‘bet on brains.'”

2/ A dysfunctional leadership between senior management hurts the morale of the entire company, making the staff confused, afraid, or both. It rarely ends up well.

“When the two people at the top of a company have a dysfunctional relationship, there’s no way that the rest of the company beneath them can be functional. It’s like having two parents who fight all the time.”

3/ Respecting people’s time is underrated – how you deal with time is one of the things that immediately solidifies your reputation (or breaks it). People remember the seemingly small things.

“Once, he took a call, in my office, from President Clinton, talking with him for forty-five minutes while I sat outside. A call from Tom Cruise interrupted another meeting.”

“Meeting after meeting was either canceled, rescheduled, or abbreviated, and soon every top executive at Disney was whispering behind his back about what a disaster he was. Managing your own time and respecting others’ time is one of the most vital things to do as a manager.”

4/ Micromanagement not only frustrates your employees, but could make you look petty and narrow-minded as a leader.

“Michael was proud of his micromanagement, but in expressing his pride, and reminding people of the details he was focused on, he could be perceived as being petty and small-minded. I once watched him give an interview in the lobby of a hotel and say to the reporter, ‘You see those lamps over there? I chose them.’ It’s a bad look for a CEO.”

5/ Don’t forget people who have helped you, and don’t step on them to get your own way. I respect how Iger tried to not look better at the expense of Michael, Disney’s CEO before him, who had a bad reputation and was blamed for Disney’s troubles.

“I respected Michael and was grateful for the opportunities he’d given me. I’d also been COO of the company for five years, and it would have been hypocritical, transparently so, to lay all of the blame on someone else. Mostly, though, it just wouldn’t have been right to make myself look better at Michael’s expense. I vowed to myself not to do that.”

6/ A big question to ask yourself is: who do you want to be remembered as? What is a defining feature of your identity? For George Lucas, his identity and values are largely defined by the Star Wars series – and it is touching to see how much that one thing matters to him and gives his life meaning.

“He (George Lucas) said something else that I kept in mind in every subsequent onversation we had: ‘Whe nI die, the first line of my obituary is going to read ‘Star Wars creator George Lucas…’ It was so much a part of who he was, which ofcouse I knew, but having him look into my eyes and say it like that underscored the most important factor in these conversations.”

7/ Doing what’s right as a CEO doesn’t necessarily mean doing what’s financially right. Doing what’s right means literally what it says: doing what’s right. Kudos to Iger’s decision to terminate a high-profile employee after her inappropriate Tweet.

“‘We have to do what’s right. Not what’s politically correct, and not what’s commercially correct. Just what’s right. If any of our employees tweeted what she tweeted, they’d be immediately terminated.’ I told them (the management) to feel free to push back or tell me I was crazy (to fire her), but no one did.”

“It was an easy decision (to let her go), really. I never asked what the financial repercurssions would be, and didn’t care. In moments like that, you have to look past whatever the commercial losses are and be guided, again, by the simple rule that there’s nothing more important than the quality and integrity of your people and your product. Everything depends on upholding that principle.”

In general, I find Iger’s tone to be matter-of-the-fact without much self-promotion (of himself or the company). I appreciate how he points out what he sees as strengths and weaknesses of people whom he has worked with, including his former managers or mentors.

There are some things that I think would be good to include in the book:

A/ The one business decision that Iger made, which I was not sure about, was passing the opportunity to acquire Twitter. Iger said it did not feel right, and he was worried about the (potential) liability to manage and / or moderate an open platform where anyone could post anything. It would be interesting to see what Disney would have made out of Twitter – at least I would have liked Iger to share more about what he and Disney’s Board & management initially planned to do with Twitter.

B/ I would have wanted Iger to talk more about what he felt were missed opportunities or mistakes on his own part. I felt the book largely focused on what he did right – and while he narrated these stories in a fairly neutral way (and I believe he does deserve credit where it is due), I would have liked to see his candid self-assessment on what he did wrong.

C/ One thing that the book didn’t touch upon too much is how to manage an amusement park the scale of Disney. Iger mentioned he learnt many things from his predecessors on the various aspects of design & management. It would be really cool to know what are the details that Disney management pays attention to.

That being said, the book overall has not disappointed, and could be finished in half a day. Do consider giving it a try.

Stop Renting. Start Living: Rejecting the Second-Hander

It’s what I couldn’t understand about people for a long time. They have no self. They live within others. They live second-hand.

– Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead”

What is the most expensive rent you pay?

Ask yourself this question. I reckon most of you would answer one of the following:

  1. Rent for space (e.g., paying a landlord), or
  2. Rent for time (e.g., paying an employee), or
  3. Rent for ideas (e.g., paying a consultant).

