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There once was a man named Johnson O’Connor.
He was a Harvard graduate who spent his early years studying astronomical mathematics under the famous astronomer Percival Lowell.
In the 1920s, General Electric hired O’Connor to observe and analyze its successful employees and discover which traits they had in common that made them good at their jobs. The company then wanted to be able to test new hires and, based on the results, assign them to jobs that best fit their personalities and skill sets.
This project was the beginning of what would become O’Connor’s life’s work: the study of human talents and learning.
To expand his efforts, in 1930, he created the Human Engineering Laboratory at Stevens Institute of Technology and worked diligently to gather data on skills specific to various professions as well as data regarding learning and ability in general.
He then launched a research project to determine which traits or talents were more important than others in becoming successful and advancing in one’s career. It was during this investigation that he made an unexpected discovery.
O’Connor found a person’s vocabulary level was the best single predictor of long-term success in all disciplines and endeavors that he analyzed.
In other words, an understanding of not only general language but of the words specific to the activity was the most important factor that separated the unsuccessful from the successful.
This discovery sparked in O’Connor a fascination with language and its connection with skill and success.
In another study, he found that a person’s vocabulary directly correlated with how far they rose in an organization. For instance, presidents of companies scored among the highest in vocabulary of those people he tested.
In his later writings, O’Connor concluded the understanding of words was a major key to unlocking human potential.
Why is this so?
His hypothesis was that as words are the tools with which we think and grasp others’ thoughts, the more words we properly understand, the more perceptive, subtle, and versatile our minds are.
And the more robust our minds are, the better we can reason and make constructive decisions, which compounds over time and results in higher and higher levels of achievement.
Interestingly, O’Connor also fiercely opposed educators who believed only the usage of words mattered and that standard, precise definitions, such as those found in a dictionary, were irrelevant. “We can’t let the ignorant define our words for us,” he argued.
I wholeheartedly agree with O’Connor’s conclusions, and this is why the number one reason I read is to expand my vocabulary. I’ve found that the more words I learn, the better I’m able to understand life and the world around me, and the more ideas I’m able to command and connect in my mind.
This means that when reading, I spend a fair amount of time in the dictionary checking and clarifying the meaning of words. In fact, I’d estimate that about 30 percent of the time I spend reading is invested in the dictionary, reading definitions, making sample sentences, and reviewing etymologies.
And yes, I do this regardless of what I’m reading, whether an article, book, or tweet. Every word I can clarify and learn is like a gem I can add to my collection and thereby increase my understanding and wisdom.
This process can be annoying at times—sometimes I’d like to just blaze through whatever I’m reading and move on to something else—but I stick to it because of the significant and wide-ranging dividends it pays.
Why not just read a dictionary? you’re wondering.
I’ve considered it, and I honestly would if I wanted to give more time to learning. Currently, I spend 45 to 60 minutes per day reading, as well as 15 to 20 minutes per day learning German words and 60 to 90 minutes per week learning German grammar.
Once I have some career and financial goals behind me, however, I’ll likely start working my way through the dictionary 30 to 60 minutes per day (I’ll recruit someone to do it with me as well, more fun that way!).
Hell, this is what Malcolm X did in prison, and it marked the beginning of a profound personal transformation.
In 1943, Malcolm was 18, living in Harlem and involved in drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, robbery, and prostitution. A few years later, he was involved in elaborate burglaries of residences of wealthy white families and was arrested for larceny and breaking and entering.
Malcolm entered Massachusetts State Prison at 21 years old to serve eight to ten years and could barely read. “Every book I picked up had few sentences which didn’t contain anywhere from one to nearly all of the words that might have been in Chinese,” he wrote.
In prison, he met a self-educated man named John Elton Bembry. Bembry was well-regarded, and Malcolm would later describe him as “the first man I had ever seen command total respect . . . with words.” The two became friends, and Malcolm decided to educate himself as Bembry had.
Painfully aware of his illiteracy, Malcolm got his hands on a dictionary and began copying every entry by hand. It took a day just to do the first page, and every day thereafter, he would copy out a new page and read aloud each word and its definitions.
Slowly but surely, he began to remember new words and what they meant. He realized that a dictionary is really a “little encyclopedia” that taught him about people, animals, places, history, philosophy, and science.
As his vocabulary grew, so did his understanding of life and the world around him, and he could finally pick up a book and understand what it was saying. “From then until I left that prison,” he later said, “in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading in my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of a book with a wedge.”
Malcolm preferred to read in his cell, and after “lights out” at ten o’clock, he would sit on the floor by the door and continue his reading under the faint light of the bulb outside his cell.
The guards would patrol once every hour, and when he heard their footsteps approaching, he would rush back to his bunk and pretend to be asleep. As soon as they had gone, he would be back by the door reading.
Malcolm read and read and read. He devoured books on history, including the colonization of Africa and China’s Opium Wars, books by Gandhi on the struggle in India, and books about genetics, philosophy, and religion.
“Ten guards and the warden couldn’t have torn me out of those books. I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life,” he said.
Malcolm was paroled and released from prison in 1952. He later reflected on the time he spent in jail: “Months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I had never been so truly free in my life.”
This new course of his led him to become one of the most prominent figures in the American Civil Rights Movement—something he will forever be remembered for.
Later in his life, one of Malcolm’s roles in his organization was that of a teacher. In a class he ran for young people, he told his students, “Read everything. You never know where you’re going to get an idea. We have to learn how to think.”
Think about Malcolm’s story for a minute.
By 21, his fate seemed to be completely sealed: he was an illiterate, black, drug-dealing pimp stuck in prison, living in the harsh realities of 1940s racism.
Where “should” he have gone in his life? He “should’ve” gone nowhere, of course. He “should’ve” died a cold, insignificant death in the streets of Harlem or a tiny prison cell. But using the power of words, he literally rewrote his destiny in a way that almost defies belief.
And it all began with the simplest of things: words.
Who’s to say that we can’t harness the power of words as well and unlock our own latent abilities and inclinations?
Who knows where our own intellectual journeys could take us?
Paying close attention to your understanding of words has another very practical benefit: it forces you to slow down and absorb and analyze what you’re reading or listening to word by word and sentence by sentence, as opposed to sailing through sentences and paragraphs believing you’re understanding and retaining more than you really are.
So, if you want to upgrade not just your ability to comprehend and retain information but the foundation of your entire intellectual “operating system,” so to speak, get a dictionary (New Oxford American Dictionary, Third Edition is my personal favorite), and start using it liberally.