How I Learned to Stop Worrying + Love Corporate Vocabulary
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because everyone can learn the art of getting shit done — all it takes is a little break from judging our own vocabulary.
By Sanjena Sathian
What no one tells you about trying to get shit done on the job is how often you hate the sound of your own voice as you go about getting shit done. Because the language of getting shit done often relies on crummy jargon.
When I walked in the door of my first startup (this one), I found I didn’t speak the same language as my new co-workers. I was all for white board brainstorms, but I didn’t naturally make a list of action items. I spoke in soliloquies, not project plans ; my approach to problem solving was way too abstract and did not express itself in deliverables. I did not drill down. In my first week, when someone asked if I had “bandwidth” for something, I asked if our Internet connection was so bad that it would compromise my ability to get the task done.
This new language grated on me. It wasn’t pretty.
This new language grated on me. It wasn’t pretty. And I found it strange that even a creative job — at a magazine! — could depend on such, well, corporate vocabulary.
But while some of this office jargon may only serve to cut syntactic corners in an always-busy day, there’s one new term that I will actually keep around in my lexicon: own.
Turns out that those three letters convey a heft and complexity that isn’t immediately obvious. Owning something means starting it, following through and accepting responsibility for the final product and all iterations in between. It usually means being the only person in the room jockeying for mundane next steps and do-outs. It means obsessing over process instead of the ever-tempting theoretical frameworks that all big-picture people love to revert to. It means saying things I wouldn’t normally say in real life — like deliverables.
Making a choice to be self-aware about your language can genuinely help you be a smarter, better worker.
Management scientists have a few thoughts on all this: namely, that though getting-shit-done vocabulary can get old fast, making a choice to be self-aware about your language can genuinely help you be a smarter, better worker. There are examples on both ends of the linguistic spectrum: there’s the term “disrupt” becoming such inescapable business-speak that it’s been totally gutted of meaning, and there’s the president of Hearst Magazines effectively eliminating a common phrase from her employees’ vocabulary by fining her team $10 every time they said “I can’t.” Those editors at Hearst’s Cosmopolitan probably had to laugh at themselves — and surely felt some cognitive dissonance — while they adjusted their vocabulary. But they did say they felt an attitudinal shift thanks to the overly-self-aware exercise; they had to be more positive because they spoke with more positives.
Which suggests that a sense of cognitive dissonance may be worth it. Because I haven’t found a better word than “own,” and learning to own something is probably the best skill a young person could figure out. And if you figure it out, it means you’ll never be that silent person in the back of a meeting again. (Except when you really have to finish your BuzzFeed quiz.) More importantly, it means that once you’re no longer sitting in other people’s meetings, you might be better prepared to grow your own.
Every year, there’s a new spate of stories bemoaning the sell-out problem among smart young people. Their collective battle cry: Take a risk! Don’t go to work in the Tall Buildings! Add Value to the world! Cheers to much of that. But the unpopular truth: Many smart young people could learn practical transferable skills from spending a few years speaking corporate vocabulary. Especially if you start mining that vocabulary, constantly, turning instrumentalist language into your instrument. George Orwell was right: The decline of the English language is a terrible thing to witness — but language is, as he wrote , “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.” Even the corporate language.
But I’m not just talking about aspiring entrepreneurs. Community organizers or activists, policy wonks or researchers — even screenwriters or journalists — might all learn something unexpectedly useful from this executive-level idea. Taking ownership of a project — whether it’s someone else’s or your own, whether it’s managing a spreadsheet of story pitches or researching a long-form story — is all about turning a small idea into a big one and a big idea into something tangible and actionable.
So many people want to make it in the world based on their ideas. It’s gorgeous, it’s tempting, to be a person valued for your thoughts. As a poet, as a politician, as a speaker or a writer. But while being a keen observer and a sharp thinker might get you in the door of your first job, you need something more to keep going thereafter. It turns out some of that momentum to keep moving forward might lie in this idea of owning things, of taking responsibility not just for the strength of your ideas but also the muscle of moving through the interstitial steps. Because the mundane, quotidian art of getting shit done, after all, is the daily incarnation of something bigger and grander: the art of Making Big Things Happen.