Now, what if I tell you the most expensive thing we could rent is our Self? That the most costly is not second-hand clothes, second-hand cars, second-hand flats, but second-hand selves?

What does it mean to live a second-hand life?

What is it like to be a second-hander of life?

One example is Peter Keating – fictional character from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Keating is an architect that is successful by conventional standards. Yet, he is described as a second-hander, in the words of the protagonist Howard Roark:

He didn’t want to be great, but to be thought great. He didn’t want to build, but to be admired as a builder. He borrowed from others in order to make an impression on others. There’s your actual selflessness. It’s his ego that he’s betrayed and given up. But everybody calls him selfish.”

Through the mouth of Roark, Ayn Rand defines the second-hander as a person whose wishes, efforts, dreams, ambitions “are motivated by other men”, who is “not really struggling even for mateiral wealth, but for the second-hander’s delusion: prestige. A stamp of approval, not his own.”

They (Second-handers) don’t ask: “Is this true?” They ask: “Is this what others think is true?”

Ayn Rand

What if we are all second-handers?

In a way, yes – we are all second-handers. As a baby, we receive almost everything “second-hand”: food is handed to us, stories are told to us, and even thoughts are passed down to us. We are told by our parents and other “grown-ups” on what is right vs. wrong, what to think vs. not to think, what to desire vs. avoid.

On a related note, even our emotions could be “second-hand”. In How Emotions Are Made, professor of psychology Barrett argues that “emotions are not biologically hardwired into our brains but constructed by our minds. In other words, we don’t merely feel emotions — we actively create them.” Emotions could be passed down second-hand – e.g., it is possible to develop feelings of shame at something if we were taught that it is a shameful act. I recommend checking out the podcast episode “We don’t just feel emotions. We make them.” on the Erza Klein Show.

What should we do if it is not possible to avoid second-handism?

Just because it is a fact that we all acquire (at least some) thoughts & behaviors second-hand (i.e., learn from or imitate others), it does not mean we refuse to acknowledge the fact.

Rejecting the second-hander does not mean rejecting everything we learnt second-hand – that would be going from one extreme to another. It means rejecting things that come to us second-hand without examination. This is analogous to rejecting alcoholism does not mean abandoning alcohol altogether – it means drinking in moderation, knowing our limits and making a conscious effort to honor them.

Howard Roark in the movie “The Fountainhead” (1949)

At the end of the day, what we want to avoid is becoming the ultimate second-hander:

He (The second-hander) can’t say about a single thing: “This is what I wanted because I wanted it, not because it made my neighbors gape at me.” Then he wonders why he’s unhappy.

Ayn Rand

What is the opposite of a second-hander?

An individualist. Defined in the words of Ayn Rand, an individualist is the slave of no one and wants to enslave no one:

The best defense against the second-hander is an independent man:

Notice how they’ll (second-handers) accept anything except a man who stands alone. They recognize him at once. […] The independent man kills them (second-handers) – because they don’t exist within him and that’s the only form of existence they know.”

The man who stands alone is not the same as the man who does everything on his own. The man who is independent is not the same as the man who does not acknowledge dependence on others. He is the man who stands for himself, who says: “This is what I want, this is who I am.”

[Big Ideas 003] Role of Museums in Education & Science vs. Religion

Context: This article is part of the Big Ideas series, where I synthesize takeaways from interviews by Discovery Magazine with the world’s best experts in multiple disciplines. This series is inspired by Peter Kaufman’s take on the multidisciplinary approach to thinking. Peter spent 6 months reading 140+ of these interviews, and came out knowing “every single big idea from every single domain of science”. I wrote more about Peter’s insightful ideas in this article.

Credit: Special thanks to ValueInvestingWorld for compiling the interviews in a single PDF here.

Former Head of Chicago’s Field Museum John McCarter

John McCarter is the CEO & president of the Chicago Field Museum. He “oversees the work of 200 scientists” on diverse research topics from protecting endangered tropical environments, to molecular evolution. He is also “one of the leading critics of the intelligent design movement (that argues life is created by an intelligent cause, or God)” and “an outspoken proponent of teaching modern evolutionary theory to all students.” Read the original interview in the May 2006 issue of Discover magazine here.

Why it’s hard to sustain kids’ interest in science

McCarter thinks there are two challenges to science education:

First, “kids get turned off to science at some point—fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade —when science is perceived as too hard and too complicated.” He proposes counteracting the problem “by telling stories”:

We try to make the museum experience telling enough that it becomes a conversation with families over the dinner table two nights later.

