Continuing every Monday, the key ideas from my book:
“Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject.”—Thomas Mann
One trait that distinguishes successful leaders is their ability to get their minds around important concepts. When they look at an opportunity or a changing industry, they see not just details but the whole picture. It’s like designing an airplane. Engineers concern themselves with whether the wing-fuselage joint is strong enough and where to run the hydraulic lines. The chief designer concentrates on the fundamental question: Will it fly?
Before we begin looking around the world, keep in mind that our ultimate goal is to bring together everything we learn into a unified body of understanding. This is known as comprehensive thinking. In the last chapter we talked about asking questions. We can ask a lot of questions, but if we cannot make sense of all that information, we will get no closer to our goals. The first step in such big-picture thinking is thinking in concepts instead of (or in addition to) words.
Conceptual thinking starts with freeing ourselves from thinking one word at a time. We sometimes assume that words are exact representations of their meanings. But words are just symbols, like the little @ sign. They stand for ideas, concepts, and emotions. The meaning of most words is subjective and contextual. When the eight-year-old says she is in love with her favorite movie star, and I say I love pinball machines, and you say you love your spouse, the word love is in each case an approximation of the emotion we are trying to describe. Most conversation goes like this: we convert our ideas into words that approximate what we are thinking or feeling; we speak the words; the listener hears the words; the listener converts the words back into underlying meaning.
Each word carries certain baggage with it, and that baggage varies from one person to the next. You may shudder when you hear the expression “TQM” because the concept of Total Quality Management was badly misused where you used to work. The person next to you may love the concept so much that they get excited when they hear the same term.
We can waste a lot of time and energy trying to force our thinking into little boxes, or trying to deal with other people’s favorite words. Therefore one of the best things we can do is to think in word clusters – groups of words which have overlapping, related meanings. I often try to describe the level of commitment and dedication that it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. Sometimes people think I am just saying it takes hard work and long hours. I don’t want them to misunderstand me, so it’s best if I lay down a whole string of ideas that represent what I mean: dedicated, committed, obsessed, focused, single-minded, unwavering, driven, unstoppable, self-invested, all on the line, with all your heart.
Thinking in word clusters is made much easier by the fact that a doctor named Roget gave us an index of thoughts called the thesaurus. There are lots of good ones, but make sure and get one that is organized by ideas, not alphabetically (“dictionary-style”). In other words, we don’t want to see “politician” next to “poison.” We want to see (hopefully) “politician” next to “leader.” Roget went to great lengths to put all our words into a logical structure, and it is a shame to waste his (or his successors’) efforts toward that end. Any time you are thinking about an idea or concept, pick up a thesaurus and drift around the pages near your word.
In order to do this successfully, you should avoid thesauruses which list words alphabetically or "dictionary style." Instead, use one that is organized conceptually, like those listed at right. Both have an alphabetical index to use when you need it.