Making Abstractions Concrete

Ever read something and found your mind go numb? Was it your company’s vision statement?

Most vision statements are worthless. Not because they don’t try to establish a lofty idea of what the company desires to become, but rather because they are filled with abstractions. Much of our communication has be become so filled with lard that people at MIT were able to automatically generated papers for publication (one almost got accepted by a conference. You can even make your own). Here’s the paper abstract:

Many physicists would agree that, had it not been for congestion control, the evaluation of web browsers might never
have occurred. In fact, few hackers worldwide would disagree with the essential unification of voice-over-IP and publicprivate key pair. In order to solve this riddle, we confirm that SMPs can be made stochastic, cacheable, and interposable

Yes, it makes no sense, but so much writing today sounds exactly like this which is why it passes as something “intellectual”. Perhaps you would prefer to “focus on ownership of teamwork assessment validation assets” instead.

Our mind uses abstractions to think through problems. As a result, when we write about these absractions, we don’t think about how to make them concrete and just try to find the closest symbol in our mind. It’s the difference between saying a man is strong and saying he carries two 100lb suitcases up three flights of stairs. The first case communicates the abstraction with a word — “strong”. The second case illustrates what it means to be strong. This is the classic “Show don’t tell” advice given to writers everywhere. I prefer to think about this as making our abstracts concrete.

Abstract ideas challenge our ability to communicate in two ways. Abstract ideas connote different things to different people; we each have a different definition in our mind of what it means to be a father, or a leader or a team. Second, we use abstractions without realizing that we don’t fully know what they mean. This is why when we try to teach something abstract to another person, we often walk away understanding it better than we did before. By grounding the abstraction, people can understand exactly what we mean, but more importantly WE can understand what we mean.

If we want to be effective communicators, we need to be clear thinkers. If we want to be clear thinkers, we need to make our abstractions concrete.






One response to “Making Abstractions Concrete”

  1. james Avatar

    Love the “MIT madlibs”… classic! Good insight, thanks again.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: