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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

Most readers (hopefully) know that there is a huge difference between being goal-less and being goal-free. Goal-less implies a complete lack of direction, motivation, and action. Goal-free means having a sense of direction, not a specific destination, and then meandering with purpose.

Goal-free versus goal-less is an example of different words with different meanings. Sometimes however, different words with similar meanings can generate different emotional responses.

Last week I was having lunch with a group of people. I was discussing the difference between goal-less and goal-free. During the conversation, one women chimed, “I am child-free, not child-less. Not having children is a choice. People who call themselves child-less often feel as though something is missing from their lives.” Wow, what a great distinction. Although both imply having no children, the emotional difference is significant. The women (and men) who thought of themselves as child-less completely got it.

Subtle differences in words can create large differences in emotion.

I was recently having lunch with a friend. She was talking about her ex-husband. She noted that when she referred to him as her “ex,” it stirred up negative emotions. It reminded her that she was once in a relationship with this man, and that things did not work out. When she referred to him by his name, there was much less emotional baggage. Now he is just a guy, and not someone she was once married to.

Subtle differences in words can create large differences in emotion.

Is your job “work,” “your career,” or “your calling?”

Are you chasing “goals” (old English for overcoming obstacles to get to your destination) or are you pursuing your “aspirations” (derived from Latin meaning “to breath life into”)?

Subtle differences in words can create large differences in emotion.

Choose your words carefully.

  1. Thanks Steve for this post about how to choose words carefully.

    I’ve been choosing my favorite words for my PositiveWords Yahoo Group using the free online Roget’s New Millennium Thesaurus

    For example during the last year I have been trying to choose a career and it will be helpful to translate the common words that I dislike to related words that I like. I like the word “niche”.

    Disliked words: job (employment), business, calling, career, chore, engagement, livelihood, occupation, place, profession, pursuit, trade, vocation, work

    Liked words:
    department (expertise): activity, administration, assignment, capacity, class, duty, field, function, line, niche, office, realm, specialty, sphere, spot, station
    place (location): abode, area, community, distance, dwelling, habitat, home, locale, neighborhood, niche, reservation, residence, site, venue, vicinity, zone
    job(employment): activity, appointment, assignment, capacity, connection, faculty, function, line, means, niche, office, position, post, posting, situation, spot, stint, task, operation, project

    There is some humor in this too. I remember the comment by a manager about an Australian 7’3″ player who would be valuable in his NBA team if he could be taught how to play: “Luc Longley is a project”.

    Thanks again Steve for your post.

    Regards / Antony (Sydney Australia)

  2. I greatly admire your dedication with helping people understand the subtle differences between the -free and -less aspects. The absence of something (not having goals) is not the same than being detached from the presence of something (having goals but they don’t have you). So, I understand the semantic difference in the explanation. It makes sense and it’s instructive.

    However, you have commented several times the difficulty that some people experiment with noticing the difference. Have you thought about the motive? I think that it may be linked with the more general interpretation of -free in people’s minds because of common expressions out there. For me, for example, reading the title “Goal-free living” was associated immediately with no having goals.

    When you go to airports you see duty-free goods and shops, meaning no taxes charged. Then you have the growing dietetic food industry, with many sugar free (candy, chocolate), gluten free (pasta, muesli, bread, biscuits), and many other something-free products (yeast free, diary free, wheat free, egg free, soya free, lactosa free, etc.). In all these marketed products, “free” means “without the specific component”. Even food regulations determine that products with less than .5 grams of sugar per serving can be labelled as “sugar free” while over .5 grams must be labelled “no sugar added” -I just googled this and found out. So, you actually find the equivalence of free with “less”. How you then can be surprised to find people confused for the expression goal-free living?

    Could you think of shifting the expression in case that you want to expand into a second book? It might be worth to explore what kind of expression might better convey the essential qualities of the type of life you advocate for.

    I am interested in the connection between language, culture, identity, and meaning-making of the world. These inform the roots of many conflicts among peoples. If already in the same language (English) subtle differences in words can create large differences in emotion, can you imagine the emotional clash with no so subtle differences in words? Goal-free living is about living in the flow, in animation, allowing the flux of spontaneous processes to occur. Languages spoken by Native American are organized about conveying that: direct experience, relationships, movement. Names of things relate to the sound they make, to the context, the specific time, etc. European languages reflect other worldview, more categorized into either/or, like having something or not (-free or -less). You are trying to express a Native experience with a limited tool.

    So, here is a game that I suggest: find out what’s the sound of experiencing goal-free living, its sensations, and then name it. For that you could seat with a Native elder. You interiorize the feeling, you play your saxophon with intent and in the flow, and then ask the elder who will be listening to help you put into words that. Also, in a group you could invite each person to make a sound to express how goal-free living feels like for them. And then if done all together you could have a rich choral symphony that you could present in an audio-book as a collective goal-free naming experience!

  3. Thanks, Steve, for pointing out these linguistic distinctions. You are spot on. Language does indeed have power beyond what we normally imagine–not to manipulate others, which is the context in which the language/power equation is usually regarded–but in the impact on the speaker himself or herself. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the nature of one’s self-talk has a direct impact on the state of one’s bio-chemistry and neurological circuitry.

  4. Now you ‘re getting interesting. Self talk is extrememly powerful and it is one of the few things we have control over. Manatra are a way of taping into this power…We each have our mantras but are we aware of them? If it’s going araound in your head and being repeated then it’s a mantra.

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