John McCarter

Second, it’s hard to attract or sustain attention amidst the “competition for time” in the digital age:

Two comedians with light talk on CBS and NBC had 80 percent of the market in that time slot…yet only 2 percent of the population is listening to NPR (National Public Radio). I think institutions like this don’t have a crack at people’s attention and time, so you have to be really good at delivering messages or explaining controversies in a way that sticks in people’s minds.

John McCarter

Museums in the science vs. religion debate

Shortly before the interview with McCarter took place, the Chicago Field Museum launched an exhibit – Evolving Planet – in March 2006. It showcased the 4-billion-year evolutionary journey of life on Earth.

McCarter shares the Evolving Planet exhibit was motivated by a dissatisfaction with current exhibits on evolution “constructed in such a way that visitors rushed through to get to the dinosaurs”.

Yet, he was also challenged on whether this exhibit was intended to promote the evolutionary perspective (that he is a strong advocate of):

What is the harm in telling the other story (of religious narrative)?
* * *
John McCarter
I don’t think there is any harm, as long as it is not posed as a scientific alternative to the story of evolution.

McCarter believes religion itself has undergone a shift:

The mainstream theological community is already way beyond the literal interpretation of the biblical accounts of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden and seven days of creation. Instead, they are saying that those are wonderful stories, created 2,000 years ago by people who were trying to explain their world, not that they are scientific fact.

John McCarter

For McCarter, the key issues in theology worth focusing our attention on are “applied morality of behavior and guidance”.

McCarter shares that the population that visit museums are skewed to have a higher % of those who subscribe to the evolution theory (instead of religious explanations on intelligent creation). He cites ~50% of the US public accepts the evolution theory, but this number has grown to 75% amidst museum-goers.

“And for those people who don’t accept it (evolution theory), the exhibit may enable the families to have a discussion about what their 15-year-old saw and how that fits into the overall faith of the family. We are not against religion. We are very supportive of religions and religious institutions. Much of this museum is a celebration of the impact of religion on cultures. But we do that in anthropology. We don’t do that in paleontology.”

Museum as a powerful storytelling platform

I particularly like this Q&A snippet in the interview:

It seems museums have switched from being repositories of artifacts and information and history to being advocates for a specific viewpoint?
* * *
John McCarter
I don’t think I’d call it advocacy…I call it storytelling…You would see an object, but there was no contextual story around that object. What we are doing now is using the artifacts to tell a story.

Museums don’t just lay out facts – they use facts to present a story, a narrative. Museums could be another powerful form of storytelling or propaganda.

Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series! And please share interesting “big ideas” by reaching me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or on LinkedIn.

Enjoyed reading this? Apart from publishing articles on this blog, I also send out a newsletter with original content and curated ideas. Subscribe here or view past issues here. Stay tuned for more articles in the “Big Idea” series!

Naming Contest: A New “A”-Word For A.I.

Here’s a naming contest: pick a new word the letter “A” stands for in A.I. – conventionally known as artificial intelligence. What would be your pick?

Candidate #1: A = Amplified

Just like A.I., machine learning is an amplifier of all things human…reflecting [human actions] exponentially back into society, that’s where the hidden danger really is.

Dekai Wu, Professor at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, one of eight inaugural members of Google’s AI Ethics Council, in an interview on the “Exponential View with Azeem Azhar” podcast

Think of A.I. as a 10-X magical amplifier. Whatever we feed it – whether good or bad – will get reflected back at us with greater force.

One problem this brings is to amplify our biases – whether they are explicit or implicit. For instance, machines could internalize stereotypes, as a study found this: “European American names were more closely associated with pleasant words than they were with unpleasant ones, in comparison to African American names, and female names were more closely associated with words that have familial connotations than with career-oriented words, as compared to male names.”

Candidate #2: B = Biased?

Being original, you come up with this out-of-the-box answer: why don’t we scrap the letter “A” altogether, and replace it with the letter “B” instead? How about B.I. for “Biased Intelligence”?

While “artificial” is a relatively neutral term, “amplified” is neutral / slightly positive, “biased” takes a U-turn and takes on a negative connotation. But the picture is not all gloomy. On the bright side, biases from algorithms may be easier to spot:

In contrast to human thought processes, certain elements of algorithmic decision-making—such as the inputs used to make predictions and the outcomes algorithms are designed to estimate—are inherently explicit, though not always publicly visible.

Amy Merrick, “How making algorithms transparent can promote equity“, Chicago Booth Review

Biases from algorithmic decision-making are more explicit (than human biases), in that we could identify & measure them with objective data. We could analyze the record of all decisions made. In contrast, it is much harder to quantify how “biased” an actual person is in real life – it’s hard to imagine tracking every single decision, action or word said by a person and analyzing how much of that is attributable to “bias”.

