What is most easily articulated is not necessarily what is most important. Yet, we are often suckers for this. We can focus on the wrong things to our detriment and elevate false indicators above the actual things of value themselves. Whether it is grades above true learning, status above inner fulfilment, or material progress above human wellbeing. We find a common thread in all this.
Van Gough vs. cat
There was an experiment done in the early 1990s where university students were asked to evaluate five decorative posters for their halls. They included a Van Gough, a Monet and three humorous posters of cartoons and animals. Half of the participants were asked to write a short essay on why they liked or disliked each poster. Finally, all participants were invited to take one home.
What is very interesting is that those asked to write down their thoughts preferred the funny posters to the fine art prints. Those who did not write, on the other hand, preferred the Van Gough or the Monet. Furthermore, people who wrote down their reasons were more likely to choose one of the funny posters to take home. What is even more interesting is that when participants were contacted a few weeks later, those who wrote down their reasons were less satisfied with their poster.
What does it mean?
There are at least a couple of takeaways. People find it easier to put into words what is more obvious — for example why one cartoon poster is funnier than the other. The mysterious beauty of a Van Gough compared to a Monet is well…probably beyond words. So, having to come-up with reasons for their preference, people cling to the tangible — what they can easily articulate.
What’s more, we can fool ourselves into believing that the reasons we give are what truly matter. Simply because we were able to find words for them! But, as time passes, our difficult to verbalise feelings start knocking at the door. We saw this with the participants who were less satisfied with their funny posters. They probably really did prefer the Van Gough or the Monet, but ‘talked’ themselves into believing otherwise based on what they wrote down.
How you really feel doesn’t go away just because you have not become consciously aware of it! If anything, the feelings become stronger. And, what we find easy to measure and articulate can distract us from our deeper feelings. Thus, the seeds of discontentment and unease grow.
Gift and curse
We live in an age of abundance like no other. And, the human ability to measure and analyse things is a great gift. The use of symbols, whether words or numbers, allows us to manipulate our world with great skill. Yet, within this ability also lies a great danger. The mind works by making distinctions and delineations, by labelling and comparing. But, as soon as we set-up categories and definitions, they can so easily blind us. So, not realising that what we put into words is not necessarily the most important, is a symptom of the mind’s natural tendencies. It’s just that this tendency has run wild in modernity.
The role of language is particularly important to note here. Language that we use so much, day in and day out. Words are like a sharp tool that allows us to articulate difference. Yet, its very sharpness can make us miss what’s important. By focusing on what is easily said, we can forget what is unsaid because it is difficult to say. We might ignore important things that words and symbols just cannot convey.
What is most easily articulated is not necessarily what is most important
Often, we may miss the less tangible that exists in-between. We could call it seeing the forest from the trees, making sense of the big picture, perceiving the gestalt, reading in between the lines, or having understanding beyond words. Those things that what we cannot easily describe and label, yet that we still know.
And, knowing this way is something that we do all the time! Just think about how you know colours and sounds. Or, how you can tell the subtle mood of the group at a meeting. You can’t really explain how, but you know it. You feel it. The problem is that too much emphasis on what we can easily say and measure makes us devalue this part that is deeply human. Because we don’t realise that what is most easily articulated is not necessarily what is most important.
Chasing after measurable indicators and the control and certainty we think it gives us, we can design our whole lives around falsehoods. We can believe that the only things that matter are what we can clearly measure.
Seeking but never finding
And, signs of this are all around us. Why do people often focus on grades and diplomas rather than true learning and skill? The former is easier to measure, even if it is the result of rote learning and box ticking. Why do people seek status achievements, rather than a sense of inner freedom? Status is easier to define and cling to, even though it produces mental suffering. Inner freedom, on the other hand, is less tangible and requires the courage to look within. Why do we focus so much on material wealth rather than human wellbeing? Well, bean counting is easy, while ‘wellbeing’ is a complex area that raises fundamental questions around what it means to live well.
The British thinker and advertising guru, Rory Sutherland notes how even innovation and creativity in business are being stifled by bean counting. Why? Because “opportunities are far more difficult to quantify that costs”. So, bean counters love focusing only on the costs, such that it can paralyse firms.
So, duped by false ideas of ‘success’, we may spend our whole lives running after the wrong things. Simply because they are easier to pin down. Collectively hypnotised through cultural conditioning, we can end-up seeking and seeking, but never really finding.
Forgetting that what is most easily articulated is not necessarily what is most important, then, has huge implications. It culminates in a kind of existential self-doubt and mental suffering that feeds-off our busy and anonymous urban lives. Indeed, there are no traces of modernity’s ailments such as extreme anxiety, severe depression, panic attacks and chronic fatigue amongst contemporary hunter-gatherer communities.
Obsessed by the illusion of control that labelling and measuring seems to offer, we moderns are constantly looking to the outside. To all manner of benchmarks to confirm even our self-worth. So, we end-up chasing after external validation, forgetting that we have inherent value, just as we are. Value that lies in the wonder of the unfolding human experience — experience that is, at its core, beyond description.
Noticing that what is most easily articulated is not necessarily what is most important
If what is most easily articulated is not necessarily what is most important, recognising what is elusive brings new clarity. Often, our deeper beliefs and motivations live outside of our conscious attention. It is as if we push them into the darkness, while clinging to surface narratives. Even in my work as a coach, I try to move beyond simply sitting and talking, in order to reveal the unsaid and the unspeakable. In order to go beyond the surface of words.
Noticing is a about raising your awareness of yourself — how you are and who you are. It is about really getting to know yourself. It is about seeing the limits of words, or any symbols for that matter. For, we must always remember that the word is not the thing, the map is not the territory, the finger is not the moon. Noticing is about becoming awake to what is going on for you — to the richness of ALL experience in its infinite variety.
None of this is about diminishing the power of language or symbols in anyway. Rather, it is about recognising our tendency to devalue what we cannot readily measure, so we may move beyond it. For, the mind that constantly grasps at external measurements to find meaning, is at risk of wanting a kind of certainty and control from life that does not exist. Control that distracts us from the fullness of the present.
Words are useful, but we can never neatly tie life up with words. In the end, it is only through the use of words that we see the limits of words. And, it is only through the limits of words that we see the use of words. Everything is useful and everything is useless. By embracing both, we open ourselves to a richer experience.
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.