When I was in Toronto recently, Dan Sullivan and I had another of our “Life, the universe, and everything” conversations. This time, Dan brought up the old question, “Which comes first, language or thought?,” but added a new twist I hadn’t heard before and pointed out how this relates to the thinking exercises entrepreneurs do in Strategic Coach Program workshops.
So which comes first: language or thought?
The main difference between us and animals, the theory goes, is that we can think. And in order to have thoughts, you need to have some kind of language to contain them.
But which language? About 70 years ago, linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf suggested that a culture’s language shapes what its members are capable—and incapable—of thinking about. Today, linguists dismiss this “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” as over-simple and, well, kind of racist.
For example, the language of the Hopi people may not have an equivalent to our word “time,” but they do still think about it. And Eskimos don’t have 50 words for snow—because there’s no such thing as an “Eskimo,” just lots of different people living in the Arctic Circle (such as the Inuit and the Yupik). They do, however, have lots of descriptive varieties of the root word “snow” among them.
Perhaps it’s as Noam Chomsky says, that we’re born with an inner language, then later match it up with an external language.
If only we could talk to someone from our own culture who didn’t have words, then did, to find out what they think about all this.
Luckily, we have the writings of Helen Keller, who became completely blind and deaf shortly after being born. She said in her book, The World I Live In, that until her teacher Anne Sullivan introduced her to language, she was an unconscious being in a “no-world.”
So does thought precede language, or is it the other way around?
For our purposes, what matters isn’t linguistics or anthropology, but what works—and one of the things entrepreneurs thank us for is giving them a working language to describe their experiences, their goals, and their challenges. This language helps them think more clearly, communicate better with others, and invent unique solutions for their clientele.
As Dan says, “He who names the game owns the game.”
The “recursive mind”
In our conversation, Dan introduced me to the ideas of author Michael Corballis, who argues that what distinguishes us from animals isn’t language, but our “recursive mind”—that is, our ability to hold thoughts within thoughts.
This capacity, he says, developed as our brains got bigger and gained more short-term memory. It lets us think stacked thoughts such as, “The chair I put in my cottage on Lake Ontario.”
It also allows us to do “mental time travel”—project our thoughts back to the past and forward to the future. This is invaluable to anyone who wants to learn from their experience or create plans and goals.
And, perhaps the most unique human feature of all, our recursive mind gives us the ability to imagine what it’s like to be someone else. If you’re involved in sales, you’ve probably heard the adage, “If you would sell what John Smith buys, you must see through John Smith’s eyes.”
We ask you to think in boxes
There are so many things to think about today that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. That’s why, Dan says, “we get people to think in boxes”: In our workshops, entrepreneurs use a variety of paper forms, each designed for a specific purpose.
“We constrict what you have to think about,” he says, “but then you can think anything you want inside that box and create yourself out of the box. You’ve got two minutes—go!”
Look into any Strategic Coach workshop, and you’ll see a lot of recursion going on: people pausing to think about their ideas, experiences, plans, and relationships, and making conscious choices about what to improve, do more of, or do instead.
Why on paper?
More and more of our tools are available online to our clients, yet there’s something special about the experience of writing on paper.
Cartoonist and writer Lynda Barry worries about what might be lost as schools stop teaching children handwriting: “ … part of the brain connected with language (Broca’s area) is activated when we write by hand, but it’s not activated by keyboard work. There are also studies that show we are able to remember things we write by hand more readily than if we type them.”
As a cartoonist and writer myself, I keep going back to paper because I find it allows a bigger, more open-ended kind of thinking than I can do using software written by other people. Paper invites thoughts, focuses them, and allows you to see a spatial, physical relationship between them. This, in turn, gives you a better ability to integrate your existing thoughts and discover new ones.
Create your own wisdom
Dan says, “Anytime you articulate your experience for yourself, you create wisdom.” So the next time you’re faced with a new possibility, decision, or challenge, pull out a piece of paper and use it as a thinking space. Create grids, doodles, mind maps—anything to externalize your mental processes and literally give them form.
The dialectical exchange between you and a piece of paper is one of the simplest, most powerful ways to understand, refine, and improve your thinking so you can take confident and effective action in your life.
Illustrations by Hamish MacDonald.