What you say is as important as why you say it

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As with all thinking endeavours, it is as much what you say that determines the richness of your thoughts, as with how you think it. One can apply frameworks and tactics, but the depth and breadth of our thinking is largely shaped by the words we use in applying these frameworks. It is for this reason that neuro-linguistic programming became so popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The premise that the language used (linguistic) can model (program) the brain (neuro) in adopting exceptional skills in people held great sway for many early adopters. In time, this was proven to be false, yet the connection between language and the brain continues to be relevant to this day. This article looks at how semantics impacts thinking, proposing the “right” phrases for making the right decision every time.


We know that if we want to make a good decision, we need to identify our goal. Without an objective, we would not know where we are headed, and any decision would therefore be acceptable. Yet, how have we been taught to define our objectives? Many of us start with the word “to”; for example, “To climb Mt Everest” or “To be a millionaire before 30.” While this is the accepted norm, it may come as a surprise to many that this might lead to suboptimal solutions.


Allow me to introduce a cognitive bias called “satisficing”. Indeed, this is a condition where people settle on the first satisfactory option as a solution. For example, if you were brainstorming options to be a millionaire before 30, you might think of founding a startup. Since this is a very good way of becoming a millionaire by 30, you accept it as it comes up, and stop thinking up other options. It does not mean that this is a bad decision, but satisficing stops us from coming up with more options, and perhaps uncovering an even better solution.

To overcome that, frame your objectives beginning with the words, “What is the best way to…” For example, “What is the best way to become a millionaire before 30?” This immediately does two things for us: (1) to come up with options past the first workable one, and (2) to come up with at least 3 diverse options. Why three? Well, because in order to have the best option, we will need a good, and a better as well. The word “best” can only be applied when there are three or more options, and this forces us to come up with other options. Now, it may well be that the startup option is still the best one, but if we had not thought of various others, we can never be sure.


Another aspect of decision-making that is affected by semantics is constraints. We all understand constraints to be hindrances, but in decision sciences, they are basically conditions to be met. Hence, if one has a budget constraint, it does not actually mean that they cannot invest, it is just that they can invest within the amount that the budget affords. It is crucial for all to understand this connection between constraints and decision-making otherwise we set up more roadblocks to a successful decision than there really exists.

Having understood that, we also need to call it in the right manner. Given that constraints are a necessary condition for a successful decision, we accept them as a proviso. Hence, we can say, “Provided that we meet our budget of $10,000.” Or “Provided that I overcome my lack of functional knowledge.” Understanding what can potentially trip us up in our decisions, we can then include them in our thinking process, helps us arrive at a solution that best meets our needs.

Let us see how this works.

Assuming that I want to be a millionaire by 30, and that I only have $10,000 to seed, and I have no idea what business is all about, then I might say,

“What is the best way to be a millionaire by 30, provided that I use only $10,000 and that I overcome my lack of business acumen?”

This will now necessitate me speaking with different people who have been a millionaire by 30, or thereabouts, and uncover what they did. I will also have to fill in all the knowledge gaps with their help, or with the help of other publications, mapping out the path to get me from where I am to where I want to be. Ultimately, this will allow me to identify three (or more) routes to get me to becoming a millionaire by 30, and to take the best option.

Semantics; it may seem to be trivial but it is not. It helps us frame the way we think, and apply that thinking to come up with the right decision every time.

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