Candidate #3: Get Rid of the 1st Letter Altogether

Now to be even more original, some of you may question why we need an adjective in front of the word “intelligence” in the first place. As mentioned in this Chinese interview on the podcast “迟早更新”, a guest speaker mentioned the ultimate purpose of artificial intelligence is to get rid of the “A” – i.e., the intelligence of machines no longer seems artificial.

You could argue if we want our name to be more aspiring and reflect our optimism about the future, we should adhere to “less is more” and scrap the letter “A” in the first place.

Candidate #4 (&5): Let’s Go Natural & Organic

At this point, some of you may ask: since the opposite of “artificial” is “natural”, why don’t we rename A.I. as Natural Intelligence? Or if we want to stick with the initials (since people are already so used to it), we could call it All-Natural Intelligence? Or perhaps Almost-Natural Intelligence for now, before A.I. hits perfection?

Or how about replacing “natural” with its cousin, “organic”? Say Almost-Organic Intelligence? Or Inorganic Intelligence for a fancy twin-initial of I.I.?

I will leave it to yourself to explore the rabbit hole…be sure not to dig too deep! 🙂

What is your pick or nomination? Share your views – write to me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com or reach me on LinkedIn.

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Call Me By My Rightful Name (Word Power Series #1)

The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.

– Socrates

What’s In A Name?

Answer: a lot. A lot is in a name.

The spoken name is like the tip of an iceberg that floats above the surface, while its unspoken weight is like the heavy base stretching into the depth of the sea. The spoken name is like the leaves of a tree that erects above the ground, while its unspoken volume is like thick roots extending into the width of the land.

“What’s your name?” This is one of the first questions we learn to ask.

“Hi, my name is…” This is one of the first replies we learn to give. While it merely takes seconds to whisper a name, one should not underestimate the importance of naming.

Sometimes, changing one word in the name makes a huge difference. For example, Jonathan Rowson thinks the phrase “climate change” does not highlight the urgency of the problem:

[Climate] “change” is such a neutral term that I now think in terms of climate “collapse“…I think climate “emergency” is too strong; climate “breakdown” makes it sound too mechanical. We are looking at a systemic collapse gradually unfolding in front of us.

Jonathan Rowson on The On Being Project podcast

In contrast, Rowson also gives an example where the naming aptly captures hidden connections:

Ecology and economy, they have the same root of “eco,” which comes down to “home,” — there’s something about the idea of home at the heart of economics that we need to reclaim ownership of, because it’s our home too.

Jonathan Rowson on The On Being Project podcast

What’s In NOT Having A Name?

On the flip side of the coin, not having a name for something also speaks volumes. Apart from the question of good vs. bad names, there is also the divide of having a name vs. lacking one. The lack of a name could lead to a deficit in discourse.

For example, Karim Amer notices we do not have a unified name to describe the “data & mind hack problem in the Internet age” (which, of course, is my poorly-chosen name for the problem):

[W]e became obsessed with trying to look at how we could show how people’s minds have been hacked and changed and how we could change people’s minds, and the vulnerability that’s amongst us. But the problem we faced was one that I think this entire conversation faces…that there’s a deficit of language.

Karim Amer on Recode Decode podcast

What’s In Disagreeing On A Name?

“I can’t believe you just said that.”

“Hey, don’t get mad – that was just a joke!”

“Are you joking or for real? No, that did not sound like a joke. And it’s not funny at all.”

Does the dialogue above ring a bell? We are all too familiar with are-you-kidding-me moments. And we are not unfamiliar with arguing over what name to put on something – something as trivial as a joke (or not-a-joke).

Don’t underestimate the debate around whether something could be called a joke. This debate is no joking matter, and could get seriously philosophical (or philosophically serious). In The Philosophy of Humor by Great Courses Plus, the professor raises the interesting question of whether humor is subjective or objective:

If there are reasonable arguments that could convince you one way or the other, then what you have is an objective question.

…There must be a fact about whether I was indeed joking, if we were to appeal to that fact…The fact that we are disagreeing over whether it was a joke or not means that humor is an objective matter.

The Philosophy of Humor lecture by Great Courses Plus

To illustrate, there could be no disagreement over whether something was a joke or not, if humor is a subjective matter. Consider this example: it is pointless to argue over whether vanilla ice-cream tastes better than chocolate ice-cream, as taste preference is, after all, entirely subjective. If I like vanilla flavor better, there is no reasonable argument you could make to convince me chocolate flavor tastes better instead.

So yes, disagreeing on a name could lead to disagreeable debates. Pick the name you use wisely.

Names Have Power

Finally, if you still need convincing that names are powerful at this point, let me borrow three much-repeated words from the beloved Harry Potter series, three short words that convey the power of a name without naming it: