Words matter. If they didn’t we wouldn’t be able to enjoy our favourite fiction books the way we do, we wouldn’t have beautiful euphemisms like restructuring, and we wouldn’t go with challenges instead of problems. It is perhaps not too far-fetched to even suggest that words is all there is, for we can hardly imagine thinking without words. As a simple proof, notice that your thought process seems a lot like talking to yourself.
If this is correct, and I believe it by and large is, then words and categories we use would be instrumental for how we see the world. For the world is not neatly divided into preexisting categories – there is no such thing. Perception is production, not reflection, and the words we use to produce the world matter for they offer linkages to other words, concepts, and actions. In short, words offer perspectives. And in a world in which words are perspectives, verbs are the heroes and nouns are the villains.
“I seem to be a verb”
Talking about perspectives, the title of R. Buckminster Fuller’s book is one of the most insightful titles I’ve ever came across. We are used to thinking about ourselves as relatively stable entities with well-demarcated boundaries. We are fathers, mothers, students, good, bad, consumers, blond, open-minded, you name it. What we are usually not is a being that acts. We just don’t use verbs to describe ourselves or other people for that matter. That’s a pity really, at least if authors as diverse as Buckminster Fuller, Aristotle (“We are what we consistently do”), and Nick Chater (author of The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and The Improvised Mind) are right and our actions make us who we are. Our propensity to use nouns to describe the world (ourselves included) offers an account of it that is static, predictable, unavoidable if you will; an account in which there are boxes which we need to think out of, boundaries, eternal essences, and my favourite – human nature. Why is noun-thinking wrong? One word – entropy.
Entropy – a fundamental law of nature
The world that we see around us – this post, the screen you are reading it on, your eyes and mind, your table, the road outside, everything really – exists against extremely high odds against it. The ways in which molecules can connect to form order (or life as we know it) is a tiny fraction of the innumerable other ways in which they can do that. What exists right now is but one of the possible combinations – the one we can live in and with; all else would seem to us like decay and disorder. Because there are so many ways for something ‘not to be’ as opposed to ‘is’, the system is always headed towards disorder and chaos. It’s like it is under a constant attack if you will.
What follows is that every second every single living thing is fighting an epic struggle against entropy. Order is constant action, not a state. This led Steven Pinker to say that
…the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and knowledge to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (p. 17).
This is perhaps the best way to showcase the primacy of action in life. Literally everything around us at any given time is in motion, fighting entropy, fighting to maintain order, if not to improve it. Actions come first; in fact, actions is all there is. As a thought experiment, try describing an object to someone. You are likely to do two things: give a physical description, as in red, oval, heavy, coarse surface; and explain what the thing does. The physical will not be enough and in most cases will be too generic to figure out what the object is.
Once we start thinking in verbs, we find them everywhere. In fact, they are hiding in plain sight. Think leadership, culture, society, photographer, democracy, mind, love, illness, excellence, win, process, structure, to give just a few examples. The noun has taken center-stage while in reality these are all verbs. Leadership is not a personality trait – it’s an action. Corporate culture? It does not exist beyond the actions of people inside the organization. Photographer? Someone who takes photos. Love? A drive towards something or someone.
What nouns are good for fixing meaning and providing stability and predictability. Verbs are like ships, and nouns are their seaports. Nouns anchor us in a reality that, at least on the surface of it, seems lasting and reliable. The unintended consequence of noun-based thinking is that we tend to see too much stability when there’s none; we focus on who we are instead of what we can be; we box ourselves instead of leaving our minds roam free.
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.”
This quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower encapsulates very well the essence of verb-based vs noun-based thinking. We typically rely on plans and put a very high importance on them; we see them as a must. But when they face reality, in most cases plans are useless because there are so many ways in which things can go wrong. Planning, on the other hand, seems like an excellent strategy. It is this process of deliberation, of figuring out pros and cons, and of looking at situations from multiple angles and designing responses, that helps in real life. The output is useless. The process though prepares you for what’s to come so you can act on your feet.
By the same token, a lot of our business-lingo is better thought of as verbs. Your strategy is probably something you’ll never fulfil in reality, but in the process of building it you understand a lot about your environment and your company. Your company culture is what everyone in your company does everyday, not an imaginary beast sitting in the closet. Your organizational structure is something that is created anew everyday by your employees. The processes you follow mean nothing lest people bring them to life. While there could be a lot of pride in saying ‘I’m the CEO’, going for ‘I’m CEO-ing’ shows humility and reminds you that you are just filling in the role right now. And last but not least, it’s a useful reminder that CEO is not what you are – you are a chaos-fighting organism that creates the world every second of its existence. Enjoy it!
My best wishes for a great day ahead!