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Play with Your Words

3 September 2013

Rachel got a little inspiration dose from reading a few pages from The Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler. That prompted a question: What would your favorite word be wearing?

Tags: brene brown, communication, creativity, design thinking, happiness, rachel read

Words matter (a lot) to us at Allison Partners. In fact, if you've been to our office lately, you've probably read some of our favorite words and phrases written right on the hallway wall. We're also pretty inspired by much of Brené Brown's work. So when Brené shares a few of her favorite books and one of them is all about words, it's a safe bet that you'll find that book on our shelf.

Actually, that's a bit of a fib since The Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler hasn't yet made it to the office bookshelf. Instead, I've been hoarding it on my personal pile for months now, picking it up from time to time to read a few pages. The slim volume contains about 75 personifications of a variety of adjectives. Like this:

Sometimes all the Qualities seem to talk at once, 
and I don't know who to listen to first. Certainty
comes into the room and stands in the doorway and
gives me a good long look until I hear the silence

Or like this:

Panic has thick curly hair and large frightened eyes.
She has worked on too many projects meeting other
people's deadlines. She thinks she has an incurable
disease. No one else has been able to confirm or
deny it…

Each page paints a vivid picture of a different characteristic. Some are heartbreaking, while others make me laugh out loud. (For example, did you know that Boredom drinks dark beer on Sunday afternoons?) All of them make me marvel at the richness of our language and the power of a good story.

When I teach creativity and design thinking, we often talk about the importance of practicing empathy – of taking the time and having the curiosity and patience to explore someone else's world as a window back to our own. Gendler's writing is a great demonstration of one way we can exercise our empathy muscle by imagining and articulating a particular vantage point.

I decided to give it a go myself. With a new school year just getting underway, I was inspired by new beginnings.

Fresh has shiny new shoes and curly red hair.
Her face is a little pink from where she scrubbed
to try to erase the freckles from her nose. She 
leaps across the puddles on the way to the school
bus, until she remembers that she needs to 
concentrate to avoid splashing the mud on her
new outfit…

The point isn't whether our word descriptions are "right" or "wrong" or our prose is fluid or choppy. Rather, the point is that our language is rich and our words matter. When we take the time to consider our meaning, to think about what a word suggests to us and how we picture it in our mind's eye, then we're better able to articulate our thoughts clearly. At the same time, developing our imagination and our empathy here pays incredible dividends when we're trying to practice empathy for actual people in our lives whose histories or perspectives we can't begin to understand. In those situations, our imaginations will often (usually) be wrong, but they can help us remember that another person's experience is different from our own. 

So I'll extend a challenge. Choose a quality or a word or a topic that's on your mind today and write about it. Not about its definition or what it means, but about its experience and its outlook and its story. And be prepared, because some day I might ask you: What's your word for the day? And what is she (or he) wearing?


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