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The sting of buzzwords

Last year I overheard someone talking about their clients’ need to “action” on their advice. “Action?” I asked. “That’s not a verb. You can’t action on anything. You can act on something, though.” The sound of buzzword hung in the air, and sure enough, “action” is part of business vernacular these days—as a verb.

What “action” as a verb means is this: 

To undertake a given task; to put into practice. As in, ”Don't bother me while I'm actioning my deliverables.”

If this sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is.

It's not just action-as-a-verb that gets me. Last month I asked a group of recruits—none of whom are tech glitterati, mind you—to define creativity. "Disruption!" one group member immediately chirped. I was looking for something a bit deeper, but, hey.

I left an industry suffering from a generation gap that needed to adapt in 2009 to join two rapidly-growing, profitable small retail businesses that were forging their own paths, only to land right back in another industry suffering from a generation gap and desperately needing to adapt a few years later. I've encountered bandwagon-jumpers on both sides, but more so on the side of the industries needing to adapt. The difference between path-forgers and buzzword-y bandwagon-jumpers is palpable. Over the past two years I’ve been trying to make sense of the marketing and business worlds’ use of buzzwords as rhetoric. Add to that the notorious, continuing obsession with co-opting design. Design thinking is all the rage. So is disruption. Both buzzwords. But what do they mean

What they mean doesn’t matter. Because they are terms made popular by others who started companies based on innovative processes or put innovative processes into effect within their respective companies and were successful. Anyone using these terms outside of those companies is just hot on the trails of a bandwagon—the exact opposite of true creative and innovative thinkers.

Let me put it this way:

L. Ron Hubbard is notoriously quoted as having said, “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.” 

Or maybe a bandwagon. 

Plenty of people have joined the Church of Scientology, but very few are lining their pockets like Hubbard's estate or, say, David Miscavige. On the contrary. Being a Scientologist is costly!

So then we ought to be wary of laying the buzzwords on thick in marketing and business, especially when we're using them because they're the new "it" thing. They signal groupthink instead of innovative thinking. They prove propensity for following the crowd, not leading it.

From a political viewpoint the current disruption climate looks increasingly like a green light to lift any and all business regulations—some having been put in place to protect consumers—and open the free market entirely. An interesting but ultimately flawed concept. I would gladly pay taxes towards free education and other benefits aimed at improving society as a whole and increasing each and every individual's ability to compete. Americans still notoriously balk at the idea of welfare programs and yet the same outrage over corporate welfare is nonexistent. And though we disagree on the solution, that is where Libertarian and Progressive mindsets overlap. Look at our shrinking middle class today, and where the wealth has gone and stayed. Need I mention the famed 1%?

Let's face some facts: only one in ten startups succeed—that means that 90%, or nine out of ten startups fail. And the majority of workers on a startup’s payroll are grossly overworked and underpaid, or underemployed. This shouldn't discourage those wanting to found a startup, it should prompt entrepreneurs to work smarter and harder. And we should all understand that disruptive startups alone are not a way to solve our nation's wealth gap and create permanent, gainful employment.

An ecosystem inclusive of disruptive startups is vital. Pushing on and testing boundaries is important. But at what cost? And is that cost worth it? My point is, those questions are always important to consider. We should always aim to solve real societal problems, not create them.

Beyond that, the fact is, we invent our own limitations based on fear and perceptions. We put up our own walls, and we can take them down. That means there’s no need to live in fear of being “disrupted.” The old adage, “What you focus on grows” is true. What you focus on will command your energy—your emotional energy, your mental energy and your physical energy. Your fear of being “disrupted” will only serve to invite that very truth. Which is why “adapt or die” is bullshit. It implies some sense of lack of control and creates fear. Fear-based decisions are some of the worst decisions we can make, and this is proven.

When we’re fearful our fight or flight response is activated and our cortisol levels are high, causing us to panic and react without thinking clearly. But by taking a step back and taking one step at a time, we can achieve a sense of control in crisis. This will boost serotonin rather than cortisol, keeping confidence levels high so we can handle the situation without succumbing to emotional reactions. This is not new knowledge. So why are we ignoring it in favor of promoting an "adapt or die" atmosphere? We are not actually the dinosaurs, or at least one would hope. "Adapt or die" is another bandwagon to jump on, for sure. And if your industry is stale, stuffy and stuck in the 80s rather than having been continually evolving as time goes by? I would be willing to bet on it unfortunately already being too late to adapt.

The bottom line is this:

Innovation and creativity are hardly the result of following the crowd or making fear-based decisions. We are shaping the future and we can create it in hope or fear, but not both. I choose hope. Which do you choose?

(And stop "disrupting" things. Face it, you're just referencing a fad because it sounds cool. It's the most pernicious cliché of our time.)

Alyssa YeagerComment