In our high school days we were a big practitioner of memorizing definition, without ever really understanding it. When we grew up, we understood that definition is too theoretical, probably like most of the things that we learned from our high school curriculum. We accepted that to be successful, we need to be more practical and the best way to be practical is learn from real life examples. Very soon our presentations and speeches are full of anecdotes and examples, not concepts. We have grown up and learnt a great new trick. If you talk about definitions and concepts, the audience yawns. If you talk about examples and stories, the audience cheers.
The problem with this trend is you can create and sell any kind of hypothesis by digging out that one outlier example that supports your bullshit. The media all over the world thrives on this trend. They create stories that fuel current beliefs and cherry pick examples to justify them. Add to that human being’s tendency to generalize and jumping to conclusion, and we have a real big problem at our hand.
In a recent survey conducted by Hans and Ola Rosling, a group of people in Sweden were asked multiple choice questions about the state of the world. The researchers then went to the zoo and asked chimps the same questions, where for obvious reasons the Chimps gave the answer by randomly pushing buttons. Whats not so obvious was how the random button pushing of the chimps were much more accurate as answers compared to the deliberate answers Swedish people give, showing how distorted our view of the world is. Much of it is because our view of the world is shaped by the stories that media choose to report. And like everyone, media has an agenda. And like everyone, media also is ignorant.
Which is why there is a growing trend in business and life to go back to basic. And there is nothing more basic than definitions, which lies at the core of the concept. Ask a group of investment bankers what’s the impact of inflation and they will give you tons of examples. Ask them what IS Inflation, and they will struggle. Ask a group of religious preachers what things are considered as sinful, they will give a 10 minute lecture on it. Ask them what IS Sin, and there might be a pause. That’s the intuitive power of concepts. To explain what you are doing to a simple few words is extremely hard. But doing that sharpens your focus. Moreover, definitions clarify your mind both in terms of “What” you are doing as well as “Why”. Lastly, unlike examples, definitions of concepts cannot be changed. If you want to change people’s point of view, don’t give examples. Give the definition of what it stands for in simple terms